Tag: legitimacy

Making the Real: The Interplay of Reasons, Rhetoric, Evidence, and Action

This guest post is by Joseph O’Mahoney, currently a Stanton Fellow at MIT and an Assistant Professor in Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations.

In the US, support for President Donald Trump’s executive order, which restricts travel to the US by citizens of seven Muslim majority countries, has been mixed. Perhaps surprisingly, the Islamic State or ISIS is wildly in favor of the so-called “Muslim ban.”. Postings to pro-ISIS social media accounts called the proposed order a “blessed ban” and hailed Trump as “the best caller to Islam”. Why? Because it “clearly revealed the truth and harsh reality behind the American government’s hatred toward Muslims”. General Michael Hayden, former Director of the NSA and CIA, is worried that the ban makes the claim that “there is undying enmity between Islam and the West” more believable to “Muslims out there who are not part of the jihadist movement”. By contrast, a visibly compassionate and welcoming response to Syrian refugees by Western countries “has been incredibly damaging to this jihadist narrative”. Continue reading


Legitimate Rape: A Weberian Analysis

On Facebook, someone familiar to readers of this blog wrote: “As readers of Weber know, there are three forms of legitimate rape: forcible, fraternity, and rational-legal.” But enough of that neo-Weberian claptrap. As a good paleo-Weberian knows, the ideal types here remain traditional, charismatic, and legal-rational. And these help us to understand the political backlash over Rep. Aiken’s Aken’s “unfortunate” choice of words.

Aken subscribes to a traditional view of rape. Indeed, his understanding harkens back to late medieval Europe. That’s pretty traditional.

His opponents, on the other hand, adopt legal-rational conceptions of rape. These depend on entirely different warrants, such as consistency, equal application, and other justificatory schema alien to Aken’s wing of the Republican party. Or, as Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association nicely summarized, “What Akin meant by ‘legitimate rape:’ actual forcible rape, not consensual sex that later gets called rape. Come on, people.”

Indeed, since women cannot, for people such as Aken and Fischer, become pregnant from rape, pregnancy provides an excellent basis for distinguishing between traditional rape and faux rape — the latter including mere threats to inflict harm, the exploitation of power differentials, and the droit de segnieur that our great democracy has extended to all men encountering women with short skirts, low-cut tops, or lesbian tendencies.

Ah, traditional justice. So much easier and more accurate than that demanded in legal-rational systems.

Where was I?…. Ah, yes. The problem for Aken is that he failed to translate traditional understandings of legitimate rape into legal-rational ones of the kind demanded by the lamestream media. Many Republicans, however, depend upon making appeals to segments of the electorate whose traditions are more thoroughly laced with legal-rational lifeworlds. They have therefore thrown Aken under the proverbial chariot. But not to worry, for as Weber teaches us a Charismatic figure may create a genuine rupture in existing modes of legitimate rape and build a new order.

And that figure is at hand.

No. Wait. 
Wrong picture.

Sorry. I meant this one:

Credit: TMZ via Salon

I admit none of this was terribly funny. But there’s a serious point here: Weber’s ideal-typical accounts of legitimate domination provide a useful way of parsing contemporary debates in the United States. It isn’t just a matter of content, nor of communities of discourse, but of styles of legitimation.


Walmart still isn’t green

Luftverschmutzung in Liaoning China
Photo credit: lhgszch on Flickr.

Back in December 2009, I wrote a post for the Duck called “Wal-mart Isn’t Green.” Jared Diamond had written a provocative op-ed about various green business initiatives for the NY Times and Steve Walt had blogged about it too.

I recently thought about that exchange because the December issue of The Atlantic included an interesting article by the Asia Society’s Orville Schell called “How Walmart Is Changing China.” Much of the article considers burgeoning environmental initiatives involving Walmart and China:

The world’s biggest corporation and the world’s most populous nation have launched a bold experiment in consumer behavior and environmental stewardship: to set green standards for 20,000 suppliers making several hundred thousand items sold to billions of shoppers worldwide. …one thing is already clear: how Walmart and China interact with each other over the next decade will be critical to the fate of the planet’s environment.

Schell mentions three very ambitious green goals Walmart has established for itself:

1. To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy.
2. To create zero waste.
3. To sell products that sustain our resources and environment.

I’d encourage everyone to read the piece to get a feel for the scope of the problem and for interesting discussion of the various initiatives underway.

I’m primarily interested in the article’s conclusion. Will this work?

On the final page, Schell finally comes to the question that has been nagging at me for some years — as my 2009 blog post accusing Walmart of “greenwashing” made clear:

However smart, prescient, and successful Walmart’s sustainability efforts actually turn out to be, just how “sustainable” is the whole bloody global-retail proposition that lies at the heart of the company’s amazing progress?

For the first cut at an answer, Schell quotes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes, who recently wrote a book about Walmart’s environmentalism:

“When I started, I didn’t imagine I would be convinced that Walmart was green. And actually, they are not green, but they are a lot better than they were. And the efforts they are making are influencing not only their suppliers, but other businesses as well. Now Walmart is acting something like a private regulator. Nonetheless, the nature of their outsourced business model is not, ultimately, sustainable.”

And Schell’s final thoughts about both China and Walmart are certainly pessimistic:

In fact, one could say the same thing about China, which—after so many decades of defiant proletarian opposition to capitalism, consumerism, and American imperialism—has embraced the American-style market and is ardently following the Walmart path to prosperity. Indeed, allowing, even encouraging, people to consume as much as they want, or can, has become one of the Chinese Communist Party’s key strategies for political legitimacy and social stability. Party leaders may label their version of development “scientific” or “sustainable,” but it’s still development. The bitter reality is that even if unrestrained consumerism becomes less environmentally destructive per unit of production than it was in the past, it is still unsustainable in the long run. So even as this most innovative of corporate and statist green strategies may represent an environmental breakthrough and good business for Walmart, and good politics for the Chinese government, it may nonetheless end up being very bad business for humankind.

