I used to think i was firmly in the culturalist camp, that materialist power/interest explanations fell short in explaining international politics without an emphasis on the identity of actors, the impact of normative structures, questions of legitimacy and all that other constructivist ‘fluff’.
then i started following the Syrian crisis closely.
the US, France, and Britain have asked for Assad to end the violence and step down. same goes for turkey and saudi arabia and the arab league. the discussion of possible consequences for failing to do so range from sanctions to intervention. ( the arab league approved sanctions as of yesterday). this concern and these sanctions are framed in terms of the rights of people, democracy and liberty. turkey and france argue that to oppose assad is necessary for them as democratic countries, i.e it necessarily follows from their identities.
a culturalists dream? the strengthening of a solidarist international society? Even the Arab League is coming around to support liberal norms, warming up to even R2P.
but, only the really naive would buy this narrative. the Syria game is being driven by strategic interests, an an ongoing competition for influence in the middle east. the US would like to curb Iranian influence, especially in light of its withdrawal in Iraq. Iran would like to increase its influence, and with the US withdrawal from Iraq, Iran could now have a sphere of influence extending from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Israel is apprehensive either way – it would like to see the end of the Syria-Iranian friendship, but is worried about an Islamist government coming to power – Assad is the enemy they know. The Great Game is on, and is accelerating to dangerous levels in Syria.
And its not about human rights, democracy or other solidarist norms. Its about strategic interests, competition, and the balance of power played out against the shadow of the future.This would fit a realist analysis well; ideas are epiphenomenal and mostly just serve as justifications for achieving strategic interests. States might use the language of human rights and democracy, but these are justifications masking other interests. Andrew Hurrel points out how pluralist concerns are advanced and strengthened through solidarist arguments.
So, goodbye arm-chair culturalism? Hello realism?