International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction by Cynthia Weber

Review of Weber, C. (2009) International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 3rd editition, London: Routledge, pp. 264.

PDF Versions: Review by Kirsten Haack, Review by Matthew Johnson, Review by Andrew Hammond, Author’s Reply by Cynthia Weber.

Review by Kirsten Haack[1]

Why review yet another IR theory book? There are many good IR theory books on the market and more are added all the time. Yet, Cynthia Weber’s book promises something different[2]: the use of film for the classroom, with ready-made suggestions for films, their application and discussion. This teaching approach, “active learning”, has become very popular[3]. The active learning approach uses alternative ‘texts’, be that films, music or poetry, in trying to enhance student learning. It does so by building on students’ everyday experiences to help them relate to and thus better understand the subject. This is a promising approach for IR theory as many students find IR theory very complex and difficult to apply. However, despite its popularity, the approach is also fraught with danger, in particular when navigating the fine line between the exploration of fictional narratives, the depths of theory and the  application of film to the world of IR and the ‘reality’ of international relations. Just because the medium is considered in educationalist terms as ‘authentic’[4] does not mean that students easily relate to the text (film) chosen or that it is relevant to their immediate experience, be that their academic or future professional career. Secondly, the nature of the task can significantly impact on its solution if it involves a considerable degree of task interpretation.[5] Hence, a film’s complexity or similarity to the subject studied (e.g. a film about JFK or apartheid in South Africa, versus a crime story or romantic comedy) would influence students’ understanding of IR theory. The questions that need to be asked of a book like Weber’s do not just relate to how well IR theory is explained but how well the films are chosen and explained, how ‘authentic’ the films are and whether they will help or hinder student learning.

The first chapter on realism is an excellent example of how film can work to explain IR theory. Weber draws out the key principles of anarchy and order to show how the realism ‘myth’ is constructed, applies them to Lord of the Flies, before highlighting ‘fear’ as a critical principle which does not receive adequate attention in IR theory. She concludes with suggestions for further reading on two key ideas (here: neorealism, and the uses of fear in IR theory). While Lord of the Flies does not deal with states, the stranded boys and their anarchic (i.e. adult-less) island life make it easy enough to translate realism’s key ideas – and Weber helpfully points the reader to the best cinematic interpretation of the original book. This then works very well as an introduction for students unfamiliar with IR theory. By contrast, chapter 2 on idealism works considerably less well.

Weber’s obvious disdain for liberalism finds an easy target in Independence Day, a perhaps overly optimistic humans-against-aliens film, which celebrates American heroism. Not only does the analysis of both theory and film drip with sarcasm regarding liberalism’s moral dimension (‘the goodness of people’, ‘perfect communication’), Weber mocks the heroic cinematography of Independence Day, which she takes as a theoretical shortcoming of idealism and not a stylistic element of Hollywood film-making. She criticises the focus on the US and its replacement for “international society”, comparing it to the Wilsonian ideals of international society of “making the world safe for (American) democracy”. Yet, she takes US dominance in the film (US action for the good of human kind) as a given, and instead of making connections to IR theoretical explanations of hegemony (e.g. hegemonic stability theory), Weber does not engage with the finer details of IR theory, instead leaving her critique standing as a failure of liberalism. Thus, in discussing Independence Day Weber moves too far into the fictional, almost accepting the film as ‘real’. One wonders whether the film has driven theory here, rather than the other way around. This is problematic insofar as a film studies reading of Independence Day would require an appreciation of Roland Emmerich’s film-making, which is both budget-conscious and focussed on the creation of ‘big’ films, while relying on the use of (then) B-listed actors and a black action hero, Will Smith.

The following chapters vary in their usefulness for the classroom, with either Weber’s film choice or the discussion of theory and film raising questions about the book’s intentions or its appropriateness as an introductory theory text book. The chapter on constructivism, like idealism, features a film which directly transposes IR theory (and practice) onto the screen. Her analysis of both theory and film works well, yet somewhat loses the simplicity of the first chapter (realism) when discussing authorship. The chapters on globalisation, neo-marxism and modernisation discuss very engagingly the core myths and shortcomings of each theory, however, Weber’s choice of films becomes decreasingly helpful as the book progresses: from a fairly straightforward Lord of the Flies, Independence Day and Wag the Dog, it moves to the somewhat obscure and very confusing Memento (neo-marxism) and rather contrived applications of The Truman Show (globalisation) and East is East (modernisation).

The chapter on feminism or gender is particularly surprising, if not disappointing. We learn very little about feminist IR theory and its core myth. Instead, Weber uses criticism of feminism (Adam Jones’ 1996 article on gender as a ‘variable’) and the film Fatal Attraction, which has no overtly IR dimension but focuses on an interpersonal relationship gone wrong, to discuss the relationship of the discipline of IR (in particular of those male academics who inhabit the classical tradition) with feminism. By following this approach, Weber adopts an overly defensive position which does not do feminist IR theory any favour – if only we could find out what that theory entailed. The final section somewhat remedies this by highlighting IR feminism’s critical dimension. Unfortunately, however, at this point any insight about feminism we might have gained through her myth-culture/theory-through-film approach is lost.

