Kyle M. Lascurettes, "The Disorderly State of ‘International Order’: In Search of an Elusive Concept", October 2011
‘Order’ is a funny, fuzzy term in the international relations literature. While scholars have adopted many different definitions for the concept, most have not been clear on how their conception can be measured, how it can logically and empirically vary, and how it complements or clashes with alternative conceptualizations of the same term. In short, the literature on order in international relations is in a state of utter disorder. This paper aims to clean up the messy conceptual debate over what ‘order’ means in world politics. Drawing from both international relations (IR) theory and the literature on concept formation in the social sciences, it presents a new conceptualization of international order that seeks to address the shortcomings of its predecessors. More specifically, I present a ‘two-step’ conceptualization of international order that helps us both clarify and move beyond the stale debate between realism, liberalism and constructivism in IR theory. The first step establishes a baseline definition of what kind of behavior constitutes a state of order in the international system. The second step focuses on the ‘stuff’ that must be present to induce the behavior identified in the first step. I posit that while the three major approaches to order in the IR theory literature ultimately agree on the first step definition, they disagree on this crucial second step. The paper proceeds in four sections: First, I offer a first-step definition for order as patterned, equilibrium-perpetuating behavior among a particular system’s units. That is, an ordered system induces its units to behave in ways that enable and reproduce the status quo. I then show how this definition broadly fits with how realists, institutionalists and constructivists already approach international order. Second, I demonstrate that the differences between these approaches come not in the first step definition but in the second. While realists emphasize material power forces bringing about this equilibrium-perpetuating state, liberals focus on the institutional environment and constructivists upon the presence of common ideas or identities across actors. Third, I develop my own second-step conceptualization, arguing that the ‘stuff’ of order can most usefully be conceptualized as the presence of ‘observed rules’ among an international system’s units. Finally, I explicate the ways in which, in this new conceptualization, order could logically and empirically vary. I conclude by combining these elements to begin sketching a logically exhaustive typology of international orders.