Monday, October 27, 2008

International Relations 101 #1

I've been thinking for a long time about what a good ``Intro to IR'' class might look like.  I have experienced several, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, but I feel like there is something systematically wrong with the way that IR theory is presented to students.  It is possible that this problem is due to the way that IR scholars think about IR theory, but I will bracket this issue (perhaps for later discussion).  The immediate motivation for my current post was this post over at Worlds Apart about what he calls the `Baylis and Smith' approach to IR theory after an undergraduate textbook edited by these two scholars.
This approach treats the field of international relations as an ongoing debate between proponents of between three and a half dozen theoretical approaches (depending on how eclectic the course/tutor/academic institution is) ... [B]y pigeon-holing approaches into one of a few theoretical positions, it has intellectually and pedagogically unhealthy consequences.
What he seems to mean by this is the idea that IR theory is best understood by starting with the idea that there are a number of competing `paradigms' or theoretical traditions and then learning ``what they are'', i.e. what Realism is, what Neo-Liberal Institutionalism is, etc. etc.  Some challenges to this approach might take the position that what is really important is to add to this list of paradigms, in that it is important to include constructivism, feminism, critical theory (Marxism?) et al.  I claim that this is misguided.  The problem with teaching IR theory in the `B&S' way is not that it limits the exposure of students to theoretical viewpoints.  The problem is, or the problems are, that these paradigms are not internally coherent and so do not provide us with guidance about analyzing substantive topics of international politics, AND that the focus is then on the theories as theories, rather than on theories as ways of understanding substantive questions/phenomena.  If we put the practical application of IR theory at the forefront of the pedagogical enterprise, this should have several effects:

1) students will understand why IR theory is important 

2) students will be aware that theory is imperfect, in the sense that assumptions and simplification are inevitable and even desirable sometimes

3) students will be able to explain phenomena theoretically when they successfully complete the course, rather than only be able to delineate where Realism stops and critical theory starts (a largely fruitless enterprise and not one that is or should be at the center of a scientific discipline - solving conceptual problems is important, but not one that undergraduates should necessarily be doing on day one) or recite potted, atheoretical accounts of terrorism, humanitarian intervention or whatever.  

By `practical application' I don't mean policy oriented.  There is a place for policy prescription and it is professional MA programs, not undergraduate or doctoral programs in political science departments.  By practical application I mean the ability to take some international situation and explain it in a way that would not be possible without having learned the theories in the class; hopefully in a more sophisticated way.  This sounds all fine and dandy, but how can we go about addressing substantive questions while still maintaining theoretical emphasis?  One example will be in my next post.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Total Recall for total real

Now my paranoid rants will seem even more plausible:

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US researchers have said they are able to selectively erase memories from mice in a laboratory, raising hopes human memory afflictions like post-traumatic stress syndrome can one day be cured.

"Targeted memory erasure is no longer limited to the realm of science fiction," the research team headed by Joe Tsien, from the Brain and Behavior Discovery Institute at the Medical College of Georgia, said in Thursday's issue of Cell Press magazine.

The new technique, which the team stress is at a very early stage, could be applied one day to the human brain to erase traumatic memories or deep-set fears, and leave all other memories unaffected.


Tsien said the technique might one day be applied to war veterans who "often suffer from reoccurring traumatic memory replays after returning home."

...or to those who know too much

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Signs of decline in US authority?

With the US having lost moral authority during the `war on terror' and the occupation of Iraq, and with its position as global economic and financial hegemon looking shaky, other states are less in awe of it. In this article two senior British officials criticize US counterterrorism policy. Shocker, you say. But these are not 2nd-year vegetarian philosophy undergrads; you know it is serious when M from James Bond is criticizing your intelligence activities. And a worrying point that Americans should take notice of is that it is apparently no longer taboo to bring 9/11 into a discussion of terrorism NOT as part of the justification for anything the US does:
The response to Sept. 11 was "a huge overreaction," Dame Stella told The Guardian newspaper in an interview published on on Saturday.
I'm not sure that the US would want to suddenly install CCTV everywhere (not that it would be feasible in a place where the pavements are 17 times bigger than would be considered seemly in little Britain), but the difference between a criminal prosecution and global military action is not an insignificant one. Also, with recent reverses in the curtailment of civil rights in the UK, it appears as if the US rush to suspend liberties is not an inevitable nor necessary piece of the process. As the head of the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK said:

"Of course, you can have the Guántanamo model," he said. "You can have the model which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats we are facing.

