Ships in the Night? Constructivism, Critical Theory and Humanitarian Intervention 1




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The ‘Permissive’ Effects of Intervention


A third arena for dialogue between constructivism and critical theory concerns the ‘permissive’ effects of emerging norms of humanitarian intervention; the problem that they avert our normative gaze from some of the fundamental causes of humanitarian crises. As Nina Tannewald has recently pointed out, dominant moral discourses often have the indirect, unanticipated effect of ‘crowding out’ alternative norms by shielding other practices from normative opprobrium (1999,437).

In this context, the profile of the debate over whether there exists a post-Cold War ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention has undoubtedly diluted the force of earlier calls for the world polity, particularly Western states, to recognise the link between the lack of basic subsistence rights in Third World states and the prevalence of war, conflict and humanitarian emergencies (Sen 1981; Surkhe 1999). Moreover, the current terms of the debate also obscure the extent to which military intervention itself may actually exacerbate humanitarian crises by ‘raising the stakes’ for those protagonists involved in protracted intra-state conflicts (Betts 1994; Woodward 1999). Precisely because both constructivism and critical theory are able to de-naturalise the norms and practices that constitute international society, both are well positioned to investigate these unanticipated effects of evolving norms of humanitarian intervention.


Conclusions

Rather than reiterating its central claims, it is perhaps more appropriate to utilise the concluding sections of this paper to explicate its two underlying motivations. The first is the view that most of future theoretical ‘action’ in IR will not center upon debates between constructivism and rationalism, or between critical theory and what has been loosely termed the ‘mainstream’. The most interesting aspects of both of these debates have been largely played out, although clearly not in ways that are satisfactory to neorealists. While I am reluctant to follow the trend of dividing the discipline into unproblematic ‘epochs of division’, I would agree with the contention that any future ‘fourth debate’ in IR theory will instead be centered around the differences between constructivism and critical approaches to world politics, both their moderate and radical forms (Smith 1999). This paper has provided an analysis, albeit limited, of some of the key sources of division that may constitute the parameters of such a debate.

A second, and more controversial, motivation underpinning this paper is the view that future dialogue between constructivism and critical theory should be as much about what these two approaches can agree upon as what they disagree on. Both constructivism and critical theory can, in this respect, claim to occupy a ‘middle ground’ between the unrelenting positivism of neorealism, and the ‘celebration’ of incommensurable epistemological difference to be found in much of the post-modernist/post-structuralist literature. Given this claim, the delineation of those issues and problems in world politics that can form the basis of a sustained exchange between constructivism and critical theory needs to be undertaken. As Colin Wight (1996) has argued, the current theoretical pluralism in IR, although a positive development, should not be an end in itself. Instead, “pluralism can only be a ‘good’ if it helps to throw more intellectual light on differing and/or new phenomena” (Wight 1996, 294). A dialogue between constructivism and critical theory on the subject of the sources and effects of emerging humanitarian intervention norms would surely contribute to the production of such a ‘good’.


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1Endnotes


The author wishes to express his gratitude to Roland Bleiker, Jean Louis Durand, and Alexandra Siddall, all of whom offered invaluable moral support and much needed ‘critical interventions’ at earlier stages of this paper.
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