In the long-run, consumers and businesses alike must figure out ways to operate sustainably. I suspect the phrase “global supply chain” isn’t going to fit into that plan very well given the inherently large volume of energy and other resource usage associated with moving and consuming products around the world, including food.


War and the Eurozone

PM and Chancellor Merkel press conference

Last week, at University of Bristol, I gave a talk called “The Future of World Order” to the student International Affairs Society. It was a speculative lecture, based on my 17 years directing the Grawemeyer Award (for Ideas Improving World Order) more than my scholarship per se. I warned the audience from the start of two personal biases: (1) I am an optimist; and (2) I don’t really put much stock in specific predictions. I tried to stick to big ideas more than particular policies.

In the presentation, I argued that any order built on coercion and force would inevitably face a legitimacy crisis — and would ultimately collapse. The implications are twofold, I think. Domestically, people will demand greater control of their own lives. This means the world will see many more emancipatory movements to topple autocrats and unaccountable sources of power — as illustrated just this year by events in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, the city of London, Wall Street, etc.

Internationally, it means order built on deterrence, brute force, or even the balance of power will give way to something that is more consensual, such as a security community. In support of this position, I talked a bit about John Mueller’s thesis that major power war is becoming obsolete — an outmoded institution, abandoned like slavery and dueling previously were. Could this thinking become even more pervasive, so that virtually any talk of war — internal or external — becomes outmoded? Eventually.

In the talk, I did not explicitly argue against the traditional state-centrism of international relations, nor call for the end of the states-system. However, I strongly implied that the future of world order will be more cooperative, focused on low rather than high politics (elevating the human security agenda), and much less violent.

This week, recovering from jet lag, I’ve been following the efforts to save the euro and Eurozone. One interesting aspect is that conservative leaders in Europe have certainly made some bold claims to sell their preferred outcomes. For instance, while traveling in Australia, British Prime Minister David Cameron used some classic statist language to highlight his concerns about the implications of ongoing negotiations:

“This is our key national interest, that Britain, a historic trading nation, has its biggest markets open and continues to have those markets fairly open and fairly governed.”

He later told the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson: “In business often it’s selling more to your existing customers that’s the best strategy.

What his comments reveal is that when – if – the eurozone crisis ends, big political questions will replace the big economic problems”

“We’re big sellers into Europe, we can do better in those markets if we liberalise further.”

Mr Cameron has vowed to protect the UK’s position and said on Friday that the City of London was one “area of concern… a key national interest that we need to defend”.

“London – the centre of financial services in Europe – is under constant attack through Brussels directives,” he said.

Note the words and phrases Cameron used: “key national interest,” “attack” and “defend.”

Next, consider these remarks Wednesday from German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

“Nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe. They are not for granted. That’s why I say: If the euro fails, Europe fails,” Merkel said, followed by a long applause from all political groups.

“We have a historical obligation: To protect by all means Europe’s unification process begun by our forefathers after centuries of hatred and blood spill. None of us can foresee what the consequences would be if we were to fail.”


Based on these quotes, scholars should perhaps worry about the long-term durability of Mueller’s thesis.

Well, at least slavery is gone. Right?


Geopolitics and Empire

Gerard Toal and Gerry Kearns (both of Virginia Tech) threw a great little academic bash today: GEOPOL 2010, keynoted by a lunchtime presentation by Derek Gregory on “War Cultures” that was, among, other things, a marvelous demolition of the idea that “our” techno-strategic wars are clean and precise while “their” new wars are messy and imhumane. I had to leave before the day was over, but this morning I was on a panel entitled “Geopolitics and Empire” for which I had the standard “academic 10 minutes” (which means: about 15 minutes) to say something hopefully interesting. So, naturally, I talked about ‘civilization’, ‘civilizations’, and the legitimation of US foreign policy, since I know more about those things than I know about either empire or geopolitics narrowly defined. I suppose that I was commenting on what critical geographers call “the geopolitical imaginary,” though, so I was certainly in the general conceptual region that the organizers were aiming to cover.

I will spare you the details of a back-and forth between myself and Gerry on one hand, and Charles Kupchan and Chris Preble on the other, about whether there were “brute facts” of geography that necessarily influenced foreign policy; you can probably work that sequence out for yourself. But in case anyone is interested I am going to post the notes from which I spoke below the fold; an audio recording of my presentation can be found here on my general podcasting site.

my own work on global geopolitical imaginaries — or what I prefer to think of as conceptual infrastructures of social action in world politics — deals with what Max Weber would call “legitimate domination,” and for me the important part of that is the “legitimate” part. Let me throw out some conceptual vocabulary that I find helpful in interrogating these issues.

of course, by “legitimate” I don’t mean “ethically acceptable in some transcendental sense.” I mean rendered legitimate, in the eyes of some politically relevant audience, by the strategic use of rhetorical commonplaces and other cultural resources tossed up by productive discourses. This is another way of saying that boundaries have to be drawn around the set of possible courses of action.

it makes a difference who the actor is taken to be for a given course of action: who is “we.” Defining and solidifying the acceptable/unacceptable boundary is wrapped up with issues of who acts and in whose name action is performed, and different actors come with different social capacities. So we have “boundary commonplaces” — cultural and rhetorical resources that sustain, in principle, particular actors and their boundaries.

