The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Sometimes a little IR theory goes a long way

May 22, 2009

This is just a quick observation for anyone who ever wondered about the value-added of IR theory — “IR theory” being defined in the broad sense of “tools for systematically reflecting on world politics.” The observation consists of four items, and deals with yesterday’s non-debate between Cheney and Obama.

1. theoretical claim

As a rule, not survival but other “national interests” are at stake such as the preservation of outlying bases and possessions, the protection of treaty rights, the restoration of national honor, or the maintenance of economic advantages. While it is a prerequisite of the system that nations attach a high if not the highest value to their survival, the same cannot be said of all of these other national interests. As a matter of fact, the moral dilemmas constantly facing statesmen [sic] and their critics revolve around the question of whether in a given instance the defense or satisfaction of interests other that survival justifies the costs in other values. . . . In every case the interpretation of what constitutes a vital national interest and how much value should be attached to it is a moral question. it cannot be answered by reference to alleged amoral necessities inherent in international politics; it rests on value judgments. Even national survival itself, it should be added, is a morally compelling necessity only as long as people attach supreme value to it.

–Arnold Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration, p. 60.

I note that 1) Wolfers is usually regarded as a realist, not a constructivist; and 2) this book is, sadly, out of print — “sadly” because it’s a more trenchant analysis of world politics than most of the garbage published by top-ranked IR presses and journals these days.

2. words from Cheney:

“The key to any strategy is intelligence and skilled professionals able to get that information in time to use it. In seeking to guard this nation against the threat of catastrophic violence, our administration gave intelligence officers the tools and the lawful authority they needed to gain vital information.

We did not invent that authority. It’s drawn from Article Two of the Constitution, and it was given specificity by Congress after 9/11 in a joint resolution authorizing all necessary and appropriate force to protect the American people.

[. . .]

Our successors in office have their own views on these matters. By presidential decision last month, we saw the selective release of documents relating to enhanced interrogations. This is held up as a bold exercise in open government, honoring the public’s right to know. We’re informed, as well, that there was much agonizing over this decision.

Yet somehow, when the soul-searching was done and the veil was lifted on the policies of the Bush administration, the public was given less than half the truth. The released memos were carefully redacted to leave out references to what our government learned through the methods in question.

Other memos, laying out specific terrorist plots that were averted, apparently were not even considered for release.

For reasons the administration has yet to explain, they believe the public has a right to know the method of the questions, but not the content of the answers.”

3. words from Obama:

“I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values. The documents that we hold in this very hall — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights — these are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity around the world.

[. . . ]

I know that we must never, ever, turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.

I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset — in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.

Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world.

It’s the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they’d receive better treatment from America’s Armed Forces than from their own government.

It’s the reason why America has benefitted from strong alliances that amplified our power, and drawn a sharp, moral contrast with our adversaries.

It’s the reason why we’ve been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism and outlast the iron curtain of communism, and enlist free nations and free peoples everywhere in the common cause and common effort of liberty.

From Europe to the Pacific, we’ve been the nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law. That is who we are. And where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and our institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology.”

4. theoretically-informed observation: the contrast and controversy between Obama and Cheney is not a dispute about whether extraordinary or “enhanced” interrogation techniques work. It is instead a moral debate about what the proper criteria ought to be for making a decision about the use of such techniques, with Cheney invoking the dangerous world of the international as justification for these techniques (which he then claims were also effective) and Obama invoking the constitutive identity of America as a particular or even peculiar kind of country as justification for not using such techniques (which he then suggests are outweighed even in potential benefits by the benefits provided as a result of American’s shining-city-on-the-hill bastion-of-liberty global identity).

What does IR theory — good IR theory — do for us? Like all good social and political theory, it clarifies the issues, explicates the stakes, and helps us better understand what particular controversies are actually about. It does not tell us how to resolve those controversies, but it helps us confront them in a more direct way. And it prevents us from simply accepting anyone’s political framing of an issue; instead, we can step back and consider that framing itself, as we make explicit things that are often only implied or glossed over in the manifest text.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.