Daniel Deudney on Mixed Ontology, Planetary Geopolitics, and Republican Greenpeace
This is the second in a series of Talks dedicated to the technopolitics of International Relations, linked to the forthcoming double volume 'The Global Politics of Science and Technology' edited by Maximilian Mayer, Mariana Carpes, and Ruth Knoblich
World politics increasingly abrasions with the limits of state-centric thinking, faced as the world is with a set of issues that affect not only us collectively as mankind, but also the planet itself. While much of IR theorizing seems to shirk such realizations, the work of Daniel Deudney has consistently engaged with the complex problems engendered by the entanglements of nuclear weapons, the planetary environment, space exploration, and the kind of political associations that might help us to grapple with our fragile condition as humanity-in-the world. In this elaborate Talk, Deudney—amongst others—lays out his understanding of the fundamental forces that drive both planetary political progress and problems; discusses the kind of ontological position needed to appreciate these problems; and argues for the merits of a republican greenpeace model to political organization.
What is, according to you, the biggest challenge / principal debate in current IR? What is your position or answer to this challenge / in this debate?
The study of politics is the study of human politics and the human situation has been—and is being—radically altered by changes in the human relationships with the natural and material worlds. In my view, this means IR and related intellectual disciplines should focus on better understanding the emergence of the ‘global’ and the ‘planetary,’ their implications for the overall human world and its innumerable sub-worlds, and their relations with the realization of basic human needs. The global and the planetary certainly don’t comprise all of the human situation, but the fact that the human situation has become global and planetary touches every other facet of the human situation, sometimes in fundamental ways. The simple story is that the human world is now ‘global and planetary’ due to the explosive transformation over the last several centuries of science-based technology occurring within the geophysical and biophysical features of planet Earth. The natural Earth and its relationship with humans have been massively altered by the vast amplifications in dispersed human agency produced by the emergence and spread of machine-based civilization. The overall result of these changes has been the emergence of a global- and planetary-scale material and social reality that is in some ways similar, but in other important ways radically different, from earlier times. Practices and structures inherited from the pre-global human worlds have not adequately been adjusted to take the new human planetary situation into account and their persistence casts a long and partially dark shadow over the human prospect.
A global and planetary focus is also justified—urgently—by the fact that the overall human prospect on this planet, and the fate of much additional life on this planet, is increasingly dependent on the development and employment of new social arrangements for interacting with these novel configurations of material and natural possibilities and limits. Human agency is now situated, and is making vastly fateful choices—for better or worse—in a sprawling, vastly complex aggregation of human-machine-nature assemblies which is our world. The ‘fate of the earth’ now partly hinges on human choices, and helping to make sure these choices are appropriate ones should be the paramount objective of political scientific and theoretical efforts. However, no one discipline or approach is sufficient to grapple successfully with this topic. All disciplines are necessary. But there are good reasons to believe that ‘IR’ and related disciplines have a particularly important possible practical role to play. (I am also among those who prefer ‘global studies’ as a label for the enterprise of answering questions that cut across and significantly subsume both the ‘international’ and the ‘domestic.’)
My approach to grappling with this topic is situated—like the work of now vast numbers of other IR theorists and researchers of many disciplines—in the study of ‘globalization.’ The now widely held starting point for this intellectual effort is the realization that globalization has been the dominant pattern or phenomenon, the story of stories, over at least the last five centuries. Globalization has been occurring in military, ecological, cultural, and economic affairs. And I emphasize—like many, but not all, analysts of globalization—that the processes of globalization are essentially dependent on new machines, apparatuses, and technologies which humans have fabricated and deployed. Our world is global because of the astounding capabilities of machine civilization. This startling transformation of human choice by technological advance is centrally about politics because it is centrally about changes in power. Part of this power story has been about changes in the scope and forms of domination. Globalization has been, to state the point mildly, ‘uneven,’ marked by amplifications of violence and domination and predation on larger and wider scales. Another part of the story of the power transformation has been the creation of a world marked by high degrees of interdependence, interaction, speed, and complexity. These processes of globalization and the transformation of machine capabilities are not stopping or slowing down but are accelerating. Thus, I argue that ‘bounding power’—the growth, at times by breathtaking leaps, of human capabilities to do things—is now a fundamental feature of the human world, and understanding its implications should, in my view, be a central activity for IR scholars.
In addressing the topic of machine civilization and its globalization on Earth, my thinking has been centered first around the developing of ‘geopolitical’ lines argument to construct a theory of ‘planetary geopolitics’. ‘Geopolitics’ is the study of geography, ecology, technology, and the earth, and space and place, and their interaction with politics. The starting point for geopolitical analysis is accurate mapping. Not too many IR scholars think of themselves as doing ‘geography’ in any form. In part this results from of the unfortunate segregation of ‘geography’ into a separate academic discipline, very little of which is concerned with politics. Many also mistake the overall project of ‘geopolitics’ with the ideas, and egregious mistakes and political limitations, of many self-described ‘geopoliticans’ who are typically arch-realists, strong nationalists, and imperialists. Everyone pays general lip service to the importance of technology, but little interaction occurs between IR and ‘technology studies’ and most IR scholars are happy to treat such matters as ‘technical’ or non-political in character. Despite this general theoretical neglect, many geographic and technological factors routinely pop into arguments in political science and political theory, and play important roles in them.
Thinking about the global and planetary through the lens of a fuller geopolitics is appealing to me because it is the human relationship with the material world and the Earth that has been changed with the human world’s globalization. Furthermore, much of the actual agendas of movements for peace, arms control, and sustainability are essentially about alternative ways of ordering the material world and our relations with it. Given this, I find an approach that thinks systematically about the relations between patterns of materiality and different political forms is particularly well-suited to provide insights of practical value for these efforts.
The other key focus of my research has been around extending a variety of broadly ‘republican’ political insights for a cluster of contemporary practical projects for peace, arms control, and environmental stewardship (‘greenpeace’). Even more than ‘geopolitics,’ ‘republicanism’ is a term with too many associations and meanings. By republics I mean political associations based on popular sovereignty and marked by mutual limitations, that is, by ‘bounding power’—the restraint of power, particularly violent power—in the interests of the people generally. Assuming that security from the application of violence to bodies is a primary (but not sole) task of political association, how do republican political arrangements achieve this end? I argue that the character and scope of power restraint arrangements that actually serve the fundamental security interests of its popular sovereign varies in significant ways in different material contexts.
