Theory Talk #74: Bertrand Badie

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bertrand Badie on the Trump Moment, the Science of Suffering, and IR between Power and Weakness

IR retains a traditional focus on the game of power between states as its defining characteristic. But what, so asks Bertrand Badie, if this means that our discipline is based on a negation of our humanity? A giant in Francophone IR, Badie has labored to instead place human suffering at the center of analysis of the international, by letting loose sociological insights on a truly global empirical reality. In this Talk, Badie—amongst others—challenges the centrality of the idea of state power, which makes little sense in a world where most of the IR agenda is defined by issues emanating from state weakness; argues for the centrality of suffering to a more apt IR; and uses this to contextualize the Trump Moment.
What is (or should be), according to you, the biggest challenge / principal debate in current International Relations? What is your position or answer to this challenge / in this debate?

Unquestionably, it would be the matter of change. It is time to conceptualize, and further than that, to theorize the change that is happening in the field of International Relations (IR). Humans have always had the feeling that they are living in a period of upheaval, but contemporary IR is really characterized by several landmarks that illustrate the drastic extent of change. I see at least three of them.

The first one concerns the inclusive nature of the international system. For the first time in the history of mankind, the international system covers nearly the whole humanity, while the Westphalian system was an exclusively European dynamic in which the United States of America entered to turn it into a system, that I would call, Euro-North-American.

The second element, around which publications abound (see notably Mary Kaldor’s work, Theory Talk #30), is the deep mutation of the nature of conflict. War used to be, in the Westphalian model, a matter of competition between powers. Today we have the feeling that weakness is replacing power, in that power cannot any longer function as central explanatory term of conflictual situations, which are rather manifestations of state weakness. Think of ‘failing’ or ‘collapsing’ states, which refers to the coming apart of nations that have been built badly as well as the deliquescence of social ties. This new form of conflictuality completely turns the international environment upside down and constitutes a second indicator of transformation.

The third aspect concerns mobility. Our international system used to be fully based on the idea of territory and boundaries, on the idea that fixity establishes the competences of States in a very precise way. In this perspective, the state refers to territory—as the definition given by Max Weber states very clearly—but today this territorial notion of politics is challenged by a full range of mobilities, composed of international flows that can be either material, informational, or human.

These are three indicators illustrating a deep transformation of the inner nature of IR that encourage me to speak about ‘intersocial relations’ rather than ‘interstate relations’. The notion of interstate relations no longer captures the entirety of the global game. Our whole theory of IR was based on the Westphalian model as it came out of the peace of Westphalia, as it was confirmed by the accomplishment of the nation-state construction process and as it dominated the historical flow of international events until the fall of the Berlin wall.

Until the fall of the wall, all that was not related to Europe or to the United States of America, or more precisely North-America, was simply called ‘periphery’, which says enough. Today, by contrast, the periphery is central at least regarding conflictuality. We should therefore drop our Westphalian prism and build up new analytical tools for IR that would take these mutations as their point of departure. Doing away with our Westphalian approach to IR would mean questioning both our classical IR theories and questioning the practical models of action in international politics, which means the uses of diplomacy and warfare.

How did you arrive at where you currently are in your thinking about International Relations?

You know when we write, when we work, we are first of all influenced by our dissatisfaction. The classical Westphalian approach to IR, as I said earlier, did not satisfy me as I had the feeling that it was focusing on events that no longer had the importance that we kept giving them—for instance the arms race, great power politics, or the traditional diplomatic negotiations—while I was seeing, maybe this was the trigger, that the greatest part of suffering in the world was coming from places that IR theory was not really covering.

I have always told my students that IR is the science of human suffering. This suffering exists of course where we are—in Europe, in North America, they exist everywhere in the world—but the greatest part is outside of the Westphalian area, so the classical approach to IR gives a marginal and distorted image. Africa and the Middle East seen through the Westphalian prism are a dull image, strongly different from the extraordinary wealth, both for good and bad, that these areas of the world have. I’ve also always held that in a world where 6 to 9 million people starve to death each year, the main foci of traditional IR were derisory. Even terrorism, to which we collectively attribute so much importance, hardly comes near how important a challenge food security is.

My three latest books take a stand against traditional IR theories. In Diplomacy of Connivance (2012) I tried to show that the great power game is really a game way that is much more integrated than we usually say and that this game plays out in all multilateral fora. There is indeed a club, and that is precisely what I wanted to describe, a club of powers—one which results to the detriment of less powerful members in the international system.

In Le Temps des humiliés (‘the era of the humiliated’, 2014), I tried to crystallize what the classical theory could not express, which is domination seen through the lens of the dominated, humiliation as felt by the humiliated, violence as experienced by the desperate. For instance, even if we look at powers as accomplished as China today—sharing the first place with the USA in terms of GDP—we have to admit that their historical experience of humiliation constitutes a huge source of inspiration when it comes to the elaboration of its foreign policy.

