Debating IR

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


Saturday, April 08, 2006

Jonathan Berman Thinks Women are "Worth Being Known"

Mertus asks the question, “[h]ow do seemingly neutral norms and behaviors exclude or disadvantage women?” (Sterling-Folker 264). According to Mertus, many institutions we take for granted in society do not address the needs of women. I wonder if IR is one of those institutions?

As Sterling-Folker writes in her introduction to feminism, there is a “notion that feminist IR theory is not addressing the “real” subject matter of IR” (Sterling-Folker 246-7). As Max Weber points out, science is not a value neutral enterprise. It makes the presupposition that what it seeks to find out is “worth being known.” From a feminist’s point of view if IR truly marginalizes women’s interests it is because it is a discipline dominated by men and part of a larger social structure, academia, and is set up in such a way to keep women out.

IR, as a science, is supposed to objective and neutral. However, I think it is definitely worth examining whether the discipline is structured in such a way to promulgate the gender norms of our society. As a constructivist, I know that the way we’ve organized our society is not the way it has to be. Examples from history show there are many ways for societies to deal with the differences between men and women. For example, in China, during Mao, the differences between men and women were played down because of Marxism’s emphasis on equality. In addition, there were plenty of societies at one time or another who were matriarchal rather than patriarchal. Thus, it is apparent that the gender norms that govern our society today could be and may be different in the future.

The chart we looked at class only showed liberalism, liberal constructivism, realism, and realist constructivism. Feminism was absent. The reason being is that feminists in IR, as we learned in class, have myriad views on ontology and epistemology which can place them in any of the four camps. However, if we take a closer look at the chart we realize that in its design is an inherent exclusion of feminism.

The chart was designed to list those theories that asked whether “power can be transcended in world politics” and whether “anarchy exercises indeterminate influences in international politics”. This might be an example of how IR excludes women and their interests. Since IR is dominated by men they get to decide what is worth studying and have the power to make their value laden choice the norm in the discipline. The chart is based on the assumption that power and anarchy are the most important factors in IR. But what if the chart had an axis that read, “masculine and feminine are socially constructed categories that affect how actors in IR interpret their reality.” That would put feminism on the chart.

Yet, I personally don't believe that category should be added. I think feminism is a specialized research agenda that makes gender norms and roles and their affects on actors as the most important thing to know. I'm not going to tell feminists to stop what they are doing, it does seem that gender has a role in IR.

However, feminists must admit that before they begin studying gender norms they have to make ontological and epistomological decisions along realist, liberal, or constructivist lines. They need to decide if all social relationships contain power, is reality socially constructed, or is the way it is for all time? Among many other competing ideas. Thus, as far as the chart goes I agree with its value judgement that liberalism and the rest are above feminism because even before you do a feminist analysis there are important choices to be made.


Friday, April 07, 2006


In our in class discussion of feminism there was some problem determining exactly where it fit into international relations. This is because feminism, unlike say realism, didn't really come out of international relations. Feminism is much broader and it has an interest not just across the social sciences, but also in say biology and related fields.

Because it is so broad, there is often a great deal of dispute within feminism, which makes it even more difficult to try and place it. In general, I am sympathetic to the more radical feminist ideas, because they make us re-examine our presuppositions.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Why I hate difference feminism

Our discussion of feminism today focused, as I've come to expect, on difference feminism. As might be noted from my response in class, I hate difference feminism. This might be because I'm enough of a postmodern feminist to challenge the language used by difference feminists, or it might be because I feel personally oppressed by the roles it constructs. I suspect it's the latter, but it's probably a nice mix.

Difference feminism maintains that women and men are fundamentally different, and that if more women held positions of power in IR, the world would fundamentally change. First of all, I strongly disagree with this because I think many if not all of these differences are socially constructed. For example, while girls are generally encouraged to show their feelings, boys are generally told that crying is unacceptable. I babysit for two children who are equally whiny, but when the boy started to cry last Friday, the girl informed him that "he looked like a girl" and that he needed to be more manly. (These kids are 8 and 10 years old.) There are different pressures on the two genders that might account for the differences in the final product.

