chapter  2
18 Pages

A critical realist approach to conflict management

Introduction Should the failure of UN diplomats and officials to prevent genocides be conceived of as largely self-inflicted, or should it be more reasonably attributed to the constraints of the surrounding structures and mechanisms which limited the political manoeuvring space of these actors? With regard to the UN’s failure in Rwanda, only Michael Barnett has implicitly raised this question thus far (2002: xii), whilst most other authors working on the subject have not viewed it as relevant or problematic at all. However, the avoidance of this question has led to implicit answers, which indict the most obvious suspects, that is, the representatives of the great powers in general and the US in particular.1 Hence, the blame is laid squarely on actors, not structures or mechanisms. This chapter will argue that the possibilistic methodology of critical realism seeks to open up all the possible causes of the UN inaction,2 without automatically apportioning blame. Although previous accounts provide detailed descriptions of the chain of events leading to the UN’s failure in Rwanda and effectively expose culpable state representatives and UN officials, their tendency3 to view individual events and behaviours as sufficient explanatory factors in themselves renders them ultimately superficial, and therefore deficient. The method of double movement based on critical realist philosophy views events and actors only as a starting point, not so much as explanatory factors per se but more as factors to be explained, because it considers the importance of the ‘troublemaking’ structures and mechanisms that generated those events in the first place and affected the behaviour of actors. The chapter will be divided into three parts. The first section will present the ontological and epistemological positions of critical realism that are largely shared by all critical realist researchers. The second section will take as its point of departure the common theoretical grounding of critical realism established in the first section and, on that basis, will design an original critical realist approach to International Relations (IR) studies by synthesising Roy Bhaskar’s theory with Andrew Sayer’s method of double movement. The aim of this methodological framework is to supply an approach that is more capable of acknowledg-

ing the complexities of decision-making procedures with regard to conflict management, to provide a deeper and wider account of the causes of the UN’s failures, and to offer a more emancipatory insight into the potential capacities of UN diplomats and officials to avoid such disasters. While the first and second sections will examine mechanisms in the context of social science in general, the third section will analyse mechanisms specifically in relation to the UN. The hypothesis here posits that the UN Security Council constitutes what Roy Bhaskar terms an ‘open system’: it is composed of fifteen member states, but what makes this group of state representatives the Security Council in control of international security threats, rather than a closed gentleman’s club of ambassadors, is the surrounding framework of structures and mechanisms of the UN. Before probing critical realism in more detail, it is appropriate to situate it in IR studies more broadly, which is the purpose of this introductory section. To use Martin Wight’s famous characterisation, the ‘old’ debates in IR theory have been conducted by Machiavellians (political realists), Grotians (rationalists) and Kantians (liberal institutionalists). Machiavellians view states and state-systems as the proper levels of analysis. Grotians, in turn, emphasise the diplomatic and normative structures that bind states together, whilst Kantians prioritise transnational actors that enhance the emergence of international community. Since the end of the 1980s, a variety of new IR approaches has emerged, challenging and transcending the aforementioned ‘Three Waves’ of IR discipline (Wæver 1996: 149). Viewed through the ‘new’ lenses, as Steve Smith characterises it, the ‘old’ appears as quite monovalent, composed of ‘three versions of one world, rather than three genuine alternative views of international relations’ (Smith 1996: 11). The common element shared by the three old IR approaches has been positivism, the dominant epistemology in IR, although not all traditional IR theories, such as the English School, have adhered to positivist principles. Positivism here is defined by the prevalence of the empiricist method in IR research and the belief in the existence of regularities in the social world. It also encompasses the adoption of methodologies from the natural sciences to explain the social world, the categorical distinction between facts and values, and the belief that facts are theory-neutral. These positivist assumptions, which underpin (neo-)realism and (neo-)liberalism, have been contested by post-positivist approaches, such as post-modernism, feminist approaches, Critical Theory and critical realism.4