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date: 07 December 2023

American Pragmatism in Foreign Policy Analysisfree

American Pragmatism in Foreign Policy Analysisfree

  • Ulrich FrankeUlrich FrankeUniversity of Bremen, Institute for Intercultural and International Studies
  •  and Gunther HellmannGunther HellmannInstitute of Political Science, Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main


This article examines scholarship in the field of foreign policy analysis inspired by the philosophy and social theory of American Pragmatism. Pragmatism is reconstructed as a unified theory of human thought and action emphasizing the primacy of practice and situated creativity. It has been largely ignored in International Relations (IR), in general, and foreign policy analysis (FPA), in particular, during the 20th century. Given the fact that pragmatism is widely taken to be one of the few genuinely “American” social theories, its marginal role in IR scholarship is astounding since the discipline has rightly been characterized as an “American social science” (S. Hoffmann).

Against this background the article highlights one of the prominent disciplinary dualisms, the distinction between “systemic” theories of international politics/relations on the one hand and “sub-systemic” foreign policy analyses on the other. It does so, however, as an entry point for a different perspective. Pragmatist thought entered the field in the mid-1990s at a moment when increasing numbers of scholars felt uneasy about this dualism because it severed human agency from internally connected transformations at the global level of political interaction. The proliferation of paradigmatist scholarship about German foreign policy after the country’s unification in 1990 illustrates both how established “paradigms” grappled with “change” and “continuity” in German foreign policy and how pragmatism was mobilized as a theoretical resource in order to respond to this challenge.

Pragmatism is a distinctive social theory that starts with what people do (primacy of practice) and that conceives of theories as tools for coping. Rather than distinguishing between thought (or theory) on the one hand and action (or practice) on the other as separate activities, pragmatism emphasizes the unity of all problem-solving forms of “inquiry” (J. Dewey). Inquiry removes doubt and enables us to form beliefs (as “rules for action”). Methodologically this understanding translates into a rejection of the separation of “theory” and “subject matter” in favor of empirically grounded reconstructive approaches. In addition to pragmatist perspectives on epistemology and methodology, the article highlights different ways of substantive theorizing in IR/FPA such as habits, practices, and loyalties but also normative accounts.


  • World Politics


American Pragmatism is widely regarded as the first original contribution to Western philosophy originating in North America (Joas, 1992a, pp. 7–15, 96–113). Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910), John Dewey (1859–1952), and George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) are usually listed as key authors for its classical version; Richard Rorty (1931–2007) stands out as its prominent neoclassical voice, also known as “neopragmatism.” Renewed interest in pragmatism has surged since the turn of the millennium in philosophy in general (Margolis, 2002; Sandbothe, 2000) and the social sciences (IR included) in particular (see the “Special Issue” in vol. 31, no. 3, of Millennium: Journal of International Studies in 2002; Katzenstein & Sil, 2008; Kratochwil, 2007). Different descriptions of what constitutes its intellectual core notwithstanding, we understand pragmatism in this article as a theory of human thought and action that transcends the dualistic and misleading separation between theories of knowledge (production), also called “epistemology,” and theories of action (Hellmann, 2010, p. 149).

In IR, American Pragmatism has played a marginal role at best for a long time. Given the history and disciplinary profile of IR and its subject matter, this may strike as odd. After all, what came to be taken as the quintessential “American” philosophy should have been a perfect match for what Stanley Hoffmann (1977) prominently characterized as “[a]n American Social Science.” Modern American IR, however, was fundamentally shaped by two very “European” traditions: political realism and logical empiricism. In large parts, immigrants from Europe had brought these traditions to North America, mostly in the 1920s and 1930s. In the wake of the U.S. military and economic dominance after World War II, the “American” social science of IR spread across many parts of the globe. However, it took until the early 2000s for the discipline to open up for and be irritated by American Pragmatism (similar: Cochran, 2012, pp. 138–140).

We discuss the early encounters between American Pragmatism, IR, and FPA in the next section. In particular, we will highlight the division between IR theory and FPA and the problems that this division poses. Subsequently, we will—in four steps—examine pragmatists’ engagement with epistemology, methodology, substantial theorizing, and their normative positions.

Pragmatism and the Disciplinary Distinction Between IR and FPA

Pragmatist thought gradually began to be noticed in IR since the mid-1990s (Adler, 1997, pp. 328–330; Cochran, 1996; Deibert, 1997; Puchala, 1995, pp. 7–16; Smith, 1996, pp. 23–25). At that time, the discipline was deeply divided. Approaches that were taken to be located on a “systemic level” were sharply set apart from approaches that were not and, thus, called “sub-systemic” instead (Kaplan, 1964; Waltz, 1979, pp. 41–55). Fully in line with the new orthodoxy established by Waltz (1979, pp. 79–82) and accepted by Wendt (1999, pp. 10–15), system level and sub-system or unit-level approaches were not only separated from each other but also normatively charged. Only the first was fully accepted as enabling a particular type of “theory” (meeting standards of parsimony), while the latter were dismissed as “reductionist” (Waltz, 1979, ch. 2) and as merely addressing “the behaviour of individual states” (Carlsnaes, 2002, p. 331). First-tier IR theory was privileged vis-à-vis theoretically weak, if not non-theoretical second-tier foreign policy analysis (Hellmann, 2009b, pp. 251–252). As Waltz (1996, p. 56) put it in his reply to Elman (1996):

Neither realists nor anyone else believe that unit-level factors can be excluded from foreign-policy analysis. The question is not what should be excluded from one’s account of foreign policy, but what can be included in a theory of international politics. Much is included in an analysis; little is included in a theory. Theories are sparse in formulation and beautifully simple. Reality is complex and often ugly.