in this light, if we examine pronouncements about patterns of global action, we find that the socially relevant actor in question is often (contrary to the solemn pronouncements of orthodox International Relations theory) not a sovereign state, but a variety of other entities: individuals, ethnicities, nations, civilizations, and sometimes “humanity” itself. These actors may not be as well organized or institutionalized as sovereign states, but if we just follow the legitimation strategies they emerge quite clearly as empirical phenomena.

in the remainder of my time I want to talk about a particular social site — the articulation of US foreign policy — that I have investigated in some detail in tracing these boundary commonplaces. Note that “the US” here means not an a priori actor, but a set of social institutions and capacities occupying certain positions within global socio-politico-economic networks; it’s an analytical place to look, not an exogenous “artificial person” whose desires and interests we have to delineate. And “foreign policy” simply means political techniques for handling cross-border transactions with various others.

and if you look back at the history of US foreign policy, you quickly discover a traditional boundary commonplace — ‘American exceptionalism’ — that was used up until the late 19th century to legitimate a policy of keeping the US pure of outside influences (a “city on a hill”) and divorced from any “entangling alliances.” ‘American exceptionalism’ afforded the kind of policy of continental expansion we know as “manifest destiny,” largely through its incapacity to acknowledge the existence of constitutively equal rivals; in the language of the most ardent manifest destinarians, other races would simply “melt away” before the advance of the American empire. Here I use the term “empire” advisedly and deliberately, both because a) in terms of legitimation strategies, the non-recognition of diverse others is perhaps the most important aspect of imperialism; and b) from this perspective ‘American exceptionalism’ is an imperial boundary commonplace, leading to what Anders Stephanson has called “the empire of right.”

the history of US foreign policy in the 20th century is the history of various efforts to deal with ‘American exceptionalism,’ either by dissolving the exceptional specialness of the United States in some broader community, or by reworking ‘American exceptionalism’ so as to afford trans-continental or global expansion. Schematically, three alternatives: “the West”; civilization-in-the-singular; and humanity.

there are subtle but very important distinctions between these three commonplaces and the actions to which each is connected:

1) civilization-in-the-singular encompasses multiple states/nations/regions and is opposed only to the uncivilized, who are either savages (can be educated/reformed) or barbarians (have to be eliminated, or at least barred from entry). There are no comparable others for civilization-in-the-singular, and thus nothing that has to be taken into account as being in some measure an equal. So this is a relatively imperial boundary commonplace with respect to the uncivilized, even though it may promote or afford a relatively multilateral dialogue among the “civilized powers” of the world. This is Teddy Roosevelt’s alliance of the civilized great powers, Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, and FDR’s grand alliance against “uncivilized” Nazi Germany.

2) a particular civilization, like “the West,” exists in a world of civilizational diversity, and its domain only stretches as far as its cultural area. “The West” has no business interfering in the internal affairs of other civilizations, and is instead reduced to “balancing” for and against them. Such a legitimation strategy stands on a recognition of differences between civilizations (even if that recognition is grudging, and accompanied by a wish that God/history/fate would eliminate the other). This is post-WWII containment, famously retrofitted for the multipolar post-Cold War world by Samuel P. Huntington as “the clash of civilizations.”

[Note that US Cold War policy is not purely “containment,” but also features a civilization-in-the-singular notion of “development” when we’re dealing with the so-called “Third World” — this is, so to speak, imperial tutelage, helping the savages learn to wear clothes, eat with silverware, and manage their balances of payments properly. Continuities with the “civilizing mission” of earlier colonialisms.]

3) humanity functions as the highest court of appeal; this is the realm where in our day biological imperatives (including the future survival of the species) get invoked, alongside concerns about the global environment and notions of transcendental individual dignity (human rights). As Carl Schmitt infamously pointed out, humanity as such has no enemy, not on this planet anyway (and parenthetically we could now veer off and talk about science fiction as a cultural arena for exploring the limits of the human, and I’m happy to talk about Battlestar Galactica as a seminal articulation of critical humanism at some later point). [sadly, no one asked about BSG in the q&a]

humanity, I want to suggest, is still up for grabs, and this is an important arena where active political struggles are going on in the US. It’s unclear whether it is going to be an imperial boundary commonplace wielded against “inhuman” and “evil” practices, as we see in neoconservative respecifications of ‘American exceptionalism’ to aggressive unilateralism; neocons, who had been dissatisfied throughout the Cold War with containment as “soft on Communism” because it let the communists survive, seized humanity as a warrant for imposing a US vision on the rest of the planet (GWB: liberty is God’s gift to humanity), even while refusing to bind the US to any global agreements (e.g. Kyoto Protocol, ABM treaty, Geneva conventions…). Neocons loathed “particular civilization” rhetoric, since that was the conceptual core of “containment,” so they swept “the West” etc. out of the public discussion.

but there is also a “humanity” notion with the US first among equals — “indispensable nation” — so something like global pluralism within an overarching framework (albeit imperfectly articulated and implemented). This is how I read the Obama gamble: reclaim humanity without being imperial about it (but even Obama sounds pretty imperialist sometimes, as in his Oslo speech and the reference to “evil”). If one doesn’t want to be a neocon, the alternative is to embrace traditional ‘American exceptionalism’ (not its neocon variant) and withdraw to the borders of the US sovereign state (and hole up to wait for the Second Coming; this is the populist side of what we might call with apologies to Jimmy Hendrix “the Sarah Palin Experience”). But as pragmatists might put it, holing up behind our borders is no longer a “live possibility,” given political-economic networks and our ever-growing sense of a climate emergency; “the West” seems to have outlived its usefulness as a term of political discourse, and the ship of a global “dialogue among civilizations” seems to have sailed as far as the US polity is concerned. But can there actually be a universal human community without imperialism? That may be the most important political question of the 21st century.


