Among the various fields of the social sciences, international relations theory has established itself both as scientific and as politically relevant. Along with economics, it is a model of social scientific expertise, and it has an established record of informing state policies. It provides a standard of political rationality against which policy decisions can be matched and assessed.
While this standard is allegedly value-free and culturally neutral, individual political actions or specific political cultures can be determined by factors that undermine their rationality. This is how religious forms of politics, in particular, tend to be considered. The exercise of non-secular political power is often described as obeying a different logic, not commensurate with the “realist” rationality that drives or should drive international politics. The principle of self-preservation that ought to trump other considerations and that is the taken-for-granted assumption of political prudence as well as the basis of the system of international law is often seen to be lacking in these non-secular powers. The implication is that the adherence of religious regimes to international law should not be trusted, nor should they be expected to act on the basis of prudential ratiocination. Other-worldly considerations inform their political behavior and permeate their policy decisions, and their politics remains wedded to theology. It would be unwise, therefore, to project the political rationality that guides the decisions of secular nations onto such regimes, and foolish to act upon such an assumption.
Of course, a realist scholar would say that the ideology that coats a state’s foreign policy does not matter at all, be it religious or otherwise: as long as a state is a state, it will act according to the same set of determinants. This is what international relations theory is all about. But because state sovereignty is classically defined as an authority that does not recognize any higher order – potestas qui nulli subest – and because theocracies are by definition the instrument of a higher order, it is easy to argue that they are failed states in the first place.
These and other implicit assumptions are very much in the foreground of the current debate about whether or not regimes such as Iran are amenable to traditional nuclear deterrence. For deterrence presupposes a similar political rationality on both sides. The very nature of non-secular regimes, it is assumed, makes them different from the interest-maximizing state upon which the traditional concepts and theories of international politics are premised (see for instance the recent comments of James Woolsey on that matter). And it is only by assuming the secular “rationality” of the state and of its conduct that the sophisticated calculations sustaining the delicate equilibriums of the “balance of power” or “deterrence” become a plausible basis of foreign policy.
Should this rationality be found missing, then other courses of action would become advisable. This is in fact what is argued, albeit with less sophistication, by a number of so-called “experts” calling for a strike against Iran. Because religious groups or states operate on the basis of absolute claims and transcendental values, their politics are said to be driven by different parameters, incompatible with a culture of compromise and coexistence that assumes the imperfection of worldly arrangements, recognizes the limited nature of political interests, and therefore accepts to accommodate them. Usually, the word “fanatical” is never far off.
What is wrong with such claims is not just that they amount to recasting in a seemingly scientific language a form of racism that has been the historical companion to all imperialist enterprises. It is not just the crass ignorance of the concrete way politics operates in the societies under discussion, either. Rather, it is the very idea that the “science” of politics that has shaped our understanding of international affairs is substantially different from religious worldviews or political repertoires claiming a relation to some form of transcendence. The idea that “we” enjoy some kind of epistemological privilege because our understanding of world politics has somehow worked itself out of its own cultural embeddedness and acquired universal relevance by becoming secular.
Carl Schmitt has famously argued that the main concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts. Not only is international relations theory no exception, but by the time it took shape as a distinct discipline (roughly, in the mid-1950s), it was decidedly not secular. For many postwar intellectual and scholars, value relativism was the reason why liberalism had proved unable to resist the rise of totalitarianism. Rearticulating politics with values that would not depend on the shifting moods of the public was seen as a pressing issue. While some developed a renewed interest in natural rights, others turned to Christian values. Christianity offered indeed a defense against value-relativism and a transcendent yet rational ground for politics. The early discussions on the possibility of developing a genuine “theory” of international relations took place within a group of scholars sharing a vision of politics largely informed by the more pessimistic strands of Christian theology.
While a full treatment of this question is impossible within the confines of this short note, a few illustrations may be suggestive: This group of scholars included Reinhold Niebuhr, who by then had moved away from his earlier liberalism and had embraced Protestant neo-orthodoxy; George Kennan, whose religious convictions informed his distrust of democratic politics and social progress; British historians Herbert Butterfield and Arnold Toynbee who sought to contrast the Whiggish interpretation of history ; it also included Kenneth Thompson, William T.R. Fox and, most importantly, Hans Morgenthau. A simple perusal of the discussions held by this group shows how its members found their collective identity in “Christian realism” and did not shy away from reclaiming the legacy of Augustine or Burke. A common view of human nature as tainted by the original sin, and hence incapable of perfect rationality, ran through their view of politics. A view of conflict as an evil rooted in the human condition and a deep suspicion of any claim at overcoming this condition through international arrangements were part and parcel of this “realist” wisdom.
For sure, this early engagement of IR theorists with the immediate theological background of their discipline was short-lived. As IR blended into the fold of mainstream social science, it progressively shed its religious roots. Yet, secularization does not mean the absence of religion, but simply its morphing into something else. Transforming the Christian realists’ assumptions about human nature into a structural characteristic of the international system, as Kenneth Waltz later did, was indeed a secularizing move, but it also contributed to turn these assumptions into principles structuring our understanding of the international arena regardless of our religious beliefs. Secularization is always double-edged.
I guess this brief excursus into the history of the discipline can help illustrate my main point here: international relations theory is no less religious and no less culturally specific than other political discourses that may be less secular. Despite its status as a social science, it mobilizes conceptions of historical time, of power, and of worldliness that are fundamentally embedded in Christian theology. Where does this leave us? In the first place, it means that the opposition between modern standards of political rationality and religious worldviews is often just a proxy masking a culturalist opposition. This, in turn, means that we, as scholars, should start by assuming that political rationalities are on an equal footing. It is not enough to look at other political rationalities as culturally codified if we do not apply the same treatment to our own political languages. This form of reflexivity is both methodologically sound and morally justified, as in both cases it rests on an ideal of fairness. This is where the history of the social sciences can contribute to de-centering our own perspectives and, hopefully, to reconnect with a tradition in which the social sciences were a privileged instrument of international dialogue.