25 Years after The Third Debate: Two (pianissimo) bravos for IR Theory

I am grateful to the editors for giving me both the incentive and the opportunity to revisit my “Third Debate” article some 25 years after its publication. In the following I will look at the article in the context of the debate on the progress –or lack of progress – of the IR theory enterprise rekindled recently by publication of the “End of IR Theory “ special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. As indicated by my title, I intend to second and even raise the ante on the optimistic spirit of the article, which concluded with only one (pianissimo) bravo for our theory enterprise. As indicated by the EJIR special issue title, many will find my reading to be hopelessly optimistic. But, in a conversation which occasionally makes reference to scholarly “bets and wagers,” I will say that bets on optimism seem wiser. Optimists live longer. Besides, without implying that after 25 years the IR theory enterprise has now arrived at some unreachable “golden ” destination, I will invoke Randall Jarrell’s astute observation that “people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.”

Re-reading an article after a quarter of a century is bound to reveal not only strengths and contributions (whatever these may be) but also essential weaknesses and limitations, which are brought into sharper focus by the passage of time. Such is the case here, and one such limitation seems noteworthy in particular. For better or for worse, the article is routinely credited with being a key proponent of the “great debates approach” to telling the IR disciplinary story. However, the simple truth is that the article was not written with such an objective in mind. The “great debates” narrative was already solidly in place at that time and, if anything, I was a somewhat unreflective, careless (and, I must add, also explicitly hesitant) consumer of this problematic but vastly popular approach. The net result was that, by offering an alternative account under an already populated rubric (The Third Debate) I unwittingly introduced unnecessary confusion into the “great debates” story (see Brian Schmidt, 2002).   In retrospect, I’m no longer sure that this was a judicious or necessary move.  Arguably, the article could have achieved its stated objectives without any strong reference to  (sequentially numbered) ”great debates.”

Moving on to the more positive territory of putative strengths and contributions I may as well start by locking horns with the still ominous “bull” (pun intended) of “metatheory.” The article was deliberately framed as a “meta-theoretical” project. In addition, I attached some extravagant promissory notes regarding the many benefits that can be obtained by adding a vibrant and carefully designed meta-theoretical infrastructure to the IR theory project. A superficial look may suggest that after 25 years metatheory (defined as “second-order” analysis) has been further discredited in the IR theory context. A closer look will reveal however that, quite remarkably, in the context of generalized mainstream disdain, the discipline has somehow managed to launch and sustain a modest but vibrant metatheoretical contingent. In the aftermath of the third debate, the most that the strident (but, in my view still seriously misguided) voices advocating a strict “metatheory-avoidance” strategy can expect is the “de-centering” (as opposed to the “discarding”) of metatheoretical inquiry. “De-centering” is better than “discarding” and I consider this to be sufficient progress to justify an additional “pianissimo” bravo.

Reflexivity is intimately related to metatheory, and in the article I identified its “task” as “promoting a more reflexive intellectual environment in which debate, criticism and novelty can freely circulate” (p. 250). I am not reckless enough to issue any “mission accomplished” statements in this context. Inna Hamati-Ataya (2012) is certainly on target in pointing out that IR scholarship is still awaiting a fully implemented “reflexive turn.” However, I strongly agree with Stefano Guzzini (2013) who discusses the development of IR theory “as historical steps of increasing reflexivity which cannot be undone.” And for me this is worth an additional bravo.

This brings us to theoretical pluralism. Here we find ourselves in deeply positive territory. In the article I talked about a “drift toward methodological pluralism.” This drift has since morphed into a “flood” of all kinds of “pluralisms,” some more productive than others. The notorious “specter” of relativism is rarely invoked and the once formidable obstacle to cross-paradigmatic communication known as Kuhnian “incommensurability” has been so utterly demolished that one finds herself secretly hoping for partial restoration. As a discipline, IR is far more pluralistic and its (metatheoretical) discussions of pluralism and its complex relation to theoretical growth are far more sophisticated and far more reflexive. To be sure, I do not expect justly disgruntled “critical” or “dissident” approaches (such as, for instance, critical theory, feminism, post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism and so on) to be satisfied with the current disciplinary situation, nor should they. But, for better or for worse, they are now a part of the pluralist disciplinary fabric of the discipline and for me this is worth far more than just one additional bravo.

Much of the above stands in need of further elaboration but there is a limit to what can be said in just 1000 words. Let me end with a question, which must be on the minds of many readers. If the discipline is in reasonable theoretical health, why do we witness all this talk about “the end of theory” with or without a question mark? The answer to this question is, of course, very complex, but my hunch is that a secret urge to become a “normal” science is still deeply rooted in the disciplinary psyche. The initial “high consensus, rapid advance” urge may have mutated into a “low consensus, rapid advance” lust, but the pace of growth is still unacceptably low for many members of the IR scholarly community. Strong and sustained therapy is needed to successfully address this insatiable urge. In this context, the article can be considered an early and moderately successful therapeutic session. Many more sessions are surely needed with new “therapists,” and fortunately there are plenty of young and highly qualified candidates eager to assume this role. And incidentally, no need to worry about Dr. Lapid requesting compensation for that early therapy session. This has already happened. Dr. Lapid is a tenured professor in the Department of Government at NMSU.


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