By the same token, if these different pressures don't exist, there may be fewer differences. A girl who is raised by her father while her mom works might have more of what are typically considered masculine traits than her peers, while a boy raised by his mother might have more typically feminine traits. Social expectations are changing, as evidenced by the emerging stereotype of the aggressive female, making it acceptable for women to break out of the molds that have previously existed.

Let me get to my point. Difference feminism primarily values the change that would be evoked in international relations if more women were in charge. However, this approach emphasizes the worth of women who think in a traditionally "female" sense. As I touched on in my other entry on feminism, this conception of "female" and "male" behavior is less relevant than it has been in the past, as women like Rice and Thatcher come to the forefront; this has led to a debate over whether these women are more masculine because of social pressures to adopt masculine worldviews in order to be taken seriously. Personally, I doubt it, and I would ask why we're more comfortable assuming that women like these make a conscious choice to go against their natures than that this happens to be in their nature. However, to get back to the point, difference feminism has no place for these women; it is focused on the change that greater inclusion of women would produce, and its proponents wouldn't be too happy if it turned out that a greater inclusion of women... pretty much leaves the system the way it was. Additionally, I worry that greater acceptance of difference feminism would lead to undervaluing those women who happen to have masculine traits, because they are less relevant to effecting change in IR.

In conclusion, difference feminism discusses male and female roles in society without fully examining the social construction of those roles, and then seeks to use those roles to change IR; however, the stereotype of the "gentler," less warlike woman, even if it leads to more women being included, is just that - a stereotype. Rarely do stereotypes do any good.


Preying Mantis and Feminism

After reading 8.1, Sterling-Folker's summary of IR feminism, I'm going to have to say that as a self-identified realist, I'm going to have to agree with critics of feminism and say that I just don't see how it is relevant. My critique is one of the critiques she addresses but her explanations don't satisfy me. Realism and liberalism are based on the state. Therefore individuals, except those who represent the state, ie President, have nothing to do with international processes, and in that instance they are the state; they are not an individual. IR focuses on men when it talks about state actions because men are generally in charge of states. If women are in power, such as in Chile, then they will be analyzed as well, but not because they are women, but because they are in power.

Furthermore, I don't like the extension of gender outside of individuals. It may be true that certain words tend to be associated with certain genders, but by accepting these definitions and applying them to states, you do not fix the problem. You merely expand it. You are constructing a unnecessary, non-existent problem.

Think about this. If we use Sterling-Folker's idea of IR as based on human masculinity then we see IR as based on power and rationality and the like. What if we used insect femininity, specifically preying mantis femininity? If I remember right, female preying mantis are basically Darwinistic. They use men for reprouction and then kill and eat them. If we would socially construct IR to be based on preying mantis femininity then IR could be based on anarchy, survivalism, and most importantly murdering husbands ( I believe their is a proper term for this, but I don't know it). So you see, gender in IR can be constructed on anything, it is simply a matter of what (species) you choose to construct gender from (Lions might be good, don't female lions do all the killing?).


A postmodern approach to feminism

Earlier this semester, a professor in another of my IR classes assigned us a reading on feminism, which was a bit of a shock. What does international relations have to do with the oppression of women? International relations oppresses everyone. In the weeks that have followed, however, I have learned much about the interplay of socially constructed gender roles and their importance to IR. One of the most interesting articles I've read on the subject has been Mertus's chapter in the Sterling-Folker book.

Mertus gives attention to "the roles [women] play as mothers, nurses, victims, saviors, revenge arsonists, and war survivors" rather than limiting the discussion to women's roles (or lack thereof) as policymakers. This aligns with the postmodern feminist approach, which holds that women have played significant roles throughout history but that these roles have been undervalued. This undervaluing of women's roles while respecting the roles historically played by men (soldiers, presidents, politicians) has led to a world of socially constructed norms, in which what is female is considered weak while what is male is considered strong, creating a lens that colors our perceptions. Mertus goes on to discuss how the way we know the world (or, our "lens") limits us.

