Debating IR

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


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Weber and Education

In my last post I mentioned a sociology paper that used what is essentially a Weberian method to look at the function of universities. The piece was focused on students, where as this weeks reading focuses on the teachers.

It is important to remember that there are demands placed upon academics that really have little to do with their professed task. If one considers that academics must publish a certain number of articles, and that publications tend to privilege certain types of research methods (typically quantitative), it means that the whole discipline is really distorted away from the task of understanding.

The Weber piece was interesting and has obvious implications for the discipline of IR, but I also felt that it didn't fit well with the general trajectory of the class.



I didn't particularly like the Weber article, or understand its relevance, but I suppose that how relevant you find Weber depends on how much you view international relations as a science. I tend to think of science as something precise, a search to discover objective facts, and IR is anything but that. IR is about state interactions that are determined primarily by the intents of whatever policymakers happen to be around at the time and how constrained they are by the pre-existing structures that dictate the limits of their authority. You can study it, but it will never become objective. That said, my definition is hardly objective itself, so I might want to consider revising it rather than telling my fellow SIS majors that they're not actually studying a science.

The study of international relations is attractive to me precisely because there are no objective answers. The landscape is constantly changing with the fluctuation of power hierarchies between states and elite perceptions of their relative capabilities. That, of course, is a fancy way to say that nothing is constant. After that nasty "Cold War" thing, Russia and the U.S. are on relatively friendly terms, while we have since invaded Afghanistan, the country that we supplied with weapons in order to frustrate the plans of the U.S.S.R. Additionally, of course, Germany (the country behind two World Wars) is now one of our closer allies. Is there some sort of mathematical formula we can use to predict how state relations change and what the introduction of one variable does to their overall dynamic? Doubtful, but that's what makes it interesting.


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

If it's broke, fix it -- don't pay it to go away

After our debate, I was interested in the ONE Campaign, so I checked out the official website and perused its blog. As it turns out, there was a recent Senate victory that "added hundreds of millions of dollars to the budget to help beat AIDS and extreme poverty." Sounds great, right? However, this happened to coincide with the timing of my World Politics class discussing AIDS and extreme poverty in conjunction with foreign aid, and the assigning of The Lessons of HIV/AIDS by Laurie Garrett. This article reamed our current aid programs, noting:

"In 2004, the appropriations bill allocating money for PEPFAR stipulated that a third of the prevention and education funds had to be spent on abstinence-promoting programs, that none of the money could be spent buying sterile syringes or needles for intravenous drug users, and that faith-based organizations should receive special priority in the receipt of care and treatment funds. A more recent White House stipulation has required recipient countries and organizations to denounce prostitution... Brazil [has] recently rejected U.S. support on the grounds that it would not be possible to promote safer sexual practices among prostitutes and their clients while morally castigating them."

In other words, we might be giving aid, but we're not helping people nearly as much as we could. We have the money but we don't have the right programs, and even if we increase the funds, we're throwing money at a problem without addressing the causes and without adjusting our perspectives to fit the region we're working in. This is obvious when we put funds into programs that aren't effective (abstinence-only programs, for example).

Our debate was about increasing donations and (for some groups) specifying what organizations would actually receive funds in order to ensure that the people who needed the money would get it. However, none of us really discussed how the money would be spent or what practical effect it would have. Bono talks about what one percent really means ("One percent is the AIDS patient who gets her medicine, thanks to you"), but not what one percent is actually going to mean. Will it mean an increase in the availability of AIDS medicine? Will it mean investments in clean water and education? Or will it simply mean buying food? Obviously, this wasn't the topic of the debate, but I do feel it's important to examine what's actually being done with foreign aid -- not just to give it. If we're going to make a huge change in foreign aid, we'd be better served by making sure that the money we do spend is being used well than appropriating a lot of money to be used poorly.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Defending my team

As a member of the liberal constructivist team, I must defend our actions. First off, I do not believe that we got off theory. Liberal constructivism is not as concerned with power structures as realist constructivism. As a result we accepted the power structure which created the system, because we saw that it was being used to promote the common good. Advocating for the common good based on liberalist concepts is a part of our theory and I believe that we advocated that part of our theory well.

Next you refer to Lynch. If we accept the counter-argument to Lynch's consensus ideas, that some groups are not rational actors and can be excluded from the consensus process, then our actions were totally acceptable and within a theoretical model based on creating norms through consensus. Taking this stance is theoretically acceptable because it is a norm that you can exclude these groups, note the complete disregard of Germany's opinion after World War II.

We viewed and tried to depict your group as a "rogue" group. A group of people with genocidal tendencies who could not be considered rational. If we failed in doing this, I apologize, however the effort was made and taht is important. By painting you in this light, we were able to justify excluding you from the process. Furthermore we created a resolution with the support of 13 of 14 members among our three groups. This is an incredible level of support and would be the equivalent of 177 of the 191 nations in the UN supporting a resolution.
Finally, you say that our group succeeded in creating majority norms, not universal norms. I would argue that a norm in the world to day is that anytime a large majority, perhaps over 2/3 although I have no idea about exact numbers, supportsa given idea, it is accepted as a norm. Take for instance slavery or genital mutilation. Both are generally viewed as evil, but not accepted by all people or even states as evil.

In the end I feel we stayed true to our theory and achieved our goals, while also enriching the process for those involved. (Ok so maybe I spread the liberal constructivist argument on a little to thick at the end there.)

