Why aren’t IR scholars paying more attention to Al Qaeda?
Marc Lynch, blogging at Abu Aardvark, says that international relations journals aren’t paying enough attention to Al Qaeda: Has IR theory been irrelevant to the debates? To find out, I just spent a few hours looking at the contents of the last four years of the six leading journals for International Relations theory (International Organization, ...
Marc Lynch, blogging at Abu Aardvark, says that international relations journals aren't paying enough attention to Al Qaeda:
Marc Lynch, blogging at Abu Aardvark, says that international relations journals aren’t paying enough attention to Al Qaeda:
Has IR theory been irrelevant to the debates? To find out, I just spent a few hours looking at the contents of the last four years of the six leading journals for International Relations theory (International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, World Politics, Journal of Conflict Resolution, European Journal of International Relations, Review of International Studies – see the end of the post for discussion of these choices), along with the American Political Science Review. I used an exceedingly loose definition of “about al-Qaeda” – i.e. I included everything about terrorism and counter-terrorism, even if it barely touched at all on al-Qaeda or Islamism itself; and I included review essays, even if they did not include any original research. The results were even more striking than I expected. All told, these seven journals published 796 articles between 2002-2005. I found a total of 25 articles dealing even loosely with al-Qaeda, Islamism, or terrorism. That’s just over 3% of the articles. Now, there’s lots of important stuff out there in the world, and there’s no reason for the whole field to be following the headlines, but still… 3%?
Lynch posits that this is because the leading paradigms used to explain international relations are unsiuted to explain Al Qaeda:
The dominant theoretical trends in the international relations field have been strikingly absent from the mountains of paper expended on analysis of al-Qaeda, Islamism, and the war on terror. Most of the dominant theoretical approaches were not so much wrong as irrelevant. Realism, with its emphasis on the balance of power among self-interested nation-states, had little to say about a non-state actor motivated by religion. Liberalism, with its various arguments about international institutions, trade, and democracy, similarly offered little traction. Rationalist approaches seemed initially stymied by an organization defined by intense religious convictions, and by individual suicide terrorism (though there were some game efforts to reconstruct a strategic rationale behind al-Qaeda?s terrorism). Of all the dominant trends within IR, constructivism seemed to be the best placed to account for such a religious, transnational movement. But constructivist analyses of al-Qaeda were few and far between. Whether because the Islamist movement espouses norms repugnant to the liberalism espoused by many constructivist theorists or because of a lack of interest in policy relevant research, constructivists have largely failed to rise to the opportunity of authoritatively interpreting al-Qaeda.
Kevin Drum is appalled: “I know it takes a while for people to change gears, but you’d sure think terrorism might have captured just a little more attention among IR types by now, wouldn’t you?” James Joyner and the Glittering Eye believe the fault lies with the skewed incentives of the academy. My thoughts:
1) I’m a bit dubious of Lynch’s counting methodology. First, the turnaround time between writing the rough draft of anything decent and getting it accepted and published in a major journal is eighteen months — and that’s if you’re very, very lucky. To write about Al Qaeda, senior scholars would need to halt their other projects — which means a loss of asset-specific investments — and start building up knowledge in a new empirical domain. The failure to see anything decent crop up in the first few years is not terribly surprising. (It would be interesting to see whether the journals that were around in 1945 saw a similar lag). We’re just starting to see dissertations affected by the 9/11 events come into the pipeline. Wait a bit before complaining of a deficit. Second, Lynch doesn’t include any security journals — International Security, Security Studies, Journal of Strategic Studies, Security Dialogue, etc. Lynch justifies the exclusion of International Security by labeling it a “policy-oriented journal” — but it and the other journals listed above are both peer-reviewed and pretty theory-oriented. Third, there is a difference between what’s been published and what’s been submitted. I suspect that there has been a lot more work submitted — but just because someone is writing something about Al Qaeda doesn’t mean it’s something good about Al Qaeda. My guess would be the first wave of efforts probably won’t pass muster. 2) The opportunity costs of Operation Iraqi Freedom can’t be denied here. That operation didn’t just divert hard power resources away from Al Qaeda — it distracted IR theorists as well. For the theorists, this was an easy call — discussing the theoretical implications of an interstate conflict was much easier than discussing a completely new phenomenon. 3) Follow the money. The amount of intellectual enegy invested in understanding the Soviet Union during the Cold War was a function of the wads of reseearch money that was available for studying that topic. I honestly don’t know what the financial incentives are right now to study AQ — but I’d wager that it’s less lucrative and less institutionalized than studying Soviet nuclear capabilities or the Fulda Gap in the early eighties. 4) I do think Lynch has a point in believing that IR theory doesn’t think much about Al Qaeda because to IR theory, Al Qaeda is not in the same league as the old Soviet Union in terms of magnitude of threat. Take the Princeton Project on National Security’s latest working paper on grand strategy for example (co-authored by Frank Fukuyama and John Ikenberry). Al Qaeda is mentioned three times; terrorism is mentioned sixteen times. China, in contrast, gets 127 mentions. The reason for this is pretty simple. Al Qaeda can only weaken its enemies — it can’t govern anywhere, can’t hold significant portions of territory, can’t manage a modern economy, and has no base of popular support anywhere. It’s not a threat to supplant U.S. hegemony. China is a different story. 5) Fukuyama and Ikenberry, however, do acknowledge the theoretical problems posed not by Al Qaeda alone as much as AQ + nuclear weapons:
The possibility that a relatively small and weak non-state organization could inflict catastrophic damage is something genuinely new in international relations, and poses an unprecedented security challenge. In all prior historical periods the ability to inflict serious damage to a society lay only within the purview of states but a recent confluence of globalization, technologies of mass destruction, and extremism amounts to what Joseph Nye has called the ?privatization of war?. Violence capability that once only a few great powers could muster could someday fall into the hands of transnational groups with apocalyptic agendas. The entire edifice of international relations theory is built around the presumption that nation-states are the only significant players in world politics. If catastrophic destruction can be inflicted by nonstate actors, then many of the concepts that informed security policy over the past two centuries?balance of power, deterrence, containment, and the like?lose their relevance. Deterrence theory in particular depends on the deployer of any form of WMD having a return address, and with it equities that could be threatened in retaliation.
All major IR theories do a lousy job of explaining the influence of non-state actors — constructivism included.
[So what’s your takeaway point?–ed. I think Lynch is overstating the problem, but it does exist. Whether this is important depends on whether you believe that Al Qaeda really does represent the greatest threat to U.S. power and interests over the next decade.] UPDATE: Lynch responds here. And Ethan Bueno de Mesquita makes some excellent observations in the comments.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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