Republicanism is first and foremost a domestic form, centered upon the successive spatial expansion of domestic-like realms, and the pursuit of a constant political project of maximally feasible ordered freedom in changed spatial and material circumstances. I find thinking about our global and planetary human situation from the perspective of republicanism appealing because the human global and planetary situation has traits—most notably high levels of interdependence, interaction, practical speed, and complexity—that make it resemble our historical experience of ‘domestic’ and ‘municipal’ realms. Thinking with a geopolitically grounded republicanism offers insights about global governance very different from the insights generated within the political conceptual universe of hierarchical, imperial, and state-centered political forms. Thus planetary geopolitics and republicanism offers a perspective on what it means to ‘Think Globally and Act Locally.’ If we think of, or rather recognize, the planet as our locality, and then act as if the Earth is our locality, then we are likely to end up doing various approximations of the best-practice republican forms that we have successfully developed in our historically smaller domestic localities.
How did you arrive at where you currently are in IR?
Like anybody else, the formative events in my intellectual development have been shaped by the thick particularities of time and place. ‘The boy is the father of the man,’ as it is said. The first and most direction-setting stage in the formation of my ‘green peace’ research interests was when I was in ‘grade school,’ roughly the years from age 6-13. During these years my family lived in an extraordinary place, St Simons Island, a largely undeveloped barrier island off the coast of southern Georgia. This was an extremely cool place to be a kid. It had extensive beaches, and marshes, as well as amazing trees of gargantuan proportions. My friends and I spent much time exploring, fishing, camping out, climbing trees, and building tree houses. Many of these nature-immersion activities were spontaneous, others were in Boy Scouts. This extraordinary natural environment and the attachments I formed to it, shaped my strong tendency to see the fates of humans and nature as inescapably intertwined. But the Boy Scouts also instilled me with a sense of ‘virtue ethics’. A line from the Boy Scout Handbook captures this well: ‘Take a walk around your neighborhood. Make a list of what is right and wrong about it. Make a plan to fix what is not right.’ This is a demotic version of Weber’s political ‘ethic of responsibility.’ This is very different from the ethics of self-realization and self-expression that have recently gained such ground in America and elsewhere. It is now very ‘politically incorrect’ to think favorably of the Boy Scouts, but I believe that if the Scouting experience was universally accessible, the world would be a much improved place.
My kid-in-nature life may sound very Tom Sawyer, but it was also very Tom Swift. My friends and I spent much of our waking time reading about the technological future, and imaginatively play-acting in future worlds. This imaginative world was richly fertilized by science fiction comic books, television shows, movies, and books. Me and my friends—juvenile technological futurists and techno-nerds in a decidedly anti-intellectual culture—were avid readers of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, and each new issue of Analog was eagerly awaited. While we knew we were Americans, my friends and I had strong inclinations to think of ourselves most essentially as ‘earthlings.’ We fervently discussed extraterrestrial life and UFOs, and we eagerly awaited the day, soon to occur, we were sure, in which we made ‘first contact.’ We wanted to become, if not astronauts, then designers and builders of spaceships. We built tree houses, but we filled them with discarded electronics and they became starships. We rode bicycles, but we lugged about attaché cases filled with toy ray guns, transistor radios, firecrackers, and homemade incendiary devices. We built and fired off rockets, painstaking assembled plastic kit models of famous airplanes and ships, and then we would blow them apart with our explosives. The future belonged to technology, and we fancied ourselves its avant garde.
Yet the prospect of nuclear Armageddon seemed very real. We did ‘duck and cover’ drills at school, and sat for two terrifying weeks through the Cuban Missile Crisis. My friends and I had copies of the Atomic Energy Commission manuals on ‘nuclear effects,’ complete with a slide-rule like gadget that enabled us to calculate just what would happen if near-by military bases were obliterated by nuclear explosions. Few doubted that we were, in the words of a pop song, ‘on the eve of destruction.’ These years were also the dawning of ‘the space age’ in which humans were finally leaving the Earth and starting what promised to be an epic trek, utterly transformative in its effects, to the stars. My father worked for a number of these years for a large aerospace military-industrial firm, then working for NASA to build the very large rockets needed to launch men and machines to the moon and back. My friends and I debated fantastical topics, such as the pros and cons of emigrating to Mars, and how rapidly a crisis-driven exodus from the earth could be organized.
Two events that later occurred in the area where I spent my childhood served as culminating catalytic events for my greenpeace thinking. First, some years after my family moved away, the industrial facility to mix rocket fuel that had been built by the company my father worked for, and that he had helped put into operation, was struck by an extremely violent ‘industrial accident,’ which reduced, in one titanic flash, multi-story concrete and steel buildings filled with specialized heavy industrial machinery (and everyone in them) into a grey powdery gravel ash, no piece of which was larger than a fist. Second, during the late 1970s, the US Navy acquired a large tract of largely undeveloped marsh and land behind another barrier island (Cumberland), an area 10-15 miles from where I had lived, a place where I had camped, fished, and hunted deer. The Navy dredged and filled what was one of the most biologically fertile temperate zone estuaries on the planet. There they built the east coast base for the new fleet of Trident nuclear ballistic missile submarines, the single most potent violence machine ever built, thus turning what was for me the wildest part of my wild-encircled childhood home into one of the largest nuclear weapons complexes on earth. These events catalyzed for me the realization that there was a great struggle going on, for the Earth and for the future, and I knew firmly which side I was on.
My approach to thinking about problems was also strongly shaped by high school debate, where I learned the importance of ‘looking at questions from both sides,’ and from this stems my tendency to look at questions as debates between competing answers, and to focus on decisively engaging, defeating, and replacing the strongest and most influential opposing positions. As an undergraduate at Yale College, I started doing Political Theory. I am sure that I was a very vexing student in some ways, because (the debater again) I asked Marxist questions to my liberal and conservative professors, and liberal and conservative ones to my Marxist professors. Late in my sophomore year, I had my epiphany, my direction-defining moment, that my vocation would be an attempt to do the political theory of the global and the technological. Since then, the only decisions have been ones of priority and execution within this project.
Wanting to learn something about cutting-edge global and technological and issues, I next went to Washington D.C. for seven years. I worked on Capitol Hill for three and a half years as a policy aide, working on energy and conservation and renewable energy and nuclear power. I spent the other three and a half years as a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, a small environmental and global issues think tank that was founded and headed by Lester Brown, a well-known and far-sighted globalist. I co-authored a book about renewable energy and transitions to global sustainability and wrote a study on space and space weapons. At the time I published Whole Earth Security: a Geopolitics of Peace (1983), in which my basic notions of planetary geopolitics and republicanism were first laid out. During these seven years in Washington, I also was a part-time student, earning a Master’s degree in Science, Technology and Public Policy at George Washington University.
