Relationalism or why diplomats find international relations theory strange

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In this conclusion, which reflects critically on the relational approach to diplomacy and its wider consequences, I argue that diplomats are estranged from IR theory and vice versa - because International Relations scholars generally subscribe to substantialism, whereas diplomats tend to think in terms of relations. In fact, a deeper understanding of these relations is a key theoretical take-away point of this book. More specifically, I argue that relationalism - as a meta-theoretical approach - not only helps us understand the diplomatic production of world politics, relationalism also reflects a particular ontology, which differs fundamentally from the worldview that most IR scholars subscribe to. As I suggest, most IR scholars depart from the social phenomenon they want to study, for example, states, diplomats, soldiers, organizations, treaties, companies, and women. Assuming a priori the existence of these phenomena (e.g. states or individuals) and ascribing certain characteristics to them, they develop substantive theories. Consequently, diplomacy is reduced to the mechanics of states bumping into each other or a system of reciprocal signaling. However, most diplomats know, in an embodied but often unarticulated sense, that world politics is deeply relational. Their job is to make those relations "work," and they are convinced that important knowledge can be gained by consulting and meeting with foreign powers, that is, "the other." As such, they subscribe to a relational thinking (shared to some extent by diplomatic scholars). Relationalism takes as its point of departure the idea that social phenomena making up world politics always develop in relation to other social phenomena. Thus, for example, states are not born into' this world as fully developed states that then "exist"; states are made in continuous relations with other states and non-state actors. The development, consolidation, weakening (or even disappearance) of states can only be understood in terms of continuous processes that play out in relation to other social processes. These ontological and epistemological differences between much of IR scholarship and diplomatic knowledge and practice are important for how we understand (and construct) world politics, including war, international cooperation, and responses to human and natural catastrophes.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDiplomacy and the Making of World Politics
EditorsOle Jacob Sending, Vincent Pouliot, Iver B. Neumann
Number of pages24
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Publication date2015
ISBN (Print)9781107099265, 9781107492004
Publication statusPublished - 2015
SeriesCambridge Studies in International Relations

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