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Tuesday, May 30, 2017


I tried to get folks to look at international relations in an explanatory rather than an exculpatory or condemnatory fashion, but I clearly failed so I shall move on.


E said...

I'm sorry, but there is no virtue in avoiding condemnation of the wholly unnecessary killing of millions (literally) of innocent people. I find it startling that anyone should think otherwise. The natural progression is surely: millions of innocents are being slaughtered to no purpose; why is this happening; is there anything we can do about it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You may be sorry, but you still do not understand. Condemnation is easy. Understanding tends to be more difficult. I have no difficulty condemning, but I often have difficulty understanding. Hence, I find it a worthwhile exercise to try. There is no suggestion that to underatsnd is to pardon.

LFC said...

I disagreed, in one of my comments, with your explanation of U.S. foreign policy on the grounds that it is too monocausal. To disagree with a particular explanation, or aspects of a particular explanation, is not to reject the notion or goal of explanation in general. I'll leave it at that.

LFC said...

Can't resist a p.s., which is that since I spent a lot of time in grad school studying extant and often competing 'explanations' [you can remove or keep the scare quotes, depending on taste] of international relations, I'm not exactly unfamiliar with efforts at explanation in this area.

s. wallerstein said...

I questioned your explanation that states in general seek to expand their reach until they come up against a state which opposes their expansion. I gave the example of Switzerland, which for centuries has not invaded anyone or sought colonies. Costa Rica has no army.

It seems like some states are more aggressive than others, and the United States of America was particularly aggressive during the 20th century. In fact, don't you think that Nazi Germany was a bit more aggressive than, say, 20th century Australia?

Some states have a militaristic aggressive culture, the United States of America being one. That's an explanation and a condemnation.

When you claim that all states seek to expand their imperial power (Switzerland doesn't), you're letting the USA off the hook, since, according to your theory, the USA is only doing what everyone does. However, every state does not do that.

Please don't tell me that the fact that Switzerland invests everywhere is equivalent to the U.S.A. sending marines everywhere in terms of imperialism. It isn't.

LFC said...

@S. Wallerstein

It might be fairer, for lack of a better word, to compare the U.S.'s behavior over time with those of other countries of *roughly* comparable size and/or with some claim to be 'great powers' in terms of military strength, self-conception, or etc. You might of course still end up concluding the U.S. has been aggressive (which it has in some respects), imperialist, or whatever, but the comparison would be within a more relevant universe.

Personally I think there are variations even *among* the 'great powers', contra those, e.g. Mearsheimer, who argue that the main lines of their behavior are quite similar. But I do think that is the relevant comparison, not, say, the U.S. and Switzerland.

Btw I think you are right to mention 'culture' (and by extension ideology more generally). These factors matter, contra the straight realist or geopolitical approaches, from which Prof Wolff's view ("the big powers all expand until they run up against an obstacle") is derived.

Of course there is a long tradition that supports the Wolff view in a somewhat more elaborate form; see for modern versions, just to cite a couple of examples, R. Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (1981) or, another variant already mentioned, Mearsheimer, Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), or for a historical take that eschews explicit theory, P. Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987). None of these are leftists, but it's basically "big states expand until they can't" or "until the costs outweigh the benefits". (That's a little unfair to the P. Kennedy actually, but never mind.)

Much better pictures of what's going on, in my view, can be found in other kinds of work, e.g., H. Bull, The Anarchical Society (1977), dated but still worth reading, or A. Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics [not the easiest of reads] or M. Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention.

Just in case you were short on reading material...

howie b said...

What are the facts about Russia? This Ewan might know his Russia better than you. Maybe he's an insider. Theory is fine, but that doesn't stop the facts from existing. Facts are primary and you should covet and honor them

LFC said...

Let me see if I can throw some light on this mess (from my perspective, at any rate), and then I'll quit. I'm usually not this persistent (or annoying), but this is bothering me.

I'll bracket and put to one side the arguments about specific situations (e.g. Syria) that made the other thread confusing and contentious.

Simplifying somewhat (well, a lot), there was:

1) R.P. Wolff (in the post called "A Reply to Ewan"): There are no good guys and bad guys in international affairs. There are just current imperial powers, past imperial powers, and countries that would be imperial powers if they could. [that's a paraphrase]

2) S. Wallerstein: But what about Switzerland? That doesn't seem to have acted imperially or shown a desire to try to become an imperial power.

3) R.P. Wolff (in another part of the post "A Reply to Ewan"): U.S. expansionism has been motivated by the interests of international capital. [paraphrase]

4) Me: I think that is too mono-causal an explanation of U.S. expansionism and the history of U.S. foreign policy.

Note that Wallerstein's point about Switzerland and my point about U.S. foreign policy, whether you agree with them or not, are about *explanation*. They are not normative points; they are about the merits of explanatory statements.

Then R.P. Wolff again: "I tried to get folks to look at international relations in an explanatory rather than an exculpatory or condemnatory fashion, but I clearly failed so I shall move on."

I hope I'm not being unfair here, but the unstated assumption underlying this last quote seems to be something like: 'If people looked at international relations in an explanatory fashion, they would have to agree with my particular explanations of international relations, because those particular explanations are obviously right.'

Unfortunately, things don't work that way. International Relations is, *at best*, a soft science, not a hard science, and even a statement as apparently obvious (to the one making it) as "all countries are imperial powers, have been imperial powers, or would be imperial powers if they could" is likely not going to command universal agreement, irrespective of the setting and the audience.

Ewan said...

Saeva indignatio on the home front: chill on the foreign front.

Condemn injustice and campaign for progressive causes at home: refrain from comment on the killing of millions to no purpose overseas.

There is still a distinction to be made, which you appear to apply on the home front, especially in regard to President Trump and his adolescent or sociopathic behaviour, but which you deprecate on the foreign front:

Try to understand how and why states act as they do on the assumption that they act as if they are grown-ups, rational actors with interests to pursue. Certainly. When they do not act as if they are grown-ups, when they lay waste to swathes of territory and threaten the survival of everyone including themselves for no rational purpose whatsoever, then try to understand why and, as on the home front, condemn and campaign.

And when I tried to explain to you why your understanding of Russia was wrong, you dismissed my explanations by saying that you know little about it. It is certainly a useful exercise to try.

Niels said...

This has absolutely nothing to do with the debate (which seems to have hit Godwin's law). But I'm thoroughly enjoying your course on ideological critique. Thank you very much for those videos.

David Palmeter said...

Historically, I think US imperialism has been more like the Russian and Chinese variety--taking control of adjacent territory, than of the British-French et al variety -- establishing colonies, although we’ve had some of both. Wasn’t the Monroe Doctrine at least related to imperialism--the Western Hemisphere is ours to control? “Manifest Destiny” and Hawaii were clearly imperialism of the Russian/Chinese variety. The Mexican War was all about territory, and we got a lot of it as a result. Somewhere along the line, we’ve even taken a few shots at the Canadians. That border wasn’t settled until the 1870s or thereabouts.

I think American isolationism has been about not getting involved in European squabbles. At the same time, the land-grabbing of what was adjacent to us went on apace.

LFC said...

That border wasn’t settled until the 1870s or thereabouts.

In terms of settled for its whole length -- well after the 1870s, I believe, though I think it was mostly a matter of a protracted series of negotiations rather than shooting.