Tag: international relations theory (page 2 of 4)

In the year 2000….

Hi everyone. I haven’t been around much lately as I’ve been furiously writing a book. But it is almost done and I’m feeling reflective. Have you missed me? I’ve missed you. What’s that you say? Why yes, this is a new shirt. Thank you for noticing.

I thought that I would offer some thoughts about where I think international relations research is heading in the near to medium-term future, based on what I’ve noticed about the job market, what friends are writing, and the sometimes surprising reactions to what I am doing on the part of others. Obviously this is all anecdotal and unsystematic, as a good blog post should be.

First, we all know that the field is becoming more quantitative, but I don’t think that this is driven by a methodological fetish (at least on the part of those who are doing the work. I think the fetishists are the ones who don’t do this type of work but think it is necessary to have in their department irrespective of its content). I think it owes to a frustration with the inability of previous generations of international relations scholarship to say anything precise and with confidence. Well, let me put that differently. We are looking to say something precise and with accuracy. Some people might have said that states always maximize power but we all knew that was never true. And what does that even mean? What will that proverbial state do on Tuesday? Those arguments are essentially non-falsifiable. They are simply too elastic and too sweeping.

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Institutions, Norms, and Cooperation

A strong correlation between cooperation and membership in international institutions is not enough to establish that international institutions cause cooperation.   If we’re to claim that institutions matter, we need to at least identify mechanisms by which institutions might promote cooperation among actors who would otherwise be disinclined to cooperate with one another.  The mere fact that such mechanisms can be articulated does not itself tell us whether the correlation is causal, but it lends a certain measure of plausible to causal interpretations that would otherwise be lacking.

Indeed, scholars have identified a variety of such mechanisms, from raising reputation costs to solving coordination problems to monitoring compliance and thereby overcoming information problems.  But even committed neo-liberals will generally grant that these arguments merely identify ways in which institutions provide a little push that can make the difference when (and only when) states almost meet the conditions under which cooperation would occur in an anarchic world.  And if that’s all that institutions do, then they can’t really matter all that much, can they?
Actually, yes.

If you grant that international institutions matter at the margins, you’ve already conceded that they make a big difference to the overall level of cooperation we can expect to observe in the international system.  See this post over at my personal blog for an explanation.


Podcast No. 13 – A Conversation with Nick Onuf (mp3)

The thirteenth Duck of Minerva podcast features Nicholas Onuf. Nick is one of the “founding parents” of contemporary constructivism. His book, World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relation  — which has been reissued by Routledge — introduced the term to describe an approach to the study of world politics. Continue reading


Podcast No. 13 – A Conversation with Nick Onuf (m4a)

The thirteenth Duck of Minerva podcast features Nicholas Onuf. Nick is one of the “founding parents” of contemporary constructivism. His book, World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relation  — which has been reissued by Routledge — introduced the term to describe an approach to the study of world politics.

The podcast is wide-ranging — part of oral history, part interview, part discussion — such that I’ve had difficulty figuring out how to insert chapters. If you’re listening via m4a, you’ll see that the podcast has only a few chapter titles. “Enter Constructivism,” for example, contains not only information about World of Our Making but also about the state of the field in the 1980s, the rise of liberal institutionalism, and so on.

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Podcast No. 11 – Interview with Janice Bially Mattern

The eleventh episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. In it, I interview Janice Bially Mattern of the National University of Singapore. Her first monograph is Ordering International Politics: Identity, Crisis, and Representational Force (Routledge, 2005).


  • Front Matter
  • An Intellectual Introduction
  • Ordering International Politics
  • Transnational Organized Crime
  • Hierarchy, Emotion, and Transnational Criminals
  • The Multivocality of Mattern’s Work
  • Styles of Reasoning in IR
  • Taking Over the International Studies Review
  • International Theory Redux
  • Working in Singapore
  • End Matter

Note: podcasts now seem to be appearing every Friday, give or take. We’ll see how long we can sustain it.

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More slides from the talk after the fold.


Podcast No. 10 – Interview with Vincent Pouliot

The tenth episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. In it, I interview Vincent Pouliot of McGill University. His first monograph is International Security in Practice: The Politics of NATO-Russia Diplomacy (Cambridge University Press, 2010).


  • Front Matter
  • Introduction
  • The Practice Turn
  • International Security in Practice
  • Methodological Issues
  • The Practice Turn for Non-Constructivists
  • An Embarrassment of Practices?
  • Building Common Ground in IR
  • The Practice Turn in a Divided Discipline
  • What’s Next?
  • End Matter

Note: podcasts now seem to be appearing every Friday, give or take. We’ll see how long we can sustain it.

A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog, but there’s no reason to click on that link. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Comments or thoughts on either this podcast or the series so far? Leave them here.


Morning Link, with Commentary, on the Shrinking Place of Theory in Sociology and IR

I’m crashing on multiple deadlines, so in lieu of “morning linkage”….

Last night I was in a twitter conversation with Phil Arena and Kindred Winecoff about Fabio Rojas’ recent post at orgtheory.net concerning the incredible shrinking vocation of social theory.

Roja’s observations echoe themes that we’ve been talking about at the Duck, both in print and in PTJ and my 10 August 2012 podcast (m4a). After quoting Kieran Healy’s excerpt from his grad-level sociological theory syllabus — about the incredible shrinking character of social theory — Rojas argues that:

  • A humanities style moral/social philosophy/history of thought sub-field is in retreat in every discipline. Political science is the exception.
  • You can still do theory, as in writing fat books that are praised but rarely read. They get published. There are theory journals, and you can still get career points for them.
  • Hypothesis Uno: Old style theory was only advantageous in a data poor environment.
  • Hypothesis Dos: Old style theory was only advantageous in a low tech environment.
  • Hypothesis Tres: Science is now bigger, which gives an advantage to empirical specialists.
  • Conclusion: In a fast paced world where people have real data, high tech tools, and can consume a lot quickly, writing Parsons style magnus opuses is something that few people can pull off.

Final comment: I’ve now spent 9 years between IU and Michigan as faculty and post-doc. Very different departments, but that allows you to see the wide range of sociology. I’ve looked over (and tried to read) *hundreds* of job applications. Very, very few “pure theory” applications. What does that tell me? From time to time, you’ll the fat theory book come out, but the profession collectively says “meh.”

I agree with the correlational analysis, but not the mechanisms. Rojas’ provides the “standard story” but his arguments are about functional efficiency when they should be about sociological forces operating within, across, and upon various social scientific disciplines. To name just a small one: when the safest route to acquiring social capital is to invest heavily in technical knowledge, that trades off with the investments necessary to be good consumers and produces of social (or, in our case, international) theory.

I also think that theorists in International Relations have become worse at explaining why the field should pay attention to what they have to say. In that sense, “international theory” is the victim of its own two-decades long flourishing, during which time it became less important to demonstrate the downstream implications — positive and negative — of different ways of conceptualizing the ontology of world politics.

And that leads to another comment. Kindred said the other night that we need more “big think” in IR, especially in light of the decline of the traditional “paradigms.” A number of people agree, but it isn’t clear what that would like it, let alone how it would be packaged and presented current tastes and reviewer expectations.


Podcast No. 8 – Interview with Daniel Levine

The eight episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. In it, I interview Daniel Levine about his new book — Recovering International Relations: The Promise of Sustainable Critique (Oxford University Press, 2012).


  • Front Matter
  • Who is Daniel Levine?
  • Recovering International Relations
  • Getting Deeper into the Argument
  • Realism, Liberalism, and the Dialectic of Enlightenment
  • Reflexivity and Critique
  • What’s next
  • End Matter

Note: podcasts now seem to be appearing every Friday, give or take. We’ll see how long we can sustain it.

A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Comments or thoughts on either this podcast or the series so far? Leave them here.


Constructivism, Social Psychology, and Interlocking Theory (III)

From https://www.zazzle.com/

This is the last in a series of guest posts by Stuart J. Kaufman of the University of DelawareStuart advances a long-running dispute with PTJ about whether “what goes on inside people’s heads” is relevant to social constructionism. PTJ doesn’t think so; Stuart disagrees. The first post can be found here, the second here. You may also download a complete PDF.

None of this is intended to deny the importance of structural insights offered by constructivist analysis. The argument, rather, is that “psychology provides the microfoundations for the motives behind normative behavior and identity change” examined by constructivist analysis (Shannon 2012, p. 14). Rhetorical coercion is an important mechanism, one I suspect underlay the inability of liberals and thoughtful moderates to articulate a resonant alternative to Bush’s “war on terror” narrative. But it is not the only mechanism of importance. As Kowert (2012) argues, norms are socially constructed, but they require that norm-holders both believe that something is right or wrong, and that they care about the outcome at stake. Understanding norms therefore requires understanding the “ideational triangle” of cognition, norms and social construction. I would be inclined to make it a “quadrangle” to include the pivotal influence of emotions.

Furthermore, for many of the issues in which discursive norm-production is important, there is yet another mechanism whose impact cannot be overlooked: the role of social networks. Neither constructivist discourse analysis nor individual or group psychology is very useful for explaining who becomes active in social movements and who does not. To explain who is likely to join a protest movement or a rebellion, we must look to social network theory as articulated most prominently by Tilly (2005, e.g.). The people who join social movements or rebellions are not consistently the people who feel most strongly about the issue at stake a priori; it is the people with the closest personal ties to those already involved. Explaining the rise of social movements, therefore, requires following Tilly’s insistence on looking to the “social appropriation” of existing institutions for social mobilization; to the brokers who create links between diverse social networks; and other similar mechanisms.

The result of taking seriously the importance of all of these different literatures would be a set of interlocking theories in which each piece of the puzzle fit into its neighboring pieces, each mutually supporting the other. Individual-level psychology would provide foundations for assumptions about human motivation and action tendencies—or, more precisely, which motivations are important when—but would then fade into the background as the focus of analysis shifted to social (including rhetorical, social psychological and sociological) mechanisms involved in political life. The role of the theorist is creatively to link the findings of these disparate fields into more or less coherent explanations of specific phenomena, instead of starting from ad-hoc assumptions considered risible in other disciplines. This approach is not too different from what constructivists typically do now, bracketing issues of agency to focus on discursive structure. I am only calling on constructivists to be more psychologically aware in the assumptions they make.

The centerpiece of this approach, then, is to identify when different modes of analysis are appropriate. For example, from a psychological perspective, the hypotheses of bureaucratic politics theory (“where you stand depends on where you sit”) is easily explicable in terms of the well-known mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment. Bureaucrats advocate their organizations’ interests, that is, because it is their job to do so (role assignment), because once having done so, they feel committed to those values (commitment), and because they come over time to be socialized into those values by their senior colleagues.

