Debating IR

Probing the philosophical underpinnings of the international system and anything else of interest.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Critical theory vs. public goods liberalism

Lynch opens up his article by saying that "critical theory locates legitimacy within an emerging international public sphere of world citizens" (182). In other words, actions are legitimate when they benefit those citizens, and illegitimate when they don't. This seems fair enough, with the growing emphasis on human rights. However, he complicates things by saying that "legitimacy can only be achieved by reaching consensus through open public argument among all affected actors under conditions roughly free of considerations of power and self-interest" (183), and that's about where what I think Lynch would call my radical inner skeptic kicked in. When can states be considered free of self-interest? He attempts to answer this when defining communicative action, in which states decide to "set aside their self interest... and even their identities in order to seek truth -- or at least consensus about the right course of action" (183). Okay, so states must agree to momentarily set aside their own interests in order to make legitimate decisions based on (what appear to be) objective standards of right and wrong, where right choices benefit humans and bad choices, well, don't.

It makes sense, but I just can't believe that it would ever happen. Some of a state's self-interests are power, (usually?) international stability, national security, economic stability... etc., etc. According to Lynch, if a state is not free from these "considerations of power and self-interest" when it makes a decision to intervene in a conflict, this decision is not legitimate. However, all of these self-interests are of paramount importance to a state; how do you just set them all aside to make "legitimate" decisions? More to the point, how can you make a truly legitimate decision without considering every aspect?

Public goods liberalism, discussed in this earlier post, makes more sense. You might intervene in a situation for personal gain, as both Lynch and Boyer/Butler admits countries did in Kosovo, but you can still benefit others by intervening. PG liberalism doesn't hold countries up to the same unrealistic standard as critical theory; it admits that states are self-interested, and excuses that as perfectly normal. Critical theory seems to be telling states that if they're self-interested, they have impure motives and are incapable of doing good.

However, Lynch somewhat redeems himself later when stating that "critical theory can draw on constructivist international relations theory... by using the force of public exposure to bind states to their moral rhetoric, even if they employed it for nakedly strategic reasons" (191). This appears to be an acceptance of the manipulation he rejects earlier in the article, a tongue-in-cheek confirmation that, yes, states will sign on for personal reasons and use moral rhetoric to cover it up, but they can later be held accountable for that moral rhetoric, so there. Lynch is optimistic that a "critical, transformative practice" can be effective if states are forced to "live up to their strategically chosen rhetoric" (191), which strikes me as a suitable compromise. I do find it a little unlikely that states could be coerced into being moral to fulfill their promises, but it is possible. If a state forms an identity as a moral power, it would most likely be unwilling to do something that conflicts with that identity, and could ultimately become a moral power instead of simply having the reputation of being one.

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