Debating IR

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


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Post-Modernism Discussion

I thoroughly enjoyed class on Thursday. The discussion of Post-Modernism is what I wish every class was like. Students who didn't speak were speaking which was amazing. And the discussion reiterated for me what I enjoy about post-modernism. Post-modernism is great because it provides a vehicle for questioning everything. Without a given objective, such as human rights standards, post-modernism allows questioning to create its own path instead of following a pre-set one. Our discussion began with power and legitimation and ended with why people get college degrees. It was great and highlights the versatility of the post-modernist tool.

On a separate note, I must say something in line with Kat. I am a realist as well. These first 6 weeks or so have not changed that. However, I fine myself intrigqued by post-modernism and its ability to help in the analysis of power. I think that by deepening my knowledge of post-modernism, I can come to understand and apply realism better.


Friday, March 10, 2006

A broad reflection on IR theory so far

Looking over the posts I've made over the semester, I have a history of saying "This theory seems to explain state actions pretty well" about multiple, often conflicting theories. I'm not sure if this is caused by a really loose understanding of state actions in general, or if each theory just has a grain of truth that allows elements of it to be seen in many actions. For example: nearly every theory in the Sterling-Folker book illustrates itself by calling up the intervention in Kosovo. The first few that jump to mind are critical theory, postmodernism, and public goods liberalism, which share certain things in common but are by no means similar theories. However, since our policymaking process in America is so diverse anyway, there's more than enough room for multiple theories to describe it at different stages and when made by different players.

Since I haven't really committed to a specific theory to explain the whole of state actions, I thought I might at least try to figure out where I stand... surprise, surprise, I think I'm still a realist. Power still strikes me as the most important state interest because it's integral to so many others.

Power is the best deterrent to being attacked; as such, it is the best insurance of national security. As I was recently reading in the textbook for another class, "it is natural for influence to accrue to great power status, even without coercion" (American Defense Policy 2005: 71); the article goes on to explain that the greater power a state wields, the more other states want to be associated with it through business deals, and therefore greater power in the international system translates to greater economic stability as well. It is evident that when states amass power, other state goals are fulfilled more easily.

In the last debate, the after-debate discussion was particularly interesting in its treatment of liberalism as a means to a realist end. States might cooperate in order to gain greater power, which would explain the existence of the United Nations and the participation of powerful countries, without really intended to give up their own sovereignty, which would explain why the United Nations has been ineffective in a variety of ways.

These are just some scattered thoughts on my personal IR perspective... I'm sure it will evolve more as we're exposed to more readings, but I think I'm just a realist at heart.



Postmodernism contends that events have no meaning in themselves; instead, their only meaning lies in the values we ascribe to them. As such, it's a really intriguing theory and completely unlike the things we've studied so far.

Like several other articles, it chooses the Kosovo conflict for illustration. According to postmodernism, the nineteen nations intervened because "they recognized the specter of dissolution that haunts all civilizations... They needed to convince their citizens of the 'justness' of the use of force... to reiterate their state's own sovereign value" (179). In other words, they had no interest in either the humanitarian situation that critical theory would suggest as a good justification, or the various state interests that would be satisfied by intervening, as pointed out in the public goods liberalism chapter; they used an invasion in Kosovo to create the impression within their own citizens that state dissolution is so bad that aiding nations which dissolve is a moral duty of other states.

I subscribe to the idea that there is objective truth that can be known - that genocide isn't wrong because someone said it was, but wrong because it murdered individuals who did not deserve to be killed. Certain actions that are so gut-twistingly wrong that you can't pretend that they only bother you because it's ingrained in your upbringing. On that level, postmodernism's denial of any objective morality disturbs me. However, I would not be surprised if leaders did in fact make the decision to intervene in Kosovo based on the grounds described in the article, and I do think that states attempt to ascribe value to actions that may or may not deserve these values.

For example, the United States tries to portray pursuing nuclear arms as wrong and dangerous when done by, say, Iran, but acceptable when done by Western nations. This is obviously serving U.S. interests; one threatens it while the other does not, and by portraying the threat as a moral problem, the U.S. can theoretically gain the legitimacy to intervene and remove the threat.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Jonathan Berman on Interests

I think from our most recent class there was general agreement that we cannot assume away a state's interests. I think this is an important realization because it throws a wrench in a lot of realist thinking. Realists claim that states are worried primarily about security is much too vague to be of any use.