From a pragmatist point of view, such a sharp distinction between systemic theories of international politics and reductionist sub-systemic approaches of foreign policy analysis is untenable. Not only did it “put a strong structuralist-systemic stamp on IR” (Carlsnaes, 2002, p. 332), it also attributed minor theoretical status to foreign policy analysis for obscure reasons—as if the “reality” of (systemic) international politics were somehow less “ugly” than the “reality” of (sub-systemic) foreign policy. Moreover, the distinction between theories of international politics that address patterns of interaction on a systemic level and approaches of foreign policy analysis that deal with concrete action ascribed to single countries ignored two decisive aspects: that the foreign policy of single countries has effects on and is shaped by the patterns of interaction in international politics and that, vice versa, interaction between countries shapes international structures (Herborth, Hölzing, Roos, & Hellmann, 2005, pp. 3–4).

Even before pragmatism entered the orbit of IR theorizing, scholars inspired by “social constructivism” had argued—in the context of the agent-structure debate (see, for instance, Carlsnaes, 1992; Dessler, 1989; Wendt, 1987; Wight, 1999)—that the international system and foreign policy are complementary or mutually co-constitutive. Authors such as Thomas Banchoff (1999), Thomas Berger (1996), and John Duffield (1999) developed distinctly constructivist approaches of foreign policy based on what they took as a powerful case, German foreign policy, in order to challenge realism. After unification, realists had predicted major change in the country’s foreign policy due to increased German power (as measured in population, economic potential, and military might). For non-realists, these predictions were a boon since they turned post-unification Germany into a promising test case that many critics felt realism would easily fail. As a result, scholarly articles on German foreign policy boosted in academic journals and the topic got its Warholian 15 minutes of fame in the history of IR theory (Hellmann, 2009a, pp. 259–269; Herborth, 2015a, p. 112).

The debate on “change” and “continuity” in German foreign policy that unfolded in the 1990s mostly served as a venue for paradigmatist competition. It not only illustrates the fruitlessness of the opposition between systemic and sub-systemic approaches but also the futility of the “war of attrition” between IR’s leading paradigms, with realists predicting “change” and constructivists predicting “continuity” in German foreign policy. The irony was that social constructivists who had started with the claim to better account for social dynamics and change not only turned into advocates of continuity but also characterized as continuity what appeared as change to many. In order to score points against realism, “change” was redefined as careful adaptation to a changing environment. Moreover, “continuity” presumably was omnipresent even though skeptics observed “change.” In this manner, German foreign policy developed from a test case for (“systemic”) realism to one for social constructivism that located the stickiness of observed continuity at the “sub-systemic” level of political culture rather than emphasizing the co-constitutive nature of structure and agency.

Pragmatists believe that it is inappropriate to draw a strong distinction between theories of international politics and theories of foreign policy because such a distinction does not properly reflect the complexity of international politics. They also reject the epistemological assumption associated with realist as well as (“soft”) constructivist theorizing (Palan, 2000, p. 576) according to which complexity needs to be “simplified” in a certain fashion (e.g., by limiting “variables” to a very small set) in order to build “parsimonious” theory. Rather, they side with James when he says that inquiry has to confront “the teeming and dramatic richness of the concrete world” (James, 1879, p. 339). In other words, foreign policy must not be reduced to a so-called sub-systemic level because (“unit level”) foreign policy practices and (“systemic”) global order stand in a co-constitutive, dialectical relation to each other. Foreign policy practices shape that (evolving) order, while the latter forms structural conditions that shape and become manifest in foreign policy practices. The development of Germany’s role in Europe since 1990 and German foreign policy vividly illustrates that point (Hellmann, 2016b).

Pragmatists also reject an ahistorical essentialism according to which states and practices of foreign policy are treated as given (Hellmann, 2016a; Herborth, 2015a, p. 107). They sympathize with Richard Ashley’s understanding of foreign policy, who defines foreign policy as a political performance of boundary drawing where relations between an inside and an outside of political communities are negotiated (Ashley, 1987). These historically contingent and path-dependent, boundary-producing practices entail far-reaching political consequences since they are critical in (re-)producing international “systems” in the first place.

Pragmatist Epistemology

Epistemology usually refers to knowledge (theory) and the conditions of its generation as a means to guide action (practice) conceived as separate from this knowledge. As it starts from action, the pragmatist “approach to knowledge” is held to refute “the epistemological project” (Kratochwil, 2009, pp. 18, 14). For pragmatists, knowledge is action, and it is based in experience. As “a series of active engagements or interactions between an organism and its environment,” experience “begins and ends in the middle of things” (Ralston, 2013, p. 11). Consequently, pragmatists reject all foundations for knowledge or truth claims other than action and experience (Cochran, 2002, 541 pp.). Sticking to an understanding of knowledge as useful (Friedrichs & Kratochwil, 2009, p. 711), pragmatists in IR/FPA put themselves in the tradition of William James ([1907] 1987, p. 509) who had stressed the “practical cash-value” of theories. Knowledge, theories, and concepts are of use when they get us somewhere, when they work and, thus, lead to “more work” (James [1907] 1987, p. 509). Their truth depends on the “capacity to guide thinkers toward a successful or satisfactory solution to a problematic situation” (Isacoff, 2002, p. 614, following Dewey). Against this background, pragmatist views on primacy of practice and theory as tool, but also on causality are presented here.

