In my master’s degree, I studied international relations. As far as I can judge, the program was very good. Excellent even. It was a very good two years, in which I was challenged like never before. The master’s degree was very difficult for me. I was very curious about international affairs, but I knew almost nothing about international relations theory. The professors assumed that students were at least familiar with the content. I was not. So, I went through the experience of learning to cook and learning to be a culinary critic at the same time. I had to chase a lot. But it was good. The master’s taught me like no previous experience to study on my own.
Looking back, I understand that the program was strongly influenced by a light form of postmodernism. That was very difficult for me. There was a strong rejection of more traditional theories of international relations, such as realism and liberalism. It was all very new to me, but I knew that being a classic realist was not an option well regarded by the professors. I ended up finding a kind of lifeboat in constructivism. I didn’t want to be ashamed of being a realist, but my intuition told me that there was something wrong with postmodernism. It was only after the master’s degree, teaching the theory of international relations and studying several other things, that I understood that postmodernism is really crazy, something deeply twisted.
Constructivism is largely weird also. The most sensible thing I read in international relations was John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism. Stephen Walt is an author who also made sense to me in my post-master’s life. In short, I admire my master’s program for its academic excellence, but I find the theories espoused by several of the professors completely flawed.
It was very difficult for me to write my dissertation. I did not have a clear theoretical basis, just the instinct that I did not want to follow a postmodern line and the certainty that a more traditional theory would not be well accepted. I wrote the dissertation without having a very solid theoretical basis. But my research, modesty aside, was still very well done. I researched the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries to Brazil in the 19th century.
It was a topic of personal interest. I was a recently converted Protestant, and I wanted to know more about my history. As they say in Brazil, I joined hunger with the desire to eat. My question, which I was not able to ask so clearly at the time, was whether the presence of missionaries in Brazil, the majority coming from the USA, had affected Brazil-United States relations in any way. Even today, I find it very difficult to analyze causality in such cases, as someone would do in the hard sciences, but I believe that with the information I gathered I can defend that yes, American Protestant missionaries affected Brazil-US relations in many ways. Brazil and the USA were predominantly disinterested in each other in the early 19th century.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this situation changed dramatically, especially on the part of Brazil. The USA started to play a central role in Brazilian foreign policy. It does not seem to me to be the case that the missionaries caused this change, but I believe that their presence in Brazil cooperated, along with other factors, to make this happen. Would Brazil change its foreign policy at the end of the 19th century in one way or another? This is a type of question that, honestly, I’m not interested in answering. But I believe it is clear that the missionaries helped the two countries to become a little more aware of each other.
I faced some opposition from colleagues for choosing this topic. One of the things I heard was that, being a Protestant, I would not have the necessary distance to do a good research. I also heard that missionaries would be little more than tourists, and that they would, therefore, have no chance of affecting relations between the two countries. These were harsh criticisms, which still make me sad when I remember them. I see in these criticisms a certain prejudice against evangelicals that is still present in Brazil, inside and outside academia. Ironically, I did not find the same thing on the part of the professors. On the contrary! Every one of them was always very supportive of my research, and in fact, they found the topic interesting and pertinent.
I would very much like to be able to return to the topic of my research with the head I have today, but I don’t have time for that. To some extent, I would also like to go back to those classes knowing the things I know today. But I also believe that I would not have that much patience. I have a better notion of what I consider epistemologically valid or not. I suppose the master’s degree would be more difficult to take today. Anyway, the master’s degree gave me my first job as a professor: I started teaching international relations when I hadn’t even defended the dissertation, and I did it for eight years. It was a very good eight years. Although I am away from this area, I still like what I learned, and I feel benefited by the time I studied and taught international relations.
The 19th century Brazilian political system was dominated by two parties: Conservatives and Liberals. Although these parties were formally established only in the late 1830s or early 1840s, part of my thesis involves understanding that these parties existed, albeit in an embryonic form, since independence in 1822.
What I noticed is that since independence, conservatives have had a more realistic view of international relations. For them, securing the territory (and the government’s dominance over it) was crucial. Liberals had a more, well, liberal view of international relations. Although they did not deny the traditional formulation of the state (territory, population, government, recognition by other nations), they were more optimistic about the possibility of cooperation with other countries.
The view of conservatives and liberals about international relations matched their ideas about domestic politics very well: conservatives advocated a more centralized and stronger government, with greater control over the territory. One of their great fears was the possibility of Brazil’s fragmentation into several small countries, as happened with Spanish America. Their defense of the monarchy was linked to this: a monarch with greater powers would guarantee the maintenance of the territory. Liberals advocated a more decentralized government, with greater freedom for individuals, and also greater freedom for provinces, which would not be controlled so directly by the central government. The fear of fragmentation of the territory was lesser, and some liberals understood that if individual provinces decided to leave the union, well, that was their right.
