The IR Analogy

Aug 17, 2009

Periodically, scholars of international relations point out that the “domestic analogy” fails to explain IR. As Hidemi Suganami explains:

The term ‘domestic analogy’ refers to the idea that inter-state relations are amenable to the same type of institutional control as the relations of individuals and groups within states.

Because of anarchy, realists like John Mearsheimer explain, state behavior cannot be managed by external institutions attempting to wield executive, legislative or judicial power.

This past week, I’ve been thinking about American domestic politics — particularly in the context of the ongoing debates about health care and climate change legislation — and what might be termed “the IR analogy.” In the U.S. system of government, Senators representating small states have greatly disproportionate power to their states’ population (and wealth). Alec MacGillis explained the problem in the Washington Post on August 9:

The 10 largest states are home to more than half the people in the country, yet have only a fifth of the votes in the Senate. The 21 smallest states together hold fewer people than California’s 36.7 million — which means there are 42 senators who together represent fewer constituents than Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. And under Senate rules, of course, those 42 senators — representing barely more than a tenth of the country’s population — can mount a filibuster.

In IR, states are said to have sovereign equality, but no international institution with similar voting representation has anywhere near the kind of power wielded by U.S. Senators.

Perhaps even more incredibly, within the U.S., substantial tax resources are collected in Washington and then redistributed from the largest and richest states to the smallest and poorest states. MacGillis explained how this process works in practice:

California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey are among the 10 states that get the least back per tax dollar sent to Washington; Alaska, the Dakotas and West Virginia are among those that get the most.

MacGillis may have relied upon The Tax Foundation for data, since this organization regularly compiles this kind of information. The Tax Foundation has found that most tax revenue comes from so-called “blue states,” home to constituents who elect Democratic representatives who are most likely to support progressive taxes, health care reform, and perhaps climate-saving legislation. A disproportionate share of this revenue is directed at poorer “red states,” home to constituents who tend to elect Republican representatives who are the most likely to be anti-tax, opposed to the kind of health care reform proposed by the Obama administration, and relatively unworried about climate change.

As viewed by IR theory, this is a topsy-turvy system. Realist theory certainly couldn’t be used to explain domestic politics if we tried to employ an “IR analogy.” In IR, the richest and most powerful states control the agenda, operate within a political system that benefits their interests, and mostly get what they want.

In the IR analogy, California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois are sort of like the US, Japan, Germany and Australia. Texas would be a state like Russia, sharing some interests of other major powers, but not politically like-minded.

Now, imagine that those rich and powerful nation-states not only shared equal voting power with Bangladesh, Nepal, Haiti, and Liberia in a meaningful international institution, but that they also voluntarily transferred enormous resources to those states. Oh, and they designed the institution so that a minority of states (home to fewer people in all than live in the US) could block any action favored by the coalition of big states.

That’s U.S. domestic politics viewed with the IR analogy.


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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.