Raymond Hinnebusch, The International Politics of the Middle East, revised second edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Raymond Hinnebusch (RH): Having taught international politics for many years, I became dissatisfied with the texts available for students. Some were purely historical and descriptive. Many were edited collections of chapters on individual countries, often uninformed by a common framework. There was a general failure to bring together levels of analysis such as state formation and international behavior. There was a disconnect between books surveying the Middle East region and the theoretical debates in international relations (IR). What was needed, I thought, was a text that would both be theoretically informed, with a narrative covering the big issues in IR, but which also provided a wealth of empirical information on the Middle East.
Of course such an ambitious aim requires tradeoffs. I approached this dilemma by organizing the book according to themes at different levels of analysis, each of which was typically best addressed by a particular theory or combination of theories, but illustrating each theme with case studies that provided empirical evidence for a theoretical argument or illustrated a particular approach. As such, I tried to make the book a model of how to use theory to elucidate the Middle East case and how to use Middle East evidence to throw light on theory. That said, my book is usefully paired either with a history of the region or a book with country cases. It is best assigned to students who have already done a bit of such encounter with the region AND with IR theory, since it employs and bridges both of these.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RH: The book aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of Middle East international politics in the light of international relations theory. The book provides readers with theoretically-framed major topics, liberally illustrated with case study material on key dimensions of regional politics. It assesses the region’s international penetration, including the historic formation of the regional state system and its constitution as a periphery of the international system. The book also examines the region’s distinctive dialectic between trans-state identities, Arabism and Islam, and the sovereign states system. The consequences of state formation for the ability of state elites to manage their external and domestic arenas and the impact of the foreign policy process are also analyzed. Chapter six uses comparative analysis to elucidate how the interaction between the system level and particular state formation paths shapes similarities and differences in states’ international behaviour through a comparative foreign policy of pivotal country cases, including Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
The book goes on to examine the regional struggle for power and major regional wars. Chapter eight assesses the impact of the American world hegemon’s drive to establish a Pax Americana in the region in the 1990-2010 period. Chapter nine examines the impact of the Arab Uprising on regional politics: how it has both debilitated some key state actors and drawn others into a struggle to affect the outcome. The final chapter assesses the contributions of rival IR theories to understanding the Middle East and the implications of the Middle East region for IR theory. The conclusion reprises the arguments and evidence to adumbrate the lessons of the Middle East and North African case for IR theory
J: How does the new edition of this book differ from the edition that you originally published in 2003?
RH: This second edition of the text updates it to take account of the significant events since then, notably the second Iraq War and its regional consequences and the Arab Uprising—that is, two decades of events that have had a significant impact on the region. It also adds a conclusion on the implications of MENA for IR theory. The concluding chapter aims to show how theories are usefully combined to address issues at different levels of analysis.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
RH: It runs parallel with and is informed by the findings of articles I have published on such topics as hierarchy in international relations, looking at the place of the MENA region in the global system ("The Middle East in the World History Hierarchy: Imperialism and Resistance," 2011); on identity and regional politics, specifically the special role of supra-state identities such as Arabism and Islam ("The Politics of Identity in Middle East International Relations," 2013); on state formation and how it affects both the nature of the regional system and the foreign policies of individual states ("Contrary Siblings: Syria, Jordan, and the Iraq War," with Neil Quilliam, 2006); on regional norms ("Order and Change in the Middle East: A Neo-Gramscian Twist on the International Society Approach," 2009); on the regional balance of power ("Failed Regional Hegemons: The Case of the Middle East`s Regional Powers," 2013); and on regional organization ("Security Conceptions and Practices in the Middle East: The Case of the Arab League," 2013). The book is also usefully paired with the book I co-edited with Anoush Ehteshami on Foreign Policies of Middle East States that systematically compares case studies of pivotal MENA states using a common framework of analysis.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RH: While the book was written as a textbook for upper division undergraduate and graduate students, my aim was to also make it a coherent statement on the multi-dimensional character of the Middle East region’s international relations. Specifically, it aims to show how a synthesis of several theories best captures the complexity of the region. This is because individual theories such as structuralism, constructivism, and realism each tend to “specialize” in one aspect of regional politics to the neglect of others. The encounter of the Middle East with IR theory clearly exposes the virtues of eclecticism. Each theory surveyed, operating on a different level or focusing on a different aspect of IR, makes a contribution to understanding the region. The multiple and ever changing layers of the system and the great variance in the states cannot be captured without a synthetic multivariate approach that tries to maximize the compatibilities between rival theories.