Equally disappointing is Chapter 9 – environmentalism – where Weber not only insufficiently distinguishes between environmentalism and ecologism, thereby undermining a dialogue built around the question of consumption, she finds a rather easy target in an unsuspecting Al Gore and his ‘non-academic’ (i.e. made for a different purpose) text (documentary) on climate change. Where Weber could have chosen a less polemic text, be that the Brundtland report, which predated Gore’s paper, or indeed any academic text, her choice means that again the idea of an ‘introduction’ to IR theory slips away into a debate about its reception and production, as well as a refutation of the theory in favour of a distinctly anti-American, anti-liberal approach.

Perhaps the conclusion offers an explanation – or better: reminder – why Weber has chosen this approach. Suddenly her choice of films makes a little more sense: Weber reminds us that her intention is to analyse the production of myths in IR theory and with it the discipline’s culture, its way of ‘doing theory’. This allows for films to be included which merely draw parallels rather than explain or demonstrate IR theory. The conclusion then also explains her anti-American, anti-liberal position, which was so obvious in chapters 3, 6 and 9, as well as her poor defence of feminism. It becomes clear that this is not a general ‘introduction’ which ‘critically’ analyses IR theory, as the title may suggest (be that at the author’s behest or for the expediency of publication demands). This is an introduction of critical theory as a means to read IR theory! Despite this, her ‘critical’ claim that IR theory is problematic because it is typically ethnocentrist, racist, classist and sexist, and most of all North American, is a particular weak one. And this weakness is a problem of her choosing: Weber chose ‘key texts’ from US scholars, ignoring European scholarship, and she chose in the main Hollywood films (exception: Lord of the Flies, East is East).

Seen from this meta-theoretical perspective the book is considerably more enjoyable, interesting and refreshing in its approach. However, it is also here where the book’s greatest flaw lies: One can not dip easily in and out of this book, as one usually does with textbooks. The book needs to be understood in all its complexity and different levels. Thus, while advanced students of IR theory may find Weber’s arguments enjoyable to engage with, first and second year students, i.e. those who find the concept of IR theory and “doing” theory difficult to get their head around, will find that this book is the wrong pick. Considering that this group is the majority and the former only a small minority, the book crowds a niche market. This is regrettable because a guide to using film in the classroom is a great idea!

[1] Northumbria University.

[2] Several teachers have described their use of film in the university classroom but rarely provided the comprehensiveness of Weber’s book, which promises to function as a full syllabus. For accounts of teaching with film see Boyer, Mark A.(2002) “At the movies: a continuing dialogue on the challenges of teaching with film”, International Studies Perspectives 3: 89-94; Kuzma, Lynn M. and Patrick J. Haney (2001) “And…action! Using film to learn about foreign policy” International Studies Perspectives 2: 33-50; Simpson, Archie W. and Bernd Kaussler (2009) “IR teaching reloaded: using films and simulations in the teaching of International Relations” International Studies Perspectives 10: 413-427.

[3] As shown, for example, by the activities of the International Studies Association’s Active Learning group and the pedagogy section of ISA’s journal International Studies Perspectives; see Lantis, Jeffrey S., Lynn M. Kuzma and John Boehrer, eds. (2000) The New International Studies Classroom. Active Teaching, Active Learning, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[4] Task authenticity is usually described along three dimensions relating to the nature of the problem (e.g. open-ended, varied) and their relevance to ‘real life’ in terms of everyday experience or academic and professional tasks (e.g. journalistic writing, negotiations), see Herrington, Jan; Thomas C. Reeves and Ron Oliver (2006) “Authentic tasks online: a synergy among learner, task, and technology”. Distance Education 27 (2): 233-247; Kreber, Carolin, et al. (2007) “What do you mean by ‘authentic? A comparative review of the literature on conceptions of authenticity in teaching” Adult Education Quarterly 58 (1): 22-43; ten Berge, Hanne; Stephan Ramaekers and Albert Pilot (2004) The design of authentic tasks that promote higher-order learning, Paper presented at the EARLI-SIG Higher Education/IKIT conference, 18-21 June.

[5] see Hiebert, J. “Problem solving as a basis for reform in curriculum and instruction: the case of mathematics” and Wolf, A. “Outcomes, competencies and trainee-centred learning: the gap between rhetoric and reality” in Patricia Murphy, ed. (1999) Learners, Learning & Assessment, London, Paul Chapman Publishing.

