UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Irreconcilable differences?: idealism, realism and the problem of discipline in international relations Crawford, Robert Michael


This thesis accepts the premise that something is amiss in international political theory but, in contrast to numerous recent works, aims to provide more than a eulogy, lament, or nostalgic retrospective on the field. Instead, it seeks to get at the root cause of the problem. I argue that the perennial malaise of international theory is a problem of discipline, in both the ordinary and scientific sense. First, the field is in the grip of unprecedented theoretical tumult, its practitioners in danger of drifting out of familiar currents into a boundless sea of relativism. Second, the scientific status of the discourse remains an issue of concern to many scholars. But the first group of "theorists" promise us little more than diversity, while the second look for theoretical shelter in the false haven of empirical science. The crisis of international theory is thus inflamed by a misrepresented debate in which either too much emphasis is placed on consensus, or too great a virtue made of difference. Returning to the insights of E. H. Carr, I reconceptualize the problem of theoretical consensus in international relations as an issue that is inherently irresolvable and, at the same time, workable. The thesis argues against the view that international relations cannot achieve secure status as a discipline without attaining, or at least aspiring to construct, a global empirical theory. Following Carr, I argue that there are deep and enduring differences in international theory, differences that can always be counted on to undermine the "panacea of a global explanatory theory" (Hoffmann, 1960). These differences are traced, via Carr, to a basic antithesis deriving from the contrasting requirements and standards of normative and empirical theory. By the same token, however, I argue that differences that are irreconcilable on their own theoretical terms can be reconciled within the broader ambit of discipline, provided that the latter is understood as a community of scholars united by basic human interests — the avoidance of war for example — and not as a field of study amenable to the canons of science. To demonstrate the argument, I undertake a study of neoliberalism, focusing in particular on international regimes. I focus on neoliberalism because it is the heir apparent to realism, and on regime theorists because of their explicit attempt to reconcile idealist and realist perspectives. My critique of these approaches concentrates on their open agenda to synthesize realist and liberal international theory. I conclude that regime theory, as it is conceived by neoliberals, disguises, but ultimately founders, on the irreconcilable theoretical differences identified by Carr.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.