In all, these Washington experiences have been extremely valuable for my thinking. Many political scientists view public service as a low or corrupting activity, but this is, I think, very wrong-headed. The reason that the democratic world works as well as it does is because of the distributive social intelligence. But social intelligence is neither as distributed nor as intelligent as it needs to be to deal with many pressing problems. My experience as a Congressional aide taught me that most of the problems that confront my democracy are rooted in various limits and corruptions of the people. I have come to have little patience with those who say, for example, rising inequality is inherent in capital C capitalism, when the more proximate explanation is that the Reagan Republican Party was so successful in gutting the progressive tax system previously in place in the United States. Similarly, I see little value in claims, to take a very contemporary example, that ‘the NSA is out of control’ when this agency is doing more or less what the elected officials, responding to public pressures to provide ‘national security’ loudly demanded. In democracies, the people are ultimately responsible.
As I was immersed in the world of arms control and environmental activism I was impressed by the truth of Keynes’s oft quoted line, about the great practical influence of the ideas of some long-dead ‘academic scribbler.’ This is true in varying degrees in every issue area, but in some much more than others. This reinforced my sense that great potential practical consequence of successfully innovating in the various conceptual frameworks that underpinned so many important activities. For nuclear weapons, it became clear to me that the problem was rooted in the statist and realist frames that people so automatically brought to a security question of this magnitude.
Despite the many appeals of a career in DC politics and policy, this was all for me an extended research field-trip, and so I left Washington to do a PhD—a move that mystified many of my NGO and activist friends, and seemed like utter folly to my political friends. At Princeton University, I concentrated on IR, Political Theory, and Military History and Politics, taking courses with Robert Gilpin, Richard Falk, Barry Posen, Sheldon Wolin and others. In my dissertation—entitled Global Orders: Geopolitical and Materialist Theories of the Global-Industrial Era, 1890-1945—I explored IR and related thinking about the impacts of the industrial revolution as a debate between different world order alternatives, and made arguments about the superiority of liberalist, internationalist, and globalist arguments—most notably from H.G. Wells and John Dewey—to the strong realist and imperialist ideas most commonly associated with the geopolitical writers of this period.
I also continued engaging in activist policy affiliated to the Program on Nuclear Policy Alternatives at the Center for Energy andEnvironmental Studies (CEES), which was then headed by Frank von Hippel, a physicist turned ‘public interest scientist’, and a towering figure in the global nuclear arms control movement. I was a Post Doc at CEES during the Gorbachev era and I went on several amazing and eye-opening trips to the Soviet Union. Continuing my space activism, I was able to organize workshops in Moscow and Washington on large-scale space cooperation, gathering together many of the key space players on both sides. While Princeton was fabulously stimulating intellectually, it was also a stressful pressure-cooker, and I maintained my sanity by making short trips, two of three weekends, over six years, to Manhattan, where I spent the days working in the main reading room of the New York Public Library and the nights partying and relaxing in a world completely detached from academic life.
When it comes to my intellectual development in terms of reading theory, the positive project I wanted to pursue was partially defined by approaches I came to reject. Perhaps most centrally, I came to reject an approach that was very intellectually powerful, even intoxicating, and which retains great sway over many, that of metaphysical politics. The politics of the metaphysicians played a central role in my coming to reject the politics of metaphysics. The fact that some metaphysical ideas and the some of the deep thinkers who advanced them, such as Heidegger, and many Marxists, were so intimately connected with really disastrous politics seemed a really damning fact for me, particularly given that these thinkers insisted so strongly on the link between their metaphysics and their politics. I was initially drawn to Nietzsche’s writing (what twenty-year old isn’t) but his model of the philosopher founder or law-giver—that is, of a spiritually gifted but alienated guy (and it always is a guy) with a particularly strong but frustrated ‘will to power’ going into the wilderness, having a deep spiritual revelation, and then returning to the mundane corrupt world with new ‘tablets of value,’ along with a plan to take over and run things right—seemed more comic than politically relevant, unless the prophet is armed, in which case it becomes a frightful menace. The concluding scene in Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi (sometimes translated as The Glass Bead Game) summarized by overall view of the ‘high theory’ project. After years of intense training by the greatest teachers the most spiritually and intellectually gifted youths finally graduate. To celebrate, they go to lake, dive in, and, having not learned how to swim, drown.
I was more attracted to Aristotle, Hume, Montesquieu, Dewey and other political theorists with less lofty and comprehensive views of what theory might accomplish; weary of actions; based on dogmatic or totalistic thinking; an eye to the messy and compromised world; with a political commitment to liberty and the interests of the many; a preference for peace over war; an aversion to despotism and empire; and an affinity for tolerance and plurality. I also liked some of those thinkers because of their emphasis on material contexts. Montesquieu seeks to analyze the interaction of material contexts and republican political forms; Madison and his contemporaries attempt to extend the spatial scope of republican political association by recombining in novel ways various earlier power restraint arrangements. I was tremendously influenced by Dewey, studying intensively his slender volume The Public and its Problems (1927)—which I think is the most important book in twentieth century political thought. By the ‘public’ Dewey means essentially a stakeholder group, and his main point is that the material transformations produced by the industrial revolution has created new publics, and that the political task is to conceptualize and realize forms of community and government appropriate to solving the problems that confront these new publics.
One can say my overall project became to apply and extend their concepts to the contemporary planetary situation. Concomitantly reading IR literature on nuclear weapons, I was struck by fact that the central role that material realities played in these arguments was very ad hoc, and that many of the leading arguments on nuclear politics were very unconvincing. It was clear that while Waltz (Theory Talk #40) had brilliantly developed some key ideas about anarchy made by Hobbes and Rousseau, he had also left something really important out. These sorts of deficiencies led me to develop the arguments contained in Bounding Power. I think it is highly unlikely that I would have had these doubts, or come to make the arguments I made without having worked in political theory and in policy.
I read many works that greatly influenced my thinking in this area, among them works by Lewis Mumford, Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology, James Lovelock’s Gaia, Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents (read a related article here, pdf), Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth and The Abolition, William Ophul’s Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity... I was particularly stuck by a line in Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (pdf), that we live in a ‘spaceship’ like closed highly interconnected system, but lack an ‘operating manual’ to guide intelligently our actions. It was also during this period that I read key works by H.G. Wells, most notably his book, Anticipations, and his essay The Idea of a League of Nations, both of which greatly influenced my thinking.
This aside, the greatest contribution to my thinking has come from conversations sustained over many years with some really extraordinary individuals. To mention those that I have been arguing with, and learning from, for at least ten years, there is John O’Looney, Wesley Warren, Bob Gooding-Williams, Alyn McAuly, Henry Nau, Richard Falk, Michael Doyle (Theory Talk #1), Richard Mathew, Paul Wapner, Bron Taylor, Ron Deibert, John Ikenberry, Bill Wohlforth, Frank von Hippel, Ethan Nadelmann, Fritz Kratochwil, Barry Buzan (Theory Talk #35), Ole Waever, John Agnew (Theory Talk #4), Barry Posen, Alex Wendt (Theory Talk #3), James der Derian, David Hendrickson, Nadivah Greenberg, Tim Luke, Campbell Craig, Bill Connolly, Steven David, Jane Bennett, Daniel Levine (TheoryTalk #58), and Jairus Grove. My only regret is that I have not spoken even more with them, and with the much larger number of people I have learned from on a less sustained basis along the way.