The legitimacy of America’s wars

Last night, over a good meal, two Department colleagues and I talked with several out-of-town guests for quite some time about the prolonged war in Afghanistan. Eventually, I happened to make a point that a fellow blogger said seemed novel and interesting — certainly worthy of a blog post.

Let’s see if anyone agrees.

As many experts note, the war in Afghanistan is prolonged in large part because too much of the local population sees the U.S.-NATO intervention as illegitimate. Regardless of good intentions, Americans are seen as unwanted foreign invaders. Moreover, even U.S. Generals concede that the Karzai regime lacks legitimacy within much of Afghanistan.

In contrast, of course, the war in Afghanistan is widely seen as legitimate by the international community of states. There’s plenty of evidence: the September 2001 UN Security Council Resolution, NATO support, etc.

Is the reverse true in regard to the Iraq war? Is the Afghan war a mirror-image legitimacy problem? Is there anything novel about such a claim?

Internationally, the world clearly refused to grant legitimacy to the American invasion in 2003 — and continued to be skeptical of the war for many years.

Did Iraqis view the war and occupation as legitimate? Obviously, Iraqis who have used violence against U.S. troops see the invasion and/or occupation as illegitimate. However, Iraq’s Kurds have long appreciated America’s assistance in holding off Saddam Hussein’s government and providing them a measure of autonomous rule. Iraq’s Shia may not have supported war, but they have been big winners in terms of political clout within Iraq. Many Shia politicians have actively cooperated with the USA and most would likely applaud the toppling of Saddam. The minority Sunni — bigger losers in Iraq’s internal power struggle — have certainly not been pro-American, but many have been pacified since the Anbar Awakening and are perhaps willing to take their chances with domestic politics. Additionally, the Status of Forces Agreement arguably legitimizes the current US position within Iraq.

By making this argument last night, I was trying to point out that America’s task of securing and stabilizing Afghanistan will likely be even more difficult than was the comparable task in Iraq. I know, I know. That may seem obvious given the length of the Afghan war — nearly 8 years now! However, many critics of U.S. policy have argued that the problem in Afghanistan was a simple lack of attention and resources. Once U.S. attention turns from Iraq, the U.S. can get down to business.

I say no.

The lack of international legitimacy meant that the U.S. had to pay almost all of the costs in Iraq (compared, say, to the 1991 Persian Gulf War). Those costs have been very painful, but once America devoted substantial resources it achieved a measure of success in Iraq — and agreed to a way out with an Iraqi government that has a measure of legitimacy.

On the other hand, the lack of legitimacy within Afghanistan means that America’s COIN strategy faces an enormous uphill battle. Almost regardless of international assistance, the US and NATO will not be able to defeat insurgent forces in Afghanistan unless the domestic government is viewed as legitimate (and likely autonomous) and the western forces are NOT viewed as foreign invaders.

Rather than problematically increasing the size of the US military presence in Afghanistan, it might be better to do the difficult social and political work to “appreciate the dynamics in local communities” and understand “how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”


The Problem of State Capacity

The question of state capacity might be one of, if not the, most important question that academics and policy makers can tackle. When we talk about local, regional, and international stability, failed states, etc, often times the major problem is a lack of capacity by a state to control what goes on within its borders. State capacity is the product of numerous variables, including legitimacy, material resources, government coherence, coercive capacity, and autonomy vis-a-vis international actors. And while state capacity is seemingly a critical issue in global politics, policy makers and academics alike have found it one of the most intractable problems to solve. How do you build capacity? What are the proven techniques? Are techniques portable or replicable in other states and regions?

I think the short answer is: we don’t really know

The Financial Times ran a story this morning chronicling the continuing degeneration of the Nigerian state’s ability to maintain control over the oil rich Niger Delta. While conflict with rebels in the region is nothing new, militants have expanded and refined (no pun intended) their activities over the past decade to include the tapping of oil pipelines for sale on the black market. However, the militants have recently began refining the crude being siphoned for local sale.

The article goes on to discuss how the state is struggling to determine a course of action that will reestablish it’s authority and control in the region. (John Robb over at Global Guerrillas has commented for some time on the role of super-empowered individuals and their ability to disrupt states, in particular rebels in Nigeria). For the state, control over crude is key for capacity, as it provides economic resources with which to exert control and influence. By slowly losing control over that key resource (along with refinement and its distribution) the state suffers in at least two ways:

1) It further depletes its fiscal resources through which it maintains stability within society and has less funds to distribute to key players in exchange for political support;

2) It reveals that the state doesn’t have the capacity to control key parts of its territory. As some have argued, this kind of signaling can potentially lead other separatists/militants/rebels in other parts of the country to determine that they too can encroach on the state.

There are many ideas about how to build state capacity–charismatic leadership, leveraging large fiscal reserves and/or natural resources, increase public goods and social welfare programs, etc.

The question I have is whether we truly know how to build state capacity (i.e. have we fully developed a science of state capacity) or whether the problem is simply one of implementation (i.e. conditions on the ground rarely allow for known, effective policies to be implemented).

Interested to hear readers thoughts.


We chose to go to the moon–not because it was easy but because it was hard

Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to set foot on the Moon. Michael Griffin, former NASA Administrator, observed:

What is most striking about this 40th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon is that we can no longer do what we’re celebrating. Not “do not choose to,” but “can’t.”

