Debating IR

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


Saturday, March 04, 2006

Locking Out the Undesirables

After the class discussion on whether or not people who committed crimes -- genocide, for example -- could be included in a discussion to reach a consensus on morality, and the general conclusion that they can't, it seems obvious that this implies a social contract in which members can only participate as long as they follows the rules. However, it appears that it would become increasingly difficult to determine whose opinions are acceptable. Is there really an objective standard of right and wrong (such as, as Lynch offers, a universal morality/"obligation to protect the innocent") that participants must adhere to?

Although that is a somewhat unpopular perspective, it's also pretty unpopular to actually listen to someone who argues against certain universal morals, i.e. argues for genocide. In that case, what are the terms of this universal morality? Does it only go as far as genocide, or are there other actions that are widely accepted to be crimes? Terrorism comes to mind, and I think that this is popularly considered wrong; it also appears that terrorists automatically lose their right to participate in a consensus on morality. It seems to be an issue of credibility; if you're trying to determine whether or not an action is moral, you don't consult someone you consider immoral.

However, if there were to be a discussion on morality, it would be interesting to see whom states were actually willing to invite; although we consider terrorism and genocide wrong, we do tend to prop up dictatorships and stand by while genocide occurs, which could be considered equally wrong by other states. Would we be considered too immoral to participate?


Discussion on Critical theory

The discussion on the Lynch reading didn't go where I thought it would. Unfortunately, we seem to be skipping the postmodernism section and just going for the critical theory.

The interesting thing about critical theory is that there is an assumption that if everyone sort of gives up their interests while making decisions, it is sort of implied that then everyone will reach the same conclusion (this reminds me of Rawls theory of justice) . This is because critical theory sees itself as the heir to the enlightenment. If everyone puts aside self-interest and looks at the situation rationally, then they will reach the same sort of enlightenment conclusions. (like criticism of Rawls, one could criticize this theory for essentially asking people to give up their identity)

I think this aspect of critical theory is more interesting than the participation requirements (which seem fairly obvious for reaching some kind of fair course of action), so I am disappointed we are not looking at the postmodern challenge to this aspect of critical theory.


Universal Morality

After reading and discussing Lynch's article, I must agree with Jonathon that he certainly provides a different and interesting perspective on international relations. I'm not convinced that what he does is a separate theory, but it is a fascinating line of thought. Questioning the motives, causes, and effects of everything in international relations is important (even if you believe as I do that the answer always comes back to power).

That is why I find it so intriguing that Lynch fails to question universal morality. As I said earlier, he seems to accept it as objective truth. In his mind, there are apparently a few moral standards that all people all over the world believe and accept, or should accept. Lynch does not question these. In fact he doesn't really outline what any of these standards are, making it impossible for others to question them. So instead of attacking the standards individually, I am forced to question them as a group.

The biggest question is "how were these standards arrived at?" Did they come out of some form of consensus? If so, who was involved in this consensus? If states were involved then how can states create a consensus for individuals? If states are not human how can they truly create consensus on human rights? Did every state agree or was it a majority? Who gave this consensus the power to impose human rights or moral standards?

The questions are truly endless and can often have intriguing answers. But Lynch does not go into them. And the simple reason he does not is that they are unanswerable. Critical theorists say that everything is subjective, but they cling to objective notions of universal morality and human rights. These ideas are simply incompatible. Lynch does not question universal morality because to do so would undermine his objectives in promoting universal morality. To use his own tools against himself, would force him to admit that his ideas are no stronger or more defensible than the people he attacks critically. If everything is subjective, then everything truly is subjective, even universal morality. Someone at some time enforced their will or power upon someone else and in doing so coerced them into acceptance of the powerful actors ideas. A chain reaction followed and then consensus was built.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

Jonathan Berman Searches for Consensus on the Morality of the State System

The interesting thing about Lynch's piece is how different it is from the other things we've read. The articles on liberalism, realism, and constructivism all try to be predictive and find the true causes of events in international relations. This is known as a positive approach and this approach goes along with the assumption that there are objective facts out in the world that we can know.