These views on international and domestic politics also matched the way liberals and conservatives viewed the United States. Early in the country’s history, conservatives tended to see the United States as a young, unimportant republic. The proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine changed this attitude a little, but it remained a fact that conservatives preferred to direct Brazilian foreign policy towards Europe. Liberals, for their part, saw an example to be followed in the USA, with their conscious departure from the European way of doing politics, especially their federalism. Throughout the 19th century, as the United States grew in power, these attitudes changed, but not by betraying the basic understanding that the two parties had about international relations: conservatives feared possible US imperialism, especially in relation to the Amazon. Liberals were less jealous about the national territory, and in any case, they did not see the United States as a threat.
The great irony I found in my thesis is that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, liberal and conservative ideas about the United States converged. The monarchy was overthrown and the republic proclaimed in Brazil in 1889. The liberal and conservative parties were formally extinct. Part of my thesis involves saying, however, that despite this formal extinction, liberal and conservative attitudes continued to exist in both domestic and international politics. In domestic politics, Republicans represented, at least in part, a radicalization of liberal ideas. Foreign policy was initially marked by this radicalization, but that soon changed. After a very troubled 1890s, the Baron of Rio Branco took the reins of Brazilian foreign policy in 1902.
Rio Branco was a frankly conservative individual. Early in life he chose not to get involved in domestic politics, partly because he did not want to be in the shadow of his father, Viscount of Rio Branco. He followed the diplomatic career. However, as I have already explained, the views of conservatives in domestic politics found a clear counterpart in foreign policy, marked above all by the defense of the territory. And this was the foreign policy of the Baron of Rio Branco.
The thing is that Rio Branco chose a liberal, Joaquim Nabuco, to be Brazil’s ambassador to Washington. Both Rio Branco and Nabuco understood that Brazilian foreign policy should focus on the USA, but for different reasons. On the international stage of the 1900s, Rio Branco believed that an alliance with the USA, albeit informal, was the best way to guarantee Brazil’s security against European imperialism. Nabuco did not ignore this aspect of international relations, but he also believed in a higher ideal: that the approach to the USA could represent a counterpoint to the bellicose European international relations, leading to the progress of civilization. So the irony was this: both Rio Branco, the conservative, and Nabuco, the liberal, wanted to get closer to the USA, but for very different reasons.
Studying to write my thesis was a very pleasant process. I liked the characters I met, I liked the stories and I liked the theme I chose. During the doctorate I was intellectually more mature, and I managed to have a high degree of independence in the way I conducted my research. In other words, I did not allow myself to be led by theoretical perspectives with which I did not agree. And I also think that what I learned has real practical implications. I am glad that it was not my responsibility to decide on Brazilian foreign policy in the 19th century, but I understand that conservatives were often being fearful. I know that they were often being hypocrites. Of course, hindsight is always beneficial, but I believe that liberals were generally right.
There is a catch to this story: Brazil was the last country in the West to abolish slavery, in 1888. Until then, an unimaginable number of slaves crossed the Atlantic to work mainly on coffee and sugar cane fields. This is a dimension of the history of Brazil to which I regrettably gave little importance at the time I was writing. Today I see things differently: the country of slavery yesterday, not for nothing, is the country of socialism today. And I think it’s important to think about how such a strong dependence on slavery probably affected the way domestic and international politics were made.
- How Communist is China today? Rong Jian, Reading the China Dream
- Women in academia and Parisian literary life Ann Smith, Dublin Review of Books
- Hayek, international organization, and Covid-19 (video) Edwin van de Haar, Institute of Economic Affairs
- “Hayekian Spontaneous Order and the International Balance of Power” Edwin van de Haar, Independent Review
Just to inform all NOL-readers out there, if you like the subject, please register and join the IEA webinar I’ll give next wednesday, 13.00 hours, London time.
Institute of Economic Affairs > Events
13:00 – 14:00
Although it was never the subject of a book, Friedrich Hayek wrote a lot about international relations during his long career and had rather firm views on international order and how it could be achieved. In this webinar, these Hayekian views are presented in the context of the current COVID-crisis. What was Hayek’s opinion about the existence and the role of international governmental organizations, such as the World Health Organization?