By the 40th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Oregon Trail was carrying settlers to the West. By the 40th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a web of rail traffic crisscrossed the continent. By the 40th anniversary of Lindbergh’s epic transatlantic flight, thousands of people in jetliners retraced his route in comfort and safety every day. And on the 40th anniversary of Sputnik, hundreds of satellites were orbiting the Earth.

Only in human spaceflight do we celebrate the anniversary of an achievement that seems more difficult to repeat than to accomplish the first time. Only in human spaceflight can we find in museums things that most of us in the space business wish we still had today.

What is missing? Someone who can say:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

…Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

Could Obama do this? Quite possibly. Reagan tried, Clinton tried, even Bush tried (PDF). Will he Obama do it–after he’s finished with the Economy, Health Care, Iraq, Afghanistan, and chopping the F-22? I’d love to see him try.


What to watch for

As the incredible events in Iran unfold–in the streets of Tehran and on Twitter–the obvious question is: is this the ‘Green Revolution’ or something else for which we don’t have a pre-fab category.

I would call your attention to two outstanding posts that give a very good insight into what to watch for. The unifying theme was perhaps best articulated by an anonymous Iranian commentator at Salon: “Legitimacy, much debated by social scientists, actually turns out to matter. It’s not just force that rules…” (h/t). In short, this is a moment of contentious politics* where the legitimacy of the Revolution, Islamic Republic, Supreme Leader and a few other major social institutions in Iran is in flux.

1. Rob Farley at LGM notes that the most important actors in the entire process aren’t the protesters, but the police. Farley’s review of the Tilly-esque story of the development of the state reminds us of the central function of the modern bureaucratic state is, as Weber noted so long ago, to maintain the legitimacy that allows rules to rule. States exercise the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. When the security forces no longer feel compelled by the erstwhile legitimacy of the state, the state ceases to exist as we currently understand it. If you see the police, revolutionary guards, and others standing by, or even supporting the resistance, the game is up.

Now, I’m not an Iran expert, and as Dan has noted, you should take all our analysis with that major caveat in mind. So, I don’t have an intimate knowledge of the institutional structure of the regime. That said, two points. First, the gangs of pro-regime thugs beating up protesters should not be seen to be the same as the State going after protesters. These groups may be encouraged by the ruling elite, but they are not the official actors of the state. They are thugs who wouldn’t be able to use force in normal times. Its those legitimated to use force who matter. Second, given the unique nature religion plays in the Islamic Republic, one might argue that some senior clerics might exercise the legitimate use of rhetorical force, so they bear watching as well.

2. orgtheory reminds us that revolutions are actually social movements that must have a social and organizational structure. These social resources–social networks, leadership, organizers, mobilizers, and experts–require time and effort to build and deploy. Its important to see if the protesters can wield any other levers of power against the regime beyond sheer numbers of people. It matters how many people come out– as Dan noted, thousands can be dealt with by the repressive institutions of the state, millions not so much. Its possible that the ability to conduct offensive cyber-war against the regime is a step in this direction. The potential for success comes when an alternative power structure emerges that could replace the existing regime in running the state. If the Supreme Leader falls, someone else needs to be ready to step in and take his (metaphorical) place.

More to the point, orgtheory offers a very powerful reminder:

I’ll be a bit incendiary to justify these questions by pointing toward the invasion of Iraq: The kind of thinking which suggests that a large, loud, outburst topples governments and then magically leads toward the emergence of a new order which “makes more sense” was, in the end, what undid our efforts in Iraq. It was naive – of us then and perhaps of protesters today – to think that opposition and even toppling a regime is enough. It’s what comes next—the alternative power structures and institutions that will step into the void—which require our attention now. Because it will be a power struggle–just as it became in Iraq. Educating ourselves on the underlying layers of Iranian society is vital because understanding this is how the US and supporters of Iranians’ freedom can best lend target support. Now is the time to educate ourselves.

Meaning, we need to be paying much more attention to what Gary Sick is saying, and not go overboard with the idea that we can fight the war with the right twitter-feed.

*h/t PTJ who said this to me earlier today.


Can recession cause regime change?

Joshua Kurlantzick recently argued that the global economic downturn might spell doom for a number of autocratic governments around the world. Most, he argues, have staked their legitimacy on economic performance. Dramaticaly reduced world demand for consumer goods and energy threatens states like China, Russia, and Venezuela (and perhaps also Iran and other OPEC states):

Modern autocracies are very different from those of the past. Rather than ruling by strict ideology, ruthless internal police, and tight control of information, authoritarian regimes like Beijing and Moscow have remained in power primarily by making an implicit bargain with their most critical middle-class citizens — you might not have freedom, but you will have money. As long as the broad middle class, which is where the most dangerous dissent would take hold, is gaining ground economically, the regime is safe.

So while in the West, leaders worry that the global economy faces a second Great Depression, such an economic crisis poses a major threat to some of the world’s most resilient autocracies. A strong economy was their only backstop. Now, starved of the growth that keeps them in power and unable to repress their people as old-fashioned dictators did, these autocracies may have nothing left to fall back on.

He concluded with even stronger language:

The Great Depression fed dangerous new autocratic ideologies like fascism and communism; a second Great Depression could destroy them. While the economic crisis will cause untold human suffering in these and other countries, it is quite possible that, on the other side of it, we will see the end of that distinctive phenomenon of the late 1990s and early 21st century: the growth autocracy. And that, at least, would bring some light to a financial dark age.

That sounds almost hopeful, doesn’t it?

However, at least for China, James Fallows rejects this analysis in the April Atlantic:

Why do I think the Chinese have good reasons for hope?