Review by Matthew Johnson[1]

In many respects, I am a fairly unsuitable reviewer for the third edition of Cynthia Weber’s International Relations Theory, having never studied the subject. As such, I shall not (because I would not properly be able to) focus on examination of the accuracy and cogency of the accounts of the various theories outlined in the book. Rather, given that this is intended as an introduction to the field, I shall focus on its pedagogical value to those, particularly postgraduate seminar leaders/tutors, teaching IR theory at an early stage of their careers.

My only experience of IR theory came whilst teaching the MA module Advanced International Studies at the University of Queensland. This conceptual and theoretical course focused on such things as examination of Wight’s ‘three Rs’ of IR as well as certain ‘critical’, often anti-foundationalist, approaches. What I required while teaching was an ‘idiot’s guide’ to the field by which to elevate my pedagogical effort slightly above the ‘flying by the seat of one’s pants’ level. While there are plenty of texts (the ubiquitous Baylis and Smith’s Globalisation of World Politics, for example) which outline the basics of the caricatured and simplified versions of realism, liberal institutionalism, Marxism the neo-neo debate and certain aspects of vulgar constructivism, it seemed that there were few which sought systematically to deconstruct the various approaches and even fewer succinct, tangible and comprehensible accounts of ‘critical’ approaches – particularly of the post-structuralist variety.

Given the widespread enthusiasm for post-structuralist or post-modern thought in IR, I found it strange that there were so few clear accounts of these paradigms in particular. This may be, in part, due to the incomprehensible style of certain primary texts and the ham-fisted efforts made to demonstrate their applicability to international relations. However, I was also often left with the distinct feeling that poststructuralist or postmodernist IR theorists, in particular, wish to develop an aura of sophistication by maintaining bizarre and unnecessary levels of abstraction, by creating new and esoteric terms, and by arguing through ever increasingly pretentious forms of analogy. Having read the summary of Cynthia Weber’s International Relations Theory, I was extremely optimistic that I would find a textbook which would offer systematic critique of the core concepts, issues and debates within IR theory as well as clear examination of, at the least, postmodern approaches.

International Relations Theory begins with the post-structuralist premise that ‘If the world is made up of “facts” and stories organise those “facts”, then there is no more important skill to pass on to students than to make them better readers and writers of stories, better interpreters of not just “the facts” but of the organisation of “the facts”’ (p. xxii). In order to achieve this aim in each chapter, Weber first outlines the nature of the ‘myth’, selecting ‘a classic IR text that uses the myth’, situating ‘the IR text in its particular IR tradition (like realism or idealism)’, summarising ‘the text’ and, finally, exploring ‘how the IR text makes use of the IR myth’. She then examines the functioning of the myth by selecting a ‘film that illustrates the myth function in a particular IR myth’, summarising ‘the film’ and then relating ‘the film to the IR myth’ asking how the film makes ‘sense of the world’ and what the film says ‘is typical and deviant in that world’. Her focus on film is driven by a desire to use cultural contrast (‘the world the film presents is not “our” world, for we do not occupy this cinemascape’) and reflexivity in order to enable students to examine the functioning of apparent truths. Having examined each paradigm, Weber asks, in the conclusion, ‘What does this critical analysis of the myth function in IR theory tell us about IR theory culturally, ideologically, and popularly?’ focusing on how ‘IR theory make[s] sense of the world’ and what ‘IR theory say[s] is typical and deviant in that world’ (pp. 8-10).

The book presents, in essence, a ready made introductory course on IR. The theories are effectively and succinctly expounded, examined and deconstructed. Box summaries of key points and tables outlining different theories’ positions on key issues (see p. 69 on realist, idealist and constructivist accounts of international anarchy) more than match in pedagogical value those in The Globalisation of World Politics. By focusing on intensive examination through a single key text, Weber enables tutors to provide students with tangible and intelligible reading with which they can engage critically in class. The clarity and simplicity of this approach, in particular, makes a mockery of the notion that breadth of reading is essential to comprehension of core claims and tenets. Her short lists of sensible suggested additional reading in each chapter are much more likely to induce comprehension in students than the ridiculously long and esoteric lists found in some module guides.

Her supplementation of intensive reading with allegorical films also does much to challenge the pretension that extensive reading has some miraculous additional value. The films chosen provide students with different – particularly affective – learning styles with precisely the sort of material to aid comprehension and critical, reflexive consideration of a range of cherished tenets. The examination of transcribed dialogue is effective and pertinent and adds much to what can otherwise appear to those practice oriented students enrolled on conceptual or theoretical modules to be dull subject matter. This all combines to make the work of tutors rather easy – should they wish, or be allowed the scope, to follow aspects of Weber’s method in their seminars. Each chapter contains a plethora of stimuli for discussions, debates and role plays.

