29 July, 2006

Voodoo Economics

I have been reading this book Silent Revolution: The Rise of Market Economics in Latin America by Duncan Green. It's about how Latin America, hit by the debt crisis of the early 1980s, found itself caught in the embrace of neo-liberal economics. The book is interesting enough, and I may talk about it at more length when I eventually tell you everything you need to know about Latin America.

Green's thesis is that neo-liberalism is BAD. Fair enough, it's not like the region has done particularly well since it embraced the creed. However, he displays a less than total understanding of basic economics, which undermines his credibility when he scoves at the discipline in general or attempts to draw conclusions about particular economic models. The error that most struck me was when he attempted to explain Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage by giving an example of a situation where the different concept of absolute advantage applies. The error is not fatal to his analysis, but it did make me wonder what other clunkers had crept in there. So I am somewhat more sceptical about his overall conclusions.

25 July, 2006

Europe Endless

Momus writes about Europe, referring to a piece in a magazine called Europe Endless and referring to writings by some Mark Leonard fellow (whose book, Why Europe Will Run The 21st Century stares provocatively at me in bookshops.

The European Union is unstoppable, because our progress is based not on war but personal and economic commerce. Our flubbly world of compromise, difference, and bureaucratic deal cutting is endlessly attractive to outsiders. I look forward to the day when Morocco and Turkey join the EU, because it sets the project rolling for the EU's transformation into the WU, a pacific league straddling the globe.

16 July, 2006

Theorising International Relations: Marxism

Some time ago I said that I would take you all on a journey through the world of International Relations theory. Sadly, the train had barely left the station when it faced a long delay in its second stop, but now let’s get things moving again. And look, we are pulling in at the third stop, which is called Marxism. This is the third of International Relations’ big three theories, though it is very much the poor relation of Liberalism and Realism.

In broad outline you probably know what Marxism is all about. In some ways it is reducible to a string of buzzwords - class struggle, dialectics, historical materialism, modes of production, relations of production, alienation, base & superstructure, surplus value, and so on. The interesting question is how applicable all this is to world politics. In his own writings, Karl Marx largely confined himself to analysing power structures within countries, saying very little about how the workings of capitalism work internationally.

Still, Marx says more than nothing about the world as a whole - there is a fascinating passage in The Communist Manifesto of 1848 where he talk presciently of globalisation, and of capitalism’s insatiable urge to spread itself throughout the world, transforming all traditional societies it touches through the introduction of the cash nexus and capitalist relations of production. Nevertheless, the argument is somewhat unsophisticated in the light of later developments - capitalism is seen as turning the whole world into a simulacrum of the advanced industrial societies. The division of the world into a developed core and a (seemingly) permanently underdeveloped periphery does not look like something he envisaged.

After Marx’s death, others tried to develop his ideas and more complex Marxist ideas of relevance to International Relations began to develop. V.I. Lenin, in works such as Imperialism - The Highest Stage of Capitalism, talked about how through colonialism and overseas investment capitalism had become transnational, that in a sense entire countries had become bourgeois or proletarian. Lenin’s grasp of economics was much weaker than Marx’s, and his belief that colonialism was driving the world into world war seems a bit simplistic when you look at how the First World War actually started. Nevertheless, Lenin was in retrospect correct in identifying Russia as capitalism’s weakest link, in so far as it was both an imperial state and (through extensive inward investment) a de facto colony, thus making it the place where world revolution was most likely to begin.

Lenin’s legacy for Marxism was ultimately malign - by achieving his revolution and identifying Marxism (or Marxism-Leninism) as the state ideology, Marxism was tied to the USSR’s fortunes and forced through conceptual hoops to support whatever twist in policy the country’s leadership felt like espousing. The USSR’s quarter century rule by a psychopath also did not help. That end of Marxism gradually lost any intellectual credibility, and I doubt anyone in the world now seriously reads Marxist scholarship originating in the USSR.

In the west, however, a separate Marxist tradition developed in academia, divorced from the rough and tumble of actual politics. Marx himself would probably have been appalled by this development, given that he devoted as much effort to organising socialist movements as he did to research and writing, but the ivory tower academics have kept his ideas alive. Unfortunately for the International Relations student, the ideas of these intellectual Marxists have gone in many different directions. Some of these roads have produced lines of thought relevant to our discipline, such as Dependency Theory or various strands of Critical Theory. However, these have either evolved so far from original Marxist orthodoxy as to be essentially post-Marxist, or they have been almost completely discredited by the passage of time (or both). I would therefore question whether one could still talk of a "pure" Marxism as having any great relevance to International Relations.

Nevertheless, Marxism has one major contribution to our subject. When you look at writings in the Realist or Liberal tradition, the focus is all on diplomacy, states, armies, treaties, statesmen, and high politics. When you look at what Marxist writers talk about, you see stuff about economics, companies, exploitation, class, and so on. In some ways that makes Marxism look like it is from a completely different discipline to "true" International Relations. However, the question can be turned on its head by asking whether it is actually the old-school theories that are missing the point and ignoring what is actually relevant to the way the world works. Marxism is also important in that it explodes the idea that states are unitary actors working for the good of all their citizens - rather we see conflict within states which in turn is bound to affect how they operate internationally.

In the end, Marxism is probably more relevant to International Relations because of the questions it asks rather than the answers it provides. Others have taken those questions and answered them in ways that go beyond anything Marx would have envisaged.

12 July, 2006

Why are all those borders in those places?

Ralph Peters, writing in the Armed Forces Journal, reckons that all the borders of the Middle East to reflect ethnic and religious facts on the ground.

Thanks to Nicholas Whyte for this, who in turn got it from my pal Carl Bildt, who reckons it is "insanely stupid and dangerous".

This kind of attempt to play god with an entire region's borders is obviously arrant mentalism, but at times I reckon that the international community attaches too high a value on defending the work of past cartographers. I cannot but think that the good folk of Somaliland, say, would be in a much happier position if the world did not insist on shackling them to the corpse of Somalia.