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

  • EWAN STEIN
Abstract
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.

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1 Halliday Fred, The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) ; Halliday Fred, ‘The Middle East and Conceptions of International Society’, in Buzan Barry and Gonzalez-Pelaez Ana (eds), International Society and the Middle East: English School Theory at the Regional Level (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) .

2 Abu Lughod Leila, ‘Anthropology's Orient: The Boundaries of Theory on the Arab World’, in Sharabi Hisham (ed.), Theory, Politics and the Arab World (Routledge, 1991) ; Mitchell Timothy, ‘The Middle East in the Past and Future of Social Science’, GAIA (2003) , available at: {http://escholarship.org/uc/item/3618c31x}.

3 For a concise discussion of arguments for and against Middle Eastern exceptionalism see Bromley Simon, Rethinking Middle East Politics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), pp. 8689 .

4 Carl Brown L., International Politics and the Middle East: Old Rules, Dangerous Game (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984) ; Diplomacy in the Middle East: The International Relations of Regional and Outside Powers, new ed. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004) .

5 Lustick Ian S., ‘The Absence of Middle Eastern Great Powers: Political “Backwardness” in Historical Perspective’, International Organization, 51:4 (1997), pp. 653683 .

6 Hinnebusch Raymond, ‘The Politics of Identity in Middle East International Relations’, in Fawcett Louise (ed.), International Relations of the Middle East, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 151 . For a similar perspective see two articles by Gregory Gause III F., ‘Balancing What? Threat Perception and Alliance Choice in the Gulf’, Security Studies, 13:2 (Winter 2003),pp. 273305 ; and ‘Sovereignty, Statecraft and Stability in the Middle East’, Journal of International Affairs, 45:2 (1992), pp. 441469 . Also, Valbjørn Morton, ‘Arab Nationalism(s) in Transformation: From Arab Interstate Societies to an Arab-Islamic World Society’, in Buzan Barry and Gonzalez-Pelaez Ana (eds), International Society and the Middle East: English School Theory at the Regional Level (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) .

7 Valbjørn Morton, ‘The Meeting of the Twain: Bridging the Gap between International Relations and Middle East Studies’, Cooperation and Conflict, 38 (2003), pp. 163173 .

8 Teti Andrea, ‘Bridging the Gap: IR, Middle East Studies and the Disciplinary Politics of the Area Studies Controversy’, European Journal of International Relations, 13 (2007), pp. 117143 .

9 Jepperson Ronald L., Wendt Alexander, and Katzenstein Peter, ‘Norms, Identity and Culture in National Security’, in Katzenstein Peter (ed.), The Culture of National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), pp. 4559 .

10 Ibid., p. 45.

11 Ibid., p. 46.

12 See, for example, Tan Seng, ‘Rescuing Constructivism from the Constructivists: a Critical Reading of Constructivist Interventions in Southeast Asian Security’, The Pacific Review, 19:2 (2006), pp. 239260 .

13 Pasha Mustapha Kamal, ‘Fractured Worlds: Islam, Identity, and International Relations’, Global Society, 17:2 (2003), pp. 111120 .

14 The classic in this vein, and Barnett's main foil, is Walt Stephen, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987) .

15 Barnett Michael, Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 4 .

16 Mitchell, ‘The Middle East in the Past and Future of Social Science’, p. 7.

17 Said Edward W., Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978) .

18 Mitchell, ‘The Middle East in the Past and Future of Social Science’, p. 5.

19 For one interpretation of that revolution's regional effects see Nahas Maridi, ‘State-Systems and Revolutionary Challenge: Nasser, Khomeini, and the Middle East’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 17:4 (November 1985), pp. 507527 .

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. 417 .

21 Binder L.The Ideological Revolution in the Middle East (New York and London: Wiley, 1964), p. 264 .

22 Ibid., pp. 264–7.

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).

24 Kerr Malcolm H., The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abd Al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958–1970, 3rd ed. (London: Published for the Royal Institute of International Affairs by Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 1 .

25 Brown, International Politics and the Middle East.

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. 1131 .

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. 8 .

28 Brown , International Politics and the Middle East, p. 18 .

29 Ibid., pp. 233–5.

30 Guzzini Stefano, ‘The Concept of Power: a Constructivist Analysis’, Millenium – Journal of International Studies, 33 (2003), pp. 495522 .

31 Nye Joseph S., Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990) .

32 Nye Joseph S., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, 1st ed. (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), p. 96 .

