International realism and dictatorship

As a result of the events in the Arab world[1], I’ve been thinking some more about “international realism”, which I take to have the following central premises[2]

1. States have durable, long-term interests and their actions in international affairs are driven by the rational pursuit of those interests

2. The use or threat of military power is the pre-eminent way (or at least one of the primary ways) in which states pursue their interests

It struck me in thinking about recent events that this is essentially a theory for a world of autocracies. (Apologies to those for whom this is old news, but this is a blog, after all). In such a world, international realism reduces to the claim that individuals are driven by rational self-interest. While there are problems with this claim (it’s empirically problematic if self-interest is defined tightly, and tautological if it’s defined by “revealed preference”), it seems like a sensible starting point, at least for the kind of individuals who become successful autocrats.

Moreover, the idea that war is a central part of rational policy makes sense for autocrats. Although war is a negative sum game, it seems reasonable, under a wide range of circumstances to assume that the losses are borne primarily by the autocrat’s subjects, while the gains flow to the autocrats. Even a war that ends with the status quo ante can be beneficial to the rulers on both sides by providing a Malthusian check on a population that might otherwise prove restive, providing an excuse for increased taxation and so on. That implies the failure of the standard negative-sum game argument against war, namely, that both sides would be better off calculating the outcome of war, and agreeing to accept it without a fight.

None of this would be problematic to Hobbes, often presented as the founding theorist of international relations. But it presents problems for a world in which, at least in formal terms, most governments are democracies rather than autocracies. The central problems are

1. A central element of the case for democracy is that it allows for the resolution of competing views of the national interest. But that resolution, involving the alternation of political power, undermines the assumption that there is a stable concept of self-interest to be pursued. One party or faction may favor an alliance with country A, another with its hostile neighbour B. Moreoever, groups within different countries (for example, left or right political parties) may see each other as natural political allies against their domestic opponents

2. Both theory and experience suggest that war (even war in which the state is victorious) is nearly always against the interests of the citizens of a country, taken as a whole. Whereas ruling more territory seems obviously good for an autocrat, there is no corresponding gain from being a citizen of a large state rather than a small one. (This doesn’t rule out a need for self-defense against autocracies or irrationally aggressive democracies, but it does suggest a strong interest in promoting peace).

There are a couple of ways in which international realists might respond to this. The first, more or less standard among leftist advocates of realism, and common on the right, is to say that democracy is a sham and that international relations must be understood in terms of conflicts between national ruling classes. The main disagreement between the left and right on this is that the left views this as an undesirable (if unchangeable) state of affairs where is the right is concerned to preclude any disruption of orderly policymaking by the uninformed masses.

The centrist position as I read it is a kind of exceptionalism. While we (the US [3]) can combine domestic democracy with a realist foreign policy (based on some maxim such as “politics stops at the waters edge”) the poorer countries with which foreign policy primarily deals cannot. So, from the US viewpoint, the best option is a friendly, stable dictatorship.

With notably rare exceptions, support for friendly, stable dictatorships has worked well for the US. Among the rare exceptions: Pahlavi in Iran, Saddam in Iraq, Thieu in Vietnam, the Saudi regime (that gave us Al Qaeda). But, as if by the unredeemably opaque operation of some invisible hand, these very exceptions have created new foreign policy problems that have ensured the continued prosperity of the Foreign Policy Community.

fn1, The events in Libya have also started a new round of claims about the persistence or otherwise of US hegemony, clearly a related topic. As Phil Arena says here, it’s essentially a Rorschach test, with everyone seeing what they want to see.

fn2. I’m not too interested in definitional questions about whether this is the right characterization of the views of some particular group of scholars who may claim the label of “realism”. Clearly, the ideas are widely held, and the label “realism” is commonly attached to them.

fn3. In its modern form, international realism seems to be pre-eminently a US idea. For Europe, Japan etc, the foolishness of pursuing national self-interest through military force is a lesson that has been learned the hard way, and mostly (not entirely) absorbed into policy thinking.

41 thoughts on “International realism and dictatorship

  1. I studied IR at uni and it was a waste of time and hecs debt. Our text was kegley and wittkopf which seems to be the standard. At its so-called “theoretical” core is a false dichotomy between “realism” and “idealism” that confuses the positive and the normative, dresses up trivial observations and tautologies as grand insights, contrives artificial “schools of thought” centered around essentially meaningless debates, and basically obfuscates the study of the actually existing world system in a swamp of pretentious psedo-intellectual drivel. I’m not saying there’s nothing there at all, but as a discipline it is great at confusing the map for the terrain

  2. Perhaps McMahon’s heir would be more accurate. Same inability to speak in anything but clichés, same inability to set out any large goals, same inability to address any new ideas, even a similar vocal quirk.

  3. @Gerard

    Gerard :I studied IR at uni and it was a waste of time and hecs debt. Our text was kegley and wittkopf which seems to be the standard. At its so-called “theoretical” core is a false dichotomy between “realism” and “idealism” that confuses the positive and the normative, dresses up trivial observations and tautologies as grand insights, contrives artificial “schools of thought” centered around essentially meaningless debates, and basically obfuscates the study of the actually existing world system in a swamp of pretentious psedo-intellectual drivel. I’m not saying there’s nothing there at all, but as a discipline it is great at confusing the map for the terrain

    I sympathise with your criticism to a certain extent, however, I think you’re expecting too much of IR theory. If your do not have faith in existing theory, how would you personally describe the behaviour of actors within the international system today? How would you make it less confusing?

