Christopher David LaRoche

 

Research & Publications

 

 

Teaching

 

 

CV

 


 


Research overview:

My research can be divided broadly into two areas: international security and international political theory. I work on international security by examining how great power geopolitics interact with global governance, and in particular how geopolitical phenomena such as spheres of influence legitimize and delegitimize uses of force. My dissertation takes a wide historical approach to this question; I am also currently researching how the geopolitical aspirations of today's revanchist and rising powers may challenge contemporary security frameworks, such as R2P, by shifting the global sources of power that lend them authority.

I work on international political theory by examining how security studies scholars themselves have conceived of global order. I focus in particular on IR scholars' normative assumptions about grand theories of the international, including their implicit or explicit historical trajectories, and debates about the ability (or inability) of international orders to transform or solve recurring political phenomena such as great power struggles, geopolitics, war, and the less salutary aspects of human psychology.

Both areas overlap: my approach to international security is informed by international political theory, particularly on questions of political authority and legitimacy, while my approach to international political theory is informed by international security, particular on questions of permanent versus transitory political problems.

Dissertation summary:

The core puzzle of my dissertation asks: why do states sometimes go to great lengths to legitimize their military interventions--often building bulky coalitions and forgoing military advantage--but not in others? In contrast to accounts that emphasize either the appropriateness or instrumental benefits of multilateralism, I answer the question in terms of geopolitics. I argue that ‘geopolitical primacy’—shared and recognized understandings of the geographical division of great power rights and responsibilities into recognized zones or spheres of influence—help legitimize military interventions. When a great power moves to intervene where it has primacy, it engages in fewer legitimation strategies than it otherwise would. Although recent examples of primacy include France and Britain’s interventions in their former colonies, and U.S. interventions in Central America, primacy has a long history stretching back to early 19th Century Russian interventions in Congress Poland, British interventions in Portugal, and Austrian interventions in Italy.

Conversely, if a great power moves to intervene outside of its recognized sphere—as when the U.S. intervenes in the Middle East, or France did in Spain and Belgium—it will expand these legitimacy strategies, seeking the approval or moral support of other great powers. Great powers that don't pursue these strategies when intervening where they have no primacy--Russia in the Ottoman Empire, for example--run the risk of incurring legitimacy costs, provoking balancing coalitions, or, in extreme cases, igniting great power war.

In short, by credibly assuring other powers of an intervener’s non-revisionist, status-quo seeking intentions, spheres of primacy mediate the need for intervening powers to generate legitimacy by other means. They also thus play a role in stabilizing international orders by preventing great power interventions from spilling over into great power war. I use spheres of primacy to explain intervention variation from the 19th Century to present, with a focus on the Concert of Europe, Cold War, and post-Cold War periods. Apart from improving our understanding of the historical intervention record across two centuries, my dissertation presents a novel account of international order in which geopolitics and global governance—often construed as opposites—are intertwined.

Other research work:

Multipolar stability, grand strategy, and geopolitical accommodation.
As a spin-off of my dissertation, I am currently investigating how grand strategies of geopolitical accommodation can foster stability in multipolar orders. This research contrasts the Concert of Europe period with present debates about American grand strategy in the face of rising powers. I argue that this debate, while fruitful, has overlooked the role of geopolitical accommodation in stabilizing previous orders. By recognizing each other's regional geopolitical primacy, great powers in the Concert period were able to stabilize their territorial distribution of power, avoiding direct great power confrontation and allowing a flexible system of intervention to prevent crises. This strategy of geopolitical accommodation thus played to multipolarity's strengths--alliance flexibility and crisis diffusion--while moderating its weaknesses--uncertainty of intentions and the high chances of great power conflict. I suggest that by adopting a version of geopolitical accommodation adapted to 21st Century concerns, the United States and its allies can preserve core elements of the existing postwar order and invite great power participation in them--while greatly reducing the United States' own system maintenance costs. A strategy of geopolitical accommodation thus achieves many of the benefits of both engagement and disengagement while having lower costs--understood in terms of the United States' resources or global conflict that may draw it in--than either of those options.

I have presented portions of this research at International Studies Association's 2016 Northeast conference, and am currently working on a paper for submission. If you are interested in reading the draft, please email me.

Distance and support for global humanitarianism.
This project uses a psychological distance to critically appraise several topics raised in the dissertation. The first component (currently a working paper) asks why the will to intervene for humanitarian purposes is unevenly distributed in the post-Cold War environment. I use psychological distance, a concept developed in psychology and sociology but with a pedigree in political theory, to explain the pattern. As perceptions of distance—physical, temporal, and social—increase, the affective drives that motivate sustained action decrease. Humanitarian intervention faces the problem of psychological distance acutely, owing both to the distance of suffering and the high costs of military projection overseas. Democratically elected leaders are thus constrained in their strategic choices in the field by publics that support humanitarian action, but not attendant casualties. I use psychological distance to explain the uneven patterns of post-Cold War humanitarian interventions: when undertaken they often feature 'casualty-free' high-altitude bombing campaigns that can worsen humanitarian outcomes on the ground, and when crises happen in psychologically distant areas, they do not happen at all.

A psychological distance approach to global humanitarianism thus shows how interventions undertaken primarily for humanitarian reasons can result in inhumanitarian outcomes unless they are buttressed by other motivations—self-defence, for example, or direct political stakes—which decrease casualty aversion. And while devolving intervention responsibilities to regional actors can overcome the problems of psychological distance, this comes at a potentially high price: governments in proximity to a crises are those most likely to have non-humanitarian reasons for intervening.