One answer lies in the realm of straight economics. Some of the lost demand is sure to be picked up within China itself, thanks to a stimulus plan that, at some 4 trillion RMB (about $600 billion), is proportionately much larger than the one proposed by the Obama administration, because the Chinese economy is so much smaller than America’s.

Fallows then proceeds to explain the superior position of Chinese banks — they can (and will) lend money to prime the economy. Other sectors of the economy also have lots of tools and resources, he argues.

Fallows continues by rejecting the sociology and politics undergirding Kurlantzick’s thesis:

Beyond straight economics, the “China is over” hypothesis seems to miss important cultural and political realities. Its unspoken premise is that average Chinese people just barely tolerate the social bargain the government now offers—limited freedom, potentially unlimited wealth. So if the regime ever falls short on its material promises, the deal will be off and people will rebel.

This does not square with what I have seen. I have often wondered why so many people in different roles and regions in China seem vivid. The answer has to be more than contrast with my own blandness. I think it is because being in China today is like being in Western Europe in the 1950s. No one’s family story is dull or uneventful. People doing routine jobs have been through great hardships and dramatic swings of fate.

He then regales readers with stories of ordinary peoples’ prior reactions to the Cultural revolution, natural disasters, and other serious hardships in China. The people will tolerate the economic downturn and the government will survive. Indeed, the final section of his article explains how the recent downturn actually creates new opportunities for future Chinese successes.

He concludes with an interesting thought: is the U.S. similarly taking advantage of opportunities presented by the current downturn?

FYI: Over at my personal blog, I’ve posted (and critiqued) a couple of other pieces on the potential “upside of the downturn.” And like Fallows, I worry that some opportunities will be lost. For instance, though reduced energy consumption means less greenhouse gas emissions globally, it might also mean less government spending on alternative energy and attention directed away from environmental problems.


The Election is Far from Over

(or why Patrick shouldn’t worry just yet)

This is morning, one thing is clear: Barack Obama has won a clear majority of both electoral and popular votes. The polls were not all that far off on the final total, ending up with a respectable record of what states went for which candidate.

But to read nearly every major news outlet, publication, and blog this morning, you’d never know it—in an instant, everyone has moved on to the more important question of the hour, “What does this all mean?” Does Obama have a mandate, and what is that mandate? Mandates are about meaning, and mandates, like meaning, are made through the efforts of legitimation and assertion and the politics of creating a story of what this election was about.

Many will look into the poll numbers searching for a meaning to this election. Obama drove up turnout of African-Americans. He won college-educated whites. He increased the percentage of Hispanics voting for a democrat. Voters said the economy was their top issue by an overwhelming margin. Young voters went for Obama, older voters went for Obama but there were more younger voters than older voters. Poll-watchers will pour over the vote tallies, the turn-out numbers, and the exit polls, parsing the numbers, looking for that key constituency that seemingly put Obama over the top.

Indeed, the numbers can show certain trends that are important and telling. But there are just as many numbers to temper that optimism. Obama underperformed Senate candidates in several states—most notably North Carolina and Virginia. The Democrats didn’t seem to pick up as many seats in both the House and Senate as once seemed likely.

We are already looking look to see how Obama won. Was it his expansion of the electorate? His superior ground game? His massive financial advantage? His debate performance? Public dissatisfaction with George W. Bush? The implosion of Sarah Palin? Obama’s policy proposals? How does one evaluate the causal impact of each of these elements on the outcome of the election? In practice, its next to impossible, as they are not independent of each other, and isolating the relative weight of each is more the job of historians and academics than the chattering classes.

The reality is, numbers do not make a mandate. The mandate comes from the story that will become the conventional narrative as to how Obama won the campaign and the narrative of his governing agenda. The stakes in these election post-mortems are high, as it sets the priorities for the governing of the country. If, for example, this is merely a reaction to an unpopular administration, Obama has a narrow road to only advance centrist policy proposals. If, however, this was a broad embrace of a new generation of leadership, Obama has a mandate to enact a broad agenda of reform. Should Obama tack to the center, or should he boldly push all planks of his agenda? The recommendations differ—but its important to recognize that these recommendations are not just mere analysis of the art of the possible, they are part of the process of forming the narrative as to what this election means. The election isn’t over when the voting is done, as the process of establishing what those votes mean has only just begun.


Critical IR Theory

Last week (September 26th), I commented on Dan’s post on “Realism and Constructivism” by writing this:

“Critical” constructivists are in many ways realist-constructivists. They argue that material power and self interest typically shape outcomes, but they (normatively) want ideational factors to have a predominant role. It is a transformation from brute force to the “forceless force of the better argument.”

Of course, critical theorists need not embrace all realist descriptions of world politics. It is possible, for instance, to imagine all sorts of worrisome coercion that need not emerge from states and need not lead to a balance of power.

Short, perhaps sweet — and much too simple.

Patrick responded in the same comments thread:

I have to disagree with Rodger here — having a normative preference for “the unforced force of the better argument” makes you a liberal, not a realist, and acknowledging that material power etc. typically shapes outcomes makes you a frustrated liberal — which is probably a pretty good description of many if not most IR “constructivists” today….

Oh, and I think that Lauren’s right about the term “critical constructivist.” As far as I know it is the “polite” way of saying “post-structuralist” in certain IR circles.

Since I don’t really think of myself as a frustrated liberal, nor as a post-structuralist, but I do think of myself as a critical IR theorist, it seems appropriate to respond to Patrick.

Before going further, I should note that I am very much interested in the ongoing work about realism and constructivism that Patrick and Dan are pursuing. But that’s not really the purpose of this post.