Primacy of Practice and Theory As Tool

For pragmatists, epistemology—the question of how we know—is grounded in practice, in experience—or, in short, in what we do. Knowing is acting, and the quality of knowledge lies in its consequences. The critical point here is whether we accept what is claimed to be knowledge or, as Wittgenstein (1975, §378) put it, “acknowledge” and act upon it. This is another way of saying that pragmatists privilege practice over epistemology. Moreover, in this understanding of practice, “situated creativity” and contingency are critical (Joas, 1992b, p. 190, on, among others, Dewey, 1938a, 1938b). Thus, pragmatists conceive of theories as fruits of experience-based “creative intelligence” (Dewey, 1917, p. 64) for coping with the contingencies of daily life. In any type of social inquiry, irrespective of whether this occurs inside or outside the academy, theories are problem-solving tools—and language is “the tool of tools” (Dewey [1925] 1981, p. 134). This understanding of practice, knowledge, and problem solving also entails a rejection of misleading dichotomies such as theory versus practice, theory versus history, or explaining versus understanding (Dewey, 1929, pp. 3–25; Rorty, 1982). For pragmatists, these (Neo-Kantian) dichotomies not only decouple thought (theory) and action (practice) but also preclude adequate accounts for social change.

Pragmatist foreign policy theorizing is thus built on a processual and contingent understanding of the distinction between inside/outside, competent and creative actors, as well as gradually changing institutionalized practices. Among the most important institutionalized practices in international politics, diplomacy, war, espionage and trade stand out. In an evolutionary perspective they provide solutions to what, mostly, governing elites had perceived as problematic situations in the context of organizing relations among political communities at some point (Hellmann, 2016a, pp. 43–45; Herborth, 2015a, p. 110).

Pragmatism and Causality

The tradition of pragmatism recounted here can be distinguished from both constructivist and post-positivist accounts with regard to notions of causality because there is no unitary account for causality among pragmatists. Whereas constructivists and post-positivists usually build their theories of the social world without explicitly drawing on a concept of causality, a proper understanding of causation is critical for some pragmatists. For instance, Schmidt (2014, pp. 821, 828) emphasizes that some processes of social interaction may be seen as “causal but nondeterministic,” while rejecting the view that general causal laws are conceivable. Moreover, some pragmatists explicitly engaging in causal analysis reject what they believe is a misleading distinction in constructivist approaches between causation and constitutiveness. Franke and Roos (2010, pp. 1070–1074), for instance, follow (Aristotle and) Kurki (2006) in differentiating between two kinds of active and two kinds of constitutive causes—reserving active causes for realizations of the competence to act (efficient causes) and the beliefs that, as rules for action, guide people.

In following Dewey, Hellmann, in contrast, emphasizes that connections among “events” are to be called “causal” only in a logical sense and that it is via narrative (re)construction that the connections are infused with meaning (Hellmann, 2017, p. 582). With Dewey (1911, p. 554), he holds the concept of causation as justified since it is useful “in regulating the occurrences of experiences.” Contrary to Schmidt (2014, p. 828) who argues pragmatists have to give up making predictions, Hellmann also reads Dewey and Rorty as favoring the view that creative interpretation of experience helps to guide “future experience” (Hellmann, 2017, p. 591). In this pragmatist (and Wittgensteinian) view, the establishment of a connection between something called “cause” and something called “effect” is just another way of describing how things “hang together.”

Pragmatist Methods of Inquiry

To the extent that pragmatism is taken as a unified theory of thought and action, it dissolves the “problem” of epistemology by insisting on the primacy of practice. In doing so, it also liberates scholarship to focus on methodology as “methodized inquiry” (Dewey [1916a] 1980, p. 172; Hellmann, 2017). Rather than framing a research problem in such a way “that it seems capable of being answered with the tools available” (King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994, p. 19, emphasis added), a Deweyan conception of methodized inquiry emphasizes that creative scholarship excels when it succeeds in tailoring available or novel methodological tools to adequately fit the specific research problem at hand. This does not mean that researchers have to reinvent the wheel. As a matter of fact, Dewey argues, “there exists a cumulative body of fairly stable methods” in every scholarly discipline—“a body authorized by past experience and by intellectual analysis, which an individual ignores at his peril.” Yet there is also “always a danger that these methods will become mechanized and rigid, mastering an agent instead of being powers at command for his own ends” (Dewey [1916a] 1980, p. 177). Therefore, because the scholar ought to focus on her or his particular problem and because, in addition, she or he ought to keep in mind that “cases are like, not identical,” existing general methods, “however authorized they may be, have to be adapted to the exigencies of particular cases” (Dewey [1916a] 1980, p. 118).

If pragmatists were pushed to express such a general methodological stance in a single word, many would probably suggest reconstruction (Franke & Roos, 2013; Herborth, 2017). Methodized inquiry thus translates into reconstructive approaches to theorizing, which reject the separation of theory and subject matter. Reconstruction may find expression in two pragmatist variations based on differing foundational assumptions about the status of “reality” and our ways of relating to it via interpretation: a disciplined, more Peirce-inspired effort to recover what is taken to be the objective meanings of those parts of the social world that have been chosen as one’s subject matter (Franke & Roos, 2013, 11 pp.; Mead, 1934b posthumous; Oevermann, 1991, 1996, 2000; Peirce [1903] 1998); and a more free-wheeling—recontextualizing or redescribing—Rortyan variant based on an anti-representationalist understanding of how human sense-making and “world” hang together (Hellmann, 2017; Rorty [1967] 1992, 1989, 1991).

In the first variant of reconstruction, inquiry is usually divided up into two steps. In a first step, reconstruction aims at generating hypotheses about a specific subject matter in the very process of starting inquiry—and not, artificially, somehow before one delves into the subject matter (or “data”). In a second step, these hypotheses (which, depending on the specific methods applied, are sometimes also called codes, memos, or sequential analyses) are combined and “re-constructed” into empirically grounded theories about the respective subject matter. Both steps must not be mistaken for consecutive phases, though. Moreover, both of them ought to be organized in such a way that they enable researchers to come up with creative, new and problem-solving propositions vis-à-vis their subject matter. Ever since Peirce, this often neglected and sometimes mystified process or mode of reasoning has been termed “abduction” (Fann, 1970; Franke & Weber, 2011, pp. 672–675; Peirce [1905b] 1966, [1903] 1998, [1878b] 1992, [1868] 1992).