What would a student need to become a specialist in IR or understand the world in a global way?
I have thought a great deal about what sort of answers to this question can be generally valuable. For me, the most important insight is that success in intellectual life and academia is determined by more or less the same combination of factors that determines success more generally. This list is obvious: character, talent, perseverance and hard work, good judgment, good ‘people skills,’ and luck. Not everyone has a talent to do this kind of work, but the number of people who do have the talent to do this kind of work is much larger than the number of people who are successful in doing it. I think in academia as elsewhere, the people most likely to really succeed are those whose attitude toward the activity is vocational. A vocation is something one is called to do by an inner voice that one cannot resist. People with vocations never really work in one sense, because they are doing something that they would be doing even if they were not paid or required. Of course, in another sense people with vocations never stop working, being so consumed with their path that everything else matters very little. People with jobs and professions largely stop working when they when the lottery, but people with vocations are empowered to work more and better. When your vocation overlaps with your job, you should wake up and say ‘wow, I cannot believe I am being paid to do this!’ Rather obviously, the great danger in the life paths of people with vocations is imbalance and burn-out. To avoid these perils it is beneficial to sustain strong personal relationships, know when and how to ‘take off’ effectively, and sustain the ability to see things as an unfolding comedy and to laugh.
Academic life also involves living and working in a profession. Compared to the oppressions that so many thinkers and researchers have historically suffered from, contemporary professional academic life is a utopia. But academic life has several aspects unfortunate aspects, and coping successfully with them is vital. Academic life is full of ‘odd balls’ and the loose structure of universities and organization, combined with the tenure system, licenses an often florid display of dubious behavior. A fair number of academics have really primitive and incompetent social skills. Others are thin skinned-ego maniacs. Some are pompous hypocrites. Some are ruthlessly self-aggrandizing and underhanded. Some are relentless shirkers and free-riders. Also, academic life is, particularly relative to the costs of obtaining the years of education necessary to obtain it, not very well paid. Corruptions of clique, ideological factionalism, and nepotism occur. If not kept in proper perspective, and approached in appropriate ways, academic department life can become stupidly consuming of time, energy, and most dangerously, intellectual attention. The basic step for healthy departmental life is to approach it as a professional role.
The other big dimension of academic life is teaching. Teaching is one of the two ‘deliverables’ that academic organizations provide in return for the vast resources they consume. Shirking on teaching is a dereliction of responsibility, but also is the foregoing of a great opportunity. Teaching is actually one of the most assuredly consequential things academics do. The key to great teaching is, I think, very simple: inspire and convey enthusiasm. Once inspired, students learn. Once students take questions as their own, they become avid seekers of answers. Teachers of things political also have a responsibility to remain even-handed in what they teach, to make sure that they do not teach just or mainly their views, to make sure that the best and strongest versions of opposing sides are heard. Teaching seeks to produce informed and critically thinking students, not converts. Beyond the key roles of inspiration and even-handedness, the rest is the standard package of tasks relevant in any professional role: good preparation, good organization, hard work, and clarity of presentation.
Your main book, Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village (2007), is a mix of intellectual history, political theory and IR theory, and is targeted largely at realism. How does a reading and interpretation of a large number of old books tell us something new about realism, and the contemporary global?
Bounding Power attempts to dispel some very large claims made by realists about their self-proclaimed ‘tradition,’ a lineage of thought in which they place many of the leading Western thinkers about political order, such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, and the ‘global geopoliticans’ from the years around the beginning of the twentieth century. In the book I argue that the actual main axis of western thinking about political order (and its absence) is largely the work of ‘republican’ thinkers from the small number of ‘republics’, and that many of the key ideas that realists call realist and liberals call liberal are actually fragments of a larger, more encompassing set of arguments that were primarily in the idioms of republicanism. This entails dispelling the widely held view that the liberal and proto-liberal republican thought and practice are marked by ‘idealism’—and therefore both inferior in their grasp of the problem of security-from violence and valuable only when confined to the ‘domestic.’ I demonstrate that this line of republican security thinkers had a robust set of claims both about material contextual factors, about the ‘geopolitics of freedom’, and a fuller understanding of security-from-violence. The book shows how perhaps the most important insights of this earlier cluster of arguments has oddly been dropped by both realists (particularly neorealists) and liberal international theorists. And, finally, it is an attempt to provide an understanding that posits the project of exiting anarchy on a global scale as something essentially unprecedented, and as something that the best of our inherited theory leaves us unable to say much about.
The main argument is contained in my formulation of what I think are the actual the two main sets of issues of Western structural-materialist security theory, two problematiques formulated in republican and naturalist-materialist conceptual vocabularies. The first problematique concerns the relationship between material context, the scope of tolerable anarchy, and necessary-for-security government. The second problematic concerns the relative security-viability of two main different forms of government—hierarchical and republican.
This formulation of the first problematic concerning anarchy differs from the main line of contemporary Realist argument in that it poses the question as one about the spatial scope of tolerable anarchy. The primary variable in my reconstruction of the material-contextual component of these arguments is what I term violence interdependence (absent, weak, strong, and intense). The main substantive claim of Western structural-materialist security theory is that situations of anarchy combined with intense violence interdependence are incompatible with security and require substantive government. Situations of strong and weak violence interdependence constitute a tolerable (if at times ‘nasty and brutish’) second (‘state-of-war’) anarchy not requiring substantive government. Early formulations of ‘state of nature’ arguments, explicitly or implicitly hinge upon this material contextual variable, and the overall narrative structure of the development of republican security theory and practice has concerned natural geographic variations and technologically caused changes in the material context, and thus the scope of security tolerable/intolerable anarchy and needed substantive government. This argument was present in early realist versions of anarchy arguments, but has been dropped by neorealists. Conversely, contemporary liberal international theorists analyze interdependence, but have little to say about violence. The result is that the realists talk about violence and security, and the liberals talk about interdependence not relating to violence, producing the great lacuna of contemporary theory: analysis of violence interdependence.
