Day: June 17, 2011

Friday Nerd Blogging

1: A mysterious little Father’s Day gift for certain Dads among us. Speculation here.

2: Your GoT satirical post of the week. (H/T Steve.)

3: No, I haven’t read it yet, though this is definitely on my summer beach-book-list. Judging by the critical reviews (Robopocalypse is being compared to World War Z) my immediate sense is that the zombie craze of which Drezner speaks may be coming to its end, and that Glen Weldon’s new novel may be the start of the latest greatest trend in ” post-apocalyptic chronicle of decimated humanity” fiction.

It may be the presence of this beating human heart beneath Robopocalpyse’s cold, genocidal surface that helps explain why Steven Spielberg has optioned, and plans to direct, the film version, due in 2013. The fact that Spielberg did so before Wilson had even finished his first draft, however, suggests that Hollywood sees something it likes in the way the book exploits our anxieties about artificial intelligence — something it finds very, very marketable.

(And not a moment too soon, if you ask me.) Now, back to work on my case study about autonomous warbots…

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Neoconservatism

A Guest Post by Jonathan Caverley in reply to Dan Nexon

The irony of being accused of taking texts in directions their original authors might not have intended by the scholar behind Harry Potter and International Relations is too delicious to pass up. Plus I am sensitive to accusations like Nexon’s (might as well confront that elephant head on).

I am not slighting Professor Nexon’s excellent TNR piece and book. In fact our approaches are quite similar; we both drag a body of writing into a discipline to which the original authors evinced little desire to enter. There are always problems inherent to this, but it can be productive. Nexon used Harry Potter to make cogent observations on globalization, and this justifies a somewhat (ahem) esoteric reading of JK Rowling. Whereas Harry Potter-related injuries are limited to scrapes on the pale, tender skin of the privileged, neoconservative-informed policies have killed a lot of people and cost a lot of money. So considering neoconservatism systematically and from a variety of perspectives seems a useful exercise.

I wrote the article because I did not buy realists’ self-serving lumping together of neoconservatism and liberalism. I argue that neoconservatism’s policy recommendations are largely motivated by the belief that democracies play with a severe handicap in the game of power politics. If that’s true, then neoconservatism cannot be considered antithetical to the self-styled foreign policy wing of realism, which claims “Power can be used only if it can be mobilized. Two variables are particularly important for this: the state’s extractive ability and inspirational capacity” (holla Brian Rathbun). I conclude that “Lack of enthusiasm for democratization is not really a logical proposition for neoclassical realists so much as a taboo left over from their ancestors.”

Nexon does not challenge me on neoclassical realism. He does not challenge my claim that neoconservatism and realism share similar starting assumptions. He does not challenge my interpretation of neoconservatism as a theory of a democratic handicap. He does not challenge my claim that democratic weakness explains neocon enthusiasm for primacy, the revolution in military affairs, bandwagonning logic, and preventive war.

Nexon briefly makes the case for neoconservatism as liberalism, but what truly motivates his 4,000 word post is a disagreement with my claim that neoconservatism suggests spreading democracy as a means of balancing, a small but important component of the article.

I’ll address both criticisms, but we should first acknowledge our debate’s slightly absurd nature. Neither Nexon nor I are considered neocons (as far as I know); any claim by us to a singular, true understanding should strain belief. Never mind that neocons (like realists and liberals) disagree among themselves, and that they (and JK Rowling) couldn’t care less about what Nexon and I think of them. Not surprisingly then, non-neocons disagree on neoconservatism.

Nexon cites two (excellent) pieces written/co-written by one person to describe a nonexistent scholarly consensus. Nexon might agree with Michael Desch’s (deliberate) nonsense phrase, but Gerard Alexander defines neoconservatism as balance of threat realism, and Aaron Rapport equates it with systemic constructivism. And those are just North American scholars.

