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International Studies

Robert W. Cox and Critical Theory of International Relations

John S. Moolakkattu
International Studies 2009 46: 439
DOI: 10.1177/002088171004600404

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Perspectives and Comments

Robert W. Cox and International Studies

46(4) 439–456
Critical Theory of © 2009 JNU
SAGE Publications
International Relations Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/002088171004600404

John S. Moolakkattu

Robert W. Cox’s contribution to International Relations theory places the
discipline in a transformational framework. Building on Gramsci’s ideas and a
variety of other sources eclectically, his theory goes beyond the neorealist state-
centric framework and brings out the connections between material conditions,
ideas and institutions in what he terms the formation of ‘world orders’. How
people organize themselves in the sphere of production not only determines
their own life but also that of their states and the world order. In saying that
change can come from any one of the spheres (material conditions, ideas and
institutions), he denies and goes beyond the base–superstructure thesis of
Marxism. Cox identifies creation of a vibrant civil society, emergence of organic
intellectuals representing the marginalized, development of community-level
solidarity, participatory democracy, non-violent methods of conflict resolution,
pluralism and multilateralism as key elements of his transformational agenda.
This essay explores Cox’s main ideas relating to transformational international
relations and the strategies envisaged for transformation.

Critical theory, problem-solving, hegemony, counter-hegemony, historicism,
world order, Robert W. Cox, Antonio Gramsci

Robert Cox may be regarded as the father of critical theory of International
Relations (IR). His work in this field began with the publication of a seminal
article in Millennium: Journal of International Studies in 1981. Subsequently, he
developed his ideas in several other publications. Cox came to the field from the

John S. Moolakkattu is Gandhi-Luthuli Chair Professor in Peace Studies at the School

of Politics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and Editor of Gandhi Marg,
New Delhi. E-mail:
The author is thankful to the anonymous referees for their useful comments.

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440 John S. Moolakkattu

margins of the discipline, speaking in a language that was largely looked down
upon by the dominant positivist tradition in IR rooted in neorealist assumptions.
At first, Cox’s ideas received less recognition in North America, the great bastion
of IR. Critical theory has since then come to embrace subfields like International
Political Economy (IPE), normative theory and security studies. No critical theory
of IR can claim to represent all strands under a single label. Broadly, there are two
schools, namely, the one inspired by Antonio Gramsci and Hokheimer with the
focus on production and issues related to ‘redistributory struggles’, and the other
influenced by Habermas and his theory of communicative action with the focus
more on issues relating to identity and community (Jones 2001). Cox is the pre-
eminent representative of the first school and Linklater (1990) of the second. Cox
has used a form of analysis that tries to combine Gramscian tools with forms of
historicism. Critical theory draws on the ideas of Frankfurt theoreticians, post-
structuralists and feminists. However, its normative flavour and commitment to
emancipation sits uneasily with the ideas of most post-structuralists. This essay,
however, is restricted to the contributions of Robert Cox to the critical theory
of IR. Cox prefers the term ‘world order’ to IR, given the state-centrism of the
Cox began his theorizing at a time when IPE issues, particularly those emerg-
ing from the oil crisis in the early 1970s, were appearing to have a major impact
on the international system. Many of his ideas have been later taken on board by
those adopting a broad political economy approach. For him, ‘the social forces
generated by changing production processes are the starting point for thinking
about possible futures’ (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 113). His intention had been to
broaden the notion of ‘the international’ beyond the realm of political/military
interactions of states ‘so as to see states as both the products of evolving societies
and as shapers of those societies; and to see those societies as both shaped by and
shaping of the larger sphere of world order’ (Cox 2007: 514).

Gramsci’s Influence
Why does Gramsci appeal to IR scholars of Cox’s genre? Germain and Kenny
(1998: 5) explain:

[H]is work provides an ontological and epistemological foundation upon which to

construct a non-deterministic yet structurally grounded explanation of change…. By
insisting on the transformative capacity of human beings, Gramsci’s radical embrace of
human subjectivity provides IR scholars with one way of avoiding a deterministic and
ahistorical structuralism.

Although a theorist of the economic base, Gramsci went beyond it to recognize

the relative autonomy of the superstructure rather than adopt crass economic

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Robert W. Cox and Critical Theory of International Relations 441