33 Korany Bahgat, ‘International Relations Theory: Contributions from Research in the Middle East’, in Tessler Mark A., Nachtwey Jodi, and Banda Anne (eds), Area Studies and Social Science: Strategies for Understanding Middle East Politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999) ; Valbjørn, ‘The Meeting of the Twain: Bridging the Gap between International Relations and Middle East Studies’; Teti, ‘Bridging the Gap: IR, Middle East Studies and the Disciplinary Politics of the Area Studies Controversy’.

34 Fawcett Louise, ‘Alliances, Cooperation and Regionalism in the Middle East’, in Fawcett Louise (ed.), International Relations of the Middle East, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 176 .

35 Hinnebusch, ‘The Politics of Identity in Middle East International Relations’, p. 160.

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) .

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. 391416 .

38 Lerner Daniel, The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East (Glencoe, Ill: Free Press, 1958) .

39 Hudson Michael C., Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) .

40 Ibid., p. 4.

41 Ibid.

42 See, for example, Tipps Dean, ‘Modernization Theory and the Comparative Study of Societies: A Critical Perspective’, Comparative Studies in History and Society, 15 (1973), pp. 199226 .

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) .

44 Ibid., p. 9.

45 Holsti K. J., The State, War, and the State of War (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) ; Buzan Barry and Wæver Ole, Regions and Powers: the Structure of International Security (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) .

46 Reus-Smit Christian, ‘The Idea of History and History with Ideas’, in Hobden Stephen and Hobson John M. (eds), Historical Sociology of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 124 .

47 Telhami S. and Barnett M. N.Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), p. 12 .

48 Hudson , Arab Politics, p. 2 .

49 Michael Barnett himself has rightly observed that ‘constructivists have incorporated domestic variables in either an ad hoc way or by reference to institutional theories’, without any ‘rigorous theories of state-society relations’. ‘Historical Sociology and Constructivism: an Estranged Past, a Federated Future?’, in Hobden Stephen and Hobson John M. (eds), Historical Sociology of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 104 .

50 See, for example, the section on the Middle East in Buzan and Waever, Regions and Powers. See also, Snyder Jack, ‘Empire: a blunt tool for democratization’, Daedalus, 134:2 (Spring 2005) .

51 See, in addition to examples previously referenced, Podeh Elie, ‘To Unite or Not to Unite – That is Not the Question: the 1963 Tripartite Unity Talks Reassessed’, Middle Eastern Studies, 39:1 (January 2003), pp. 150185 . This highly empirical article uses Barnett's contributions as an organising framework.

52 Barnett Michael, ‘Institutions, Roles, and Disorder: The Case of the Arab States System’, International Studies Quarterly, 37 (1993), pp. 271296 ; ‘Sovereignty, Nationalism, and Regional Order in the Arab States System’, International Organization, 49:3 (1995), pp. 479510 ; ‘Identity and Alliances in the Middle East’, in Katzenstein Peter (ed.), The Culture of National Security (1996) .

53 Barnett , Dialogues, p. 5

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. 5583 .

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. 13 .

65 Mannheim K., Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960) . 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. 159 .

66 Carr E. H. and Cox M., The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001) , 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) .

67 Carr , The Twenty Years’ Crisis, p. 66 .

68 Mannheim , Ideology and Utopia, p. 31 . 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) .

69 For an historical discussion of this process around the world, as well as an argument for the distinctive role of the ‘political’, over the purely economic, in this transition, see Anderson Perry, Lineages of the Absolutist State, (London: NLB, 1974) .

70 Gramsci's ideas on hegemony are directed toward the elucidation and explanation of this disguising. See, for example, Gramsci Antonio, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (New York and London: International Publishers: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), p. 327 .

71 See Gran Peter, Islamic Roots of Capitalism : Egypt, 1760–1840 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998) .

72 Laroui Abdallah, The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual: Traditionalism or Historicism? (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1976), p. 106 .

73 al-Azmeh Aziz, ‘Nationalism and the Arabs’, Arab Studies Quarterly, 17:1–2 (1995) .

74 Batatu Hanna, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba'thists and Free Officers, Reprinted ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 28 .

75 Ibid., p. 29.

76 Sharabi Hisham, Arab Intellectuals and the West: The Formative Years, 1875–1914 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1970), p. 11 .

77 See Keddie Nikki, Qajar Iran and the Rise of Reza Khan, 1796–1925 (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1999) .

78 Baer Gabriel, A History of Land Ownership in Modern Egypt, 1800–1950 (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 6063 .

79 Abrahamian Ervand, ‘The Causes of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 10:3 (1979), pp. 381414 .

80 See al-Sayyid-Marsot Afaf Lutfi, Egypt's Liberal Experiment, 1922–1936 (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1977), p. 39 ; Hourani , Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939, pp. 139140 ; Ervand Abrahamian, ‘The Causes of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran’.

