A modern theory of international relations

A modern theory of international relations

The contemporary set of international institutions with which the globe is currently burdened, having developed into voluminous bureaucratic monstrosities over decades, have lost such a degree of confidence amongst their principal founders that colossal funding cuts are now being contemplated. So they should be.

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By Matthew Parish

Is there a logic, or science, to how states interact with one-another? It used to be thought so. Woodrow Wilson, US President during the First World War, developed such a theory that came to be known as “liberal institutionalism”. His principal precept was that while states may be inclined to operate in a system of anarchy, in respect of whose conduct there can be no observable rules or guidance, a framework of international organisations can impose order and sense upon the proclivities of states in pursuit of the greater global good. This was the theme underlying Wilson’s proposal for a League of Nations, an institution that survived between the First and Second World Wars in the twentieth century then morphed into the United Nations in 1945.

Wilson’s basic idea was to apply a Rousseau social contract model, by analogy, to the community of Westphalian nation states. Just as citizens in a hypothetical Hobbesian anarchy can be deemed to have entered into a social contract between one-another to abide by a society’s legal and political institutions, nation states can be considered to do the same thing. Yet there are obvious problems with this analogy. The Rousseau transition from societal anarchy to civil order never actually took place. If any society was ever truly anarchy, then it ceased too be so when one group of people subjugated the members of that society by force. This has always been the normal way of things; social institutions grow up later, often amidst more bloodshed.

The cardinal observation about Rousseau’s social contract theory, therefore, is that whatever else it may be it is not a historical paradigm. At least, a little like Rawls’s theory of justice or Nozick’s theory of rights, the social contract Is a logical construct designed to make moral sense of the institutions we actually have. By contrast, the question of transition from anarchy to order in the international context would appear to be very much an empirical and indeed historical one. The League of Nations is widely perceived to have failed; it did not prevent World War Two. Now the Unite Nations is perceive to have failed as well. If liberal institutionalism is premised as an analogical stretch of Rousseau’s political philosophy into the international arena, then one might be tempted to decry it as obviously false.

Political realism is a so-called theory of international relations which has the unfortunate qualities of predicting zero and explaining zero. It starts with the bald hypothesis that states act in their own interests. From this it follows that states sign treaties with one-another when it is in their interests to do so; they comply with treaties when it is in their interests to do so; these two can diverge; and hence we can explain why states sometimes do not comply with treaties. The reason this is so empty a theory is that as soon as one attempts too delineate what an “Interest” is with any specificity, one defines oneself into falsehood. It is a platitude to say that states (or anyone else) always act in accordance with their interests; the question is to say what those interests are.

Realism makes the same logical mistake in political philosophy as does egoism in moral philosophy. It is less of a theory, more an attempt to articulate in ideological terms a deeply-held cynicism about sovereigns’ or individuals’ motives. Yet cynicism on its own does not yield us any explanatory or predictive power. We can use cynicism to write off a request for explanation. “The United Nations is a ghastly system of patronage.” This sort of cynicism does not help us understand how we got there, or where we are going next. Cynicism does not help explain the success of the 2018 US-North Korea peace talks, when they have always failed before.

To say Donald Trump is a realist whereas Barack Obama was an institutionalist, and that is why Trump succeeded in talks with Pyongyang but Obama did not, is not an explanation of anything. North Korea operates outside the auspices of most international institutions, rendering the two US Presidents’ relative imagined favouritism for liberal institutionalism theories of international relations surely irrelevant. The theory without the institutions is the same anarchy as is posited by realism. Moreover just attributing apparent success in the recent North Korea talks to Donald Trump being a realist seems to be little more than paying a compliment to him as an awful negotiator or some such thing. He may well be an artful negotiator; but making that observation is not a theory of international relations.

Where do we go from here, having left in desolation the conventional divide between theories of international relations?

I would like got try to reframe the conceptual debate through a contemporary lens. Consider the debate about the wisdom of so-called “state-building”. These are activist attempts to enter foreign territory beset by conflict; occupy their civil institutions using foreign staff; and reconstruct those societies by developing new institutions to replace the old. Early examples at the end of the Cold War included Bosnia and Kosovo; more recent instances include Iraq, Libya and Rojava (northern Syria). But the notion that state-building is an exclusively western phenomenon would be misplaced. Although they might have accept the label, the Russian Federation has arguably been trying to do the same thing in Damascus; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in southern Yemen; Iran in Baghdad. In each case, one power has used military force in the territory of another state to cultivate the development of a political system it has perceived as cola-signed with its ideological or other interests.

Interventions of this kind represent an ambition in a nation’s foreign policy that presumably has as a hidden premise a view of international relations beyond seeing states merely as different-sized opaque rubber balls bouncing against one-another in a vacuum. State-building assumes that the world of international relations can be influenced by state leaning inside one-another to influence their affairs. Consider the oft-cited adage that democracies do not go to war with one-another. Whatever substantial empirical evidence there may exist for this proposition, there is a prima facie coherence between this sort of nation and the philosophy underlying state-building. State-building is attractive because states with certain sorts of internal political structures act differently in the sphere of international relations. This is something one would not expect classical realism to predict, for example. We might find a philosophy of international relations emerging that prescribes different foreign policy approaches towards other states depending upon their internal organisation.