Furthermore, attention to these psychological mechanisms helps to explain not only when bureaucratic effects are most important, but also when they are less so. For example, Rhodes’s (1994) finding of the insignificance of intra-service rivalry within the U.S. Navy (between airmen, submariners and surface warriors) should come as no surprise, because naval officers’ primary socialization (and training) is into the navy, not any particular “union” within it. Furthermore, Rhodes is analyzing the behavior of Chiefs of Naval Operations, whose role assignment is to advocate the interests of the entire Navy, not their “union”. On the other hand, these same mechanisms suggest that, especially before the 1986 reorganization, the Joint Chiefs of Staff should have fought like cats and dogs along bureaucratic lines, because the mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment all pointed in that direction, yielding in turn cognitive biases and motivated biases all pushing the Chiefs each to defend his own service’s interests and values, as bureaucratic politics theory would suggest.

The same holds true of rational choice theory. While the assumption that people are rational utility-maximizers is almost always false and is often unproductive, there are circumstances in which social psychology would predict such behavior. Institutional behavior is again the clearest example. The mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment yield the expectation not only that bureaucrats will pursue their institutional interests, but that lobbyists will lobby for their employers; and, indeed, individual self-interest is likely to point in the same direction. When individual self-interest does not align with institutional interest, rationalists rightly point out, greed or ambition may trump socialization, leading to shirking or corruption. Rationalists don’t talk about greed and ambition, but as long as those motives accord with assumptions of individual self-interest, the difference does not matter.  Assuming bureaucrats will behave like bureaucrats is not psychologically dubious.

Outside institutional bounds, in contrast, people usually do not act to maximize their material interests in politics because their judgment is at different times driven primarily by fear (explained terror management theory), group identity (explained by social identity theory), bias or prejudice (explained by cognitive bias or prejudice theory), motivated bias (explained by motivational theory), personal connections (social network theory), the desire for self-expression, or a host of other motives.

It seems plain, then, that interlocking theory provides the only way to move forward in international relations and political science, based on using the findings of allied disciplines. In international relations, the answer to the paradigm debate lies in determining under what conditions key actors behave like realists, or liberal institutionalists, or domestic politics liberals. What are the conditioning hypotheses for each theory? Again, a number of different factors play a role, each explaining a different piece of the puzzle. From this point of view, constructivism in international relations functions as a partial metatheory, pointing out that sometimes international actors behave like realists (“Hobbesean” systems), sometimes like international liberals (“Lockean” systems), and sometimes more like liberals in a domestic setting (Kantian systems). The trouble is that constructivist analysis is terribly thin in identifying when each sort of behavior should occur.

Again, social psychology provides a host of suggestions for how to sort these questions out. Realists note that for their theory, fear is the driving force, and indeed, terror management theory essentially explains why people behave like realists when they feel under threat. But when do they feel under threat? Personality has something to do with it, with trust playing a huge role: only relatively trusting people are inclined to behave the way liberal institutionalism would predict (Rathbun 2011). On the other hand, those who are less trusting tend to see the world as a competitive place—a syndrome identified as “social dominance orientation” (Sidanius)—and to respond aggressively to challenge. Ergo, the hypothesis: states led by people with social dominance orientation are likely to behave in realist fashion; those led by more trusting individuals are more likely to act as liberal institutionalists predict. Prejudice also has something to do with it: people are more likely to perceive threat when they hold negative stereotypes of the source of potential threat, and when they have negative emotional feelings about that outgroup. This approach also helps to explain why past behavior matters in some cases but not others: prejudiced leaders will tend to discount evidence of moderation on the part of the target of their prejudice (e.g., Cold War anti-Communists), and therefore act competitively.

To break down a more specific example, asking why the U.S. behaved like a neoconservative sort of realist toward Iraq in 2003 is actually asking a set of distinct questions, each of which has answers in a different area of theory. From an institutional perspective, there were at least three veto players regarding a war with Iraq: the President, his party, and Congress, with Congress’s position in turn partly dependent on public opinion. Therefore, to explain the war, we must explain the positions of all three veto players. First, George W. Bush decided he wanted to invade Iraq for a variety of reasons explained by personality theory (such as his ethnocentrism) and small-group dynamics (e.g., groupthink). Second, his party enthusiastically supported this course due to a combination of prejudice, institutional incentives in the party, and calculations of electoral advantage. The calculations of electoral advantage, in turn, depended largely on intuitive understanding of prejudice and terror management theory—how threat perceptions and anti-Saddam bias after 9/11 drove public opinion to the right on the issue of the war. Finally, as discussed earlier, a combination of constructivist and psychological factors explain why Democrats in Congress felt they had to go along with the Bush “War on Terror” narrative and vote in favor of the war—and why that course was popular with voters.

The final element of truly progressive theorizing, as suggested by these examples, is attention to the balance of counteracting forces. In the astrophysics of stellar stability, all of the interest is in the balance between the gravitational forces holding the star together and the countervailing forces pushing its mass outward. Similarly, almost any problem in contemporary international relations is likely to be driven by some factors emphasized by realism, some emphasized by liberal institutionalism, some by domestic politics liberalism, and some by constructivism. In the battle for public opinion over the Iraq war, for example, international institutional constraints—notably the position of the UN Security Council—were manifestly significant in constraining the march to war, yet were ultimately swamped by other factors pushing the other way. Meaningful theory means thinking about how to measure these counteracting effects, not simply assuming some of them away.

Parsimonious theories of politics are possible, of course, but not parsimonious theories that work. If we want to achieve anything like scientific progress, we need to put aside debates about which paradigm is best, and begin focusing on when each paradigm best applies, to what degree and in which circumstances.

Works Cited
Benford, R. D., and D.A. Snow. (2000).  Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.  Annual Review of Sociology 26, 611-639.
Cohen, Florette, Daniel M. Ogilvie, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski (2005), “American Roulette: The Effect of Reminders of Death on Support for George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential Election,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 5, no. 1, pp. 177-87.
Cuillier, David, Blythe Duell and Jeff Joireman (2010), “The Mortality Muzzle: The Effect of Death Thoughts on Attitudes toward National Security and a Watchdog Press,” Journalism 11(2): 185-202.
Greenberg, Jeff, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, Abram Rosenblatt, Mitchell Veeder, Shari Kirkland, and Deborah Lyon (1990).  “Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, 308–318.
Haidt, Jonathan (2012)  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (Pantheon).
Kaufman, Stuart J., Richard Little, and William C. Wohlforth, eds. (2007), The Balance of Power in World History (Palgrave Macmillan).
Kowert, Paul A. (2011) “Completing the Ideational Triangle: Identity, Choice and Obligation in Interntional Relations,” in Vaughn P. Shannon and Paul A. Kowert, eds.  Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 30-56.
Ronald R. Krebs and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (2007), “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms: The Power of Political Rhetoric,” European Journal of International Relations 2007; 13; 35
Ronald R. Krebs & Jennifer K. Lobasz (2007): “Fixing the Meaning of 9/11: Hegemony, Coercion, and the Road to War in Iraq,” Security Studies, 16:3, 409-451.
Larson, Deborah Welch (1985)  Origins of Containment: A Psychological Explanation (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Rathbun, Brian C. (2011) Trust In International Cooperation: International Security Institutions, Domestic Politics, and American Multilateralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Rhodes, Edward (1994) “Do Bureaucratic Politics Matter?  Some Disconfirming Findings from the United States Navy,” World Politics vol. 47, no. 1 (October), pp. 1-41.
Shannon, Vaughn P. (2011), “Introduction: Ideational Allies: Psychology, Constructivism and International Relations,” in Vaughn P. Shannon and Paul A. Kowert, eds.  Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 1-29.
Tilly, Charles (2005) Identities, Boundaries and Social Ties (Boulder : Paradigm).
Westen, Drew (2007) The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (New York: PublicAffairs).

Constructivism, Social Psychology, and Interlocking Theory (II)

This is the second in a series of guest posts by Stuart J. Kaufman of the University of DelawareStuart advances a long-running dispute with PTJ about whether “what goes on inside people’s heads” is relevant to social constructionism. PTJ doesn’t think so; Stuart disagrees. The first post can be found hereAfter the final post, we will make the entire piece available as a PDF — consider it our first true “working paper” publication.

Since each theory begins with a metatheoretical judgment about human nature, I think the place to start looking for insights is in psychology, which focuses on the empirical questions of how people actually think and feel under what circumstances, and what they tend to be inclined to do. For an example of how psychology can inform constructivism, let us return to Krebs and Jackson’s “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms,” which suggests a constructivism based on the notion that rhetoric operates as a sort of coercion. In this very creative piece, they lay out a model in which much of the action of politics comes in the form of rhetorical competitions in which competing forces try to frame issues in terms of societal values that favor their argument. One side wins if the other runs out of plausible responses to refute the implications of its opponent’s frame.

One gap in this argument is that the plausibility of arguments depends fundamentally on pre-existing “rhetorical commonplaces” familiar to the public audience, but in their empirical illustration Krebs and Jackson do nothing to show what the relevant rhetorical commonplaces were before the debate they analyze. In principle, constructivists can do this by sampling the discourse prior to any particular debate to get a sense of what those commonplaces are.

What constructivists cannot do, however, is measure how widely believed and strongly influential those commonplaces are with the relevance audience. This audience is always multiple—divided into subgroups by myriad cleavages. How is the constructivist to know which rhetorical commonplaces are the ones that most powerfully influence the relevant audiences, and therefore demonstrate the power of rhetorical jiujitsu? Krebs and Jackson do so by assumption, picking out one particular rhetorical commonplace in Israel—the notion that those who serve in the military have thereby earned equal rights—to explain why Druze Arabs, who do serve in the Israeli military, have been granted rights other Israeli Arabs have not.

The trouble with this argument is that, even if one retains a constructivist methodology, Krebs and Jackson fail to consider other discourses that may better explain the outcome. For example, perhaps the key point in Israeli discourse is not that the Druze have earned citizenship, but that they have proven their loyalty—their military service proves that they are not a security threat. Much Israeli discrimination against Arab citizens is justified on security grounds. How do we know that the more important reason for the outcome was not that the notion of earned citizenship was unanswerable, but that the notion of Druze as a threat was a non-starter?