For Peirce, abduction is one of three ways to overcome doubt, the other two being deduction and induction. As Zaiotti (2013) pinpoints in an account of the emerging border control regime in Europe in the 1980s, Peirce considers these ways the method of science and three consecutive steps of the research process at the same time. However, only the first step or mode of reasoning—abduction—brings about a new hypothesis. Whereas deduction deciphers the potential consequences of that hypothesis, induction engages in experimentation, that is, it explores whether or under which conditions the deduced consequences of the hypothesis actually happen. Following Peirce, Zaiotti (2013, pp. 5–7) holds induction to be distinct from the logical positivist notion of verification in two regards: In his view experience is not restricted to direct observation; and, second, beliefs are not fixed solipsistically but conjointly. This communal fixation of beliefs also adds to the pragmatist concept of truth as previously sketched. True is what is held to be true by a distinct community. Truth is about “what works” in one’s coping with life—not a matter of what is presumably “a correct or an accurate representation of reality” (Abraham & Abramson, 2017, p. 37, referencing James [1907] 1987; and Rorty, 1979).

The second variant of reconstruction as “recontextualization” or “redescription” emphasizes an anti-representationalist take of how thought and world hang together (for an illustration, see Hellmann, 2016b). It does not attach demanding “truth” conditions to descriptions but is satisfied instead if knowledge claims resonate with other interested observers. As Wittgenstein (1975, §378) put it: “Knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgement” (see also Rorty [1967] 1992, p. 373; 1991, pp. 93–110). “Reconstructors” as previously portrayed, and “recontextualizers” or “redescribers” agree that both the social practice to be studied and the practice of studying this practice follow distinct rules and that “most of reality is indifferent to our descriptions of it” (Rorty, 1989, p. 7). They also share an interest in novel ways of inquiring into foreign policy agency or systemic transformations and emphasize that “methods alone do not guarantee good research” (Wilson, 2012, p. 584). However, whereas first variant reconstructors hold on to a notion of “truth” as “[t]he opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate” (Dewey, 1916b; Peirce [1878a] 1992, p. 139), redescribers also sympathize with a more activist notion of social re-engineering. The latter is based on the assumption that human beings can create new “patterns of linguistic behavior” by redescribing “lots and lots of things in new ways,” thereby “tempt[ing] the rising generation to adopt it” and “causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions” (Rorty, 1989, p. 9).

Both variants of pragmatist reconstruction are built upon dissatisfaction with the dominance of positivist and empiricist approaches in the discipline. In addition, they draw on a Wittgensteinian understanding of language brought to IR by Kratochwil (1989), Onuf (1989), and Fierke (2002). It means that language is constitutive (of reality) and performative (as action). Yet, in foreign policy analysis the linguistic turn had only gained a wider followership with the spread of a diverse set of discourse analyses. Discourses do not determine foreign policy, but they circumscribe horizons of possibilities for action (Baumann, 2006, pp. 83–84). Such an understanding of language has major consequences for empirical research. Foreign policy discourses can be conceived as speech acts, which do not only make sense of foreign policy but constitute foreign policy (as action). According to Searle (1969, p. 41, italics in original) who developed Austin’s ([1955] 1962) William James Lectures into a distinct theory, uttering speech acts or “speaking a language is engaging in a rule-governed form of behavior.” Accordingly, the meaning of speech acts and the discourses they constitute can be analyzed by means of the rules that brought it about.

Which methods are used to reconstruct meaning from foreign policy discourse? Prominently among them figure data gathering, coding, memo writing, theoretical sampling, and theory drafting, that is, the five stages of “grounded theory” (Strauss, 2004; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). As far as Strauss and Corbin are concerned, grounded theory is clearly rooted in American Pragmatism. The version by Glaser and Strauss (1967), however, had also been inspired by the empiricist tradition of Columbia University, academic home to Barney Glaser. Even before Wilson (2012) emphasized that it may help to advance scholarly work on diplomacy, war, and other primary institutions, pragmatist grounded theory had already been successfully applied to foreign policy analysis. In a study on the changing practice of Germany’s multilateralist foreign policy orientation, for instance, Baumann (2002, 2006) not only relied on Mayring’s (2000) qualitative content analysis but also on Strauss’s (2004) version of grounded theory. Refuting the claim for ahistorical and generalizing theories, he engaged in open coding to do justice to the semantic and pragmatic complexity of selected speech acts. Even though his analysis relied on preconceived categories or codes, they were handled flexibly and remained open to necessary adaptations and refinements in the course of the research process (Baumann, 2006, pp. 90–103). Grounded theory has also been applied by Hofferberth (2016), Jasper (2014), and mostly by Roos (2010) whose analysis of the rules for action that guide Germany’s foreign policy after unification focused on particularly interesting (i.e., counterintuitive or contradictory) speech acts (see also Roos, 2017; Roos & Rungius, 2016; Roos & Seidl, 2015).

Roos’s adaptation of grounded theory’s close reading of diverse texts was inspired by sequential analyses. As a tool for methodized inquiry, these had been proposed by the German sociologist Ulrich Oevermann (1996, 2000) whose methodology termed objective hermeneutics is deeply anchored in both structuralism and pragmatism. Sequential analyses are considered a craft and thus shun standardization. Nevertheless, just like the practice of a surgeon, their use is based on a few rules—rules of interpretation in order to prevent circularities, immunization, and free association detached from the material to be examined (for further examples of pragmatist reconstructions inspired by sequential analyses, see Franke, 2010; Herborth, 2015b; and Hofferberth, 2016).

