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International relations today is faced by many new and emerging challenges which have arisen as a result of both the constantly evolving geopolitical and socio-historical identities of players, but also due to changing conceptions of the nature of international relations itself. Whilst a lot of work has been done concerning the geopolitical and socio-historical impacts on international relations today, less has been done concerning deconstructing international relations itself.
The current paradigm is to accept the Post-Westphalian conception of international relations unquestioningly, using this conception as a model, starting point, and framework from which to analyze and define international relations today. However, unless international relations is deconstructed, something which Walker seems to be the most prominent proponent of, we will be faced with seemingly insurmountable problems in the future (due to the spatio-temporal nature of boundaries and limits); namely, our denial of the possibility of other political futures, as a result of the tunnel vision imposed on us by our belief that the only way to move forward is via a move towards a politics of the world.
The book is broken into six sections, followed by 94 pages of notes and bibliography which make up over a quarter of the book. The comprehensive nature of this final section is extremely helpful to readers interested in further understanding Walker's ideas. Due to the novel nature of his theory, this is indeed very handy in fleshing out the origins and supporting material for his arguments. Rarely are authors this thorough and explicit in the notes/bibliographic referencing in their books, and this is extremely refreshing. The six sections of the book are: Prelude; Political, International, Theoretical; The politics of escape; Sovereignties, origins, limits; Split finitudes, seductive hierarchies; and Politics on the line.
"Prelude", outlines the basic structure of the book, as an exploration of "some of the practices through which narratives about the need to move from a politics of the international to a politics of the world have come to have such widespread resonance" (p.5). After exploring how the study of international relations has come to be where it is today, he then spends the rest of the chapter outlining his views about these narratives.
"Political, International, Theoretical" deals with redefining the aporetic conceptions of world politics and international relations, and examining their aporetic nature. Often international relations and world politics are used interchangeably to describe the same things, when in fact they are diametrically opposed in definition. World politics implies a more cosmopolitan if not planetary conception of the universalization of politics -- beyond the local. International relations, on the other hand, implies relations between sovereign states - nationalist and ethnocentric in nature. To Walker, this contradiction between these two commonly interchanged terms underlies the problem with the current nature of international relations today.
The third chapter, "The politics of escape", seeks a way to avoid this contradiction, by rejecting the thought that "a statist account of a singular political community can be taken for granted as the condition under which we must be thinking about our political futures." (p.89), and doing away with any move towards a more unified or universal form of politics.
For Walker, any desire to move from a politics of the international/system of states to a politics of the world/planet is not just impossible in theory and practice, but harmful in that it does not allow room for exploration of other options.
The next chapter, entitled "Sovereignties, origins, limits", tries to explain the international structure of political relations, "less as an expression of spatial distinctions between competing sovereignties, than as an expression of claims about temporality and history enabling constitutive discriminations between those who belong within the world of the international and those who do not." (p.99) With this explanation, Walker does away with any notion that the Post-Westphalian world ushered in the beginnings of modern political impossibilities and possibilities.
The next chapter, "Split finitudes, seductive hierarchies", deals, in some detail, with a rereading of Kant. According to Walker, Kant has traditionally been read in a philosophical or even scientific light, and only just recently is he starting to be read in a more political/cosmopolitan/democratic light. More specifically, Walker argues that Kant can in fact be read as revealing modern political "ambitions that are framed within a theological and topological understanding of necessities, freedoms and limits" (p.154). It is this spatio-temporal framework that interests Walker, in terms of borders, boundaries, and sovereignty.
The final chapter, on "Politics on the line", sums up the preceding five chapters, and closes with a forward looking view of where the future of modern politics should move. It does not provide clear answers as to exactly what this future would look like, but rather just outlines what things this future conception would have to deal with, what a rough structure of it would look like, and how it should break away from the current dominant paradigm. Walker argues that, contrary to the current belief that disagreements in the modern political realm hinge on the debate between prioritization of citizens first or humans first, the debate should instead be rephrased.
According to Walker, our way out must be through a breakaway from traditional conceptions of international relations, defined by a clear cut boundary between the national and the international, based on the purely spatial territorial borders of the nation state. Walker argues that we must instead look at the boundary between the claims of sovereign states to domestic jurisdiction, on the one hand, and the claims of the sovereign system of states to a collective order, on the other hand, in a more abstract/immaterial yet ironically realistic manner. This, for Walker, is where the future of modern politics lies; in reframing modern politics in a new light that avoids this paradoxical conflict between the national and the international, by redefining the concepts that we use to explore the nature of political relations. It is on this forward looking yet open ended note that Walker concludes his study of International Relations.
Overall, this is not an easy text for the reader, the depth and allusions within it require substantial knowledge in the theoretical foundations of international relations. As a result, it is not very suitable for undergraduate courses. However, do not let the difficulty of wading through the subject matter stop you, for the persistent reader will be handsomely rewarded for such patience. As a graduate text in international relations, this book is very useful; its original critique of the status quo is useful for graduates seeking opposing viewpoints of the dominant paradigm that defines international relations today.
However, Walker himself could help with making his book more readily accessible. For example, tighter explanations would reduce the need for copious amounts of parentheses, and parentheses within parentheses, making the text much more accessible, without reducing any of the force of his arguments.
Furthermore, at times, the arguments become repetitive. Many of the chapters don't seem to add much to the previous chapters; rather, they just rephrase the arguments using different examples. However, his writing still manages to maintain the reader's interest through its vagueness, masking the repetitiveness of each chapter as originality, in a very Derridean fashion. He tries throughout the book to expose so called paradoxes and aporetic conceptions in current academic thought, which, at times, are not as problematic as he makes out.
Thus, as a book, it contributes much in the way of original ideas to the international relations field, deconstructing it in extreme detail; however, the technical complexity with which he writes, and the way in which his thoughts seem unstructured could put off many readers. On the whole, don't let the complex and challenging nature of this work deter you, though, for your patience will be duly rewarded.
© 2010 Roger Chao
Roger Chao is a contemporary moral philosopher. His research interests include applied ethics (in all fields), moral theory, meta ethics and political philosophy. [email protected]