Recovering International Relations: The Promise of Sustainable Critique by Daniel J. Levine

| January 7, 2014
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Recovering International Relations: The Promise of Sustainable Critique, Daniel J. Levine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 394 pp., $99 cloth, $34.99 paper.

9780199916085_p0_v2_s260x420One of the virtues of International Relations (IR) as a discipline is that it periodically engages in bouts of reflection upon its methods and directions. Daniel Levine’s book is a contribution to this self-reflective practice. Like P. T. Jackson’s recent work, The Conduct of Enquiry, Levine’s Recovering International Relations seeks to acknowledge the diversity and strengths of various approaches to the study of IR and to simultaneously build something constructive out of this pluralism— in other words, to be both critical of the status quo and yet not reject it altogether. Levine’s goal is to “recover” IR’s original vocation, or calling, and to reinvigorate it via the idea of “sustainable critique”—a project inspired by the work of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School.

The Frankfurt School reference will no doubt set off alarm bells for many mainstream IR readers, given its association with Marxism and historical materialism. However, Levine’s use of Adorno is inspired more by his later philosophical work rather than his social-theoretical work. Levine draws on Adorno to formulate an approach to thinking about international relations that is “chastening” and that seeks to continuously reflect on the tendencies of theories to engage in reification—that is, to mistake theoretical constructions for the reality they wish to conceptualize. His argument is that while reification is inevitable in thought, it can also be chastened by reflection and comparison.

Such a process, he wants us to believe, is necessary for the fulfillment of International Relations’ vocation as a practical theoretical discipline engaged in addressing the major political and moral problems of our era. For Levine, the vocation of IR is to generate “practical theoretically informed expertise by which to . . . build a cumulative reservoir of knowledge for stewarding an increasingly dense, heavily armed and persistently diverse world, whether by the creation of new capabilities, institutions or procedures” (p. ). Levine’s book is therefore not an exercise in Adorno exegesis, nor an attempt to apply Frankfurt School critical theory to International Relations. Readers looking for another theory to add to their IR toolkit will be disappointed. Instead, Levine’s goal is to place the idea of a moral/ethical vocation at the heart of the discipline and to argue that the vocation requires international relations thinkers to approach their own theorizing with a different attitude or posture—one of humility and “sustainable critique.”

It is not always clear what this term means for Levine, but it seems to come closest to the idea of reflexivity, which involves a sort of permanent questioning of all relevant concepts— even the practice of reflexivity itself. This permanent questioning (or, as the Frankfurt School calls it, “immanent critique”) is not the sort of dissidence/dissonance or posture of eternal problematization that characterizes poststructuralist approaches, though at times it comes close; rather, it differs from such approaches in its commitment to a positive moral/ethical vocation for IR. At its core, Levine’s purpose is to demonstrate sustainable critique by describing where it has appeared throughout International Relations (and then been disciplined or lost), where theorists have slipped into reification, or where they have merely paid lip service to reflexivity, acknowledging their own limits. Levine begins with a chapter on the “lost vocation” of IR, followed by a chapter that traces the roots of his idea of sustainable critique in the work of Theodor Adorno—specifically in Adorno’s attempt to grapple with the failures of the Enlightenment account of reason, which he saw as culminating in Nazism and the Holocaust.

The remainder of the book is largely focused on seeking out the work of IR scholars where such a critique has appeared but then not been sustained, including in thewritings of Hans Morgenthau, K. W. Deutsch, David Mitrany, Emanuel Adler, and even Kenneth Waltz. All of these figures, it seems, failed to carry through the practice of critique or self-critique that they either began or cautiously recognized in their own work. For Levine, the promise of sustainable critique occurs whenever an author acknowledges the inherent limits of one’s own knowing and of one’s own theory.That is when one acknowledges that theory cannot simply map or correspond to the world, and is always inherently political and partial. Levine wishes to incorporate that insight into all dimensions of theory-building. His major argument is that many IR scholars begin but do not sustain that practice or, indeed, sometimes purposefully shut it down.

It is hard to argue with the central claims of this book. And its vision of a critically reflexive discipline, more robust and systematic—and with a sustained reflection on the relationship between norms, values, and theory—can only be a good thing. Indeed, it was certainly one of the major claims to have emerged from the Third Debate, at least as it was conducted on the eastern side of the Atlantic, where critical theory had a more distinctive voice. So, on the whole, it is not hard to endorse the general call and thrust of the book. Where problems emerge is more in its execution and some of its more specific claims and readings. There is no space to go into detail here, but sufficient to say that some versions of normative theory and some versions of critical theory are more reflexive than others, and some engage in more sustained debate on the meaning of emancipation and the purpose of theory than do others. Thus, while I agree with Levine that some practitioners of critical IR take their reflexivity only so far, and not “all the way down,” others, such as Anthony Burke or R. B. J. Walker, are closer to his model than he gives them credit for.

Furthermore, while Levine may be correct to argue that most IR scholars are informed by a vocation to make the world a better place, and that such a vocation is apparent in both social scientific and normative approaches to IR, I am not so sure. Those who operate in the social scientific mode are necessarily limited in their reflexivity by virtue of their commitment to a fact/value distinction and a value-free social science. Additionally, the differences among scholars regarding precisely what the vocation of IR is are possibly more important than Levine is prepared to admit. That is to say, Levine does not demonstrate sufficiently that there is a shared vocation in IR, nor that it is what he claims it is, that is, the stewarding of the international realm. Indeed, his characterization of the discipline parallels the thinking of many Western, North Atlantic humanist scholars, who see their position as ultimately one from which power emanates, in an environment where the idea of stewarding seems a natural phenomenon. To be sure, Levine’s perspective is not inconsistent with a dialogue about the “ends” and purposes that IR might have. Nevertheless, he seems more concerned with how we theorize than why.

Above all, however, the book falls short of its aim because it appears unable to show us what sustainable critique looks like. The concluding chapter is meant to give us some insight into how sustainable critique might work in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is strangely inconclusive and something of an anticlimax. This suggests that if Levine himself cannot do it, perhaps it might be an unattainable ideal. A more generous interpretation, however, might look to the words of Robert Browning: Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?


Richard Shapcott is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. His most recent book is International Ethics: A Critical Introduction (2010).

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Category: Book Review, Issue 27.4

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