Richard Ned Lebow on culture, IR theories and methodology

Richard Ned Lebow est un théoricien phares des relations internationales, dont l’œuvre est certainement l’une des plus importantes des dernières décennies. Il nous parle ici de ses dernières recherches. 

You have written this impressive book « Cultural Theory of International Relations« . To what extent were you dissatisfied with traditional theories, and why a “cultural” theory of IR?

I have always been dissatisfied with traditional IR theories. The problem can be methodological: to assume that people are rational and that academic studies cannot be bothered with dealing with irrationality, especially when it comes to diplomacy and war, is just non-sense. I have been rebelling against this. For example, in my studies of deterrence, I try to get away from the assumption of rationality that pervades most studies of the subject. The cultural aspect is critical: I have been studying the kind of values that motivate human beings and make the case that there have been historical shifts in the preferences attached to these values by foreign policy elites. But to fully grasp that, I came back to the Greeks and traced the historical variations of motivations. There is a follow-on book, Why Nations Fight, in which I conduct a large-N study demonstrating the validity of my argument.

In my last book, I ask why the problem of identity has become so important in the post-war era. In particular, I explore the reason why we like to think that we have a single identity, while we are in fact made up of multiple identities. I argue that this importance of identity is a result of a clash between our social and reflexive selves.

Your studies were located at the systemic level (cultural theory of IR, causes of war, deterrence, etc.), but you now seem to go down to a more individual level with this issue of identity. What is the proper level of analysis for IR scholars?

In my next book, I explore the consequences of my research on identity for international relations, and I differentiate myself from the literature on ontological security, which acknowledges that identity is important, but considers that the state has an identity. Unlike Wendt, I do not think that states can be seen as a person, they do not have more identity than the individuals. People expect states to serve their interests. Ultimately, it relates to fear, and we expect civil servants (diplomats, states officials, etc.) to calm down this existential fear. It is the same with self-esteem: we expect the state to make us feel good about ourselves through manifestations of patriotism. It is what happens with sport teams: if a sport team loses too often, many people shift their allegiances because they want to achieve a higher self-esteem by cheering for a winning team. So, it is very important to understand the emotional transfers that occur between the population and the state, this is why treating the state as a person is wrong.

You also explore methodological issues, such as counter-factual analysis, or causations. What are the most appropriate methodological tools for the study of International Relations?

Causation is not a feature of the world, but a product of our imagination. We use the concept to make sense of an extremely complicated world in an organized way. It is fine, but using it as the single concept for the study of the world is problematic. So I step back, and offer a fresh look at causation. In the first chapter of my forthcoming book Constructing Cause in International Relations, I look at how physicists understand causation: there are very different and various understandings (quantum physics, regularity theory, or even Kantian notion of causation…). Physicists agree that you should feel free to adopt the model of causation that fits your research question, something that mainstream American political scientists deny. In the book, I advance the notion of singular cause. If you look at geology, it is a science that has developed good models to understand why events happened, but cannot make predictions. This is the same with international relations. I also explore the two aspects of an outcome. First: why do people behave the way they do? This is a traditional verstehen problem. Second: How do these behaviours interact to produce an outcome, and here we face an aggregation problem.

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