The deeper problem is that even if Krebs and Jackson had considered both discursive effects, constructivism offers no way to assess which one was more important, if both were present and prominent. The only way to assess these competing hypotheses is to think more systematically about the interaction between discourse at the social level and attitudes and beliefs at the individual level. In other words, one must resort to the methods of sociological framing theory (e.g. Benford and Snow 2000) that Krebs and Jackson reject—examining the pre-existing beliefs, values, attitudes and perceptions of the audiences (including their perceptions of the credibility and other qualities of the leaders proposing alternative narratives) to explain why some rhetorical moves resonate with different audiences while others do not.

The study of pre-existing beliefs, values, norms, attitudes and perceptions, in turn, leads us back to the realm of political psychology. It is political psychologists who have studied these issues most carefully, and have come to some important conclusions about the power of different discourses with different audiences. One of the most important of these findings is the importance of emotional or symbolic predispositions in influencing attitudes. Some stark examples are in the work of Drew Westen (2007, pp. 107-8). For example, when a group of respondents were asked their views about whether President Clinton deserved to be impeached, 85% of the variance in their answers was predicted by their emotional feelings about the political parties, Clinton, infidelity and feminism as measured in those same respondents six to nine months earlier. When cognitive constraints were added to the model, they increased the explanatory power only to 88%. Obviously these respondents had been exposed to some combination of pro- and anti- impeachment discourses, but their responses varied with their symbolic predispositions.

The basis for my hypothesis about the role of security fears in Krebs and Jackson’s Israeli case comes from another strand of political psychology, the unfortunately named “terror management theory” (see., e.g., Greenberg et al. 1990; Cuillier et al. 2010). In a series of experiments, these scholars have shown that subconscious concerns about death systematically drive political opinions to the right, making respondents more respectful of their own national and religious values and symbols, more favorable to those who praise such values and symbols, more unfavorable toward those with different values of any sort, more punitive toward moral transgressors, more physically aggressive toward those who differ politically, and less concerned with incidental harm to innocents. In a particularly striking study, Cohen et al. (2005) found that respondents who were asked to think about death preferred George Bush over John Kerry by 45% to 20%, while respondents in the control condition preferred Kerry to Bush by 57% to 13%. If this pattern holds up in Israel, then it seems plausible that security arguments against Arab rights are more important than failure-to-serve arguments regarding Muslim and Christian Arabs. Therefore the lack of credibility of such arguments regarding Druze Arabs should similarly be more important than rights-for-service arguments.

The reason that systematic attention to audiences’ actual beliefs and values (as measured in survey research) is so important is that failure to do so makes it too easy for the analyst implicitly to impute his or her own values to the audience. For example, in a generally persuasive and well-executed study, Lobasz and Krebs (2007) show how Democrats were “rhetorically coerced” by the “war on terror” discourse into acquiescing in the Iraq invasion that many of them were uncomfortable with and later opposed. While this positive argument is persuasive as far as it goes, the counterfactual argument is not: the suggestion that the most promising alternative discourse would have been a “jeremiad” arguing that the 9/11 attacks were a reaction to American behavior, and that the U.S. should reform itself rather than launching a crusade in the Middle East.

Lobasz and Krebs, not inattentive to findings in political psychology, note that there are some psychological obstacles to acceptance of the “jeremiad” discursive mode, mentioning in particular the fundamental attribution error. However, they vastly underestimate those obstacles, in particular by overlooking the values widely embraced by conservatives and moderates but not liberals or leftists (Haidt 2012). Most important of these is the value of loyalty. The trouble with the jeremiad narrative is that it leaves the would-be Jeremiah vulnerable to the question: “Whose side are you on, ours or the terrorists’?”

The power of the “war on terror” narrative is further boosted by other psychological effects Lobasz and Krebs overlook. First, any “us against them” narrative draws its power from the ingroup-outgroup effect demonstrated by decades of experiments in the social identity theory tradition. Just making the ingroup-outgroup distinction salient leads to increased stereotyping of the outgroup and increased pressure for ingroup cohesion (adding to the power of the “whose side are you on” question). Second, the credibility of the “war on terror” justification for the Iraq war was enhanced by prejudice—both cognitive stereotypes of Arabs and emotional dislike for them—that was prominent among an important subset of the American population. Third, the terror management effect from the lingering fear of terrorism was simultaneously driving attitudes toward the right on issues of nationalism.

Finally, the jeremiad narrative lacked credibility on the issue of 9/11 itself: even if I believe that most Arabs dislike the U.S. for what it does, not what it is, that does not invalidate the logic of a war on terror. If I make that distinction, I must also make another: most Arabs were not involved in the 9/11 attacks, either. Those that were—the militants of al-Qaeda—were violent extremists who did need to be fought. The only plausible alternative to Bush’s War on Terror, then, was Obama’s later war on al-Qaeda. Many plausible discursive traditions were available to purse this argument against the Iraq war, most importantly the security discourse itself, perhaps stated frontier-style: “You’ve got the wrong man (Saddam) there, Sheriff. We can’t let the real culprit (bin Laden) get away with this”.

My argument, then, is that responsible theory-building requires that we build not only on the findings of those within our narrow academic niche, but much more widely beyond it. For the relationship between psychology and constructivism, there is a whole host of psychological mechanisms—in social identity theory, terror management theory, prejudice and ethnocentrism theory, cognitive dissonance theory, cognitive network theory, etc.—that provide important insights into which rhetorics are most likely to resonate with which audiences and in which conditions. Sociological framing theory additional insights regarding the importance of the credibility of the leader offering a particular frame or narrative, among other factors. All of these considerations widen the scope for agency in constructivist analysis, not only by identifying the psychological tools available for leaders to manipulate, but also by identifying the psychological resources available to audience members in deciding how to respond.


Communities and otherness: a typology

I have long been intrigued by Orson Scott Card’s typology of relations to the other, as expressed in his novel Speaker for the Dead. I like it so much that I used it as a central part of my argument (in Chapter 2 of this forthcoming edited volume) that the depicted relations between Colonials and cylons in Battlestar Galactica can tell us something about how to construct a more humane social order. But teaching the novel for the umpteenth time in my sci-fi course this week — it and its prequel Ender’s Game have been in every iteration of the course since I wrote the first draft of the syllabus when I was about fifteen — it occurred to me that the Card typology needed some analytical tightening before it could be truly useful. I did a first run at working through the issues in class on Wednesday; this post is my second attempt. And it has prettier diagrams than the ones I scrawled on the whiteboard in class.

Card’s typology contains four orders of otherness or foreignness:

The first is the otherlander, or utlanning, the stranger that we recognize as being a human of our world, but of another city or country. The second is the framling…This is the stranger that we recognize as human, but of another world. The third is the raman, the stranger that we recognize as human, but of another species. The fourth is the true alien, the varelse, which includes all the animals, for with them no conversation is possible. They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it.

The major advantage of this typology, and the potential that I find in it, stems from the fact that it is a typology of relations, not a typology of already-fully-formed communities.
There is no danger here of reifying a contingent social arrangement, and imbuing it with more stability and solidity than it warrants; a community is, in this approach, more or less completely endogenized to the relations between and among its members. Community is a function of how we relate to one another, and is as such located “between” us rather than “outside of” us. The other thing I particularly like about this typology is that it does not make the self a residual effect of differentiation from the Other; exclusion and separation are not the fundamental or foundational aspect of identities and communities, but emerge instead as one possible mode of relation. There can thus be identities and communities that are not premised on deliberate exclusion as much as they involve a focus on “internal” matters — a potential that often gets minimized or sidelined in certain kinds of poststructural and critical accounts of identity. (There’s a very nice 2005 APSR article by Abizadeh — couldn’t find a link that wasn’t behind a paywall, sorry — that makes this point quite cleanly.)

That said, there are three problems with the Card typology. First, although he refers to it as a “hierarchy of exclusion” and thus implies a single criterion that gets more or less intense as we move up and down the scale, the typology actually contains two quite different logics and thus envisions two very different kinds of communities emerging from two different kinds of relations. Second, and related, Card hasn’t actually presented four different types of relation; he’s only presented three (utlanning and framling actually collapse into one another), and only two of them are related to possible communities (no conversation with the varelse means no community with the varelse). Finally, because Card treats this as a classification of actually-existing relations rather than as an ideal-typical typology of possible relations, he is unable to really probe the intriguing dilemmas that arise in actual communities that are never completely characterized by any one kind of relation. The right question is not “what kind of relations to the other do we have in our community?” but instead is something like “what kind of community is envisioned by our ways of relating to the other?” and the reformulated ideal-typical typology helps us sort out the answer to that second question.

I’ll take these in sequence. First of all, notice that both utlanning and framling are relations that presume a shared connection between the people involved, and that the shared connection in question is more or less “backgrounded” or naturalized in the course of any interaction that people engaged in performing or enacting that relation have. In Card’s terms, this prior connection is that both parties are “human,” but I want to suggest that the specific character of the prior connection is less relevant than the fact of its existence as a taken-for-granted presupposition. Relations of the utlanning and framling type actually both look basically the same:

In this diagram, A-D are the relating parties, and for the sake of visual clarity I have drawn their network of relations as a maximally connected one. The green circle around A-D represents the common membership of all of the relating parties in some broader set characterized by something that they all have in common — some attribute or feature by virtue of which they are all members of a single category that is larger, conceptually speaking, than each of them themselves. Call this a categorical community: differences between the relating parties are in a sense overshadowed by their common membership in a broader community, and note that in order for this to work the category in question has to be socially/culturally/politically salient — mere physical resemblance will not cut it. In fact, in a categorical community, the relating parties in some sense think of themselves as belonging to that broader category; if they do not, it matters not at all whether the relating parties share some characteristic in common. (I am setting aside for the moment the complexity of how one recognizes common characteristics and how they become socially/culturally/politically salient, because I am ideal-typifying the kind of community envisioned by the utlanning and framling modes of relating to the other. My point is that in utlanning and framling relations, there in some sense already is a salient category.)

The reason that this diagram could be both utlanning and framling — and, if we get less interplanetary about things, it could be states within a region or civilization, towns within a nation, individuals within an organization, etc. — is that utlanning and framling relations only differ from one another in their physical and geographic size. Utlanning relations are bounded by a planet, which would be the green line in the diagram; scale up, make A-D planets instead of states or cities or countries, and for have framling relations. Scale down to get one of the other varieties I mentioned a moment ago. All of these are relationally similar, and all feature the same basic arrangement: the relating parties may differ from one another on a whole variety of issues and attributes, but their commonality provides a broader basis on which to recognize one another as in some sense belonging together.

