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Dr Joseph MacKay was in New York on the night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. As surprised as anyone, he remembers walking around town for a couple of days afterwards feeling the need to think or write up a response. As it happens, Trump’s election sparked a series of back and forths between MacKay and fellow IR scholar Christopher LaRoche, on the nature of political reaction. For MacKay, political reaction means a particular attitude towards history, a nostalgic appeal to a fondly-remembered past. From their conversations, the two scholars arrived at a pressing question: Why is there no reactionary international theory? The question served as the title for an article published in the flagship IR journal International Studies Quarterly this year.
The argument they make is straightforward: Political reaction is a distinct and under-explored phenomenon in international relations. For contemporary examples of reactionary politics, think of Donald Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’ or the underlying motivations of Brexit. MacKay notes that reactionaries are as nostalgic as they are transnational. “These movements network,” he says. “We get people affiliated with Trump hanging out with Marine Le Pen, or to a lesser extent, Victor Orban in Hungary or Erdogan in Turkey - folks who have a similar nostalgia.”
What’s more, a place for thinking about reaction is something that international relations theory has long been missing. Its absence has blinded the field of study from seeing reaction in action in practical politics, MacKay argues. Identifying the blind-spot, then, is about disciplinary relevance, and understanding the world as it is right now.
MacKay’s article went from pitch to publication so quickly that the journal’s editor quipped that the turnaround had been ‘opportunistic’. “People are rapidly turning to this,” MacKay explains. “The premise of the title wasn’t going to be accurate a year later.” In that sense, it’s almost reactive – if not quite reactionary – in its written response to the election of a most unlikely president.
Read the full journal article - Why is there No Reactionary International Theory