Britain and World Power since 1945: Constructing a Nation's Role in International Politics

Britain and World Power since 1945: Constructing a Nation's Role in International Politics

by David M. McCourt


View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 1 week


Though Britain’s descent from global imperial power began in World War II and continued over the subsequent decades with decolonization, military withdrawal, and integration into the European Union, its foreign policy has remained that of a Great Power. David M. McCourt maintains that the lack of a fundamental reorientation of Britain’s foreign policy cannot be explained only by material or economic factors, or even by an essential British international “identity.” Rather, he argues, the persistence of Britain’s place in world affairs can best be explained by the prominent international role that Britain assumed and into which it was thrust by other nations, notably France and the United States, over these years.

Using a role-based theory of state action in international politics based on symbolic interactionism and the work of George Herbert Mead, Britain and World Power since 1945 puts forward a novel interpretation of Britain’s engagement in four key international episodes: the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Skybolt Crisis of 1962, Britain’s second application to the European Economic Council in 1966-67, and Britain’s reinvasion of the Falklands in 1982. McCourt concludes with a discussion of international affairs since the end of the Cold War and the implications for the future of British foreign policy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472052219
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 05/28/2014
Series: Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics Series
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

David M. McCourt is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis.

Read an Excerpt

Britain and World Power Since 1945

Constructing A Nation's Role In International Politics

By David M. McCourt

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12037-6


The Roles Nations Play

"We are the victims of an illusion which leads us to believe we have ourselves produced what has been imposed on us externally."


In this chapter, I present a role-based approach to the analysis of state action in international relations; I then use this approach in the remainder of the book to explain Britain's puzzling maintenance of an expansive foreign policy orientation long after its decline from world power. I call this approach micro-interactionist constructivism.

Theorizing state action from this perspective entails three tasks for this chapter. The first is to explore what roles are and how they work in social life. This step is crucial, since although roles are a familiar notion, using them to explain foreign policy raises numerous rather thorny problems at the level of social theory. I begin, therefore, by contrasting two traditions of thought within sociology — micro-interactionism and structural-functionalism — that make extensive use of the role concept but do so in distinctly different ways. Juxtaposing these two approaches to social explanation draws out the value of a micro-interactionist account based on symbolic interactionism in general and the work of George Herbert Mead in particular. Put briefly, a micro-interactionist perspective on the nature of social roles holds the promise of moving us away from overly abstract structural accounts of state action and toward a relational and practice-oriented approach that offers fine-grained and context-specific explanations for why states engage in specific foreign policy actions.

After making clear the value of a micro-interactionist reading of roles, the chapter then develops a conceptual vocabulary that can be used to analyze state action in world politics from this perspective. To this end, I outline a parsimonious set of concepts drawn from symbolic interactionism — "role-taking," "role-making," and "alter-casting" — and elaborate on this framework by contrasting it with alternative approaches, particularly identity- and norms-based constructivisms and rationalist bargaining approaches. In contrast to these approaches, a role-based micro-interactionist approach highlights the way that state identities and preferences emerge and social norms come to influence state leaders only within unique interactions in world politics. Interaction is an inherently dynamic, role-based process of orientating action to the behavior of others; identity-, norms-, and preference-based explanations are therefore necessarily limited at best, since by downplaying the subtle processes through which state actions are matched to the expectations of others, they beg further crucial questions: How do states come to know what they want, what they should do, or what they want to do?

The third task is to outline a set of methods and a methodology underpinning them appropriate to micro-interactionist constructivism. The choice of roles as research object does not determine the way in which they must be studied; depending on what we want to get from our research, methods as diverse as large-n statistical analyses, game theory, and small-n qualitative methods might be appropriate. My aim here, however, is to explain foreign policy decisions in as much detail as possible. Consequently, I defend a historical interpretive method. This approach is inductive rather than deductive and is sensitive to the microlevel dynamics of role-playing in international relations. But it is also leads to causal explanations of foreign policy as long as our understanding of what it means for action to be caused and behavior explained is expanded beyond what is typical in the social sciences. In short, a role-based approach explains foreign policy by making clear how states come to define their options in interaction with others, which is a function of the role requirements that emerge during international interaction that render some options more "live" than others.


Roles are fundamental to the architecture of social life. Although largely unaware of it, roles structure many aspects of our daily interactions, from general roles like father and wife, which can endure for many decades, to specific roles like waiter and customer that can span the duration of only a brief interaction. A common example is the classroom, made up of the roles student and teacher and their narrowly defined associated behaviors. As Alexander Wendt remarks, "When I step in front of the classroom I could in theory take the role of opera singer, but that would be costly." Rather than sing, individuals playing the teacher role engage in actions such as lecturing and assigning work, which both flow from and constitute the role of teacher itself.