reductionism. He was concerned with culture and identity. Cox weaves together
historical materialism and a historicist understanding of social class, institutions
and ideas, and tries to apply them to the post-1973 period. For him, the task of
critical political economy is to develop a ‘historical mode of thought’, capable of
understanding the actors and structures found in a particular period of history
(Cox and Sinclair 1996: 91). While class struggle can be positioned within such a
mode of thinking, it becomes just one of the analytical lenses, not a privileged
The Gramscian turn in IR provides a way to conceptualize a world order free
of the constraints of state-centric approaches and the interstate relations they focus
upon, while explicitly acknowledging their importance. It is critical of the claims
made by both neorealist and world systems theorists that the deep structural logic
of world order remains unchanged over time. The neo-Gramscians adopt a broad
historicist or historical-materialist framework to examine the structural organiza-
tion of world order and focus upon the emerging terrain of global civil society as
the principal battleground over which the struggle for hegemony is now occurring
(Germain and Kenny 1998: 7). That Gramsci geared his thought to the practical
purpose of political action was an equally compelling reason for Cox to adopt a
Gramscian framework.
Robert Cox declared himself a Gramscian. R.W. Jones says: ‘The Gramscian-
influenced scholars are primarily concerned with political economy; those influ-
enced by the Frankfurt School are interested primarily in political and normative
theory’ (Jones 2001: 5). Cox’s work is eclectic and draws on seemingly mutually
contradictory traditions such as marrying the Weberian notion of the elite with the
Marxist notion of class, that is, the elites as the political and moral leadership of a
class. The elites lead ‘historic blocs’ in the Gramscian sense (coalitions of social
forces bound by coercion and consent). They consist of ‘organic intellectuals’
who lead hegemonic and counter-hegemonic formations (Sinclair 1996: 9).
Gramsci brought the idea of ‘hegemony’ to the conceptualization of power: the
power of a ruling class was exercised less by coercion (including propaganda and
manipulation) than by its intellectual and moral capacity to win the consent of the
people. It was also more than superimposition of an ideology as it sought to con-
struct a whole lived reality that would allow the existing socio-economic struc-
tures to be taken for granted by the people. The construction of hegemony was not
a one-way process of being imposed from above, but a product of negotiation
between the dominant and the dominated so as to become ingrained in the ‘national
popular’. The consent of the masses could not be presumed for long and, there-
fore, had to be continually re-negotiated and re-secured in changing historical
Gramsci did not subscribe to economic reductionism, where an economic crisis
would result in an automatic historical transformation of the social order (Gramsci
1971: 168). However, he did not rule out the emergence of conditions facilitating
such a transformation. This is because civil society is resilient enough to cope

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442 John S. Moolakkattu

with such crises and can address the lag between the cultural sphere (within which
hegemony is constructed) and the developments in the economy. According to
Gramsci (1971: 5),

Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function
in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or
more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own
function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields.

‘Organic intellectuals’ not only produce ideas, but also form complex and com-
peting strategies, given their closeness to the powerful in the society. Like Gramsci,
Cox believed that organic intellectuals of the working class would play a key role
in the creation of new national historic blocs. As and when they reach a cri-
tical mass, they would form the basis for counter-hegemony to change the world

Why World Order and not International Relations

According to Cox, IR is a ‘misleading way of describing the object of our search
for knowledge’ (Cox 2001: 45). In order to make his agenda go beyond interstate
relations, he focuses on world order, of which states constitute only one component.
By looking at IR in terms of global order, he circumvents the state-centrism of the
discipline. He writes about the importance of internal characteristics of states in
shaping their external behaviour:

International relations theorists never did give much credence to the idea that internal
characteristic of a polity might influence its international behaviour. In their international
relations, states pursued national interests which had little to do with their forms of
government. When international relations analysts began to look within states for an
explanation of conduct, it was bureaucratic processes that claimed their attention rather
than the broad internal structure and processes of power (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 68).

Cox instead focuses on forms of state and how these change under the influence
of macro forces, emanating from the global order as well as through pressures
from civil society. The future provides an opportunity to break with the past. He
talks about day-to-day changes as well as about longue durée, which is concerned
with long-term historical structures. He does not think Wallerstein’s world sys-
tems theory and its structuralist tenor is adequate for building a theory of historical
Craig N. Murphy (1998: 418) elaborates:

While ‘Wallerstein’s work was critical, historical, holistic, and centered on issues
of political economy’, Cox wanted to move beyond its ‘static sense of history’ and

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Robert W. Cox and Critical Theory of International Relations 443

‘disappointing conception of change and discontinuity’. This statement is broadly true

of most IR scholars who began to work with Gramsci’s ideas something over a decade
ago. It is as a consequence of the ‘structuralist’ failings of world-systems theory that
IR Gramscians were initially attracted to interpretations that stressed the historicist and
agency-oriented aspects of Gramsci’s political sociology.

Cox’s use of ‘world order’ or ‘global politics’ or ‘global political economy’ allows
him to bridge the domestic with the global in his scheme of linking productive
forces, ideas and institutions. He explains:

I deliberately avoid using a term like ‘international relations’ since it embodies certain
assumptions about global power relations that need to be questioned. ‘International
relations’ implies the Westphalian state system as its basic framework, and this may
no longer be an entirely adequate basis since there are forms of power other than state
power that enter into global relations. ‘World order’ is neutral as regards the nature of
the entities that constitute power; it designates an historically specific configuration of
power of whatever kind. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 494)

Cox’s career as an international civil servant at the International Labour Organ-

ization (ILO) and as an academic has enabled him to detach himself ‘from a sense
of primary identity with nation or class’ and, at the same time, to ‘hone the critical
faculty and confirm a feeling of distance from active political and social engage-
ment’. But he raises a critical voice that seems to have chosen sides: ‘I am not
content merely to analyse the historical process. I also want to put that analysis to
the service of historical change’ (Cox and Schechter 2002: 37).