In conclusion, pragmatist methods in IR/FPA serve as a tool to reconstruct the meaning of the subject matters of concern. Like its production the reconstruction of meaning is a rule-guided process. However, this process can take stricter (first variant) or freer (second variant) forms. The principles of the transparency of the research process and the chance to intersubjectively check the findings are taken very seriously. However, conventional criteria to judge the quality of the research process such as objectivity, reliability, and validity are hardly applicable. Instead, analytical quality can be measured against the level of compliance with the rules for interpretation or reconstruction stated in advance. Generating new hypotheses about and views on one’s subject matter is among the prominent aims of pragmatist reconstructions (Franke & Roos, 2013).

Pragmatist Theorizing

In recent years, several scholars have claimed that pragmatism’s contributions to IR must not be restricted to its “epistemological implications or methodological prescriptions” (Pratt, 2016, p. 509; similar: Schmidt, 2014, p. 817). Some even argue that IR pragmatism is “a philosophical program rather than a sociological or empirical one” (Bueger & Gadinger, 2015, p. 7). Such redescriptions can be taken as responses to one of the most prominent publications on pragmatism in IR—Friedrichs and Kratochwil’s (2009, p. 711) characterization of it as both “the reflexive practice of discursive communities of scholars” and “a device for the generation of useful knowledge.” However, those who criticize its reduction to an epistemological or methodological stance argue that pragmatism as philosophy and social theory opens “several new directions for substantive theory” (Pratt, 2016, p. 523). Some of these directions are presented in the following.

Habits, Practices, and Loyalties

One of IR pragmatism’s new directions is thought to enrich the constructivist research program on norm change (Schmidt, 2014, p. 817). Building on Dewey’s concept of habits as customs (or modes of thought and action), Schmidt (2014, pp. 819–820) points to the emergence of the new habit of “sovereign basing” after World War II that was enacted by individuals, defined by material objects, and that accounts for social stability and resistance to change. In the context of an intensifying Cold War, the non-interfering “long-term, peace-time presence of a foreign military on the territory of another sovereign state” (Schmidt, 2014, p. 817) replaced the old habit of “military exclusivity” under which foreign military presences meant subjugation. Like every new habit, sovereign basing emerged through collective reflection, deliberation, and experimentation (Schmidt, 2014, pp. 820–822).

In a similar way, Pratt (2016, pp. 514–515) also links pragmatism to IR constructivism and praises Dewey’s habits as (potential) “objects of reflection and conscious modification.” For Pratt (2016, pp. 517–523), pragmatist thought has the capacity not only to account for reflexivity and self-awareness but also to do away with counterproductive dualisms—dualisms such as those separating agency and structure, realism and idealism or normative and strategic action. With regard to the latter, Pratt argues, only pragmatist ontology would make it possible to “usefully treat norms both as moral constraints and as strategic instruments by their originators” (Pratt, 2016, p. 522). However, Dewey’s concept of habits also gives rise to more cautious readings: “Where the logic of habit predominates,” writes Hopf (2010, p. 540), “international relations have less agency, less rationality, and less uncertainty than other logics would lead us to expect.” He conceives of habits as “a structural obstacle to social change” and of change as being brought about not by habits but by reflection on them (Hopf, 2010, pp. 540, 555). Correspondingly, the maintenance of social order would happen “unthinkingly, unreflectively, habitually” (Hopf, 2010, p. 554). Although Dewey had recommended developing “a habit of questioning our habits,” he saw that more problematic situations were required to make people leave behind their “irrational unreflective certainty about the world” (Hopf, 2010, p. 555).

Interestingly enough, the authors just mentioned not only share a certain reliance on Dewey’s concept of habits. Each of them also sets apart his account from “practice theory,” from the “practice turn,” and from Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, that is, “the system of dispositions that serve as the tacit foundation of perception and action that agents acquire by virtue of their position in a social structure” (Schmidt, 2014, pp. 821–822; for a more detailed engagement of the practice turn, see the following section). Pratt (2016, p. 515), to begin with, specifies his account of practice vis-à-vis the practice turn as both material and social and including sub-intentional and habituated behaviors. He takes Bourdieu’s agents as not normally “reflect[ing] on their relationship to the field” (Pratt, 2016, p. 516), whereas Schmidt (2014, p. 821) argues that their reflection “will only result in an inadequate and partial representation” of the reflected practices. Hopf, in turn, criticizes that the protagonists of the recent practice turn in IR have “not explored the relationship between habit, agency, rationality, and uncertainty in world politics” (Hopf, 2010, p. 540). Instead, he sees them as falling behind William James and John Dewey, who did not differentiate between habits of the mind and those of the body. This, at least, is a charge Hopf (2010, p. 546) raises vis-à-vis Pouliot (2008).

Habits or beliefs are critical for pragmatists because people are prepared to act on them (Zaiotti, 2013, p. 10). As Peirce ([1878a] 1992, p. 129) writes, “belief is a rule for action.” A pragmatist account for foreign policy that strongly draws on Peirce’s notion of belief, on Mead’s (1934a posthumous) dialectics of I and me, and on Dewey’s ([1927] 1954) notion of public has been developed by Roos (2010, 2015; Franke & Roos, 2010). Roos conceives of a certain country’s—in his case, Germany’s—foreign policy as guided by the beliefs (i.e., rules for action) of those who are in a position to decide on the course of foreign policy. Three core components of Roos’s approach are structures of corporate practice, human beings as the only possible meaningful actors, and process as a dialectic relation between structures and actors.