"Or you can say, as I prefer to, that our rights are priceless. That the best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions rather than to degrade them."

(in an aside, he was convicted of supplying marijuana at university but was only fined £75 - some evidence that minor drug offenses might be better off lightly punished than having a brain-spasmic-7-year-sentence reaction?)

Friday, October 17, 2008

On the subject of scapegoating ACORN

Here it comes:

An ACORN community organizer received a death threat and the liberal activist group's Boston and Seattle offices were vandalized Thursday, reflecting mounting tensions over its role in registering 1.3 million mostly poor and minority Americans to vote next month.

Really great

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Great Transformation III: Society's Backlash

This follows from this and this.

Last week we saw the McCain camp take a turn towards a very ugly form of populism during campaign rallies, which basically amounted to asking who was the "real" Barack Obama; the implication being that he was some sort of alien 'other'. This type of paranoid fantasizing has been a staple of modern American conservatism; as a cursory glance at right-wing blogs can testify.
The "black helicopter" crowd in the U.S. were around all during the Clinton era, so in some ways, there should be no surprise to see them around in this election cycle (and certainly long into a Obama presidency: see this comments page).

What was surprising about last week, however, was the open (and extremely cynical) way that the McCain camp - desperate to alter the media narrative - decided to just go for it, take these memes out of the fringe, and put them directly into the campaign.

This is a unsettling strategy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is simply not good for democratic discourse for politicians to be suggesting that their political opponents may or may not be traitors. This type of discourse should be left to the fringe. Bringing it into the mainstream gives it a a legitimacy that it does not deserve.

Secondly, there is a lot of rage out there. This is understandable as the it looks like the world is heading for the crapper, but this is not a constructive way to direct this anger, and - if it continues - is truly worrying. This type of smearing is especially destabilizing to democracy when the speaker knows full well that people will buy into it; leading audience members to shout out "kill him" or suggest Obama is a terrorist,

Think I am exaggerating about how disturbing this might be? Even the mainstream media in the U.S. - which usually tortures itself by trying to present everything in terms of moral equivalency - had commentators speaking out:

CNN contributor David Gergen, who has advised Democratic and Republican presidential administrations, said Thursday that the negative tone of these rallies is "incendiary" and could lead to violence. "There is this free floating sort of whipping around anger that could really lead to some violence. I think we're not far from that," he said. "I think it's really imperative that the candidates try to calm people down."

Thirdly, once you let the genie out of the bottle, it may not be as easy to put back in - as McCain has found out since his campaign realised that this tactic was not helping him in the polls.

When you link these points together, there is cause for genuine concern. There has always been a radical fringe in American politics. However, for it to surface so openly at the same time that there is a economic crisis - which makes a radical message that more attractive - has a distinct whiff of the 1930s about it. This is, in other words, one potential societal backlash that might be occurring as part of the global meltdown. Just as Polanyi predicted, the right rises in such economically dislocating times times.

Of course, it is a little too easy to dismiss one's political opponents and call them fascists just because they like flags, or are socially conservative, or choose slogans such as "Country First". I am not suggesting that anyone who does not share my political persuasion is further right that Joseph Goebbels. Plenty of conservatives are fully democratic, intelligent, and able to defend their intellectual positions.

However, there is a real darkness going on in these fringe movements that has a definite crypto-fascist element, and which is frightening when it is dragged out from under its rock. Take a look at this video, of a rally in Ohio to see an example of what I mean.

