Archive for category International Relations

Clash of Civilizations?

Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization was panned in the world of academic political correctness as being full of stereotypes and ethnocentric ideals.   Some thought his book was a rationalization for expansion of American power, others felt he had simplistic taxonomies with insensitivity to internal dynamics, class conflict, and the impact of imperialism.   Yet Huntington, who died Christmas eve in 2008 at the age of 81, may have been one of the most insightful political scientists of the last century.

To be sure, his Harvard style of grand theorizing and limited methodological rigor was a turn off for the new generation of social scientists who became more comfortable with statistical analyses than big ideas.   To them Huntington was engaged in speculative theory, gathering information and organizing it around his own subjective reflection on the world.   That was old fashioned, the new generation thought social science should be truly scientific, dividing problems into smaller themes to investigate with clear methodology.   Not only that, but with the advent of computer technology such “rigor” became easy, especially if you worked at an institution with the resources to buy data bases and sophisticated software.

Yet for all the journal articles published and sophisticated models constructed, the twin problems of complexity and perspective remain vexing.   The problem of complexity means that in a multi-causal reality being able to identify and measure the impact of single factors is almost impossible in most cases.   The problem of perspective means that all aspects of social reality can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the perspective taken.  Moreover, with the world so complex, the choice of what to measure and how to interpret becomes subject to significant bias from the researcher.   The quantitative analysis that yields a statistical result to a test of an hypothesis may be riddled with bias and error, even if it appears rigorous and sound.

Huntington had two ideas that were profound.  Others shared these ideas, but Huntington made them mainstream.  In 1968 in his book Political Order in Changing Societies he argued that the driving theory of US foreign policy in the third world, modernization theory, was wrong.   That theory, attributed primarily to Walt Rustow, was that the problem in the post-colonial world was that societies were still traditional, not having gone through the process of modernization.   Modernization entails having rational thought replace tradition, secular ideas replace religion, and materialism trump symbolic ritual.   Modernism is progressive, while traditionalism is conservative.    Huntington pointed out what was becoming obvious: unless modernization is accompanied by the growth of effective political institutions and rule of law, the result will be corruption, disorder and perhaps violence.    The market alone will not bring stability or prosperity.   Few doubt that now.

In 1993 he published a provocative article in Foreign Affairs called “The Clash of Civilizations?”   He turned this into a book published in 1996.   During that time period, the debate in the US was between those who thought the US should expand and try to shape the post-Cold War world into one conducive to US values against those who thought western imperialism entailed big corporations trying to exploit the third world and dominate.   The former dismissed cultural differences as arbitrary — everyone wants to be free, the West simply discovered the “right” path first.   The latter dismissed cultural differences as secondary to economic exploitation.   Meanwhile the “scientific” study of political science shied away from cultural factors as impossible to measure and compare.   Culture for them seemed a mushy kind of explanation people give when they don’t understand why differences occur.   Their emphasis remained on measurable factors such as economic output, public opinion, and various political variables.

Huntington argued that the great ideological conflict of the 20th century was ending, and ending at a time when a new process, globalization, was progressing.   Similar to an argument put forth in 1994 by Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs. McWorld, Huntington noted that this expansion of the world economy would lead to increasing contacts and interactions across borders that could threaten cultural values and identities in a way not experienced since perhaps the Roman Empire.

Barber saw this a battle between forces defending local custom (jihad) and efforts to centralize and standardize the world economy (McWorld).  As globalization forced standardization — Barber was one of the first to really investigate the role of Hollywood movies to impact other cultures — people would rebel to try to reclaim and protect their traditions and identity.  Balancing a respect for culture and diversity with the demands of an increasingly global economy would be key to avoiding future violence and terrorism.

