Tag: IR

Could the Olympics Help Human Rights?

Grab your popcorn – opening ceremonies for Rio 2016 are tonight! It’s my favorite part of the Olympics; I really could do without the whole “sport” thing that comes after.  And, one of my favorite parts of tonight’s opening ceremonies are when the various country teams get to be announced: the parade of nations. I love the outfits, the flags, the background stories, the family members crying, and the look on the faces of all the athletes who are in the midst of a dream realized. It’s too much and, much to my family’s chagrin, I probably will be crying by the end of it.

Until quite recently, I hadn’t really thought about all the interesting international relations topics that are connected to the Olympics.  As someone who isn’t athletic and has never really paid attention to any competitive sporting event, the Olympics were just something that took over my regularly scheduled programming.  However, I’m now coming to realize that there are a myriad of IR puzzles and possible research questions connected to these sporting mega-events and to the international sporting organizations (ISOs) that run them.

Continue reading

The International Relations Discipline and the Rise of Asia


A few months ago, I was commissioned by the International Relations and Security Network of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to provide a brief write-up on how Asia’s rise will impact the formal discipline of international relations (IR) within political science. I didn’t get a chance to put it up earlier, and inevitably, the brief means sweeping judgments in just a few pages, but I think it’s a reasonable effort. Here is the version on their website; below it is reprinted:

“It is widely understood that international relations (IR) relies on modern (post-Columbus) and North Atlantic cases as the research base for its general theory. Our graduate students are well-versed in a heavily researched set of cases such as the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. While this is arguably ‘eurocentric’ training – white, western practitioners feigning to build ‘universal’ theory from just the cases and languages they know best from their own civilizational background – it might be also reasonably explained by Western dominance of world politics for so many centuries. So long as the West (including the USSR as a basically Western leftist project) so overawed the planet’s politics, then a modern and Atlantic prejudice was perhaps less narrow than it seems. Whatever the cause, this will likely change in the coming decades.

Continue reading

Really Real: Take II on the Chicago IR Guys

In my last post, I offered a friendly critique of Nuno Monteiro’s piece on how unipolarity has been less peaceful than other periods (debatable) and that U.S. power alone explains why minor states feel insecure and trigger conflicts with the unipole (same – the domestic politics of the U.S. and minor states are important in my view).   

In this post, I want to provide a similar albeit friendlier critique to Rosato and Schuessler’s article (not least because Sebastian introduced me and my wife!). Rosato and Schuessler (R&S) make the case that realism can and should be taken as a prescriptive theory to guide U.S. foreign policy, and had their advice been followed, the U.S. might not have had to go to war in World War I and II (essentially a problem of underbalancing in both cases) and wouldn’t have gone to war in Vietnam and Iraq (basically both were unnecessary wars in either strategically unimportant places or areas where deterrence could have worked).

What’s more, R&S make the case that liberal theories held by policymakers (belief in international institutions, support for democracy, promotion of trade) actually made conflict more likely.

Let me offer a few reactions in this post, mostly dealing with their concept of security and controversial claims about World War II.
The starting premise of the article is based on familiar assumptions from structural realism including (1) anarchy (2) the inability to trust the intentions of other states and (3) the uncertainty of outcomes of wars, with weaker powers sometimes winning against stronger adversaries.

Balance, Ignore, Deter
Based on these assumptions, R&S make a number of claims that they suggest should guide U.S. foreign policy. Namely, that the U.S. should balance against potential rival states but ignore minor powers unless they are located in strategically important regions (i.e. those that have important industrial resources or oil). In those cases, the United States should make clear its red lines to deter minor powers from acting against its wishes. What this means in the case of Iran is interesting:

Given the power disparity between the two sides, containment should be a straight-forward matter, and it would be preferable to a preventive war that would at best delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons while inviting almost certain retaliation (813).

Of course, I think this is based on the Waltzian logic that leaders of nuclear weapons states would understand the gravity of the situation and embrace the logic of MAD and ensure the sorts of careful security mechanisms to prevent accidental or hasty first use. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Iran will be nondeterrable, but I’m not sure if containment will be as straightforward as R&S suggest (though mostly because the United States might not follow their prescriptions and overreact to Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons).

Before reading the piece, I worried that this would be one of those vacuous articles that suggests prudence and pragmatism are the essence of realism (A quick aside: As a nonrealist, that always drove me crazy that realists could claim pragmatism as their strategic advantage. I mean, who is against pragmatism? It’s like saying I support dumb power. Ok, rant over). There has always been a somewhat protean quality to realist-informed foreign policies, where one could make a good case for contrasting policies and still call oneself a realist. Fortunately, this piece is more consistent and substantive than that.

That said, I have a couple of concerns, stemming from a truncated view of security and a misreading of the WWII case. Let me tackle each of them in turn.

Critique I: Security is More than Deterring Armed Attack by Great Powers
First, I think the piece has an overly restrictive view of what constitutes security, for which balancing behavior and self-help may not be sufficient and for which cooperation, support for trade, multilateral institutions, and cooperation might be necessary.