As for the content, I can say simply that most of the key approaches are represented, along with what might better be described as perspectives on issues, such as globalisation, which arise from certain paradigms (in the case of globalisation liberalism and Marxism). Appropriately included in the third edition is coverage of environmentalism, in which Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is examined partly through the use of WALL-E. Throughout, the content seems, from the perspective of a relative outsider (my work having focused mainly on political theory/philosophy), to be coherent, succinct and accurate. However, while coverage of approaches is extensive there is a glaring omission from the list of those examined – post-structuralism.

For someone who is clearly influenced by post-structuralism and who employs a post-structuralist pedagogical method, it seems almost hypocritical not to subject the approach to examination as a myth. Given that post-structuralism has such contemporary vogue status, and given that it is one of the more difficult approaches for tutors effectively to teach and students accurately to grasp, it is extremely disappointing to find it absent from this third edition. A book which expressly aims to subject IR as a field to deconstruction must necessarily be deficient if a key aspect of the field is left untouched. Indeed, this seems to be part of a wider deficit in post-structuralist works, where every truth is derisorily placed in inverted commas except for the truth of deconstruction. Why is this? One reason is apparent in the following paragraph:

By disrupting the apparent truth of IR myths, opportunities arise for new theories of IR to be written. Yet these, too, will be myths. So why bother interrogating the myth function in IR theory if we will never escape it? The answer to this question is in the question itself. Because we will never escape the myth function in IR theory, we had better interrogate it. We had better prepare ourselves to be the best critical readers of IR myths we possibly can be.  Otherwise, we will just be repeating cherished stories about IR without grasping what makes these stories appear to be true, without appreciating what makes them function. We will be circulating a particular way of making sense of the world without knowing how to make sense of that sense. That would make us look pretty naïve. (p. 8 )

If naivety is the greatest concern for a paradigm then we must examine its claims to ‘critical’ status. Unless there is, at the bottom of things, some conception of the good around which to base critique, then critical inquiry is reduced to aimless nay-saying. What is ‘critical’ about demonstrating, for example, relatively apparent power relations if there is not a conception of the good upon which to regard those relations as harmful? This is the problem faced by Foucauldians who, imbued with a method of analysis, have to import meta-ethics from the inner realms of their (invariably, but not necessarily, broad leftist) intuitions to make sense of the normative implications of their findings. Post-structuralism does not provide us with any meta-ethical device by which to examine power relations and their products. Post-structuralists do not have to become, overnight, Platonic or Aristotelian foundationalists in order to do this. Fellow anti-foundationalists, such pragmatists like Rorty, who view norms as ethnocentric conclusions to particular human conversations, engage fully and consciously in discussions regarding the way in which we should live.

By not subjecting post-structuralism itself to examination, post-structuralists appear to actually accept and, perhaps unconsciously, articulate their own myths as truths – the truth of deconstruction and power-relations. Placing post-structuralism alongside the other ‘mythical’ approaches through examination using Weber’s clear and systematic method would not only aid those teaching and learning IR theory for the first time; it would also enable and demonstrate reflexivity among post-structuralist thinkers.

A final note must also be made regarding the absence of serious consideration of post-modernism. Despite claims on the back and inside covers declaring post-modernism’s inclusion, and despite it being confusingly indexed as the whole chapter on neo-marxism and the whole conclusion, there is no chapter devoted to the approach. As my fellow editor, Mark Edward (who is far more knowledgeable than me on such matters) suggests, a chapter examining Jean-Francois Lyotard’s view (expressed, among other places, in The Postmodern Condition) that post-modernism is an ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’ through the film Bladerunner, may add much to comprehension of this often misconceived approach.

It is due to these omissions that, while the third edition of International Relations Theory is an improvement on the second, it must surely be expanded into a fourth.

[1] Newcastle University. Email:

Review by Andrew Hammond[1]

“To practise criticism”, declared Michel Foucault “is to make harder those acts which are now too easy”.[2] Whether a Foucauldian or not and whether agreeing with this definition or not, an increasing number of International Relations (IR) scholars – often working under the leitmotif ‘critical’ – have attempted to make harder those disciplinary acts – conceptual, methodological, and meta-theoretical – which had hitherto been ‘too easy’ for the rationalist mainstream.  For example, Robert Cox’s seminal article; ‘Social Forces, States and World Order’ questioned the theory/practice, subject/object, fact/value bifurcations posited by much ‘traditional theory’, famously noting that “theory is always for someone and for some purpose”.[3] In ‘The Poverty of Neo-Realism’, meanwhile, Richard Ashley thoroughly problematized Neo-Realism, characterizing it after E.P. Thompson as: ‘“an orrery of errors”, a self-enclosed, self-affirming joint of statist, utilitarian, positivist and structuralist commitments”.[4]