Dr. Edwin van de Haar (www.edwinvandehaar.com) is an independent scholar who specializes in the liberal tradition in international political theory. He has been a (visiting) lecturer at Brown University, Leiden University and Ateneo de Manila University. Van de Haar is the author of Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory. Hume, Smith, Mises and Hayek (2009), Beloved Yet Unknown. The Political Philosophy of Liberalism (2011, in Dutch) and Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (2015). Among others, he contributed to The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith (2013) and a forthcoming book on The Liberal International Theory Tradition in Europe, while his articles on liberal ideas and liberal thinkers appeared among others in Review of International Studies, International Relations, International Politics, Independent Review and Economic Affairs.
Van de Haar got his PhD in International Politcial Theory from Maastricht Universit in 2008, and holds master degrees in international relations (London School of Economics and Political Science) and in political science (Leiden University).
Lucas’ post reminded me of a piece that I wrote for his website ThinkIR, in 2013. Most of it I re-used in my book Degrees of Freedom (2015). Of course it is also a piece on its own, that readers of NoL may find of interest. Thanks Lucas!
It is fun to think about the almost unthinkable. Therefore this contribution is about the idea that no state is needed to provide military security against foreign attack. In modern times the idea goes back to at least the French-Belgian economist Gustave de Molinari and his 1849 pamphlet The Production of Security. The most prominent current defender of this idea is the German economist Hans-Herman Hoppe, a leading anarcho-capitalist thinker, in his essay The Private Production of Defense (also see The Myth of National Defense, which was edited by Hoppe).
Hoppe rightly notices (p.1) that the legitimacy of the modern state is strongly related to the belief in collective security. Following Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty, he argues that states will always expand, due to the governmental monopoly to tax its inhabitants. This also applies to governments that only have the limited task of protection against aggression and administrating and justice. The only proper solution is therefore to abolish the state altogether, in order to ensure true liberty and individual justice. Consequently, this also means that the provision of security needs to be privatized, as Hoppe does not expect the world to turn into a peaceful utopia (pp. 1- 5).
So how would this work? Basically, to regard the production of security as an insurance, where the expenditures for defense are to be paid by premiums paid by individuals (pp.5-8). The insured people can choose from competing insurance firms, just like in other parts of the insurance market. This is not as improbable at it may seem at first sight. Importantly, insurance companies are already used to deal with risk and other real world dangers. There are already many private security companies in existence, also at the battlefield. The cost of defense in relation to other parts of the insurance market appears large, but do not discount the idea beforehand. For example: Dutch defense expenditure in 2013 is around 7 billion Euro, less than 1% of GDP, while annual turnover of the two largest insurers is around 20 billion. Of course Hoppe would point out that the 7 billion in current defense expenditures needs to be returned to the taxpayers, hence widening the premium base. Presumably, this would work the same in other countries with smaller economies and/or smaller financial sectors (but see the remarks below).
A world without states, but with private security insurance is less war prone, Hoppe argues (p.11-12). Insurers will have an interest in keeping costs down, and will therefore only make unprovoked attacks insurable. People who provoke, or have known to provoke violence in the past, will be excluded from the insurance. After a while, the number of uninsured people will be small. They will face big defense insurance companies if they violate somebody’s property, making this unlikely to happen often, in contrast to interstate war. Yet in my view here Hoppe relies too much on his stated view on human nature: man as rational animal.
A related main defect of the essay is its focus on the role of insurers and their (economic) incentives. This is fine, but the argument quickly loses any of the convincing power it has when Hoppe turns to an analysis of international war. Or more precise, a violent conflict between a free territory, defended by one or more insurance companies, and a state, financed by compulsory taxation. He simply asserts (p. 14) that the state would be in a disadvantage because it is less efficient and that its leaders would lose their legitimacy, because they necessarily fail to convince the population of the justification of an attack on the inherently peaceful free territory.
Yet if an attack would still happen, Hoppe continues, the state-led army of specialists would not only face the defense force of the insurance company (or several insurers and re-insurers cooperating), but also an armed population (p.15). Without much analysis he simply asserts the companies will always be more efficient and also capable to counter all attacks by any state, perform counter-operations in the state territory and be able to kill its leaders, while making sure to minimize any collateral damage. All because they have to justify their insurance fees.
That is as far as Hoppe goes in his argument. He offers no further analysis or other scenario’s, no additional arguments, does not provide any international political analysis, none whatsoever. Only the fact that the insurance companies are private suffices for Hoppe as they must be more efficient and thus able to overcome all possible attack. That is too simplistic, as just three examples illuminate.
