Debating IR

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


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Hegemony, empire, and the international schoolyard

I found this article on the U.S. as an empire quite interesting in light of our discussions of historical materialism. Usually, we debate whether empire is morally good or bad, not whether it is advantageous or disadvantageous to have one. This article takes the stance that our imperial ambitions have shot us in the foot, as in this statement: "The Bush administration stands guilty of an extraordinary act of imperial overreach which has left the US more internationally isolated than ever before, seriously stretched financially, and guilty of neglect in east Asia and elsewhere."

Since the U.S. isn't yet capable of running the show on multiple continents at once, can it still be called an empire? The words "empire" and "hegemon" get thrown around in my SIS classes, but Brenner's discussion in my Analysis of US Foreign Policy class last semester pointed out that you're not a hegemon unless you can get people to agree with you, and that hegemony is a term most aptly used when countries follow your lead not because you force them into it, but because the fact that you're doing something makes the option look attractive and advantageous to them. Obviously, "empire" is a little harsher, encompassing military forms of coercion as well. But I would hesitate to call the U.S. either of these things. We failed miserably to convince other countries (except the UK and, who could forget, Poland) to go into Iraq; we are consistently condemned in the UNGA for our actions regarding Cuba, when our hegemonic status should theoretically convince these countries that oppressing Cuba would be a fun hobby for them too; and countries increasingly express dislike for our lack of respect for national sovereignty and our hypocrasy concerning human rights.

If hegemony just means that you're more powerful than the countries around you taken individually, then yes, we are a hegemon. If hegemony means that you're influential, then we're a hegemon. But we're certainly not hegemonic by the definition listed above -- just powerful enough that no one really wants to mess with us. And while our methods can be imperial, we don't have enough absolute control to merit the title "empire." But don't despair; while these lofty aspirations may go unfulfilled, at least we're the toughest bully on the playground. (Seems like a letdown, doesn't it?)


Empire? Who cares?

One thing we have all discovered about Professor Jackson is that he loves to discuss the meaning of things. What does empire mean? What does sovereignty mean? What are "human rights"? and so on. He can't be faulted for this. He is after all a constructivist. But it is still important to ask, is this constant discussion of meaning necessary? What does it matter?

Today for instance we discussed empire. I had a definition of empire, Adam had a definition, and many others had their own definitions or variations. Professor Jackson talked about how the conception of empire has changed from good (British) to bad (Nazi, Soviet) and now is conflicted between good and bad (US, China). If this conception is constantly changing then what is the good in adopting the title. Why not just ignore the title and pursue your interests as you wish? I always come back to realism. States are primarily interested in survival and then the maintenance and augmentation of power. Regardless of whether a state is called empire or not, these goals will not change. States will constanlty pursue their interests. If this is true, then empire and discussion of its meaning is irrelevant. Titles of empire will not affect how a state acts. They simply will be called one thing or another.

From another aspect, I touched on this in my post about world states, the only negative aspect that the term empire could have is if it causes states to view one country as TOO powerful. If this is the case, then their is the potential for states to ally to defeat the empire-state so that they can all help their relative power status by dispersing the power amongst 20 or however many states ally instead of just one empire-state.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Is Jesse right and who would agree with him?

At times throughout this semester, Jesse's voice has piped up from the back of the room to say "the inevitable one-world government" or something fairly similar. Now that I finally have time to think, I wonder if he's right. More importantly if he is, which theory would agree with him? There is something to be said for the growht of international organizations. Everyone wants to be a part of the UN and WTO and WHO, and inevitably the UN will need replaced. I just can't believe that it can survive in its current incarnation. At some point a state will decide to be a real pain in the ass, and the UN will fail to address the situation. After a giant war, the world will be left with two decisions. They could choose to band together under one world organization with the ability to enforce its decisions, think US federal system, or a series of regional organizations with enhanced enforcement, think US State governments around the Civil War era. The other choice would be to abolish international organizations and devolve once again into a mass of interconnected but unorganized states, think pre-unification Germany. Which choice you prefer is somewhat based on your personal preferences, like the amount of Dystopian literature you read, but, in my mind, it is also based on your theoretical choice.

Let's start with liberalism. If we take basic conception of liberalism as advocating cooperation and pursuit of mutually beneficial outcomes with absolute gains, then the answer must be that a one world state is inevitable (not to mention a one theory world where Keohane's conception of liberalism reigns supreme, judging solely by the fact that he was named the most influential scholar by Foreign Policy magazine by a significant margin). It seems to me that following the concepts of liberalism down the line would lead us to see that eventually organizations such as ASEAN, EU, and AU would continue to increase in importance and efficiency until they encompass their entire region as a governmental authority. Then these regions would start to interact and eventually unify until a one-world government emerged. Hey stranger things have happened. Hawaii is a US State.