Belonging to a categorical community makes possible one of the most striking (and arguably one of the most effective) types of rhetorical coercion: the “nesting” gesture in which a speaker appeals to the broader category as part of a socially sustainable argument about a proposed course of action. In some of my work I have explored this gesture in some detail, as nesting is what makes appeals to “the West” so politically effective during the post-WWII era and well into the Cold War. Nesting is the inner logic of claims about civilizational identity, regional solidarity, national unity, etc. In all of these cases and many more besides, nesting works as a rhetorical gesture because the relating parties in some sense understand themselves to belong to a larger category, which makes possible the appeals to that category that can function as a rhetorical trump card in a public debate: we have our differences, but now the tribe/nation/planet/species to which we all belong has need of us, so we have to put aside those differences for the sake of the greater whole.

Lose the salient category and you lose this possibility, along with the categorical community itself. What you have instead is a category of relating parties that only share in common their ability to relate to one another, and nothing more fundamental than that:

Again, for visual clarity I have drawn this as a maximally connected network, but it need not be. The key point is that in this kind of noncategorical community there is no agreed-upon categorical boundary within which and on the basis of which all the parties can relate; there is just the web of relations itself. Obviously there’s no nesting here.

This is, I would say, a diagram of the community envisioned by Card’s raman relations. The word “human” in “human of another species” doesn’t mean the same thing as it meant in Card’s definitions of utlanning and framling relations; indeed, “human” in raman relations seems to mean nothing other than the ability to converse and communicate, since the primary conceptual distinction is between raman and varelse on the grounds that varelse relations do not include the possibility of conversation. (“They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it.”) There would thus be no community envisioned by varelse relations, and no categorical community envisioned by raman relations.

Of course, any student of world politics will have already recognized the parallels here: a categorical community is like “domestic politics,” and a noncategorical community is like “international politics.” Unlike Waltz, what I am prioritizing here is categorical membership, not hierarchy/anarchy, but the basic opposition is the same: presumptive commonality inside the state, and something much more explicitly process-dependent outside. (Again, remember that I am not describing actually-existing entities yet. Actual communities inhabit the tension between these ideal-types.) Precisely because there is no readily-available salient common category to appeal to in a noncategorical community, relations have to be conducted on the basis of ongoing diplomatic negotiation, and the only controlling authority would be the previously-agreed-upon consent of the contracting parties, a.k.a. “precedent.” (This is perhaps starting to sound even more familiar to IR folks.) And any hierarchy would have to be either illegitimate or a-legitimate — or a temporary exigency that was extremely fragile, dependent on independent calculations of benefit and interest…

So what have we learned? Raman relations, which envision a noncategorical community, are similar to what we IR scholars often imagine to be “international relations” — states in anarchy, sure, but more to the point, independent entities that only share in common the ability to relate to one another. (I am quite deliberately shifting to the more generic “relate” rather than Card’s “conversation,” because there is an implicit teleology in Card’s formulation: “conversation” makes violence less likely, because — and this is a general theory of Card’s — understanding makes conflict evaporate. I am not so sure about this, and more to the point, my argument doesn’t depend on it: the “diplomacy” in a noncategorical community could easily consist of an exchange of gunfire, as long as the various parties involved thought of one another as actors rather than as natural forces or something.) Utlanning and framling relations, which envision a categorical community, are similar to what we IR scholars often imagine to be “domestic politics,” with the hierarchy that we sometimes think of as characteristic of domestic politics linked to legitimation claims involving the rhetorical gesture of nesting. And encounters with “true aliens,” the varelse relations: no community is envisioned. Three categories, not four, and two logics: a logic of scale for utlanning-framling, and a logic of recognition for raman-varelse. (And note that Card implicitly realizes this; at the beginning of the first chapter of Speaker he has the author of the typology point out that “When we declare an alien species to be raman, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.”)

I presume that anyone who has made it this far into this essay has already raised about a hundred objections to the distinctions I am drawing here, all of which boil down to some form of “but actual communities don’t look like this!” Precisely. I agree. The point of an ideal-typical typology is not to describe actually-existing objects or entities or relations; the point is to tease out certain logical relations which can then be used instrumentally in the course of an explanation of some puzzling actual situation or case. It is doubtful, for instance, whether there is any such thing as an actual noncategorical community; international society developed a “standard of civilization” detailing who could play and who could not play, and liberal societies with roots in a social-contractarian understanding of social order and government have tended to rest, even if only implicitly, on some categorical community to determine whose voices needed to be taken into account: white people, men, property owners, etc. Indeed, I would speculate that, precisely because categories are so useful in managing daily social relations, a noncategorical community, by virtue of repeated transactions among its members, might incline toward being a categorical community at some point, as raman relations gave way to utlanning or framling relations. But by the same token, a categorical community might break down if one of the relating parties did something that was simply so beyond the pale that it appeared to be the action of an inhuman alien (utlanning/framling -> varelse) or, less dramatically, something happened that revealed that the presumptively stable category on which the community was based was in fact considerably more evanescent (utlanning/framling -> raman). How particular people react to changing situations, and how particular institutions and practices function, would then be explicable in terms of the tension between these different visions of community and the different relations that give rise to them.

The reason this isn’t just redescription, or recoding in exotic language, is that the perspective I have sketched here does three things with respect to thinking about identity and community that other typologies do not do, or at least do not do as well:

1) community here is a function of social relations, and not an ex ante presumption. The kind of community that is envisioned depends on the kind of relations its members have to one another.

2) community here is not necessarily premised on exclusion — what matters is less who we don’t incorporate, and more how we relate to one another. A categorical community can exclude, sure, but that exclusion is a consequence, not a cause.

3) the important empirical questions to ask about a community are not where its boundaries are and how it maintains them. The important empirical questions are instead: a) how is the category on which a categorical community is based made to seem natural and inevitable to the members of that community? b) how is the determination made that a given other is raman and not varelse, or vice versa? (In this last register especially, I wonder about the principle of indefinite detention and the preference for “surgical” drone strikes and other targeted killings of alleged terrorist masterminds, but I have gone on long enough so I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.)

Final thought. The idea of a noncategorical community, although it may lack an empirical referent, serves an important moral function. If we are actually committed to the idea of a community in which the members share in common only their capacity to converse and communicate — their moral worth and practical agency — then we have to be perpetually on guard against the all-too-human tendency to fill the “human” in “human of another species” with specific categorical content. It matters not at all whether that content comes from some presumptively natural attribute (as though the question of what constitutes a human or a sentient being with moral worth could be definitively answered in some objective manner) or from some presumptively transcendental exercise of pure communicative reason (Kant and Habermas, you’re on notice here) or doctrinal revelation (the traditional “faith-based” solution to this conundrum is to have some deity show up and simply tell you who is worthy of moral recognition, and perhaps more importantly, who is not worthy). Instead, if we have the courage of our convictions, we need to oppose any and all attempts to unequivocally bound the human, rather than staking everything on some categorical definition of who and what we are. Perpetual negotiation in a noncategorical community of raman relations may be uncomfortable and murky, but such a vision — one might even call it a prophetic provocation — might be the only way to preserve our humanity, and to stay open to possibilities yet unknown.


Duck on a TRIP

The new TRIP survey is out. While the overall findings don’t hold many surprises, there are some nuggets of interest. We’ll have more to say later, but for now I want to call out a particular finding. 

Every survey asks the question “aside from you, please list four scholars who have produced the most interesting scholarship in the past five years.” In some respects, this question functions as a proxy for “most influential,” as the list:
  • Is very similar to the one for “four scholars who have had the greatest influence on the field of IR in the past 20 years”; and 
  • Contains a few people who, despite their big brains and mighty influence, haven’t produced much in the way of published work in the past five years. 

Given those two points, I’m particularly impressed by the presence of a single scholar from my cohort among the top twenty. 


Historical Institutionalism and International Relations

[warning: this post and the piece attached to is is only of interest to a handful of academics]

The April 2011 issue of International Organization included a very interesting review essay by Orfeo Fioretos entitled “Historical Institutionalism in International Relations.” The thrust of Fioretos’ argument, developed through a discussion of books ranging from John Ikenberry’s After Victory to Abe Newman’s Protectors of Privacy, is that international-relations scholarship would benefit from an historical-institutionalist turn. Although I found myself in agreement with the broad claims in the piece, I had difficulty with some of its specifics.

Anyone seeking to forward an historical-institutionalist agenda faces a basic problem: the approach doesn’t have what many would consider a coherent core. It emerged, as such, when a few scholars came up with a name for a motley body of work that they saw as distinguished by its opposition to “presentism” and to a rigid adherence to rational-choice theories. In his essay, Fioretos deals with this by, as far as I can tell, deciding that behavioral psychology in general, and prospect theory in particular, supplies historical institutionalism with microfoundations.

This didn’t make much sense to me, as I couldn’t recall seeing this claim advanced from within the ranks of self-proclaimed historical institutionalism. It also got a little under my skin. I’ve always considered my work as, at least, cognate to historical institutionalism and yet I don’t adopt such microfoundations.

The result of my discomfort was a response piece that I shipped off to International Organization. A few weeks ago I received a very nice note from the editors declining to send the piece out for review on the grounds that the issues raised weren’t sufficiently important to merit publication. I don’t have a problem with this, but as journals in our field don’t generally publish responses to articles that appear in other journals, there’s not much left to do with the response. So I’ve decided to make it available here in the hopes that someone will get something useful out of it.

UPDATE: also available, in convenient HTML format, at e-International Relations.


What Good is Network Theory in IR?

In between ultimate frisbee and lying around in bed sick, I managed to attend a workshop on network theory at the International Studies Asssociation.

I spent some time there thinking about different things scholars mean when they say they are doing network theory, and what is the value added to IR of this basket of approaches.

Here are some tripartite thoughts on the matter, and you can probably guess which approach I’ll be taking in my new book.

1) Network theory provides a way to describe social relations that are neither hierarchies nor markets. This approach is associated with Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s work on advocacy networks and continues to hold some sway among “network analytic” scholarship, like Taylor Seyboldt’s recent analysis of the network structure of the humanitarian aid community. I actually don’t buy this approach however. Hierarchies are also networks (Wendy Wong’s great new book uses network theory as a way to describe and analyze variation in the organizational structure of different NGOs, and the same analysis could be applied to firms.) Furthermore, networks can be hierarchical rather than flat. Markets are distinct not in terms of structure but substance.