Hoppe overlooks some important geopolitical aspects. Take size of territory and population for instance. How likely is it really that a small free territory, say the size of Luxembourg, or The Netherlands for that matter, would be able to raise enough insurance premiums to enable a good defense structure to counter attacks by much larger states? There is a difference between collecting enough money to match current defense expenditures and ensuring defense against all possible attacks, especially given the anarcho-capitalist dislike of international alliances such as NATO.
Apparently Hoppe thinks all necessary technology is either invented by the research and development people of the insurance company, or freely available at the market. This is improbable as far as the state-side of the argument concerns, given today’s relative secrecy in military procurement. Also, the cooperation between insurance companies may fail in this respect. If one company has a superior weapon system, it will be a ground for competition with the other insurer(s). The superiority of one company may quickly make it a monopolist. It may become a threat to its insured, just like states may be threats to their taxpayers. Once the armed forces of the private insurer are in full operation it only takes a powerful CEO with his or her own agenda to turn things sour. Just the fact of private financing does not make much difference.
Also, does economic efficiency always trump state inefficiency? The history of warfare is full of examples where the supposedly superior army loses unexpectedly. So if the state deals a decisive blow it effectively robs the remains of the insurance company, and it’s successors, of its premium paying clients.
To conclude, for liberty loving people the prospect of stateless private security may be tantalizing. However, the quality of the argument as presented by Hoppe thus far is poor and unconvincing. His theoretical arguments largely stem from economics and overlook other relevant facts and arguments, including those from IR. Hoppe’s private production of defense remains a fairy tale.
LGF: This short article was published in the now extinct ThinkIR website on 11 October 2012. I decided not to make any corrections to the original text.
How can you be a Libertarian and theorise IR at the same time? We may tackle this question from a normative or descriptive point of view, but I don’t think you could separate one from another.
On the normative side, let’s face it: most political scientists believe in big government and some who claim that don’t, believe in it anyway. The Libertarian IR theorist will be less than sanguine about the status of normative assumptions in IR, to say the least.
On the descriptive side, IR was born statecentric and remains a statecentric discipline. Adding “new actors” will not do if we keep presupposing they don’t have their own character and are merely “parts” of a “whole” – Leviathan, of course. Starting from the descriptive side, therefore, is also a bit of a problem for the Libertarian IR theorist.
How to begin? I suggest an agenda that does a bit of both and, for the time being, doesn’t get “quite there” yet. There’s preliminary work to be done. More importantly, there’s a lot of “real world” nonsense to be stopped or prevented, and this is equally pressing.
On the one hand, the Libertarian IR theorist has to dispel the normative and descriptive Leviathanic myths bought and reinforced by the discipline of IR since its incipience. For all its attractiveness, though, myth-bursting doesn’t necessarily precede “real world” engagement. “All these theories yet the bodies keep piling up”. That kind of thing.
Back to the question: how to begin? Do a bit of normative, a bit of descriptive and a bit of engagement. One day, Libertarian IR theorists will get there. Meanwhile, merely shifting the conversation with this threefold strategy will open doors – even gates.
Fellow Libertarian IR theorist, there are essentially two ways of doing normative, descriptive and engaging thinking. The first is the way of dialogue. The second is the way of antithesis. Out of these two, a whole new school of thought may emerge. New to IR, that is.
When in dialogue, speak the language of the conversation. Understand it first. Master the key IR theories and arguments in every branch. Security studies, foreign policy analysis, world history, IR theory, IOs and, of course, international political economy.
A good starting point would be deconstructing this unhelpful term, “Liberalism”, which can mean “Wilsonian imperialism” as much as “Kantian federalism”. In the hands of current pundits, it often means “bomb anyone outside the West who refuses to bow to our big government institutions and policies”.
From clarification of the many uses of the term and how anti-liberal the most frequently employed meanings are, proceed to an analysis of possible dialogue with Classical Liberalism. The powerful tradition of Hume and Hayek, of Mises and the Manchester School.
Don’t stop at economics or political philosophy. Do the hard cases. What (if anything) would they say, for example, against realists? IR “liberals”? Constructivists? And, of course, Marxists.
Here the point is to “mine” for “international thought” (even in the Wightian fashion) bearing in mind the “family resemblance” between the rich tradition of Classical Liberalism and the Libertarian approach.
But go a bit further. Is there anything we can learn from realists or constructivists? Feminists, poststructuralists, postcolonialists and, why not, Marxists? If there is, please mine it as early as possible and preserve whatever spark of truth we may find in the established approaches in our discipline.