While this means we must deal with many “moving parts,” ignoring any of them for the sake of parsimony only sacrifices explanatory power. The Middle East is not so exceptional that this approach cannot be transferred to the study of international politics elsewhere. It arguably lends weight to the arguments of those who, dismayed by the sectarianism of the discipline, call for synthetic and complex approaches to the study of international relations. Of course it is a major challenge to integrate rival theories into an overall framework; just “adding” them together doesn’t work—one has to show how they can be reinterpreted to be compatible. Whether I have succeeded in this or not is for readers to decide.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RH: I am writing a book on alliances in MENA that will also try to deploy a multivariate approach bringing rival theories together. I also have plans to do the same with war in the region.
J: What has struck you about the reception of your book when it was first published, and has this affected your decisions in revising the book?
RH: The book was widely adopted in courses studying the international politics of the region. I was pleased to see that some of the big names in the field had highly regarded the book. Michael Barnett wrote this: “Distinguished in part by its careful attention to theory and alternative approaches to the region, Hinnebusch`s International Relations of the Middle East quickly became one of the most important statements on the Middle East when it was published in 2003. A lot has happened since then, and his thoroughly revised and updated text, once again, stands heads and shoulders above the rest. Indeed, one of the real contributions of the latest edition is that it carefully situates, historically and analytically, the region`s convulsions in broader perspective, allowing the readers to better understand the continuity and ruptures of the history of the region.” And Shibley Telhami had this to say: “This is a wonderful and updated study of the international relations of the Middle East. It’s at once thematic and historical, analytical and substantive. Hinnebusch combines theoretical strength with deep knowledge of a region in turmoil, as he persuasively places the era of the Arab uprisings in a much broader historical context. I highly recommend it.”
Excerpts from The International Politics of the Middle East, second edition
The book’s approach to understanding Middle East/North Africa (MENA) international politics might be called “complex realism.” It starts with realist basics since Middle Eastern policy-makers are quintessential realists, preoccupied with the threats that are so pervasive in MENA. The Middle East is arguably the epicenter of world crisis, chronically war-prone and the site of the world’s most protracted conflicts: it is the region where the anarchy and insecurity, seen by the realist school of international politics as the main feature of states systems, remains most in evidence. The book therefore accepts the realist claim that insecurity generates struggles for power and that state foreign policy seeks to counter security threats, first of all, to regime survival, but also to state interests such as sovereignty and territorial integrity. Because it specializes in explaining the central aspects of international politics—power, war, alliances, international order—realism offers unique insights into the dynamics of interstate relations in the region.
Yet, several realist assumptions are problematic in MENA. First, realism assumes the formation of cohesive Westphalian states pursuing agreed “national interests” but this can be misleading in MENA where many states are so fragmented and their sovereignty so compromised by dependency that their foreign policies might reflect regime interests but not “national” interests: and whether MENA states approximate realist “rational actors” is highly contingent on an process of state formation that is very much incomplete. Second, realism’s assumption that conflict is chiefly the by-product of a states system’s anarchy misses the main causes of the Middle East’s exceptional war and instability, namely the peculiar historical construction of the regional system under imperialism, which left behind a misfit between identity and territory that built irredentism into the system. Third, neo-realism’s assumption that states’ international behavior is chiefly determined by the inter-state system is inadequate to understand the Middle East; rather the “environment” in which MENA states operate is multi-layered, with realism’s inter-state system embedded in a global hierarchy and in regional trans-state identities. Finally, while the international system is, for realism, largely unchanging, except for the distribution of power among states, in MENA the ever-changing relative weight of these levels continually alters the dynamics of regional politics.
