The subject of International Political Economy (IPE) becomes increasingly important in the world of the 21st century. The technological progress in logistics and communication enables people to develop better products, inform potential customers about such products and distribute them to almost any place in the world. This development leads to more interaction and more trade between different states, which might even have been at war with each other not long ago. IPE tries to analyze and theorize the dynamics behind those developments, to provide a framework which explains and enables predictions on the connection between politics and economics on an international scale. For new students and scholars of the subject of IPE the traditional teaching approach is the use of a threefold categorization, which is also called “trichotomy” (Ravenhill, 2008). This paper will describe and discuss some of the main points of criticism relating to this threefold approach. The first part will contain an explanation about the content of the trichotomy, followed by a detailed description of the main weaknesses. This description will be completed by a critical assessment of the main weaknesses. Although many arguments can be brought forward, this paper will focus on three distinct issues. The first critic is about the general nature of the trichotomy as being too unspecific. This is followed by an analysis of the internal structure of the trichotomy combined with its restrictions on critical discourse. The final part will deal with criticism by newer theories and ideologies related to the trichotomy.
The traditional structure of IPE consists of three different categories, which are named differently by various scholars, but are mostly referred to as Economic Nationalism, Liberalism and Structuralism (Goddard, Cronin, Dash, 2003). Those categories are based on theories of International Relations, the area IPE originated from, therefore the categories carry distinct properties of the three basic theories of IR, which are Realism, Liberalism and Marxism. Despite the similarities between the IR and the IPE categories, in IPE they embrace more theories than the traditional IR theories. As Ravenhill (2008) stated, each category is divided further: Liberalism, which is separated between an ontological and a deontological part, Economical Nationalism containing Realism, Statism, Mercantilism and Nationalism, while Structuralism’s four elements are Structuralism, Marxism, Radical and Critical. Opposing this view, other scholars might name and include different theories into those categories, which portrays quite apparent the difficulties new student encounter with the trichotomy as there is not even a consensus about the full and correct content.
Nevertheless this threefold approach is often used to explain and introduce new students into the subject of IPE, despite the weaknesses which have surfaced during the existence of those paradigms. One of the problems is the general and wide approach of this categorization, trying to explain every development in the world by fitting each event into those three theories. The international system is an exceptionally complex environment, which entails around 200 different states, thousands of different cultures and an uncontrollable number of different actors, all of them pursuing their own interest and targets with different views and backgrounds. This complexity makes it almost impossible to describe every development in this system with the tools provided by the trichotomy. For example, the European Union’s (EU) protectionist measures for agricultural products are one of the major areas of conflict at the current World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha round (Council on Foreign Relations, 2005). The theories of the threefold categorization would have different views on this agenda, while Economic Nationalists would welcome those trade barriers for an increased economical gain by protecting their domestic producers, Liberals would strictly oppose those measures as interfering with the market forces. Structuralists would criticize this policy as another way how rich countries are exploiting and oppressing the advancement of low developed countries (LDC), which rely heavily on production of agricultural products. Although each of the theories raises valid factors, none can explain the large influence and high pressure the EU administration is suffering from within. (European Comission, ) The common agricultural policy (CAP) uses about 40% of the yearly budget and is one of the main expenditures. Many farmers, producers and businesses are linked to this agricultural sector either directly or indirectly. With a diminishing support for the EU over the last years especially in rural areas, where also most of farming and agricultural production takes place, it is almost impossible to reduce all subsidies and protection, without causing at least major uproar amongst many states in the EU. Opposing the EU at the Doha round is a group of LDC’s, who want to gain access to this large market for their agricultural products. Despite the very different preconditions for those LDC’s, like different political systems or a lower level of development, the trichotomy tries to explain their behavior in the same way as the EU behavior. By trying to embrace everything the trichotomy becomes too ambitious and looses itself in very general explanations without being able to analyze states and their behavior on an individual bases, which might be the better approach.
Another key element of criticism revolves around the internal structure of the trichotomy. While theories try to establish a framework for analysis and prediction of future events, almost all theories are competing against each other. In the case of the threefold categorization, this would mean that the scholars and students have to decide between the three categories which theory analyzes the current events most appropriately. This kind of decision proves to be almost impossible as in many cases each of the theories provides a different explanation, which empirically cannot be proven valid or invalid. Also, a direct comparison between the three theories is very hard to conduct, due to the different natures of those theories. A general focus of Economic Nationalism is the state as the single important actor in the international system. The state will only follow its own interest by securing its survival and maximizing the gain out of any trade at the expense of other states. In contrast, liberalism claims that there are many other non-state actors like individuals, non-governmental organizations (NGO), corporations, etc. which should be excluded from any government intervention in free international markets. The natural forces of the capitalist system will provide the required allocation of resources and profits for all participating actors. Structuralism has a third very different approach by having societies and states separated into classes or other similar entities, like metropolis and satellites (Frank in Wheeler and Beatley, 2004). The key struggle in this theory takes place between those classes or in more detail the exploitation and oppression of the wealthy class over the poor. Their existential difference in understanding which actors are pursuing which goals by what means makes it almost impossible to compare those theories adequately against each other. As shown in the example above of the EU, each theory is contributing to the academic discussion, but “studying the complexities and inherent contradictions of the international political economy requires leaving behind the “either-or” mentality suggested by the paradigmatic division in the search for (better) explanatory theories” (Leiteritz, 2005).
The last discussed weakness will focus on criticism provided by other sets of theories. This traditional categorization of IPE was started in the second half of the 19th century until the 1970’s. While in other social studies the development and progress into new theoretical concepts continued, which resulted in a variety of new beliefs, IPE evolved into a different direction as researchers and established scholars left the traditional approach behind to divide the subject along new borders. That is the reason why the trichotomy tries to explain new and current developments, like the green movement, under their traditional aspects. Critics claim that those attempts cannot be considered really successful, because “greens do indeed put forward a world-view that is unique relative to the world-views put forward by the three dominant paradigms” (Helleiner, 1996). Following this argument, it is almost impossible to understand the reasons behind current events by simply looking at the traditional theories. Another area of dispute would include the immense economical globalization occurring during the last 20 years, which has been dealt with intensively in the media and by many economical scholars, but ironically would not even be recognized as existing by Economic Nationalism.
Despite the existing weaknesses of the traditional threefold categorization in IPE theory, the introductory power of this approach to new students remains an immense advantage. Nevertheless new students should not get involved too intensively into the trichotomy, because it provides only a very general overview over the multitude of events going on in the world, merely providing a starting point. Limited by its internal conflicting points of view and the inability to overcome those by means of comparison and argument, the three pillars also struggle to explain recent developments and current concerns in a globalized world. Nevertheless the categorization proves to be a useful tool for an introduction into the subject and as a basis for further research and involvement.