Poststructuralism in IR: an Assessment and Critique
Much of international relations theory is centered on debates of realism and liberalism and its many variants. These theories explained in a parsimonious way what appeared to be the recurring patterns of international politics; for example, power, security or cooperation. But some IR theorists thought these scholars were trapped in modernist and structuralist logic that “treat[ed] the given order as the natural order” (Ashley 1986: 259). Scholars that lodged these critiques were known by a number of titles: poststructuralists, postmodernists, or postpositivists. Although the poststructural movement did not replace the realist or liberal logic with a theory of its own, poststructuralists did hope to question many of the assumptions of both schools. In this paper, I will flesh out several of the poststructural concerns offered by Richard Ashley, James Der Derian and Daniel Campbell. Secondly, while the poststructural movement has some interesting insights into the discipline of IR, I argue that the movement does little more than just that. In particular
A Summary of Poststructuralism
Poststructural logic arose as a response to the structural, or modernist, vein in various academic disciplines. The structural approach argued that various structures were paramount in the organization of society. By analyzing these structures one could develop a rather scientific approach to studying things – like politics, economics, sociology or psychology for instance – that generally appeared outside the scope of the scientific method. Coupled with modernism, a product of the Enlightenment and a belief in reasoned man over God, structuralists hoped to produce “objective, theoretical rendering[s], [that broke] radically with its predecessors’ allegedly commonsensical, subjectivist, atomistic, and empiricist understandings” (Ashley 1986: 257). This structuralism, so poststructuralists argue, has influenced in a detrimental way the critical debates in IR theory such as realism, neorealism, and liberalism. Poststructuralists hope to break out of this structural malady, and question its “statist, utilitarian, positivist and structuralist commitments” (Ashley 1986: 258).
Poststructural thought, like structuralism, has its roots in various academic disciplines. Sociologists Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are two men that informed the poststructural debate during its inception. Derrida developed the notion of logocentrism. By logocentrism, Derrida meant a “practical orientation and a procedure that at once presupposes, invokes, and effects a normalizing practical expectation” (Ashley 1989: 261). Put simply, these logocentric views were previously accepted arrangements and rarely were these arrangements questioned or viewed as problematic. Moreover, logocentrism focuses of “logos” that create some sort of insider/outsider, or us vs. them, paradigm. Ashley utilizes Derrida’s logocentric formula on a number of dimensions. First, Ashley is concerned with the language of IR discourse and how some “logos” are privileged over others. In critiquing Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State and War, Ashley suggests that Waltz privileges “rational man” or “irrational war” thus reaffirming the modern, structural obsession with an insider/outsider paradigm (Ashley 1989: 286). Secondly, Ashley is concerned with how concepts like the state, sovereignty, and war are rarely questioned as problematic in international politics (Ashley 1989: 302). If the state is the central unit of analysis in IR and yet it is rarely thoroughly examined, how accurate are the assumptions that realism and liberalism rest on?
Foucault’s discussion of “panopticism” also contributed to the growing literature in poststructural thought. Panopticism derives its origins from Jeremy Bentham’s discussion of the panopticon, “an annular structure with a tower in the center which contains — or may not contain — a guard to observe and through this observation indirectly, nonviolently control… [people’s] behavior” (Der Derian 1990: 304). Foucault was fascinated by this concept that he thought reaffirmed the differentiation of man as abnormal or normal, the civil or the uncivil. Der Derian asserted that panopticism occurred in international politics. While there was no “central watchtower,” there were great powers that normalized relations of law and conduct and railed against conduct or societies that disrupted these relations (Der Derian 1990: 304).
This notion of “otherness” is central to Der Derian’s argument about the technological advances of international politics: simulation, surveillance and speed. He suggests that new technological advances reinforce ideas about “us” and “them,” and displace the “reality” that realists and liberals purport to know about (Der Derian 1990: 298). For example, computer military simulations create an alternative “reality” and “new space” where events of international politics happen (Der Derian 1990:301). The growth of surveillance techniques, Der Derian argues, shows the paranoia inherent in international politics of the “other” or of those “we” do not know (Der Derian 1990: 306). These technological advances also make time, rather than space, a factor international politics. Speed in international politics demonstrates that “space is no longer in geography — it’s in electronics” (Der Derian 1990:307). The electronic capabilities bring states closer to one another, and minimize the distance between territories.
Der Derian’s and Ashley’s discussion of “otherness” is critical to poststructural logic. But their conceptualization of “other” was utilized in large part by states as an international strategy.
The Limits of Poststructuralism
The most common criticism raised about the poststructuralist movement is: So what? The poststructural movement, while questioning many of the realist and liberal assumptions, does very little in the way of proposing a theory of their own. I think this critique is important but not the most salient. To reveal the cracks in IR theory is not necessarily a case of “armchair” quarterbacking on the part of the poststructuralists. These “cracks” in the logic reveal problems or lapses with the mainstream IR theories that IR scholars should take seriously. Der Derian does raise interesting insights about the “new” spaces in politics, and Ashley is right that notions of statehood and sovereignty might be problematic. Ultimately, however, poststructuralists do little in the way of providing solutions to the problems they raise. This does not mean creating some parsimonious theory like realism. What it does mean, however, is suggesting ways to break away from the problems they raise, or articulating in a more normative fashion how international politics ought to operate.
The empirical evidence is also suspect. Although he correctly predicted terrorism as the new “threat,” he felt as though terrorism was once again something created by the state to reaffirm its identity. “…Terrorism is often cited as a major threat to national security,”
Moravcsik, Domestic Politics, and IR theory
Although I disagree with most of
This is an improvement on Campbell, who thinks that the state determines the course of events prior to foreign policy. By denying the agency of the actors,
In this paper I have tried to treat poststructural thought fairly, taking their arguments seriously, and trying to situate their concerns within the current debates in IR. Ashley recommends that we be more aware of “logocentric’ thought, and Der Derian argues that IR scholars should have some answer for the new “spaces” in international politics.
 Der Derian argued that the “anti-Christ Turk, the colonial native, the Soviet threat, and the international terrorist” were just a couple of examples.
 Although not scholarly in origin, President George W. Bush has been heavily criticized for “scaring” people about the dangers and threats of the world.
 See Horowitz’s Radical Son (1997)
 Certainly much has been made about Bush remarks like the “Axis of Evil,” and “You’re with us or against us,” which would seem to jibe with