In this article, we elaborate two distinct ways of criticizing international practices: social critique and pragmatic critique. Our argument is that these two forms of critique are systematically opposed to each other: They are based on opposing epistemic premises, they are motivated by opposing political concerns, and they pursue opposing visions of social progress. Scholars of International Relations (IR) who want to work with the conceptual tools of practice theory are thus confronted with a consequential choice. Understanding the alternatives can help them to be more self-reflexive in their research practices and intervene more forcefully in contemporary political debates. We illustrate these advantages through a discussion of the scholarly debate on the practices of multilateral diplomacy through which the United Nations Security Council authorized a military intervention in Libya in 2011.
The academic discipline of International Relations (IR) has long pondered the questions of what it means to act in international politics and who can do so. However, the particular way in which IR has approached the problem of agency has somewhat masked important dynamics in international politics. By approaching the question of agency as an analytical problem that needs to be resolved before engaging with empirical material, IR has failed to see that who can act is often uncertain and contested. This special issue examines the emergence of international agency as an empirical phenomenon. Rather than analysing what given agents do, the contributions study how practices, performances and networks create and transform agency. In this introductory article, we prepare the ground for this distinct approach to studying international politics. We review how IR has addressed the problem of agency, and we discuss three social–theoretical traditions that see agency as an emergent phenomenon: poststructuralism, performance studies and actor-network theory. Finally, we highlight four insights that emerge from the contributions and challenge how IR has traditionally imagined agency.
This article traces how Kosovo came to agree to the Rambouillet accords, with the aim of exploring the nexus between diplomatic representation and international agency. It demonstrates that, in the world of diplomacy, entities like 'Kosovo' can act only when they are carefully staged. Thus far, however, the academic discipline of International Relations (IR) has largely failed to acknowledge the role of diplomacy in the constitution of agency. Therefore, to clarify what is at stake in the theoretical debate, I begin with a systematic discussion of how IR has conceived of diplomatic representation. Taking cue from Bruno Latour's and Lisa Disch's writings on political representation, I then suggest an alternative understanding of diplomacy that takes its performative character seriously. Equipped with this conceptual toolkit, I subsequently turn to the story of Kosovo's representation at the Rambouillet conference held in 1999. Tracing how Kosovo Albanians and their international supporters staged Kosovo's diplomatic performance, and how the Yugoslav/Serbian delegation tried to undermine it, I demonstrate that diplomatic representation can indeed generate agency. I also identify three factors that influence whether or not a diplomatic performance succeeds in making those who are represented act: recognition by other international actors, practical competence, and the alignment of the represented.
The end of the Cold War led to intense debates about how change happens in international politics. In this article, we argue that practice theory has great potential for illuminating this question. Drawing on Vincent Pouliot's empirical analysis of NATO-Russia relations after the end of the Cold War, we elaborate how change happens in and through practice. We show that post-Cold War security practices are inherently unstable, because there is a fundamental uncertainty about whether the Cold War is really over or whether the Cold War logic of bipolar confrontation still applies. Uncertainty about the meaning of the past destabilizes present practices and thus makes sudden and drastic change possible. To date, many contributions to the literature on international practices have, however, failed to grasp the inherent instability of practice. We argue that this failure is due to a particular conception of change that can be found in the works of Pierre Bourdieu. Through a close reading of Pouliot's Bourdieusian analysis of post-Cold War politics, we demonstrate the limitations of such a perspective, notably that it is unable to grasp how change originates in practice.