You may, of course, be even sneakier, wear the camouflage and employ the vocabulary of the mainstream. Why not talk “securitisation” but add to it a Libertarian twist? Why not, for example, challenge both “securitising moves” and “desecuritisation” on the same grounds that either way there’s a statist assumption that public policy is the “appropriate” sphere of security?
Wearing camouflage, depending on the situation, can be a good way of getting heard. If you manage to get attention and smuggle a bit of Libertarian principles behind the mask of the mainstream, well, congratulations: you’ve just shifted the conversation.
This is the way of dialogue. Let’s look now at the way of antithesis. It is a worthwhile endeavour, but we run the risk of sectarianism. Antithesis is important to draw the line, but potentially damaging if employed to police thought within the movement.
Care more about drawing the line between Libertarian and Liberal than Randian and Rothbardian. If you achieve considerable dialogue with realism, constructivism and liberalism – or with critical theory, feminism, whatever – antithesis will be important to teach us where to stop.
Is Libertarian IR critical? Yes, but for exactly the opposite reason that Marxists would consider themselves critical theorists. Is Libertarian IR liberal? In a sense, but this has to be defined by contrast.
Notice I haven’t shown anything of the substance of a potential Libertarian IR theory. I don’t mean to say little about such an important subject for mere “industrial secrecy”. The truth is that it’s hard to know the final result.
Don’t Libertarians often refer to “spontaneous order“? So, then: it’s hard to predict, let alone know what a Libertarian IR theory will look like in detail, before obtaining space for it in the discipline.
The ground-clearing exercise of dialogue and antithesis helps open up space for Libertarian IR, but it operates as a constraining and enabling mechanism. When we try to be understood by both statists and state-centrists, when we speak their language, we’ll see that we’re adding originality to the formulation.
It’s not a matter of transposing Hoppe or Spooner, Nozick or Murphy into IR. It’s not a matter of merely developing a “world politics” argument out of the initial approaches. It is, rather, a presentation to the IR audience.
After gaining space, Libertarianism will be speaking to IR, and not anymore to those who listened to it in a past age. Libertarian IR will be similar, but not quite the same.
In dialogue with the IR establishment, or even critical theories, it will be similar to them, but will also smuggle a bit more of liberty into the conversation. In antithesis, it will of course draw a line. In transposition from the initial context to our own discipline, it will be original.
Remember intellectual exercise isn’t enough. Even now, as you read, Leviathan plots against human life, liberty and property. We need scholars, entrepreneurs of theorising, as much as we need second-hand trade in ideas.
Be visible. Be active. Be in the conversation out there. The conversation goes beyond the microcosmos of the university campus. If asked about policy, talk policy. Go to the media. Blog. Talk to people. Influence by example.
Do normative argument, do descriptive theory and by all means make it engage with the general public. Do journalism, punditry, policy advice. Pursue the way of dialogue or the path of antithesis.
Shift the conversation. Give it a new direction.
After Joe Biden’s remarkable performance on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, where he won 10 states, Wall Street surged on Wednesday. Many argue that the former Vice President, with his centrist economic views as compared to Senator Bernie Sanders, would be more acceptable not just to centrist supporters of the Democrats, as well as US corporates, but interestingly even some Republicans who are not comfortable with Trump’s economic policies. Donors of the Democratic Party are also rallying behind Biden, and Sanders is trying to use this point in his favor, saying that the ‘political establishment’ is not happy with his rise. The Vermont Senator, with his radical economic policies, has based his campaign on challenging the current status quo (where a section of the elite have disproportionate influence).
If one were to look at Biden’s key stand on foreign policy issues, his remarks on Afghanistan were criticised not just by Afghan leaders but also strategic analysts. Biden stated that US should not be concerned with ‘nation building’ in Afghanistan, but rather with countering terrorism. Reacting to his remarks, spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stated:
Afghanistan fought and stood as a whole nation to the face of tyrants such as the Soviet Invasion, Terrorism invasion and now, it is in the front lines so that the other nations are safer. ISIS [Daesh] & the Taliban, the major terror networks and the enemies of the world are defeated here.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai stated that Biden’s remarks were ‘unrealistic and immature’ and sent a message that US was not really concerned about nation building in Afghanistan. Other observers of Afghanistan were also surprised by Biden’s remarks (as number 2 in the Obama Administration, he played a key role in the formation of the Unity government in 2014).
On China, Biden’s approach seems to be more nuanced than Trump’s. In May 2019, he stated that while US needed to watch its own interests, excessive paranoia vis-à-vis China was uncalled for. A month later (in June 2019) he stated that “China poses a serious challenge to us, and in some areas are a real threat.”