As telegraphed by the title – International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction – Cynthia Weber’s first-rate and innovative textbook, now in its updated and extended third edition, works in this ‘critical’ vein.  It aims to answer the question Weber posed to herself in the original preface: “How could I both stick to the brief of what an introduction to international relations or international relations theory is generally supposed to be while at the same time presenting the IR theories and topics in ways that allow for their genuine critical reconsideration?”[5] Weber’s answer was to use popular movies, a medium where students already had highly developed critical and analytical sensibilities, as a vehicle to look at another medium where they more often than not did not: IR theory.  The use of popular movies, moreover, had the additional purpose of breaking down a common misperception among students that IR theory is a rarefied field of practice, somehow above and beyond politics and culture.  On the contrary for Weber, “IR theory is a site of cultural practice in which conscious and unconscious ideologies are circulated through stories that appear to be true”.[6] For Weber, “If the world is made up of ‘facts’ and stories that organize those ‘facts’ then there is no more important skill to pass on to students than to make them better readers and writers of stories, better interpreters of not just ‘the facts’ but of the organization of ‘the facts’”.[7] Indeed, “analyzing how these transformations from cultural meanings into naturalized facts occur in everyday encounters with IR theory is the purpose of this book”.[8]

For Weber ‘conscious ideologies’ are those stories that we recognize and hold consciously – for example ‘realism’ (or alternatively ‘socialism’).  ‘Unconscious ideologies’, meanwhile, are the “common sense foundation of our worldviews”, stories that are “beyond debate”[9] – or as Weber calls them ‘IR myths’.  These ‘IR myths’ function by making the “particular, cultural, and ideological” appear to be “universal, natural and purely empirical”, they “take the political out of the ideological” – for example Neo-Realism’s slogan ‘international anarchy is the permissive cause of war’ (or alternatively ‘America has a classless society’).[10] In other words, by suspending an interest in the ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ of an IR theory, Weber aims through the medium of film to bring to light the unarticulated assumptions that buttress them.  IR theories, then, rely on ‘IR myths’ to appear to be true; the ‘conscious ideologies’ rely on the ‘unconscious’.  She asks instead, after choosing an IR text emblematic of a particular theoretical approach (e.g. Waltz’s Theory of International Politics),[11] how does this ‘IR theory make sense of the world?’ and ‘what does IR theory say is typical and deviant in that world’?

After outlining her problematic in the preface and introduction, this schema is applied to relate the following movies to the following IR theories in an accessible, engaging, yet challenging way: Lord of the Flies to Realism; Independence Day to Idealism; Wag the Dog to Constructivism; Fatal Attraction to Gender; The Truman Show to Globalization; Memento to Neo-Marxism; East is East to Modernization and Development Theory; and, Wall-E to Environmentalism.  The respective ‘IR myths’, meanwhile, are: ‘international anarchy is the permissive cause of war’ for Realism; ‘there is an international society’ for Idealism; ‘anarchy is what states make it’ for Constructivism; ‘gender is a variable’ for Gender; ‘it is the end of history’ for Globalization; ‘Empire is the new world order’ for Neo-Marxism; ‘there is a clash of civilizations’ for Modernization and Development Theory; and finally, ‘human made climate change is an inconvenient truth’ for Environmentalism.  The analysis is brought together in the conclusion and there are also excellent suggestions for further reading at the end of the eight substantive chapters.

All in all Weber’s book is an excellent antidote to what Paulo Freire called ‘narration sickness’; where a passive patient imbibes the IR theory that is prescribed by a narrating all knowing subject and where “the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filling and storing the deposits”.[12] Readers are encouraged to question the world around them, to break through the “crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness”,[13] and to think critically about IR theory and world politics: in other words to ‘make harder’ that which is now ‘too easy’.  Indeed, I know this from personal experience; as a second year undergraduate I utilized the critical thinking techniques I encountered in a previous edition to interrogate the US National Security Strategy 2002 and to unpack the notions of American exceptionalism embedded therein.  The book also facilitates an accessible first engagement with the important role culture, the ideational, and subjectivity play in world politics.  On the whole, then, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction is a thought-provoking textbook that deserves a wide readership at the undergraduate level and beyond.