Rather, I want to more fully explain what I mean by “critical IR theory” (“critical constructivism” is arguably a subset) and why I don’t think it means “post-structuralist.”

Last year, Nayef Samhat and I published a book influenced greatly by the critical theory of Jürgen Habermas. We are interested in the development of legitimate international political community and argued that numerous international organizations and regimes are starting to utilize certain “discourse norms” in their procedural decision-making. By greatly increasing participation (to NGOs, TNCs, smaller states, etc.) and by opening processes and documents to external scrutiny (transparency), regimes and institutions become “incipient discursive designs.”

Empirically, we examine a wide range of development, environment, human rights, and security regimes and institutions. Full chapters are devoted to more detailed case studies of the GEF and WTO. The ongoing transformation we theorize and describe reflects a response to the mounting legitimacy crisis for these institutions. The normative changes we identify potentially serve to legitimize their function and create the possibility of global political community.

Obviously, a blog post isn’t the best place either to recap the book or to summarize (or even position) the work of Habermas. I won’t say much more about the book. Regarding the latter, note that Habermas clearly embraces much of what we all think of as modernity and his multi-decade project is in many ways about the salvation of Enlightenment rationality. However, Habermas is interested in the generation of communicative rationality and is quite critical of instrumental rationality. This is not conventionally liberal and is, broadly speaking, within the critical theoretical tradition. Moreover, the Germany social theorist is directly engaged by, and engages, postmodernists (or if you prefer, post-structuralists) like Foucault.

Their debate concerns major questions. For Habermas, the ideal dialogue might lead to uncoerced social consensus. This is a truth-seeking exercise featuring the “forceless force of the better argument.” As I’ve written elsewhere, norms created in this fashion might genuinely reflect “legitimate social purpose.” Those crafted strategically probably won’t.

Post-structuralists believe that power will always mar any dialogue and that there is no truth out there waiting to be discovered — neither objectively, nor intersubjectively, apparently.

This is a simplification, still, but at least I’ve explained my position — and at least hinted at why I think “critical constructivism” potentially blends features of realism (the central explanatory role of material power, the notion that the most powerful actors are most likely to achieve their interests, etc.) and constructivism (albeit normatively, in service of “legitimate social purpose”).


I haven’t yet decided whether to ask Dan to put a photo of Habermas over there on the right with the “Patron Saints.” Thoughts?

Second, if you cannot make time for the book, Nayef and I published an article related to our book in Global Society, July 2003. Here is a relevant snippet from the beginning:

A legitimate political community features consensual norms and principles that have been openly debated by interested members of global society. Relying on a critical theoretical method, we argue that by conceptualising certain regimes as public spheres it is possible to apply and interpret practices of Habermasian discourse ethics to this institutional form.[1] The consequence is that by creating opportunities for new modes of global democratic practice, these regimes are in the process of generating an alternative type of political community to that anchored in the territorial state. Both the potential for and transformative effects of dialogue within this sphere offer participants the opportunity to articulate emancipatory principles. This becomes increasingly likely as regime legitimacy means accounting for the needs and interests of vast segments of the global polity whose interests might otherwise be excluded.

[1] A critical international theory is explicitly committed to the agency of human action, emancipation from constraints on human freedom generated by practices of economic and political exclusion, and the questioning of imposed boundaries of political community.

Again, that doesn’t seem like liberalism to me, though I acknowledge that the incremental and incipient processes Nayef and I identify sound like they might be part of a progressive reform project.

In the article’s conclusion, however, we compare and position the democratic and deliberative implications of our work with the alternative ideas about global democracy put forward by James Bohman, Molly Cochran, Richard Falk and David Held.

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Crisis of Global Governance?

Professor John Ikenberry of American Abroad has written an excellent post on the “Crisis of Global Governance.” After outlining a litany of recent institutional failings — the unsuccessful efforts to reform and modernize the UN, the collapse of the EU constitutional process, and the weakening of various other institutions, rules and norms (including NATO, the NPT and WTO) — Ikenberry asks:

where are the vibrant and growing global and regional institutions that are in place to help us collectively tackle the great problems of our age?


Are we in an era where the demand for cooperative mechanisms and institutionalized collective action is growing but its supply is dwindling?

Ikenberry posits a lot of possible answers, but he certainly believes this is a central issue for the future of world politics:

it is all too clear that something is very wrong, big time, with the current system of governance. Looking into the future – with the growing complexities and dangers associated with continued globalization of economies, societies, and cultures and the privatization of technologies of violence – it is all too clear that the world will need more not less institutionalized cooperation. If we are in an age of declining institutionalized cooperation, well, ergo – we do have a growing problem or, yes, crisis.

Ikenberry suggests that America may be largely to blame for this crisis (though he addresses the neo-utilitarian concern with “hegemonic stability”):

a lot of it may have to do with shifts in American policy….today, the U.S. just doesn’t have an interest or inclination to sponsor, support, fund, and enforce global rules and institutions.

Some of my own scholarship has placed blame for the “crisis” on the US as well. However, my concern was primarily ideational, rather than material.

In May 2001, I wrote a short piece asking, “Is an Outlaw State Calling the Shots?” During the late Clinton administration, the US staked out selfish positions to justify its rejection of the Land Mine Ban Treaty, Kyoto, the CTBT (in the Senate anyway) and the ICC.

As a scholar sympathetic to the ongoing social constructivist “turn” in international studies, I view these real-world policy actions by the U.S. as quite troubling. Constructivists claim that a given norm reflects the international community’s shared understanding of “legitimate social purpose.” Thus, logically, if an important member state refuses to commit to various agreements and perhaps even considers them inappropriate, this dissent indicates norms that do not reflect widely shared understandings.