Paraphrasing Peirce’s ([1905a] 1998, p. 338) pragmatist maxim according to which signs mean their effect, Roos (2015, p. 180) refers to structures as socially constructed and ideational phenomena, which consist of signs and thus “display an effect according to their meaning.” In addition, structures are modeled on Dewey’s ([1927] 1954, p. 12) observation “that human acts have consequences upon others, that some of these consequences are perceived, and that their perception leads to subsequent effort to control action so as to secure some consequences and avoid others.” These efforts constitute the public according to Dewey—and structures of collective action or rather corporate practice in line with Roos. As “social strategies of problem-solving” (Franke & Roos, 2010, p. 1066) structures of corporate practice refer to various kinds of rules (consciously and unconsciously) created to deal with problems that are unsolvable for individuals. A first type of rules for action defines the constitutive problem of action as well as relations to other structures of corporate practice, a second one establishes structural positions and defines the relationship among them. A third type of rules for action explicates what holders of structural positions can or cannot do (structural potential).

In this understanding structural positions can only be held by human beings. This is why the latter figure as the only actors in the model. Human beings are characterized by a triad of attributes—corporeality, reflexivity, and the aptitude for abduction—which enable them not only to creatively depart “from structurally fixed routines of action” (Franke & Roos, 2010, p. 1069) but also to control these processes. As in Zaiotti’s (2013) account, new beliefs are fixed in such critical contexts (Peirce [1877] 1992). To underline that, from this perspective at least, it makes no sense to refer to structures of corporate practice without talking about human beings (and vice versa), the dialectical relation among them is termed process (or politics or life). It is introduced as the model’s third core component (Franke & Roos, 2010, pp. 1065–1074; Roos, 2010, pp. 48–77).

Similar to many of his fellow IR pragmatists, Roos sees the main purpose of his approach in examining social change. To account for change in foreign policy and world politics at the same time, Roos (2015) recently extended his pragmatist approach by examining social relationships based on loyalty. Building on the work of the pragmatist philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916), Roos takes loyalty to directly relate “to the question of how intensely and strongly an actor believes an idea to be true or a rule for action to be useful” (Roos, 2015, p. 183). Since actors not only hold specific sets of beliefs but also specific sets of loyalties—both being modified in crises—the inclusion of loyalty makes it possible to examine “the process of strengthening and weakening” of their beliefs (Roos, 2015, p. 184). Moreover, researchers can—by studying loyalties within the most influential structures of corporate practice in world politics—realize which rules for action gain or lose political grip on the global scale (Roos, 2015, p. 187). The inclusion of loyalty thus increases the dynamics of the model and sets it apart from George’s (1969) analysis of operational codes with which it shares a certain family resemblance. While the latter is thought to be unable to account for change due to its behavioralist bias (Roos & Rungius, 2016, p. 42, fn. 4), the combination of structures of corporate practice, beliefs as rules for action, and loyalty toward these beliefs is best suited to engage “the evolving character of world politics and its ever changing distribution of loyalties” (Roos, 2015, p. 188, emphasis in the original).

The Practice Turn

IR’s so-called practice turn or practice theory is another prominent strand of thought in the family of pragmatism-related work. In one reading, practice theory is said to have two roots. The better known is critical theory (Bourdieu included) with its emphasis on “routines and structures”, the presumably less well-known is pragmatism, which is portrayed as focusing on “situations, contingency, creativity, and change” (Bueger & Gadinger, 2015, p. 7). Rather than spending too much time on these traditions, practice theorists call upon fellow pragmatists to move beyond the classics, that is, Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead; and to recognize “pragmatist theorizing as part of the practice theoretical family” (Bueger & Gadinger, 2015, p. 7).

What may look like a reinvention of the wheel from a classical pragmatist perspective is also illustrated in a similarly programmatic attempt to marry practice theory to the study of diplomacy (Pouliot & Cornut, 2015, following Neumann’s 2002 pathbreaking work on diplomacy and the linguistic turn). Referring to diplomacy as a category of both practice and analysis, prominent diplomatic practices (or “ways of doing things”) are listed such as “speech writing, conference negotiations, information gathering, visa delivery, multilateral debate, cultural exchange, treaty signing, twitter messaging, etc.” (Pouliot & Cornut, 2015, pp. 298–300). However, given the multiplicity of seemingly contradictory theoretical traditions in IR on which practice theory presumably draws (including positivism, post-structuralism, and Habermasian critical theory; Pouliot & Cornut, 2015, pp. 300–305), it is not quite clear what it may mean to understand practice theory as “an analytical framework that seeks to explain and understand the social world” (Pouliot & Cornut, 2015, p. 302).

Critics of such an understanding argue that it boils down to equating practice theory with the social sciences as such and that practice theorists thereby produce the kind of evidence needed for their (implicit) meta-theoretical assumption that science makes progress via the bridging of gaps, the dissolution of contradictions and the overcoming of interparadigmatic feuds (Ringmar, 2014, p. 20). The reproduction of prominent ontological dichotomies by Adler and Pouliot (2011, pp. 12–18, i.e., the dichotomies between the material and the meaningful, the rational and the practical, agencies and structures, as well as the forces of stability and change) is criticized as treating practice as “raw data” as if it were given before theorization, thus suggesting that progress was possible without theoretical choices (Ringmar, 2014, pp. 3, 6–7, 21). In contrast, Ringmar (2014, pp. 21–22) propagates a pluralist ontology.

