Debating IR

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


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

An interesting article about Amnesty International's human rights efforts, simply because it basically identifies structural realism as a main cause of human rights abuses.


Sunday, May 21, 2006


Well I needed a little break but I'm back and ready for more IR. I read a book review of Madeleine Albright's The Mighty and the Almighty by Noah Feldman. In it, he takes aim at the inadequacies of realism in addressing the modern world system. While Alrbright writes in her book that realism caused US foreign policy-makers to ignore religion, Feldman argues that the true problem of realism is more profound. He argues that the real problem with realism is it's emphasis on states. With this argument he is in essence attacking the very basis of realism itself. Feldman argues that the most important actors in the Clinton years and even today are non-state actors; Arafat, Osama, and other terrorists/freedom fighters to name a few. Now as scary as this is for me to admit, Feldman is on to something.

States are not the only actors who can influence IR. But in attacking the state-centric basis of realism, Feldman goes too far. In introducing realism, he says it is based on the idea that nations rationally pursue their interests. In attacking states and emphasizing the role of non-state actors, he ignores this question of rationality. He says we should pay more attention to groups, but he does not address whether non-state actors will be held to the same standards of rational pursuit of self-interest. I believe they should. Rationality is multi-faceted. Too often when we think of rationality we think of it in military terms. How did said action make a state more or less secure militarily? But rationality is more than that. Security in the modern world is more than military strength. It is economic and political, sometimes even cultural. Think of OPEC. Many of the states in OPEC would not seem to be natural allies. There are religious rivals, Iran vs. the rest of the Arab States; military rivals, Iraq vs. Iran and Kuwait and..., and countries with no regional connections, Venezuela?. But these states are held together through economic considerations. Their rationale is not military and may even contradict military rationality.

Rationality needs to be expanded. Realists do themselves a disservice by making rationality a solely military-security consideration. If an action does not appear rational by one standard, it should be re-evaluated using another. Most actions are rational, but oftentimes a person analzying the rationality of another actor uses his own reference point instead of that of the actor being analyzed. Realism has stood the test of time and can adjust to the world of today. But it will require open-mindedness and a willingness to address the deficiencies that become evident as the world changes.