Theory stuff

I thought this article had a good introduction that talks about theory. See pg. 644 for the start of the theory talk – International relations theory and rising powers: The theoretical landscape

… an hour and a half, and a few cookie breaks, later…

The more i read the less convinced i am that any theory has predictive power. Retrospectively we can label something that fits a theoretical framework, but i’m having trouble with the notion that theory does much of anything for us predicatively.
The above article lays out a few scenarios and tries to explain them using a Power Transition (realist) model and one using an Institutionalist (liberalist) model. The first is the question of the South China Sea, China’s claims on the off-shore territory and likely outcomes stemming from those claims and China’s actions concerning the area since the 1990s.
According to the author China took a staunchly realist stance immediately after the Cold War ended and made strong claims to the South China Sea thus setting up a situation where regionally states were set is direct opposition to China. International backlash precipitated a softening Chinese approach since the mid to late 1990s to a more liberal and internationally cooperative Chinese approach to their South China Sea claims.
These two phases of Chinese activity in the region are pretty easy to identify using the theoretical constructs the author chose, which is fine – i have no trouble buying into his description. It’s when he makes the following two statements that my faith in the applicability of theory as a crystal ball falls apart.

“[Power Transition theory] suggests that a more powerful China would abandon the pretense of cooperation unless international institutions can be shaped to serve national interests. Since China has not wavered in its assertion of sovereignty over most of the contested areas even as it embraces multilateralism, it might well forsake cooperation once the costs of doing so are no longer seen as prohibitive.”


“Institutionalist theory suggest that the accumulating benefits Beijing derives from sustained cooperation in the South China Sea may gradually erode the temptation to abandon multilateral cooperation.”

Maybe it’s just my shortcomings as an IR theorist, but aside from playing the devils advocate what have we really done when we say it could go this way or that. Theory seems to do an adequate job in describing the past (only adequate because time and again we see patch-work theories added in to make room for real world occurances, i.e. the “semi-periphery”) and a piss-poor job predicting the future.

Does that mean IR theory is really just IR history?

Will IR theory ever get an Einstein (pg. 4) or a Hawking who can clarify for us a universal theory that has real-world applicability over time in varied circumstances?

If we’re making predictions i like the constructivist take on the Zombie Apocalypse!


ANZAC Day got me thinking…

I knew my alarm was set for 5:15 a.m., so naturally I woke up at 4 a.m. in anticipation of walking down to Lambton Quay to participate in my first ANZAC Day commemoration. It took me by surprise in my groggy haze to see from my kitchen window as I was making instant coffee a group of about 10 Weir House undergraduates making their way down the footpath chatting loudly as they headed towards the city center. The notion of starting a national day of remembrance before the sun comes up is totally foreign to my American sensibilities, but if the ten undergrads could make it out the door at that hour I thought maybe it was important for me to have this experience and was glad I was soon to follow.

Until today I didn’t know what the acronym ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) even meant, not to mention what I was about to commemorate, and if I wasn’t paying full attention before, standing in a crowd of what seemed like several hundred, maybe a thousand, I certainly was once the canon heralding the dawn was fired.

I don’t know if it was the intention, but the firing of the canon encouraged me to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of that booming thunderous sound. I’ve only known mortal terror in my dreams and can scarcely conjure the waking nightmare armed battle must be. I was soon elucidated to the ideals of ANZAC Day, why we gathered and whom we were to remember. Throughout the ceremony I found myself thinking about the meaning of a nation of people being so intentional about stopping their routine to make time and space to think on the deeds of men and women who have died under the banner of their shared flag and sense of identity. I was also interested to upon returning home and spending some time on Wikipedia learn there has been some controversy about what exactly Britons, Australians and New Zealanders are remembering and how the events at Gallipoli have shaped their respective national consciousness.

Controversy aside I think most of those who turned up this morning before the sun rose fall into the camp espoused officially by the NZ government, “After Gallipoli, New Zealand had a greater confidence in its distinct identity, and a greater pride in the international contribution it could make.”

