Geopolitics has never found a congenial place within the Marxist tradition, let alone been properly theorized. Consider the exemplary Nicos Poulantzas, originator of the best Marxist works on the state in the 1960s and 1970s. His focus is on class and structure in a domestic setting, as though international space does not exist or at any rate is of no consequence for the formation and nature of the state. But then the ‘horizontal’ role of territorialization, war and external relations was always bound to be unclear in the ‘vertical’ world of Marxist modes of production, the exception being various theorizations—in themselves not very convincing—of imperialism and exploitation.
Not that political theory on the liberal side provided anything much superior. Like Marxism, it remained marked by nineteenth-century notions of an inexorably globalizing process of modernity and capitalism, a teleological perspective which allowed one to ponder principles of state institutions without much regard for the historical effects of spatial boundaries and war. Meanwhile, the academic discipline known as ‘International Relations theory’—shortened by the trade, thankfully, to ‘ir’—would develop in full force only after the Second World War, chiefly in response to the exigencies of the emerging Cold War. ir, to put the matter a bit vulgarly, was tied from the very beginning to the us power apparatus, whose new-found global role demanded intelligence in every possible sense. In its most instrumentalized form, it supplied the Pentagon with game-theoretical models for nuclear exchanges. The discipline, in any event, became an American social science pure and simple.
To the ‘educated’ public, however, ir has remained largely obscure, as Fred Halliday quite rightly notes.footnote1 Who has even a nominal awareness of Kenneth Waltz, its central figure? Unlike in Britain, as IR developed in America, it had virtually no connection—absurdly enough—to diplomatic history. Paradoxically, the parochial home of the latter in the Americanist sub-field of history actually allowed greater distance from officialdom and so, too, a great deal more critical content, culminating in the substantial ‘revisionist’ works of the 1960s and 1970s.footnote2 Diplomatic
ir, for its part, failed to develop any real intellectual autonomy. Devoid of internal meta-theory, it was always parasitic on other social sciences, above all on economics. After the initial postwar moment of ‘classical’ realism—of which Kissinger is the surviving stalwart—the discipline was gradually taken over epistemologically by the rigid scheme of model–variables outcomes which had been appropriated from economics and, in turn, nineteenth-century natural science. The discipline, amidst proliferating internal ‘paradigms’, remains wedded to this scheme.footnote3 Because the world of international relations is not one of controlled, repeatable experiments, the predictive value of ir, always its ultimate raison d’être, proved quite limited, if not downright negative. One thinks of the collapse of the whole postwar order after 1989 which ir, saddled with the dominant neo-realist dogma of bipolar stability, spectacularly failed to envision because its ‘elegant’ and ‘parsimonious’ theory could not, by definition, accommodate what went on inside the individual ‘actors’, that is, the states themselves.
In Rethinking International Relations, Halliday, in the wake of that collapse, is attempting to do two things: on the one hand, to size up the field of ir against the claims of Marxism and its remains; on the other, to give an account of the nature of the Cold War and its end, in particular the astonishing evaporation of the ussr. This latter empirical exhibit is in turn designed to demonstrate the validity of his theoretical claims as well as sustain his political assessment of the new situation. In the end, alas, I think it is politics that dictates theory here, not the other way around.
Writing at a considerable remove from American ir, Halliday gives a useful potted history of the discipline and a concomitant critique—though, disappointingly, he says nothing about diplomatic history. ir is taken to task, as one would expect, for being ahistorical and overly state-centric, for eliminating, especially, the social forces of capitalism. Halliday’s basic—and unexceptional—theme at this stage is the ‘Janus-faced’ nature of the state, that it functions ‘simultaneously at the domestic and international level’ in order ‘to maximize benefits in one domain to enhance their position in the other.’ From this perspective, he says, Marxism—typically reduced here to ‘historical materialism’ and so presumably cleansed of any Hegelian mumbo-jumbo—still has a lot to offer. Precisely what and how, beyond an emphasis on classes and capitalism, or the ‘socio-economic’, is not all that clear. For, Janus-faces notwithstanding, when all is said and done, Halliday is back effectively to internal derivation, which was always the Marxist tendency.footnote4
To follow that peculiar trajectory, it is best to break Halliday’s order of disquisition and begin with the analysis of the Cold War, for it is here that he strikes his more original theoretical theme, centred on a posited polarity of homogeneity and heterogeneity in international relations. He develops this loosely from the notion of ‘international society’ that the so-called English school of ir, anti-theoretical and historically orientated, put forth in the 1950s and 1960s as a counterpoint to the dominant social-science models of the us. For Halliday, ‘society’ is a normative order which forces states ‘to conform to each other in their internal arrangements.’ His ultimate concern is to argue that it was ‘international pressure for homogeneity [that] destroyed the Soviet Union’ since ‘the Cold War was ultimately about two varying concepts of international society,’ the pressure here being ‘social’ rather than ‘inter-state.’ The Soviet Union was undermined and finally capsized because of the influence of ‘the T-shirt and the supermarket,’ or as he also puts it in a singularly ill-chosen image: ‘Bruce Springsteen was the late-twentieth-century equivalent of the Opium Wars.’