International relations theory and the new Middle East: three levels of a debate

By Morten Valbjørn, Aarhus University

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.

The Arab uprisings have not only impacted the Arab world but also scholarship about Arab politics. Much of the debate, in particular in the beginning, was about identifying the initial and underlying causes of the unexpected and dramatic events that began in 2011. However, the debate has increasingly also concerned broader questions regarding the implications for a future “new Middle East” and for the future study of Arab politics. The latter issue, concerning the analytical implications of the Arab uprisings, has been demonstrated in (self)reflections about whether we got it all wrong before 2011 and whether there is a need for completely new kinds of theories and approaches; or, alternatively, whether our “old” theories have been vindicated now that the dust has begun to settle again.[1]

While most scholarship about Arab politics has been impacted by the Arab uprisings, it is also clear that the degree and kind of impact differs among various fields of study.

The Arab Uprisings and the Comparative Politics of the Middle East
Comparative politics of the Middle East is among the fields of study that have been most impacted. This has not only been reflected in a considerable deal of soul-searching, critique and rebuttals, particularly related to the question of whether or not the literature about authoritarian resilience has been undermined.[2] It has also been reflected in a huge amount of new and innovative literature about the comparative politics of the Arab uprising. Thus, the dramatic and unexpected developments since 2011 have given rise to very productive and fertile dialogue and engagement between regional specialists and scholars of comparative politics who are not Middle East specialists. Theories and approaches developed elsewhere have been applied to the Middle East, and the region has been compared with other regions and earlier transitions.[3] Generalists appear, at the same time, to have become much more interested in the Middle East and in some of the theoretical debates that previously took place mainly between Middle East specialists.[4]

International Relations Theory and the New Middle East
A somewhat different picture emerges if one turns to the field of international relations of the Middle East. Contrary to the field of comparative politics, the air has not been full of claims about how the existing approaches have been undermined nor has there has been any significant degree of soul-searching. At the same time, a similar amount of (theoretical) literature has so far not been produced about international relations following the Arab uprisings and that which has been produced has been, to some extent, of a different nature. Much of the literature has concerned specific events, identified winners and losers among the regional powers,[5] or revolved around the broader question about to what extent it makes sense to speak of a “new Middle East” – or “new new Middle East”.[6] Other authors have debated if we are instead witnessing some kind of movement “forward to the past” in terms of a “New Arab Cold War,” “a struggle of Syria redux” or a “new Thirty Years’ War.”[7] On the one hand, much of this is excellent and illuminating analysis of current dynamics. On the other hand, IR theories are often only used implicitly. Rather few of these analyses thus ask how one or the other IR theory can be useful in explaining a certain current phenomenon and/or how insights from the “new Middle East” may also provide important lessons for more general issues concerning international relations (theory).

Perhaps as a consequence of this, the degree of dialogue between the general IR debate and the debate among regional specialists appears to have been more limited regarding international relations in a new Middle East compared to the intense cross-fertilization in the debate about the comparative politics of the Arab uprisings. Thus, in comparative terms, it appears that regional specialists within the field of comparative politics have been able to attract more attention from generalists than have regional specialists dealing with Middle East international relations. As an anecdotal indication, it is striking how few panels concerned international relations at the annual meeting of the American Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in 2013; and while the Middle East was quite well-represented at the International Studies Association (ISA) the same year, it is striking to observe how many of the panelists were (excellent) comparativists with a particular interest in the international dimension of comparative politics rather than scholars who draw on IR theory.

An emerging and fertile debate about IR theory and the Middle East—before the Arab uprisings
It might be tempting to explain this difference in the way the Arab uprisings have impacted these two fields of study with an argument about how cross-fertilization is more likely within the field of comparative politics than international relations. However, a quick look at scholarship about Middle East international relations before the Arab Uprisings will reveal that this does not seem to be the case. Following a growing number of calls for moving beyond the “Area Studies Controversy” in favor of more cross-fertilization between IR and Middle East studies (MES),[8] the decade before the uprisings saw plenty of examples of excellent and sophisticated studies that combined state-of-the-art IR theories and a deep knowledge about regional affairs in fertile and original ways and illustrated why and how the IR/MES nexus can potentially enrich not only our understanding of the Middle East but also international relations in more general terms.[9]

There is thus no reason as such why the debate about Middle East international relations after the Arab uprisings should be different from what is happening with regard to the comparative politics of the Arab uprisings; nor is it impossible per se to have a fertile engagement between IR and MES that improves our grasp of the international relations of a new Middle East and at the same time helps us to think more creatively about international relations in general.

