Re-Introduction to International Relations

I will be the first to admit that as an undergraduate, I hated studying IR theory. Absolutely hated it. Why on Earth would I care about contradictory, oft proven wrong on a case-by-case basis pieces of mental flotsam that purported to layout cleanly how the world works? For my part, I was always much more interested in “practical” international relations. History and current events were all that matters; that and the form and structure of various nation-states and international organizations, all of this was my bread and butter. Ignoring the “why”, I admit, was stupid, but I cared much, much more about the “what”.

That changed recently. Maybe it’s that I’ve matured as a thinker since taking my Intro to International Relations course with Professor Yael Aranoff over four years ago at MSU. Maybe it’s that the world has become more complicated and I’m realizing that I need to understand the underlying nature of it in order to impact it. Maybe it’s just the proliferation of IR wonks on my Twitter feed reached a tipping point and I’m inundated on a daily with enough articles to keep me reading for several consecutive decades and can watch them debate live on my netbook screen.

No matter what the reasoning, I find myself actually paying attention to the arguments that IR writers are making, and agreeing or disagreeing on various points. I’m finally taking it to heart. Reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s works on the evolving nature of sovereignty has given me a firmer grasp on my own thinking about the way the world does and should work.

For example, take this piece over the weekend in the Boston Globe by Thanassis Cambanis. The basic thesis is as follows:

Instead of a flurry of new thinking at the highest echelons of the foreign policy establishment, the major decisions of the past two administrations have been generated from the same tool kit of foreign policy ideas that have dominated the world for decades. Washington’s strategic debates – between neoconservatives and liberals, between interventionists and realists – are essentially struggles among ideas and strategies held over from the era when nation-states were the only significant actors on the world stage. As ideas, none of them were designed to deal effectively with a world in which states are grappling with powerful entities that operate beyond their control….

As yet, no major new theory has taken root in the most influential policy circles to explain how America should act in this kind of world, in which Wikileaks has made a mockery of the diplomatic pouch and Silicon Valley rivals Washington for cultural influence. But there are at least some signs that people in power are starting to try in earnest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has openly integrated the search for a new paradigm into her policy making. In universities, think tanks, and the government, thinkers trying to grapple with this fluid world structure are finally getting attention in the circles where their ideas could shape policy.

Though it comes on the heels of what’s likely to be an unstoppable deluge of articles and pontification on what lessons we must take away from 9/11, the whole thing is phenomenal. As much as I love and am a student of Great Power politics, his case is well-made that to focus solely on the interaction between states at this juncture in time is to ignore a whole plethora of issues that carry an aggregate weight at times greater than that of the state. Acting in concert, these non-state actors possess the power to affect sweeping changes that the current structure of policy-making just isn’t in a place to handle at this time.

There is no folder or file  buried in the State Department, no matter the efforts of Secretary Clinton, on what to do in the event of, say, a shift in the policy of BP to work in conjunction with the Iranian oil industry, as unlikely as it is. The mechanations of these actors will continue to bedevil policy makers until there is developed a way to intertwine them into policy-planning from the early stages.

The term “smart power”, a combination of Joseph Nye’s conception of hard and soft power, has been bandied about for the past several years as an alternative to the overreliance of the former on the part of the United States, something I wholeheartedly agree with. But the fact of the matter is that as good an idea as it is, it has yet to full take root anywhere but the State Department. The Administration has not set it at the forefront of its presentation of the way the US can and will operate around the world.

The signs all exist of it being implemented in fits and starts, as can be seen in the President’s now annual Nowruz address, wishing Persians a happy new year, with a laser focus on the Persians of Iran. This sort of activity takes little effort on the parts of the US Government, but manages to engender goodwill towards the Great Satan in the hearts and minds of the civilians of Iran. That isn’t to say that all of our conflicts with Iran will be solved by so simple a gesture, but as part of a toolkit that includes economic sanctions on the government of Iran and individuals in power, multilateral actions taken by the US and the United Nations Security Council, and other levers that can be pulled, the chances of successfully influencing events in Iran is far greater than a proxy bombing spree by Israel.

In response to Mr. Cambanis, Dan Drezner has one small critique when it comes to those that were highlighted as new and forward thinkers when it comes to foreign policy:

No offense to Joseph Nye, Michael Doyle, and Steve Walt — these are Great Men of international relations thought.  The notions that Cambanis lists here, however, are not “new” in any sense.  Which leads me to wonder whether Cambanis has defined the problem correctly.  Is it that international relations theory has gone stale… or is it simply that the wrong set of existing theories are in vogue today?

I’m prone to agree that no matter how good the ideas that Mr. Nye puts forth are, the authors themselves are not by any stretch of the imagination new. I most certainly read Nye, Doyle, and Walt as an undergrad, and undergrads will continue to read them for a long time hence. The more important part of the equation isn’t who puts forward the ideas, but whether they can be applicable in today’s world. In that instance, I think that Nye, Doyle, and Walt should continue to attempt to innovate, so long as they are prepared to no longer be the predominant voices in their field.

To directly answer Mr. Drezner’s question, I do believe that international relations theory has gone stale. There’s no two ways about that. When considering the best way to move forward with a new strategy, falling back simply on the broad strokes of “realism” and “liberalism” or rehashes of those concepts is simply impossible.