For realism, the picture is slightly cloudier. In fact, I am not at all certain what the outcome is from a realist perspective. But I am inclined to believe that the idea is essentially this. States want to maintain and increase power. The push for a world state would almost certainly be lead by a hegemon. This hegemon would probably attempt to find allies. They mey succeed for a time, but at some point enough states would realize the danger and band together to repulse the hegemon. Then the status quo would return and territorial based sovereignty would continue. I think that the problem I see with realism resulting in a world state is the fact that as states grow larger, efficiency would require that some leaders would be either removed from power or relegated to a position of relatively less power than previously. Furthermore many states have nuclear weapons, which thus far has been a fairly storng deterrent against invasion. Also the most powerful states have an interest in maintaining the current world system. The recent interventions by NATO and the UN in conflicts help to show that many powerful states have a common interest in maintaing territorial sovereignty and integrity. So I really dont' think realism results in a one world state. Their are simply too many deterrents.

Now realist constructivism may be different. Predicated on the ability of power to influence identity, I see realist constructivism as a theoretical corollary to 1984 and other dystopias like We or Brave New World. The way I read the book at a time of intense conflict, usually war a group of influential leaders are able to gain absolute power within their countries in the name of security. Then they are able to gather allies who cooperate to form some kind of ruling party where the individual leaders/states all maintain their power/interests and together enforce an identity of world state on the subjugated people. This world state is inherently darker in nature than that of the liberals adn much more in line with what I would presume Jesse has in mind (assuming of course he's serious, even if he's not, which i would venture to say is half true, this is still an interesting thought experiment).

As for liberal constructivists, I think with the idea of a norm-life cycle, the formation of a world state could be true, just as the Clash of Civilizations could be true. If a norm about identity takes hold and more and more people believe it, then it could become fact. So if the idea of a state as based on civilization or tolerance and cooperation took hold then it could potentially become reality. For something like a world state however, I think this would take an excruciatingly longn amount of time which none of us will ever be alive to see.

So how's that for weird? In my analysis, realism is the only theory which is not compatible with a world state, and it potentially could be, I just feel that there are too many obstacles to explain away. But anyway, this is what has been occupying my mind for a few days. I would love to hear some of your feedback. Maybe I ignored something obvious or underscored the importance of some factor. Let me know. This is definitely a post I would like to see some discussion about.


Jonathan Berman Says Money Isn't Everything

Let's face it, money can't buy you happiness and, if you think about it, it won’t get you enlightenment either. What I’m getting at is that economics isn’t responsible for everything that goes on in the world. I think historical materialists (Marxists) and world system theorists put so much emphasis on economics as the root cause of events in IR that they forget that there are other factors that may be equally important. Thus, they suffer from economism.

Personally, I am a fan of "complimentary holism" developed by Professor Hahnel (although I recommend he find a new name for it). Hahnel's theory is that all societies have four basic spheres. They are the economic sphere (production/consumption), the political sphere (government/law), the kinship sphere (family/gender roles), and the community sphere (culture/society).

Marxists and world system theorists look at societies as being created to merely decide what to make and who gets what. Thus, under a Marxist approach the economic sphere is the most important sphere and it undoubtedly influences politics, the family, and society.

However, I believe this is where Marxism goes astray. I do not believe that all societies are inherently influenced by their economics. Certainly, this could be the case; however, we cannot just make a blanket assumption of that magnitude. For example, South Africa had a capitalist economic system, however, the reason blacks were excluded was not because of capitalism. It was because in the political sphere the whites had all the power and in the community sphere people were assigned to different ethnic groups which determined their station in life. Thus, community membership determined what most people could and could not do.

According to Hahnel, fundamental change occurs in "complimentary holism" when the operating procedures of one of the spheres (economic, political, community, or kinship) changes. In South Africa, once blacks achieved the end of apartheid this opened up the options blacks had and allowed them to serve in the government. As a result, blacks managed to alter the political and community sphere. However, this didn't radically change South Africa's economic system. As we are all aware, it is still capitalist, only blacks can now own property and enter the business world.

Marxism espouses a belief that change throughout history is driven by economics. On the other hand, "complimentary holism" teaches us there are a number of ways for societies to change. As a result, any group who is advantaged or disadvantaged in one of the spheres can act as an agent of history, not just the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.


Historical Materialism

The historical materialism piece is quite similar to the world-systems piece in that it looks at the way in which the war in Kosovo advances capitalist interests. What is different is that the capitalist interests maintain a strong nationalist component. Yugoslavia is seen as the battleground for the competing capitalisms of the US and the EU.

Given the growth of multinational corporations (and particularly transatlantic oil companies) I am not sure that this perspective doesn't make too much of regional rivalries. I think that the EU is unfortunately far less concerned with the importance of the US within Europe than with more limited domestic issues. Furthermore, I don't think that the US line is unified. On the one hand, they would probably like to see the Europeans spending more on their own defense, but on the other they would not like to lose their privileged position within NATO (or the position of NATO itself) and so I am not sure that historical materialism provides the most accurate analysis.

As an aside, I think the author Alan Cafruny misrepresents constructivism by failing to distinguish between realist constructivists and liberal constructivists. Realist constructivists would agree with his claims that humanitarian motives were not the primary cause of Western intervention, they would simply point out that the rhetoric of humanitarianism accompanied their actions.


