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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

Security, Identity and Interests
Bill McSweeney

Cambridge University Press, 1999
255 pages; 0-521-66177-3 (hardback) GBP 35.00 / USD $54.95; 0-521-66630-9 (paper) GBP 12.95 / USD $19.95.

Starting from the perspective that the radically new post-Cold War geopolitical context requires an equally radical approach to the problem of security, McSweeney's book is a thorough and provocative example of the constructivist approach to the study of international relations. The author argues that "a narrow, state-centered and military-focused definition of security," which has predominated international relations theory for the past half-century, is inadequate to respond to such issues as the emergence of domestic ethno-nationalism, globalization, and interdependence. This book makes a significant contribution to the 'third debate' in international relations theory by presenting both a forceful critique of the field's traditional 'positivist' framework and a new 'sociological' or identity-based concept of security. At the risk of oversimplification, the basic argument of this study is that "we choose our security problems as we choose the interests and identity which accompany them." (12) In other words, if we are able to alter our identities to redefine the 'us versus them' distinction, notions of common or collective security can radically redefine traditional security problems and promote peaceful relations. While the preponderance of this study is theoretical in nature, three cases are examined in some depth: Northern Ireland, NATO expansion, and the development of the European Union. Like nearly all books of its genre, this study falls into certain theoretical traps such as: focusing almost exclusively on what could or should be, rather than what is (which detaches the analysis from policy and explanation); an assumption that socially-constructed concepts and identities are highly malleable (which often ignores the insights of path dependency); and a belief that one's idealistic policies will be reciprocated by others (interest in a post-power or post-state international system will not be accepted by all actors and therefore shifting away from the traditional 'self-help' paradigm might be premature and quite dangerous). If this sounds like a traditional realist critique, it is: simply "redefining" our security problems sounds both simplistic and easy, but proves to be difficult, if not impossible, advice to follow when attempting to bridge the chasm between theory and application. Although McSweeney does a better job than most, until constructivism can make this link, the postmodern viewpoint will likely remain at the fringes of international relations theory; albeit with thoughtful contributions as this.

Thomas Ambrosio, Western Kentucky University

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