International Relations and Political Science in France: Why Foucault Never Met Duverger

A post-war discipline, IR has been nurtured by schemes inherited from US political sciences in the fifties and sixties, and especially by security and strategic studies. Rational Choice Theory, understanding of the state as a unified actor represented by a government and acting on a specific “international” scene, ideas of a national interest made congruent with security understood as “national security,” have led to a series of assumptions— especially regarding population and people, territory and borders, war and security—and a strong common sense equivalent to a doxa. IR scholars have effectively come to share such doxa despite their different structural or normative positioning regarding: first the stability of the system, second the specificities of the norms that would govern the international life of states, and third the future of international relations as either an exclusive domain of state actors or ineluctably pushed toward the blending of state and transnational actors in a global(ized) and supposedly borderless world.

In France, this construction of the discipline of IR as a realm apart from political theory and sociology, built on the idea of a two-faced Janus state organizing the internal and the external differently, developed as a wall built inside the Law faculties and with the support of the “ecole libre des sciences politiques,” against the contamination of ideas introduced by the post-structuralist movement of the late sixties agitating humanities and social sciences. They were convinced their “fortress” was impregnable and that the new political elites they were training would not know what was going on a couple of blocks away.

Those who believed so were wrong. Political science was to be challenged because of its own situation in France and to fragment, pushing many students to change discipline or to quit university. Indeed, both the state and the status of IR and political science in France in the mid-seventies was still very fragile and very dependent on the US model. If the idea of moral and political sciences had existed since the 1880s within the “ecole libre des sciences politiques” as a science of, and for (entering) the state, the status of a specific field of knowledge called political science was still very much discussed a century later. Political science was still considered an appendix of the Law faculties and the Treaty of political science was mainly organized by constitutional lawyers, and edited by Georges Burdeau, himself a lawyer.

It is in this context that Maurice Duverger and Marcel Merle’s initiative to create a “discipline” as such—with its own “Agregation,”9

different from public law, and based on a referential mainly coming from the US—was central. The duumvirate of government and IR studies represented by Maurice Duverger and Marcel Merle gradually gained autonomy to eventually become institutionalized: French “political science” as a proper discipline was born, with an orthodoxy even more stringent than in the USA, and so profoundly different from sociology, philosophy and French literature. The post-1968 cultural bubbling of ideas that had agitated sociology and philosophy was severely disavowed in most of the courses. In those years, students attracted by politics were at a lost: the discipline of political science was not really the place to discuss politics, quite the contrary. It created dissatisfaction and search for alternatives. These were just nearby, at the College de France where students from Sorbonne or the “Institut d’etudes politiques,” including a few political scientists of the new generation, migrated and formed long queues to learn how to think differently.10

This is how Foucault saw his course more populated than ever and welcomed the “defectors” with a surprised smile when they evoked what they were being taught within the political science departments around. They became a diaspora having much in common with their new home, and almost banned or deprived of their professional citizenship of political scientist when they were quoting Foucault. Yet, the “contamination” had begun,11 and the words of Foucault were to infiltrate the heart of the dogma of “political science” and IR, devouring the old conceptions of territory and space, security and sovereignty, population and people and proposing alternative frames of understanding.

It is certainly difficult to realize what political science and security were in France in the mid-seventies. Even those who lived this period are now uneasy to explain how they have been entrapped into a series of beliefs and assumptions, now regarded as caricatures. While an aggiornamento was asked to the communists who had believed in Staline and Thorez, a similar work of “remembrance” has not yet reached the discipline of political science despite some troubled moments in the 1990s.12 Important and lively debates on foreign affairs and on the creation of moral statements for the cold state monsters certainly did exist around Pierre Hassner and Stanley Hoffmann, but the epistemological discussions in the IR theories’ courses of the 1980s concerning the modalities of veridiction were, and are still extremely poor. Some pre-reflexive positivist statements that no social scientist of the late 1960s would dare to say continue to be presented as “evidence” in some courses of IR, even today.

Looking back at the mid-seventies courses and manuals first shows that IR was in fact more a history of foreign affairs, and/or what lawyers called “general culture,” a sort of gloss allowing to speak beyond the technicalities of a specialty. Security studies were part of strategic and military studies, which were themselves part of International Relations, especially the branch of it in which the horizon of death carried by the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of the time was considered to be more important than the horizon of equality, justice, welfare and development. In a context of competing ideologies setting up “blocks,” the key discussions on security were limited to the political implications of the existence of nuclear power, and of the emergence of a perpetual situation of crisis Aron had coined as “impossible peace, improbable war.”13 For the newly born French political science and its IR specialty, the ambition was to become another scientific discipline by looking at what had been done in the USA and reproduce it.

At that time, security was a clear and uncontested concept for political science and IR. It was understood as the result of an accumulation of power, with a material conception of the latter so it could be conceived as something that could be possessed and to which means and goals could be attached. These goals were clear, at least for politicians and their top strategists and military advisors. Most, if not all, top political scientists at the time acted as strategists and experts, simultaneously working at defining “national security” and promoting their own academic discipline in which handbooks analyzing the arms race were the most popular readings. In this context, political science was presented as a useful discipline for political scientist to join the military-diplomatic apparatus, and for the latter to equip itself with scientific tools that would help calculating and determining the best positioning for the country national interests.

Assumptions regarding security as a need that would exist naturally for all humans, tightly connected to the protection a state would give to its population, were unchallenged. Security was about survival, about war, and not the endgame of multiple games of probabilities and risk. The fact that within sociology or law departments, security may mean social s ecurity and refer to the protection of individuals against accidents at work, or against unemployment by legal regimes of administrative norms, was just incomprehensible.

When some in the eighties started to challenge these beliefs, they did so through an IR inner critique, trying to expand security studies to other domains of social life, rather than by deconstructing these.14 The paradox is that they have been called “critical security studies” (hereafter CSS) even though, ignoring how security was conceived outside IR, they eventually perpetuated a conception of security tightly connected to the notion of survival in which security remained a form of protection against the violence of others. Such a conception also kept relying on well-established distinctions (inside/outside, military/police organizations, enemies/ adversaries) that Foucault had already discussed at length in his lectures. By the time, these lectures had not yet been translated and would only arrive in the English language “market” by the late eighties to become popular by the beginning of the 2000s only.

 
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