Thus, while realism gives important insights into the dynamics of the regional inter-state system, with its balance of (material) power among states, to understand the other dimensions of the regional system, we need to bring in other theories. Marxist-inspired “structuralism” identifies the place of the MENA system in the global hierarchy, namely in the economic periphery, dependent on the international capitalist core. It shows how the region’s penetrated client states behave quite differently from fully sovereign states. Constructivists help us understand the trans-state level where identity matters: in the Middle East, sub- and supra-state identities compete with state identity, inspire trans-state movements and constrain purely state-centric behavior. Constructivism’s insistence that systemic structures are not just material configurations of power and wealth and include the cultural norms that derive from identity helps to understand how the region`s powerful supra-state identities lead to a unique contestation of state sovereignty. The insights of historical sociology (HS) on state formation and particularly how states and state system are mutually constitutive, offer indispensible insights into change in the regional system: not just how the system shapes the nature of the states but also how the kind of states—their levels of state formation—that dominate a system shapes its dynamics. Finally, we need, with Foreign Policy Analysis, to open the black box of decision-making for, as realists themselves acknowledge, how states respond to environmental pressures is a product of internal leadership and policy processes.
Complex Realism in Action: Nesting Three Theoretical Traditions in the Case of Gulf International Relations
The extra explanatory power gained by combining approaches that this book advocates can be illustrated by a case study of Gulf international politics: “complex realism” most immediately explains the regional power struggle but must be “nested”—located within—a constructivist context, which, itself, must be nested in the broader context established by structuralism.
Structuralism explains the origins of the Gulf’s conflict prone condition. It was British imperialism’s drawing of arbitrary boundaries, its construction of artificial states suffering legitimacy deficits and the creation of super-rich oil mini-states alongside large dissatisfied regional powers that built insecurity into the structure of the system. As the same time, imperialism left behind client elites, with precarious domestic legitimacy, which naturally looked to Britain and later the US for protection in this environment. As long, however, as the main powers, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were ruled by status quo pro-Western monarchies, British hegemony was sufficient to mute built-in regional instability (Alnasrawi 1991; Hinnebusch 2011); but this was not to last.
Constructivist analysis, exemplified in the work of Adib-Moghaddam (2009), explains the translation of systemic structural insecurity into perceived security threats. As against realists, constructivists argue that anarchy is what states make of it and in the Gulf anarchy moved from a “Lockean” form in which status quo states, accepting each others’ legitimacy, limited their rivalry, toward a “Hobbesian” one in which the power struggle was more unlimited. As built-in instability spawned revolutionary movements overthrowing the status quo monarchies in Iran and Iraq, nationalist and revolutionary regimes arose, promoting their legitimacy by constructing the “Other” as enemies. The Iraqi and Iranian regimes constructed radical Arab nationalist and revolutionary Islamic identities that not only denied the legitimacy of the monarchies but also posed the “Other” as enemy, leading to the Iran-Iraq war.
Realist analysis assumes rather than problematizes the state rivalries and insecurity which structuralism and constructivism explain; however, it provides a more thorough analysis of the behavioral consequences of this insecurity than they do. Gause (2010) provides a complex form of realist analysis of the Gulf regional sub-system. It is tri-polar, with rival powers, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, trapped in a security dilemma, exacerbated by the fact that seizure of contested territory could bring oil riches. While these powers, as conventional realists would expect, balanced against each others’ armies through alliances and arms races, Gause argues that the greater threat they faced from each other was internal subversion and that the main instruments used in the power struggle were ideational. Regimes manipulated transnational identities—Arab, Kurdish, Shi’i, Sunni—to mobilize support across state borders against each other. Further, the Gulf monarchies faced ideological threats from the appeals to their populations of both Ba’thist Arab nationalism and Iran’s revolutionary Islam. Fortunately for them, Iraq and Iran debilitated each other in the first Gulf War. Insecurity drove Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states together in the Gulf Cooperation Council and, seeing the threat from Iranian ideological subversion as more immediate than that of Iraqi armies, supported Iraq against Iran. The monarchies also increasingly bandwagoned with the US to balance Iran and Iraq. With the enervation of Iraqi power in two US wars against Saddam Hussein’s regime, the US had to increasingly counter Iran by itself, deeply penetrating the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran balanced each other by exploiting the Sunni-Shia divide to construct sectarian animosities that spilled out over the whole region, with Iraq after 2003 a main site of their sectarian proxy war. Through their behavior, therefore, the states reproduced the insecure system they had inherited from imperialism.
Conflict in the Gulf can, thus, only be adequately understood by a multivariate analysis combining data from the domains of structuralism, constructivism and realism; indeed, to fully understand the behavior of a particular state at a particular time, one also would need to add in data on its unique state formation and decision-making process.
[Excerpted from Raymond Hinnebusch, The International Politics of the Middle East, revised second edition, by permission of the author. © 2015 Manchester University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]