There is nothing like fighting and dying and killing to bring people together in support of a goal, be that one defined by the state, by popular opinion, by a sense of duty to a figure – “for King and country,” or even in support of a system or way of life.

Before I started looking at the history and meaning of ANZAC Day I turned on some music on random in my iTunes library and the very first track to play was an excerpt from a popular U.S. Civil War documentary I have the soundtrack for. It’s an achingly beautiful letter from a man to his wife with a poetic introduction where the soldier proclaims his unwavering commitment to the system he lives in.

July 14, 1861 Camp Clark, Washington DC … I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt. …

My experience this morning, reading the civil war letter, and reflecting on the meaning of why we honor the dead who served I come to one conclusion. The sacrifice of individuals is irreproachable even when the system calls for reprehensible action.

The question I’m left with is not about human nature but about the international order we set up over the past 100-years. Will people always be perfectly willing to lay down their joys to maintain a government? Will we always buy into the system we have now?

Is there an argument to be made that Marxism hasn’t been see through to fruition yet? Is capitalism in China the last stage of capitalism’s spread? Will the next 20-years of China’s rise provide the necessary roots of a great revolution like Marx thought was coming in 19th c. Europe’s failed social progress experiment?

Will Lenin’s notion that competing empires scrambling for market and resource access lead to more and more failed states like some in Europe and arguably the U.S. of today ultimately lead to a failed international system?

French presidential elections: a ‘frivolous’ island?

As some of you might know today is the first round of the French presidential elections. About 43.2 million voters (including 1 million people living abroad) are going to the polls to choose between a generally disliked president, a Socialist candidate who became popular by default, a far-right candidate who’s trying hard to normalize her father’s party and retain a political ground often invaded by the current president mentioned above, a hard-core Gaullist, sovereignty advocate (i.e. anti-European), a centre-right candidate from the deep South who pretends to be neither right or left, a ‘Norwegian post-menopausal’[1] judge, 3 communist and/or Troskyist revolutionaries (including Mr Jean-Luc Mélenchon whose survey ratings average 14-16% of the votes), and last but not least a conspiracy theorist who advocates for the building of a thermonuclear tunnel from the Earth to the moon and Mars. (Meet the candidates here or here.)

During the past 4 weeks of campaigning a few international figures made it into the French political arena, including Angela Merkel who expressed her strong support to Nicolas Sarkozy, the German SPD who favours François Hollande, or Barrack Obama who strongly believes in Sarkozy’s victory (see the video here). Beyond these traditional vote-catching efforts to show the candidates’ international calibre[2], world politics were conspicuously absent from the debates, as if France were an island disconnected from the outside world, when so many pressing issues will have to be dealt with on an international level:

  • The international, or at least European, dimension of the economic crisis lent itself to a rather sterile debate between advocates of a passé protectionism and supporters of an adaptation to globalization, as though the economic challenge awaiting our next government will merely be dealt with on internal issues such as VAT and the tax system, with no connection to the wider context.
  • The European Union in dire need of reform to be able to address the debt deficit crisis is being attacked on all fronts and accused of being the cause of so many French difficulties. Nicolas Sarkozy, who 5 years ago wanted to put the Lisbon Treaty back on track, now uses the EU as a scapegoat, when François Hollande argues that he will renegotiate the latest European agreements to give them a greater social dimension, which will likely isolate France from its European partners.
  • The current state of affairs in Northern Africa, the armed conflict in Sahel, the rising tensions between Israel and Iran, the civil war in Syria, none of these themes made it to the general debate, although they will pose challenges that the next French government will have to face.

The results of the first round will be announced tonight (French time). Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande will very likely be the two frontrunners. With the second stage of the campaign starting tomorrow, we may hope that global politics will finally be debated and that some thought will be given to the position of France in Europe and the world today.


[1] In her own words.