The second main problematique, concerning the relative security viability of hierarchical and republican forms, has also largely been lost sight of, in large measure by the realist insistence that governments are by definition hierarchical, and the liberal avoidance of system structural theory in favor of process, ideational, and economic variables. (For neoliberals, cooperation is seen as (possibly) occurring in anarchy, without altering or replacing anarchy.) The main claim here is that republican and proto-liberal theorists have a more complete grasp of the security political problem than realists because of their realization that both the extremes of hierarchy and anarchy are incompatible with security. In order to register this lost component of structural theory I refer to republican forms at both the unit and the system-level as being characterized by an ordering principle which I refer to as negarchy. Such political arrangements are characterized by the simultaneous negation of both hierarchy and anarchy. The vocabulary of political structures should thus be conceived as a triad-triangle of anarchy, hierarchy, and negarchy, rather than a spectrum stretching from pure anarchy to pure hierarchy. Using this framework, Bounding Power traces various formulations of the key arguments of security republicans from the Greeks through the nuclear era as arguments about the simultaneous avoidance of hierarchy and anarchy on expanding spatial scales driven by variations and changes in the material context. If we recognize the main axis of our thinking in this way, we can stand on a view of our past that is remarkable in its potential relevance to thinking and dealing with the contemporary ‘global village’ like a human situation.
Nuclear weapons play a key role in the argument of Bounding Power about the present, as well as elsewhere in your work. But are nuclear weapons are still important as hey were during the Cold War to understand global politics?
Since their arrival on the world scene in the middle years of the twentieth century, there has been pretty much universal agreement that nuclear weapons are in some fundamental way ‘revolutionary’ in their implications for security-from-violence and world politics. The fact that the Cold War is over does not alter, and even stems from, this fact. Despite this wide agreement on the importance of nuclear weapons, theorists, policy makers, and popular arms control/disarmament movements have fundamental disagreements about which political forms are compatible with the avoidance of nuclear war. I have attempted to provide a somewhat new answer to this ‘nuclear-political question’, and to explain why strong forms of interstate arms control are necessary for security in the nuclear age. I argue that achieving the necessary levels of arms control entails somehow exiting interstate anarchy—not toward a world government as a world state, but toward a world order that is a type of compound republican union (marked by, to put it in terms of above discussion, a nearly completely negarchical structure).
This argument attempts to close what I term the ‘arms control gap’, the discrepancy between the value arms control is assigned by academic theorists of nuclear weapons and their importance in the actual provision of security in the nuclear era. During the Cold War, thinking among IR theorists about nuclear weapons tended to fall into three broad schools—war strategists, deterrence statists, and arms controllers. Where the first two only seem to differ about the amount of nuclear weapons necessary for states seeking security (the first think many, the second less), the third advocates that states do what they have very rarely done before the nuclear age, reciprocal restraints on arms.
But this Cold War triad of arguments is significantly incomplete as a list of the important schools of thought about the nuclear-political question. There are four additional schools, and a combination of their arguments constitutes, I argue, a superior answer to the nuclear-political question. First are the nuclear one worlders, a view that flourished during the late 1940s and early 1950s, and held that the simple answer to the nuclear political question is to establish a world government, as some sort of state. Second are the populist anti-nuclearists, who indict state apparatuses of acting contrary to the global public’s security interests. Third are the deep arms controllers, such as Jonathan Schell, who argue that nuclear weapons need to be abolished. Fourth are the theorists of omniviolence, who theorize situations produced by the leakage of nuclear weapons into the hands of non-state actors who cannot be readily deterred from using nuclear weapons. What all of these schools have in common is that they open up the state and make arguments about how various forms of political freedom—and the institutions that make it possible—are at issue in answering the nuclear-political question.
Yet one key feature all seven schools share is that they all make arguments about how particular combinations and configurations of material realities provide the basis for thinking that their answer to the nuclear-political question is correct. Unfortunately, their understandings of how material factors shape, or should shape, actual political arrangements is very ad hoc. Yet the material factors—starting with sheer physical destructiveness—are so pivotal that they merit a more central role in theories of nuclear power. I think we need to have a model that allows us to grasp how variations in material contexts condition the functionality of ‘modes of protection’, that is, distinct and recurring security practices (and their attendant political structures).
For instance, one mode of protection—what I term the real-state mode of protection—attempts to achieve security through the concentration, mobilization, and employment of violence capability. This is the overall, universal, context-independent strategy of realists. Bringing into view material factors, I argue, shows that this mode of protection is functional not universally but specifically—and only—in material contexts that are marked by violence-poverty and slowness. This mode of protection is dysfunctional in nuclear material contexts marked by violence abundance and high violence velocities. In contrast, a republican federal mode of protection is a bundle of practices that aim for the demobilization and deceleration of violence capacity, and that the practices associated with this mode of protection are security functional in the nuclear material context.
What emerges from such an approach to ideas about the relation between nuclear power and security from violence is that the epistemological foundations for any of the major positions about nuclear weapons are actually much weaker than we should be comfortable with. People often say the two most important questions about the nuclear age are: what is the probability that nuclear weapons will be used? And then, what will happen when they are used? The sobering truth is that we really do not have good grounds for confidently answering either of those two questions. But every choice made about nuclear weapons depends on risk calculations that depend on how we answer these questions.
You have also written extensively on space, a topic that has not recently attracted much attention from many IR scholars. How does your thinking on this relate to your overall thinking about the global and planetary situation?
The first human steps into outer space during the middle years of the twentieth century have been among the most spectacular and potentially consequential events in the globalization of machine civilization on Earth. Over the course of what many call ‘the space age,’ thinking about space activities, space futures, and the consequences of space activities has been dominated by an elaborately developed body of ‘space expansionist’ thought that makes ambitious and captivating claims about both the feasibility and the desirability of human expansion into outer space. Such views of space permeate popular culture, and at times appear to be quite influential in actual space policy. Space expansionists hold that outer space is a limitless frontier and that humans should make concerted efforts to explore and colonize and extend their military activities into space. They claim the pursuit of their ambitious projects will have many positive, even transformative, effects upon the human situation on Earth, by escaping global closure, protecting the earth’s habitability, preserving political plurality, and enhancing species survival. Claims about the Earth, its historical patterns and its contemporary problems, permeate space expansionist thinking.
While the feasibility, both technological and economic, of space expansionist projects has been extensively assessed, arguments for their desirability have not been accorded anything approaching a systematic assessment. In part, such arguments about the desirability of space expansion are difficult to assess because they incorporate claims that are very diverse in character, including claims about the Earth (past, present, and future), about the ways in which material contexts made up of space ‘geography’ and technologies produce or heavily favor particular political outcomes, and about basic worldview assumptions regarding nature, science, technology, and life.