Three clusters in the debate about IR theory and the New Middle East
Instead of engaging in a discussion about whether or not it is possible to imagine a fertile dialogue on IR Theory and international relations in a New Middle East, it seems more relevant to ask how this kind of cross-fertilizations can be promoted and the associated potentials be realized. In this endeavor, it is useful to be attentive to (at least) three clusters of questions working at different levels of abstractions, all of which seem to be relevant for an investigation into the nexus between IR theory and the New Middle East.

The first cluster, which operates at a more empirical level, concerns the question of how Middle East international relations have been affected by the Arab uprisings and relates to the debate about the “newness” of the “new Middle East.” Halliday once remarked—in the context of September 11, 2001—that, “there are two predictable, and nearly always mistaken, responses to any great international upheaval: one is to say that everything has changed; the other is to say that nothing has changed,”[10] and he emphasized, against this background, the need for simultaneous attention to the continuities in the obvious changes and to the more subtle changes in the apparent continuities. Along these lines, there is a need to identify what has actually changed in a New Middle East and what has not, including patterns of alliances, threat perceptions, the role of regional norms and ideas, the nature of rivalries, the emergence of new issues and persistence of old ones, etc. Here it is relevant to ask and explore to what extent and in which ways IR can help us to grasp both dimensions of continuity and change, and through this contribute to the production of new insights about current dynamics and perhaps also “de-exceptionalize” what at first sight might appear uniquely Middle Eastern.

The second cluster, which operates at a first-order theoretical level, is about how insights on and studies of the “new Middle East” can contribute to the academic field of IR and enrich our general understanding of the international relations. This kind of engagement can take a number of forms.

One variant will be to use the Middle East as a “most/least likely” case to test allegedly universal IR theories. As Halliday once noted, one should ask of any theory what it can contribute to the study of Middle East international relations, and if it cannot help to explain this region then it cannot fly as an IR theory of general scope.[11] Thus, the Middle East can be used to test the alleged universality of theories developed on the basis of experiences from elsewhere. In a similar way, the “new Middle East” provides a number of cases and new material with which to test and explore classic IR controversies and issues including: a) the “1. Image” debate about whether/when/under which circumstances a change of head of state matters for foreign policy making (e.g., Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Egypt twice, Tunisia); b) the classic debate about the international dimension and implications of domestic revolutions[12]; c) the important role played by tiny Qatar in regional politics, which reopens the classic debate about whether IR should mainly focus on great powers while small states can largely be ignored as once suggested by Waltz;[13] d) closely related is the even more general debate about the sources and forms of power in international relations, including the question about fungibility and the relative importance of different kinds of power.[14] Not only Qatar—pointing to the importance but also limits of non-military sources of power—could be of interest here, but also for instance Iran. While their “hard” power may not have changed much because of the Arab Uprisings, their “soft” power derived from its popularity among Arab populations in the mid-2000s appears to have been largely lost, but does this matter, and what does this tell about the relative importance of various forms of power?; e) the obvious but complex interplay between domestic and regional/international politics during the Arab uprisings should in a similar way be of interest to the general debates in IR on “inside/outside,” “inter-mestic” affairs and the “permeability of the state,”[15] just as f) the current re-alignments among regional states provide new material to classic alliance discussions about balance of power/threat, bandwagoning, omnibalancing, material/idea­tional balancing, underbalancing etc.[16]

Another variant—instead of applying and testing IR theories developed elsewhere in the Middle East—would ask how a new Middle East could be a place for the development of new IR theories of general scope. So far, it has frequently been the case that either the Middle East has simply been a testing ground for allegedly universal theories (and if these did not fit, it has often been the Middle East rather than the theory that has been considered somehow wrong) or that the scope for new theoretical approaches based on experiences from the Middle East has often been limited to this particular region instead of making claims to be general theories about a certain international phenomenon as such. But if Europe can be used as a place to build allegedly universal theories that are subsequently tested in other parts of the world, why can the Middle East not be used in similar way? For instance, could insights about the regional influence of tiny Qatar be used as a point of departure for a new general theory about power, and does the idea of “hedging,” currently much discussed in relation to the small Gulf-states, also deserve attention from non-ME aficionados?[17] If we are witnessing a “global resurgence of religion” with a “return of religion from exile” in IR,[18] then the Middle East might also be a place for the development of new approaches to religion—rather than narrowly Islam—in international relations.