A second component (currently a working paper) examines the status of 'distance' as a variable in IR research, arguing that has been largely conceived in linear terms imported from Newtonian physics, and therefore unnecessarily narrow. I argue that the incorporation of psychological distance into IR research can better illuminate pressing contemporary global issues by moving beyond the linear conception of distance currently employed and moving toward an understanding of how subjective perceptions of distance affect voters and policymakers' support for policies. By illuminating the relationship between distance and affect, psychological distance can explain contestations of humanitarianism, environmentalism, and supranational governance. In each case, proponents face the problem that these phenomena take place across unprecedentedly vast psychological distances--cultural, physical, and temporal--where the affect needed to motivate support is low and apathy high. When these phenomena are perceived to conflict or erode emotionally-charged, proximal concerns such as kin, family, and nation--as we see in the rising tide against 'globalism'--apathy transforms into motivated hostility.

I have presented portions of this research at International Studies Association's 2015 Northeast conference, and am currently working on both papers. If you are interested in reading a draft of either, please email me.

Philosophy of history and IR.

Last, I conduct discipline-reflexive research on how International Relations theorists themselves conceive of international order, grand theory, and historical trajectory. To this extent I have published, with Simon Frankel Pratt, on Kenneth Waltz's method of international theory, arguing that it shares no fundamental assumption with the neorealists who came in his wake. (By separating foreign policy from international structure, the research project on multipolar stability described above follows what we argue was Waltz's original intentions for neorealism). I have also co-authored, with Joseph MacKay, an article in International Theory that lays bare the often implicit philosophy of history assumptions IR theorists make when they use the facts of the past to establish theory. We argue for great historical-theoretic awareness, explicitness, and pluralism in the discipline. Dr. MacKay and I have another article, on the absence of reactionary political theory in contemporary IR, on advance access at International Studies Quarterly.

Publications:

Why is there no International Reactionary Theory?
Second author, with Joseph MacKay. Forthcoming in International Studies Quarterly.

Faced with scepticism about the status of grand theory in International Relations, scholars are re-evaluating Kenneth Waltz’s contribution to theoretical debates in the field. Readers of Waltz have variously recast his work as structural functionalist, scientific realist and classical realist in liberal clothing. We contribute to this re-evaluation by systematically assembling misreadings of Waltz that continue to occur across all of International Relations’ schools — that his theory is positivist, rationalist and materialist — and offering a coherent synthesis of his main contributions to International Relations theory. By linking Theory of International Politics to both Man, the State, and War and Waltz’s post-1979 clarifications, we show that Waltz offers International Relations scholars a coherent vision of the worth and method of grand theory construction that is uniquely ‘international’. In particular, we focus on Waltz’s methodology of theory building and use of images, demonstrating these to be underappreciated but crucially important aspects of Waltz’s work. We finish by proposing methodological, practical and pedagogical ‘takeaways’ for International Relations scholars that emerge from our analysis.

Kenneth Waltz is not a neorealist (and why that matters).
First author, with Simon Frankel Pratt. European Journal of International Relations 2017, Vol. 24(1): 153-176.

Faced with scepticism about the status of grand theory in International Relations, scholars are re-evaluating Kenneth Waltz’s contribution to theoretical debates in the field. Readers of Waltz have variously recast his work as structural functionalist, scientific realist and classical realist in liberal clothing. We contribute to this re-evaluation by systematically assembling misreadings of Waltz that continue to occur across all of International Relations’ schools — that his theory is positivist, rationalist and materialist — and offering a coherent synthesis of his main contributions to International Relations theory. By linking Theory of International Politics to both Man, the State, and War and Waltz’s post-1979 clarifications, we show that Waltz offers International Relations scholars a coherent vision of the worth and method of grand theory construction that is uniquely ‘international’. In particular, we focus on Waltz’s methodology of theory building and use of images, demonstrating these to be underappreciated but crucially important aspects of Waltz’s work. We finish by proposing methodological, practical and pedagogical ‘takeaways’ for International Relations scholars that emerge from our analysis.


The conduct of history in International Relations: rethinking philosophy of history in IR theory.

Second author, with Joseph MacKay. International Theory 2017, Vol. 9(2): 203-236.

IR scholars have made increasingly sophisticated use of historical analysis in the last two decades. To do so, they have appealed to theories or philosophies of history, tacitly or explicitly. However, the plurality of approaches to these theories has gone largely unsystematized. Nor have their implications been compared. Such historical–theoretic orientations concern the ‘problem of history’: the theoretical question of how to make the facts of the past coherently intelligible. We aim to make these assumptions explicit, and to contrast them systematically. In so doing, we show theories of history are necessary: IR-theoretic research unavoidably has tacit or overt historical–theoretic commitments. We locate the field’s current historical commitments in a typology, along two axes. Theories of history may be either familiar to the observer or unfamiliar. They may also be linear, having a long-term trajectory, nonlinear, lacking such directionality, or multilinear, proceeding along multiple trajectories. This comparative exercise both excavates the field’s sometimes-obscured commitments and shows some IR theorists unexpectedly share commitments, while others unexpectedly do not. We argue that better awareness of historical–theoretic reasoning, embedded in all IR uses and invocations of history, may encourage the discipline become more genuinely plural.


Research & Publications

Research overview

Dissertation summary

Other research

Publications