2) Network theory provides different conceptual tools for measuring (and visualizing) “structure.” IR theorists talk a lot about structure versus agency and yet have tended to have a very thin understanding of what structure is, generally arrived at deductively and treating it as a constant rather than measuring how it may vary by context. Emilie Hafner-Burton, Miles Kahler and Alex Montgomery have a good overview of the kinds of tools we’re talking about, and they distinguish this approach explicitly from the “networks as organization” approach above. The problem with this approach, I think, is that it equates network “theory” with “network analysis tools” and that the use of the tools as a method for measuring or visualizing often doesn’t involve very sophisticated theorizing about what those relationships mean and how they relate to the agency of actors embedded in network structures.

3) Network theory provides a set of propositions about the sources of political outcomes that are relational rather than instrinsic to actors.
I like this approach the best because it both limits network theory to something analytically useful (that is, it’s not just another form of organization) and broadens it to include many methodologies besides social network analysis. For example, one could take the theoretical propositions associated with SNA (such as “actors with a high level of betweenness centrality will have the ability to function as brokers”) or “actors with high in-degree centrality within a network will exert greater influence over the categorical meanings within a network” and then examine the extent to which these insights hold true in different network settings by using more qualitative methodologies including comparative case studies, process-tracing, elite interview or focus groups. I think what’s most important is not that we’re able to create colorful maps or measure ties precisely, but that we’re taking relational factors seriously as causal and constitutive forces in world politics.


The constructivism that wasn’t

[Note: This post is almost entirely “inside baseball” for IR academics.]

For this year’s ISA conference I was supposed to write a paper called “The Constructivism That Wasn’t: On the Non-Inevitability of Sociological Liberalism.” The idea was that I would go back and carefully reconstruct those moments of historical contingency in which an alternative IR constructivism — one which did not so neatly track with sociological liberalism, roughly defined as the notion that individuals’ thoughts and beliefs shape their behavior an thus the social world that they inhabit — might have emerged. The alternative history is simple: accentuate Morgenthau’s debt to Nietzsche and Weber and play up his sense of the tragic, reclaim Waltz as an analytical systems theorist instead of the prophet of the inevitable consequences of systemic anarchy for state behavior, push Jervis’ work on the manipulation of images and symbols into a more semiotic direction by rooting things in social/discursive instead of cognitive psychology, and then place Nick Onuf’s 1989 book (about to be released in a new edition, so people can actually read and assign it!) at the center of an alternate way of worlding, and knowledge-producing, in the field as a whole. Presto, a constructivism that would be just as anti-utopian as the field’s founders would have liked: rules, Onuf reminds us, produce rule, and domination (whether legitimate in the Weberian sense, or just naked force) is an omnipresent factor in political life. And then you can fill in the blanks for yourself: insert a whole variety of social and political theorists at appropriate points in the lineage, produce a mashed-up remix of The Culture of National Security and Cultures of Insecurity, and so on.

But as we all know, this didn’t happen, and constructivism came to mean “ideational variables matter,” where matter = systematic cross-case co-variation, best captured in statistical studies whether large-n “quantitative” or small-n “qualitative” — and that’s not a methodological distinction, that’s a lifestyle choice. All of this to the point where I usually don’t feel comfortable self-identifying as a “constructivist” without a great deal of qualification. So the more I have thought about it, the more I have become less and convinced that this really could have happened differently in mainstream Anglophone IR, because mainstream Anglophone IR is dominated by US IR, which is constituted as a subfield of US Political Science — and both US Political Science and US IR bear the traces of the way in which they were legitimated and justified within the US social and political context. In global IR, there may be space for a plurality of voices and visions, and a robust debate about important theoretical and methodological issues like the nature of scientific explanation, the fundamental structure of the world system, and the legacies of imperialism and colonialism (particularly the issue of whether what we have nowadays is any significantly different than what we had during the period of formal colonial empires). But in US IR, as a subfield of US Political Science, the organization of intellectual life forces virtually every interesting question into the liberal cookie-cutter with its twin blades of neopositivism and actor-centric reductionism, and thus neuters anything like a radical critique or even the envisioning of a significantly different alternative future by assuming virtually all of the interesting things away at the outset. If there is actual contingency here, it is the contingency of IR as a separate field of study having been nurtured in the United States.

I should be clear that the kind of liberalism I have in mind  is neither left-leaning politics nor a simple translation of the classical liberal tradition of political philosophy and its confidence in free markets. What I mean instead is a specific triumvirate of value-commitments: individual liberty, equality, and reason, with the third usually being cashed out in intellectual/academic circles as “science.”  Grant for a moment that the US is a constitutively liberal society (and if you doubt this, may I refer you to the aforementioned Alexis de Tocqueville, and to Louis Hartz’s diagnosis of the “irrational Lockeianism” of US society and political culture?).* It therefore follows that social and political science, in such a society, would have to — if it wanted to be taken seriously — concern itself with individuals and their decisions, lest it be accused of ignoring individual liberty. It would have to be impersonally abstract, lest it be accused of ignoring equality. And “scientific” in such a society would have to mean something like “objective and nonpartisan, accessible to all who have the proper training” — disenchanted knowledge, to make a Weberian gesture. Putting this together we have two basic implications for political science in a liberal society: a kind of explanatory individualist reductionism (in technical language we now call this “microfoundations”), and the kind of advisory role that — as Jack Gunnell so brilliantly sketched in The Descent of Political Theory — comes from a withdrawal of science from politics so as to subsequently correct and improve political activity. (Call this “the Enlightenment legacy/hangover,” and insert all the E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau-inspired comments about the limitations of reason in politics you want at this point.)

The dominance of neopositivism is and has to be understood sociologically. Although I have argued elsewhere — I think pretty conclusively — that there is no generally compelling philosophical warrant for neopositivism as a philosophy of science, because there are alternative approaches to science that do as good if not a better job accounting for science and clarifying the foundations of scientific knowledge, it unfortunately does not follow that all philosophies of science are created sociologically equal. Indeed there is something of an elective affinity between the situation in which US IR finds itself, and neopositivism as a methodological stance. For two reasons: neopositivism appears to offer a firm demarcation criterion for the boundaries of science (“falsifiability”; leave aside for the moment that it doesn’t actually work philosophically, it works pretty well rhetorically because it figures prominently in the self-narratives of many self-identified “scientists” especially when they argue against religion in public settings); and neopositivism holds out the promise of a general notion of truth that can be used to discipline policy makers (leave aside for the moment that fact that this doesn’t work, that policymakers generally take from social scientists only those findings that support their already-existing goals).

As for the other implication of liberalism, actor-centric explanations seek to relate social outcomes of any sort to the motives and interests of individual actors, and regard any explanation as incomplete until it has specified the various internal commitments that compel individuals to act in certain ways rather than others. Sometimes we call these “microfoundations,” and it makes absolutely no difference whether we are talking about calculations of expected utility, ideas about appropriateness or moral rectitude, or emotional attachments to one or another option. In all of these cases, and more like them, the important causal factors inhabit the subjective space within actors, and more or less compel their choices and decisions. Whether those factors are interests or beliefs or desires or whatever does not effect the form of the explanation one bit, since in all cases it remains an explanation of external behavior by means of an internal state of mind.

One might object that states don’t have minds, so that state-centric mainstream US IR can’t be actor-reductionist in this sense. But the objection has no value, because regardless of the ontological issue of whether states do or do not have minds, the dominant theoretical frameworks with which US IR scholars seek to explain state behavior (and thus “international relations,” which in an actor-centric reductionist approach is nothing but a bunch of states and their behavior) treat states as if they were big people, and routinely refer to the state’s interests, beliefs, and desires. The form of explanation remains firmly actor-centric and reductionist, inasmuch as an explanation that does not specify the motives and interests of the relevant states is routinely taken to be incomplete.

Another way to say this is that mainstream US IR, like mainstream US Political Science, is largely if not quite exclusively about specifying actor interests and motives, by way of explaining the choices that individuals make — choices that result in particular social arrangements and outcomes. It is not that there are not structures and interactions and processes in US IR theory; it is rather than all such factors have to be related to individual states of mind in order to explain anything. Norms work by penetrating the heads of relevant decision-makers; the threat of force works by affecting the decision-calculus of the target of the influence attempt; and rhetoric works by altering the preferences or values of those at whom it is aimed. The relevant action takes place inside the individual, which is precisely what a liberal view of society and social action would suggest: autonomous individuals are the fundamental reality, and if other things are taken to exist (not all liberals are Thatcherites or libertarians; liberalism in the sense I am using it here is not a fundamental ontology, but a value-laden ordering of a class of ontologies, some of which contain things like social structures and some of which do not) then they have to be related to individuals in order to have any role to play in a valid explanation.

I’m not going to tell the old, old story of the change between Wendt 1987 and Wendt 1992 [these articles are behind paywalls at JSTOR so I am not going to link to them, and besides, if you have gotten to this point in the post then you have read these articles already] in terms of the pre-social ontology of the state, except to say that I do not believe that this transformation of constructivism is Wendt’s fault, but the fault of what we might call the structural selectivity (borrowing a term, but not necessarily the whole analytical package, from Bob Jessop’s state theory) of mainstream Anglophone IR: actor-centric theory literally makes more sense to irrational Lockeians and their intellectual progeny, so that’s the version that catches on. (There’s a parallel story here about realism, which declined from tragic realpolitik to “material factors matter.” but that’s material for another essay.) And subsequently we have Keohane and Goldstein 1993, “ideas matter,” various statistical studies of norms and ideas, etc. The only way for US IR to have been different would have been for it not to be a subfield of US Political Science. And even then I am skeptical, since I can more easily envision a free-standing US IR adopting neopositivism and actor-centrism (just as Political Science did) in order to justify itself to the wider public, then I can imagine an alternate US IR that went in a completely different direction.

But there is cause for cautious optimism, as long as IR graduate students can avoid the kind of hyperprofessionalization that Dan points to and remain focused on the breadth of IR beyond the “top” US academic institutions. For one thing, since we are talking about domination and not hegemony, there is both active resistance and strategic accommodation on the part of the subordinate. The position of mainstream US IR might be thoroughly actor-centric and neopositivist, but it is not (or at least not yet!) the case that every US IR scholar is similarly inclined. (It is possible that in the future the hiring market will be so thoroughly overrun by neopositivist actor-centrists that no one else will be able to get a job at all; that hasn’t happened yet, and despite the fact that many of the “top” US IR programs are pretty thoroughly dominated by this kind of IR, the overall market is still, I think, big enough for other entrants. And at some level I am still convinced that a good story goes further than the most sophisticated models and methods, so non-neopositivists interested in structures and processes still have a fighting chance, at least in some places.) The problem is, as it has always been, that the vast majority of academic IR scholars in the US work in Political Science departments, and those departments tend to be dominated not by the IR faculty, but by other subfields of Political Science which are much less methodologically and theoretically diverse (cough cough American Politics). But as long as departments need people to teach IR (in this respect, the invention of interdisciplinary undergraduate majors in things like Global Studies is a very welcome development), and as long as such people have publication outlets that are open to their kind of work, there is a fighting chance for an alternative to neopositivism and actor-centrism.