Realists simply leave the question hanging, secure from what? In the US we are fighting a War on Terror to secure ourselves against terrorism. This requires a massive military buildup and invasions of select Middle Eastern countries according to President Bush.

However, what threatens the Japanese? Some would point to North Korea but it is also important to recognize that they list earthquakes as a major security threat. Thus, Japan needs to secure itself against nature. When the Chinese banned foreign animations that contained cartoons with people they were securing themselves against Western dominance of their entertainment markets. All of this points to the fact that before anyone makes any sort of policy recommendation about what this or that state does they need to take a real account of their interests because not every state's interests are the same.



I loved Shinko's article. The author seems to summarize everything I have thought about world politics, and to a degree life, for some time now. The idea that everything in life is subjective is certainly powerful. We often like to think that there are just certain things that are good and bad. Good causes, good countries. It is scary to think that the values we hold most dear are not necessarily true because they are true but because we believe them. And yet this is how I see international relations and the world.

Slavery is wrong because powerful countries said it was wrong and imposed their will on the others. Hitler is the most evil man to ever live not because he was but because our textbooks tell us so. All of these are things I have accepted, and I am now thrilled to have a tool with which to examine the world which supports this view.

Another thing I like about Shinko's article was the emphasis on power. One of my problems with critical theory was to shy away from power and look more towards its idea of universal morality as the ultimate answer instead of power. In my mind, power is the ultimate answer. Power is able to be the ultimate answer not because it has attributes that are objectively true, but because it exists empirically. Power, force, is always present. Ask any physicist. Power is all-pervasive, it works its way into any and every interaction. And that is what I loved about Shinko's article. She aid what I have said for years now; everything is subjective and power creates the "truths" of our lives.


Shinko Reading

I must confess that I find postmodernism both fascinating and infuriating. I find it difficult to wrap my head around the ideas that it presents.

The postmodern take on the intervention by NATO in Kosovo is centered around the relationship between power and truth. For the Postmodernist, truth and power are linked together very tightly, each essentially supporting the other.

The case of Kosovo involved a violent intervention, that is to say an exercise of power for the purpose of supporting a truth. This truth is that of the West and liberalism.

The use of violence, framed as the moral imperative of humanitarian intervention, was reinforcing the Western notions about the meaning of sovereignty and the appropriate use of violence.

This seems circular, which is exactly the point. The postmodern critique of the Kosovo situation reveals that the underlying logic of the NATO campaign is that the use of violence by the West is legitimate because it is the West using violence.

I think that is essentially what the article says but I'm not entirely sure of it.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Jonathan Berman Examines the Nuts and Bolts of Postmodernism

As a matter of personal preference I like Shinko's article a lot more than Lynch's piece. I am primarily interested in IR because I am curious as the mechanisms through which states exert power. Lynch's piece was more of a moral condemnation of the current state of international relations which, in his opinion, relies on strategic consensus, where actors use their relative power to get their way. This is contrary to a communicative consensus, which Lynch proposes as the most moral method of creating policy, whereby actors disregard their power and engage in an open dialogue where pure rationality and reason win the day. This normative approach is fine, however, it disregards the nuts and bolts that make international relations tick.

In my opinion, Shinko's article demonstrates that postmodernism has the potential to explain state behavior and how states exert power in IR. Truth as a force to be created, transformed, and utlized by the state to exert its political will helps explain the power of ideas in IR. Furthermore, I believe that it forces us to reconceptualize our idea of soft power. Not only must things like economic power and diplomatic power be taken into account by policymakers and IR scholars, but also ideational and ideological power too need to be accounted for. By accounting for ideational power, the influence of actors like Bono or the Catholic Church, who have little military or economic clout, can be explained.

The only criticism of Shinko that I have is that he doesn't explain where the Western states power to shape the truth came from. Was it because they had more access to the media than the Serbs? Or because the leaders of the US, UK, France, Germany etc...were elected leaders and had more legitimacy in the minds of their citizens than others like Milosevic or Annan? Or is it something else?

I imagine if Shinko had more space he would go into further detail, however, it is clear that the truth is potent force that can shape how people perceive the actions of actors in IR.