Rethinking 5 myths about International Relations
As both an academic discipline and a subject of public debate, International Relations often rests on shared assumptions that aren’t as solid as they first appear. Drawing on articles from the September 2021 issue, I highlight five myths that, while pervasive in academic and policy discussion, can be misleading. From great power competition to the relationship between trade and international cooperation and beyond, these common assumptions could prevent us from effectively understanding international politics.
Myth 1: The United States is not a revisionist power
In debates around the rise of China, the assumption that the United States is a status quo power seeking to preserve its dominant position and the wider international system against rising powers is often assumed by default. Most notably, the Pentagon’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report explicitly builds its framing of the strategic landscape around the idea that China as a revisionist power that needs to be countered by the United States in defence of international order.
However, as Steve Chan argues, this does not mean the United States is content to defend the existing structures of the international order. Instead, it is useful to understand both China and the United States as selective revisionists, attempting to shape the international order in ways that suit their respective interests. Key examples of this can be seen in US opt-outs of key international agreements including the International Criminal Court, the international Convention on the Rights of a Child as well as its failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Ultimately, both the United States and China support and challenge the liberal international order (LIO) in different arenas where it suits them to do so, in a way that renders the overused binary between status quo and revisionist powers obsolete.
Challenging the liberal order: the US hegemon as a revisionist power
Sino-American relations have come under increasing strain. This tension was already evident before the COVID-19…
Myth 2: Globalization and international trade lead to international cooperation
Much literature grounded in liberal political economy argues that increased levels of international trade and globalization reduce the likelihood of conflict by creating interdependencies between states. From this perspective, globalization is a key driver of international peace given the increased opportunity cost of war and competition in a more interconnected world.
As Norrin M. Ripsman argues, however, while increased globalization may occur as a product of increased international cooperation, it can just as easily undermine this cooperation as reinforce it. For example, when looking at post-Cold War cooperation and deglobalization, globalization happened after increased great power cooperation between the United States, Russia and China and not vice-versa. This makes drawing a direct causal relationship where globalization is the cause impossible. This is not to say that trade and international interconnections have no effect on the likelihood of conflict. Rather, they are part of the environment in which great power competition occurs; not something that determines it.
Globalization, deglobalization and Great Power politics
I conclude that a surface-level commercial liberal reading of the post-Cold War security environment is misleading. In…
Myth 3: The rise of nationalist populism is a domestic political phenomenon
The driving forces behind the rise of nationalist populism are often framed as domestic in many accounts of the rise of populist right-wing parties in recent years. From this perspective, the rise of illiberalism is frequently understood primarily with reference to domestic political phenomena such as economic inequality or generational political divides.
This said, as highlighted by Benjamin Miller, these approaches miss the extent to which liberal internationalist policies contributed to creating the political conditions exploited by populist nationalist actors. A good example of this can be seen in the promotion of US attempts to promote global free trade and the resultant impacts of this on the US economy which help drive the inequality often exploited politically by populist nationalists. Rather than being solely a product of domestic politics, it is thus important to understand the international dimensions of the rise of populist nationalism and the ways in which they remain linked to projects associated with the expansion of liberal international order.
How 'making the world in its own liberal image' made the West less liberal
Yet while this strategy had some important successes, it also had some unintended outcomes, affecting not only the…
Myth 4: Threats to the liberal international order are external
Another area that often gets over-simplified is our understanding of threats to the liberal international order as coming primarily from external illiberal states and political actors. While numerous authors have drawn attention to the very real external challenges posed to the LIO, it is important not to miss the extent to which the growth of interstate institutions (often by states perceived to be the LIO’s key defenders) can present internal challenges to the LIO’s principles and continued functioning.
As Jozef Bátora demonstrates, even expansions of international institutions with a view towards strengthening the capacity of the LIO can end up undermining it from within. Analysing the increased use of private military contractors as security actors and the growth of the European External Action Service, Bátora finds that while both kinds of organization operate in the space between existing states, their contribution to the expansion of liberal norms is ambiguous at best. For example, the European External Action Service attempts to promote broadly liberal EU foreign policy in ways that often fall beyond the remit of state embassies, at once advancing liberalism and challenging the principle of state sovereignty that is a key component of the liberal international order. Even more conspicuously, the increased use of private military contractors by states and international organizations both extends the intervention capacity of states while undermining already tenuous chains of democratic accountability in conflict.
States, interstitial organizations and the prospects for liberal international order
Abstract. This article proposes a complementary approach to analysing destabilization of the liberal international…
Myth 5: Middle powers act as key brokers in the establishment of rules-based international order
One particularly persistent idea is that states which aren’t great powers typically work to maximize their influence within the international system by brokering international agreements. Combining significant capabilities that nonetheless fall short of great power status with a strategic commitment to multilateralism, middle powers are often framed as key contributors to international order. This typically sees middle powers play a convening role that helps drive cooperation between states on areas as varied as international trade and human rights.
However, as highlighted by Umut Aydin, when referring to emerging middle powers such behaviour is often contingent on domestic political circumstances that are increasingly called into question by the rise of deglobalizing political movements. Focusing on Turkey and Mexico, Aydin shows how increasingly illiberal turns in both states’ domestic politics have undermined national NGO networks and limited state enthusiasm for promoting and advancing liberal norms internationally. Rather than viewing middle powers as contributors to the liberal international order by default, it is vital to consider their specific political circumstances and how these interact with international pressures for cooperation and competition.
Joseph Hills is an Editorial Assistant at International Affairs.
This blogpost draws on work published in the September 2021 special issue of International Affairs.
All views expressed are individual not institutional.