By way of conclusion, however, I would like to raise a number of issues that my close engagement with various editions of the text have necessitated.  Firstly, and most obviously, it seems that a stand-alone chapter on post-structuralism/post-modernism is a glaring omission; especially as it is an approach with an increasing number of adherents, particularly among UK based postgraduate students and early career scholars.  I also kept thinking, would it not be really interesting, if not to say balanced, if post-structuralism/post-modernism were subjected to the same insightful analysis as the other theories/approaches:[14] a text is chosen, situated, summarized, interrogated for unconscious ideologies, related to a film to see how the myth functions, and finally asked the following questions, ‘how is sense made of the world?’ and ‘what is typical and deviant in that world’?  Perhaps this is testament to Professor Weber helping me become a better reader and interpreter of stories, but I kept thinking what is “deferred” and “displaced” in this text and within post-structuralism/post-modernism in general?[15] Surely post-structuralism/post-modernism is a ‘story’ too, told in “cultural sites” where “political struggles take place?”,[16] and therefore amenable to the same type of analysis?  While post-structuralism/post-modernism is favourably mentioned several times,[17] it never receives any sustained analysis.  Indeed, on the whole, even for someone who utilizes post-structuralist insights in his own work, post-structuralism/post-modernism seems to get rather an easy ride.  This leads on to a final and relatively minor sub-point, post-structuralism and post-modernism are used interchangeably throughout the text.  However, in an undergraduate text of this nature it could be worth drawing attention to the fact that they are problematic terms – as Foucault sardonically noted “What are we calling postmodernity?  I’m not up to date?”[18] – and that for some authors they might not be seen to be coterminous or synonymous with one another, particularly out with IR.[19]

Secondly, it seems that constructivism is not adequately or accurately represented by Wendtian constructivism or by his single seminal article ‘Anarchy is What States Make It’.[20] While Weber notes that “several theorists have adopted and adapted constructivism” since Onuf’s path-breaking World of Our Making;[21] a, if not the, major bifurcation within constructivism that is elided in International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction is that between conventional and critical constructivists.  For example, the latter would accept Weber’s criticisms of the conventional approach and of Wendt: state reification limited constructivism, and the missed “opportunity to restore a broad focus on process and practice”.[22] In contradistinction, they problematize language and look at narratives, framing, history, culture, and identity to highlight contingency and the struggle for control over meaning.[23] Indeed, it seems that post-structuralism/post-modernism comes off best in a rather one-sided encounter with a particularly narrow reading of Constructivism.  It could also be argued that this is true of the chapter on Neo-Marxism too: for example, “as we saw in chapter 7, Hardt and Negri’s myth ‘Empire is the new world order’ must exclude by selectively remembering what postmodern theorists say about ontology/agency and resistance in order to appear to be true”.[24].

Thirdly, Adam Jones article ‘Does gender make the World Go Round: Feminist Critiques of International Relations’ seems to sit rather awkwardly in the chapter on Gender given that it is more of a critique of feminism than an espousal or elaboration of it.  While I would agree with Weber’s critique of Jones – where gender is taken implicitly and rather curiously – to be a ‘variable’; one can’t help but think that something is being ‘deferred’ and ‘displaced’ in choosing Jones who on the whole is pretty marginal within gender/feminist IR literatures.  For example, surely Cynthia Enloe’s landmark Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of World Politics would have made a much better, if more uncomfortable, choice for this chapter.[25] On the whole the impression is left that Weber has shied away from problematizing the conditions of her own claims.

Finally, Weber rightly critiques the “ethnocentric, racist, classist, sexist” biases of mainstream IR.[26] However, while noting that “alternative approaches to international politics depend on their own mythologized understandings of the world”[27] this point is never fully elaborated – particularly apropos post-structuralism/post-modernism – and alternative ‘critical’ approaches are not fully critiqued with reference to the aforementioned inter-sectional social cleavages.  For example, it seems to me that given the way the whole political economy of education plays out most scholars who label themselves critical, although of course not all, come from relatively privileged social groups – call them classes, class fractions, socio-economic quintiles whatever – and in turn from the privileged core of the global system.  This point it seems is rarely raised or problematized in much, although again not all, of the critical literature.[28] Weber rightly notes that “an author’s own subject position does not doom him or her to write from that position alone”.[29] However, one cannot help but wonder what questions would be asked, what answers would be given and what theories/approaches would be constructed and adopted if those in the most disadvantaged positions vis-à-vis the global political economy – whether at the national or systemic level –  were given a ‘critical’ voice: which raises the following questions – whose IR? whose theory?

[1] Andrew Hammond is an ESRC funded PhD candidate at Warwick University whose thesis looks at US foreign and security policy towards Afghanistan.  E-mail:

[2] Michel Foucault, “So is it important to think?” In J. Faubion (ed.). Power The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Three. New York: New Press, p. 456.

[3] Robert W. Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Order’, Millennium, 10/2 (1981), p.128

[4] Richard K. Ashley, ‘The Poverty of Neo-Realism’, International Organization, 38/2 (1984), pp.225-286.

[5] Cynthia Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction (Third Edition) (London: Routledge, 2010), xxi.

[6] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 6.

[7] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, xxii.

[8] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 7.

[9] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 5.

[10] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 6-7.

[11] Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1979).

[12] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter 2,1970,

(, 17 May 2010).

[13] John Dewey quoted in Maxine Green, ‘Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times’, The Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism & Practice, 1/1 (1997),

(, 17 May 2010).