As an initial definition, roles can be understood as "clusters of normative behavioral expectations directed at the behavior of position-holders." These expectations lead those who play roles to behave in patterned and often quite predictable — although not predetermined — ways. But while this definition captures the key aspects of roles, it also leads to myriad further questions that require conceptual investigation: What are "expectations," and how do they relate to observed action? What does it mean to "occupy" a "social position"? How can we be certain of its effects? These questions emerge even before we attempt the shift to the international level. What are roles when we move beyond the individual to the group? Are they ideas in the heads of individuals? Or positions within discursive spaces? Again, how can we be certain of their causal effects?

Conceptualizing roles for empirical analysis thus requires a coherent vision of roles that encompasses ontological, epistemological, and methodological elements. Rather than pick and choose from approaches in cognate disciplines, I contrast two opposed approaches from sociology — structural-functionalism and micro-interactionism — and, in making the case for the latter, draw out its unique understanding of role-based social action.

Structural-Functionalism and Micro-Interactionism Compared

Structural-functionalism is associated with the later work of Talcott Parsons, whose thought dominated US sociology during the 1950s and 1960s. From a Parsonian perspective, roles are general behavioral patterns that form the basic units of social systems. The power of this conception lies in the view that social action is explicable without taking into account every attribute of the actors in a system — that is, individual human beings, what they actually do, their specific acts. What is needed instead is an understanding of the behavioral patterns in the shape of principal "roles" that the system requires to perpetuate itself and the way in which those roles relate to the successful functioning of the system. Parsons identifies three functional role requirements: that social systems be compatible with the needs of their main actors; that actors abstain from deviant activities that threaten the system's continuation; and that systems support cultural patterns that underpin the first two requirements.

Figure 1 presents this approach in diagrammatic form. It illustrates the parsimony of the structural-functional approach as well as its impersonal nature. The circles represent sets of expectations that structure social situations from this perspective, not human individuals, who were notably absent from the approach. The figure also illustrates the "substantialist" nature of this approach: roles, like the human agents who play them, are considered to exist prior to the interaction or "transaction" between individuals. The rejection of substantialism in social science, however, forms part of the recent movement toward practices and relations in IR theory. A micro-interactionist reading of roles, then, is explicitly antisubstantialist.

Structural-functionalism represents one way to conceptualize what roles are and how they work in international politics. Indeed, it already underpins two of the most important theories of international relations, those of Kenneth Waltz and Alexander Wendt.

Waltzian neorealism is a structural-functional theory in the Parsonian mold. The unit of analysis is not real states in world politics, and the theory does not purport to explain any specific states' foreign policies, echoing Parsons's rejection of the individual and the act as the basis for a structural theory of society. Rather, the basic unit of neorealism is "quite simply the role expectation of self-regarding behavior": the role of enemy to every other state. Given certain basic assumptions about the international system — that it is anarchical and the units seek to survive — states can be predicted to engage in one particular behavior in international affairs: power balancing.

Paradoxically perhaps, as a result of its status as the bible of neorealism's paradigmatic competitor, constructivism, Wendt's social constructivist theory of international politics should also be considered strongly Parsonian because of its close engagement with Waltz's substantive claims about the structure of the international system. Wendt seeks to show that because the structure of the international system has ideational as well as material elements, the lack of a supranational government in world politics does not make inevitable a Hobbesian "war of all against all." Rather, by enacting cooperative practices over time, states can change the "role structure" of the international system to a less conflictual "culture of anarchy" that includes roles such as rival and even friend, as the creation of zones of peace or "security communities" such as the transatlantic area demonstrates. "Anarchy," in Wendt's felicitous phrase, "is what states make of it."

Expanding on these theories in the development of a more self-consciously role-based account of foreign policy from a structural-functional perspective would thus follow a clear lineage. What counsels against such a move, however, is that structural-functionalism has long since fallen from favor in sociology. It was criticized for representing an overly rigid vision of society and an oversocialized conception of the individual, who in this viewpoint becomes something of a structural dupe. A related critique can be leveled against Waltz's and Wendt's structural theories of international politics: neither approach deals with the question of precisely how states know how to act in accordance with the role expectations emerging from the international system in any specific instance. Beyond being ahistorical and somewhat arbitrary, the structural roles of enemy, friend, and rival Waltz and Wendt outline are too abstract to provide fine-grained accounts of the foreign policies of specific states. This is because their theories do not include a means by which the expectations that constitute these roles are transmitted to state decision makers or an account of how expectations become actions. But as Martin Hollis and Steve Smith note,

No role could possibly be specified in enough detail to make all decisions automatic. ... There are some specific duties of a role, some dos and don'ts which set limits to what may be attempted. But there is also an area of indeterminacy, governed only by a broad duty to act so as to be able to justify oneself afterwards.