The complexities of theorizing practice and the practice turn’s promise to show a way out of “seemingly inescapable categories” have already been discussed one-and-a-half decades ago. Stern (2003, pp. 185–186, 201) conceives of practices as “something people do on a regular basis” and of practice theorists as navigating beyond subjectivism and objectivism. Relying on the later Wittgenstein’s “unsystematic approach” could make it possible “to investigate practices without being burdened by a theory of practices as hidden forces,” Stern (2003, pp. 201–202) writes, adding that this could also restore “the hope of doing justice to the indefinite and multicolored filigree of everyday life.” However, in Stern’s view, even Wittgensteinian references to practice as background, language-games or forms of life do not solve the most decisive conflict in this context: One is either treated as a naïve empiricist, an extreme subjectivist and an atheoretical discarder of rigor who squandered the explanatory power of the original theory of practice—or one lives up to these harsh criticisms and ends as a scholar who substitutes “a theory of fictitious forces for a close description of particulars” (Stern, 2003, p. 203).

All these differences in philosophical and meta-theoretical justification notwithstanding, practice theory’s contribution to the study of foreign policy cannot be overlooked. In a study on the generation of knowledge about piracy in the United Nations, Bueger (2015, p. 16), for instance, makes a clear case for various “epistemic practices of piracy” coinciding with various “processes of making knowledge.” Shifting the perspective from actors and their influence to (fragile) structures of knowledge production, he identifies three “archetypes” of epistemic practices—quantification, expert interpretation, and diplomatic networking (Bueger, 2015, pp. 15–16). In doing so, he also offers answers to the questions of how knowledge “is generated and validated in practice” and how “the laboratories of IR . . . organize the global flow of knowledge and stabilize the objects of the international” (Bueger, 2015, p. 16). Besides, Bueger’s work also illustrates the pragmatist argument how ontology, epistemology, methodology, and substantive consideration mutually inform and shape each other.

Pragmatism As Interactionism

The core commonality of pragmatist approaches in FPA is that they not only engage with what actors do—practice—but that they take practice as the very starting point of foreign policy research. For non-pragmatists this primacy of practice might appear irritating as it might raise the question against which (theoretical) argument(s) this emphasis on practice is directed. All pragmatists would agree that “primacy of practice” must not be understood as a rejection of “theory.” Rather, it is directed against a misleading conception of a primacy of theory which separates both action from knowledge and theory from subject matter. Rejecting the separation of theory and subject matter implies that one’s subject matter cannot be subsumed under preconceived categories. Instead, its meaning (or, what constitutes the subject matter in the first place) needs to be patiently reconstructed in a creative and empirically grounded process. Rejecting the separation of action and knowledge implies “that the production of belief is the sole function of thought” (Peirce [1878a] 1992, p. 127). Theories are turned into tools for coping with the contingencies of life.

Seen from this angle, the primacy of practice emphasizes what Joas (1992b) called “the creativity of action,” be it the action of foreign policy practitioners or foreign policy scholars. Human agents are conceived as socialized individuals who create and re-create their “worlds” via contingent (inter)action. “Worlds” of interaction in this sense are constituted by family, local community, or global society. Contrary to rationalistic theories of action, what people do must not be reduced to the realization of given ends by distinct means. Rather, the relationship between ends and means is understood as mutually constitutive. In this understanding, the primacy of practice boils down to taking sites of interaction as the most basic unit of analysis (Joas, 1992a). Such a reading of pragmatism as interactionism even includes those approaches that use Mead’s (1934a posthumous) distinction between I and me as two moments of identity formation as the cornerstone of a theory of foreign policy roles and learning (Beneš & Harnisch, 2015; Harnisch, 2012).

It needs to be emphasized, however, that interaction must not be conceived as the summation of consecutive and isolated acts. This would commit one of the key errors of the philosophy of consciousness with its solipsistic take of isolated individuals as starting point for an utterly nonsocial form of theorizing the social. Instead, all pragmatists assume that human agency is social to begin with—and “all the way down.”

Pragmatism and Constructivism

The pragmatist emphasis of interaction often leads IR constructivists to ask how pragmatism differs from constructivism. If one takes both in standard paradigmatic shorthand, they do indeed share an understanding of the social world as contingent, dynamic, and (re)created by human action. As Cochran (2012, p. 150) succinctly puts it, constructivism has made pragmatism’s arrival in IR possible in the first place:

Constructivism has played an important role in providing a point of entry for pragmatism by the simple fact that it stresses the role social interaction plays in making our world, and opens opportunities for seeing different “things” in that world as well as the possibility for changing what we see for the better.

Against this background it is not surprising that pragmatist-inspired contributions are presented as an enrichment of the constructivist research program (Pratt, 2016, pp. 514–515; Schmidt, 2014, p. 817; see also Haas & Haas, 2009). Bueger (2015, p. 2), for instance, sees his practice theoretical work as leading “to a revised constructivist perspective on situating IOs as epistemic sites of world politics.” In light of recent reproaches that IR constructivism has “sacrificed on the altar of a ‘science’ that never was” its most important purpose “to serve as the Socratic gadfly” (Kratochwil, 2016, p. 120) and that its implicit “symbolic interactionist roots . . . are worth re-examining” (Adler-Nissen, 2016, p. 29) a third generation of IR constructivists has already been proclaimed (Kessler & Steele, 2016). It encompasses a so-called New Constructivism that, made up of practice theory and relationalism, is offering new approaches such as field theory, network analysis, and actor-network theory (McCourt, 2016).