Problem-Solving Theory and Critical Theory

Cox’s distinction between problem-solving and critical theory has been endorsed
by researchers across several social science disciplines, although the expression
problem-solving seems to suggest that critical theory is purely idealistic and does
not concern itself with problems. For Cox, all theories are biased. He sees all
positivist theories as moulded within the framework of problem-solving, a rational
enterprise that has very strong roots in the liberal tradition. Problem-solving
theories assume that states are not subject to fundamental changes, but limited or
incremental changes and all actions take place within a limited framework. Critical
theory goes beyond them to identify the origins and transformative or develop-
mental potential of historical phenomena. It seeks out ‘the sources of contradic-
tion and conflict in these entities and evaluates their potential to change into
different patterns’ (Sinclair 1996: 6). Unlike problem-solving theory, which seeks
to ‘smooth the functioning of the whole’, critical theory ‘allows for a normative
choice in favour of a social and political order different from the prevailing
order’ (quoted in Sinclair 1996: 6). Cox elaborates:

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444 John S. Moolakkattu

Theory is always for someone and for some purpose. All theories have a perspective.
Perspective derives from a position in time and space, specifically social and political
time and space. The world is seen from a standpoint definable in terms of nation or
social class, of dominance or subordination, of rising or declining power, of a sense of
immobility or of present crisis, of past experience, and of hopes and expectations for
the future … There is … no such thing as theory in itself, divorced from a standpoint in
time and space. When any theory so presents itself, it is more important to examine it as
ideology, and to lay bare its concealed perspective. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 87)

He explains what problem-solving theory signifies:

It takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and
the institutions into which they are organised, as the given framework for action. The
general aim of problem-solving theory is to make these relationships and institutions
work smoothly by dealing effectively with particular sources of trouble. Since the
general pattern of institutions and relationships is not called into question, particular
problems can be considered in relation to the specialized areas of activity in which they
arise … The strength of the problem-solving approach lies in its ability to fix limits or
parameters to a problem area and to reduce the statement of a particular problem to a
limited number of variables which are amenable to relatively close and precise exam-
ination. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 88)

Critical theory is more reflective upon the process of theorizing itself and adopts
a holistic approach. ‘It is directed toward an appraisal of the very framework for
action, or problematic, which problem-solving theory accepts as its parameters.
Critical theory is directed to the social and political complex as a whole rather
than to the separate parts’ (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 89). Unlike the ahistoricity of
problem-solving theory which ‘posits a continuing present’, critical theory is
historical and deals with a changing reality, which limits the precision in terms of
method. It is anti-status-quoist: ‘Critical theory allows for a normative choice in
favour of a social and political order different from the prevailing order, but it
limits the range of choice to alternative orders which are feasible transformations
of the existing world’(Cox and Sinclair 1996: 90). But problem-solving theory ‘is
a guide to tactical actions which, intended or unintended, sustain the existing
order’ (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 90). While this distinction is a useful analytical
category to understand complex theories, it also simplifies the theoretical project
along the lines of those who are interested in knowledge for the sake of reinforc-
ing the existing order and those who seek knowledge for transformation, forcing
every conceivable theory to identify itself with either of these two streams. In
these days of hybridism, such neat categories may not be able to capture the
richness and full implications of individual theories.
For Cox, the Cold War represented a period in which there was relative stabil-
ity of fundamental structures accounting for the salience of problem-solving
theory. But in the 1990s, when these structures loosened and there was high eco-
nomic competition, the value of problem-solving theory declined and critical

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Robert W. Cox and Critical Theory of International Relations 445

theory gained ascendance. Cox has been critical of positivism for its ahistoricity.
There is in realism, for example, a ‘transhistoricization of states as ever-present
elements of world order’ (Sinclair 1996: 7). Hence the value of positivism is re-
stricted to specified historical limits. For Cox, all structures are historical. Sinclair
(1996: 8) writes: ‘Unlike other methods, Cox’s approach is designed to incorporate
both the static and dynamic aspects of structures’. He considers the static as
‘synchronic’ and the dynamic as ‘diachronic’. This seeks out the ‘contradictions
and conflicts inherent in a social structure and contemplates the characteristics of
emerging social forces and the nature and extent of structural change that is
According to Cox, the elbow room for action is limited within a framework for
action, which would be the starting point of critical theory. Further, the task of
theorizing cannot lead to a closure, but must ‘continually be begun anew’. The
framework for action or historical structure changes over time and these changes
need to be understood by critical theory. These frameworks ‘constitute the context
of habits, pressures, expectations, and constraints within which action takes place’
(Cox and Sinclair 1996: 97). Such frameworks need to be looked upon not from a
perspective of reproduction and system maintenance as problem-solving theorists
do, but from the outside in terms of emergence of conflicts and the possibilities
for their transformation.