She discusses the patriarchal tendencies of the state, in the context not only of men being the active participants but also of the predominant worldview being a masculine one, i.e. a worldview that focuses on "the concentration of power in an elite and the legitimization of a monopoly on the use of force to maintain that control" (266). I've heard this in other IR classes, but it still bothers me. Why is a worldview based in an understanding of power hierarchies automatically masculine? This statement was more understandable when the conception of women as gentle and men as warlike was predominant, but nowadays I think it's more commonly realized that these differences are socially constructed, and that depending on their upbringing, a woman can be just as power-focused as a man. This is the reason why the increased inclusion of women in IR positions, as in the case of Rice and Thatcher, has not significantly changed the system. For one of two reasons, women policymakers just aren't that different. That could be because A) gender differences really are irrelevant, or B) only the women who act like men have a shot of getting elected. Christa addressed this pretty well, so I'll just quote her: "Honestly, if Thatcher made the choice to adopt more stereotypical masculine traits because she felt that was more fulfilling to her as a person, then that's great. If she did it because she thought that was the only way she could be a female prime minister of England, then that's wrong."

So what, exactly, constitutes a "masculine" trait and what constitutes a "feminine" trait -- as opposed to what traits just happen to align with different personalities? Personally, I subscribe to the view that it's possible for men and women to have more in common with each other than with members of their own gender, and that it's important to consider why we classify a personality characteristic as inherently associated with one gender. Sure, this made sense back when gender roles were sharply defined (women in the home, men working, etc.), but now that gender roles are more equal, it's time to question whether the ideas of masculinity or femininity have any significance.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Jonathan Berman Tells Max Weber to "Lasciate Ogni Speranza" Himself

In encouraging a young man to take up an academic life Weber would tell him that he might have to bear being passed over and spend an entire career without recognition. On the other hand, to a Jew he would tell him "lasciate ogni speranza" which translates in English to read, "abandon all hope". This is an interesting reflection on German society in the early 20th century and makes me glad society has advanced a bit since then.

A more timeless reflection on Max Weber's part in Science as Vocation is that science is full of its own presuppositions. Science assumes that its own methods and rules of logic are valid. In addition, science makes the assumption that whatever it uncovers is “worth being known.” However, that assumption is problematic in and of itself because it requires a value judgment. What is worth being known? Certainly, the answer to this question depends on each individual person.

In my opinion, international relations are “worth being known”. International relations begin from the presupposition that the relations between states are vitally important. Exploring what creates the state and the forces that drive its behavior can help us make correct foreign policy decisions. However, that begs the question, once we have this understanding of the international system what should we do with that knowledge? Do we try to create a world order? Or do we seek to expand US hegemony and increase its capabilities relative to its rivals? These are questions that the science of international relations cannot answer. Like other sciences it cannot answer Tolstoy's basic questions, “what should we do and how shall we live?”

Thus, Weber is right in saying that science cannot put us on the “path” to true meaning. The only thing science can do is give us the technology to control life, provide a method of thinking in order to discern facts, and give us clarity by telling us the end-product of our actions. Science does not and cannot tell us in what way we should control our lives, what facts we should seek out, or whether an end-product is good or bad.

These questions that science cannot answer are left to each and every one of us to decide on our own and need to be based on normative truths. The answers people choose will affect how they conduct their lives, what they deem important, and what end-products they feel are good and should be sought after. Answering these questions seems like a complicated and messy affair because each individual and each society will have different presuppositions with which to base their answers on. In international affairs these different answers create conflict. The US and Al Qaeda have answered these questions differently. So have Taiwan and China. The list goes on and on.

Maybe, the one thing science can contribute is making people recognize “inconvenient facts.” For example, racism is made an archaic concept because science has proven that the difference in skin tone is due to a few genes and that in reality race is a social construct. How could anyone holding a racist belief, say for instance that such and such ethnicity is inferior, compete with this fact? Hopefully, this will change the racist's mind or perhaps it won't. Nevertheless, at the very least, those looking for the answers to the question, 'how should I live' and 'what should I do', will pass over racism, which is based on some very faulty presuppositions for others when they see its deficiencies.

