Posts Tagged ‘international relations theory’

Systemic Realignment.

datePosted on 13:42, July 23rd, 2014 by Pablo

The chaotic state of contemporary international affairs demonstrates the serious limitations of constructivism and idealism as theoretical frameworks for the analysis of global macro-dynamics. The former claims that the construction of international institutions helps universalise common values and mores, thereby leading to improved interstate relations under supranational (international organisation) guidance and enforcement. The latter posits that the perfectability of humankind makes for a common search for cooperation in the conduct of foreign affairs. This leads to the pursuit of constructivism in international relations as common effort is made to overcome self-interest as the bottom line of nation-states. Both schools of thought believe that economic and non-state actors will eventually adopt similar approaches to their behaviour with foreign entities, as the universalisation of norms serves as a hedge against the uncertainties that ultimately lie at the heart of foreign relations based upon self-interested maximisation of opportunities by international actors acting rationally in environments of scarcity and limited information. This line of thought follows a rich utopian tradition that extends back to Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” through Woodrow Wilson to Alexander Wendt.

There have been undoubtable advances in international cooperation and the embrace of universal norms and supranational institutions over the last century. But recent events suggest that two “old school” theoretical approaches remain the best guides to international dynamics and the behaviour of international actors, both state and non-state in nature: realism and systems theory.

The reasons are simple. Realism is funded on the belief that absent universal norms accepted and enforced universally, self-interest is the ultimate determinant of actor’s behaviour in the international arena. This tendency is accentuated in environments of scarcity or of competition over strategic resources. Both situations–the lack of universally shared norms and competition over strategic resources–are hallmark characteristics of the present era.

International systems theory is both descriptive and prescriptive. The former describes the nature of interstate power relations at any given point in time: unipolar, bipolar, multipolar or anarchic. The analysis of said relations occurs globally, regionally and sub-regionally, as the international system is seen as being comprised of sub-systems acting at the micro (sub-regional) meso (regional) and macro (international) levels.  The latter is a product of both the first two as well as dynamics of its own.

Realism is focused on the exercise of power and its distribution in the international arena. It has intellectual origins in the thought of Metternich and Machiavelli, upgraded in modern times by Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz (who advanced a school of thought known as structural realism or neorealism that emphasised economic power as opposed to military-diplomatic power).  Today the concepts of “hard”,” “soft,” and “smart” power all follow in this tradition.

International systems theory was first advanced by Morton Kaplan, who adapted David Easton’s work on domestic political systems to the international stage. It sees systems as involving input, output and feedback loops that push the evolution of a particular system in a given direction. As with realists, the focus of international systems theory is on distributions or balances of power.

For international systems theorists the state of world affairs is never static. Instead, it is fluid and constantly in a process of change. There may be periods, often long in nature, of relative stability of a given system, but these are not permanent due to the inherent characteristics of the actors involved. For example, the Cold War was a period of what came to be known as tight bipolar stability, with alliance systems constructed around two opposing superpowers bound by the logic of nuclear deterrence. 45 years in duration, that system is considered to be relatively long-lived by systemic standards.

The post Cold War system was seen as unipolar in nature, as the US was considered to be the sole superpower after the collapse of the USSR. But in the eyes of systems theorists unipolar systems are inherently unstable, as pretenders to the throne will work incessantly, even if indirectly, to advance their positions vis a vis the so-called “hegemon.” In fact, unipolar systems are considered to be only marginally more stable than large-N multipolar systems in which power is widely distributed and strategic resources are regularly contested.

In contrast, small-N multipolar systems revolving around 3-5 states and their respective alliances or spheres of influence are considered to be the most stable types of international system, since the different poles can balance and counterbalance their relations with each other based upon mutual necessity. Balances of power are inherent in all international systems other than unipolar ones, and shifting allegiances on particular military, diplomatic and economic issues allow for equilibrium to be maintained amongst the competing powers.

Under the logic of international systems theory unipolar systems cannot hold and will eventually lead to systemic realignment that results in the emergence of a bi- or multipolar world. But the transition has a systems regulator, and its name is conflict.