Huntington took this a step farther and divided the world into different civilizations.   Here is where he got in some trouble.    Dividing the world into clear civilizations is tricky.   Huntington’s civilizations included:  Western,  Latin American, Islamic, Sinic (Chinese), Hindu,  Orthodox, Japanese, and African.   Africa was a later edition; at first Huntington left it out, not being able to point to a clear cultural history as colonialism had wiped out so much of what normally defines a culture.   Yet saying Africa was without a civilization appeared to many as racist and a sign of Huntington’s ethnocentrism.    On top of that, internal differences (e.g., the Arab world vs. Indonesia in the Islamic civilization) and cross-civilizational links (Latin America with Spain and aspects of what is considered the ‘West’) made it easy to take pot shots at Huntington.   He seemed engaged in stereotyping, and worse ignoring the leveling effect of globalization (either for good if you’re Thomas Friedman, or bad if you’re Noam Chomsky) on all cultures.

Yet, while acknowledging the imperfection of such a classification, Huntington persuasively argued that there are distinct cultural values and ideals crafted through history.  It’s an arrogance of the West to assume that we have the “right’ culture and others naturally will drift our way.   That assumption led to failure in Iraq, as the Bush Administration ignored culture in favor of an ideological belief in the universality  of American values.  It’s an arrogance of the Left to label acknowledgment of real cultural differences and distinct civilizations as mere stereotyping and prejudice.    Culture is real, culture matters and in an era of new media and instantaneous global communication, cultural clashes are inevitable.    That is a key factor which motivated the terrorists on 9-11!  Quibble with Huntington’s taxonomy, but his core ideas appear accurate.

So if, as Barber claims, we need to balance the tendencies of  ‘McWorld” vs. “jihad,” and if future conflict will be as much about cultural values colliding as about money, power or ideology, how should the US react?  I think this requires a complete rethinking of our foreign policy and attitude about global affairs.   I also think we need to be ready for the impact of the information revolution on our own society and culture — we’re not immune from dramatic change.  I’ll write more on all this in future posts!


New World Order: Under Construction

We’ve become accustomed to the view that globalization is a friend of American ideals, economic liberalism, and westernization.   The cheery “world is flat” line from Thomas Friedman paints a picture of connections growing between countries and cultures, with self-interest and the material prosperity promised by markets trumping extremism and radicalism.  Even those with a more negative view of globalization tend to see the US and “world capitalism” winning — they argued that the price would be exploitation of the poor third world states, with perhaps some uprising against the West “down the line.”  Aside from the environmental concerns of global warming, globalization has generally been viewed  as a positive development for American ideals, even if the transition to a better world might be difficult.

Increasingly globalization looks connected to the dissolution of the Cold War and its bipolar system into a multi-polar anarchy, with both Communism and Capitalism succumbing to major crises.   The idea that economic liberalism “won” could in hindsight look like a fool’s fantasy, as if sailors ignorant that their own ship was slowly sinking cheered as their opponent’s ship sinks faster.

This does not mean that the US is not going to remain a power.   Former superpowers such as Russia, Britain, France and Germany still play major roles on the world stage.   The US has 300 million people, a high tech economy, a powerful military, and despite economic crisis, the capacity to grow and prosper.   This does mean that the rules are changing, and that the emerging world order is going to be far different than the one people are accustomed to, and certainly much different than the “unipolar” world neo-conservatives like Charles Krauthammer envisioned.

The evidence is all around.  It’s evident in the argument put forth by Walter Russel Mead about Brazil and Turkey. During the Cold War the range of actions of these states were limited by their need to maintain support from the US.   In a more unorganized world, the United States is not as important to these states, and they have responded with assertive policies often directly countering US interests (Brazil with Iran, Turkey opposing Israel).   The US can get mad, but there is little concretely that can be done to punish them.   In the past American unilateralism had sting; now there are other places to turn, and many other middle and even slightly larger powers that want to assert that they no longer fear America.

China has already made that clear with even whiffs of refusal to finance on going American debt.   Sure, China still needs our markets — but not as much as they used to.  Alternates are growing, and a weakening US economy means it’s easier to get oil for the Chinese economy.

The US miltary increasingly looks anachronistic, even as it is as powerful and technologically advanced as ever.  The reason is that warfare has changed.   Much of US power is based on the ability to use nuclear weapons — yet that weapon is one of deterrence, perfect for countering Soviet power, but not useful on the messy chess board of post-Cold War world affairs.     In all but the most fanciful and unlikely scenarios these weapons are simply unusable.