Finally in order to be able to sleept at night I must say that I don't like liberal constructivism. Our team was able to pick and choose our theoretical beliefs in order to complement our strategy. Choosing different norms, such as accepting Lynch, would have caused us to adopt a different, and probably less effective, strategy. I think one of the big problems with liberal constructivism is that oftentimes there are multiple norms and people accept or reject those norms based on various other considerations. In terms of constructivism, I'm definitley inclined to support realist constructivism which accounts better for the reasons people accept norms. I think liberalism could be expanded to encompass liberal constructivism, but I'm not sure that realism could do the same with realist constructivism.


Jonathan Berman Responds to Adam, Still Thirsting for Liberal Constructivist Hegemony


I think we can both agree that we're smart people. However, even smart people can be wrong. And in this case especially, I believe that you misinterpreted liberal constructivism which is nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone's wrong on occasion and I don't think you'll suffer for it materially, socially, or grade-wise.

My interpretation of liberal constructivism is that its roots in post-structural thought make it a theory of morality more than a theory of how the international system works. It's asking what we "should do" rather than asking "what's going on here?"

From reading Lynch's article it is clear that a liberal constructivist should take the view that the international system as we know it today is immoral. It favors those with power at the expense of equality.

In this debate you had the power because you had the votes. As a result, that is why the whole debate was settled in such a quick manner.

True dialogue occurs when everyone is treated equally. That is the reason I tried to nail you on the consensus issue. Had you agreed, the whole process would have been held up. This merely shows though how impossible a true "communicative dialogue" truly is. If Lynch had his way the Nazis would have discussed their problems with the Jews and the Hutus would discuss their issues with the Tutsis. These scenarios help show why Lynch is wrong by taking these arguments to their natural conclusion. Why should the Jews or Tutsis have to discuss anything with people whose desires are immoral?

I'm of the position that that kind of dialogue simply cannot succeed. It is impossible and at times even immoral. As a result, that is why liberal constructivism does not work. You were put in a terrible Catch-22. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

You needed to go along with a consensus because it was the only way to create a truly equal system where every individual is just as important as another. We offered to change the system to make it more equal and more moral. Our reasons were that we could use it to get our way, yours should have been to create true dialogue where people are forced to seek universal values and actually listen to their fellow participants. Only by agreeing to a consensus could this occur. Otherwise the majority rules and rules absolutely.

One last point, even though every member was allowed to act as an individual, we were all tasked with defending our point of view with the world, which was just as critical as getting your language passed. Think about it for a minute, would a liberal constructivist answer the question, "do the means justify the ends?" the same as a realist would? Not a chance.

The means you, and our fellow classmates, chose took advantage of the power granted by Robert's Rules to shut out my team from amending the proposal or even making more than 3 speeches. We didn't even have the chance to debate whether the US's contribution to world security already fulfills Bono's proposal.

In the end, you had the power to dictate the structure of the debate and you used it, as a realist would. The consensus we asked for would have changed the rules to make us all equal, something a liberal constructivist would appreciate regardless if it wouldn't lead where they wanted to go.

All we asked for was a dialogue on equal terms (one we would shamelessly exploite to our own ends). The invitation you offered us was a poison pill. As any experienced negotiator knows confederates is a highly effective strategy. Walking into a discussion that isn't regulated by rules with 5 people against 20 people is a recipe for disaster on the part of the 5.

In the end, as Zak said "by striking us down, you only served to make us stronger". In my eyes, realism won that day.


Monday, March 27, 2006

Jonathan Berman Responds to Adam, The Power Hungry Liberal Constructivist

Dear Adam, (I had a feeling I'd have to start a letter like that...)

The only people I accused of acting outside of the boundaries set by their theory were the liberal constructivists. I can understand the liberals going along with a majority consensus since they are more interest driven and tend to accept institutions at their face value. In addition, I hungered to take a stab at the realist constructivists but I could never actually figure out what they were advocating for.

I agree with you that there are norms in the international system, however, one must admit that not all norms are created equal. In fact, some norms are created for the express purpose of keeping others down!

That is where your group got off theory. You accepted the system, in this case Robert's Rules, without analyzing the power relationships it created and enforced.

What you failed to see is the insidious power behind that system. Yes, Roberts Rules protects the rights of the minority to speak out, but only to a point. The unfortunate downside of Robert's Rules is if you have 2/3+ support you can pretty much do what you want without having to listen to other people. We saw that best exemplified best by how you used the power of the majority to silence us.

You claim to have invited us into dialogue but this was simply not the case. What you call dialogue creation, I call a mob. First, I had to fight my way to the table. Second, when I tried to speak I was interrupted constantly. And third, no one was forced to be quite and listen. It was quit clear that no one was interested in what the realists had to say. Which from our point of view is fine, when you have the power use it, as realism says you should.

However, this certainly was not the communicative dialogue envisioned by Lynch. Everytime we tried to get on the speaker's list or amend the resolution you left the rules and created anarchy, an anarchy where the strong (the three groups) did what they pleased while the weak (us) suffered for it. In the end, our best option was not to acknowledge the legitimacy of the resolution, signled by our lack of voting.

Had the debating session gone on any longer we, as a group, would have seceded from the proceedings and not recognized its legitimacy, forming our own "Realtopia" if you will, because it was clear that being a member of the body did not serve our interests.

In the end, Adam, I feel the liberal constructivists failed to find universal values. You found the majority's values for sure, but by not including us those values hardly apply to all of humanity.

Now, in this case the resolution, namely Bono's proposal to give 1% to the poor, wasn't sinister but I can imagine how this could be different. Imagine if the proposal was to remove us from our land or eliminate us from the face of the earth? In those cases, if the majority (read the powerful) decided to bend us to their will there would have been no way for the minority could seek protection or have their voices heard. Sounds a little bit like IR, huh?