On April 3rd, Fridays with MUNPlanet published an interview with Stephen Walt, professor of International Affairs at Harvard University. In case you have not had the chance to appreciate the interview, you I strongly suggest you do so (On International Relations, Theory, and Practice: A Special Interview With Professor Stephen Walt).
The idea that I really took away from the interview was that International Relations is a complex field with a high degree of uncertainty. It is complex because whether you want to be an IR theorist or a decision-maker (or both), you have to be quite familiar with the conceptualization of international relations (duh?!).
When you think about it, what does International Relations mean? In my opinion, it means a bit of politics, a bit of economics, a bit of history, a bit of anthropology… In other words, you cannot expect to make sense of International Relations without a sense of the bigger picture.
Moreover, Professor Walt also highlighted that to tackle the issues facing the International Relations world you have to be ready to follow your ideas, and take the ‘road less travelled’ (IR is not a popularity contest).
So how do we go about discussing International Relations in the XXI century? How can you and I, who aspire to be leaders of tomorrow, have a clear framework on which to base my beliefs and future actions?
I do not claim to have the answer to these questions, but I do believe that one possible answer could be found in complexity theory.
The fundamental claim of complexity theory is that ‘the whole is bigger than its constituting parts.’ If we apply this concept to IR theory, the idea is that an issue is born out of cultural, economic, political and social factor and that a thorough analysis of these components is necessary to reach a solution. Easier said than done.
We can nonetheless give an example of how complexity theory could be applied to decision-making. Let’s think back when the Obama administration decided to leave Iraq. Had the decision-makers taken into consideration the legitimacy and strength of the government? Had they analyzed the economic situation of the country? Had they accounted for the cultural differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims? And what about the Kurdish population?
It seems like if they had taken a more holistic approach, they could have acted differently, and may have avoided the rise of the Islamic State.
Complexity theory also emphasizes the importance of the consideration of the local environment in affecting systems and behaviors. In other words, it points towards considering whether or not Western democracy is an efficient outcome for the whole world (in this sense it directly criticizes arguments like ‘The End of History’ by Francis Fukuyama).
All in all, I am not claiming complexity theory is a solution to all our problems, but it could be one of the starting points to follow a new path.
For those of you interested, I would suggest starting from this article (International Relations and Complexity Theory) to have a better understanding of the complexity theory framework applied to IR.