And this in turn points to what I would say is the most important change in the IR scholarly landscape in the past two decades or so: the consolidation of a vibrant English-language IR journal space that is not US-dominated. It is not that mainstream US-style IR doesn’t show up there, it that the overall space is not so heavily dominated by neopositivism and actor-centrism. This is an important point, so let me make it explicitly again: my problem is not with actor-centrism or neopositivism, but with the way that mainstream US IR equates those two commitments with social-scientific IR per se. I have argued that this is because US IR lives within and as a subfield of US Political Science, and both of these live within a liberal society where there is very little space to question the core values of individual autonomy, equality, and reason expressed through science; criticizing neopositivism and actor-centrism in such a context looks like an undermining of the basic rationale for the whole enterprise, which helps to explain why frontal assaults are met with such caustic and dismissive criticism (and the ever-popular misinterpretation-through-reinterpretation: “you can’t possibly have meant X, so I am going to treat you as having meant Y”). It is therefore nigh upon impossible for mainstream US IR to be as pluralist and ecumenical as global IR can potentially be, because the space for intellectual engagement is so narrow: we can argue about variables and hypotheses and specifications of actor motivations, but little else.

I think that the task of building and defending a pluralist space in IR would be immensely strengthened if we stopped having to deal with US Political Science, because that would help make US IR one voice among others in a much more global intellectual space. Global IR has already built some of the scholarly capacity in terms of journals and book publishers that it would need to be genuinely autonomous, and it seems to be the case that alternate centers of graduate training (i.e., not exclusively US institutions) are playing a more significant role in forming IR scholars worldwide. IR in many parts of the world does not have to deal with the legacy of US Political Science, which increases its capacity to foster a diverse scholarly dialogue. We don’t have a good and clear picture of what global IR looks like, exactly, but I hope to shortly launch a mapping project that will assemble a global directory of IR scholars and their career trajectories, and that will hopefully give us a better sense of things.

I am not at all optimistic about the discipline of US Political Science. Indeed, I think it is largely a lost cause, if one is interested in vibrant pluralism and an ecumenical approach to knowledge-production. That said, things emanating from US Political Science still have a disproportionate impact in US IR and hence in global IR, so it is incumbent on those of us interested in preserving pluralism to keep working to broaden those messages as much as possible — not to change US Political Science, which I think largely impossible, but to keep open the space for global IR, including those parts of global IR that live and work in the United States. Part of that is focusing on the right things; the culprit is not and never has been “statistics” or “quant” or “rationalism,” but neopositivism and actor-centrism. But an even larger part of it is building the practices and institutions that can sustain an IR beyond US Political Science: global studies programs, free-standing IR departments, interdisciplinary journals and book series, and conversations across theories and methodologies about world politics broadly understood.

* at the panel Nick Onuf wisely pointed out to me that “irrational Lockeanism,” although dominant in the US, was perpetually locked in combat with a much weaker strain of (neo)classical republicanism of the sort that manifests as communitarianism etc. — and a lot of the bitterness of dissident social science in the US might be attributed to the ressentiment of frustrated republicans. It’s a good and intriguing point, and a fuller genealogy of US IR probably should take that into account.


Professionalization and the Poverty of IR Theory

[I wrote the bulk of this post very late at night while suffering a bout of insomnia. In the end, I ran out of energy and called it quits. Thus, I’ve edited the post for the purpose of clarity and style. Major content updates are in blue text (bad idea, now abandoned].

[2nd Update: I called this post the poverty of IR Theory not the poverty of IR. There’s a difference.]

PM’s post on getting into political-science PhD programs continues to provoke spirited debate. Of particular note is reaction to his claims (echoing Dan Drezner) about the importance of mathematical and statistical skills. As “Evanr” writes:

It sounds like you think these people emerge ‘ex nihilo’ as scholars at the top of the field. At one point and time they were ‘new graduate’ students too, and were very much made the way they are by virtue of their training. I don’t think Wendt would have produced the scholarship he did without the non-mathematical influence of Raymond Duvall [nb: Bud started out his career doing statistical work; Alex was also trained by David Sylvan, whose work extend to agent-based modeling]. Is it not worthwhile to look at the training of top scholars to see how we should shape current students? 

There may be a vast consensus – I’m not sure if there is – that specific forms of training are indispensable to graduate students, but this consensus may be wrong. It sounds like your recommendations are more about reproducing the orthodoxies of the field to make oneself a marketable candidate than they are to intended to produce thoughtful, innovative scholarship. In the short term this may give you an edge in entering the field, but it may also make for lackluster career advancement. With the exception of certain ‘citation cartels’, thinking like everyone else is not a great way to get published.

Having spent far too many years on my Department’s admissions committee–which I currently chair–I have to agree with part of PM’s response: it is simply now a fact of life that prior mathematical and statistical trainings improves one’s chances of getting into most of the first- and second-tier IR programs in the United States. But that, as PM also notes, begs the “should it be this way?” question.

My sense is that over-professionalization of graduate students is an enormous threat to the vibrancy and innovativeness of International Relations (IR). I am far from alone in this assessment. But I think the structural pressures for over-professionalization are awfully powerful; in conjunction with the triumph of behavioralism (or what PTJ reconstructs as neo-positivism), this means that “theory testing” via large-n regression analysis will only grow in dominance over time. I’d also caution some of my smug European and Canadian friends that the writing is on the wall for them as well… albeit currently in very small print.

I should be very clear about the argument I develop below. I am not claiming that neopositivist work is “bad” or making substantive claims about the merits of statistical work. I do believe that general-linear-reality (GLR) approaches — both qualitative and quantitative — are overused at the expense of non-GLR frameworks–again, both qualitative and quantitative. I am also concerned with the general devaluation of singular-causal analysis.

Indeed, one of my “problems” in IR is that I am probably too catholic for my own good, and thus don’t have a home in any particular camp. My views are heavily inflected by my time with high-school and college debate, which led me to a quasi-perspectivist view of theoretical explanation: different kinds of work involve different wagers about what “counts” as instruments, knowledge, and results. Different kinds of work can and should be engaged in a debate about how these wagers, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also evaluate work on its own terms. Thus, I get excited about a wide — probably too wide — variety of scholarship.*

What I am claiming is this: that the conjunction of over-professionalization, GLR-style statistical work, and environmental factors is diminishing the overall quality of theorization, circumscribing the audience for good theoretical work, and otherwise working in the direction of impoverishing IR theory. As is typical of me, I advance this claim in a way designed to be provocative.

1. Darwinian Pressure

We currently produce more PhDs than there are available jobs in IR. We produce far more PhDs than exist slots at the better-paying, research-oriented, well-located universities and liberal arts colleges in the United States. Given this fact of life, consider the following two strategies:

  1. Challenge your professors; adopt non-standard research designs; generally make trouble. 
  2. Focus on finding out the template for getting the best job; affirm your professors; adopt safe research designs.

The first strategy can work out; it sometimes works quite well. But it more often fails spectacularly. Given some of the trends in the field (reinforced themselves by over-professionalization — we face a series of feedback loops here), the first strategy is much riskier than it was fifteen years ago. PhD students may be a variety of dysfunctional things, but stupid generally isn’t one of them. It isn’t much of a surprise, then, that an ever-growing number of them choose the second pathway.

2. Large-N Behavioralism Triumphant

Consider, for a moment, the number of critical, post-structuralist, feminist, or even mainstream-constructivist scholars who hold tenure at A-list and near A-list IR programs in the United States. How many of these programs have more than one tenured professor doing these kinds of work? Still thinking, I bet.

How many of them have multiple tenure-track professors working in this idiom? I can think of a few, including Cornell, George Washington, Ohio State, and Minnesota. But that’s not a lot.

How many have multiple tenure-track professors doing quantitative work, particularly in open-economy IPE (PDF) and JCR-style international security? There’s no point in enumerating them, as virtually every program fits this description.

How many exclusively qualitative scholars–critical, neopositive, or whatever–have gotten jobs at A-list and near A-list schools in the last five years? Not many.

Now recall my stipulation that most PhD students in IR aren’t stupid; most figure out pretty quickly that failure to develop strong quant-fu immediately (1) precludes one from getting a significant number of jobs but (2) closes the door on very few job opportunities. After all, very few members of search committees will say “well, that applicant’s dissertation involves a multivariate regression, I think multivariate regressions aren’t proper social science, so I’m going to block him.” But, I’m sad to say, many members of search committees will refuse to seriously entertain hiring someone who doesn’t use lots of numbers–unless some sort of logroll is underway.

Now add the fact of exponentially increasing computing power. Combine that with (1) nifty statistics packages that do a lot of the work for you; (2) data sets that, although often junk, are widely accepted as “what everyone uses”; and (3) the “free pass” we too often give to using inappropriate-but-currently-sexy statistical techniques. What we’ve got is a recipe for monoculture and for the wrong kind of innovation in statistical methods, i.e., innovation driven by latest-greatest fever rather than thinking through how particular approaches might either shed new, and important, light on old problems or open up new problem areas.

That’s not to say that you can’t “pick wrong” on the quantification front. Some people think statistical inference via sampling techniques is worthless and that only experiments tell us anything interesting. Others think experiments never say anything worthwhile about ongoing political processes. And game-theorists, who do use math, just aren’t getting the kind of traction that proponents of the approach thought they would in the 1990s.

I’m not going to bash large-N or other quantitative studies. Like many Ducks, I don’t find the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research particularly helpful. But I will claim that the triumph of general linear reality (GLR) models in the form of multivariate regression has reinforced small-c conservative tendencies within the field in a variety of ways.

Many quantitative GLR acolytes are convinced — or, at least, publicly express conviction — that they are on the correct side of the demarcation problem, i.e., that. they. are. doing, S-c-i-e-n-c-e. Normal science. Not that stupid “paradigms” wars that wasted our time in the 1980s and 1990s, and certainly not journalism, political theory, non-falsifiable parable telling, or any of that other stuff that is most. definitely. not. Science. And is therefore not simply a waste of our time, but also a shot fired directly at the heart of progress. As in: trying-to-drag-us-back-to-the-dark-ages evil.