At the same time, like the Republicans and Democrats, Biden has opposed the entry of Huawei into the United States’ 5G network, arguing that this would be a security threat (in a presidential primary debate, Biden alluded to this point along with other candidates). Interestingly, an article in China’s main English-language daily, Global Times, argues that Biden would be a better bet for China than Bernie Sanders given that he is more predictable and has experience in dealing with China.
One issue on which Biden has drawn flak from Bernie Sanders is the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a brain child of former President Barack Obama (TPP was an important component of Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy which sought to counter China’s economic and strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific region – now referred to as Indo-Pacific).
Sanders’ approach to TPP is identical to that of Trump (whose first decision was to pull out of the TPP). Sanders had praised Trump’s decision saying that this decision was in the interest of American workers.
The Vermont Senator has argued that Biden supported the TPP, which would be damaging to American workers. While seeing the popular mood, Biden has revised his stand and stated that he would go ahead with the deal but will renegotiate it (interestingly, Trump’s 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton also turned against the TPP even though as Secretary of State she had fervently backed the deal).
When in power, the approach to crucial policy issues changes and that could be the case as far as Joe Biden is concerned. On issues like China and TPP it is highly unlikely that Biden will take a fundamentally different position from the Republican Party given the current narrative prevalent in the US. Having been an insider, it is likely though that he will follow a more cautious approach and not upset the apple cart too much.
Classical liberals will not be surprised by the repeated occurrence of violence and war in the Middle East and will understand the realities of the unstable region where Iran is an important player. Their analysis will view the regional balance of power in the context of the global balance of power. They will also take account of the history of US-Iranian relations […]
This is from fellow Notewriter Edwin, writing for the Institute for Economic Affairs in London. It was part of a nightcap a few days ago, but I thought I’d give it some more love with a post of its own.
Edwin likes to use the “balance of power” strategy to explain the classical liberal position (check out his now classic article in the Independent Review), but I don’t know how true this is. Traditionally, hasn’t the balance of power method been favored by conservatives like Metternich and Kissinger?
I know he’ll respond by telling me that I have a socially liberal view of IR because I favor more federation, but I don’t know how true this is either. Shouldn’t trade-offs and cooperation in the context of power take precedence in classical liberal theories of IR? What sounds more liberal to you, then: a strategy of balancing power between separate actors, or a strategy of finding trade-offs and binding actors together in a manner (federal) that maximizes those trade-offs?
After the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities
Iran’s ties with the rest of the world, especially Washington, have witnessed some interesting developments in recent weeks. While there was a possibility of a thaw between Washington and Tehran after the G7 Summit (held in August 2019 at Biarritz, France) with both sides making the right noises.
Tensions between both countries have risen yet again after two oil facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais, of Saudi Aramco (a Saudi state-run company) were attacked by drones and missiles on September 14, 2019. The Houthis of Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Saudis and the US blamed Iran. US President Donald Trump warned of retaliatory action against Iran (the US also sent troops to the Gulf to prevent further escalation), while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the attack as an ‘act of war’.
Iranian reactions to US statements
If one were to look at Iranian reactions to US statements, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in an interview on September 19, stated that if the US or Saudi Arabia launched a military attack on Iran, in retaliation for the strikes on the Saudi oil facilities, he did not rule out an ‘all out war’. Zarif did say that Iran wanted to avoid conflict and was willing to engage with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
On September 22, the anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Iran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned against the presence of foreign troops in the Gulf, saying that this would lead only to more apprehensions and insecurities. The Iranian President also stated that Tehran had extended its hand of friendship towards countries in the region for maintenance of security in the Gulf, as well as the Strait of Hormuz. On the same day, Zarif made a much more measured statement, arguing that Tehran wanted to make September 22 a day of peace not war. Referring to Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980, he stated that this act, which received support of global powers, has been one of the reasons for turmoil in the region. Hours before Rouhani’s speech, Zarif, in an interview with the American media company CNN, stated that Iran was ready for a re-negotiated deal, provided Donald Trump lifted economic sanctions. The Foreign Minister made a telling remark:
We continue to leave the door open for diplomacy. In the meantime, our campaign for economic pressure will continue.
Rouhani had expressed his openness towards meeting Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Hours before his speech, one of his spokespersons stated that Tehran was willing to give commitments with regard to not expanding its nuclear program, provided the US lifted sanctions. During his speech, Rouhani made it clear that while he was willing to engage with the US, he would not do so under any sort of pressure, and Tehran would only engage with Washington if the US-imposed economic sanctions are removed. Rouhani dubbed these sanctions as economic terrorism.