Neoconservatism is not some mutant form of foreign policy liberalism. Consider my admiration for Derek Jeter, but my contempt for every other aspect of his team. I cannot (will not!) be considered a Yankees fan. One might therefore conclude that other reasons explain my respect for Jeter. Excepting democratization and human rights, neocons dismiss every mechanism associated with IR liberalism: transnational norms, trade, and institutions. Perhaps they are not motivated by liberal logic.

A really, really strong desire to spread democracy does not make them any more liberal. I’m sure Minka Kelly loves Jeter with all her soul, but if she could not even bring herself to say something nice about Mo Rivera, it’s doubtful we’d consider her a Yankee fan either.

On to the bulk of Nexon’s post. To support my assessment of neoconservatism as a theory of democratic weakness, I surveyed a lot of literature to find some common themes. Trying to synthesize so many writers in order to critique a grand theory necessarily leads to simplification. But consider the essential assumptions of realism. Now find me five realists that agree with all of them.

To use Nexon’s terms, I cheerfully plead guilty to extrapolation, but that would seem to be a good alibi against the crime of esotericism. Esoteric thinking assumes a code unlocking truths within a canonical document for the initiated. I go to the opposite extreme, trying to find something uniting the diverse group calling themselves neocons. Given his treatment of Harry Potter, and given that block quotes from a single article are 30% of his post, Nexon appears a very black pot.
Interestingly, with the possible exception of Muravchik, Nexon pulls quotations from the more realpolitik-oriented of the neocons to challenge my argument that neoconservatism is not motivated by core realist principles. I’ll deal with them quickly.

Kirkpatrick’s magisterial article argues for the strategic and moral foolishness of simultaneously promoting liberalism within traditional authoritarian states while refusing to do likewise in totalitarian Soviet satellites, i.e. “participat[ing] actively in the toppling of non-Communist autocracies while remaining passive in the face of Communist expansion.” Among other things, the article nicely captures the neoconservative spectrum of power-mobilizing regimes: liberal America weak and vacillating, autocracies perhaps less weak and certainly less threatening, totalitarian states expansionist and strong. Schweller would approve.

The Krauthammer quotations lamenting the American penchant for cutting deals that shift unfavorably American relative power support my case.

As for Kagan, John Mearsheimer called and wants his American pacifier piece back.
Regarding the Muravchik article, rather than wade through the single article that literally makes up 30% of Nexon’s post, can I just give Dan that one and ask people to look at the dozens of other pieces I cite?

Let me emphasize that I agree that there is often a very strong moral impetus to the neoconservative desire to spread democracy, but this cannot be separated from neoconservatives’ equal obsession with power in a dangerous world. To paraphrase Nexon on Harry Potter, for IR scholars neoconservatism is something of a Rorschach Blot, capturing various anxieties about international affairs. I look at the blot though the prism of its realist antagonist. Wading into the “neo-neo” debate I decided that there was little fundamental to their principles to explain their very different policy preferences.

Now Nexon does not think that neoconservatism is a grand theory, and that neo-classical realism is “an amorphous container for some pretty heterogeneous scholarly theories.” One could make the same claim about liberalism. All grand IR theories with multiple advocates get pretty fuzzy when you try to pin them down, but that does not make thinking about theory, and especially comparing theories, unproductive. To paraphrase Eisenhower, grand theories may be useless, but grand theorizing is indispensible.

As the old insult goes, Nexon has failed me on a Rorschach test, which brings me to his thoughts on peer review. Nexon plucked my article from obscurity because he was “pissed off” by my use of texts about which he had a pretty strong opinion. He would have rejected my article based on this. He then extrapolates (!) that because he would have rejected it, then peer review failed. Nexon is not alone; most academics assume the N of our “peers” to be 1, as the expressions of wounded amour propre in the original post’s comments amply demonstrate. We all know that the review process is pretty arbitrary; in terms of publishing I was lucky to not get Nexon as my referee (although I suspect he would have given great feedback, as I did get from Millennium, which by the way is one of the few IR journals that does desk rejects).

