Friday, June 29, 2012

'Human nature' is back

Reader [hereafter R] : What do you mean, "human nature is back"? Has it been on vacation?

LFC: Yes and no. For a while, it was not cricket in parts of the social sciences to talk about human nature, and to some extent this is still true. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two evolutionary psychologists (who happen also to be married, to each other, I mean) got so perturbed about this some years ago that they began referring to the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), by which they meant, among other things, a model that neglected 'human nature'. E.O. Wilson picked up the cudgel, taking much of social science to task in his book Consilience and predicting that eventually social science would disappear, would be absorbed into the natural sciences, and we'd be left with only the natural sciences and the humanities.

R: I shudder to think how that would go down with all the political scientists who are tearing their hair out at The Monkey Cage about the possible cutoff in National Science Foundation support for political science.

LFC: Quite. But that doesn't mean Wilson was right. I think he went somewhat overboard in Consilience myself.

R: Back to the main topic, please, whatever it is.

LFC: Ah yes. Well, Cosmides & Tooby should take a peek at what's happening in some corners of International Relations (IR) theory. It's not for the most part evo psych, to be sure, but in recent years there's been a lot of work on emotions and IR. And the latest issue of Int'l Studies Review has an article by Ty Solomon, "Human Nature and the Limits of the Self: Hans Morgenthau on Love and Power," which harks back to a piece Morgenthau wrote for Commentary in the early '60s in which he argued that love and power are both efforts to escape "existential loneliness." Morgenthau's "underexplored thoughts on these issues," according to Solomon, "are crucial for more fully comprehending his seminal critique of the modern liberal, rational subject." (p.215)

R: But how does all that fit in with the Morgenthau of the later 1960s, the opponent of the Vietnam War, advocate of civil rights, and speaker of truth to power? Don't M's political writings from later in the decade presuppose that "the modern liberal, rational subject," despite its/his/her limits, is capable at least of responding to appeals to reason and acting to improve the world, in however partial a way?

LFC: Good questions. But I want to stay with the human nature point. Solomon mentions Robert Schuett's 2010 book on Freud and realism (Political Realism, Freud, and Human Nature in International Relations), which is also reviewed later in the same issue of the journal. The subtitle of Schuett's book is "The Resurrection of the Realist Man."

R: Hmm. This sounds somewhat reactionary, doesn't it? Realist Man [sic]? Have we just tossed several decades of IR feminist theory out the window?

LFC: I had to read some Freud many years ago, and I tend to the view that Freud's work is weakest when it's most speculative and when he's most openly doing social theory. I remember a casual conversation in which, fresh from writing an intemperate undergraduate paper on Civilization and Its Discontents, I denounced it as a terrible book. My interlocutor, a grad student, said cuttingly "you wish you could have written it." Well, I would not make such a sophomoric (and I was in fact a sophomore at the time) remark today. Still, Civilization and Its Discontents is not high on my list of subtle, nuanced works.

R: I don't care what you said in a college dining hall in 1977. You haven't answered the question about Morgenthau. You haven't answered the question about feminist theory.

LFC: What am I, an answer machine? This is a blog, not a PhD seminar. Go figure out your own answers.

R: ***!***#!!

LFC: Well, at least I gave you the last word. Sort of.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

E. Klein on Roberts's craftiness

"By voting with the liberals to uphold the Affordable Care Act, Roberts has put himself above partisan reproach. No one can accuse Roberts of ruling as a movement conservative. He’s made himself bulletproof against insinuations that he’s animated by party allegiances.

"But by voting with the conservatives on every major legal question before the court, he nevertheless furthered the major conservative projects before the court — namely, imposing limits on federal power. And by securing his own reputation for impartiality, he made his own advocacy in those areas much more effective. If, in the future, Roberts leads the court in cases that more radically constrain the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce, today’s decision will help insulate him from criticism. And he did it while rendering a decision that Democrats are applauding."

Full post is here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Choice v. necessity, once more

I am on record as saying that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a 'war of necessity' and that the choice-necessity dichotomy is thus not helpful. Patrick Porter has an article (link at this post) arguing much the same thing. I've only read the abstract.

Monday, June 25, 2012


1) WaPo is running excerpts from R. Chandresekaran's new book on Afghanistan.

2) The June issue of Perspectives on Politics is largely devoted to articles on civil war and terrorism, plus it has a thematic book review section on 'Violence and Politics'. The latter includes, e.g., a review by Samuel Moyn of a book on the history of the civilian-combatant distinction [Amazon link]. (One usually needs institutional/personal subscription or APSA-membership access for PoP.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Everything you always wanted to know about the 'American empire debate' but were afraid to ask...

Update: A commenter at Reddit, to which this post was submitted (though not by me), calls it "terrible" and suggests a brief 2007 article by Michael Cox in Political Studies Review.  I have no doubt that the Cox article (which I haven't read yet) is better than my post. For one thing, it's a 10-page article, not an 8-paragraph blogpost. I'm sorry the commenter considers this post terrible. (I myself used the term "half-baked," which is a tad more nuanced.) I'm planning -- no, really, seriously, truly I am -- a complete break from blogging in July and August, so the commenter in question can look forward to a long period of relief from my posts.

