Why I Like Electric Politics

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Podfather, Electric PoliticsProps to George Kenney and his Electric Politics podcast, and Dr. David Kanin. I’ve commented on a few sites over the years, and given and taken my fair share of abuse. Once in awhile, an exchange is fruitfully consummated. But, I’ve now received two emails from Kanin. The exchange almost gives me hope about the communicative potential of the internet – almost.

One reason I found Kanin’s original presentation compelling – and why I listen to Kenney generally – is something Stephen M. Walt argued in “The Relationship between Theory and Policy in International Relations“:

“The gap between theory and policy can be narrowed only if the academic community begins to place greater value on policy-relevant theoretical work.”

And, so Kanin’s background as an Intelligence Analyst and strong opinions underscores how much I had to listen to Kenney’s interview. I wasn’t disappointed, and I posted a comment. A few days later, Kanin responded by email.

There is no “the” International Community,” but rather an overlapping soup of almost liquid sets of interest communities. National/ethnic, religious, national, economic, virtual, and other sets of people compete for resources and ideological pride of place. The various actors (states, sects, classes, religious authorities, etc.) in the Muslin world, for example, are in the midst of discovering a sense of global agency they have not enjoyed since Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 (this was a traumatic assault on an Ottoman hold on Egypt that since 1517 had legitimized the Sultan’s claim to be Caliph–with Egypt came control over the Holy places of Mecca and Medina).

Similarly, China’s inexorable rise shatters the hegemony of the European and US “Wests” (in my view there have been seven distinct “Wests” since that same Napoleonic adventure). China, Russia, muscular Islam, and other “International Communities” will compete and cooperate with a still-important US in ways that will not fit with the prevailing conventional wisdom of liberal internationalism, “realism,” or the other usual ways of thinking about the world.

I responded by email:

I appreciate your skepticism about the major paradigms in IR. It appears as if your hypothesis is a kind of cyclical theory similar to Geoge Modelski‘s? Is this a useful observation?

I received a response by email today:

I don’t have much interest in international relations theory, much of which–in my view–relies on serial caricatures that explains some but not enough of what goes on in our lava lamp world. for me, history, anthropology, philosophy, and psychology (not to mention that part of economics that describes material interests and markets) are more useful.

I admire that skepticism, but only as much as it points to some sort of resolution about what it is humans can’t, and perhaps, can know about the social sphere. I’m skeptical the result is that awesome, or even convenient. It could prompt a Homer Simpson moment. But, even that would be preferable to turf warfare between policy-makers and experts. Kanin’s response is a good example of how, in Walt’s terms, the complexity of policy-makers’ experience and the abstruseness of theoretical work clash. But also, taken as theory, Kanin’s skepticism has turned on realism. Instead of Morgenthau’s tidy hierarchy of social knowledge he touched briefly upon in “Six Principles of Political Realism”. Kanin has put them all back into the mix and called for a reappraisal. I was also interested in Kanin’s skepticism about the value of political moderates for building consensus between the US and Muslim communities. Implicit in the hope that moderates can build a bridge over warring partisans is the notion of a common humanity with common interests. Kanin’s observations point to a less ambitious and more flexible approach that doesn’t assume any common values.

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Filed under: Academia, Podcasts, Politics, Social Science, USA Tagged: david kanin, electric politics, george kenney, international relations, stephen walt

 

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