And in the end, isn’t that all science can do?


Monday, April 03, 2006

Neoclassical Realism and Saddam

Foreign Affairs has an interesting article on Saddam's regime leading up to the 2003 Iraq War. Not suprisingly, Saddam instilled such a level of fear that many within his regime spent a lot of time appeasing Saddam by feeding him the information he wanted to hear rather than the information he needed to hear. Thus, the Iraqi regime made dumb moves like giving military equipment to the Fedayeen when the military itself needed it, pretending France and Russia would intercede on Iraq's behalf, or pretending Iraq's forces could stand up to the coalition's forces. Saddam's actions during the recent Iraq war make a good case for neoclassical realism which says that anarchy and the distribution of power are the main influences of state behavior, however, only to the degree to which they are interpreted by a state's leadership.

Woods, Lacey, and Murray write, late as the end of March 2003, Saddam apparently still believed that the war was going the way he had expected. If Iraq was not actually winning it, neither was it losing -- or at least so it seemed to the dictator. Americans may have listened with amusement to the seemingly obvious fabrications of Muhammad Said al-Sahaf, Iraq's information minister (nicknamed "Baghdad Bob" by the media). But the evidence now clearly shows that Saddam and those around him believed virtually every word issued by their own propaganda machine.

If one did not factor in Saddam's perceptions, the actions taken by Iraq seem illogical. After being defeated in the Gulf War and suffering under years of sanctions Iraq was in no position to fight off the United States.

Saddam played games with the international community because he believed that Iraq could still be a power in the Middle East. Thus, in order to assuage the US he tried to convince them that Iraq did not have WMD's, however, in order to throw off his neighbors, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, Saddam did what he could to make his claims of having no WMD's opaque and unclear. Given Iraq's relative capabilities in relation to the US, it was clear that its main concern should have been preventing an attack and the rest of the region be damned.

Nevertheless, by never wanting to hear bad news and decapitating those who brought it, Saddam ensured that he lived in a world of illusions, and made decisions as if the real world matched his made up one. In the end, Iraq's actions can only be explained if we factor in Saddam's beliefs of the reality on the ground.


Sunday, April 02, 2006


I am currently enrolled in an SIS class called "Issues in American Intelligence" taught by Dr. Michael Warner, a historian from the CIA. It is interesting to compare his version of events with the article Jesse has selected for us: "Timeline of CIA Atrocities" by Steve Kangas.

In general terms, the CIA prefers to use the word "embarrassment" instead of "atrocity," and would say that the allegations in the Kangas piece go too far. Here is an interesting case (from Kangas's article):

"Operation MK-ULTRA
Inspired by North Korea's brainwashing program, the CIA begins experiments on mind control. The most notorious part of this project involves giving LSD and other drugs to American subjects without their knowledge or against their will, causing several to commit suicide. However, the operation involves far more than this.

Funded in part by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, research includes propaganda, brainwashing, public relations, advertising, hypnosis, and other forms of suggestion. "

What would Dr. Warner and his colleagues say about MK-ULTRA? Well, they would admit that the program existed and that it ran tests of LSD on unsuspecting people. They would admit that these programs were wrong and should never have taken place.

They would also try and defend the agency, by pointing out that the program took place during the 50s during a period when there was a huge fear of the Soviet Union in America, not just at the CIA. They would also point out that this program was a response to fears that the Soviet Union had developed a "truth serum."

Does this absolve the CIA? Certainly not, but it does give some context for its actions that I feel is missing from the Kangas piece. The broader point I would like to pull out from this is that government institutions reflect American society to a certain extent. This is important when we are faced with, for example, the military at Abu Ghraib. Is Abu Ghraib the result of problems in the military? Certainly, but it also reflects broader problems with America.