With terrorism and asymmetrical warfare becoming the dominant military strategies, more emphasis is based on economic policies and small regional conflicts.  The US can get involved in these, but Iraq and Afghanistan show that the cost is high, the ability to project power limited, the public’s tolerance of such actions low, and locals can undercut US objectives.   Currently that’s the problem in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Most think it’s highly unlikely the US will get involved in more such wars — we can’t afford it, and the public would oppose it — so fear of US military power has declined dramatically.    The US can use air strikes, but few believe that can achieve anything but the most limited objectives.

So, despite the disdain of diplomacy and internationalism by many on the right, the reality is that the rules of the new international order demand multi-lateralism.   There is very little the US can do on its own effectively.  The US has to compromise more and can lead less, something different than the past view as the United States as the “leader of the free world.”

This change has been rapid and dramatic, and has not been digested by many who are used to and comfortable with the old order and a dominant United States.   They blame Obama or Bush, think the US needs a more assertive foreign policy, but to support this they rely more on tough rhetoric than a reasoned argument about American capacities.    The result of trying to maintain the old policy patterns would be a United States trying to act beyond its capacity to succeed, thereby looking even weaker and more isolated.   By trying to push, demand, and force others to do things our way, we’ll be less effective and garner more ill will.

Yet, again, the US is still the dominant military power and has the largest economy.   The problems within the EU recently, China’s emerging domestic dilemmas, and other tensions show that while the US may not be the undisputed “leader of the West,” it’s also not a has-been.   The key to an effective foreign policy is to adjust to the need to “compromise more and lead less,” in order to still exercise some leadership, and still get others to compromise as well.   If a salesman goes to his boss and demand she give him a huge raise because of all the sales he’s made, she might decide it isn’t worth it and fire the guy.   If the salesman negotiates reasonably, he may get a satisfactory raise and stay with the firm.   We can’t be the bombastic power making demands, we have to be the confident power building alliances and coalitions.

That still doesn’t solve the problem of figuring out just how the new order is going to look when the dust settles.   A lot depends on oil supplies, how bad global warming really is, Mideast crises, and what happens over the next decade or so to the global economy.   But we are in systemic transition, always an unstable and often violent time.   It’s important to recognize that we have to let go of the assumptions and expectations of the past, and recognize that this is a new era.   The US can still be a major player, but not as a “dominant leader” or “unipolar power,” but through cooperation, alliance building, and multilateralism.

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The Westfailure System

Susan Strange, a British political scientist, is one of the more important analysts of the international political economy in the 20th century.   She died in 1998 at the age of 75, having presented some of the most cogent and powerful analyses of the changing nature of the global political economy.  I saw her speak once  back in early 1983 at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Bologna, Italy center, where I was working on my MA.   She talked about the debt crisis and the dangers inherent in the globalization of capital.

In 1999 an article by Strange appeared, published posthumously, called “The Westfailure system.”  It is a play on the term scholars use to describe the international political system — the Westphalian system.   In 1648 the thirty years war, and 130 years of wars surrounding the reformation, was ended with the Treaty of Westphalia.   That treaty created a new political unit: the sovereign territorial state.   For scholars of international relations, this is where the modern state system began.   In 1625 Hugo Grotius had applied the notion of “sovereignty” (until then describing religious authority) to territorial units, suggesting a new kind of international legal set up.   It worked.  The church was able to relinquish power without having to give up its claim that God was the source of legitimate power, and the “sovereigns” — leaders of the territorial units — could exercise internal control of their land.

In her article, Strange heralds the collapse of this system, noting that by the late 20th century it had proven unable to solve three problems:

“First, there is the major failure to manage and control the financial system—witness the Asian turmoil of 1997. Second, there is the failure to act for the protection of the environment. Third, there is a failure to preserve a socio[hyphen]economic balance between the rich and powerful and the poor and weak.”