[14] It is recognized that most post-structuralists/post-modernists would not see it as an overarching theory of international politics like, say, Neo-Realism.  However, neither would most constructivists upon whom there is a chapter: see, Emmanuel Adler, ‘Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics’, European Journal of International Relations’, 3 (1997), 323; Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, ‘Taking Stock: The Constructivist Research Program in International Politics and Comparative Politics’, Annual Review of Political Science, 4 (2001), 393.

[15] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 224.

[16] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 228.

[17] For example, see Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 81-82, 155-6.

[18] Quoted in David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Manchester: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 271.

[19] For example, as used in David West’s, An Introduction to Continental Philosophy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997).

[20] Alexander Wendt, ‘Anarchy is What States Make it: The Social Construction of Power Politics’, International Organization, 46 (1992), 391-425.

[21] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 81.

[22] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 80.

[23] See for example: Matt McDonald and Matt Merefield, ‘How Was Howard’s War Possible?: The War of Position Over Iraq’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 64 (2010), 186-204; Jutta Weldes, Mark Laffey, Hugh Gusterson, and Raymond Duvall, ‘Introduction: Constructing Insecurity’, in Jutta Weldes, Mark Laffey, Hugh Gusterson, and Raymond Duvall, eds., Cultures of Insecurity: States, Communities and the Production of Danger (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Jutta Weldes, ‘Constructing National Interests’, European Journal of International Relations, 2 (1996), 275-318;

[24] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 222.

[25] Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

[26] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 221.

[27] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 222.

[28] See John M. Hobson ‘Is Critical Theory Always for the White West and for Western Imperialism? Beyond Westphilian Towards a Post-racist Critical IR’, Review of International Studies, 33 (2007), 33, 91–116.

[29] Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 221.

Author’s Reply by Cynthia Weber

Every project emerges from with an historical context.  International Relations Theory:  A Critical Introduction is no exception.  Two particular contexts defined my approach to writing this textbook.  One was that I had just received tenure at a major US research university, which meant I had job security and, with that, a measure of academic freedom that I had never experienced as an Assistant Professor.  While there were many ways to exercise my academic freedom through my research, there were far fewer ways to exercise it through my teaching, notwithstanding the often vast control I as a US-practicing academic had over what I presented in the classroom.  This is for several reasons.

One reason is that academics are still asked to deliver standard knowledge and skill sets to students on standard introductory courses.  So, for example, if you are asked to teach ‘Introduction to International Relations Theory’, university and student expectations are that students will be taught about Neorealism, Neoidealism, Constructivism, etc.  A second constraint is that class sizes are extremely large in the US, generally ranging from 100-400 students in each classroom with no supporting seminars.  Therefore, you have to find a way to engage large groups of students through the lecture format, which is not always an easy thing to do.  A third constraint is that students expect to be assigned a textbook that neatly sums up the main arguments of the course.  And a final constraint is that, whether you have tenure or not, you will still be teaching the same student body.  These students are bright and inquisitive, but they generally don’t follow the news (much less the international news), don’t read widely beyond classroom assignments, and don’t think IR theory does or should have anything to do with their daily lives.

All this presented a problem:  How could I exercise my academic freedom in the classroom in the case of such material constraints – constraints that define the US system and that (in light of current plans to reorganize UK academia) are coming to define the UK system as well?  I wasn’t at all sure how to answer this question.  But I decided to tackle it by thinking from scratch what it might look like to teach a course in IR Theory.  And where I started my rethinking was by asking myself what my students already knew, what my students skills already were, and how I might mobilizes these knowledges and skills to get my students to think critically about IR Theory inside and outside of the classroom.

I concluded that my students already knew quite a lot of IR Theory because IR Theory was constantly being presented to them through popular culture,  albeit as if it weren’t IR Theory at all.  I realized that my students brought their abilities to read and critique popular films both visually and narratively to the classroom.  And I decided that my challenge as a teacher would be  to mobilize these knowledges and skills into a critical dialogue with the more mundane exposition of IR theories that are the backbone of any IR Theory course. I also concluded that the best way to do this was to give students one key idea from each IR theory that they could easily grasp and therefore hopefully hold onto (e.g., the Neorealist idea that international anarchy is the permissive cause of war, the Neoidealist idea that there is an international society, the Wendtian constructivist idea that anarchy is what states make of it).  I did not mean to suggest that this was the only relevant idea from each of these theories, but that it was a starting place from which students could begin to learn about IR theories.  This would give them a point of access into upper-level IR Theory classes which would necessarily complicate these key ideas.

As I identified these ideas, I began to think of them as IR myths – not as statements that are true or false, but as statements that appear to be true so much so that IR theorists and practitioners engage with them as if they are facts.  What interested me – and what I wanted my students to understand – is that there was nothing natural about these IR myths.  Rather, I wanted them to understand the huge amount of cultural work – both within the discipline of IR and within public culture more generally – that goes into naturalizing these IR myths into ‘just the way the world is’.  To help my students understand precisely how this works, I decided pair each of these IR myths with a popular film that could do two things – illustrate what the IR myth said and then serve as a vehicle through which to critique how the IR myth functioned (e.g., Lord of the Flies, Independence Day, and Wag the Dog respectively).