Statement (and remarks) issued by France, the UK, and Germany with regard to the attack on Saudi’s oil facilities
What was significant, however, was the statement issued on September 23 by the UK, Germany, and France that Tehran was responsible for the attack on the oil facilities run by Aramco. The three countries, which have been firmly backing greater engagement with Iran, and have been so far critical of Trump’s approach, in a statement held that Iran was responsible for the attacks, and that these could lead to greater conflict in the region. The statement issued by the three countries did make the point that these countries supported the Iran and P5+1 nuclear agreement/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), asking Tehran to comply with the deal and adhere to the commitments.
Significantly, British PM Boris Johnson spoke in favor of Trump renegotiating the JCPOA, while French President Emmanuel Macron stated, in a conversation with reporters, that he was not ‘married to the JCPOA’. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while speaking in favor of talks between Tehran and Washington, stated that Tehran’s conditionality of sanctions being lifted before talks take place was unrealistic.
Why France’s statement was especially surprising
Statements made by Macron came as a surprise, given that he has played a pivotal role in keeping the JCPOA intact and differed with Trump’s approach towards Tehran. Apart from fervently supporting the JCPOA, the UK, Germany, and France had also set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to circumvent sanctions from Iran. This move had been criticized by senior officials of the Trump Administration, including Mike Pence, John Bolton, and Pompeo.
Macron also attempted to organize a meeting between Zarif and G7 Ministers on the sidelines of the G7 Summit held at Biarritz (the French President did meet Zarif, with G7 leaders giving him a go ahead to negotiate with Iran). A statement made by Trump, where he stated that he was willing to meet with Rouhani and described Iran as a country of great potential, raised hopes of possible engagement with Iran. Trump in his usual style did put forward conditionalities, and did state that he was not party to a joint statement by G7 on Iran.
It would be pertinent to point out that Macron even attempted a meeting between Rouhani and Trump on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting, though this did not work out. The French President did meet with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. A tweet by the Iranian representative to the UN stated that apart from bilateral relations, Macron and Rouhani discussed ways in which the JCPOA could be saved.
Trump’s approach towards Iran: Back to square one?
The removal of John Bolton, a known Iran hawk, as National Security Adviser also raised hopes with regard to US engagement with Iran. In fact, Bolton’s approach vis-à-vis Iran was cited as one of the main reasons for growing differences between Bolton and Trump.
The attacks on the oil facilities have made Trump more aggressive
The attack on Saudi facilities however acted as a spoiler, and has given Trump the opportunity to act aggressively and put more pressure on France, Germany, and the UK to adopt a tough stance vis-à-vis Iran. Washington has already imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, and while Iran has warned of retaliations in case there is any sort of military action, US cyber attacks on Iran can not be ruled out. At the UNGA, Trump attacked Iran by saying it is a security threat to ‘peace-loving nations’. The US President also said that there was no chance of lifting sanctions as long as Tehran’s ‘menacing’ behavior continued.
With the UK, Germany, and France also backing US claims with regard to Iran being responsible for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Trump has become further emboldened.
Role of countries like Japan and India
While the reactions of European countries and the UK are important, one country, which has been very cautious in its reaction, has been Japan. Japan’s Defence Minister Toro Kono, in fact, stated that ‘We are not aware of any information that points to Iran’.
Japan has close economic ties with Iran. Earlier, Shinzo Abe had made efforts to intervene between Iran and the US. Abe, who visited Iran in June 2019, met with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stating that it was a major step toward peace. The Japanese PM had also sought the release of US citizens detained by Iran.
Interestingly, Brian Hook, US Special Envoy to Iran, while alluding to Japan, China, and other Asian countries, stated that countries must not shy away from unequivocally acknowledging that Iran was responsible for the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities. Hook gave the example of the UK, France, and Germany. He also sought Asian participation, especially Japan and South Korea, in Washington’s maritime initiative to protect oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.
It would be important to point out that Japan, which has close economic ties with Iran, has already started looking at other sources of oil given the situation in the Middle East.
It is not just Japan. Even India would not like escalation of conflict with Iran, though so far it has stayed out. While New Delhi is looking to various sources for its oil needs (during Modi’s recent visit, one of the issues high on the agenda was closer energy ties with the US), the Chabahar Port, in which New Delhi has invested, is of strategic importance. Some recent statements from the Iranian side suggest a growing impatience with New Delhi, not merely due to toeing the US line with regard to the importation of oil from Iran (India had stopped buying oil from Iran, after the US removed the temporary waiver which it had given), but also slow progress on the Chabahar Port.