    The approaches are just simply a raneg of different lenses in which to see things with. I’ve never used that text, nor read it, but have you considered the critical approaches to IR theory? I.e Critical theory?

    Although, Gerard, I think your comment seems to suffer from the exact same problems on which you criticise IR theory. Talk about verbosity!

  4. @Darragh

    Very interesting. I managed to understand exactly what Gerard said without too much effort. Doesn’t appear that you have if you think his critique suffers from exactly the ‘same problems [he] criticise[s] IR theory’ for. Don’t know where you get your verbose from either.

  5. Freelander :@Darragh
    Very interesting. I managed to understand exactly what Gerard said without too much effort. Doesn’t appear that you have if you think his critique suffers from exactly the ‘same problems [he] criticise[s] IR theory’ for. Don’t know where you get your verbose from either.

    Freelander – Oh, I understood perfectly. I’m simply pointing out that the language used by Gerard to criticises IR theory (i.e “obfuscates the study of the actually existing world system in a swamp of pretentious psedo-intellectual drivel”) is arguably itself ‘a swamp of pretentious pseudo-intellectual drivel’.

  6. Darragh :

    Freelander – Oh, I understood perfectly. I’m simply pointing out that the language used by Gerard to criticises IR theory (i.e “obfuscates the study of the actually existing world system in a swamp of pretentious psedo-intellectual drivel”) is arguably itself ‘a swamp of pretentious pseudo-intellectual drivel’.

    But it’s not; so you don’t.

    But in case you have more to say… I will give my response to that now….

    Whatever…

  7. If your do not have faith in existing theory, how would you personally describe the behaviour of actors within the international system today? How would you make it less confusing?

    Thing is, I don’t see much need for “theory” at all. The international system is a system of more-or-less powerful interests all acting to maintain and further their power by various means. That’s trivial but it’s about as general a “theory” as you really need. Beyond that the only really useful thing is to study the system’s history, and that of the specific interests and institutions that compose it. Most of the fancy textbook “debates” that are the focus of IR “theory” are just diversions from this.

  8. gerard :

    Thing is, I don’t see much need for “theory” at all. The international system is a system of more-or-less powerful interests all acting to maintain and further their power by various means. That’s trivial but it’s about as general a “theory” as you really need. Beyond that the only really useful thing is to study the system’s history, and that of the specific interests and institutions that compose it. Most of the fancy textbook “debates” that are the focus of IR “theory” are just diversions from this.

    Hrm, interesting. It sounds almost like what you’re saying ascribes to ‘realism’, substituting powerful ‘interests’ for ‘states’. Though I also gather elements of constructivism – that the actions and interests of actors in IR are determined by social and historical circumstances.

    On reflection, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. However, I see the various theories in IR as more tools rather than discourses that describe every single facet of how actors in the international system interact at all times throughout history. Theory, for me, is useful sometimes and other times, not so.

  9. I don’t know why one trivial observation gets called ‘realism’ and another equally trivial observation gets called ‘constructivism’. I mean, on what planet would actions and interests not depend on circumstances? Can anyone seriously argue that all interests at work in the system are “states”? The IR discipline focuses more on these labels then they do on what’s actually happening in the world.

  10. @gerard

    I think I can see what you mean by “obfuscates the study of the actually existing world system in a swamp of pretentious psedo-intellectual drivel”. The IR expert seems to be providing examples.

    ” Hrm, interesting. It sounds almost like what you’re saying ascribes to ‘realism’, substituting powerful ‘interests’ for ‘states’. Though I also gather elements of constructivism – that the actions and interests of actors in IR are determined by social and historical circumstances.

    On reflection, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. However, I see the various theories in IR as more tools rather than discourses that describe every single facet of how actors in the international system interact at all times throughout history. Theory, for me, is useful sometimes and other times, not so. ”

    Motherhood statements, that superficially, at least, appear to be saying something, but, on more than cursory examination, are found to say nothing at all.

  11. @Freelander
    Yes Freelander we now have a bunch of managers in Government and all they have done under the aforementioned zombie policies is shave down the people who actually do the work (and now they have lost their skill base) or privatise the job so that private managers can manage it, and then all they have to do is manage the private managers.

    The job fails and then the private managers consult their manager lawyers and sue us for contingent liabilities they managed in at the start of the private contract!.

    End result? The job doesnt get done. Taxpayers pay more at every level for all these managers to fail and as a result the budget isnt big enough for an extra bus to Bondi Beach.

  12. *sigh* You’re making it difficult for me.

    @gerard
    I’m saying that there are many other IR points of view that don’t focus on states, that accurately describe the pattern you seem to be talking about – historical circumstances. I’m not saying that I’m a zealous adherent to IR theory nor someone who thinks existing theories describe everything, but simply that these theories can be useful in explaining certain aspects of IR.

    @Freelander
    I note that you seem content to simply criticise yet offer no insight into your own opinion on ‘how IR works’. At least when Gerard replies, he (or she) adds something insightful to the conversation.

  13. @Darragh

    Looks like you have been busy accumulating HECS debt for no discernible benefit. Sorry if you don’t recognize that. My opinion is already above, on the matter of the thread and on the apparent value of IR theory as evidenced by comments in this thread.

    True, I agree my comments in ##36-37 are not particularly insightful. That said, they contain insights that seems to have eluded you for many years.

    If your ‘contribution’ is an example of the value of IR theory then, as I have indicated, I would have to support Gerald’s assessment.

    Nevertheless, I would not be surprised if there were some nuggets, somewhere, amongst the evident dross. Unfortunately, none were on display here.

    But anyway, I probably should have simply provided the optimal comment I had originally intended…

    Whatever…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s