Tag: power

Podcast No. 18: Interview with Stefano Guzzini

guzzini_sThe eighteenth Duck of Minerva podcast features Stefano Guzzini of the Danish Institute for International Studies and Uppsala University . Professor Guzzini discusses, among other things his intellectual and educational background, his important work on power in international affairs, realism, and geopolitics.

This podcast is a bit more “bare bones” than usual. I didn’t put in introductory remarks; I have not produced an m4a version at this time. The file located here is the mp3 version. Explanation: I am bit pressed for time right now.

I should reiterate important change to procedures. From now on, the Minervacast feed will host mp3 versions of the podcasts. The whiteoliphaunt feed will host m4a versions of the podcast [note: see earlier remarks about the m4a version of this podcast]. Unless I hear otherwise, we will continue this approach into the foreseeable future.

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Friday Nerd Blogging

Yes, it’s soon to be back. Now if you’ve read A Clash of Kings, you might rightly wonder who the “priest” is in this allegory, since while Season 2 will feature kings and rich men the only important religious figure is actually a woman. But if you’re read A Clash of Kings closely and obsessively you know that the narration by Varys in the trailer is only passingly related to setting up Season 2 itself, and is instead a more generic tale about political power that serves as part of the dialogue (and not a particularly important part at that)in a particular scene on p. 50.

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?”

University of Michigan’s Karsten Smolinsk unpacks this riddle through a reading of political theory:

This is a riddle from the second book of the Game of Thrones series, a story set in a place much like our own Medieval Ages. The riddle is about the nature of power. Which is greatest?

Is it the power of the law wielded by the king? As Hobbes argued, submitting to the rule of a monarch is essential to preventing the state of nature. Saving the king maintains order in society. Killing the king could create a state of nature in which life is brutal and short.

Is it the power of religion wielded by the priest? Locke argued that belief in a god is the backbone of man’s morality. Most religions express beliefs about punishment or reward based on how people follow their religion’s moral code. Saving or killing the priest could decide one’s ultimate fate.

Is it the power of money wielded by the rich man? Hobbes believes that ultimately humans are selfish beings. Saving the rich man comes with the benefits of not only potentially securing one’s own survival, but one’s own comfort as well.

Or is it in fact the power of force wielded by the ordinary sellsword? In the riddle the three powerful men are in fact powerless before the man with sword. He could kill all three of them if he wanted to. Hobbes argued that force was the most important tool of the monarch. In the end sellsword’s own beliefs will dictate who he kills, suggesting that whichever power is greatest is simply the one that people believe to be the greatest.

In other words, power is what people make of it. What I believe is that this riddle, like other subtexts in the A Song of Ice and Fire arc, suggests that the underlying story Martin is telling is most consistent with constructivism, not political realism. More on this theme later in the semester. Meanwhile, to rephrase Smolinsk’s question put to students:

So which do you believe is greatest? Do you think force underlies all power? Do you think people posses a selfish nature that grants money the true power? Does law have power without force to back it? Or is belief itself the most powerful? Think back to the beginning of the semester. How do we form our beliefs?

As a good constructivist, my argument would be that law has power even without force to back it; and despite its realist veneer, now that I’ve finished A Dance with Dragons, I would argue the ASOIAF ultimately tells this particular story of power as well. What say you?


Super is as super does

A friend forwarded me this interesting article by Dennis Ross in the New Republic on why we should be paying more attention to Russia. I have to say, that I certainly agree that we should be paying more attention to Russia. And I think that he gets some stuff very right: (continued below the fold)

Russia tends to pale in comparison to these other concerns [unrest in the Middle East, the rise of China, climate change, etc.], and the tendency will be to pay it little heed. That would be a mistake. The less attention we pay to Russia, the more incentive we give Vladimir Putin and his successors to demonstrate that they are a power to be reckoned with and to act in ways that will be increasingly problematic. Already we see Russia staking out claims to the Arctic and its riches; manipulating its oil and gas supplies for political purposes; supporting separatist movements in neighboring states or what it calls the “near abroad”; and selling arms to rogue regimes like Iran and Syria. (The Russians are in the process of upgrading significantly Iran’s air defense and have also been providing Syria large numbers advanced anti-air and anti-tank missiles; when the Syrians turned over some of these weapons to Hezbollah, the Russians looked the other way.)

To understand Russia’s behavior and develop the right strategies for dealing with it, we need to appreciate the impact that lost status has had on the Russian psyche and the imperative it has created to restore the country’s standing as a world power. Few non-Russians mourned the passing of the Soviet Union, but within the country, there is deep resentment of the United States for winning the cold war. Putin has called the collapse of the USSR one of the greatest geopolitical “tragedies of the twentieth century.”

Today, the perception in Russia is not only that the United States sought to exploit Russian weakness but also to keep it weak. Expanding NATO into Eastern Europe might have been one thing but to extend it to include the Baltic states was something else. And President Bush’s decision to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty at the beginning of his administration was one final crushing blow. Here was a pillar that had established the Russians as the strategic equal of the United States, and we dismissed it–and the Russians were powerless to do anything about it.

But I’m disappointed at the easy reliance on the caricature of Russia as an “energy super-power”. This notion that Russia is an “energy superpower” really needs to be unpacked–it’s a facile and deceptive formulation that plays into fear-mongering about a resurgent Russia. We’ve seen Russia attempt to wield its energy reserves as a political tool against its neighbors in the near-abroad–usually in the form of convenient unscheduled maintenance or a sudden shortage of coal cars or the like. But how effectively can Russia use this power elsewhere? Pipelines are funny things–they only go to where they are built. Most of Russia’s energy exports travel through pipelines–the seller is locked into a limited set of buyers. And western Europeans may be better positioned to diversify their energy imports than Russia is to diversify its customer base (former Soviet bloc countries, though, are much more over the barrel, so to speak). Russia needs its energy buyers as much, if not more, than the western Europeans need the energy. The energy sector represents about 20 percent of Russia’s GDP, while energy products make up over 60 percent of exports. If it weren’t for the constant influx of oil and gas revenue, the federal budget would be in deficit. Russia needs to sell oil and gas. If the EU members can ever act in concert on this issue, they could have the upper hand (yes, I know that’s a big “if”).

I’m not saying that this should make us feel all warm and fuzzy about Russia’s intentions–rather, we should recall that at some base level, this is a bluff that they can’t afford to have called. But loudly and publicly trying to prick the bubble of Russia’s perceived power probably isn’t the ideal strategy either [see above: resentment, festering]. Instead, we should avoid falling for the panicky hype and treat Russia as a important world player rather than the afterthought of a past era’s failure. Constructive engagement reduces the incentive to act out–from the perspectives of both domestic and international posturing.


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