During the G7 Summit, Macron had urged the US to allow India to import oil from Iran, while Modi, during his meeting with Trump, also is supposed to have raised the Iran issue. While India has not made any statement with regard to the attack on Saudi oil facilities, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale visited Iran days after the attack (a number of issues, such as the progress of the Chabahar Port, and issues pertaining to trilateral connectivity between India, Afghanistan, and Iran, were discussed). The Indian PM also met with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. Both of them are supposed to have discussed issues of bilateral and regional importance.
It is time that countries which have close ties with the US and robust economic engagement with Iran find common ground, rather than speaking in different voices. While at the G7 meeting, there was an opportunity for the same, but this was short lived. This is essential, not just for economic and strategic purposes, but also to ensure that Iran does not become totally dependent upon China. Beijing’s recent commitments of investing over $400 billion in Iran are a clear indicator of the point that, as a result of economic isolation, Tehran is left with limited options, and is tilting towards Beijing.
China has not just made important commitments in oil and infrastructure projects, but Beijing will also be stationing its troops to protect it’s investments in the oil sector. It is not just European countries (Germany, France and the UK) but countries like Japan and India, which should be wary of the growing proximity between Tehran and Beijing. New Delhi and Tokyo would be advised to work in tandem, to get both Washington and Iran to moderate their stance. While this is no mean task, given Trump’s unpredictability it is absolutely imperative.
After a not so short break I took from blogging in which I submitted my Bachelor Thesis and took some much-needed vacations, I finally got my hands back on writing again. Before opening up something new, I first need to finish my Case for Constructivism in IR.
In my first post, I described how constructivism emerged as a school of thought and how the key concept of anarchy is portrayed. In this part, I want to discuss power and the differences between moderate constructivism, radical constructivism and poststructuralism.
The social construction of… everything? Where to draw the line.
The connection between moderate constructivism and radical constructivism is more of a flowing transition than a sharp distinction. Scholars have further developed the idea of social constructivism and expanded it beyond the realms of the international system. Not only the international system but also states, tribes and nations are socially constructed entities. Thus taking “states” as given entities (as moderate constructivist do) in the international system neglects how national identities are constructed. Why do nations act so differently although they are subjugated to the same international system? The implications of these findings have been the subject of many influential works, notably Francis Fukuyama’s latest book “Identity” or Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization”.
The most important component which radical constructivist brought into consideration was language. The linguistic turn induced by Ludwig Wittgenstein disrupted not only philosophy but all social sciences. For decades language has been portrayed as a neutral mean to communicate between the human species which evolved from spontaneous order. Wittgenstein dismantled this image and explained why we so often suffer from linguistic confusion. Friedrich Krachtowil further applied Wittgenstein’s findings to social sciences by dividing information into three categories: Observational (“brute”), mental and institutional facts. All these three dimensions need to be taken into account in order to understand a message. The institutional setting of spoken words directly builds a bridge between speaking and acting (speech act theory). If I say, let’s nuke North Korea, I might get a weird look on the streets, but nothing significant will happen. On the other hand, if the president of the USA says the same, the institutional setting has changed, and we might have a problem with the real-world implications of this statement. The social construction of the institutional setting is highlighted by paying special interest to language as a mean of human interaction. However, how far one can go with analyzing the results of a socially constructed language without losing the bigger picture out of sight remains a difficult task.
While the radical constructivists first established a connection between language and physical action, the poststructuralists sought to discover the immanent power structures within social constructs. Michel Foucault (one of the most prolific sociologists of the 20th century with some neoliberal influence) brought the discourse and moreover discursive action into perspective, whilst Derrida or Deleuze focused more on the deconstruction of written texts. Contrary to many poststructuralists, moderate constructivists avoid being constantly fooled by Maslow’s Hammer: While it is irrefutable that power relations play a vital role in analyzing social structures, an exceedingly rigid focus on them conceals other driving forces such as peaceful, non-hierarchical cooperation for example.
Why Constructivism at all?
Moderate Constructivism puts special emphasis on the institutional setting in which certain behaviour is incentivized. This setting, however, is subject to permanent changes and perceived differently by every subjective actor in the international system. Thus, the driving problem of IR remains a coordination problem: Instead of simple state interest directed to maximize their share of the Balance of Power (as Hans Morgenthau, the father of modern IR theory, proclaimed), we must now coordinate different institutional settings in the international system resulting in a different understanding of key power resources. None of the traditional IR schools of thought hypothesizes that ontology may be subjective. Moderate constructivism manages to integrate a post-positivist research agenda without getting lost in the details of language games (like radical constructivist) or power analytics (like poststructuralists).