Because I was teaching US students, I had to find them a textbook to support their classroom work.  But there wasn’t such a textbook.  Yes, Robert W. Gregg’s book International Relations on Film was available then, but this book used films only to illustration IR themes and concept, not critique them.  And it wasn’t a book about IR Theory as such.  I needed a textbook that was about IR Theory and that I could use to help develop my students analytical and critical skills.  Even when I looked at the more traditional IR textbooks at the time – those that strove to comprehensively survey the discipline theoretically and thematically like Charles W. Kegley, Jr. and Eugene R. Wittkopf’s World Politics:  Trends and Transformations or Joshua S. Goldstein’s  International Relations – what I found was these textbooks did not promote an analytical much less critical engagement with most IR theories.  And so eventually, I wrote the textbook I needed, which my publisher grandly entitled  IR Theory:  A Critical Introduction.  Like my course, the textbook explores IR myths through popular films as a way to illustrate and critique IR theory and the discipline of IR.

As the reviewers here rightly point out, this textbook  is far from perfect.  It is partial in that it critiques only those IR myths that have come to be adopted by many in the so-called mainstream as true, like  Neorealism and Neoidealism, while neglecting to critique those IR myths that the mainstream has yet to accept (or accept in the form that their advocates promote), like poststructuralism or feminism.  In so doing, the reviewers regard this textbook as ‘political’ because of the choices it makes about inclusion, exclusion, and (its lack of) self-critique (as I am someone who uses poststructuralism and feminism in my work).

These are fair criticisms, but for me they are tempered by another historical context that defined my approach to writing the first edition of this textbook.  This is that in the 1990s, Kenneth Waltz’ Neorealism still defined the mainstream of the discipline of International Relations, while contenders like Charles Kegley’s Neoidealism and Alex Wendt’s Constructivism were on the rise.  And while other traditions like poststructuralism and feminism challenged Neorealism, these traditions were usually either shunned or ridiculed by the mainstream, even if selected aspects of them were disciplined and incorporated into mainstream debates.  What this means is that at the time I was first writing this textbook, there were ample critiques available of poststructuralism and feminism, and there was no sustained undergraduate textbook that critiqued IR Theory from a poststructuralist and feminist point of view.  Later editions of the textbook carry this historical legacy within them, without ever suggesting that poststructuralism and feminism do not rely upon their own myths.  So, yes, I made a political choice in writing the textbook in this way.  Yet I have to say that I always find it worth remarking that when one writes from a perspective that is outside of the mainstream, it is marked by IR theorists as ‘political’.  Yet if one writes from a mainstream perspective, it is marked by IR theorists as ‘neutral’ or ‘balanced’.  Taking on how ‘natural’ those demarcations appear to be was one of the (political) points of my textbook.

To me, though, the most political choice I made in writing this textbook was to argue – and indeed to demonstrate how – popular films are a powerful form and forum through which IR myths are circulated and made palatable to the general public.  This move is important because it has the potential to effect three changes in relation to IR.  First, it might affect what counts as ‘doing IR’ vs. being beyond the pale of IR by deconstructing the ‘high theory’/’low culture’ dichotomy.  Second, it might change what counts as good pedagogical practice in the classroom, by foregrounding what is usually excluded from IR Theory as the main event.  And third (and as a result), it might change the relationships of powers between undergraduate students of IR and their professors because it demands that professors recognize that their students are probably more highly knowledgeable about and skilled in reading popular expressions of IR Theory in popular films than they are.

What this means is that this textbook was written to be dialogical rather than monological, as it requires IR Theory (and the IR professors teaching it) and popular culture (and the IR Theory students who grasp it and work with it so well critically) to always be in a conversation about what IR theories mean and do, what popular cultural expressions like popular films mean and do, what the discipline of IR means and does, especially when reconsidered through popular films, and even what this textbook means and does.  In so doing, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction attempts to place the ‘critical’ of IR Theory not only within IR Theory or within popular films, but in the pedagogical encounters between students and professors.  For all its flaws, this I believe is the textbook’s practical pedagogical achievement, and this is the reason I keep revising it edition after edition.


Robert W. Gregg (1989) International Relations on Film.  Boulder, CO:  Lynne Reiner.

Kegley, Charles W. Jr. and Eugene R. Wittkopf (2005) World Politics: Trends and Transformations, 10th edition.  Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth Publishing.

Joshua S. Goldstein (2007) International Relations. London:  Longman.

Cynthia Weber (2009) International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 3rd edition. London:  Routledge.