Yet despite these shortcomings, those in IR interested in roles have not questioned structural-functionalism itself, instead descending from the social to the cognitive level to develop a psychological perspective on role-playing. Foreign policy role theorists, following Holsti, have thus focused on the "role conceptions" of decision makers, understood as their "own definitions of the general kinds of decisions, commitments, rules and actions suitable to their state, and of the functions, if any, their state should perform on a continuing basis in the international system." The resort to the cognitive reduces the theoretical power of roles since they are truly interesting theoretically only insofar as they are properties of social contexts and not things in the minds of particular actors. Viewing roles in cognitive terms, therefore, removes what is distinctive about roles vis-à-vis other ideational approaches, such as those focusing on "ideas," "belief-systems," and "operational codes."

There are, however, sociological alternatives to structural-functionalism to which those wary of structuralism could have turned. In fact, as Steven Lukes has noted, "Every [structural] macro-theory presupposes, whether implicitly or explicitly, a micro-theory to back up its explanations" — a mechanism or set of mechanisms, in other words, through which structures underpin behavior. Scholars could then have drawn on another tradition of thought in sociology, the "micro-interactionist" tradition, which evolved as a response to the indeterminacy of structural approaches à la Parsons and has viewed roles as critical elements of social action. With a lineage running from American pragmatists such as Charles Houghton Cooley, John Dewey, William James, Charles Sanders Pierce, and George Herbert Mead through their interpreters in sociology itself, particularly Herbert Blumer and the symbolic interactionists but also others such as Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel, and also including the work of European philosophers and social theorists such as Alfred Shutz and phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, the micro-interactionist sociological tradition is united by a focus on precisely the context-specific microlevel drivers of social action from which structural-functionalism chooses to abstract.

Micro-interactionist approaches, despite their variety, thus retain the social — and hence noncognitive — nature of action while not abstracting entirely from the individual human being. They problematize the most basic elements of social existence: How do individuals know how to behave in interaction? How, for example, can Wendt be sure that playing the role of opera singer in the classroom would be costly? In developing a role-based approach to state action, therefore, I turn to the micro-interactionist tradition. Since not all micro-interactionists view roles as central to interaction, however, I draw specifically on symbolic interactionism and the work of Mead in particular.

Role as Perspective: An Invitation to Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism has its roots in the thought of the Scottish moral philosophers and the American pragmatists, Mead chief among them, with the term itself coined by one of Mead's students, Herbert Blumer. For Blumer, symbolic interactionism is based on three simple premises: "human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings things have for them"; the meaning things have is fundamentally a product of interaction; and, finally, interaction conveys meaning through a process of interpretation. The affinities here with IR constructivism are immediately apparent; constructivists also stress the inherent meaningfulness of social and political life and the necessity of interpreting what individuals think is going on as a preliminary to explaining why certain actions are thinkable and hence doable. The specific potential of symbolic interactionism, however, lies in its distinct perspective on social action, developed over several decades of theoretical and empirical inquiry, which helps avoid common pitfalls in constructivist research, including viewing constructivism as straightforwardly privileging either agency or structure; overly intersubjectivizing constructivism at the cost of the merits of objectification; and equating constructivism with "constitutive theorizing." By stepping away from the terms of the debate in IR, therefore, it is possible to address these misunderstandings from firmer ground.

This can be done by discussing the four key concepts symbolic interactionists use to cash out the basic premises of their approach — "role," "self," "symbol," and "object." Together, they conceptualize what for symbolic interactionists is the most basic element of social reality: human interaction. For symbolic interactionists, the social is not a neutral context or background against which action takes place but an ongoing accomplishment of individuals. The common invocation of preferences, desires, expectations, language, meaning, identity, norms, institutions, and all of the other aspects cited in the social sciences as essential for explaining human action is underpinned by a primary ontological condition: individuals coming together and engaging in mutually oriented action. Individuals' ability to engage in social interaction is an ongoing achievement. As Jon Levi Martin notes, "Keeping the nonproblematic nonproblematic is a problem for actors and requires their continual readjustment and mutual susceptibility."


Excerpted from Britain and World Power Since 1945 by David M. McCourt. Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface and Acknowledgments,
Foreword by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Configurations Series Editor,
CHAPTER 1. The Roles Nations Play,
CHAPTER 2. The Suez Crisis, 1956,
CHAPTER 3. The Skybolt Affair, 1962,
CHAPTER 4. Britain's Second Application to the EEC, 1964–1967,
CHAPTER 5. Britain's Reinvasion of the Falklands, 1982,
Epilogue: Britain and World Power in the Twenty-First Century,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews