Using International Political Economy to Learn about Unknowns in Security Studies

This post is the first in an ongoing series showcasing interdisciplinary research in the Defence Studies Department.

Amir Magdy Kamel

 The former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about ‘known knowns’ and consequently ‘unknown unknowns’ in 2002. The Department of Defense press briefing came when Rumsfeld was quizzed on the lack of WMD and terrorist evidence in Iraq. Whilst we now know there were political and strategic reasoning behind the comment, Rumsfeld’s point captures an important sentiment in the study of International Relations (IR) and Security Studies more broadly. This sentiment centers on the conceptual and methodological limitations that come with a discipline-specific framework to examine a respective issue. The traditional (from Realism to Liberalism, and each of their offshoots), as well as the more critical approaches (from Constructivism, Securitization, and beyond) provide a set of known knowns and known unknowns (to borrow Rumsfeld’s words) when examining security concerns. This is a natural outcome from discipline-centric work. However, what is less common (and makes headway to reveal Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns) is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of IR. This ranges from historical, anthropological, sociological, or economic approaches, among others, to study IR and security. There are of course a number of pitfalls and risks in taking such an interdisciplinary approach. Here I this endeavor.

As reflected in IR and Security Studies, an issue or a threat does not sit neatly within one sphere, border, or region. Environmental, energy, and terrorist concerns, among others spill over sovereign state territories and warrant a comprehensive approach to fully understand and mitigate against these types of threats. The same can be said for the study of international affairs itself. IPE, which focuses on the relationship between economics and politics, tries to do just that. This is usually accomplished through a methodological approach where economic tools and analyses are used to examine political phenomena, a conceptual approach where economic concepts are evaluated against political concepts, or a third approach that combines the former two. In this endeavor, a few things become clear. First, such an agenda sets an arduous task of cross-examining a discipline that traditionally focuses on measuring outcomes (economics) with another that is conventionally concerned with the context (politics). This clash ultimately means that the process needs to make sense of bringing together two disciplines in a way that makes sense – that speaks both languages at the same time, as it were. Second, the application of an economic idea to the political realm, or vice-a-versa, may understandably seem abstract or forced. Thus, rendering the exercise futile if not done in a convincing and appropriate manner.

That being said, and what is often overlooked, the benefits of such an interdisciplinary approach can make headway in unraveling unknown unknown questions about IR and Security Studies. The most obvious of which is concerned with the complimentary nature of interdisciplinary analysis. For instance, economic analyses generally operate under a set of tried and tested mathematical rules or assumptions. The saying that economists ‘assume everything’ is warranted in this context. With these assumptions, comes an ability to measure, track, and project the trajectory of a specified variable. However, any results and conclusions are therefore bound by these same assumptions. It is here where a politics based contextual analysis allows us to understand why a variable behaved the way it did. As a result, a political analysis cuts through the ‘correlations does not equal causation’ charge, and identifies context-based causal forces. When taken in tandem, the economic analysis therefore provides the measure of a given issue (in a way that the political analysis cannot), and the political analysis unravels the reasons behind this measure.

There are of course a number of issues that arise from such a process. Specifically, such an approach requires focused and ruthless research questions and frameworks. Such a focus ultimately means that some aspects might be sacrificed – less variables or less detail in the contextual analysis for example. The danger therefore is that the outcome might be unsatisfactory to both disciplines. As such, this is where the framing and messaging becomes important. Or to put it differently, it is necessary to cater to political and economic audiences, both of which think of things differently.

That being said, an interdisciplinary approach to the study of IR and Security Studies, forces us to think about things in different ways to uncover those ‘unknowns’. Further, the fact that economics (as well as history, sociology, anthropology, etc) share a focus on human interaction, it seems logical to undertake such an interdisciplinary approach when examining the social world with a caveat that no size fits all.

Image – World Trade Organization from Switzerland – Geneva Ministerial Conference 1998

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