But before we moan about how much of what we consider drivel gets published, spare a thought for the Type II errors. Perhaps we should let more stuff see the light of publication and then let the discipline as a whole (which largely ignored my article) or Duck of Minerva (which trashed it) sort it out.

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Papa Don’t Preach: Rationalism is an Ism


Just yesterday I cautioned a graduate student not to get on the wrong side of some powerful people for the sake of principle if he could not truly effect change. And yet here I sit typing this right now, about to begin a rant on David Lake’s new ISQ article: “Why ”isms’ are evil: Theory, Epistemology, and Academic Sects as Impediments to Understanding and Progress.” Nexon started it. It is his fault.

The piece is taken from David Lake’s keynote address as ISA president and identifies five pathologies with dividing our field up the way we do, along ‘ism’ lines. We reify research traditions, reward extremism, mistake research traditions for actual theories, focus on the things that our approach is best at explaining so as to confirm our biases, and insist that our approach is the genuinely scientific one. I am going to assign this to my graduate seminar. I agree with every word. That is why it drives me so crazy.

It is not the message. It is the messenger. More than most other scholars, Lake has been part of the rationalist turn in international relations theorizing. His approach is wonderful, but not eclectic. It is simple applied microeconomics to problems of international relations and cooperation. I know Entangling Relations like the back of my hand, as it is the primary target of my forthcoming book on Trust in International Cooperation and my recent piece in IO. In his, there are no counterarguments, nothing to test his argument against. There is only rationalism.

Yet I don’t think Lake ever uses the word rationalism in that book, and probably only sporadically elsewhere. This is because, like others, he insists that rationalism is not an ‘ism.’ Realism, liberalism, constructivism, even feminism — these are part of the problem. But rationalism might as well be the Loch Ness monster. It is myth, a legend, something that you scare your kids with as you read them to sleep but not something that actually exists in daylight. And yet your dogs keep going missing…..

Stop right there. You are going to tell me that rationalism is a methodology, or an approach, not a substantive theory of international relations, that all rationalists assume is transitivity in preferences. You are wrong. In fact, Lake along with Robert Powell, lay out its fundamentals in an edited book called Strategic Choice and International Relations. This is a marvelous book, one of my all time favorites, precisely because it lays out the ontology of rationalism so well. But just because you change the name and call it an approach does not mean it is not rationalism and a proper ‘ism,’ just like the rest.

Like other isms, rationalism has a particular vision of the world, of individualist utilitarian maximizers engaged in a constant strategic interaction with others individualist utilitarian maximizers. Individual units are only held together by common interest, and those common interests could diverge at any time. There is no deep and abiding trust, no common identity, only these rapacious little units. This is why the rationalist revolution has been so revolutionary. It points out how states might make disastrous decisions about whether to go to war or how long to fight that are perfectly rational for the leaders who make them because those leaders are interested primarily in saving their own hide. This might just be cynical folk wisdom dressed up in academic garb, but I cannot think of a more compelling criticism of and comparison to realism. It was a useful corrective. We should be forever grateful. But let’s not pretend it is not an ism.

Stop right there. You are saying that the utility function is left open by rationalists, that it is capable of accounting for say, altruism. True, in theory. But in practice, name more than five articles or books that actually assume anything other than naked self-interest on the part of international actors, at whatever level of analysis. There is a reason for this. The strategic view of the world is a cynical view of the world, and a cynical view is a selfish view. That is fine, but I’m calling a spade a spade. Have you ever given a talk and had a formal theorist, for instance, ask if you aren’t being too cynical, if the political actors you are discussing aren’t more concerned with the public good than you give them credit for? I didn’t think so.

Lake no longer teaches ‘isms’ in his course, he tells us. Instead he relies on his strategic choice approach, which, as we have established, is not an ism. He advises us to focus our intellectual efforts on pragmatic problem-solving, of which three elements are of prime importance — interests, institutions and interactions. These are, of course, the basic building blocks identified in his book with Powell. Surely we can all agree on that.

