Appetite for Self Destruction, or three suicides and a funeral*

17 May 2019, 1817 EDT

Here’s my argument: Late 80s/early 90s Soviet Union. The United Kingdom in 2016. The United States 2016 to now. Three contemporary examples of international suicide that conventional IR neither predicted nor can account.

Ok, so perhaps suicide is too hyperbolic a concept and we should go with appetite for self-destruction . Certainly in the case of the Soviet Union any agential claim regarding the state is overdrawn. But either way I think there is a point here. All three states, and particularly the last two, undertook an internally driven diminution of international standing and capacity—dare I say, power.

The British went from being part of the world’s second largest (semi) coherent economic zone with a unified voice on trade and 500 million inhabitants to the roughly eighth largest economy with 66 million residents. The UK has found that, contrary to the imagination of Brexiteers, leaving the EU has not bolstered the UK’s international position. Even the American partner in the ‘special relationship’ is pushing a hard line trade agenda that promises the UK no favors.

In the US, the Trump administration is taking a scorched earth approach to the norms and discourses that underpinned US global legitimacy. And Trump has actively worked to undermine relations with longstanding allies while praising authoritarian (former?) adversaries. Again, as in the British case the significance in terms of global agential capacity is substantial. NATO, including the United States, spent $900 billion on their collective militaries in 2017, 52% of the global total. While the Europeans have well-documented inefficiencies and the US has barely-understood-but-probably-massive ones, the US network of alliances put it in an optimal positional globally—one that even China would be hard pressed to challenge in the foreseeable future. For evidence of this, one need look no further than the plaintive plea of a Western diplomat in China as reported recently by the Economist: “If a different American president were to try resisting Chinese aggression while defending universal values, that ‘alliance is there, waiting to be led.’” Thus, by undermining US alliances the Trump Administration is diminishing US agential capacity in the international system.

The crucial point here is that these diminishments in capacity were not imposed by an external power or a victorious conqueror, but rather was the result of dynamics internal to the states and, in the case of the UK and the US, purposeful acts of political agency. So, while only the Soviet Union ceased to exist as an actor, the concept of suicide gets at the idea that these states engaged in substantial and long-lasting self-harm.

To my reading most conventional IR theory has little of significance to say about these cases. Take for example a recent-ish tetrad of assessments of US grand strategy in the pages of Foreign Affairs (I read it so you don’t have to—you’re welcome). Dan Drezner’s contribution is the most interesting—but mostly because he wrestles with the domestic sources disrupting American foreign policy (also, he seems to agree with my assessment of self-harm and its consequences). Policymakers are less and less concerned with public opinion. Fewer gatekeepers means ridiculous policy schemes get more traction. Institutional checks on the presidency that would otherwise prevent wild swings in policy have eroded. But these are assessments that fit much better in foreign policy analysis than with IR theory.

The other contributors are more IR-centric and…far less interesting. Mira Rapp Hooper and Rebecca Friedman Lissner essentially argue for a humble (realist?) international liberalism to inform US grand-ish strategy. The US should support democracy rather than promote it, continue to work through institutions but be prepared to compete (whatever that means) with rivals and work with allies to establish new rules in ungoverned domains like biotechnology. All the while the US should maintain deterrent military capabilities. Hooper and Lissner reject ‘quixotic bids to restore the liberal order’ but they argue the US should focus on keeping the international system free and open. Which sounds a lot like maintaining the liberal order, just less militantly. Kori Schake makes an argument similar in the broad brushstrokes. Predictably, Stephen Walt argues that the US should ‘return’ to realism and assume the position of offshore balancer—presumably to the entire world.

So far, so unreconciled with the contemporary world. These strategic prescriptions and the underlying theories that inform them could date to the start of either Bush Administration (though admittedly more so the later one), Clinton, or Obama. The primary concerns for states are either economic trade (in goods, services, or technology) or military force, with the difference between the authors being a matter of emphasis. You might retort that the Foreign Affairs pieces are not self-consciously theoretically-driven works of analysis. And that is true. But theory informs every work of analysis or prognostication, and these are no different. And without doubt the underlying theories are the same rationalist frameworks of structural realism or neoliberal institutionalism that have dominated IR for decades. These approaches did not do especially well prognosticating the ‘suicides’ and these authors offer no compelling reason to believe they would be more useful in a prescriptive function.

To take the point one step further, look at what these authors either outright ignore or diminish through trivial treatment. The resurgence of nationalism. The growth of international refugees. The related phenomenon of demographic transformation. The mass destruction of biological diversity. Globalization of environmental degradation (or, plastic everywhere). Climate change. The list goes on. Ironically, Walt raises many of these issues in a throwaway line about the complexity of the modern world is before anointing war as the issue “above all” that should be the central focus of grand strategy. This goes to the point. The authors offer very conventional approaches to grand strategy and the theories that underpin them have little to say about the problems confronting states and societies in the 21st century. Put another way, the United States cannot offshore balance climate change.

This leads me to the funeral in the title. The bell tolls for us, the IR analytic community. As long as the mainstream is dominated by approaches so out of touch with the emergent international/global system, we will have less and less to say of significance or relevance. Insofar as IR also informs policymakers, the ramifications are broader. If we do not come to terms with these challenges the funeral will also be for the legions—from refugee children washing up on beaches to the victims of creeping-but-devastating environmental changes.

*Thanks to Srdjan Vucetic and Brent Steele for title inspiration.