Cox has drawn on seemingly contradictory figures such as George Sorel and
E.H. Carr. The first denounced the state through his syndicalism; the second came
to represent state-centric IR. Carr sees a historical interrelatedness of industrial-
ization, change in forms of state, change in ideas and change in world order. Sorel
taught Cox that he could selectively rely on Marxism, that ‘historical materialism
was to be understood as the relationship between mentalities and material con-
ditions of existence’ (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 27). Cox has also been influenced by
the eighteenth century Italian philosopher and historian Giambattista Vico who
saw human nature and human institutions not in terms of unchanging substance,
but rather as continuing creation of new forms. Vico sought to show that people’s
ideas were formed in the process of becoming aware of their material existence.
For him, structures and institutions are made by human agency, and to understand
structural and institutional changes, it is necessary to understand changes in the
‘mind’, imagine the mental processes of actors, and rethink their thoughts—a
point on which Vico agreed with Collingwood (Cox and Schechter 2002). Cox

Collingwood argued that historiography consisted in rethinking the thought of the

past. I did not understand this as a statement of idealism, that everything came out of
the mind. With Sorel superimposed upon Collingwood, I understood it to mean a

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446 John S. Moolakkattu

relationship between the experienced material world and the subjectivity through which
people interpreted and acted upon that material world; and I took it as a guideline for
my reflections upon social and political change. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 28)

For Cox ‘the relationship of idealism to materialism is dialectical. They are two
necessary complementary ways to approach reality’. He maintains that he took
the term ‘historical structure’ from Fernand Barudel. From Vico he learned to
combine the unique and the general, for ‘without the general it would be impossible
to understand or explain the unique’ (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 28–29). He then
moved to Gramsci, for whom philosophy and history are identical: the truth of
philosophy is specific to the forces that shape history and the inter-subjectivity
that emerges constitutes the ‘objectivity of an epoch’.
Cox did his Masters in History, graduating in 1946 from McGill University,
and has a general penchant for historical explanations. The main defect with
Kenneth Waltz’s thinking, according to him, is that despite its efforts to be sci-
entific, it does not have a historical sense and the potential to explain change.
Robert Keohane’s (1984) interest in peaceful changes and Robert Gilpin’s (1981)
concern with problems of change under conditions of declining hegemony are
inexplicable by turning to Waltzian Neorealism. Cox considers Realism and
Marxism in his attempt to develop a critical approach. He laments that the early
Realism with its historicism reflected in the writings of Carr and Ludwig Dehio
prior to the World War II was changed by Hans J. Morgenthau and Waltz, who
turned it into a problem-solving theory. It is strange that Cox considers Morgenthau
a neorealist. Morgenthau’s problem rests not so much on his lack of historicism,
but the effecting of a historical closure, particularly in the post-World War situ-
ation. When Richard K. Ashley, adopting a Foucauldian genealogical approach,
found Morgenthau’s classical Realism far more enabling and flexible for con-
structing a critical theory, unlike Neorealism which effects a closure by making
realist propositions universal, this was seen as heretical. In fact, Morgenthau’s
early writings provide elements of a critical realist theory that did not disappear
altogether from his post-World War writings (Ashley 1986; Scheuerman 2009).
Cox considers neorealist theory as a problem-solving one because in it ‘with
respect to essentials, the future will always be like the past’ (Cox and Sinclair
1996: 92). The organizing principle on the basis of which game theories are con-
structed also emerges from this thinking. In contrast, the ‘world as a “given” has
been displaced by the world as an evolutionary process in which the only certainty
about the future is that it will not be like the past’ (Cox 2007: 516).
Just as Cox finds the older form of Realism (other than Morgenthau’s) to be
enabling, he identifies one type of Marxism as seminal to his brand of critical
theory since it ‘reasons historically and seeks to explain, as well as to promote,
changes in social relations’. He distances himself from those forms of Marxism
‘which turns its back on historical knowledge in favour of a more static and
abstract conceptualization of the mode of production’. He considers the first as
historical Marxism, with which he associates Gramsci and the Annales School

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Robert W. Cox and Critical Theory of International Relations 447

of France. He regards the second, commonly associated with Louis Althusser and
Nicos Poulantzas, as ahistoric and essentialist with strong similarities with the
neorealist problem-solving approach (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 94–95).
According to Cox, historical materialism corrects neorealism in four respects.
First, it is both a logic (dialectics) and history. At the level of history, ‘dialectic is
the potential for alternative forms of development arising from the confrontation
of opposed social forces in any concrete historical situation’. Neorealism ‘sees
conflict as a recurrent consequence of a continuing structure, whereas historical
materialism sees conflict as a possible cause of structural change’. Second, his-
torical materialism allows us to grasp the vertical dimension of power to the neo-
realist horizontal rivalry among powerful states by constructing categories like
domination-subordination of metropolis over the hinterland, centre over peri-
phery, etc. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 95–96). Third, historical materialism expands
the realist perspective by bringing in civil society and its relationship with the
state as an additional element into IR. What we need to focus on is ‘state-society
complexes’ as constituting entities and their particular historical forms. Finally,
historical materialism examines the connection between power in production,
in the state and IR. This is unlike Neorealism, which ignores the production pro-
cess altogether.