My rhetoric may be over the top, but I am not joking. Many perfectly nice, very interesting, extremely smart, and otherwise generous people really do believe that, in blocking the advancement of “alternative” approaches, they are fighting the good fight.** In this paradigm, innovation takes the form of technical improvements; competent work on topics that some percentage of peer reviewers believe to be interesting should be published; and, to be frank, a certain scholasticism winds up prevailing.

Would this be different if another “movement” currently enjoyed an advantage? Probably not. But I do think there’s something — as PTJ has written about — at work among those self-consciously committed to “Science” (and before this was about quantitative methods is was about quasi-statistical qualitative, which should put to rest the notion that we’re talking about numbers) that makes monoculture more likely. I’d feel less worried about this if I saw more persuasive evidence of cumulative-knowledge building in the field — rather than “truths” that are established and upheld exclusively by sociological processes — and if scholars doing even non-standard GLR work had an easier time of it.

3. The De-intellectualization of Graduate School

So what happens when students who enter graduate school:

  • With most of the methods training they will need;
  • Have strong incentives to adopt the “template” strategy for getting a job;
  • Confront a publishing and hiring environment in which methodological deviance is a liability;
  • Receive instruction from at least some instructors who are convinced that there’s a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do social science; and
  • Train in Departments under intense pressure from Graduate School administrators to reduce the time-to-completion of the PhD? 

Answer: an increasing risk of getting an IR degree as a time of intellectual closure; a perfectly rational aversion to debates that require questioning basic assumptions. In short, a recipe for impoverished theorization.

4. Damnit, Don’t We Know Better?

The good news — as many angry graduate students who post on Political Science Job Rumors fail to understand – is that-most of the “better jobs” escape scholars who, no matter how many publications they have, aren’t producing solid middle-range theory. If your work consists of minor tweaks to existing democratic-peace models or throwing variables into a blender and reporting results, then, well, don’t assume that there’s some sort of conspiracy at work when an apparently under-published ABD gets the position that you think you deserve.*** The bad news is that you are increasingly more likely to get hired at a significant subset of institutions than creative scholars who don’t deploy multivariate regression… even if doing so would have been wildly inappropriate given available data and/or the nature of their puzzle.

A number of dynamics work here, but the most distressing involves key dimensions of organized hypocrisy in the field. In particular:

  • We all know that peer reviewing is stochastic–governed by, for example, a surfeit of mediocre reviewers, their transient mental states (‘may your reviewers never read your manuscript right before lunch’), and overwhelmed editors. But we still treat the successful navigation of the slings and arrows of a few prestigious journals as the leading indicator of scholarly quality. Because, after all, why use your own brain when you can farm out your judgment to two or three anonymous reviewers?
  • We all know that quality is not the same as quantity, yet we still wind up counting the number of journals articles as an indicator of past and future scholarly merit.
  • We all know that it is nearly impossible to make an innovative argument and provide empirical support for it, yet we continuously shrink the length of journal articles, demand that the latter accompany the former, and discount “pure theory” articles — thus making it even more difficult to publish innovative arguments. 
  • We all know that the peer-review process is already biased against controversial claims, yet more and more journals default to single-reviewer veto–a decision that makes it even harder to publish innovative work, let alone innovative theory.

These dynamics do, of course, sometimes let innovative arguments through. But it too often distorts them into conformist shadows of their former selves. Note again that these tendency reinforce orthodoxy — whatever that orthodoxy is at the moment.

    5. Conclusion

    I’ve completely lost track of where I began, what the point was, and where I intended to go. But this is a blog, and I have tenure, so I can yell at the kids to get off my lawn… and otherwise rant the rant of the aging curmudgeon. And, just in case you aren’t clear about this: I am overstating the case in order to push discussion along. Get that?

    And, if you didn’t get the moral of this story: I question the judgment of anyone who gets a PhD without developing statistical skills and being able to provide some evidence to committees that he or she has those skills. It. Just. Isn’t. Worth. It.

    Does that make me part of the problem? Maybe. But I think one can hardly look at my record and come to that conclusion.

    Manual trackbacks: James Joyner, Steve Saideman, Erik Voeten.

    *I do have a pet peeve, however: scholarship that combines multivariate regression with selections from a small menu of soft-rationalist mechanisms… when we are expected to accept the mechanism(s) simply because of widespread invocation in the field. See the overuse of audience-cost mechanisms in settings where the heroic assumptions required for them are simply not credible (get it?).
    **The amount of emotional energy invested on all sides of these disputes is, to be frank, absolutely shocking and appalling.
    ***But, let’s face it, you are correct. Clique dynamics matter a great deal in getting a first job; and given the massively uneven distribution of resources among US colleges and universities, that first job may very well have long-term downstream effects. Of course, we tend to confuse a field in which scholars are frequently born on second base and then advanced to third by a walk with “strict meritocracy,” but that’s another matter. That being said, almost no one actually cares about your “proof” that we’ve gotten the coefficient on the interaction term between trade and democracy slightly off — even if it did land in a “top” journal because, well, see my point number four.


    China & Snyder’s “Myths of Empire” (2): Does China fit the Model?

    Here is part one, where I argued that China reasonably fits the prerequisites for Jack Snyder’s theory from Myths of Empire. Here is an application of it to China to see how it works:
    2. Contra Snyder, China’s modernization is being led by the state and the party, not as much by the military. That’s true. But clearly the PLA does have something of that ‘state within a state’ feel of Germany and Japan’s military. The PLA’s budget has exploded over the last two decades, and like other second world militaries (Egypt, Pakistan), the PLA has lots of business interests (including casinos I’ve even heard) that suffer little state oversight.

    3. There is pretty clear oligopolization of the economy. And if anything, it is getting worse recently with the return of SOEs in China (still 80% of the economy). Back in the 90s, everyone seemed to expect these would die out, but they are hanging on and have made a comeback recently. And clearly the government has its hands on the commanding heights (both old, like heavy manufacture, and new, the banking industry). However, Snyder’s liberal counter-coalition – cosmopolitan exporters interested in good ties with foreigners and workers interested in welfare over warfare – does have clear push-back in China. For all the corruption and rent-seeking coming out the China’s growth, the export lobby has clearly played a restraining role against the PLA and ideologues of CCP on foreign policy.

    4. Also contra Snyder, China is not lead by an imperial coalition as openly as Germany or Japan was. As usual in such states, the military plays a big role, and lots of people think the PLA is on the rise, given China’s unexpected belligerence in the last few years. I agree. But the CCP still plays a huge role; I still think it is the coalition broker, even if it slipping post-Deng and relative to the PLA. I don’t think anyone would see China today as ‘cartelized’ as the USSR in the late 70s/early 80s, or as Germany in the decade before WWI. China’s exporters especially have a big voice, as increasingly does the banking industry, if only because of all those dollars (reserves and T-bills) whose value will evaporate if there’s a real war. Following Snyder though, China is neither an democracy, nor a unitary executive. Its politics is dominated by big, often rent-seeking, interest groups, all of them in bed with the government, and with growing influence for the military. The question is whether Snyder’s military-heavy industry coalition will clearly emerge from this tangle and push foreign policy in a more aggressive direction.

    5. There has been pretty serious ideologically nationalist grooming of the population. (On the patriotic education campaign try this and this.) The old Maoist CCP didn’t stress Confucius or Chinese history that much (that was feudalism), nor the newly ‘found’ 100 years of humiliation (there, but not central to the ideology). Also, the incessant Japanophobia, with the special attention to the Nanking massacre, is new (however justified – the Japanese experimented with chemical weapons on the Chinese). If you go to Tiananmen Square now, it’s all nationalism not Mao. There’s huge (the biggest I’ve ever seen) TV monitor on-site running a continuous loop of heroic imagery of China, including what has to be the biggest flag waving heroically in the sunshine over windswept mountains that the world has ever seen. If you didn’t know China was the most awesomest place ever that got unfairly stomped on by Japan and the West, a visit to Tiananmen will cure you of your American foolishness.

    The question is how much of this is directed internally, to prevent ‘splittism’ (my favorite Chinese neologism), and how much is actually indoctrinating the Chinese population into Snyder’s outward-oriented imperialism. But the former may bleed into the later; clearly, the CCP is playing with fire in teaching young Chinese in this way. In 2005, when Chinese students attacked the Japanese embassy, a lot of people thought the government let it go on for a few days, because the students were expressing their new patriotism. There was similar thinking regarding the Chinese flaps with Japan in the last few years over the coast guard ramming and Diaoyu/Senkaku. This is Snyder’s ‘blowback’ – an ideology rolled out to defend the current ruling coalition (post-Tiananmen Square crackdown, post-communist nationalism as justification of continued CCP rule after the Cold War) becomes a real force in politics in the next generation, because they actually believe this stuff.

    6. China is being semi-encircled as Snyder would suggest. Its behavior in the last few years scared everybody. Certainly the Chinese students I have taught are convinced that China is being encircled and that the US is probably behind it. Like Germany and Japan, China has few allies; it impresses, but doesn’t persuade. Its also probably true that a break-out war would badly isolate China, generate an enormous counter-coalition (including likely even Russia and India), and would result in a major defeat that would entrain independence for its periphery, most obviously Tibet.

    In sum, it seems to me the fit with Snyder is mixed at best:

    a. Chronologically and ideologically, China should be a late, late developer, but it is better classified as a late developer. I wonder how Snyder could fit that in?

    b. As late developer, it’s not really generating a powerful imperial coalition at the
     top as Snyder says it should. There is some cartelization, yes. SOEs are rent-seekers closely connected to the state, they dominate heavy industry, and they are protectionist-mercantilist. And the PLA is growing in importance and independence (mostly because the party is declining as a broker). But the party and exporters especially add diversity to that top coalition, and I am not sure Snyder can explain that in context of late development politics.

    c. There is a virulent nationalist ideology being consciously and instrumentally distributed by elites for legitimizing reasons. The patriotic education campaign almost perfectly fits Snyder in both content (nationalist hysteria and foreign enemies) and purpose (buttressing the dominant coalition against domestic liberal opponents and an expansion of the franchise). Super prediction there. But the question is whether that nationalism is directed inward to buttress the CCP leadership role, or outward as the collection of strategic myths about expansion that Snyder (borrowing from van Evera) lists: offensive détente, enemies as paper tigers, cumulatively paying conquest, bandwagoning, etc. I am not a huge expert in the campaign, but it seems more worried about Chinese internal issues (development, splittism, do what the party tells you to do), than about offensive imperial myths and the value of expansion.

    d. So my sense is that Snyder’s model predicts a nasty imperialist oligarchy atop China’s cartelized politics telling its citizens that China must expand against its growing list of enemies keeping it from its place in the sun. This should eventuate in a break out-war against a coalition including the US, Japan, SK, Australia, and maybe India and Russia. But I don’t really see a full-throated imperial coalition at the top of China now (I guess Snyder could argue that it is coming soon and that signs suggest that emergence), nor am I sure that the myths the CCP is distributing are offensive imperialist, so much as internal nationalist (although Snyder might argue that the later eventually leads to the former).

    Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


    China & Snyder’s “Myths of Empire” (1): Theory

    So I am re-reading Snyder’s Myths of Empire for an  R&R. (Btw, not that this is bad book, but is anyone’s reading list in life now primarily driven by anonymous reviewers and the need to get in print for promotion? ) .

    The book is theoretically complex (almost too many moving parts to my mind), and the cases are an exciting read. But when it was big in the 90s (when I first read it), no one really thought about China as fitting the argument. But today, it strikes me that China would be an interesting prediction case for the book. Certainly China looks a lot like the kind of expansionist state Snyder describes – rapid late developer, nationalist-militarist elites suspicious that the extant international system is keeping them down, growing factionalization, nationalist mass ideology, etc.

    In my grad school classes, one of the big criticisms was that the theory is not very generalizable. By Synder’s own admission in the book, it can’t explain pre-industrial empire (a pretty huge scope condition to my mind); he also has only one non-western case in the book (Japan – the others are Germany, GB, US, and USSR). But China fits a lot of the basics for the applicability of Snyder’s theory – it’s industrial, a great power, growing fast, faces possible encirclement, etc. – so here is a nice example of both theory extension – trying on a new case that ‘should’ fit – and even better, prediction. Prediction is the gold standard of social science, so what would Snyder’s Myths say about China’s future behavior? Can we test the book’s argument against China over the next decade or two?

    1. Synder’s Theory (it’s really complicated, so tell me if I am wrong)

    Here is the causal chain in the book as best I get it: late modernization/development is state-led and almost always focuses on Lenin’s ‘commanding heights’ industries – coal, steel, oil, heavy manufacture. (Although Snyder doesn’t actually say so, I think both state direction and the focus on heavy industry characterize the late developer, because it needs to emulate quickly under anarchy to avoid military domination by other powers; postwar SK followed this too, btw). Borrowing from Huntington’s military modernizers, only the military usually has the focus and coherence to force this sort of rapid, painful development down the throat of the population. So you get the military and heavy industry collaborating in top-down modernization.

    Such military/state-led heavy modernization generates huge conglomerates (zaibatsu, chaebol, Kartell). Because of their sheer size, as well as import for national security, these kereitsu-ized sectors inevitably get close to the state and corrupt its politics with their own selfish rent-seeking behavior. Their preferred protections and assistance often conflict with Snyder’s more liberal-minded ‘labor-export’ coalition. The big industrialists in bed with the state want mercantilism and big-steel military spending. The outcome is a sort of authoritarian corporatism that reminded me of Cumings’ bureaucratic authoritarian industrializing regime. Snyder’s cases for this model are Germany and Japan.

    Now it’s true that ‘late, late’ developers (Snyder’s case is the USSR) also pursue state-led heavy manufacture strategies of development, but those states have a ‘unitary executive’ (i.e., a dictator or autonomous state oligarchy) capable of disciplining the militaristic factionalization of the late developers. I think the idea is that very late developers are so far behind, they need a Stalinesque tyrant to whip the masses through history as fast as possible; so development is no longer just state-led, it is the state (but Snyder doesn’t really go into this). And early developers (Snyder’s cases are the US and GB), who are not reacting to anyone else’s previous development, see modernization come much more organically and slowly, resulting in fewer state-incentivized mega-conglomerates. Early developers therefore get a democratic politics more reflective of the general will and less prone to interest group capture by huge corporations, because there are fewer of those corporations and they don’t dominate the commanding heights they way the Kartell do.

    So late development produces a politics that is neither democratic (early developers) nor unitary dictatorial (late, late developers), but somewhere in between – with enough democracy to make interest-group politics possible, but not enough to drown them in a huge pool of interest groups broadly reflective of the general will. Snyder calls this interest-group capture argument ‘cartelization,’ by which I understand a highly concentrated, heavy industry interest group pluralism with so few meaningful groups, it’s probably better to call it oligarchy than pluralism. And these oligarchs of authoritarian corporatism are concentrated in sectors most amenable to ‘myths of empire’ – heavy industry and the military.

    But this is not enough. These militaristic interest groups realize that the public doesn’t really want to follow them into the risks of expansion, so they roll out an ideology of international persecution, encirclement by others, lack of a place in the sun, etc. None of them really want a war, but their belligerent preferences all added together (logrolling) produce a more virulent xenophobic ideology than anyone had wanted/expected. This talk may be instrumental at first – to justify the continued dominance of politics by the military-heavy industry cartel – but say it long enough, and people will start to believe it. Slowly the elite gets entrapped by its own rhetoric (blowback).

    In the end, you get a belligerent militaristic coalition at the top leading a propagandized, nationalistic population below with ever more room for extremists baying for reckless foreign policy. Other countries hear this stuff, and start to freak out and line up against you. Pretty soon all the myths about how the world is keeping you down and encircling you start to look real, even though you had provoked this counter-coalition, and a war to break the ring of steel becomes increasingly likely.

    So causal arrow goes: late-development –>; military-led modernization –> heavy industry oligopolization of the economy –> military –> heavy industry cartelized coalition leading the state –> ideological propagandization of the public into extreme nationalism –> spiraling self-inflicted international crises leading to encirclement –>; breakout war to crack the ring –> crushing defeat by a huge counter-coalition. Wow. That’s a lot of steps, hence my earlier point about too many moving parts. But the parallels with Chinese case are enough for an extended validity test.

    2. Applying Snyder to China

    1. Even though China might look like a late, late developer under a Maoist unitary executive, it isn’t. Mao was not a Stalin-style figure forcing modernization on a recalcitrant population. His economics were far too erratic and confused for that, and sometimes, as in the Cultural Revolution, Mao seemed to want to prevent modernization and perpetuate the chaos of a ‘permanent revolution.’ Instead, its Deng who really ignited Chinese modernization, and he never ruled as the late, late unitary tyrant Snyder foresees disciplining the inevitable interest groups to arise from industrial growth. Instead Deng worked with them as a late developer would, as a coalition broker, and, as Snyder notes with post-Bismarckian Germany, Deng’s successors have had ever more trouble brokering/controlling the factionalization of the center. So I think it is better to call China a late developer in Snyder’s scheme, even if chronologically that’s awkward.

    Part 2 will come in four days.

    Cross-post on Asian Security Blog.


    Retrenchment & Liberal Internationalism don’t really Fit Together (1)

    Taking Brian Rathbun’s advice, I was reading chapter 4 of Perception and Misperception, when it struck me that Jervis’ argument about values incongruity could be applied to the two most popular normative positions in IR today – that western power and international law can help reduce violence and nastiness in the world (R2P), and that a semi-imperial US is killing far too many people against a fairly minor threat and should retrench somewhat. But increasingly I think that retrenchment, which is traditionally associated with the left in IR (US ‘imperialism’), has become a realist position.
    1. IR isn’t that conservative anymore

    Both of these positions are arguably left-of-center, which is where I feel like our field is drifting. During the Cold War, IR was fairly conservative. At least US IR (not Europe though) broadly supported the Vietnam War, or at least we understood the theory of escalated punishment and falling dominoes that lay behind it. We knew what MAD, defection spirals, extended deterrence, etc. were, so we said freaky stuff like nuclear weapons are good and first strikes make sense. We thought détente was unlikely to work, because bipolarity was so stark and seemingly zero-sum. We broadly accepted that the USSR was a leninist-revisionist threat. (Yes there was post-Vietnam revisionism, but that was more a diplomatic history than IR phenomenon.) As a result realism was everywhere, and Waltz was king of the 80s along with Michael Jackson.

    But then the USSR disappeared, and without a war, for no obvious IR reason. Realism couldn’t prove to the rest of the field’s satisfaction that it could explain what just happened (a blow from which I think realism has never really recovered), and there were no equivalent other threats to justify the enormous, continuing US military posture through the 90s. Nuclear weapons faded, so we in IR thankfully stopped talking as if we were Dr. Strangelove. Increasingly the post-Cold War US talked like an empire indispensible nation, which made us kind of nervous, although we did try to argue the US was a ‘benign hegemon.’

    So we tried to direct that power towards humanitarian do-goodery like Bosnia and Kosovo, but then came 9/11 and the neocons. Liberal internationalism seemed to get hijacked out of nowhere by neocons who re-wrote US liberalism as a ‘national greatness’ agenda in which freedom and American nationalism elided into what really did start to look like empire. On top of that, the US couldn’t afford it all anyway. As MacDonald and Parent note, most of us in IR now think the US is in relative decline and retrenchment is pretty much inevitable.

    So IR is drifting left – the USSR and nuclear theory are over, realism isn’t taught as the dominant paradigm anymore, our belief in liberalism does not make us American nationalist neocons (Washington is, but not us), and the size of the US defense budget and the globalist ambition of the US foreign policy elite go well beyond the requirements of unipolarity. Even though we study war, we hardly support it as the regular tool of US post-Cold War diplomacy that it has become (we’re too far from real DC power for that temptation). Contrary to what people in the humanities think, I don’t think we’re militarists or all that affectionate of the national security state.

    So by any realist or even liberal definition of IR, the US is now far too activist and killing far too many people. To our credit, just about everyone in IR was uncomfortable with the Iraq War before it started. (Remember that ad in the NYT against the war?) It’s true we didn’t oppose it that much, but at least we didn’t become the cheerleaders for it as happened at the big op-ed pages and DC think-tanks. The national security state clampdown at home makes us fairly uncomfortable (especially as academics strongly committed to free speech), as does the inevitable nativism and militarism stirred up by a decade-plus of war. The US public’s indifference to the huge numbers of brown Muslims we have killed in the last decade is horrifying (‘we don’t do body-counts’), a point lots of Ducks like Vikash have made again and again. US basing is way beyond any reasonable threat assessment to the US homeland. My guess is that most of us not only empirically think retrenchment is coming, but also desperately want it too. We may have shared the neocon intoxication with US power for a few years after 9/11, but my sense is that IR now is really, really nervous about what the GWoT is doing to America. Again, we study war, but we’re not the Kagans.

    Part 2, on why this conflict with our defense of R2P, will come in a few days.

    Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

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