21st Century Thought in IR

WW2 VictoryThe effects of World War Two in International Relations are numerous, with only the most obvious below.

  1. The loss of life led to obvious demographic, socio-psychological and economic impacts
  2. Decolonisation after the war led to a re-mapping of the geo-political environment
  3. The international power centre shifted from Europe to the US and USSR
  4. New international bodies emerged e.g. the Bretton Woods Institutions

These effects are well known. Indeed it was the biggest war that humanity has ever experienced, directly involving  over 100 million people, and from more than 30 different countries. So such effects are even expected.

However, one of the most enduring impacts of WW2 has also been one of the least talked about: the entrenchment of political thought. Appeasement is now seen as wrong. There is seen to be no choice other than capitalism or socialism, democracy or dictatorship and liberalism or conservatism; when in reality the number of options that we have is far far larger. And all of these entrenchments seem to based upon two dangerous assumptions: the assumption of knowledge, and the assumption of righteousness i.e. the arrogance of assuming that ‘we’, the subject(s) of contemplation, are always in the right.

It could be argued that we have always held these assumptions, and that they are an implicit part of human nature. And yet not only are they very illiberal and non-cosmopolitan assumptions to hold; it is also a fairly safe thing to say that there have been more conflicts since WW2 than before, year on year. The U. of Michigan’s “Correlates of War” project documents every conflict since 1816, and according to their calculations
there have been a total of 194 actual “wars” between 1945 and 2001, and that does not include the more than 3000 different disputes that occurred in the period. So was it just circumstance that caused these polarisations, divides and tensions? Or was there a fundamental change in the way we think?

The American philosopher Avital Ronell believes that increased moralistic interventions abroad do stem from such assumptions.

The other is so in excess of anything you can understand or grasp or reduce, this in itself creates an ethical relatedness… A relation without relation, because you can’t presume to know or grasp the other. The minute you think you know the other, you are ready to kill them! You think oh! They are doing this or this.. they’re the axis of evil…let’s drop some bombs!. But, if you don’t know, don’t understand this alterity, it’s so other that you can’t violate it with your sense of understanding; then you have to let it live.”

According to Derrida we cannot be moral if we think that we are in fact moral. In other words, if you’re arrogant enough to think that you’re fulfilling what Peter Singer would call your moral obligations to help others, then you’re not questioning yourself enough, and not pushing yourself enough. Thus we could push the argument of Avital Ronell still further (since she cited Derrida’s above argument when saying the above), to suggest that the increase of military interventions in international relations marks a decline in international morality.

Personally, I wouldn’t buy the notion that we are becoming less moral. After all, we don’t need to know someone else to kill them; indeed being able to kill someone when you do have such knowledge seems even more immoral to many people. We can kill instead based on an educated guess. In fact humans act on guesswork all the time. What Ronell is really saying is a values statement that when we know the risks are large, and yet the probabilities of reaching our desired outcome are unknown, we should be risk averse. Just because liberal interventionists are less risk averse, or choose to weigh the unknown probability of success against the unknown probability that more will die if intervention is not carried out, it does not make them less moral than non-interventionists. And indeed the opposite argument could also be made.

Assume NothingThe more pertinent question therefore, is whether these assumptions of knowledge and righteousness are more present, and/or having a greater impact on international affairs today or not. After all, modern examples seem very easy to find. It is why the logic behind why Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ seems so compelling. It is the reason why despite the fact that the world is becoming increasingly globalised and cosmopolitan, we see signs of the ‘other’ everywhere. It is the logic behind liberal interventionism, the interventions in the Middle East, Zionist militarism, and even the calls from those inside the affected countries e.g. Syria, for outside help.

Whatever its source, they are dangerous assumptions to hold if we let them dominate twenty-first century thought. The extent to which this is true can be seen in the handling of Russia’s Crimean intervention. The calls are not for Russia to come to the negotiation table, delay the annexation of Crimea, or organise a new referendum conducted under UN supervision. These options are seen as weak, and a form of appeasement, which, despite the fact that Hitler is dead, would only create a new Hitler. So instead, the calls on Russia are for them to simply back down, reject their long cultural history of expansionism and pan-Slavism, and see them adopt the culture and tactics of the United States – the single country which it would most humiliate Russia, and particularly Putin, to be seen emulating. Keynes wrote a pamphlet in 1919, arguing how the world’s tough approach to Germany would cause trouble. And of course he was right. Are we learning the wrong lesson(s) from history?

Do you believe that the assumptions of knowledge and righteousness dominate 21st century diplomatic thought more than they did prior to WW2? What has changed that led us here? And where will it lead us in the future?

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