Disputes on shrinking borders

Issues in World Politics. Second edition - Contending Images of World Politics. First edition - The Globalization of World Politics - World Politics
November 30, 2001

The intensity with which people, goods and ideas circulate in contemporary world politics nearly matches the proliferation of theories and approaches in academic international relations (IR). This has made crafting textbooks abnormally difficult. By their nature, textbooks seek to offer a window on a discipline and to fix its boundaries. But in an era in which sovereign borders are ever more penetrated by flows of all kinds and even time and space seem to be collapsing, the specification of what is "international" and what is "domestic" becomes a sisyphean task. Some scholars of IR have been zealously guarding the rapidly shrinking "space between states" as the proper focus of the discipline; others are engaged in imperial expansion, seeking to appropriate the resources of other social-science and humanities disciplines still caught in domestic slumber. That the results on both fronts are mixed is evident from the four textbooks reviewed here.

Charles W. Kegley and Eugene R. Wittkopf are to be found at the border checkpoints. Their World Politics : Trend and Transformation is a product of North American IR. Its theoretical focus is almost exclusively on liberalism and realism, with all other "alternative theories" - those that occupy centre stage in much British IR - relegated to a one-page discussion, complete with a boxed feature explaining that the "harsh criticism" hurled by "postmodern deconstructionists" at behaviouralists has not made the latter discard their "scientific methods". Epistemologically located in the 1950s, World Politics is an effective and comprehensive survey, not so much of the discipline of IR as of the real stuff of international relations. Suitable for beginning undergraduates, it covers foreign policy-making, great power rivalry, North/South relations, international political economy, IGOs, NGOs, population and demography, and war. It is a lavishly illustrated volume, complete with excellent colour maps, photographs and charts as well as a glossary, marginal definitions of key terms, and a companion website. For young students being introduced to the politics of the wider world they inhabit for the first time, World Politics has much to offer.

The changing hierarchies of power and wealth in the world are evident in John Baylis and Steve Smith's The Globalization of World Politics , a British text also meant for beginning undergraduates. Gone is the colour from the charts and boxes, and there are no photographs. Even the paper is of lesser quality. This is British IR in all its glory, although to be fair there is a companion website that includes PowerPoint slides for lecturers. Not much different from the first edition, it contains some new chapters on globalisation and updates of other chapters. As an edited introductory text, it lacks the consistency and uniformity of World Politics but covers a broader range of theoretical and political perspectives.

The title is misleading as this is not a book about globalisation but about disciplinary IR, the categories and theories of which often stand in some opposition to those of globalisation studies. Many of the chapters demand greater attention than Kegley and Wittkopf's more glitzy outing, but despite its comparatively low production values, this also is an effective first-year text.

Both Issues in World Politics and Contending Images of World Politics are intended for more advanced undergraduates and might have some use for beginning postgraduates, especially those new to IR. Each of these collections contains a range of essays that can be read on their own and could find a place on the reading lists of many different courses in world politics. They represent the imperial trend in IR as each covers topics that 20 years ago would not generally have been seen as relevant to the discipline.

Greg Fry and Jacinta O'Hagan's Contending Images is the more effective of the two, although the effort to work the "image" metaphor into all the chapters is somewhat heavy-handed. This collection ranges from inter-state politics to globalisation to culture, closing with a grab-bag section called "Knowledge, power and inclusion" that covers the environment, gender, postcoloniality and modernity.

While Contending Images seeks to provoke readers with substantive theoretical and political argument from each of its contributors, Brian White, Richard Little and Michael Smith's Issues in World Politics is more in the vein of an advanced survey. It is similarly imperial in coverage, from states, economy and arms control to migration, religion and crime. The chapters on these last two topics, along with one by Susan Carruthers on the media, are new in this edition. They provide solid introductions to their "issues", discussing key problems and outlining the contours of debate. Each would provide a very good, accessible basis for an undergraduate seminar discussion, but on the whole the volume lacks the intellectual depth that Fry and O'Hagan elicit from their contributors.

Kegley and Wittkopf limit their theoretical purview to the IR statements of liberalism and realism, but many of the substantive topics covered in their text exceed such limitations. Baylis and Smith cover a much wider range of theoretical perspectives but end up providing substantially less factual information about world politics.

It is Fry and O'Hagan who provide a text most adequate to both world politics and academic IR as we find them today. Some of their contributors critically situate old warhorses of the discipline in the changed circumstances of the contemporary period; others represent the scholarly efforts of the past two decades in integrating new topics and approaches into our conceptions of what matters in international politics.

Tarak Barkawi is lecturer in global politics, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Issues in World Politics. Second edition

Editor - Brian White, Richard Little and Michael Smith
ISBN - 0 333 80401 5 and 80402 3
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £47.50 and £15.99
Pages - 306

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