Lastly, a third and final cluster concerns a range of questions of a more meta-theoretical second-order nature.

The first of these questions takes its point of departure in the classic universalism/par­ticu­larism debate. As Halliday explained, this relates to a “very fundamental issue much debated in contemporary social thought on whether it is possible, or desirable, to analyze and evaluate different parts of the world on the basis of similar criteria, or whether we should accept that they are marked by different and distinct dynamics precluding any universalist ‘narratives,’ maybe necessitating a spatial and temporal differentiation of a plurality of concepts and logics.” Halliday’s famous “take” on this was to divide universalism and particularism into “analytical” (epistemological) and “historical” (ontological) dimensions and then combine “analytical universalism” with “historical particularism.”[19] While there are a range of excellent examples of studies succeeding in doing so, it has at the same time also been clear that it can be a challenge to transform Halliday’s ambitious strategy into practice. This classic question about how to avoid being blind to or blinded by regional particularities is also important to reflect upon when we discuss international relations in a “new Middle East.”

Another question recognizes how a discussion about the international relations of a new Middle East should be based on cross-fertilization between IR and MES but at the same time directs attention to the need for a “dialogue about dialogues.”[20] Thus, dialogues between different fields of study can take place in various ways, as they can be based on very different ideas about the purpose, procedure and product of this dialogue. By looking at how the engagement between disciplines such as IR and area studies like MES has previously taken place, it is possible to identify quite different kind of dialogues. Sometimes the exchange has taken the form of a hierarchical dialogue, in which Middle East specialists are perceived as little more than assistant junior partners providing local data to a superior IR.[21] At other times, the exchange has been more like a reflexive dialogue, in the sense of a two-way conversation between peers engaged in reflexive rethinking and contextualization of own categories, theories and concepts, leading to changes within both academic fields.[22] And at still other times, the aim of the exchange has been to make a transformative dialogue, in the sense of promoting a radical trans­formation of the existing meta-boundaries in academia by establishing new fields of study that would rest on completely different ways of organizing knowledge.[23] Against this background, it appears necessary not only to call for more cross-fertilization between IR and MES but also to consider the terms of a dialogue about the international relations of a new Middle East.

A third question goes from asking how a dialogue will take place to between whom it will take place. As a consequence of the debate about “geo-cultural epistemologies” that has been going on for more than a decade within IR,[24] there has been growing attention to how IR—at least in some ways—has been “an American social science”[25] and how “IR might be quite different in different places.”[26] In other words, (Middle East) international relations might in other parts of the world be perceived, discussed and thought of in ways different from the predominant U.S. version(s) in academia. It is therefore relevant to engage voices of different scholarly training and origin and examine whether and how the interplay of the IR/MES nexus differs in American, European or Middle Eastern contexts and what this means for the prospects of a productive cross-fertilization that enriches not only our understanding of the “new Middle East” but also international relations in general.

Morten Valbjørn is an associate professor of political science at Aarhus University.


[1] Gause, F. Gregory (2011). “The Middle East Academic Community and the ‘Winter of Arab Discontent'”, pp. 11-27 in Ellen Laipson (ed.) Seismic Shift – Understanding Change in the Middle East. Washington D.C.: The Henry L. Stimson Center. (; POMEPS. (2014). “Reflections on the Arab Uprisings”. POMEPS Studies. No.: 10 (November 17, 2014). (; Valbjørn, Morten (2015) “Reflections on Self-Reflections – on Framing the Analytical Implications of the Arab Uprisings for the Study of Arab Politics,” Democratization 22, 2.

[2] Hudson, Michael C. (2011), “Awakening, Cataclysm, or Just a Series of Events? Reflections on the Current Wave of Protest in the Arab World,” in Jadaliyya Blog; Heydemann, Steven and Reinoud Leenders, “Authoritarian Learning and Authoritarian Resilience: Regime Responses to the ‘Arab Awakening’,” Globalizations 8, no. 5 (2011).