These people are displaying many of the key features which would make them susceptible to right-wing movements.
First, and most obviously, they are highly emotional and are reaching conclusions about the world based on how they feel rather than their basis in fact (are we really to believe that that woman had heard of Palin before she heard of Obama, for example?).
Secondly, it is not clear what people in this movement are for so much as what they are against. Fascism is a classically anti-intellectual movement partly because it has to be, as its theoretical edifice is often incoherent (it is egalitarian whilst also hierarchical; it believes in private property except when it doesn't etc). Therefore the unifying component of fascism - what brings many people together to believe in it - is its strong sense of what it doesn't like. Aside from the unifying themes of flag and country (which right-wingers get to define in ultra-nationalist terms of their own choosing), fascist movements are negative about other movements and political positions, without have a clear unifying program of their own.

Part of this process of negation is done by identifying what you don't like in your opponents, and saying you believe the opposite. So if you hate liberals and liberals believe in global warming, then you don't believe in global warming. If they believe in evolution, then you don't. This can help explain how otherwise intelligent people believe that man ran with dinosaurs just a few hundred years before the pyramids were built (this also once again highlights the anti-intellectual element of such movements).

It also leads to scapegoating of your enemies and holding them responsible for your own failures, or failures in general. I was wondering for a while who the right-wingers were going to hold responsible for the economic catastrophe of late. I would have put my money on "liberals" as they are generally held up by the Right as everything that is wrong with the U.S., or the immigrants and foreigners as they always get it. Perhaps unsurprising it seems that black America and the voter-registration group Acorn are being held involved and responsible, at least by many of the nuttier groups.

All of this wouldn't matter if it weren't for two things. As I said, the backlash against the status quo is beginning. Although (thankfully) this right-wing populism does not look like it will dominate the discourse in any way, and that calmer heads are prevailing, it is present and liable to become stronger and certainly more shrill; especially once its coalition partner (e.g. the mainstream Republican party) gets thrown out of power. The other worrying issue is that these headbangers really are dangerous. They have a documented history of violence in the U.S.. They have extremely noxious eliminationist views gowards their political opponents. And they are they are feeling threatened.

It seems like a sensible administration is about to come just in time.

NB: Orcinus is a very good site for tracking these issues

Update: This is exactly what I am talking about

Update II: And this

Update III: Sigh...and this

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Um, honey?

One problem that I have and that I see others having is just what the concept of probability is supposed to be doing for us.  My lawyer gf was reading me some statistics from a survey on divorce the other day and two of the (paraphrased) questions were 

1) What percentage of marriages end in divorce?

2) What is the probability that your marriage will end in divorce?

The answers to 1) were pretty accurate; median answer around 40%.  However, the median answer to 2) is 0%.  Now, one of the points of the survey was that people can't realize their own potential for getting divorced, but I was struck by the view of probability that was inherent in the way the question was asked.  Usually, when I am thinking about probability, I think in terms of properties of empirical data, i.e. what is the probability that a rich male from Connecticut votes Republican?  Probability is here just a simple proportion; those who do, over the total. There is another step to be made, extrapolating from the data you have to the whole population.  This is not really the same idea that is inherent in question 2).  Part of the idea here, as I see it, is that probability is an epistemological property.  So, if I don't know whether something is going to happen, I can theoretically estimate whether it is going to happen or not by thinking about the possible things that could happen and then putting the amount of possible worlds in which the outcome obtains over the total amount of possible worlds.  So, if we think about re-running history, maybe sometimes we would get divorced, and maybe sometimes we wouldn't.   

How would we go about thinking about this?  One way to get a grip on what possible worlds there are, is that we can look at other existing situations as an approximation of how our lives might go.  But this is a different enterprise from thinking about our own lives being re-run again and again.  If history was run again, it would be exactly the same (I make no apology for being a causal determinist - quantum mechanics be damned), so the probability (as an ontological concept) that I will get divorced is 1 (if I do) and 0 (if I don't).  I don't know whether I will or not and my best guess as to whether I will is by using other people's experiences.  So, it is inconsistent to say that on average 40% of people get divorced but that my own probability of getting divorced is anything other than 40%.  

My girlfriend was not best pleased with this discussion.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Now you're talking smack...