And then, in my last book Nous ne sommes plus seuls au monde (‘we are no longer alone in the world’, 2016), this critique was even more explicit. We are writing an IR that encompasses only about one billion of human beings, while forgetting all the others. Today it is simply no longer true that these old powers are setting the international agenda. Global politics today is written by the little, the weak, the dominated; often with recourse to extreme forms of violence, but this needs to be analyzed and understood, which would mean to totally change the IR theory.

We should not forget that in large part, IR theory was a given as the USA triumphed in 1945. The well-known ‘great power politics’ that dominates traditional IR theory, inaugurated by Morgenthau and supported by so many others, described what was true at that time: the ability of American power to set us free from the Nazi monster. Today the challenge is strongly different, and it is by the way meaningful that two of the greatest American internationalist political scientists, Robert Keohane (TheoryTalk #9) and Ned Lebow (Theory Talk #53), have both written books that elude to the end of this global order (respectively After Hegemony and Goodbye Hegemony). Well what interests me is exactly to dig into what comes after hegemony.

What would a student need to become a specialist in International Relations or understand the world in a global way?

First of all, I would advise them to rename their science, as I said earlier, and to call it intersocial relations. The future of what we call IR comes down to the ability to understand the extremely rich, multiple and diversified interactions that are happening among and across the world’s societies. It does not mean that we have to completely abandon the state-centric perspective, but rather dethrone states from the middle of this multiplicity of actors in order to realize how very often these states are powerless when faced with these different actors. That would be my first advice.

My second advice would be to look ahead and not back. Do not let yourself be dominated by the Westphalian model, and to try to build up what we need—since almost nothing has been done yet today to construct this post-Westphalian, meta-Westphalian model. Beyond power, there are things that we still misidentify or overlook while they are the driving forces of today’s and tomorrow’s IR. From this point of view, sociology could prove particularly useful. I consider, for instance, that Émile Durkheim is a very important inspiration to understand the world today. Here is an author to study and to apply to IR.

The third advice that I would give them would be to not forget that IR or intersocial relations are indeed the sciences of human suffering. We should be able to place suffering at the core of the thinking. We’ve lost far too much time staring at power, now it is time to move on to place human suffering at the center. Why? First of all because it is ethically better; maybe will we be able to learn from it? But also because in today’s actual international politics suffering is more proactive than power, which is not necessarily optimistic but if recognized, would allow us a better questioning of new forms of conflictuality. Perhaps unfortunately, the international agenda is no longer fixed with canons, but with tears. Maybe this is the key point on which we should concentrate our reflection.

Your insistence on placing suffering at the center of IR scholarship seems to place you firmly alongside those who recognize “grievance” ratherthan “greed” as a central logic of international politics. What do you make of this parallel?

You are right: the idea of grievance, of recrimination, is a structuring logic of the international game today. We did not see it coming for two reasons. First of all because our traditional analysis of international politics presupposed a unity of time, as if the African time, the Chinese time, the Indian time and the European time where all identical. Yet this is completely wrong because we, in our European culture, have not understood that before Westphalia there were political models, political histories, that profoundly marked the people that would then shape contemporary politics. Remember that China is 4000 years of empire, remember that precolonial Africa was composed of kingdoms, empires, civilizations, philosophies, arts... Remember that India also is multi-millenary. The Westphalian time came to totally deny and crush this temporality, this historicity, almost in a negationist way, which means that, in the spirit of those who were defending the Westphalian model, only this model was associated to the Renaissance; and that the age of enlightenment and reason with a big R had a calling to reformat the world as if it were a hard drive. This was a senseless bet, a bet for which our European ancestors who led it had excuses because at that time we did not know all these histories, at that time we did not have all the knowledge we today have of the other and thus we simply resolved it, through the negation of alterity. Yet, IR ought on the contrary aspire to the accomplishment of alterity. Inevitably, all those who saw themselves denied their historicity, over several centuries and even several millenaries, accumulated a feeling of recrimination, of particularly deep grievances.

The second element is that all of this happened in a context of disequilibrium of power resources, linked to different factors that reflected indeed the fact that at a given moment of time western powers were both literally and figuratively better armed than other societies. Abovementioned negation of alterity was mapped onto, and amplified, by the forceful imposition of a multilateral system that turned into the worst situation, into a proclaimed hierarchy of cultures; as a result and there were, as Jules Ferry put it in the France of the 19th century, ‘races’; as in, ‘We have the obligation to educate inferior races’. It is not the beginning of history, but it is the beginning of a history of humiliation. And through subsequent waves of globalization, this humiliation has turned into a central nerve running through international life. A nerve that has been used by both the powerful, who made a tool out of humiliating the others to better dominate them (think here of the opium wars, colonization) and simultaneously a nerve that fed the reaction of mobilization in the extra-Westphalian world by those that had to stand up against those who were humiliating them. So you see how it truly lies at the basis of IR. In my mind, it became a forceful paradigm, it explains everything, even though others factors continue to weigh in on actual dynamics.