International systems re-equilibrate through conflict. Here the quest for balancing becomes something akin to jostling for position in the making of a future world. Conflict runs a gamut from diplomatic tensions to war, and includes economic disputes and sanctions, unilateral and multinational foreign interventions, increased espionage between and within alliances and among individual nation states, and breakdown of international norms and consensus. The transitional period can see temporary alignments and bouts of various types of polarity, but is essentially a fluid moment that can last decades until systems equilibrium is restored. During that time different types of conflicts ebb and flow, to include major conflagrations.

Much like the invisible hand of capitalist economics, systemic realignment occurs in the aggregate rather than as the purposeful outcome of individual preferences or collective decision-making. State and non-state actors may attempt to steer the course of systems transition, but eventual stability depends on the establishment of a status quo that supersedes their particular desires.

What all of this suggests is that the current state of international affairs is one of systemic realignment. The transitional moment began with the end of the Cold War and accelerated after 9/11. The ensuing decade of armed conflicts, new and resurrected tensions in Central and SE Asia and the Middle East and rise of new power contenders such as the BRICs has produced a context of competition and conflict in which national self-interest prevails and international norms and institutions are ignored in favour of piecemeal solutions. The situation is set to last for some time, so we should be under no illusion that a new stable international system will be established soon.

Instead, a prudent course of action for a small country would be to understand that during a period of systemic realignment, strategic hedging in the form of holding all diplomatic options open, diversifying the range of economic partners and placing strict limits on the conditions in which military force is deployed is the best means of navigating the transitional moment.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be what New Zealand is doing, which begs the questions as to whether its foreign policy elite truly understand the nature of contemporary international relations and what conceptual frameworks they employ to chart a course within it.

The end of a norm.

datePosted on 15:17, September 12th, 2013 by Pablo

One perennial argument in international relations is that between realists on the one hand and idealists and constructivists on the other. Idealists believe in the perfectability of humankind and in the ability to interject moral and ethical authority into international affairs. Both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush adopted this approach to US foreign relations, Carter with his human rights policy and Dubya with his Pax Americana doctrine for transforming the world into the neoconservative’s preferred image. Closer to home, the Lange government’s non-nuclear declaration appealed to the higher minded elements in the global community.

Constructivists are not as prone to believe in the power of moral authority in international affairs. Instead, they believe that the behaviour of international actors can be constrained and regulated  by international norms and institutions. New Zealand’s support for multinational institutions and multi-lateral approaches to international conflict resolution, as well as its support for  international norms such as those embodied in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), are examples of constructivism in foreign policy. Idealists and constructivists dovetail in their belief that multinational institutions and norms can promote better international behaviour than otherwise would obtain.

Realists do not believe this is possible. Realists operate on the premise that because there is no moral, ethical or ideological consensus in international affairs, and because there is no superordinate authority to consistently and effectively enforce its rules of conduct, then the world is effectively in a state of nature (as used by Hobbes). Absent Leviathan in international affairs, states and non-state actors pursue their interests checked only by the relative power of other actors. Self-interest, not morality, rules the day. Classical realists see war as a systems regulator and military force as the ultimate determinant of power. Neo-realists (who emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s) believe that economic power is more important than military might and that the exercise of economic power determines the ability of actor’s to project force in defense of national and self-interest. They used the example of the USSR as a case where military power did not equate or supersede structural power in the long-term course of foreign affairs.

For realists international norms and institutions are nice and ideally preferable, but are no substitute for self-interested power projection as the basis for international stability. Realists see a place for idealist-based international institutions and norms in peripheral areas of international behaviour, but not in core areas of national interest. Thus saving whales can be approached via constructivist means, but securing trade routes and borders cannot.

In the realist view, international actors need to fend for themselves in the last instance, and therefore should approach the global arena with a view to best defending their own interests rather than those of the world community as a whole. Where national power is insufficient to defend core interests, alliances are constructed to do so. Contrary to the perception that realists are military hawks, realism is risk and war adverse in any circumstance where core national interests are not at stake. They do not believe in perfectability campaigns such as democracy and human rights promotion, nor do they believe in wars of choice fought to promote a preferred political outcome or moral ideal. Realism, at its core, is pragmatic and self-limiting.

