|International relations theory|
In international relations theory, the Great Debates refer to a series of disagreements between international relations scholars. Ashworth describes how the discipline of international relations has been heavily influenced by historical narratives and that "no single idea has been more influential" than the notion that there was a debate between utopian and realist thinking.
The "First Great Debate" also known as the "Realist-Idealist Great Debate" was a dispute between idealists and realists which took place in the 1930s and 1940s and which was fundamentally about how to deal with Nazi Germany. Realist scholars emphasized the anarchical nature of international politics and the need for state survival. Idealists emphasized the possibility of international institutions such as the League of Nations. However, some have argued that defining the debate between realism and idealism in terms of a great debate is a misleading caricature and so described the "great debate" as a myth.
According to revisionist narrative, there was never a single 'great debate' between idealism and realism. Lucian M. Ashworth argues, the persistence of the notion that there was a real debate between idealism and realism, says less about the actual discussions of the time, and more about the marginalisation of liberal and normative thinking in the international relations in the post-war period. Richard Devetak wrote in his international relations textbook:
The structure of Carr’s masterpiece revolves around the dichotomy between realism and liberalism. In fact, he helped create the impression that the newly established discipline was dominated by a debate between realism and liberalism. This subsequently became known as the ‘first great debate’, although – as Andreas Osiander (1998), Peter Wilson (1998), Lucian Ashworth (1999), and Quirk and Vigneswaran (2005) have shown – no debate actually occurred, if by that we mean a series of exchanges between realists and liberals. Indeed, recent work suggests that the very idea of narrating the discipline’s history as a series of ‘great debates’ is questionable. Even so, it is important for students to learn and appreciate the stories the discipline has told about itself, which is why I persist with the narrative.
The "Second Great Debate" was a dispute between "scientific IR" scholars who sought to refine scientific methods of inquiry in international relations theory and those who insisted on a more historicist/interpretative approach to international relations theory. The debate is termed "realists versus behaviourists" or "traditionalism versus scientism". This debate would be resolved when neorealists such as Kenneth Waltz (1959, 1979) adopt a Behaviouralist, and hence positivist scientific approach to their studies.
Sometimes the inter-paradigm debate is considered to be a great debate and is therefore referred to as the "Third Great Debate". The inter-paradigm debate was a debate between liberalism, realism and radical international relations theories. The debate has also been described as being between realism, institutionalism and structuralism.
The "Fourth Great Debate" was a debate between positivist theories and post-positivist theories of international relations. Confusingly, it is often described in literature as "The Third Great Debate" by those who reject the description of the inter-paradigm debate as a Great Debate. This debate is concerned with the underlying epistemology of international relations scholarship and is also described as a debate between "rationalists" and "reflectivists". The debate was started by Robert Keohane in an International Studies Association debate in 1988 and can be considered an epistemological debate, about how we can know 'things' rather than an ontological one, that is to say a debate about what we can claim to know. As Balzacq and Baele summarize, this debate is "a discussion which, in the 1980s and 1990s, followed a composite claim for a more diverse, less epistemologically and ontologically naïve, and more critical IR".
Brown remarking on the possibility of a "Fifth Great Debate" has suggested that the debate could concern critical realism but goes on to say 'let us hope not, because the first four great debates were singularly pointless affairs, and the fifth, when it arrives, is unlikely to be any different. Steve Smith argues that 'it is difficult to find any notion of a "fifth great debate" in the literature.
Steve Smith has argued that the differing positions have largely ignored each other meaning that it makes little sense to talk of 'debates' between rival theoretical frameworks. Emmanuel Navon has argued that the three debates are a sham since there is nothing new about debating human nature and human knowledge, while the 'third debate' artificially imports the deconstructionist French fad into the study of International Relations.