In order to appreciate all this, we need a sociological approach, which has for me two aspects. Both these aspects must be considered together for the approach to be well understood. The first one is a timeless aspect, which is to consider that everywhere and in all eras politics is a social product. Politics cannot be understood as somehow outside society. This I would say contradicts the majority of IR scholars, who believe excessively in the autonomy of politics and of the state—even if only for analytical purposes. The second element of this sociological approach is the historical or temporal component. That is what I was talking about earlier: with globalization the social fabric strongly progressed compared to the political fabric, and considering that intersocial relations grew, we need a sociological approach to understand them.

Do you think that the Trump period constitutes a fundamental break with the conduct of IR?

Trump himself maybe not, but what he represents certainly. If we look at the USA today we see, since the new millennium, three models succeeding each other. After 11-09 there was a time of neo-conservatism where globalization was considered by American leaders as a means or maybe a chance to universalize the American model, willingly or not. By force, as was the case in Iraq in 2003. This model failed.

This lead to a second model which I would describe as a liberal model, neo-liberal, incarnated by Obama who learnt from the lessons of the failure of neo-conservatism, and had the courage to question the hypothesis hitherto considered as indisputable of American leadership in the world, and who considered that the USA could win only through soft power or smart power or free-trade. That is the reason why Obama was just a little bit interventionist and was counting a lot on the TTIP and on all these transregional agreements.

With Trump we arrive at a third model, one that I would call neo-nationalist, that looks at globalization in a different way. In his perspective, globalization constitutes a chance to satisfy the national American interests. The idea of the national comes back after a long interlude of a globalizing vision. It does not mean that we are not interventionist anymore. What happened in Syria proves it. It means that we will intervene not according to the needs of globalization but rather to American interests. It is about sharing a strong and powerful image of the USA on the one hand and on the other serving the concrete interests of the American people and nation.

This neo-nationalist model is not defended only by Trump, that is the reason why I was saying that we should not consider Trump individually. We find it exactly the same way with Putin. We find it by many other world leaders, such as Erdogan or Duterte or Victor Orbán—really different figures—or Marshal Sissi in Egypt.

We find it as well in attitudes, for instance Brexit in Great Britain, in right-wing neo-populism in Europe: Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Wilders...  or in a certain left-wing neo-populism as Mélenchon in France. It is in the air, seeming almost a passing fad. But it constitutes perhaps a double rupture within IR. First of all because since the emergence of globalization, let’s say around the 70’s, the national interest as a thought category was bit by bit replaced with approaches in terms of collective goods. Today by contrast we witness the abandonment of this image of collective goods for a return to the national interest. This is very clear in Trump’s renouncing of the COP21 of Paris. At the same time, second, this constitutes some form of the rehabilitation of the idea of power, which again seeps into the language of IR.

You know the IR scholar is not a neutral person, we have to use our science towards positive action and for the definition of sound public policies. Going against the idea of collective goods, casting doubt on the ideas of human security, environmental security, food security, and sanitary security is extremely dangerous because the composition of national interests and egoism will never converge to a globally coherent policy. It is the weak that will suffer first.

And the same time that power is reinstated as a driving principle of IR praxis, the paradox is that great powers are becoming more and more powerless. If we look only since 1989, and ask, when did state power ever triumph in IR? Where did the strongest ever find a battleship enabling him to resolve a problem to his benefit and according to his goals? Never. Not in Somalia, not in Afghanistan, not in Iraq, not in Syria, not in Palestine. Nowhere. Not in Sahel, not in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nowhere. So I am a little worried, indeed, about this naive and old-fashioned rehabilitation of state power.

Can we say that globalization, or rather the ambition of integration at either the European or global scale, has failed? Can today be considered a good moment to bury of the idea of integration?

I do not like burials, it is not an expression that I would use, but your question is very pertinent. For around twenty years I have been saying and teaching that regional integration constituted an intermediary and realistic level of adaptation between the era of the nation state and that of globalization, which means that I believed for a long time that regional integration was the final step towards a global governance of the world.

I thought for a long time that what was not possible at the global scale, a global government, was possible at the regional level and this would already strongly simplify the world map and thus go in the way of this adhesion to the collective dimension required by globalization. Nevertheless, not only Europe suffers a setback, but all the regional constructions in the world are in a similar situation. Mr. Trump openly shoves the NAFTA agreement, MERCOSUR is down as every State that is composing it has recriminations against it, and we could extend the list… All the forms of integration that have been set by Chavez around his Bolivian ideal have ceased to exist; Africa progresses very slowly in terms of regional integration; the Arab Maghreb Union, which is an essential device, totally failed. Thus indeed the situation does not look good.