For his part, Lake acknowledges his own part in these pathologies, in a footnote. And maybe he is having some mid-career Road to Damascus moment. His recent article in International Security advised us to develop behavioral theories of bargaining informed by psychological factors. Those psychologically minded who saw that might have rejoiced, had we not been doing that for several decades already with barely a nod from the other side of the aisle.

So, the more that I think of it, I don’t agree with Lake at all. Yes, paradigms have these pathologies. But the paradigm problem was one of the 1980s and 1990s more than it is today. Today we have hegemony, and worse, a hegemony that claims not to be coherent or even to exist. I think the complaint that many have is not that they can’t get into some of the bigger IR journals because they are constructivists or liberals or whatever, it is because they are not rationalists.

I want people to put their money, literally, where their mouth is. If diversity of viewpoints is important, then I’ll be happy to announce, on this very blog, UCSD’s search for a new junior line in critical security studies. You heard it here first! Of course California needs a budget first…..

If Lake is serious about such a project, I’d be the first to get behind him. When someone tells me, “I am a realist” or “I am a constructivist,” they immediately lose all credibility to me as a social scientist. Saying that means you know the answer before you start looking, which is the very opposite of science. You might as well say, I am a liberal. Or I am a conservative. I think paradigms can be destructive, too. But first we have to be honest about the current state of the field and the real substantive cleavages in it. We are not there yet.

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Visualizing the Human Rights Issue Agenda

Part of the research project that is keeping me too busy to blog involves capturing, coding and visualizing the issue agenda for various transnational networks. Here is a visualization of the core human rights network on the World Wide Web, circa 2008.* (Nodes represent organizational websites and ties represent hyperlinks between them. Node size corresponds to in-degree centrality within the network.)You can click for a larger view.

It looks to me as if there are really two networks here: a human rights network and a development network, all tied together conceptually under the rubric of human rights. Whether this means that the human rights movement has been colonized by the development community or vice-versa is hard to say from this.

Now here is another visualization: of the human rights issue agenda, circa 2008, as represented on the same websites.** Here, nodes represent issues; ties between nodes represent co-occurrences of the same thematic issue on the same organization’s website.

One might think, given the predominance of development organizations in the human rights network, that economic and social rights would be front and center on the overall network’s issue agenda. But no:

1) Economic and social rights (e.g. “Water” or “Health Care”) are somewhat marginalized relative to civil and political rights issues like “Repression” or “Elections” (11.5% and 26% respectively). Economic and Civil-Political rights tend to cluster with one another, suggesting a division of labor among human rights organizations.

2) A number of new rights have been articulated that effectively cut across these archetypal categories and seem to serve as bridges between the older EcoSoc/CivPol typology. 15% of the total consists of cross-cutting isuses like “Discrimination,” “Access to Information” or “Impunity.”

3) Fourth generation group rights (“Women,” “Children,” “Indigenous,” etc) are also prominently represented on the agenda (14.5%).

4) However what’s most interesting to me is the proliferation of “rights” that fit none of these categories (the white nodes). 31% of the issues on the agenda fall into the “Other” category, which is composed of roughly four types of issues: those relating to humanitarian law (“Civilians,” “Crimes Against Humanity,” “Humanitarian Intervention”) or to war more broadly (landmines, occupation, militarization); those relating to technology (“Internet,” “Bioethics”) and those referring not to human rights problems but rather to the processes activists use (“Awareness-Raising,” “Research,” “Human Rights Education”) plus a miscellaneous category that includes things like “Drugs” and the “Environment.” The biggest proportion of the “other” category, however, has to do with war and war crimes, confirming a significant blending of human rights and humanitarian law.

Other thoughts, reactions or critiques welcome. Thanks to Alex Montgomery for helping with the visualizations, and Jim Ron for helping with the code scheme.

*We identified 41 prominent human rights organizations, as operationalized using a co-link analysis tool called IssueCrawler, with the Amnesty directory, the Choike Human Rights Directory and the UDHR60 NGO links page as starting points.
**We captured mission statements and “what we do” lists from each organization and coded them at QDAP.

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