On the other hand, Lynch's piece takes a normative approach which is inherently prescriptive and uses norms and standards which stands in contrast to the positive approaches that we usually see in IR. This approach brings morality, principles, and values into international relations. Thus, when judging Lynch I believe we need to judge him on the principles he lays out, not on whether his system is feasible.

When reading his article the question we must ask is whether or not the system he lays out is a moral one. If Lynch's system is moral and right then we need to ask ourselves if international relations as it is practiced today conforms to this morality. After reading his article it is clear that it does not. Thus, if Lynch's values are moral and the international system as it is currently constructed does not match those morals then we are left to conlcude that the international system is inherently immoral.

However, I disagree with Lycnh's prescriptions. Namely, including everyone in the dialogue. Lynch's prescription taken to its natural conclusions means that in the case of Kosovo not only would the world have to be involved in the dialogue but the Serbs who were committing genocide would have to be included as well. I think that is wrong because by committing genocide in the first place I believe they have forfeited their right to be part of any consensus and treated as equals. The equivalent of letting Lynch's prescription coming to pass is allowing murderer's to sit in on the deliberations of a jury and giving them a vote. Clearly, this would be ridiculous.

Even though Lynch is wrong I think the notion that the international system could be immoral brings up some interesting issues. If international system conflicts with what we know to be moral can we still allow it to stand as is?


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.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Objective Critical Theorists

Jennifer Sterling-Folkers says in her article "Postmodern and Critical Theory Approaches" that postmodern and critical theory reject notions of objectivity. In Marc Lynch's "Critical Thoery: Dialogue, Legitimacy, and Justifications of War" I fail to see evidence of this claim. In my mind, critical theory wants to be based on subjectivity, but it isn't. It is based on idealist notions of universal morality. The subjective part of their beliefs comes in the fact that they accuse all other theories of abusing objectivity as a tool for state or IO interests. The ironic thing about critical theory is that it could easily be based on subjectivity. To do so would only require being critical of itself.

In his article, Marc Lynch latches onto two objective notions that completely destroyed his credibility for me. The first was that the UN is the sole arbiter of legitimacy. Lynch continuously attacked NATO for abusing power and bypassing the UN. He repeatedly asserted that only a UN mandate could provide legitimacy to the invasion. It is clear that Lynch objectively accepts the UN as the supreme world judge of right and wrong. It is the voice of the people. The only place where a true dialogue can be found. (The idea of a true dialogue where all people have an equal voice is equally idealistic and nonsensical, since it basically asserts that the people are never wrong and that their decisions are objectively true.) What Lynch should be asking then is "Where does the UN get its power? How did the UN become the sole source of legitimacy?" I contend that the establishment of the UN and certainly the Security Council was a power play by the victors of WWII. But I digress.

Lynch's second objective notion is universal morality. He assumes that the moral standards of the world today, which are certainly Western influenced and not a result of a true world discourse, are objective truth. Oscar Wilde comments on the absurdity of this notion in A Picture of Dorian Gray, "Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one's age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality." If critical theory is based on subjectivity then it must attack current moral standards, not as right or wrong but as imposed by a power, for instance the UN or Western nations. Moral standards generally reflect the interests of those in power in some way or another and Lynch's acceptance of these standards as objective is absurd.

To me, this mix of objectivity and subjectivity destroys the credibility of the approach. It is fine to mix the two, but not if you claim one as wrong. It just doesn't work. Critical theory seems to be important insofar as it raises interesting questions, but if fails to provide usable answers to those questions and is therefore lacking as a theory of international relations.


Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Jonathan Berman Wanders Off Into Normative Space

I think the most fascinating thing I picked up from the readings was the concept of normative space. Although not real in any positive sense, normative space contains all of the beliefs, ideas, and norms that make up a given society's social world. Contained in normative space are all the standards of appropriate behavior, ideas, values, and beliefs produced by a society. However, normative space is not static, it is a highly contested space. Ideas and norms that conflict or differ from a society's current norms are constantly on the fringes of normative space and threaten to undermine those ideas that have ideational hegemony.

Looking back at the paragraph I just wrote normative space seems like a complicated concept, however, I believe it is quite simple. The consequence of normative space is that all new ideas and norms have to emerge in the context of current reigning ideas and norms that make up a society's social world.