In the case of Europe there is a double phenomenon: on the one hand, there is this really grave failure due to the secession of Great Britain from Europe, and then there is a general malaise of the European model. Brexit is really rare, if you look at the contemporary history of IR it is simply unprecedented that a state shuts the door on a regional or global organization. As far as I remember, it only happened a few times before, with Indonesia in the UN in 1964, which lasted only 19 months. It happened with Morocco with the African Union and Morocco is currently reintegrating in it. This British situation came as a thunderbolt, worsened by the fact that paradoxically it is not so much because of regional integration that the British voted against the European Union. It was more from an anti-migration, xenophobic and nationalist (in reference to that nationalism trend that I was earlier talking about) perspective and what is dramatic is that we can clearly see that the nationalist sentiment is really attacking the inner principles of regional integration.

I was saying that in the European case there are internal problems which run even deeper than the British defection, and I will underline at least two of them. First of all there is a democratic deficit of Europe, meaning that Europe was not able to match electoral spaces with the ones where decisions get made; people still vote at the national level while the decisions are taken in Brussels. In consequence, democratic control over these decisions is extremely weak. How to resolve this equation? And here the breakdown is total since very few people are coming up with suggestions. The other factor of this crisis is, according to me, the fact that Europe has been built with success after World War II in a progressive way around association and indeed, Durkheim proved it, the integrative logic makes sense. Unity makes strength and it did make strength once in Europe to prevent war, a third World War, and secondly to encourage the reconstruction of European countries where economy was totally collapsed. This time is now over and it is the fault of Europe to not have known how to recontextualize itself, to react to the new contexts.

Paying one more time tribute to Durkheim who guessed it right, Durkheim said that there are two ways of constructing social ties: around association and around solidarity. I think that the time of association is now over, we should enter in the time of solidarity, which does not consist in saying ‘We Germans are associated with Greece’, but rather ‘We Germans are joined together with Greece because we know that if Greece collapses, in a long term perspective, we will suffer the consequences’. Thus this idea of fundamental unity is an idea that has been a little bit overlooked, abandoned by the Europeans and now they find themselves in a complete paralysis.

Is the decolonization period still having an impact on contemporary IR?

Oh totally, totally. I would first say because it is a major event in the field of IR, which made the World switch from 51 sovereign States of the UN in 1945 to 193 today but above all, a very aggravating circumstance, is that this decolonization has been a complete failure and this failure weighs enormously on international politics.

It has been a failure because decolonization assumed the format of copying the western state model in countries that were accessing independence, while this model was not necessarily adapted, which provoked a proliferation of failed states, and these collapsed states had a terrible effect on IR.

Secondly because decolonization should have led to the enrichment and to the substantial modification of multilateralism, by creating new institutions able to take charge of new challenges resulting from decolonization. Yet, except the creation of UNCTAD in 1964 and of UNDP in 1965, there have been very little innovations in terms of global governance. Thus global governance remains dominated by what I earlier called ‘the club’, which means the great powers from the north, and this is very dysfunctional for the management of contemporary crises. Then also because the ancient colonial powers happen to find new forms of domination that did somehow complicate the international game. Thus in fact decolonization is a daily aspect of the crisis that the international system faces today.

In conclusion, which question should we have asked? In other terms, which question have we forgot?

I found your questions very pertinent as it allowed the discussion of themes that I consider essentials. Now, the big problem that makes me worry is the great gap between the analysts and the actors in IR. I am not saying that the analysts understood everything, far from it, but I think that IR theorists are very conscious of some of these transformations I have mentioned. If you look at some great authors such as James Rosenau, Ned Lebow or Robert Keohane, to name just a few—there are way more—they all contributed to the reconstruction of IR.

What truly strikes me is the autism of political actors, they think that they are still at the time of the Congress of Vienna and that is an extraordinary source of tension. Thus as long as this spirit of change does not reach political actors, maybe Barack Obama was the first one to enter this game and then the parenthesis was closed, as long as there will not be this move towards the discovery of a new world, maybe as well through the inclusion in our reflection about the international fabric such partners as China, it is not normal that this very powerful China does not have any choice but to share the paradigm and the model of action proper to occidental diplomacy, as long as we would not have done this precise effort, well, we will remain in the negation of the human, and that is the essential problem today, we are unable to understand that at the end there is just one unity, which is the human being.

I had the chance to visit 105 countries and everywhere I met the same men and the same women, with their pain, with their happiness, their hardship, their joy, their sorrow, their needs that were everywhere identical. As long as we will not understand that, well, we will be living in a world that is in total contradiction with what it is truly and essentially. We will live in a world of artifice and thus a world of violence.

Related links  

  • Read Badie’s The Arab Spring: A starting point (SER Études 2011) here (pdf)