Strange’s second and third issues — the environment and the gap between the rich and poor — seemed at the time to be rather obvious.   Global warming was already an issue, and it was clear that globalization of capital, meaning the ability of capital to go wherever labor or resources were cheapest, and regulations the most permissive, made it far easier to pollute and exploit.      The rise of sweat shops and inhumane treatment of workers so we can have cheaper stuff and sustain our consumer life styles had already become a major issue by the late 90s.   This can and does lead to violence and terrorism.

But the first thing on her list struck some people as odd — failure to manage and control the global financial system?  As the world economy grew in the decade after Strange’s article, it was easy to dismiss her pessimism.  Concern that states were losing their power to regulate big money was a constant refrain in Strange’s work, especially after the early eighties debt crisis.   She was being needlessly alarmist, many thought.

Her argument was more specific than just the global financial system.  She was especially concerned about global credit markets, and the risk that unrestrained speculation could create bubbles that, when burst, might cause a major economic crisis.   In short, Strange saw the current crisis in advance, both in terms of massive speculation, but also how global markets allowed states to get out of balance, including high debt levels in the US (perhaps over $50 trillion of debt overall) and unsustainable current accounts deficit (mostly trade).   

I believe Strange’s pessimism about the Westphalian system of sovereign states is accurate.   More precisely, the sovereign state never really took hold in much of the third world.   Lacking true “nations,” throughout Africa ethnic groups have competed for power, with the state an artifical colonial construct.  You go into government because that’s where the bribes are, and the power to enrich yourself or your ethnic group.  Few really focus on the people of the state.  Throughout Africa the state has already failed.  

In places with an already strong sense of identity (including some multi-ethnic states) the state has fared better.  However, rarely has a true democracy took hold, rarely have the people been able to hold those with power accountable.  Asian and Latin American states are a mixed bag, but in general states have seemed to be dysfunctional at truly promoting human and individual rights, or supporting broad development.   Usually they ‘follow the money.’

The “sovereign state” was a European creation, but even in Europe states grew to the point that competition and rivalry lead to massive world wars.   States were large enough to centralize the power to engage and rationalize mass violence, including the European conquest of most of the world in the 19th century (which is why the world got ‘sovereign states’ as its new political organization).   As states centralized power in the 20th century, they became capable of massive destruction and violence, murdering tens of millions in Germany and the USSR, making decisions leading to famines such as the one that killed 30 million in China, or rationalizing horrific regimes, such as the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. 

After WWII, Europe slowly moved away from the sovereign state as the central actor, towards a confederal arrangement based on free trade, a focus on human rights, and a distrust of the abuse of power.  The EU has certainly been better for the Europeans than their previous state system was, but still suffers one major flaw: it follows the money.  Tyrants no longer control politics, but large corporate actors do.   The hope is that public opinion, democracy, and the new culture of human rights can keep the EU stable — but that’s more a cultural hope, than one based on the institutions.

In the US so much power is centralized that most Americans see the state as unresponsive.  Hence you get the emotion driven blog and talk radio world on the right, and the kind of ‘movement’ mentality behind Obama on the left.  The state itself is weakening due to a weaker sense of social solidarity, and a sensationalized media coverage that seeks scandal over substance.  Behind it all, big money still dominates, a kind of corporate socialism that encompasses both the GOP and the Democrats.

So maybe, the state is failing as a unit of governance.   Maybe it’s becoming obsolete due to globalization.   But governance always exists, so if the state fails, then some different kind of organization will replace it.   It’s not clear what that could be in an era as complex and uncertain as this.   Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t something that will happen overnight, or even over a short decade or two.  But the era of the dominance of the sovereign nation state may be ending, and may in fact already be on its deathbed in the world outside the West.

We’ve come to see sovereign nation states as the natural and obvious way to organize politics, even though they have such a history of war and oppression.   Once something is seen as natural, it’s hard to look at it critically, or question whether or not it is sustainable.   The state might not be.  But what could replace it?  What should?  The ability to successfully deal with that question might determine whether or not the next century can be stable and prosperous.