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Beyond Arabism vs. sovereignty: relocating ideas in the international relations of the Middle East

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2011

Abstract

This article critiques constructivist approaches to the international relations of the Middle East and sets out an alternative interpretation of the role of ideas based on political economy and the sociology of knowledge. It cautions against using constructivism as a way of ‘building bridges’ between IR and Middle East Studies and disputes the claim that the norms of ‘Arabism’ as a putative regional identity are in contradiction with those of sovereignty. The article shows that this assumption is based on the combined influences of modernisation theory and Orientalist assumptions about the power and continuity of regional culture that have persisted in Middle East IR. This is despite the fact that there is no reason to believe the Arabs constitute a more ‘natural’ nation than do the Syrians, Iraqis or Egyptians. The political role and resonance of ideas can be better established by viewing the modern history of the Middle East in terms of domestic structure and social change, and in particular emphasising the role of rising middle classes in revolutionary nationalist movements. The findings of this article raise questions for the utility of ‘moderate’ constructivist interpretations of International Relations as a whole.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2011

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References

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11 Ibid., p. 46.

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20 The regionalist approach – not just to the Middle East but for IR in general – was formally and theoretically enshrined by political scientists like Leonard Binder, as well as Louis Cantori and Michael Brecher. For a good discussion of this literature see Gerges, Fawaz A., The Superpowersand the Middle East: Regional and International Politics, 1955–1967 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 417Google Scholar .

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23 Some, such as Rashid Khalidi, continue to bemoan the ‘wheel and spoke’ approach to the historiography of the Middle East. (Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World Annual Lecture, University of Manchester, 23 October 2009).

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26 Ibid., pp. 5–9. F. Gregory Gause III has also criticised Brown for his vague selection criteria in ‘Systemic Approaches to Middle East International Relations’, International Studies Review, 1:1 (1999), pp. 1131CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

27 Fred Halliday has described these rules as ‘either generic to politics the world over or based on questionable assumptions of historic continuity’, though to be fair to Brown it is the combination of the seven rules he asserts is unique. Halliday, , The Middle East in International Relations, p. 24, fn. 8Google Scholar .

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29 Ibid., pp. 233–5.

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36 Constructivist frameworks should, moreover, be universally applicable and not ‘particularly relevant’ to the Middle East. Hinnebusch stops short of wholehearted support for constructivism by arguing it must be supplemented with ‘structuralist accounts of material constraints’. But such theoretical eclecticism seems unnecessary when structuralism alone would have no problem incorporating ideas as a variable in this way: few followers of Marx or Waltz would object to the notion that ideas are significant, but only within the constraints imposed by the material world or international system. See The international politics of the Middle East (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003)Google Scholar .

37 This internal and external differentiation, and attendant Eurocentrism, has been noted with respect to general constructivist works treating identities and norms, which carry similar biases: ‘good’ norms such as human rights and respect for sovereignty originate in the West. See Finnemore, Martha and Sikkink, Kathryn, ‘Taking Stock: The Constructivist Research Program in International Relations and Comparative Politics’, Annual Revue of Political Science, 4 (2001), pp. 391416CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

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40 Ibid., p. 4.

41 Ibid.

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43 Cited in Keohane, R. O. and Goldstein, J. ‘Ideas and Foreign Policy: An Analytical Framework’, in Keohane, R. and Goldstein, J. (eds), Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions, and Political Change (London: Cornell University Press, 1993)Google Scholar .

44 Ibid., p. 9.

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54 Ibid., pp. 14–15.

55 The authors Barnett cites to substantiate his point here are Avraham Sela, F. Gregory Gause III, Rex Brynen, Amatzia Baram, and Albert Hourani.

56 Barnett, , Dialogues, pp. 5583Google Scholar .

57 Ibid., p. 120.

58 Ibid., emphasis added.

59 Ibid., p. 10.

60 Ibid., p. 238.

61 Ibid., p. 135.

62 Ibid., p. 137.

63 Ibid., p. 13.

64 Telhami, and Barnett, , Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, p. 13Google Scholar .

65 Mannheim, K., Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960)Google Scholar . Fred Halliday was also in favour of taking Mannheim seriously, though for different reasons. Halliday's concern was to rehabilitate Orientalist research after the Saidian onslaught from the 1980s. Mannheim, he argued, showed that ideas did not lose there validity on account of their provenance. See ‘“Orientalism” and its Critics’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 20:2 (1993), p. 159Google Scholar .

66 Carr, E. H. and Cox, M., The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001)Google Scholar , II. For a cogent analysis of Carr's debt to, and modification of, Mannheim's sociology of knowledge see Jones, Charles, ‘Carr, Mannheim, and a Post-Positivist Science of International Relations’, Political Studies, 45:2 (1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

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68 Mannheim, , Ideology and Utopia, p. 31Google Scholar . The question of intellectuals, in particular Mannheim's conception of a ‘free’ or ‘classless’ intelligentsia that collectively synthesises the ideas of society's contending classes, is a complex one that cannot be explored here. Mannheim differs sharply here with an otherwise similar sociologist of intellectuals, Antonio Gramsci, for whom intellectuals remain class-bound and ideology in the modern state is ‘bourgeois’ ideology. For a discussion of the sociology of intellectuals, see Baud, Michiel and Rutten, Rosanne, ‘Introduction’, in Baud, Michiel and Rutten, Rosanne (eds), Popular Intellectuals and Social Movements: Framing Protest in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2004)Google Scholar .

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89 See Mitchell, Richard P., The Society of the Muslim Brothers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 264Google Scholar .

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103 Mitchell, ‘the Middle East in the Past and Future of Social Science’.

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