[3] E.g. Grand, Stephen R. (2014). Understanding Tahrir Square – What Transitions Elsewhere Can Teach Us about the Prospects for Arab Democracy Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press; Stepan, Alfred & Juan Linz (2013). “Democratization Theory and the ‘Arab Spring'”. Journal of Democracy, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 15-30; Weyland, Kurt (2012). “The Arab Spring: Why the Surprising Similarities with the Revolutionary Wave of 1848?”. Perspectives on Politics, vol. 10, no. 04, pp. 917-934; Way, Lucan (2011). “Comparing the Arab Revolts: The Lessons of 1989”. Journal of Democracy, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 13-23.

[4] On this point see also Bank, André (2015). “Comparative Area Studies and Middle East Politics after the Arab Uprisings”. META: Middle East – Topics & Arguments, no. 4. Available at:

[5] Salem, Paul (2012). “Regional Order”, pp. 10-15 in Sinan Ülgen, et al. (eds.) Emerging Order in the Middle East. Washington DC: Carnegie Policy Outlook; Perthes, Volker (2013). “The Changing Map of Middle East Power”. Project Syndicate. May 7; Fürtig, Henner (2014). “Iran : winner or looser of the “Arab Spring”?”, in Regional powers in the Middle East : new constellations after the Arab revolts. NY: Palgrave.

[6] Haass, Richard N. (2013). “The Irony of American Strategy: Putting the Middle East in proper perspective”. Foreign Affairs, vol. 92, no. 3, pp. 57-67.

[7] During the last couple years there have been plenty suggestions about the nature of a more or less new Middle East and whether or not it resembles earlier eras. Some have talked about a new sectarian Middle East, e.g,, Abdo, Geneive. (2013). “The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi‘a-Sunni Divide”. Brookings Inst. – Saban Center Analysis Paper. No.: 29 (April 2013); some have made comparisons to the European 30-years war, e.g. Haas, Richard (2014). “The New Thirty Years’ War”. Project Syndicate. July 21; and some have made analogies to the 1950/60s Arab Cold War and the ‘Struggle for Syria’ e.g., Khoury, Nabeel A. (2013). “The Arab Cold War Revisited: The Regional Impact of the Arab Uprising”. Middle East Policy, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 73-87; Lynch, Marc (2012). “Ch. 2: The Arab Cold War”, pp. 29-42 in The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East. N.Y.: PublicAffairs; Ryan, Curtis (2012). “The New Arab Cold War and the Struggle for Syria “. Middle East Report, no. 262, pp. 28-31; Zisser, Eyal (2012). “The ‘Struggle for Syria’: Return to the Past?”. Mediterranean Politics, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 105-110.

[8] Korany, Bahgat (1999). “International Relations Theory – Contributions from Research in the Middle East”, pp. 149-157 in Mark Tessler & et al. (eds.) Area Studies and Social Sciences – Strategies for Understanding Middle East Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; Gause, F. Gregory (1999). “Systemic Approaches to Middle East International Relations”. International Studies Review, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 11-31; Valbjørn, Morten (2004). “Toward a ‘Mesopotamian Turn’: Disciplinarity and the Study of the International Relations of the Middle East”. Journal of Mediterranean Studies, vol. 14, no. 1-2, pp. 47-75; Fawcett, Louise (2005). “Introduction”, pp. 1-13 in Louise Fawcett (ed.) International Relations of the Middle East. Oxford University Press: Oxford; For a much earlier example: Binder, Leonard (1958). “The Middle East as a Subordinate International System”. World Politics, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 408-29.

[9] Among others, Barnett, Michael (1998). Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order, N.Y.: Columbia University Press; Lynch, Marc (1999). State Interests and Public Spheres The International Politics of Jordan’s Identity, N.Y.: Columbia University Press; Telhami, Shibley & Michael Barnett (2002). Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Hinnebusch, Raymond (2003). The International Politics of the Middle East, Manchester: Manchester University Press; Halliday, Fred (2005). The Middle East in International Relations – Power, Politics and Ideology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Fawcett, Louise (2005). (ed.) International Relations of the Middle East, Oxford University Press: Oxford.;Ryan, Curtis (2009). Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy, Miami: University Press of Florida; Salloukh, Bassel F. & Rex Brynen (eds.) (2004). Persistent Permeability? Regionalism, Localism, and Globalization in the Middle East, Aldershot: Ashgate; Solingen, Etel (2007). “Pax Asiatica versus Bella Levantina: The Foundations of War and Peace in East Asia and the Middle East”. American Political Science Review, vol. 101, no. 3, pp. 757-780 ; Stetter, Stephan (2008). World Society and the Middle East – Reconstructions in Regional Politics, NY: Palgrave; Buzan, Barry & Ana Gonzalez-Pelaez (eds.) (2009). International Society and the Middle East – English School Theory at the Regional Level, NY: Palgrave Gause, F. Gregory (2010). The International Relations of the Persian Gulf, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[10] Halliday, Fred (2002). “A New Global Configuration”, in Ken Booth & Timothy Dunne (eds.) Worlds in Collision – Terror and the Future of Global Order. N.Y.: Palgrave. p. 235.