By breaking these space expansionist arguments down into their parts, and systematically assessing their plausibility, a very different picture of the space prospect emerges. I think there are strong reasons to think that the consequences of the human pursuit of space expansion have been, and could be, very undesirable, even catastrophic. The actual militarization of that core space technology (‘the rocket’) and the construction of a planetary-scope ‘delivery’ and support system for nuclear war-fighting has been the most important consequence of actual space activities, but these developments have been curiously been left out of accounts of the space age and assessments of its impacts. Similarly, much of actually existing ‘nuclear arms control’ has centered on restraining and dismantling space weapons, not nuclear weapons. Thus the most consequential space activity—the acceleration of nuclear delivery capabilities—has been curiously rendered almost invisible in accounts of space and assessments of its impacts. This is an ‘unknown known’ of the ‘space age’. Looking ahead, the creation of large orbital infrastructures will either presuppose or produce world government, potentially of a very hierarchical sort. There are also good reasons to think that space colonies are more likely to be micro-totalitarian than free. And extensive human movement off the planet could in a variety of ways increase the vulnerability of life on Earth, and even jeopardize the survival of the human species.
Finally, I think much of space expansionist (and popular) thinking about space and the consequences of humans space activities has been marked by basic errors in practical geography. Most notably, there is the widespread failure to realize that the expansion of human activities into Earth’s orbital space has enhanced global closure, because the effective distances in Earth’s space make it very small. And because of the formidable natural barriers to human space activity, space is a planetary ‘lid, not a ‘frontier’. So one can say that the most important practical discovery of the ‘space age’ has been an improved understanding of the Earth. These lines of thinking, I find, would suggest the outlines of a more modest and Earth-centered space program, appropriate for the current Earth age. Overall, the fact that we can’t readily expand into space is part of why we are in a new ‘earth age’ rather than a ‘space age’.
You’ve argued against making the environment into a national security issue twenty years ago. Do the same now, considering that making the environment a bigger priority by making it into a national security issue might be the only way to prevent total environmental destruction?
When I started writing about the relationships between environment and security twenty years ago, not a great deal of work had been done on this topic. But several leading environmental thinkers were making the case that framing environmental issues as security issues, or what came to be called ‘securitizing the environment’, was not only a good strategy to get action on environmental problems, but also was useful analytically to think about these two domains. Unlike the subsequent criticisms of ‘environmental security’ made by Realists and scholars of conventional ‘security studies’, my criticism starts with the environmentalist premise that environmental deterioration is a paramount problem for contemporary humanity as a whole.
Those who want to ‘securitize the environment’ are attempting to do what William James a century ago proposed as a general strategy for social problem solving. Can we find, in James’ language, ‘a moral equivalent of war?’ (Note the unfortunately acronym: MEOW). War and the threat of war, James observed, often lead to rapid and extensive mobilizations of effort. Can we somehow transfer these vast social energies to deal with other sets of problems? This is an enduring hope, particularly in the United States, where we have a ‘war on drugs’, a ‘war on cancer’, and a ‘war on poverty’. But doing this for the environment, by ‘securitizing the environment,’ is unlikely to be very successful. And I fear that bringing ‘security’ orientations, institutions, and mindsets into environmental problem-solving will also bring in statist, nationalist, and militarist approaches. This will make environmental problem-solving more difficult, not easier, and have many baneful side-effects.
Another key point I think is important, is that the environment—and the various values and ends associated with habitat and the protection of habitat—are actually much more powerful and encompassing than those of security and violence. Instead of ‘securitizing the environment’ it is more promising is to ‘environmentalize security’. Not many people think about the linkages between the environment and security-from-violence in this way, but I think there is a major case of it ‘hiding in plain sight’ in the trajectory of how the state-system and nuclear weapons have interacted.
When nuclear weapons were invented and first used in the 1940s, scientists were ignorant about many aspects of their effects. As scientists learned about these effects, and as this knowledge became public, many people started thinking and acting in different ways about nuclear choices. The fact that a ground burst of a nuclear weapon would produce substantial radioactive ‘fall-out’ was not appreciated until the first hydrogen bomb tests in the early 1950s. It was only then that scientists started to study what happened to radioactive materials dispersed widely in the environment. Evidence began to accumulate that some radioactive isotopes would be ‘bio-focused’, or concentrated by biological process. Public interest scientists began effectively publicizing this information, and mothers were alerted to the fact that their children’s teeth were become radioactive. This new scientific knowledge about the environmental effects of nuclear explosions, and the public mobilizations it produced, played a key role in the first substantial nuclear arms control treaty, the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which banned nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in the ocean, and in space. Thus, the old ways of providing security were circumscribed by new knowledge and new stakeholders of environmental health effects. The environment was not securitized, security was partially environmentalized.
Thus, while some accounts by arms control theorists emphasize the importance of ‘social learning’ in altering US-Soviet relations, an important part of this learning was not about the nature of social and political interactions, but about the environmental consequences of nuclear weapons. The learning that was most important in motivating so many actors (both within states and in mass publics) to seek changes in politics was ‘natural learning,’ or more specifically learning about the interaction of natural and technological systems.
An even more consequential case of the environmentalization of security occurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A key text here is Jonathan Schell’s book, The Fate of the Earth. Schell’s book, combining very high-quality journalism with first rate political theoretical reflections, lays out in measured terms the new discoveries of ecologists and atmospheric scientists about the broader planetary consequences of an extensive nuclear war. Not only would hundreds of millions of people be immediately killed and much of the planet’s built infrastructure destroyed, but the planet earth’s natural systems would be so altered that the extinction of complex life forms, among them homo sapiens, might result. The detonation of numerous nuclear weapons and the resultant burning of cities would probably dramatically alter the earth’s atmosphere, depleting the ozone layer that protects life from lethal solar radiations, and filling the atmosphere with sufficient dust to cause a ’nuclear winter.’ At stake in nuclear war, scientists had learned, was not just the fate of nations, but of the earth as a life support system. Conventional accounts of the nuclear age and of the end of the Cold War are loath to admit it, but it I believe it is clear that spreading awareness of these new natural-technological possibilities played a significant role in ending the Cold War and the central role that nuclear arms control occupies in the settlement of the Cold War. Again, traditional ways of achieving security-from-violence were altered by new knowledges about their environmental consequences—security practices and arrangements were partly environmentalized.
Even more radically, I think we can also turn this into a positive project. As I wrote two decades ago, environmental restoration would probably generate political externalities that would dampen tendencies towards violence. In other words, if we address the problem of the environment, then we will be drawn to do various things that will make various types of violent conflict less likely.
Your work is permeated by references to ‘material factors’. This makes it different from branches of contemporary IR—like constructivism or postmodernism—which seem to be underpinned by a profound commitment to focus solely one side of the Cartesian divide. What is your take on the pervasiveness and implications of this ‘social bias’?