81 Hinnebusch , International Politics of the Middle East, p. 65 . For a similar perspective see also Valbjø‘Arab Nationalism(s) in Transformation: From Arab Interstate Societies to an Arab-Islamic World Society’.

82 ‘The Concept of Revival and the Study of Islam and Politics’, in Stowasser B. F. (ed.), The Islamic Impulse (London: Croom Helm in association with Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 1987) .

83 See Eppel Michael, ‘Note about the Term Effendiyya in the History of the Middle East’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 41 (2009), p. 536 .

84 Hussein Mahmoud, Class Conflict in Egypt, 1945–1970 (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1973), p. 32 . See also Laroui , The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual: Traditionalism or Historicism?, pp. 159166 .

85 Hussein Mahmoud, Class Conflict in Egypt, p. 29 .

86 Batatu Hanna, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, p. 22 .

87 Nairn Tom, The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (London: NLB, 1977), p. 340 .

88 See, for example, Beinin JoelWas the Red Flag Flying There?: Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel 1948–1965, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 57 ; Botman SelmaThe Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939–1970 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988), p. 49 . Batatu's tome on Iraq, cited above, amply documents the Iraqi communist party's leadership of the national movement there in the 1940s and 1950s. See also, the extended review of same by Sluglett Peter, Democratiya, 4 (2006) .

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

90 El-Sa’id , Rifa’at , and Ismael Tareq Y., The Communist Movement in Egypt: 1920–1988, Contemporary Issues in the Middle East (Syracuse; London: Syracuse University Press, 1990), p. 43 .

91 For analysis supporting this interpretation see Nahas, ‘State-Systems and Revolutionary Challenge: Nasser, Khomeini, and the Middle East’.

92 Abdel-Malek Anouar, Egypt: Military Society: The Army Regime, the Left, and Social Change Under Nasser, 1st ed. (New York: Random House, 1968) ; el Mahfouz Kosheri, Socialisme et pouvoir en Égypte (Paris: Librairie générale de droit et de jurisprudence, 1972) .

93 Peter Sluglett, review of Batatu Hana, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba'thists and Free Officers, in Democratiya, 4 (2006) .

94 For details of the agreement between Egyptian and Iraqi communists on this issue see al-Alim Mahmud Amin, Confessions of the Sheikh of the Arab Communists: Mahmoud Amin Al-Alim [In Arabic] (Cairo: Maktabat Madbuli, 2006), p. 43 .

95 Shlaim AviThe Iron Wall : Israel and the Arab World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), p. 230 .

96 Nahas, ‘State-Systems and Revolutionary Challenge: Nasser, Khomeini, and the Middle East’, p. 517.

97 Heydemann Steven, ‘War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East’, in Heydemann Steven (ed.), War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), section 1. Available at: {http://ark.edlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6c6006X6/} .

98 See Stein Ewan, ‘The Camp David Consensus: Ideas, Intellectuals and the Division of Labour in Egypt's Foreign Policy toward Israel’, International Studies Quarterly, 55:3 (September 2011). DOI: 10.111/j.1468-2478.2011.00672.x .

99 Buzan Barry and Gonzalez-Pelaez Ana, ‘Conclusions’, in Buzan Barry and Gonzalez-Pelaez Ana (eds), International Society and the Middle East: English School Theory at the Regional Level (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) ; Valbjorn Morton and Bank Andre, ‘Signs of a New Arab Cold War: The 2006 Lebanon War and the Sunni-Shi'i Divide’, Middle East Report, 242 (Spring 2007) ; Murphy Emma, ‘Theorizing ICTs in the Arab World: Informational Capitalism and the Public Sphere’, International Studies Quarterly, 53:4 (2009) .

100 Browers Michaelle L., Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) .

101 Arab Commentators after the Iraq War: Advocating Democracy, Reluctantly. Arab Reform Bulletin, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (26 June 2003), available at: {http://www.carnegieendowment.org/arb/?fa=show&article=21609}.

102 Deeb Lara, ‘Hizballah: a Primer’, Middle East Report Online (31 July 2006) , available at: {http://www.merip.org/mero/mero073106.html} accessed 4 November 2010.

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

104 Aarts Paul, ‘The Middle East: A Region wihtout Regionalism or the End of Exceptionalism?’, Third World Quarterly, 20:5 (1999), pp. 911925 .

105 Krause Keith, ‘State-Making and Region-Building: The Interplay of Domestic and Regional Security in the Middle East’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 26:3 (2003), p. 101 .

* I would like to thank Jamie Allinson, Victoria Loughlan, Andrew Neal, Michelle Obeid, Adham Saouli and the three anonymous reviewers for useful comments on earlier versions of this article.

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