[11] Halliday, Fred (2005). The Middle East in International Relations – Power, Politics and Ideology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 22.

[12] Walt, Stephen (1996). Revolution and War, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[13] Waltz, Kenneth (1979). Theory of International Politics: McGraw-Hill.

[14] Barnett, Michael & Raymond Duvall (2005). “Power in International Politics”. International Organization, vol. 59, no. 1, pp. 39-75; Guzzini, Stefano (2013). Power, Realism and Constructivism, London: Routledge.

[15] On the overall inside/outside debate Walker, R. B. J. (1993). Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; on the interplay between international/domestic (inter-mestic) politics and the permeability of the state, see for instance Rosenau, James (ed.) (1969). Linkage Politics. N.Y.: Free Press; Korany, Bahgat (2013). “The Middle East since the Cold War?”, pp. 77-100 in Louise Fawcett (ed.) International Relations of the Middle East. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Salloukh, Bassel F. & Rex Brynen (eds.) (2004). Persistent Permeability? Regionalism, Localism, and Globalization in the Middle East, Aldershot: Ashgate.

[16] Waltz, Kenneth (1979). Theory of International Politics: McGraw-Hill; Walt, Stephen (1987). The Origins of Alliances, Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Snyder, Glenn H. (1997). Alliance Politics, Ithaca: Cornell University Press; David, Steven (1991). “Explaining Third World Alignment”. World Politics, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 233-56; Gause, F. Gregory (2003). “Balancing What? – Threat Perception and Alliance Choice in the Gulf”. Security Studies, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 273-305; Ryan, Curtis (2009). Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy. Miami: University Press of Florida; Rubin, Lawrence (2014). Islam in the Balance – Ideational Threats in Arab Politics: Stanford University Press.

[17] Kamrava, Mehran (2013). “The Subtle Powers of Small States”, pp. 46-68 in Qatar – Small State, Big Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Guzansky, Yoel (2015). “The Foreign-Policy Tools of Small Powers: Strategic Hedging in the Persian Gulf”. Middle East Policy, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 112-122.

[18] Thomas, Scott (2005). The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations, NY: Palgrave; Petito, Fabio & Pavlos Hatzopoulos (2003). Religion in International Relations – The Return from Exile, N.Y.: Palgrave.

[19] Halliday, Fred (1995). Islam & the Myth of Confrontation – Religion and Politics in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris.

[20] Jørgensen, Knud Erik & Morten Valbjørn (2012). “Four Dialogues and the Funeral of a Beautiful Relationship: European Studies and New Regionalism”. Cooperation & Conflict, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 3-27.

[21] E.g. Buzan, Barry & Ole Wæver (2003). Regions and Powers – The Structure of International Security, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[22] Barnett, Michael (1998). Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order, N.Y.: Columbia University Press; Buzan, Barry & Ana Gonzalez-Pelaez (eds.) (2009). International Society and the Middle East – English School Theory at the Regional Level, NY: Palgrave.

[23] Mitchell, Timothy (2003). “The Middle East in the Past and Future Social Science”, pp. 74-118 in David L. Szanton (ed.) The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines. University of California Press.

[24] Tickner, Arlene B. & Ole Wæver (eds.) (2009). International Relations Scholarship Around the World, NY: Routledge; for an overview see Bilgin, Pinar (2010). “Looking for the International beyond the West”. Third World Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 5, pp. 817-828.

[25] Hoffmann, Stanley (1977). “An American Social Science: International Relations”. Daedalus, vol. 106, no. 3, pp. 41-60; cf. Crawford, Robert & Darryl Jarvis (2001). International Relations Still an American Social Science? Towards diversity in International Thought, Albany: State University of New York Press.

[26] Wæver, Ole (1998). “The Sociology of a Not So International Discipline: American and European Developments in International Relations”. International Organization, vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 687-727

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