Postmodernism and constructivism are really the most extreme manifestations of a broad trend over the last two centuries toward what I refer to as ‘social-social science’ and the decline—but hardly the end—of ‘natural-social science’. Much of western thought prior to this turn was ‘naturalist’ and thus tended to downplay both human agency and ideas. At the beginning of the nineteenth century—partly because of the influence of German idealism, partly because of the great liberationist projects that promised to give better consequence to the activities and aspirations of the larger body of human populations (previously sunk in various forms of seemingly natural bondages), and partly because of the great expansion of human choice brought about by the science-based technologies of the Industrial Revolution—there was a widespread tendency to move towards ‘social-social science,’ the project of attempting to explain the human world solely by reference to the human world, to explain social outcomes with reference to social causes. While this was the dominant tendency, and a vastly productive one in many ways, it existed alongside and in interaction with what is really a modernized version of the earlier ‘natural-social science.’ Much of my work has sought to ‘bring back in’ and extend these ‘natural-social’ lines of argument—found in figures such as Dewey and H.G. Wells—into our thinking about the planetary situation.
In many parts of both European and American IR and related areas, Postmodern and constructivist theories have significantly contributed to IR theorists by enhancing our appreciation of ideas, language, and identities in politics. As a response to the limits and blindnesses of certain types of rationalist, structuralist, and functional theories, this renewed interest in the ideational is an important advance. Unfortunately, both postmodernism and constructivism have been marked by a strong tendency to go too far in their emphasis of the ideational. Postmodernism and constructivism have also helped make theorists much more conscious of the implicit—and often severely limiting—ontological assumptions that underlay, inform, and bound their investigations. This is also a major contribution to the study of world politics in all its aspects.
Unfortunately, this turn to ontology has also had intellectually limiting effects by going too far, in the search for a pure or nearly pure social ontology. With the growth in these two approaches, there has indeed been a decided decline in theorizing about the material. But elsewhere in the diverse world of theorizing about IR and the global, theorizing about the material never came anything close to disappearing or being eclipsed. For anyone thinking about the relationships between politics and nuclear weapons, space, and the environment, theorizing about the material has remained at the center, and it would be difficult to even conceive of how theorizing about the material could largely disappear. The recent ‘re-discovery of the material’ associated with various self-styled ‘new materialists’ is a welcome, if belated, re-discovery for postmodernists and constructivists. For most of the rest of us, the material had never been largely dropped out.
A very visible example of the ways in which the decline in appropriate attention to the material, an excessive turn to the ideational, and the quest for a nearly pure social ontology, can lead theorizing astray is the core argument in Alexander Wendt’s main book, Social Theory of International Politics, one of the widely recognized landmarks of constructivist IR theory. The first part of the book advances a very carefully wrought and sophisticated argument for a nearly pure ideational social ontology. The material is explicitly displaced into a residue or rump of unimportance. But then, to the reader’s surprise, the material, in the form of ‘common fate’ produced by nuclear weapons, and climate change, reappears and is deployed to play a really crucial role in understanding contemporary change in world politics.
My solution is to employ a mixed ontology. By this I mean that I think several ontologically incommensurate and very different realities are inescapable parts the human world. These ‘unlikes’ are inescapable parts of any argument, and must somehow be combined. There are a vast number of ways in which they can be combined, and on close examination, virtually all arguments in the social sciences are actually employing some version of a mixed ontology, however implicitly and under-acknowledged.
But not all combinations are equally useful in addressing all questions. In my version of mixed ontology—which I call ‘practical naturalism’—human social agency is understood to be occurring ‘between two natures’: on the one hand the largely fixed nature of humans, and on the other the changing nature composed of the material world, a shifting amalgam of actual non-human material nature of geography and ecology, along with human artifacts and infrastructures. Within this frame, I posit as rooted in human biological nature, a set of ‘natural needs,’ most notably for security-from-violence and habitat services. Then I pose questions of functionality, by which I mean: which combinations of material practices, political structures, ideas and identities are needed to achieve these ends in different material contexts? Answering this question requires the formulation of various ‘historical materialist’ propositions, which in turn entails the systematic formulation of typologies and variation in both the practices, structures and ideas, and in material contexts. These arguments are not centered on explaining what has or what will happen. Instead they are practical in the sense that they are attempting to answer the question of ‘what is to be done’ given the fixed ends and given changing material contexts. I think this is what advocates of arms control and environmental sustainability are actually doing when they claim that one set of material practices and their attendant political structures, identities and ideas must be replaced with another if basic human needs are to going to continue to be meet in the contemporary planetary material situation created by the globalization of machine civilization on earth.
Since this set of arguments is framed within a mixed ontology, ideas and identities are a vital part of the research agenda. Much of the energy of postmodern and many varieties of critical theory have focused on ‘deconstructing’ various identities and ideas. This critical activity has produced and continues to produce many insights of theorizing about politics. But I think there is an un-tapped potential for theorists who are interested in ideas and identities, and who want their work to make a positive contribution to practical problem-solving in the contemporary planetary human situation in what might be termed a ‘constructive constructivism’. This concerns a large practical theory agenda—and an urgent one at that, given the rapid increase in planetary problems—revolving around the task of figuring out which ideas and identities are appropriate for the planetary world, and in figuring out how they can be rapidly disseminated. Furthermore, thinking about how to achieve consciousness change of this sort is not something ancillary to the greenpeace project but vital to it. My thinking on how this should and might be done centers the construction of a new social narrative, centered not on humanity but on the earth.
Is it easy to plug your mixed ontology and interests beyond the narrow confines of IR or even the walls of the ivory tower into processes of collective knowledge proliferation in IR—a discipline increasingly characterized by compartimentalization and specialization?
The great plurality of approaches in IR today is indispensible and a welcome change. The professionalization of IR and the organization of intellectual life has some corruptions and pitfalls that are best avoided. The explosion of ‘isms’ and of different perspectives has been valuable and necessary in many ways, but it has also helped to foster and empower sectarian tendencies that confound the advance of knowledge. Some of the adherents of some sects and isms boast openly of establishing ‘citation cartels’ to favor themselves and their friends. Some theorists also have an unfortunate tendency to assume that because they have adopted a label that what they actually do is the actually the realization of the label. Thus we have ‘realists’ with limited grasp on realities, ‘critical theorists’ who repeat rather than criticize the views of other ‘critical theorists,’ and anti-neoliberals who are ruthless Ayn Rand-like self aggrandizers. The only way to fully address these tendencies is to talk to people you disagree with, and find and communicate with people in other disciplines.
