When it comes to international relations texts, the menu is indeed long, and ever growing. By its very nature, the stuff of IR augments daily, but so too have the approaches to the study of IR, which have proliferated in recent years.
No wonder, then, that IR texts should require frequent rewriting. However, on the showing of these particular volumes, one should beware of confusing newness with freshness. New editions - and new texts - do not necessarily capture the discipline in its heterogeneity, and may indeed prefer to preserve it in aspic, before it is contaminated by post-positivist and critical approaches such as feminism, constructivism or postmodernism.
What increasingly occupies centre stage in British IR is actively marginalised in these North American texts, when acknowledged at all. The menu may thus be long, but whether it is sufficiently diverse a bill of fare to tempt the palettes of British teachers and students is a moot point.
The five texts under review here serve, collectively, to demonstrate precisely how hard it is - often contrary to the explicitly avowed intentions of their authors - to write an introduction to IR, the discipline, and/or IR, the global interactions under scrutiny, for an audience that is genuinely international. To imagine that this can satisfactorily be done may itself be as chimerical an undertaking as to believe that one can genuinely lay out various paradigms for students to scrutinise, which are scrupulously fair to all and malicious to none. The most successful of these texts are precisely those in which the authors acknowledge their preferences explicitly, while simultaneously adjudicating the merits of other approaches and encouraging students to undertake a similar evaluative exercise.
Judged thus, for many British tastes probably the least appetising volume will be Bruce Russett, Harvey Starr and David Kinsella's World Politics: The Menu for Choice , which is the longest but also (in some respects) the narrowest. Now in its sixth edition, this text caters very much to mainstream North American tastes: IR remains a "science", "good" theories are testable, and disciplinary arrivistes (feminists, postmodernists, constructivists) are not even offered a place at the table (as they "defy simple summary" and may not last the "test of time").
Indeed, the menu analogy itself, as the authors elucidate it, holds the key to the book's limited purview: namely how actors (largely statespersons) go about the business of foreign policy-making - what constraints they face, and the interplay of "external factors" with personal preferences. What has changed for this edition is largely the addition of a third author, Kinsella, who adds bulk to a new section on international political economy.
Charles Kegley and Eugene Wittkopf's World Politics: Trend and Transformation - a "competitor" text now entering its seventh edition - offers a more expansive definition of the international, exhibiting more concern with embedded structures and less with the agency of decision makers. The authors admittedly limit the disciplinary debate largely to the narrow parameters of the neo-liberal versus neo-realist "split" (such as it is), but the text seems decidedly "fresher" insofar as it includes chapters on globalisation, nongovernmental actors, world demographic patterns, and ecological security, in addition to covering the more traditional bases of US-based IR.
The book is also distinguished by the greater amount of attention devoted to the South and questions of development and global inequality. Each chapter concludes with not only resumes of key terms and suggested readings but also an imaginative "Where on the world wide web?" section, which guides students in search of further online resources - with the recommended sites ranging from non-governmental organisations and the home pages of news organisations to interactive museum tours.
The two newly minted texts here are Karen Mingst's Essentials of International Relations and Robert Jackson and Georg Sorensen's Introduction to International Relations . Both attempt the same feat of compression in a similar amount of pages, with equal enthusiasm for boxed features, such as maps and charts. Of the two, the latter succeeds rather better, insofar as it offers a more reliable compass for newcomers seeking to negotiate IR's theoretical terrain.
Clearly not enamoured with certain new approaches, Jackson and Sorensen do at least offer an introduction to varieties of post-positivist critique. Moreover, each chapter concludes with a series of questions that invite students both to reflect on the section's subject matter and to question for themselves the authors' predilections. Admittedly the text itself may tend to prejudge students' answers, but at least readers are also guided, on a chapter-by-chapter basis, to more specialised texts where they can find unmediated exponents of various paradigms.
Mingst, on the other hand, works in threes: her book covers three levels of analysis (the international system, the state and the individual) and takes three scholarly approaches, identified as realism, liberalism and, somewhat anachronistically, Marxism. Given that the author makes no special pleading on Marxism's behalf, and musters no exponents beyond Marx, Engels, John Hobson and Immanuel Wallerstein, it is a wayward and misleading decision, not least when its inclusion serves to eclipse other "radical" challenges to the neo-liberal and neo-realist ascendancy. However, those chapters of the book dedicated to exploring the three levels, (latterly "War and strife", "International political economy" and "The quest for global governance") feel duty-bound to subject each issue to scrutiny in triplicate, with the Marxist exposition invariably trailing a rather threadbare third.
Geir Lundestad's East, West, North, South is a different type of enterprise altogether. It is the sole volume under review that attempts the (both more and less ambitious) task of introducing the "major developments in international politics since 1945" rather than the main developments in academic IR. A nod is made to different explanatory models and competing historiographical schools, but in essence, Lundestad aims more for synthesis than re-interpretation.
Now in its fourth edition and translated from its original Norwegian, this text makes a titular promise to encompass all four poles, and might be expected to offer an engagingly "off-centre" perspective on international politics.
But while Lundestad judiciously accords equal weight to both cold war blocs, and openly declares his post-revisionist preferences, the axis around which his book revolves is one that runs between East and West. That the South receives rather short shrift here is evident in both the poverty of chapters accorded it (one on "Decolonisation" and another surveying the entirety of North-South economic relations since 1945) and the somewhat dated scholarship on which those chapters rely. (Strikingly, Lundestad's suggestions for further reading on "Decolonisation" were all published prior to 1983, in an area where scholarship has scarcely stood still in the past 16 years.) Of course, the task of updating an IR text at regular intervals may well be experienced by the authors as something of a sisyphean task - one that is perhaps more alluring to publishers than to co-authors when having to confront their text yet again. Some clearly exhibit more enthusiasm for the business of renewing and refreshing than others. But, on balance, teachers of IR seeking an introductory text that is expansive and innovative in its approach to the discipline, not merely in its presentation of material, may be somewhat disappointed by these particular offerings.
And indeed those looking for a stimulating and engaging introduction to the state of the discipline might well be more drawn to edited collections that encompass a range of viewpoints as articulated by their proponents, rather than as summarised by a more or less favourable synthesiser.
Susan Carruthers is senior lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
World Politics: The Menu for Choice. Sixth Edition
Author - Bruce Russett, Harvey Starr and David Kinsella
ISBN - 1572597526
Publisher - Worth
Price - £19.99
Pages - 544