This does seem intuitively correct. A responsible democracy may be less able to change course in its foreign policy choices than an autocratic regime. Treaty compliance by a democracy may be more likely because principles of internal law may be entrenched in the internal political and/or legal system. Hence treaties may just mean more for democracies than dictatorships. This is turn what imply that liberal institutionalism must have at least some kernel of truth to it, insofar as international organisations are founded upon treaties and treaties would appear at leat to have some legal effect between some nations.

The American legal scholar Louis Henkin famously observed that almost all nations comply with their treaty obligations almost all of the time. He offers no empirical evidence for this, but it seems rather far-fetched. Could an equivalent assertion be made about compliance by private parties with contractual terms, in the context of high rule of law societies? If not, then are we supposed to infer that the absence of an impartial enforcement capacity in respect of a contract somehow increases incidences of compliance? These could be no justification for such a hypothesis, absent an obviously misconceived assumption that a substantial empirical version of the liberal institutional theory of international relations is true a prior.

The kernel of truth in liberal institutionalism is surely rather this: the contemporary system of international relations, namely a network of international organisations being bureaucracies conceived by treaty, provides a set of fora for discussion of whether international treaty obligations are being complied with and an institutional framework within which they can be discussed. One might legitimately ask, “so what?”. Talking about international legal obligations is very different from complying with them. We end up falling back upon the notion that for some states, signing treaties and/or discussing their international legal obligations in an institutional context may change their behaviour, even if in different way in each case and in some cases and/or for some states, not at all.

This is a tenet of what is sometimes called “constructivism” in international relations, namely the notion that talking about international relations in a certain way may shape states conduct. However it is an exceptionally weak thesis, because it does not predict how states will shape their interactions by virtue of the structure of the dialogue they use. Moreover the direction in which their dialogue is amended may not be virtuous. It may be inefficient: to wit the chronic inefficiencies observed in the operations of the United Nations by virtue of the bureaucratic structures that have unfolded beneath its umbrella.

In the final analysis, as with most useful things mankind has to say about its own affairs, the answer to the question of how International institutions develop the international polity is empirical. If international relations aspires to be a branch of science rather than philosophy, then its substantive conclusions must be the product of applying the scientific method: testing hypotheses about the efficacy of International institutions in the pursuit of a specified set of goals against data.

A principal reason, I suggest, why international relations theory has not so far developed significantly in this direction is because a veil of secrecy shrouds the operation of international institutions such that access to the data necessary to test or even formulate empirical hypotheses is unavailable save to persons on the inside, who have a vested interest in talking up the system. You can’t leave it to them. The bright light of transparency is the predominant palliative for corruption and waste in a bureaucracy. Perhaps the single biggest structural error in the design of international institutions in the twentieth century was the so-called principle of inviolability of archives: that the general public, and indeed member states, have no general right of access to the records created by international organisations in the purported exercise of their mandates or the expenditure of their finances.

The result of this pervasive opacity is that international organisations now create documents purporting in name to reflect those we expect all other organisations of equivalent size, public or private, to prepare to international standards. These include annual reports and accounts, for example. But in the context of international institutions, these documents are mere Platonic shadows, caricatures of what they ought to be and, suspicion lies, intentionally so as to frustrate the empirical exercise and prevent such organisations from being held accountable. Accordingly their justification lies in the realm of pure theory. Pure theory is all liberal institutionalism actually amounts to, if it cannot be tested because there is no data.

The new theory of international relations is called empiricism. It is an old idea but an effective one. Moreover opposition to empiricism as a principle of international relations is liable to cause the very subject matter of the discipline to self-implode. The contemporary set of international institutions with which the globe is currently burdened, having developed into voluminous bureaucratic monstrosities over decades, have lost such a degree of confidence amongst their principal founders that colossal funding cuts are now being contemplated. So they should be. No state should be expected to contribute funds towards an organisation that ex hypothesis will virtually inevitably be highly dysfunctional, because it is impossible to measure or calibrate its outputs and efficiency. If the world’s states want international structures to serve them, they need access to data sufficient to establish how well they are doing that.

With data, basic hypotheses about the relative effectiveness of bilateral versus multilateral foreign aid donations could be more accurately tested. A donating state may want to know: how many refugees’ lives can be preserved for one year per million dollars? Lifting the veil upon the finances of international institutions would surely assist us in answering questions of this nature. Wilson’s international organisations espouse a philosophy of global progress. To justify their ambitious claims in today’s sceptical era, they must proffer metrics by which their assertions that they do good may be measured; and they must subject themselves to withering scrutiny and publicity in order to enable their putative donors to measure their achievement with accuracy. Otherwise they will die, and with them Wilson’s dream. Then all that will be left is the dark void of realism.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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