Another consequence of this sectarianism is visible in the erosion of scholarly standards of citation. The system of academic incentives is configured to reward publication, and the publication of ideas that are new. This has a curiously perverse impact on the achievement of cumulativity. One seemingly easy and attractive path to saying something new is to say something old in new language, to say something said in another sect or field in the language of your sect or field, or easiest of all, simply ignore what other people have said if it is too much like what you are trying to say. George Santyana is wide quoted in saying that ‘those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.’ For academics it can unfortunately be said, ‘those who can successfully forget what past academics said are free to say it again, and thus advance toward tenure.’ When rampant sectarianism and decline in standards of citation is combined with a broader cultural tendency to valorize self-expression and authenticity, academic work can become an exercise in abstract self expressionism.
Confining one’s intellectual life within one ‘ism’ or sect is sure to be self-limiting. Many of the most important and interesting questions arise between and across the sects and schools. Also, there are great opportunities in learning from people who do not fully share your assumptions and approaches. Seriously engaging the work and ideas of scholars in other sects can be very very valuable. Scholars in different sects and schools are also often really taking positions that are not so different as their labels would suggest. Perhaps because my research agenda fits uncomfortably within any of the established schools and isms, I have found particularly great value in seeking out and talking on a sustained basis with people with very different approaches.
My final question is about normativity and the way that normativity is perceived: In Europe and the United States, liberal Internationalism is increasingly considered as hollowed out, as a discursive cover for a tendency to attempt to control and regulate the world—or as an unguided idealistic missile. Doesn’t adapting to a post-hegemonic world require dropping such ambitions?
American foreign policy has never been entirely liberal internationalist. Many other ideas and ideologies and approaches have often played important roles in shaping US foreign policy. But the United States, for a variety of reasons, has pursued liberal internationalist foreign policy agendas more extensively, and successfully, than any other major state in the modern state system, and the world, I think, has been made better off in very important ways by these efforts.
The net impact of the United States and of American grand strategy and particularly those parts of American brand strategy that have been more liberal internationalist in their character, has been enormously positive for the world. It has produced not a utopia by any means, but has brought about an era with more peace and security, prosperity, and freedom for more people than ever before in history.
Both American foreign policy and liberal internationalism have been subject to strong attacks from a variety of perspectives. Recently some have characterized liberal internationalism as a type of American imperialism, or as a cloak for US imperialism. Virtually every aspect of American foreign policy has been contested within the United States. Liberal internationalists have been strong enemies of imperialism and military adventurism, whether American or from other states. This started with the Whig’s opposition to the War with Mexico and the Progressive’s opposition to the Spanish-American War, and continued with liberal opposition to the War in Vietnam.
The claim that liberal internationalism leads to or supports American imperialism has also been recently voiced by many American realists, perhaps most notably John Mearsheimer (Theory Talk #49). He and others argue that liberal internationalism played a significant role in bringing about the War on Iraq waged by the W. Bush administration. This was indeed one of the great debacles of US foreign policy. But the War in Iraq was actually a war waged by American realists for reasons grounded in realist foreign policy thinking. It is true, as Mearsheimer emphasizes, that many academic realists criticized the Bush administration’s plans and efforts in the invasion in Iraq. Some self-described American liberal internationalists in the policy world supported the war, but almost all academic American liberal internationalists were strongly opposed, and much of the public opposition to the war was on grounds related to liberal internationalist ideas.
It is patently inaccurate to say that main actors in the US government that instigated the War on Iraq were liberal internationalists. The main initiators of the war were Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Whatever can be said about those two individuals, they are not liberal internationalists. They initiated the war because they thought that the Saddam Hussein regime was a threat to American interests—basically related to oil. The Saddam regime was seen as a threat to American-centered regional hegemony in the Middle East, an order whose its paramount purpose has been the protection of oil, and the protection of the regional American allies that posses oil. Saddam Hussein was furthermore a demonstrated regional revisionist likely to seek nuclear weapons, which would greatly compromise American military abilities in the region. Everything else the Bush Administration’s public propaganda machine said to justify the war was essentially window dressing for this agenda. Far from being motivated by a liberal internationalist agenda the key figures in the Bush Administration viewed the collateral damage to international institutions produced by the war as a further benefit, not a cost, of the war. It is particularly ironic that John Mearsheimer would be a critic of this war, which seems in many ways a ‘text book’ application of a central claim of his ‘offensive realism,’ that powerful states can be expected, in the pursuit of their security and interests, to seek to become and remain regional hegemons.
Of course, liberal internationalism, quite aside from dealing with these gross mischaracterizations propagated by realists, must also look to the future. The liberal internationalism that is needed for today and tomorrow is going to be in some ways different from the liberal internationalism of the twentieth century. This is a large topic that many people, but not enough, are thinking about. In a recent working paper for the Council on Foreign Relations, John Ikenberry and I have laid out some ways in which we think American liberal internationalism should proceed. The starting point is the recognition that the United States is not as ‘exceptional’ in its precocious liberal-democratic character, not as ‘indispensible’ for the protection of the balance of power or the advance of freedom, or as easily ‘hegemonic’ as it has been historically. But the world is now also much more democratic than ever before, with democracies old and new, north and south, former colonizers and former colonies, and in every civilizational flavor. The democracies also face an array of difficult domestic problems, are thickly enmeshed with one another in many ways, and have a vital role to play in solving global problems. We suggest that the next liberal internationalism in American foreign policy should focus on American learning from the successes of other democracies in solving problems, focus on ‘leading by example of successful problem-solving’ and less with ‘carrots and sticks,’ make sustained efforts to moderate the inequalities and externalities produced by de-regulated capitalism, devote more attention to building community among the democracies, and make sustained efforts to ‘recast global bargains’ and the distribution of authority in global institutions to better incorporate the interests of ‘rising powers.’
Daniel Deudney is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He has published widely in political theory and international relations, on substantive issues such as nuclear weapons, the environment as a security issue, liberal and realist international relations theory, and geopolitics.
- Deudney’s Faculty Profile at Johns Hopkins
- Read Deudney & Ikenberry’s Democratic Internationalism: An American Grand Strategy for a Post-exceptionalist Era (Council on Foreign Relations Working Paper, 2012) here (pdf)
- Read Deudney et al’s Global Shift: How the West Should Respond to the Rise of China (2011 Transatlantic Academy report) here (pdf)
- Read the introduction of Deudney’s Bounding Power (2007) here (pdf)
- Read Deudney’s Bringing Nature Back In: Geopolitical Theory from the Greeks to the Global Era (1999 book chapter) here (pdf)
- Read Deudney & Ikenberry’s Who Won the Cold War? (Foreign Policy, 1992) here (pdf)
- Read Deudney’s The Case Against Linking Environmental Degradation and National Security (Millennium, 1990) here (pdf)
- Read Deudney’s Rivers of Energy: The Hydropower Potential (WorldWatch Institute Paper, 1981) here (pdf)