The Syrian crisis has shown that when it comes to enforcing international norms the global community does not have the will or capability to do so. The bulk of world opinion is against US military intervention to punish the Assad regime for using sarin gas against his civilian population (not once, but a total of at least eleven times in the past 18 months). This occurs in spite of the 1927 and 1993 international bans on chemical weapons and the 1997 international convention calling for the destruction of all chemical weapon stockpiles. The political leadership of the majority of nation-states oppose the use of force to punish Assad for his war crimes (I will leave aside for the moment the question of who did the gassing, as the focus here is on international norm violations). Amongst those who believe that Assad should be punished (including the National government), only France appears willing to go to war. Even the US Congress is divided on the issue.

That is striking. The ban on chemical weapons is one of the oldest international conventions. It has obvious moral weight. It has been ratified by over one hundred countries. Images of the victims of the latest attack have been compelling and transmitted world-wide. One would think, if idealists and constructivists are correct in their views of the international community, that Assad’s transgression of such an important norm would prompt a call to arms by fair-minded people the world over. Yet it has not. To the contrary, it has elicited apathy, denial, disinterest or fretful handwringing by the world at large.

What this demonstrates is that when push comes to shove, pragmatism and self-interest trump idealism and constructivism in world affairs. While seemingly promising on the surface, the Russian proposal to have Syria hand over its chemical weapons to the UN can also be seen as a cynical ploy to give Assad some time to disperse his chemical weapons stores while continuing his counter-offensive against the rebels by conventional means (which the Russians are supplying). I say that because ensuring the transfer of Syria’s several thousand tons of chemical agents will be lengthy and exhaustive process that will require thousands of foreign technicians on the ground in Syria, and assumes perfect cooperation by the Syrian authorities and the rebels in the midst of a nasty civil war. That is an optimistic view at best, and something that idealists and constructivists may believe possible if a negotiated settlement can be reached under the auspices of the UN Security Council.

However, the Russians are no idealists when it comes to foreign relations and international affairs. Instead, they are very much informed by realist notions of inter-state behavior, so it is safe to assume that their proposal has less to do with humanitarian concern and more to do with Russian power projection and strategic interests in Syria and beyond.

One could argue that the same is true for the US and its allies, and that the call for military intervention by the US against the Assad regime has little to do with humanitarian concern or international norm enforcement and more to do with the geopolitical competition between Iran and its proxies (including the Assad regime) and the Sunni Arab world and the West. This view is backed by the misuse by NATO of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine to justify the Libyan intervention. Under R2P foreign military intervention is justified in order to protect vulnerable populations from the depredations of their governments or in the face of government incapacity to defend them against the violence of others. But in Libya it was used as a pretext for forcible regime change over the objections of the Russians and Chinese. Given the outcome, that has for all intents and purposes killed off R2P as an international norm.

The situation with enforcing the norm against use of chemical weapons is even more fraught. Besides the reluctance of the global community to enforce a norm in a conflict in which most have no strategic stake, there is the problem of its prior unsanctioned use. Not only did Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war (with the CIA providing targeting data to Iraq fully knowing that Saddam intended to use chemical weapons against Iranian troop formations). More recently Israel has used white phosphorous (another banned agent) in Gaza and the US used white phosphorous in the Battle of Falluja. In both cases the dense urban combat environment made it impossible to discriminate between civilian and military targets, so their use was arguably criminal even if there were not a ban against them.

In each of these instances the perpetrator used chemical weapons because it was felt to be expedient and because they could get away with doing so. Although there was some hue and cry about their use, no effective action was taken against any of these perpetrators. Only later, in the first Gulf War, was Iraq’s prior use of chemical weapons used to justify the military response to his invasion of Kuwait (and even then his suspected chemical weapons stockpiles were not destroyed by Desert Storm and the US-led alliance refused to help the Shiia uprising against him in the wake of his defeat).

Israel and the US have paid no price for having used chemical weapons in recent years.

Moreover, in spite of the 1997 convention on destroying chemical weapon stockpiles, it is widely believed that most countries that had them at the time (including the US, UK, Israel and Russia), failed to completely eliminate them from their respective inventories. Others, such as Syria, never signed up to the chemical weapons ban and thus have proceeded to develop that capability as a deterrent and a hedge against conventional military defeat.

All of which to say is that at least when it comes to the ban on use of chemical weapons, idealists and constructivists have been proven wrong and realists have been proven right: besides the strategic calculations of many nations that advise against involvement in the Syrian conflict, regardless of the outcome the international norm against using chemical weapons is not worth the paper it is written on. It is, as they say in Spanish, letra muerta.