[N]eorealism implicitly takes the production process and the power relations inherent
in it as a given element of the national interest, and therefore as part of its parameters.
Historical materialism is sensitive to the dialectical possibilities of change in the sphere
of production which could affect the other spheres, such as those of the state and world
order. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 96–97)

Historicism, thus, allows Cox to look at structure as one moment in an evolving

process of structural change. This historical sense provides not only a tool to
understand the context of the origin of structure, but also the knowledge of how it
may be transformed (Cox 1981: 135).

Production, Ideas and Institutions

Three forces interact in a structure: (i) material capabilities (for example, tech-
nology, accumulated resources), (ii) ideas (two types—intersubjective meanings
cutting across social divide and rival collective images of social order based on
ethnicity and religion, which relate to the material conditions of the group in
question), and (iii) institutions, which tend to gain a foothold and perpetuate a
particular order. Institutions can acquire a degree of autonomy, serve as agents of
change and become the battleground for opposing tendencies. Production does
not stop with material forces alone, but includes production of ideas, of inter-
subjective meanings, of norms, of institutions and social practices within the con-
text of which production of material life takes place. Ontologies are ‘sets of shared

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448 John S. Moolakkattu

meanings, which come to define reality’, even if we may not individually approve
of it (Sinclair 1996: 9). Cox regards ontologies as the ‘parameters of our existence’
(Cox and Sinclair 1996).
Hegemonic and counter-hegemonic structures, which have been identified by
the theorist, comprising sets of material capabilities, ideas and institutions may be
classified into three broad spheres of the social world, namely production, forms
of state and world orders. Cold War was a ‘limited totality’ (institutions like the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization, ideas like McCarthyism and material capabil-
ities like military-industrial complex). This hegemonic ‘limited totality’ impacted
the social forces of production (constraining the development of social democratic
or socialist consciousness), forms of state (measures of social control and surveil-
lance) and world orders (liberal trading order and anti-communist alliances).
Cox speaks about two ideal types of society competing for future dominance—
state capitalism and hyper-liberalism. State capitalism sought to moderate cap-
italism’s polarizing impact on society. His hyper-liberalism is neoliberalism or
globalization. He associates it with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who
rejected state intervention to influence market behaviour positively, and envisioned
the state more as the enforcer of market rules. This, backed by the American
power, removed all residues of social democratic thinking. Change from Fordist
economies of scale to post Fordist flexible labour meant ‘fewer reasonably secure
high income core workers and a larger proportion of precariously employed
lower-income peripheral workers’ (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 31). Here, Cox takes
his cue from Karl Polanyi’s (2002/1944) The Great Transformation, in which the
latter detailed the social and political consequences of industrial revolution in the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The self-regulating market subordinated
the society to an economic logic, making people vulnerable to forces over which
they had no control. This was the first movement. The second was society’s
response in the form of social democracy (welfare state), a kind of reassertion or
restoration of society.
According to Cox, hyper-liberalism replicates the first move. The need, there-
fore, is to identify the sources of response leading to the second double move-
ment and to prevent responses of the fascist kind, which are equally possible in
times of economic crisis, as exemplified by the events that unfolded in Europe
in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Hyper-liberalism has lost credibility
among the electorate of many capitalist countries. Socialist countries which em-
braced it, now look on an earlier era with nostalgia or are trying to create populist

Hegemony and Counter-hegemony

Gramsci developed the notion of hegemony at the national level, but Cox extends
it to the international. He rejects the notion of national interest as distinct from
particular interests (as upheld by Gilpin and Stephen Krasner), but has no difficulty

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Robert W. Cox and Critical Theory of International Relations 449

in accepting it if it is defined as representing hegemony—the concatenation of

social forces producing the national interest, which is being projected as the gen-
eral interest (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 56). Tracing the Machiavellian base of
hegemony, Cox says:

Gramsci took over from Machiavelli the image of power as a centaur: half man, half
beast, a necessary combination of consent and coercion. To the extent that the consensual
aspect of power is in the forefront, hegemony prevails. Coercion is always latent but is
only applied in marginal, deviant cases. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 127)

It is the consensual element that distinguishes the hegemonic from the non-
hegemonic world orders. Explaining hegemony not as dominance, centred exclu-
sively on power as the neorealists would want us to believe, Cox adds:

[H]egemony at the international level is … not merely an order among states. It is an

order within a world economy with a dominant mode of production which penetrates
into all countries and links into other subordinate modes of production. It is also a
complex of international social relationships which connects the social classes of the
different countries. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 137)

Germain and Kenny (1998: 6) clarify:

[I]n contrast to the somewhat arid use made of the concept of hegemony by neorealist
scholars, or its increasingly functional tone in world-systems analyses, the richly textured
and suggestive deployment of this concept in the Gramscian IPE literature provides
insights into the social basis of hegemony, its construction as a social artefact and its
inherent points or moments of contradiction. Moreover, by considering how hegemony
itself is a product of leadership, i.e., a consequence of individual and collective human
acts, the Gramscian reading of this concept draws our attention to both its contestability
and the impossibility of reducing it to a preponderance of material resources.

Cox says that three categories of forces interact reciprocally in the structure—
material capabilities, ideas and institutions. He distinguishes between two types
of ideas—shared notions of the nature of social relations and collective images of
social order held by different groups of people. Institutionalization ‘is a means of
stabilizing and perpetuating a particular order’ (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 99). There
is a close connection between institutionalization and Gramscian understanding
of hegemony.
A transnational class emerges as a result of the internationalization of pro-
duction, which in turn also leads to an internationalization of the state. This class
consists of not only the executives of transnational corporations and international
agencies, but also those who manage these internationally oriented sectors within
countries such as Finance Ministry officials and local managers linked to the
international production systems. There are three components of this process:

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450 John S. Moolakkattu

First … there is a process of interstate consensus formation regarding the needs or

requirements of the world economy that takes place within a common ideological frame-
work.... Second, participation in this consensus formation is hierarchically structured.
Third, the internal structures of states are adjusted so that each can best transform the
global consensus into national policy and practice. (Cox 1987: 254)

The internationalization of the state is defined by the conversion of the state

….into an agency for adjusting national economic practices and policies to the per-
ceived exigencies of the global economy. The state becomes a transmission belt from
the global to the national economy, where heretofore it had acted as the bulwark defend-
ing domestic welfare from external disturbances. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 302)

Cox envisions three scenarios—a new form of hegemony through coalition, a

non-hegemony by returning to the neomercantilist nation-focused production and
a counter-hegemony based on a Third World coalition. An international organ-
ization ‘functions as a process through which the institutions of hegemony and its
ideology are developed’. ‘[I]ndividuals from peripheral countries, though they
may come to international institutions with the idea of working from within to
change the system, are condemned to work within the structures of passive revolu-
tion’ (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 139). According to the Gramscian notion of ‘trans-
formismo’, potentially counter-hegemonic ideas tend to get co-opted into the
hegemonic scheme. The principles of self-reliance and endogenous development,
for example, have transformed to mean ‘do-it-yourself’ welfare programmes, akin
to Foucault’s concept of ‘self-responsibilization’. Therefore, the ‘task of chang-
ing world order begins with the long and laborious effort to build new historic
blocs within national boundaries’ (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 141). Drawing on the
fourteenth century Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun, Cox lays out the
foundations of a post-hegemonic world in the twenty-first century:

[C]an there be distinct, thriving macro-societies, each with its own solidarity, each
pursuing a distinct telos, which could coexist through a supra-intersubjectivity? This
supra-intersubjectivity would have to embody principles of coexistence without
necessarily reconciling differences in goals. It would have to allow for a degree of
harmonization of the trajectories of the different macro-societies. (Cox and Sinclair
1996: 168)

He sees the emergence of a nascent form of counter-movement against globaliza-

tion involving women, environmentalists, peace activists, indigenous peoples,
trade unions and churches. Wallerstein (1998) also had hope in similar groups of
people. Building on Gramsci, Cox says that there is a need to build a new ‘historic
bloc’ capable of sustaining a long ‘war of position’ until it becomes a critical mass
so as to form the basis of an alternative polity.

To the extent that such popular responses to the existing thrust of globalisation come to
fruition, they will change the meaning and the form of polity. Such a long-term result

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Robert W. Cox and Critical Theory of International Relations 451

could hardly be achieved in one national society alone; it would have to move forward
simultaneously in several countries, and draw sufficient support in the world system
to protect its various national bases. The existing globalisation thrust grounded in the
economic logic of markets would be countered by a new globalisation embedded in
society. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 207)

Globalization, for Cox, has created a three-level social hierarchy, viz., those who
are integrated into the global economy in a ‘reasonably stable environment’, those
who serve it in a subordinate and more precarious way, and those who are ex-
cluded from it.

The challenge to globalization, if it is to become activated, would require the formation

of a common will, a vision of an alternative future, and the transcendence of the mani-
fold divisions of ethnicity, religion, gender and geography that cut across the three-level
social hierarchy being created by globalisation. (Cox 2001: 49)

In order to resist globalization, the concept of class should be broadened to include

identities like ethnicity, religion, gender and so on.