In my first post, I called myself a constructivist, but that’s merely because nothing else fits. In the search for a Grand Unified Theory of International Relations, nothing even comes close to being able to fully take into measure the complexities of the world today. In the old days, you knew who you were fighting, you were assured that the mistreatment of diplomats was anathema. The sort of relationships that existed during the Cold War between states can no longer be the baseline assumption. In a world where a group composed of no more than several hundred can bring the most powerful country, in terms of economic, military, and cultural strength, to its knees, it’s time to find a new theory.

I’ve mentioned Anne-Marie Slaughter several times, and I will readily admit that I have something of an intellectual crush on her. The ideas she puts forward about new ways of thinking of the relationship between the governed and the governing and the notion of sovereignty through that frame seems novel at times, but truly reflects the compact that the Framers of the Declaration and the Constitution sought to instill. Rather than being a unidirectional monopoly on the use of force, the ties that bind a state and its people should be seen as going two-ways, that the governed agree to follow the rules placed upon it by the state, while the state agrees to take care of those who reside within its borders. To me, that sort of thinking is precisely what is needed in moving forward towards something bigger and greater.

There are intellectual heavy-weights like Ms. Slaughter and Mr. Nye who are considering the new ways that the jigsaw puzzle of states, non-state actors, and individuals can be better aligned, people with a purpose who are attempting to form some sense of order out of the chaos that international relations has and always will be.

In my opinion, that has the be our new goal. Rather than attempting to completely delete the chaos of the world, as the state system has sought since the days of Westphalia, maybe the new way of thinking about the world is instead to determine the ways in which chaos can best be mitigated at times, harnessed and channeled in others.

We live in a time now where information is traded freely and serves as the currency in the world. The value of this currency has been deflating as we become more connected and access becomes easier but while states are left with precisely the same amount of data at a devalued rate, individuals are showered with more than they could have possibly hoped for three decades prior. With this glut of information comes the ability to act more decidedly based upon that knowledge and with that ability to act comes a very real increase in the amount of chaos in the world.

The governments of the world need to understand that the genie is out of the bottle in this instance. The only way to place it back is with massive amounts of force, as you can see in the attempts to suppress the wildfire of revolutions in the Middle East. The amount of force truly required, however, has been deemed unacceptable by the West and its allies, and more importantly by the people whom that force is being used against. The people of Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have managed to maintain the force and volumes of their protests for months despite a dedication to not intervene militarily by the West and hundreds to thousands gunned down by the regimes in those states.

Rather than attempting to quell this spread of information, the world needs to find ways to harness and direct it. As when we first learned as a people how to channel lightning itself into a useful purpose, so to we must discern how to do it with knowledge. Electricity remains dangerous but only to those that do not respect it.

The new conduits to harness this chaos that states build have to take into account one and only one basic fact in this world: information finds a way. As was said in the completely under appreciated film Serenity, you can’t stop the signal. You can do all you can to cut off ties and links that have been forged between individuals, but you will find that increasingly impossible as they become more and more adept at circumventing this. Video from Homs in Syria has spread across the world, graphic and brutal, increasing the isolation of Bashar’s government. Even the Great Firewall of China can’t stop all data from coming and going. Information will find a way.

While states will remain in control of their physical borders so long as they are able to hold them militarily and using their authority to use force, what crosses those borders is much harder to pin down. Unless your country is willing to completely sever ties with all around it, no flow of people or of products as in the case of North Korea, there will be what may seem as a chaotic element present within your borders.

These conduits have to be able to take the energy that comes from this spread of information and focus into ways that can be harnessed for the benefit of all instead of some. A state’s objective is no longer the control of information that’s released but what to do with it once it is dispersed among the masses. The results can be a net positive as is seen with the rise of microloan campaigns transferring capital from the developed to the developing world. Or they can be a net negative as is the case with protests that lead to wholesale slaughter of those in possession of this knowledge and attempt to spread it. The similarity exists in the root cause of both of these paths.

Only through developing conduits of channeling this information can states avoid the trap of falling back solely on hard power, their economic and military strength, to maintain control within their own borders and influence external events. As Wikileaks has shown us, even sensitive information cannot remain secret forever. I have no love for the group but they have made a very solid point when it comes to the ability of the non-state actor to acquire the self-same information that it was thought that only states have the ability to obtain through espionage networks and covert operations.

In creating a new strategic vision, the United States has to find the ability to harness the creative and at times chaotic energies of its people and those of non-state actors within its borders and around the world and form conduits towards them bettering the US’ stance globally. This should involve using what can be seen as an electronic akido to turn the efforts of others to constrain data to their citizens, pushing forward ideas and ideals considered improper, while at the same time promulgating information that enhances others views of the US. Rather than propaganda, this can be seen as the harnessing of forces already at work, such as the State Department insisting at the height of Iranian protests in 2009 that Twitter delay a scheduled maintenance to allow the Green Revolution to continue its coordination.

Now, this can’t be the only tier or the sole component of a US strategy. But to ignore it or leave it as secondary would be a foolish move that would deny the US the ability to have a far greater influence for far less blood and treasure.

So there you have it. My first attempt at the strategic thinking of the next generation. Whether the current great thinkers of the world will agree with me or whether I’ll be consigned to the review my thoughts and form a re-re-introduction to international relations will be seen in the future. But it definitely feels good to take a stab at it.


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