Debating IR

Probing the philosophical underpinnings of the international system and anything else of interest.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Chicken and the Egg; Moravcsik's Article by Jonathan Berman

"Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics" by Andrew Moravcisk is an attempt by Moravcisk to make liberalism a worthy method of inquiry. He attempts to remove the normative mess that is often confounded with liberalism to highlight the parts of the theory that make it useful to IR scholars. According to Moravcisk, liberalism has three basic assumptions. They are 1) the primacy of actors in society 2) states always represent a subset of domestic society and their actions reflect their interests, and 3) the configuration of independent states in the international system determines state behavior (517-20).

Liberalism is able to differentiate itself from realism and institutionalism because it believes that the preferences of a state determine its behavior rather than its material capabilities relative to other states in the international system (527). He then goes on to divide liberalism into subsets that revolve around three general categories that are interested in exploring different areas of interest. First, he denotes ideational liberalism which studies social preferences. Next, is commercial liberalism which focuses on international trade and how states react to it. Finally, there is republican liberalism which looks at how domestic institutions represent subsets of society (524).

In the end, Moravcisk believes that liberalism needs to be employed first, among other IR theories, because assumptions such as the states is a unitary and rational actor depend upon taking account of things such as the role of influential groups of society and those groups and individuals that actually help to make and influence a states' foreign policy (542).

I agree with Moravcisk that IR scholars need to take into account domestic and transational sources of influence upon the state. It simply is a denial of reality to say that domestic and global factors are of no importance. For example, the role of business in shaping government policy is an easy way of seeing how subsets of society can take control of certain aspects of a state's foreign policy. In addition, as power shifts from one competing group to another, such as labor and business, it is easy to see how states' preferences can change and even be at times contradictory. Thus, for realists and institutionalists to casually brush these things aside is very disconcerting and lead to a very wrong idea of the true nature of international relations.

That being said, in my opinion, that doesn't mean that liberalism gets to be theory numero uno. I was not very convinced by his criticism of constructivism. I would even be tempted to counter Moravcsik by saying that I think contructivism trumps realism and liberalism and should enjoy "analytical priority" (542). Moravcsik says that liberal theory trumps contructivism because it demonstrates how high rates of communication and interaction alter state behavior and explain cooperation between states. This leads Moravcsik to advocate the research agenda of Thomas Risse-Kappen which is a "liberal constructivist" in its approach (540).

I don't have a problem with anyone working Thomas Risse-Kappen's program. In fact, I think that realism, institutionalism, and liberalism fit nicely into constructivism and anyone can take those three approaches and still be in the constructivist framework. What I disagree with though is that in order for communication to occur, and by communication I mean more than talk, I include non-verbal language, and even the message that certain actions may deliver to another party, it needs to be interepreted. That is where I believe constructivism trumps liberalism in the analytical priority list. Every individual in society needs to determine where they stand in it (sometimes its determined for them). States need to do the same thing, just think about the differences between rogue states and peace-loving states.

Moravcsik would have us believe that preferences are the most important factor in IR. However, preferences cannot be created until a person or state ascribes themselves an identity. People and states cannot answer the question "what do I want?" until they answer the question "who am I?" Moravcsik whole purpose is writing his article is to seperate liberalism from realism and institutionalism. He is trying to show that states' preferences actually defer whereas the other two believe all states have the same ends, namely wealth, sovereignty, and power. But states' preferences differ only because their identities are different, if they did not then they would all want the same things.

Looking at some real world examples we see that identity is the first factor that needs to be taken into account when asking what states want. How much is France's foreign policy shaped by its identity as being 'French'? What does it mean to be French and how exactly does one become French? The recent riots in France highlight the differences in French society and who is actually considered French. Moravcsik would point to competition between Arabs and the native French and how the native French have won control of the government, however, asking how these people become French and how this people can't seem to become French probably tells you more than just this group won out in the French society tug-'o'-war.

In the end, I agree with many of liberalism's assumptions, however, I don't think it is the be all, end all. Constructivism is more than just studying 'feedback' (539). It asks how people attribute meaning to things encountered in society and explores the creation of identity and the other. All of the things Moravcsik talks about, groups fighting one another for control, the effects of internal and external social cultures on others cannot occur until people give themselves and others identities and attribute meaning to the social world. Thus, although I'm nitpicking about what comes first, the chicken or the egg, in this case I think it is constructivism.


Andrew Moravcsik, “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics,” International Organization 51 (1997), pp. 513-553.


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