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Summary of Booth’s “Security in Anarchy: Utopian Realism in Theory and Practice”

April 25, 2012

Booth, Ken. “Security in Anarchy: Utopian Realism in Theory and Practice.” International Affairs 67 (1991): 527-545.

Ken Booth’s article is meant to make the case for reintroducing a utopian element to International Relations theory. Noting that utopianism had previously been a part of IR theory – before E.H. Carr effectively destroyed the legitimacy of the utopian project – Booth is attempting to locate the possibility of utopianism within the anarchical structure of the state system. For example, although realism provides a plausible explanation for war, it does little to project the image of an alternate way of acting (530). After arguing that Carr is hardly the staunch realist that his intellectual descendants have made him to be, Booth argues for a theory of IR that is post-realist: he acknowledges the anarchical state system while simultaneously contesting that self-help is the only option for states.

In rehabilitating “utopian” as a subject, Booth argues that its critics have been largely guilty of advancing a tautological argument. If realist critics begin by defining utopianism as “good but unachievable,” then it would necessarily, by definition, be excluded from realist analysis. Instead, Booth argues that history changes even the most basic principles of international relations: even the best scholars of International Relations would not have predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union before it actually happened. Thus, significant changes in geopolitical configuration are a fundamental part of international relations. Secondly, Booth argues that scholars have painted “utopianism” as negative, though that is largely a cultural phenomenon: like the idea that only women should do laundry (535), the idea that utopianism is inherently negative is culturally produced.

Thus, Booth offers a redefinition of utopianism as “[crystallizing] into the idea that the world does not have to look like the one we are familiar with” (535). This means that utopianism is a useful tool for reimagining the supposedly “realist” world. Perhaps more importantly, this redefinition also offers the possibility of setting goals for future international political action based on improving the quality of life. Much like a ship setting sail, the international community needs a target destination to aim towards. While it is true that it’s important  to have a strong theory of survival until arriving at the end point, without a goal the international community is merely floating at sea. In a seemingly Hegelian moment, Booth argues that setting a goal allows the international community to become the subject of its own history (536). Thus, by focusing on “process utopias,” or small incremental improvements to the current system, it actually perfects “reality” more than realist theories can aspire to.

Booth’s end point is “emancipation” as the goal of security: “emancipation means freeing people from those constraints that stop them carrying out what freely they would choose to do, of which war, poverty, oppression and poor education are a few” (539).  This means developing a human security framework instead of state centric, and therefore moving towards a theory of community rather than exclusion. Thus, Booth reinterprets anarchy as structuring the solution to global problems rather than merely engendering them, allowing the possibility of broader political community based on human emancipation (540).


From → IR Theory, Security

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