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It is commonplace especially in the U.S. to divide IR theories into three: realist, liberal-institutionalist and constructivist.[i] Deborah D. Avant (2016) builds on the constructivist idea that the key to adequate explanation lies in the constitution of agents and their interests. In her article, she makes a contribution to the study of global governance by focusing on the historical process that led to the emergence of new rules and principles of regulating private security service providers. Her study is meant to show that it is the process that explains the outcome (new regulations) rather than just (given or constructed) actors and their interests.

Avant relies on what she calls relational ontology, which according to her informs both pragmatism and network theory. It “treats social beings as emergent phenomena,

products, at any point in time, of interactions.” These interactions may involve a variety of actors from states and international organizations to civil society actors and businesses. The outcome of the process depends largely on the way actors are related to each other. A successful outcome – understood in terms of new governance – is more likely if the actors are problem-oriented, open-minded, make connections to all those affected and pay attention to the workability of the proposed solutions. Actors thus matter, but first and foremost through their openness to the process.

Avant’s relational ontology is an improvement from the methodological individualism of both rational choice theories and many forms of social constructivism (e.g. Searle 1996). Her empirical case of regulation of private security service providers suggests that relational social beings can change in the course of the process also in unexpected ways, and that the outcome can only be explained by making references to this process (this is not unlike the explanatory model developed by Braithwaite and Drahos 2000). So far so good.

Avant’s account of social structures – of the system of relations between the positioned practices that agents reproduce or transform – is nonetheless rather thin. Moreover, her account of the process of creating new global governance is isolated from wider social processes. For instance, why did the market for military and security start to grow in the 1990s? The 1990s was not only a decade of peace dividend and decreasing violence, it was also a decade of outsourcing, privatization and market-based solutions to perceived problems. States, corporations and international organizations have been increasingly relying on private corporations for providing services they once produced themselves, also in the field of security.

Why did this free-market orientation assume such a prevalence? There are many possible explanations. They all refer to social structures understood as processes-in-product, as history frozen into currently prevailing enabling and constraining structures. Whether we understand the transformation that started in the 1980s (or earlier) primarily through the category of regime of accumulation (French regulation school), structural power of capital (Gill & Law 1989), or discrepancy between territorial states and liberal world economy (Patomäki 2008), it is this wider context that has given rise to questions concerning private security providers.

Of course, many possible framings of these questions remain, including war, human rights, and corporate conduct. Consider framing in terms of war. The article 47 of the Protocol Additional GC 1977 (APGC77, a 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions) states categorically that, “a mercenary shall not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war.” It has been ratified by most states, with the exception of United States, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, Turkey and a few others. If a private security provider assumes the role of a combatant in a conflict, it clearly violates this article. Contestations over this point are downplayed in Avant’s article.

Avant stresses that actors can innovate new framings, which may enable successful negotiations. The wider context is nonetheless decisive. The tendency to rely on private market-based solutions and related changes in relations of power has transformed the paradigm of regulating transnationally operating corporations. The UN Centre on Transnational Corporations was closed in 1993 and its activities transferred to UNCTAD's Division on Transnational Corporations and Investment (DTCI). In its stead, The UN Global Compact was launched in 2000. The latter’s approach is based on the concept of corporate social responsibility and relies mostly on voluntary self-regulation. Private profit-seeking corporations are willing to participate in the Global Compact and related arrangements because participation bears the promise of branding benefits. The ten principles of the Global Compact concern human rights, labor, the environment and anti-corruption.

From this perspective, the Montreux Process looks less innovative than what Avant seems to be claiming. The International Code of Conduct (ICoC) appears as a replicate of the Global Compact approach applied in the context of private security and military providers. From the United States perspective, the ICoC has the additional benefit of legitimizing the activities of private military companies and related state-practices, while sidelining the question of illegal mercenary activities.

My basic point is that when we are studying the selection mechanisms of rules and principles such as those of the ICoC, it is important to take into account the full set of wider structural conditions and processes and their impact on the outcome.



[i] This trichotomy has replaced the earlier one where Marxism was the third pillar, although constructivism is not a theory of international relations but rather a social theory (of which there are different versions), and although in international and global political economy various post-Marxian perspectives are still vibrant. Since the 1990s many have aimed at a synthesis of the first two perspectives (neoliberalism and neorealism), a new mixed perspective which could transcend some of the ‘great debates’ and contribute to intellectual progress in the field. What has gone unnoticed to most participants in the mainstream US debates is that various broad IR perspectives are better seen as historical sites for a number of theoretical and philosophical disputes than as coherent theories with well-specified empirical claims. See Patomäki & Wight (2000) and Patomäki (2002, ch 3).


Braithwaite, John & Drahos, Peter (2000) Global Business Regulation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Deborah D. Avant (2016) “Pragmatic Networks and Transnational Governance of Private Military and Security Services”, International Studies Quarterly,

Gill, Stephen and Law, David (1993) “Global Hegemony and the Structural Power of Capital”, in S.Gill (ed.) Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, pp.93-124.

Patomäki, Heikki & Wight, Colin (2000) ”After Post-Positivism? The Promises of Critical Realism”, International Studies Quarterly, (44):2, pp.213-237.

Patomäki, Heikki (2002) After International Relations. Critical Realism and the (Re)Construction of World Politics, Routledge: London and New York.

Patomäki, Heikki (2008) The Political Economy of Global Security. War, Future Crises and Changes in Global Governance, Routledge: London and New York.

Searle, John (1996) The Construction of Social Reality, Penguin: London.

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