Would it, thus, be appropriate to argue that pragmatist foreign policy theorizing is merely an addendum to IR constructivism? Of course, a lot depends on whether (and, if so, to what extent) one wants to engage in “-ism”-debates in the first place. We conceive of pragmatism as a tradition of social theorizing in Alasdair MacIntyre’s understanding of “tradition” as “a narrative of an argument” that “is only recovered by an argumentative retelling of that narrative which will itself be in conflict with other argumentative retellings” (MacIntyre, 1977, p. 461; see also Bernstein, 1995). Among others, we have presented pragmatism as differing from attempts that label constructivist accounts as “post-rationalist” and pragmatist accounts as rather “post-positivist” (Harnisch, 2003, pp. 329–342). Contrary to standard conceptions of “post-positivism,” pragmatists do not give up the idea of truth but ground it in human practice. “True” is what works when we are coping with the contingencies of daily life. Truth, thus, is the opposite of something considered to be “final” and eternal. As Dewey ([1938b] 1986, p. 42) put it: “[T]he moment philosophy supposes it can find a final and comprehensive solution, it ceases to be inquiry and becomes either apologetics or propaganda.” In this reading, pragmatism must not be positioned by its proponents as a sort of paradigm to end all paradigms. It would obviously be misleading to claim that pragmatism does not constitute a paradigm or a tradition of thought. Moreover, it would be self-contradictory if pragmatists did not also claim that pragmatist theorizing is preferable (and in that sense “better”) to available alternatives. Yet, it would also be self-defeating if pragmatists propagated what Richard Rorty (1989, pp. 73–75) has called a “final vocabulary,” that is, a way of conceiving of social action (or foreign policy) as if it were possible to arrive at ever-lasting and unchanging ways of describing the world. Many constructivists sound as if such a vocabulary might be attainable indeed.

Normative Pragmatist Positions

Some IR scholars inspired by American Pragmatism also pursue an explicit normative agenda. In the context of debates about (the dilemmas of) humanitarian intervention, for instance, Bellamy (2002, pp. 485–489) developed his approach of “pragmatic solidarism” by means of three core elements of American Pragmatism: anti-representationalism, fallibilism, and the priority of democracy to philosophy. Built on an anti-representationalist concept of “knowledge as a web of constructed beliefs that help us make sense of the world,” he assumes that “states and moral communities are not equivalent” and builds his pragmatic solidarism on the following sources: contingent and fluid transnational moral communities activated in response to specific problems as well as the non-justifiability of interventions with recourse to common humanity by the intervenors (Bellamy, 2002, pp. 485, 490–491).

Cochran (2012, p. 145) argues that IR saw two waves of positivism, one during the behavioral revolution of the 1950s and another one in the wake of Waltz’s (1979) Theory of International Politics. Until today, she argues, the discipline’s “positivist bias” manifests itself in a split between empirical and “normative lines of inquiry” (Cochran, 2012, p. 150). Pragmatism is not only held to have entered IR due to its anti-positivism in the 1990s but also praised as (a method of) normative social inquiry (Cochran, 2012, p. 151). According to Cochran (2012, p. 152), Dewey‘s method aims “to illuminate what our actually existing purposes are and the obstacles in their way as we work to adapt better to our changing world.” Normative engagement is not restricted to programmatic articles, though. It can also be found in publications that grasp the social world in methodically fine-grained steps. In their examination of German foreign policy discourse, for instance, Roos and Rungius (2016, pp. 43–44) not only focus on the investigation into traces of relevant speech acts and the build-up of a plausible grounded theory of their subject matter. They also explicitly theorize their subject matter normatively, yet (as it behoves a pragmatist perspective) without claiming ultimate justifications.

One of the normatively most far-reaching claims by pragmatist scholars is advanced by Abraham and Abramson (2017, pp. 32, 28) who understand “IR as an emancipatory project” that has to address “the problematique of domination in political democracy.” They claim that those scholars who refer to pragmatism as a theoretical tool for solving “real-world problems” ignore the political dimension of ontological and methodological questions. In contrast, those who rely on theory as practice are held to underspecify the political content of IR pragmatism’s “emancipatory vocation” (Abraham & Abramson, 2017, pp. 29–32). In brief, IR’s turn toward pragmatism entails a double avoidance: Scholars either circumvent acknowledging the political quality of the problems to be solved or they sidestep honest discussions of IR’s political values and commitments (Abraham & Abramson, 2017, p. 33). Missing a pragmatic theorization of “those who are dominated,” Abraham and Abramson (2017, pp. 32, 34) turn to Dewey who defended modern democracy against the control of governmental decisions by experts. Since “Dewey’s project was to make the quality of political democracy dependent upon the quality of knowledge production,” democracy as social inquiry calls for lifting that project from the national to the global level (Abraham & Abramson, 2017, p. 35). They propagate a democratization of knowledge production in a global public by striving for a democratic renewal of IR that engages in scholarship with the people instead of rendering them into the object of scholarship (Abraham & Abramson, 2017, pp. 38–43). This is also an interesting exemplar of pragmatist scholarship that illustrates how explicitly normative pragmatist theorizing can transcend the divide between IR theory and foreign policy analysis.


Summing it all up, American Pragmatism was absent when IR and FPA were formed (according to the dominant disciplinary self-descriptions) and it was only noticed in the discipline nearly 80 years after the first chair of international relations had been established in 1917. It took until the 1990s for pragmatism to be discovered as a useful tool in attacking positivism (Cochran, 2012, p. 140) and in challenging habitual patterns of paradigmatist warfare in IR. Roughly two decades later, American Pragmatism is still seen as a promising venue of theorizing, especially for those who conceive of scholarship (or “social inquiry” (Dewey [1938b] 1986, pp. 487–512) as a never-ending collective learning experience (see also Kratochwil, 2014, p. 286). To fulfill these promises on an ever-larger scale in the future, the best thing pragmatist scholars can do is to engage in relevant research. Of course, criteria for “relevance” will differ (see, for example, Dewey [1938b] 1986, pp. 107–109; Kratochwil, 2014, pp. 284–291; Roos, 2017, pp. 4–5; Sil & Katzenstein, 2010, pp. 3, 8–16). Yet, in the end, Wittgensteinian “acknowledgement” (as the key to “knowledge”) will suffice as “proof” that social inquiry has contributed to our ability to cope better.


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