[2] For a detailed analysis of the role of International Relations in presidential elections campaign under the 5th Republic, please see: Isabelle Lebreton-Falézan, Dimensions internationales des campagnes présidentielles sous la Vème République, available at:

Other People’s War

This is not a regular post to start a discussion, but it mgiht add value to other ones or even trigger a new discussion. But to that I would like to recommend you all to go to BATS Theater next week and watch and enjoy “Other people’s war”.

It is a great play based on Nicky Hager’s book about New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on terror.

It reveals quite interesting details on New Zealand’s involvement in the above mentioned issues. The majority of the information were quite new to me and will maybe be of your interest as well. Of course, this play (unfortunately) shows only one perception of what happened. It depicts very well the cruelty of war and the limited access the public has to information as well as the big influence that other countries’ interests have on NZ foreign policy-making. However, seen from my point of view, it does not take into account the brutal and inhuman regime of the Taliban, which is one of my major criticisms of the play. I am interested in your opinions on that!
If anyone is keen on watching it, you have the chance until next Saturday. More infos and ticket booking (show was sold out on Friday):

The Patient Hegemon


Since we’ve been talking about realism in class, I thought a blog on the “patient hegemon” was timely. India’s testing yesterday of a long-range missile capable of reaching deep into China made me think that a reality check was overdue…

Mearsheimer, the great defender of offensive realism, argues that China’s growing capabilities will mean that the Middle Kingdom will not be a status quo power, but “an aggressive state determined to achieve regional hegemony” (from his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001)).  Mearsheimer, like other power theorists, assumes that rising states are revisionist and will attempt to change the rules of the system.

There are different strategies states can adopt in becoming a hegemonic power.  One option is the so-called “patient hegemon”, a state that patiently bides its time until it is strong enough to reconfigure what it sees as an oppressive international order.  After power is achieved the patient hegemon adopts quite different policies.  The classic example is Germany in the Weimar period.

Is China the “patient hegemon” of our era?  It sounds like it if we are to believe what Deng Xiaoping said in 1991 “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” This is often referred to as the “24-character” strategy for China’s foreign and security policy (from China, Japan and Regional Leadership in East Asia, edited by Christopher M. Dent).

Unsurprisingly, it is no easy feat to figure out Chinese defence spending due to shoddy Chinese stats.  Estimates by the West come in at around $100–150 billion, which is, admittedly, not even a quarter of the US budget.  However, should China’s economy continue to grow at its current breakneck speed, Chinese military spending will really start to cause angst.

China often gets stage fright, shying away from the international scene.  Chinese political masters are quick to point out the fact that per capita income and HDI are far below that of the West and Japan. They repeat at every possible turn the peaceful rise of China.  However, for select issues, such as the South China Sea or the disputed Senkaku Islands controlled by Japan, China is anything but shy. One gets the distinct impression that the “patient hegemon” is showing its true colours.  For instance, China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea which is rich in oil and natural gas and does not hesitate shooting at Japanese or Vietnamese fishing vessels entering what it considers to be its territory.

My bet is that as the rise of China continues we will see the patient hegemon coming out of its den more and more, until eventually the dragon will tire of its tight confines. Then it will really start flexing its muscles, giving a whole new meaning to India’s nuclear arsenal.

Game of Thrones and IR Theory

Described as the ‘cult IR series of 2011’, the second season of HBO’s medieval fantasy epic Game of Thrones is now in full swing. GoT, adapted from George R.R Martin’s series of novels, depicts the conflict-riven fictional worlds of Westeros and Essos where power-hungry rivals manoeuvre for control of the Iron Throne set against a gritty backdrop of feudalism and magic.

Time’s James Poniewozick says, “Thrones is a complex narrative with a simple theme: power — scheming for it, keeping it and suffering from it or the lack of it”.

In addition to being influenced by fantasy writers like Tolkien, Martin loosely based his narrative on the Wars of the Roses and other bloody dynastic struggles for power but does it have any relevance to contemporary international politics? Or is ‘the Sopranos in Middle-Earth’ just pure entertainment?

The IR blogosphere was quick to apply an IR lens to GoT’s power dynamics and murky morals.