Pathways to an Alternative Order

Socialism, according to Cox, is possible with further polarization through internal
resistance in the United States and external resistance, especially in the Third
World that rejects the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the US-dominated
new world order:

[F]or the future, the Gramscian war of position becomes the appropriate strategy for
socialist construction, most particularly in targeting the heartlands of capitalism, but
carried on in coordination with movements in the Third World and in the countries of
‘real socialism’. The struggle will be at once internal and global. (Cox and Sinclair
1996: 232)

Diagnosing the end of socialism and its failure to ‘envisage alternative ways of
organizing production to those of the hierarchical capitalist factory system’, he
puts forward an ‘alternative model of consumption…which minimised energy
and resources consumption and pollution, and maximised emancipatory and par-
ticipatory opportunities for people’ (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 310). The fragility of
the existing global structure is felt at military and financial points. Non-violent
methods of power assertion against the military are necessary. Financial crisis can
be the

….most likely way in which the existing world order could begin to collapse. A new
financial mechanism would be needed to seize the initiative for transcending the liberal
separation of economy from polity and for re-embedding the economy in a society
imbued with the principles of equity and solidarity. (Cox and Sinclair 1996: 311)

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452 John S. Moolakkattu

A shift in polarization from mere rivalry among leading sovereign states to a

struggle between different classes of people—between those who benefit from the
process of globalization and those who suffer its consequences—is also envisaged.
Supporters of globalization seek to create a global civilization driven by advanced
forms of capitalism and consumerism. Those opposed to such a homogenized
world order look for a global civil society committed to a plural world made up of
several civilizations reflecting ‘the diversity of material conditions, historical ex-
perience, mentalities and aspirations that prevail among the world’s peoples’ and
an enhancement in citizens’ participation (Cox and Schechter 2002: xxi).
Cox’s ecological concerns are particularly visible in his more recent writings.
For example:

Monotheistic religions with their notion of a transcendent deity encouraged a separation

of human beings, the image of the divine, from nature, created by God for the use and
enjoyment of humans. Scientific modernism inherited this idea in conceiving nature
as something to be dominated, tamed and shaped by human beings. The irruption of
forces of nature into human affairs, not as the occasional flood or earthquake but as a
deterioration of the planet’s life-support system, now suggests the need to revise this
notion by seeing humanity as one component of the natural world, interacting with
other forms of life and life-sustaining substances. The biosphere is this larger inter-
active realm, an envelope circling the earth and stretching from the sea beds to the
higher atmosphere. (Cox 2001: 51)

‘[T]hose societies that have pioneered the quest of consumerism would have to
show the way toward an alternative model that would be consistent with biosphere
maintenance’ (Cox 2001: 52). There is also a need for ‘a new multilateralism built
from the bottom up on the foundations of a broadly participative global society’
(Cox 1997: vii), to steer this process towards more just and democratic outcomes.
Efforts to restructure existing multilateral institutions through piecemeal reform
do not go far enough. A reconfigured multilateral order will follow the maturing
of popular mobilization and the creation of a genuine grassroots civil society at
the global level. The emergence of counter-hegemony from those social forces
which are ‘excluded’ or ‘marginalized’ from the global economy is essential.

The movement presupposes the rediscovery of social solidarity and of confidence

in a potential for sustained collective creativity, inspired by a commitment to social
equity, to reciprocal recognition of cultural and civilizational differences, to biospheric
survival, and to non-violent methods of dealing with conflict. The supreme challenge
is to build a counterhegemonic formation that would embody these principles; and this
task implies as a first step the working out of an ontology that focuses attention on the
key elements in this struggle. (Cox 2001: 59)

There is already a ‘bottom-up’ movement in civil society as a counterweight to the

hegemonic power structure and ideology, although it is relatively weak and un-
coordinated (Cox and Schechter 2002: 103). Cox pleads for a plural world with a
post-modernist leaning (Cox 2007: 527):

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Robert W. Cox and Critical Theory of International Relations 453

The starting-point for escape from a forced uniformity into a tolerant diversity is the
ability to agree upon what is essential for the physical survival of humanity and to act
upon that agreement. Peoples’ perspectives on the world are in a continuing process of
evolution. Common values could arise out of this process. So could new conflicts. The
task of ‘the international’ is to work through this variety of perspectives, to understand
the compatibilities and incompatibilities among them, and to warn against absolutist
claims for any one perspective.