While I think this piece does a good job laying out what approach states ought to take vis a vis potential state challengers, it doesn’t say much about the kinds of problems that liberals and constructivists frequently write about, economics, health, the environment, or even terrorism. For these kinds of issues, self-help is generally inadequate advice. Indeed, states have to be careful to protect their own national security (narrowly defined as protecting their territorial integrity from armed external attack) while also thinking about other processes that give them long-run material wherewithal to survive, namely economic development.

The structural logic of modern interdependence and capitalism make the economy as if not more important for security as self-help. States need to collaborate through international institutions and multilateral approaches to ensure an open trading regime and financial stability and to protect the commons from pandemic disease, environmental damage, piracy, and terrorism. For these kinds of things, which may not always pose existential threats, unilateral self-help will simply not do. About these things, the piece is largely silent.

What you do about China is not simply about self-help and balancing but also about ensuring the health of the international economic order. There may be trade-offs between the promotion of state security and the stability and vibrancy of the global economy. How to manage such challenges  before China makes its intentions clear about becoming a peer competitor is the essence of grand strategy today.

In the case of terrorism, for domestic political reasons, it won’t be sufficient to downplay the threat as a nuisance that hardly rises to the level of the Soviet Union. That still doesn’t inform policymakers with a coherent strategy of what to do.

Critique II: Was World War II Really Caused by Insufficient Realism?
Second, I think the claim that World War II was caused by underbalancing misses the earlier problem in which insufficient recognition of liberal insights created the conditions for Hitler’s rise. Beggar-thy-neighbor policies on trade made everyone worse off and deepened the Depression, creating possibilities for the emergence of demagogues. Overly punitive German reparations weakened the Weimar Republic and its creaky democracy. Failure by the United States to provide liquidity led to a weak financial system and also contributed to tough economic times (these are familiar arguments for readers of Ruggie, Ikenberry, Kindleberger, among others).

So, while later underbalancing could be said to be a function of insufficient recognition of realist insights, the problem had as much to do with the prior failure to embrace liberal insights.

In sum, while the piece has much to recommend it as policy-relevant scholarship that is theoretically informed and provocative, it still tries to stay too wedded to a rigid defense of a particular -ism, which I think is helpful for creating intellectual distance from others but may be limiting as a guide to actual foreign policy in the 21st century. 

Get Real! Chicago IR guys out in force

In light of the recent exchange on the Duck about Matthew Kroenig’s work on Iran and policy-relevant research, I thought I’d flag a couple of articles from three University of Chicago alums from International Security (where Nuno Monteiro has a piece on unipolarity) and Perspectives on Politics (where Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler have an article [Ed: behind paywall] prescribing a realist foreign policy for the United States).

While I disagree with a number of their conclusions and theoretical observations, these are the kind of pieces that I think will generate a lot of healthy discussion in the discipline because they are accessible, address important topics in the real world, and yet are theory-driven inquiries. Kudos to them for that!

For our Duck readers, in summarizing their main arguments and conclusions, I wanted to throw out a couple of concerns that stuck out for me. As is my wont on this blog, this is going to take a couple of posts to get out.

Both of these pieces are structural if not in Monteiro’s case unabashedly realist inquiries into the nature of unipolarity and implicitly U.S. foreign policy.

Monteiro’s piece  “Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity Is Not Peaceful” basically takes issue with Bill Wohlforth’s earlier work on unipolarity and tries to ask a slightly different question. Rather than assess whether unipolarity is stable, he tries to evaluate whether it is peaceful. And his answer is that unipolarity is not at all peaceful and much less peaceful than other periods and then seeks to explain why.

Is Unipolarity Peaceful?
As evidence, Monteiro provides metrics of the number of years during which great powers have been at war. For the unipolar era since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been at war 13 of those 22 years or 59% (see his Table 2 below).

Now, I’ve been following some of the discussion by and about Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein’s work that suggests the world is becoming more peaceful with interstate wars and intrastate wars becoming more rare.

I was struck by the graphic that Pinker used in a Wall Street Journal piece back in September that drew on the Uppsala Conflict Data, which shows a steep decline in the number of deaths per 100,000 people. 
How do we square this account by Monteiro of a unipolar world that is not peaceful (with the U.S. at war during this period in Iraq twice, Afghanistan, Kosovo) and Pinker’s account which suggests declining violence in the contemporary period?
Where Pinker is focused on systemic outcomes, Monteiro’s measure merely reflect years during which the great powers are at war. Under unipolarity, there is only one great power so the measure is partial and not systemic. However, Monteiro’s theory aims to be systemic rather than partial. In critiquing Wohlforth’s early work on unipolarity stability, Monteiro notes: 

Wohlforth’s argument does not exclude all kinds of war. Although power preponderance allows the unipole to manage conflicts globally, this argument is not meant to apply to relations between major and minor powers, or among the latter (17).