Every so often, someone says something about the `forgotten war' in Afghanistan.  I didn't realize, but there are 50000 troops in Afghanistan right now,  with some countries sending more soon.  It also looks like there is going to be some mission creep, with NATO forces now targeting the drug trade.  The Taliban insurgency is now making $100 million a year providing Europe with 90 per cent of its heroin.  Mission creep is almost never a good idea.  In Somalia in 1992-93, UNITAF did a pretty good job at doing what it was tasked to do by the UN Security Council - provide a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid.  When UNITAF was replaced by UNOSOM II and the mandate changed to the establishment of state institutions, it was the inadequate trying to solve the insurmountable.  I can't see a good end to the Afghanistan war if victory or success is going to be judged by how much Afghanistan looks like Denmark in 2010.  I don't want to succumb to the wickedness of patriotism, but it seems to me that the Brits have a more pragmatic view of the matter:

The British commander on the ground, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, warned this week it would be impossible to defeat the Taliban and even suggested that dialogue be opened with some sections of the Taliban.

That is a Realism I can appreciate; prescriptive/normative outlook rather than analytical position.  If this seems like `defeat' to anybody, this kind of decision sounds like the `divide-and-rule' strategy that was so effective in colonizing India (whether you think that was a good idea or not).  The recent book Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics, the winner of the ISA Best Book Award for 2008, focuses on situations where objective measures do not line up with subjective perceptions of victory or defeat.  One of the points to come out of that was that defining victory beyond your capacity to deliver invites disappointment and other negative outcomes, like loss of office for leaders.  There may be rhetorical limits to what can be claimed for Afghanistan, but it seems to me that if the drug trade in the US, UK and other states with high capacity, no language barrier and relatively compliant population is resistant to policing, it can only be worse in the 7th most failed state in the world. 

Add to this the conclusions of a US State Department report in 2002, in which it said that the Taleban regime both cut heroin production by 95% and was financed by it (I say, that's a bit rummy, what?), and I am left unable to choose between several overlapping possibilities:

1) The Taleban are both ideologically opposed to and materially dependent on heroin production, and are daily wringing their hands over their ill-gotten gains,
2) The opium production is not actually being run by an organized group of ex-islamic studies students,
3) The US/NATO are trying to delegitimize the warlords they are not friends with in Afghanistan by saying they are both Islamic fundamentalists and drug kingpins
4) The US/NATO don't really know what is going on or what to do about it. 

I'd like to point out that I don't have a clear plan for victory either.  However, if the developed nations are running out of cash by giving it all away (viz Davy's bailout posts), maybe soon we won't be able to afford foreign expeditions like this for much longer.  

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Great Transformation II: Economics and Society

In one of my inaugural posts I was discussing the bailout and the importance that Congress ensure that it had oversight power when I finished on this point:

"Solving" the financial crisis by only helping the financial sector - which is responsible for this to begin with - will not enamour ordinary people very much to the governing classes. In fact, such a situation will not only enrage most people; it will enrage them at a time when we can expect day-to-day life to become seriously tough for the next few years. Such an environment is a breeding ground for radical politics. Considering the current state of political discourse in the U.S., this something that should not be encouraged.

I said I'd come back to that point and here I am. That first post was called "The Great Transformation" in reference to a book of the same name by a theorist called Karl Polanyi. Polanyi was a Austrian who fled to the U.S. in the 1930s to escape the rise of fascism. Here he worked on his book which was published in 1944. His central question was where did fascism come from, and the answer he gives seems especially relevant in today's climate.

The basic argument runs as follows:
We are inculcated to believe that "the market" is some sort of asocial and universal entity that exists in of itself (this belief is probably more prevalent today than it even was in Polanyi's time). Markets are considered to operate with a law-like regularity much like gravity. It is this belief system that leads people and organizations such as the WTO to argue for things such as "market access rights" or against "interference in the market". The market is a natural system that exists independent of man, and is only screwed up when we stick our hands in and interfere. This is the fundamental principle of the Chicago School of Economics and the Washington Consensus, for example.