Drezner sees season one’s protagonist, Ned Stark, as a casualty of ruthless realpolitik. Ned may be honourable and brave but he is a guileless politician. This proves to be a fatal combination in a Hobbesian universe which produces zero-sum outcomes as Cersei Lannister (one of the female leads) bluntly affirms, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die”.

Power in GoT doesn’t necessarily equate to physical strength on the battlefield. To succeed and survive requires a Machiavellian streak and a Carr-like fixation on power best exemplified by the dwarf Tyrion Lannister (season 2’s antihero). Tyrion is well-versed in political intrigue which exponentially increases his chances of outlasting the competition and he pragmatically states, “I’m not Ned Stark, I understand the way this game is played.”

Although realists will find plenty to agree with in terms of GoT’s ‘might is right’ power politics, the powerful are frequently disempowered through shifting alliances and changing fortunes. And often when power is wielded, it can reside in unexpected places for a medieval setting, with women, children, ‘cripples’, ‘bastards’ and eunuchs all important players (not just kings and warriors).

Carpenter takes a nuanced stance encompassing cultural norms, gender relations and even environmental disaster in rejecting a realist reading of GoT. She regards Martin’s use of multiple points-of-view as a humanising technique, which lends readers/viewers insight into the perspectives of characters in different social strata:

“Martin shows how gender, race, class, age, and disability combine to produce multiple gradients and forms of power in Westerosi society, just as much as differences in material capabilities”.

According to Carpenter, GoT is, “a parable about the consequences of unchecked realpolitik, it does not celebrate power and the powerful but challenges and interrogates them. Society is complex, roles and identities are varied and contingent, and division risks disaster”.

Martin’s own view of power is maybe symbolised by the game’s ultimate prize, the Iron Throne, which is made of wrought sword blades. It is literally a double-edged seat of authority that both empowers and endangers its incumbent.

Does anyone else watch GoT? Can it be properly debated in terms of IR theory? Or is this just a case of academics over-theorising in order to hop on the pop-culture bandwagon?

Was Machiavelli ever a Realist?

Niccolò Machiavelli is considered part of the Realist canon because of the way he introduced a new way of thinking about politics, one which overcame the received wisdom of employing a Christian set of values whilst judging political affairs. In The Prince he distinguishes between virtù and the virtues of Christianity, arguing that the virtù of The Prince should be based upon the security of the State and not on Christian morality. This moment arguably constituted the emergence of Realpolitik and stems from a critique of previous Humanist thought, especially their evasion of the role of power (fortune) in political life.

Machiavelli felt this redefinition of virtù was necessary for the Prince to achieve his noblest ends, that being the successful founding of a lasting, peaceful Republic. He was arguably central to establishing the distinction between positive and normative conceptions of political activity, when he said ‘how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine this power rather than maintain it’ (Machiavelli in, Chris Brown, ed., International Relations in Political Thought. p 261 italics mine).

While he has been co-opted into the Realist school of International Relations, Machiavelli was generally focused on government within a state, rather than relations between them. Within The Prince, Machiavelli was primarily concerned with the conduct of individual princes, especially in the establishment and maintenance of a state, however in an earlier work, The Discourses on Livy, he was more concerned with offering his advice to the whole body of citizens. In this work, his sympathies lie with “free” forms of government, as opposed to individual rulership. In the Discourses he tells us ‘though but one person suffices for the purpose of organization, what he has organized will not last long if it continues to rest on the shoulders of one man’ (Machiavelli in, Chris Brown, ed., International Relations in Political Thought. p 266). This implies that unlike Realism (classical Realism at least) where the state is considered an opaque and unitary actor, the form of the government of the state is of central importance to Machiavelli’s thought.

Realism’s co-optation of Machiavelli as an amoral player of power politics inverts but continues a tradition of demonising Machiavelli, with his wickednesses turned into virtues. However, a more in-depth reading of Machiavelli reveals a massive amount of context surrounding his advice to The Prince. Therefore, while he should be credited with helping furnish Realism’s canon, he arguably was not a Realist himself.