But why is that important? Well, the answer is that those new ideas and norms that conform or play off themes of old norms and ideas will have the best chance of being picked up by the general public. Thus, themes like the US being "a shining city on a hill", values like freedom and liberty are universal, or the US is a haven against tyranny must be echoed by any politician who wants to get elected to higher office. Politicians must conform to these norms and make sure their policies fit with the values those norms promote or else they will be rejected by the electorate. Thus, fringe ideas like white superiority, marxism, militant animal rights, and militant environmentalism don't play well with the general public because they clash with society's current values.

That is why I believe that norm entrepreuners do their best when they put the new values they are promoting in terms of older values. These norm entrepreuners have the best shot at getting their ideas accepted because it reduces the amount of persuasion they need to do. Thus, for someone to convince Americans that something is right based on marxist values, they need to not only convince the public that the idea they have is right but also that marxist values are better than the ones they currently have. This a monumental task because it's almost taken for granted by society that marxist values are wrong. A norm entreprenuer can save themselves a tremendous effort by showing their new norms conform with old norms because it saves them the trouble of fighting additional, even more difficult, battles.


Sunday, February 26, 2006

Damn Echoes

I hate reading something and having one word echo in my head the whole time. As I read "Social Deconstruction" such was the case. The one word I heard constantly was "Huntington, Huntington, Huntington." And when you think about it, that word coming to mind is not very strange. After all, the entire piece is about Slavic or nationalist identity. First, I must admit, I like Huntington. I don't necesarily agree with him, however, I love the argument. I love how people get so heated, and I love how he can live comfortably for the rest of his life by proposing an unprovable and undefeatable theory. But I digress.

To me, this article can give a great argument against Huntington. If a person would look at map 1.3 in Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, he would find Huntington's view of how the world will break down, with different shadings for each civilization. Looking at the map, it is obvious that Russia and most of the former Yugoslavia are contained within the "Orthodox" civilization. To "orthodox" is not as correct as Slavic would be, but nonetheless. Hoffman's article makes the case that because Yugoslavs failed to identify as Yugoslavs, the state fell apart. He argues that nationalist identifications were more important than a broader identification with what is conceivably a civilization.

Yugoslav identity is a Slavic identity. And part of that Slavic identity is a now 1500 year old connection with Christian Orthodox churches. By rejecting a civilizational identification, it can be seen that one whole civilization in Huntington's system fails to coalesce. This argument of course does not dispove Huntington. However, if it can be shown that a myriad of factors whether nationalstic or otherwise cause states, in almost all cases to not gather together into bigger groups, but to identify with smaller more local groups, then Huntington's theory will have very little base to stand on.

One further thing, does anyone know what Huntington's avowed theoretical beliefs are? Because the Clash of Civs theory seems remarkably similar to social construction.


Social Deconstrucion

Social (De)Construction by Matthew Hoffmann introduces the concept of the Norm Life Cycle and applies it to Yugoslavia.
The Norm Life Cycle consists of three stages: Emergence, cascade and internalization. During the Emergence phase, an entrepreneur tries to gain acceptance for a new idea. Once a critical mass has been achieved, ( ie enough people accept the idea) the norm enters the cascade phase, where a larger group begin to accept the norm. The final phase, internalization, occurs when the norm is broadly assumed. There are no recommendations for how an entrepreneur can be more successful at achieving the critical mass.

The application to Yugoslavia is somewhat problematic. Hoffmann claims that the Yugoslav identity failed to reach a critical mass, yet for a long time the state held together.

Hoffmann also points towards the "Quebec issue" as a case of fragmentation, which is inaccurate. Following the failure of the referendum (failure to achieve critical mass?), most people were ready to move on, however, the issue occasionally reappears in Canadian politics (say when the Liberals suffer a corruption scandal). At the same time, there is a Canadian norm, which is inclusive of a distinct Quebec identity. These ideas compete periodically with each other, in a way that could be described as cyclic, but not in the same manner as the Norm life cycle.

It also seems that when a nationalist norm is economic factors, for example, are mentioned by Hoffmann in the case of Yugoslavia. It seems to me that social constructivism as presented here may be putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps the nationalist norms are a way for elites to capitalize on events (or an already failing state) and not the cause of state failure.