I use the phrase "belief system" intentionally for, as Polanyi points out, there is no natural market system that exists independently of human beings. On the contrary the natural market requires a huge and conscious intervention by society in order to survive. There cannot be a functioning market without contract enforcement, laws, courts, means of exchange, credit etc. How many successful markets do you see in governance-free zones such as Mogadishu or Darfur? In other words the market is a social construction that is embedded in society.

The danger before WWII, according to Polanyi (thought the logic applies for contemporary times too), was when people advocated for markets being disembedded and being allowed to act "naturally". When this occurred elements of society such as land and labour were treated as if they were market commodities. However, they were not. Land cannot suddenly reproduce itself if demand requires it too, as commodities do. Labour cannot suddenly retrain itself so it can "flow" into new opportunities ,as capital can. To treat them as if they can is to generate massive strains and tensions in society as people and land becomes increasingly subject to extremely anti-social and repressive systems of governance. All in the name of the "natural" market.

At the expense of overstating the point, the entire edifice of markets is a social construction designed to legitimate the rule of the richest in the world. Yet the more that this market disembeds itself from society the more dangerous and unstable society becomes. For as Polanyi points out, the only natural part of this whole story of disembedding is that at some point there is a backlash and people revolt. The exact nature of this revolt is uncertain, according to Polanyi, but not the fact that it happens. The fact of revolt is natural. In Germany this revolt manifested itself in the form of fascism, where Jews and other marginal elements were blamed for society's woes, as the German state began to re-embed the market into a new, and crazy-warped society.

This is why I argued that further removing the market from the control of the people would not solve its problems, but probably only hasten its own demise by generating some form of backlash. The possible nature of that backlash is the subject of my next post.

Normativity in Public Discourse

Having zero expertise on the financial crisis, and thinking Davy is doing a bang-up job of sorting it out, I'm going to post on something different.  I want to talk a little about the normative/positive distinction and why it is so difficult for people to make this distinction consistently.  Basically, a normative statement is one that includes the idea that something SHOULD be the case, and a positive statement holds that something IS the case.  Undergraduates (the motivation for my recent thoughts on the matter) often seem unaware of this distinction.  For example, John Mearsheimer's claim that war is a recurrent feature of international politics and the claim that this should not be the case are not inconsistent with each other.  Claiming that the Holocaust happened is different from saying that you think it was a good idea.  

Sorting out which is which goes beyond undergrads struggling with a paper.  It strikes me in the face all the time while I am watching political speeches, debates or adverts.  Recent use by the McCain campaign and Sarah Palin of a quote by Barack Obama that US troops in Afghanistan are "air-raiding villages and killing civilians" is a prime example.  There is little doubt that US troops are in fact doing this.  So, why should Obama get flack for stating an empirical fact?  It must be because saying this is being interpreted to have some normative content as well as the descriptive content.  Maybe there is something in the latent US cultural militarism that requires Americans to say that US troops are doing a great job, or maybe it is an aversion to the idea that US troops are not winning (both also possible motivations behind the blind acceptance of the claim that "the surge worked").  It could even be something to do with the idea that America is "the greatest force for good in the world" and if this is true then US troops can't possibly have killed anyone who wasn't a terrorist.

Actually, Obama's quote was itself probably being used to imply normative claims.  I doubt that he went on to say "... and that is a great thing".  But you could do so and not be logically inconsistent.  It comes as no surprise that political rhetoric doesn't play by logical rules, but maybe this is something that is theoretically interesting.  The process by which statements of fact become proxies for moral/normative positions and how this can be manipulated (I'm looking at you Karl Rove) seems like it is important politically.  Practically speaking, the quality of public discourse suffers from excessive simplification if there is no way to distinguish between what is and what should be the case.  The only reason I can think of that this kind of discourse is effective and proliferating is that people do not consciously make the normative/positive distinction when they are thinking about stuff in general and politics in particular. 

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Palin's debate

Another graph. Graphs are my thing today.

Hat tip: Kiss my Big Blue Butt

No more worrying about the economic crisis for me

I have been very busy so apologies for the lack of posting. But the good news - em, at least for me - is that I don't need to worry about the crisis anymore. In my case, this chart reads all the way down the left side with nary a divergence.

It's nice for some