Ultimately, I rejected the material realist explanation:

realists remain hard-pressed to explain the creation and wide acceptance of numerous international norms that generally do not serve the narrow interests of powerful states.

Generally, the US claims to share the ideals expressed in these agreements — it just disagrees with specific provisions in the negotiated outcome. Plus, Kyoto , the ICC and the Mine Ban Treaty have had some success even without full US participation.

Ikenberry also discusses an ideational problem near-and-dear to my scholarship:

it might be that there is a crisis of governance driven by a more complex problem associated with the inability to infuse international regimes and institutions with democratic accountability and legitimacy.

In Democratizing Global Politics, Nayef Samhat and I explore the implications of the so-called “deficit of democracy” plaguing far too many international institutions and regimes. We conclude that burgeoning “discourse” norms requiring more extensive participation and transparency in these institutions can promote their legitimacy.

My “Outlaw” piece also favored discursive solutions to the global crisis:

[The] challenge is to convince American representatives of a shared international interest in normative ideals. Unfortunately, as current experience reveals, persuasion, social learning, and other consensual mechanisms of change can often fail to garner agreement.

Conceivably, norm-builders could borrow creative ideas from the policy-relevant toolkit employed by conflict resolution practitioners. These experts have long grappled with the problem of crafting consensus in the face of intransigent power and self-interest. Parties to disputes must be encouraged to engage in open dialogue in order to reveal and discuss their basic needs and concerns. Ultimately, the most important problems are dissected so that workable solutions might be mutually constructed. In practice, international negotiations would be supplemented with informal exchanges where powerful actors would find the veracity of their arguments challenged by other members of the global community. Could selfish U.S. claims withstand such close, discursive scrutiny? I doubt it.

Obviously, I don’t have time to write a more complete answer, and by no means can dialogue provide a simple solution to the problems at hand, but I do believe that transnational public spheres can promote democracy and public accountability in world politics.

In turn, more democracy and public accountability should help resolve the crisis in global governance.

This doesn’t mean a “second superpower” can simply balance American material clout, but it might mean that those seeking to build and promote international institutions and regimes can work effectively to create the circumstances allowing a fair hearing for their persuasive arguments.

If this were a class, I’d assign some homework: What does it mean if the Pentagon (the domestic player most responsible for US rejection of the ICC and Mine Ban Treaty) accepts the idea that global warming is a serious national security threat?

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Bolton on Legitimacy of US Foreign Policy

On my own blog, I have occasionally written about the legitimacy of American foreign policy. Moreover, I have often discussed new Ambassador to the UN John Bolton — and his hawkish unilateralism.

Only recently, however, did I discover this speech by Bolton to the Federalist Society, Washington, DC, November 13, 2003: “Legitimacy” in International Affairs: The American Perspective in Theory and Operation.” At the time, Bolton was serving as Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security.

Bolton began by acknowledging that “many voices question the legitimacy of our policies.” His task? To explain, especially to critics, “how and why we consider our actions around the world as legitimate.”

Head first combatant that he apparently is, Bolton first takes on critics of the Iraq war. Bolton argues that the war was legitimate because it was authorized by Congress in October 2002. In other words, it was legal domestically, so it was OK internationally.

For Americans, the basis of legitimacy for governments is spelled out in the Declaration of Independence: the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed. It is, therefore, unequivocally the U.S. view that the legitimacy of Iraq’s next government must ultimately derive from the Iraqi populace, and not from other individuals, institutions or governments, not from theologians, not from academics, not from the United States, and not from the United Nations. This is a fundamental precondition for understanding the legitimacy of the use of any governmental power, and yet it has been fundamentally misunderstood in the UN system.

Many in the UN Secretariat, and many UN member governments, in recent Security Council debates, have argued directly to the contrary. Increasingly, they place the authority of international law, which does not derive directly from the consent of the governed, above the authority of national law and constitutions.

Does this mean the US is free to violate international law? Consider Article VI, Clause 2 of the US constitution:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

Moreover, legitimacy is a social understanding implying reasonable, acceptable, or appropriate. If most other states view a single state’s action as illegitimate, then it is, by definition.

Bolton then considers the legitimacy of the Proliferation Security Initiative and the US decision to opt out of the International Criminal Court, despite its apparent mandatory jurisdiction clauses. In those cases, however, Bolton argues that there is explicit international legal authority to interdict suspected shipments of WMD material and to opt out of the ICC (via Article 98 of the Rome Statute).

In the end, however, Bolton defaults to his prior argument about sovereign authority, grounded in the domestic “consent of the governed.” Bolton sees the international debate about the legitimacy of US action as simply an attempt to constrain American power. And he definitely doesn’t want that:

The question of legitimacy is frequently raised as a veiled attempt to restrain American discretion in undertaking unilateral action, or multilateral action taken outside the confines of an international organization, even when our actions are legitimated by the operation of that Constitutional system. The fact, however, is that this criticism would delegitimize the operation of our own Constitutional system, while doing nothing to confront the threats we are facing. Our actions, taken consistently with Constitutional principles, require no separate, external validation to make them legitimate. Whether it is removing a rogue Iraqi regime and replacing it, preventing WMD proliferation, or protecting Americans against an unaccountable Court, the United States will utilize its institutions of representative government, adhere to its Constitutional strictures, and follow its values when measuring the legitimacy of its actions.

Short version: we’ll decide for ourselves what is legitimate, thank you. And this is the US representative to the most important international institution?

Incidentally, this argument is much like the one President Bush had with candidate John Kerry about the “global test” during the fall 2004 election.

Note: others have dissected Bolton’s arguments in more detail.

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