Approving Gramsci’s position, that it is social disintegration that sustains re-

pressive regimes, Cox calls for the formation of a vibrant civil society and a sort
of communitarian democracy as a counter:

To overcome this social disintegration and passivity will require the creation of a vibrant
civil society inspired by a strong spirit of solidarity at the community level and, by link-
age with other strong communities in other countries, at the transnational or global
level. Upon such a basis of participatory democracy new political authorities may in the
long run be constructed at national, regional and world levels. (Cox 2005: 119)

Martin Shaw (2000) finds a serious lag in Cox’s thinking, in that he seeks to
replace ideas like complex interdependence, regimes and international organization
of Keohane and Nye (1977) with ‘internationalization of production’ and ‘inter-
nationalizing of the state’ without developing these ideas. This is due to his par-
ticular emphasis on domestic blocs. Further, Cox sees the process primarily as a
form of national policy adjustment to the ‘exigencies of international capitalism’.
Shaw also takes Cox to task for neglecting the Marxist notion of state as compris-
ing ‘bodies of armed men’, preferring instead to see it entirely in socio-economic
dynamics. Military power is seen as a function of political economy. Hence, Cox’s
position is not in any way an advance over the position of Keohane and Nye
(Shaw 2000: 84–85). One could also question Cox’s understanding of state. Just
as the state responds to forces of globalization by introducing internal reforms to
agree with the demands of such forces, it also creates mechanisms for regulating
the processes of globalization to prevent domestic revolt. To describe the state as
a ‘transmission belt’ of the international forces undervalues its complex nature
and the pressures brought to bear up on it.
Critics have said that Cox is tied to one position and yet has deviated from its
authentic source—Karl Marx. Others have criticized him for neglecting military/
security issues (Kennedy 1987), ecology and feminism. He has indeed addressed
these questions, other than military/security, in his later writings. Cox has also
been criticized for failing to meet the criteria of positivism, postmodernism and
neorealism, and for his excessive optimism about the prospect for structural
changes. It may be said in his defence, however, that Cox has not tried ‘to protect

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454 John S. Moolakkattu

a narrowly conceived Marxist version of historical materialism’ (Germain

2007: 129) that would have assumed a sort of ahistorical character, making it im-
pervious to ideas, norms, and culture except as an epiphenomenon of the sub-
structure of economic and materialist foundations.
While Cox claims to be eclectic, his sharp distinction between critical and
problem-solving theories does not seem to envision the possibility of theories that
fall under neither of these labels. He has not acknowledged the possibility of
quasi-critical theories, which may have a high degree of reform content short of
structural changes. We do not have any criteria for determining whether a given
theory is problem-solving or critical. While Cox admits that many progressive
forces and ideas are easy targets for co-option, he does not seem to have recognized
a similar plight befalling critical theory. Many of his recent ideas relating to eco-
logical balance, participation, gender and non-violent action have now become
part of the standard vocabulary of the World Bank. We also lack empirical evidence
in support of his theory of transformation from below. A recent study of seven
African countries conducted by Leysens (2006) based on the Afrobarometer data
(Round 1, 1999–2000) contests Cox’s claim that the marginalized can bring about
political and economic transformation from the below.

The explanation for this, I submit, is that they are excluded or on the fringes of the dom-
inant economic mode of production (globally and nationally). It is much more difficult
to mobilise and organise the extreme poor for political transformation when every day
is a struggle just to meet basic needs. (Leysens 2006: 53)

Many of Cox’s prescriptions, particularly in his later writings, border on a basic-

needs perspective, based on limitation of wants, built on the foundations of an
alternative model of development. He sees much promise in the agenda of the new
social movements and in the methods of the participatory action researchers.
More recent works have made the concept of ‘class’ quite fluid so as to bring
under it categories like gender and race. At times, his ideas, particularly those re-
lating to identification of actors and strategies of transformation show similarities
with the Gandhian approach. For example, he critiques the consumption model of
the Western economies and how it has created a disjuncture of finance from the
real economy, and real economy from the biosphere. Cox, however, seems to be
inadequately seized of the inherent contradictions between Marxism, which looks
upon dialectical/emancipatory possibilities enhancing with materialistic pro-
gress, and non-consumption-oriented basic-needs approaches that look upon such
materialist models as unsustainable and life threatening. Further, Cox does not
seem to have a blueprint for a preferred world order and transition strategies,
although he suggests many of its ingredients. Imagining a preferred world order
and working towards its realization through a roadmap somehow seem to have not
found a place on his agenda.
Robert Cox has undoubtedly expanded our academic imagination beyond the
state to recognize the connections between the domestic and the international, and

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Robert W. Cox and Critical Theory of International Relations 455

the interactions that take place among material capabilities, ideas and institutions.
He has provided an explanation for the interactions between mental processes
through which people conceive action and the material structures that constrain
action in different historical periods. He has not only been an IR theorist, but also
a social theorist and historian. He has demonstrated how theorizing can serve pol-
itical purposes, either to preserve the present world order with its inequities or to
contribute to social change in the direction of a more equitable order. His final
hope lies in transnational civil society, participatory experiments and vibrant non-
violent social movements. He has shown how one can use Marxism fruitfully in
international relations without being dogmatic about it. In these days of global
financial crisis, many of his ideas have a prophetic ring to them, although their
implications for transformation need to be fleshed out adequately.

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