World Systems Theory Discussion

Coming from both neo-Marxism and dependency theory, World systems theory uses the notion of a highly developed geographical core of capitalist countries supported by a less developed periphery. The periphery provides the raw materials for the use in manufacturing in the core countries. This approach comes from a historical account of the development of capitalism in Europe, and it is therefore extremely useful for analyzing European history.

In our discussion we looked at the similarities between World Systems Theory and other IR theories such as realism. I think that World Systems Theory would agree with some of the logic of realism, but would only apply it in certain cases.

While it is true that the workers of assorted countries tend to have little interest in working with each other, the elites of different countries tend to be very similar. They probably go to the same schools, and have an interest in preserving the capitalist system. This would become even more clear if one looked at the different classes on a global scale (instead of looking at say relative classes within a country, you looked at everyone in the world and divided that up into workers and elites and bourgeois etc.).

This is important because it shows that the elites of a peripheral country may very well be complicit in keeping their country in that position, because it is beneficial to them personally to do so. Since capitalism would require a periphery for resources, someone must be responsible for maintaining the periphery.


Who would have thought...

...that the United States would use the rhetoric of human rights to shield its true ambitions of power and empire? Gasp. I like historical materialism. It seems like a hybrid of realism and public goods liberalism, but from the criticism angle. It combines the theory that countries -- well, basically the U.S. -- act the way they do in order to get power (realism) and reap rewards specific to their needs (PGL). In this case, the U.S. wants to do both of these by creating and sustaining an empire. However, while PGL is more forgiving and says that even actions done with self-serving motivations can produce good results, historical materialism condemns adopting the guise of human rights and democratization to conceal one's real desires. Basically, historical materialism hates false marketing and subjugation, which isn't a bad platform.

Cafruny's article in the Sterling-Folker book calls the Iraq campaign on its adoption of the liberal human rights agenda in order to cloak a "far more ambitious imperial offensive" (223). Okay. My first reaction is, "As opposed to?" Does anyone really believe it when politicians, whose goals are to make America stronger/make the American people more prosperous, spout idealistic justifications for their actions? If they were too concerned about other countries, their constituents would probably become restless and demand to know what their politicians were doing for them. Of course they're going to phrase it in an internationally acceptable way, and of course they're going to try to give the American people something that sounds nice to stand behind, but the truth is that American citizens enjoy being on top, and if politicians tried to democratize/improve every troubled nation, it would end up hurting them (by stretching the military too thin/weakening it, driving up debt, and resulting in lengthy occupations), whereas the more modest goal of promoting power and securing advantages is ultimately good for the U.S. Except, of course, when it goes horribly wrong, as it has in Iraq, but it's the thought that counts. As Regrin pointed out, it's not so unusual to think of the U.S. taking an action to ensure its own protection. If the U.S. really went into Iraq for oil (and personally, I think our reasons were a lot more diverse than that), it would at least be a logical decision: "If we had no oil, we would be lost - or hitching a ride with those who were smart enough to buy an electric car."

Cafruny cites Chandler, who says, "A real debate over the pros and cons of the 'new imperialism'... has to tackle the elitist framework of great power domination as it is articulated in the 21st century language of human rights and cosmopolitan duties" (223). In other words, if we want to address this concept of imperialism we have to cut through the doublespeak of promoting human rights while crushing them in order to create/maintain empire. We can't change our thought processes until we're honest with ourselves about what we're actually seeking. By "we," I mean American citizens, as I suspect that policymakers do know what they're trying to do and simply choose to layer this veneer over their motivations to get support. (Option B is that they believe their own rhetoric, which is a more disturbing prospect, given its disconnected idealism. Would you rather have a corrupt politician or a crazy one?)


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Jonathan Berman is Not Dependant on Dependency Theory

I am not a great fan of dependency theory. I have had a chance to read Prebisch and Bhagwati who were main proponents of the theory way back when. Their theories were good but they were based on faulty assumptions. Namely, that manufacturing and technology would not spread to the low-income countries no matter what they did. In part, this view came from a belief that the prices of primary goods, mostly produced by the Global South would continuously deteriorate.

However, these assumptions were proven false. Even Bhagwati admit this (happily). What happened is that no one expected manufacturing to go global the way it has. Who in the fifties though Mexico would be assembling cars or China would make laptops? At this point in time, the third world doesn’t have to merely supply the first world with primary products.

Next, what dependency theorists also didn’t predict was that even as the prices of primary products decreased, so too did the prices of manufactured goods. As a result, more people in the world have access to technology because the prices of PC’s, cell phones, and cars has declined steadily.

I think most importantly is that dependency theorists are wrong to assume that trade between the “core” and “periphery” is a win-lose proposition. Since, the prices of both primary and value-added goods are declining and the ability to perform value-added activities is spreading countries can benefit from trade. As a result, countries like India, China, Chile, and Brazil are benefiting from trade and are escaping the “periphery”.