I rarely have the time or patience to read through my old posts, and I certainly don't have the inclination to do that now. But a quick search reveals that, with a couple of exceptions, I haven't had a whole lot to say on this blog, except indirectly, about the 'American empire' debate. The subject keeps coming up, though, at least at Crooked Timber, where a post by H. Farrrell called "Imperialist Doublethink" has reignited the whole thing.

There are at least several available positions on the debate, which for purposes of this post I'll label (1) the "imperial dynamics" view, (2) the "empire of bases" view, (3) the "dollar rules" view, (4) the "Empire capital E" view and (5) the "it's all rubbish" view. No doubt, as this is going from my keyboard straight to the screen, it's going to be somewhat half-baked. But since some of my carefully drafted posts of the past don't seem to have lit a lot of people's fires, so to speak, maybe in this context careful drafting can be dispensed with.

(1) The 'imperial dynamics' view: This is the one I feel most confident about expounding, b/c I have actually read (well, more or less) the Nexon/Wright 2007 article "What's at Stake in the American Empire Debate" (APSR, May '07). Nexon/Wright's position is: "Is the US an empire?" is not a useful question. Rather, the US's foreign relations exhibit certain 'imperial dynamics,' i.e. 'indirect rule' through local elites (cf., for example, Iraq, 2003-2011, and perhaps beyond) and 'heterogeneous contracting', i.e. the US strikes different sorts of bargains and arrangements, rather than the same sort, with less powerful (or more 'peripheral') actors, which it thereby contrives to keep from collaborating against it (though with mixed success: cf. Walt's Taming American Power). Nexon/Wright think that according to their criteria the US is less 'imperial' now than it was during the Cold War, though as of 2007 they were somewhat uncertain about how 'imperial' it would be in the future. (Note: Reading this article, or even parts of it, is not fun. But it was published in APSR, which I guess means you should read it whether it's fun or not.)

(2) The "empire of bases" view holds, as the label suggests, that the US is an empire b/c it has military bases all over the world from which it can project military power into whatever region it wants.

(3) The "dollar rules" view emphasizes the way the dollar's role as reserve currency reinforces, and/or is reinforced by, US military power. Sometimes it's expressed more crudely, as in the contention that the US uses the threat of military force to keep countries buying dollar-denominated debt. In this strong form, the position seems quite implausible. (CT readers will not need to have this all rehashed for them.)

(4) The "Empire capital E view": This has something to do with Hardt and Negri's famous book Empire, which I haven't read, though in good blogger fashion I did take five seconds to glance at the rather brief -- surprisingly brief -- Wikipedia entry on it. (I've also glanced in the past at one or two learned symposia on the book, which apparently left few lasting impressions on me.) In short, this view holds that Empire = the current 'liberal' world order, against which resistance of various kinds is steadily growing, despite the best efforts of the order's defenders to defuse it. Well, go read the book (plus its sequels) and come back and tell me what it says, 'cause it appears that I'm not likely to anytime soon.

(5) 'It's all rubbish': This view holds that empire means formal empire, which means formal colonies, which mostly no longer exist. Other uses of "empire" are just smoke being blown by jargon-wielding political scientists or radicals of one sort or another who are out to make trouble and bamboozle. Or so this view maintains.

Who's right? Good question. I'd love to stick around and answer that but I have to do some other things now. Sorry.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sunday, June 17, 2012


See my comment here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thought for the day

In the syntactical (if not the substantive) spirit of Trotsky, who said that on becoming the Soviet Union's foreign minister he would pass a few resolutions and close up shop, perhaps we should hang a for-sale sign on U.S. elections and all go home.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Remove the UN observers from Syria

Update: for more on the helicopters, here.

The situation in Syria continues to move toward a full-scale civil war, with the Assad regime, as part of its ongoing brutality, deploying helicopter gunships (now allegedly being sent by Russia) and apparently using children as human shields, while the opposition fights back with arms probably supplied by Saudi Arabia and/or other Gulf states. The pointlessness of having unarmed UN observers in this situation is becoming glaringly obvious. There is currently no ceasefire to observe, and whatever slim benefit may derive from the presence of observers is outweighed by the real possibility that the observers themselves will become targets and will be injured or killed. Moreover, keeping observers on the ground in this situation, it seems to me, not only endangers the observers themselves but plays into the hands of those who have an ideological or political interest in portraying the UN as feckless and weak. It's one thing to be unable to solve a problem; it's another to publicize and emphasize your inability to solve a problem by, in effect, standing on a rooftop and shrieking: "I am unable to solve this problem!!" That is the only message the presence of UN observers in Syria seems to be conveying right now.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Diamonds are aglitter but policy's stuck in the mud

Writing from London at the start of the Diamond Jubilee, Steven Pearlstein argues that the Cameron government has both economic and political reasons for easing up on its refusal to engage in "targeted investments" (i.e., spending on certain projects like a new London airport and new housing), but the memory of Thatcher is acting as an unhelpful brake on what remains of the Conservative imagination. Too bad they don't reach a bit further back and look to the tradition of Tory Democracy.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Two views on Obama's use of drones

Cliff Bob (here) and Charles Krauthammer (here). Both take off from the NYT piece on the picking of drone targets. Krauthammer's column is revoltingly hypocritical and regretful that suspects are no longer being tortured in CIA 'black sites'.