So presumably, a more adequate test of the peacefulness or not of unipolarity (at least for Monteiro) is not the number of years the great power has been at war but whether the system as a whole is becoming more peaceful under unipolarity compared to previous eras, including wars between major and minor powers or wars between minor powers and whether the wars that do happen are as violent as the ones that came before.

Now, as Ross Douthat pointed out, Pinker’s argument isn’t based on a logic of benign hegemony. It could be that even if the present era is more peaceful, unipolarity has nothing to do with it. Moreover, Pinker may be wrong. Maybe the world isn’t all that peaceful. I keep thinking about the places I don’t want to go to anymore because they are violent (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Nigeria, Pakistan, etc.)

As Tyler Cowen noted, the measure Pinker uses to suggest violence is a per capita one, which doesn’t get at the absolute level of violence perpetrated in an era of a greater world population. But, if my read of other reports based on Uppsala data is right, war is becoming more rare and less deadly (though later data suggests lower level armed conflict may be increasing again since the mid-2000s).

The apparent violence of the contemporary era may be something of a presentist bias and reflect our own lived experience and the ubiquity of news media. Even if the U.S. has been at war for the better part of unipolarity, the deadliness is declining, even compared with Vietnam, let alone World War II.

Does Unipolarity Drive Conflict?
So, I kind of took issue with the Monteiro’s premise that unipolarity is not peaceful. What about his argument that unipolarity drives conflict? Monteiro suggests that the unipole has three available strategies – defensive dominance, offensive dominance and disengagement – though is less likely to use the third. Like Rosato and Schuessler, Monteiro suggests because other states cannot trust the intentions of other states, namely the unipole, that minor states won’t merely bandwagon with the unipole. Some “recalcitrant” minor powers will attempt to see what they can get away with and try to build up their capabilities. As an aside, in Rosato and Schuessler world, unless these are located in strategically important areas (i.e. places where there is oil), then the unipole (the United States) should disengage.

In Monteiro’s world, disengagement would inexorably lead to instability and draw in the U.S. again (though I’m not sure this necessarily follows), but neither defensive or offensive dominance offer much possibility for peace either since it is U.S. power in and of itself that makes other states insecure, even though they can’t balance against it.

US troops in Afghanistan

A brief version of Monteiro’s argument was posted on Steve Walt’s blog, and I was surprised the piece did not do more to reference balance of threat theory. In Walt’s view, the United States is violence prone because we can be; there is no countervailing power to dissuade us from using our power. Like John Ikenberry, Walt has counseled that we restrain ourselves and moderate our behavior, lest we encourage the kind of balancing behavior that revisionist powers have traditionally inspired. But, Walt’s argument isn’t based on power alone, a host of largely domestic factors have made the U.S. more willing to use force in the unipolar era.

However, in Monteiro’s view, the U.S. power position alone, even where the U.S. seeks to defend the status quo, is enough to generate conflict with “recalcitrant” minor powers. Here, “recalcitrance” seems to be cover for some domestic-level variables, either quixotic or idiosyncratic leadership characteristics by the likes of Saddam and Milosevic or attributes of authoritarian regimes. I’m not sure that U.S. power is doing the work for Monteiro.

Rather, I suspect that aspects of U.S. domestic politics (a la Walt) intersecting with domestic attributes of “recalcitrant” regimes are doing much of the heavy lifting. If we were or become different (practice restraint, focus on the home economic front for a bit) and if the regimes we face become less recalcitrant (post Arab-spring if we’re lucky, post-Kim Jong Il if we’re really lucky and something different in Iran if we’re really, really lucky), then unipolarity is not structurally determined to be violent.

In any case, I enjoyed this piece and understand how difficult it is to draw theoretically and empirically informed conclusions from a single episode in world history. In my next post, I’ll address Rosato and Schuessler’s equally provocative piece that suggests acting more realist might have prevented World War II!

Friday Nerd Blogging

1: A mysterious little Father’s Day gift for certain Dads among us. Speculation here.

2: Your GoT satirical post of the week. (H/T Steve.)

3: No, I haven’t read it yet, though this is definitely on my summer beach-book-list. Judging by the critical reviews (Robopocalypse is being compared to World War Z) my immediate sense is that the zombie craze of which Drezner speaks may be coming to its end, and that Glen Weldon’s new novel may be the start of the latest greatest trend in ” post-apocalyptic chronicle of decimated humanity” fiction.

It may be the presence of this beating human heart beneath Robopocalpyse’s cold, genocidal surface that helps explain why Steven Spielberg has optioned, and plans to direct, the film version, due in 2013. The fact that Spielberg did so before Wilson had even finished his first draft, however, suggests that Hollywood sees something it likes in the way the book exploits our anxieties about artificial intelligence — something it finds very, very marketable.

(And not a moment too soon, if you ask me.) Now, back to work on my case study about autonomous warbots…

© 2017 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