Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

The principles of international society are bound to change – interview with Andrew Linklater

Does the field of International Relations need to be more connected with other social studies? What are the main challenges for contemporary international system and are we still able to manage them with our „Western rationality“? Are we going to see the wider transformation of particular national political communities into international ones? These questions and many more were for Global Politics magazine answered by Andrew Linklater.

Andrew Linklater Andrew Linklater is Woodrow Wilson Professor in International Politics in the Department of International, Aberystwyth University. In his research, Linklater has continually tried to connect International Relations, political philosophy, normative social theory (Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School above all), and historical sociology. Through engagement with normative arguments, he has constantly been balancing between critique of modern international politics (and modern political theory in general) and provision of constructive feedback from his position of an inheritor of the Western modernity. The core issue of Linklater's re­search and intellectual interest, which permeates his entire work, is concentrated on possibilities of ethical progress in international politics.

Since your PhD thesis (published in 1982/1990 as Men and Citizens in the International Relations Theory), problems which concern you have remained the same. Put very simply, the main problem and challenge for you is how to analyse and reconcile ethical obligations which stem from universal humanity with obligations which stem from people's affi­liation with particular political units (nation states). On the other hand, the field of International Relations as an academic discipline (IR) has changed much since the 1980s. What is the most important theoretical development, which has occurred in IR since then, for you and your research? How has this influenced your work and thinking? .[question]

In the introduction to the book entitled Critical Theory and World Politics (Routledge 2007), three stages in the development of the research trajectory were identified. They are the ‘problem of citizenship’, the ‘problem of community’, and the ‘problem of harm’. The issue to which you refer in the question has resurfaced throughout this process, and it has been considered in different ways, not least because of changes in the discipline since the 1980s.

It is difficult to list all the movements in that period that have shaped the research trajectory. They include some features of ‘mainstream’ revisions of realism and liberalism as well as elements of less central perspectives such as green theory, feminism and post-structuralism but, above all else, various iterations of the English School analysis of international society.

The most influential perspectives as far as the overall project has been concerned are those that have built connections between International Relations and cognate areas of inquiry. They include approaches that have forged new links with social and political theory and in more recent times those that have explored connections with historical sociology and world history. Such inquiries have brought benefits for IR as an academic discipline but they do more than that – they contribute to the social sciences in general and, specifically, to the quest for a more comprehensive understanding of society and politics in long-term perspective.

After all the Great Debates in IR which aimed to establish an identity of IR as an independent academic discipline, it is apparent that a certain part of IR scholars – including you – connects IR with other social science fields in order to enrich their approach. Do you think that this erasing of IR boundaries is a new great trend which will be and/or should be developed? Does IR need to be more connected with other social studies? .[question]

IR has been remarkably successful in establishing itself as a separate academic discipline in a relatively short period. It has its own specialist journals and international conferences; the profession continues to grow in new regions; student interest remains very high. All of those developments have been connected with foundational narratives about ‘great debates’ and about arguments that the discipline reflects something identifiably distinctive in the world – the international system in the case of Waltz’s classic text or the ‘anarchical society’ to use Bull’s expression. Great strides have been made because IR has established its place as a separate discipline rather than a sub-field of Political Science.

But the discipline does not really investigate a wholly separate sphere of social and political interaction, and almost all approaches recognize that. Relations between states are connected with all manner of things, and the question is how to understand what is most distinctive about those relations and how they are connected with other dimensions of the social and political world. The most interesting work in the field in my view operates with a commitment to inter-disciplinarity, although post-disciplinarity may be a better concept.

International Relations is a fascinating place to undertake such inquiry. Certainly it is important for students of international relations to reach out to other disciplines. On the available evidence, few scholars outside the field engage with IR. So it is important that ‘we go to them’ rather than wait for ‘them to come to us’. Perhaps the discipline can be standard-setting by exploring how to make the connections between different areas of study in order to understand processes that affect the species as a whole.

At one and the same time, it is essential to stand up for IR as an academic discipline and to aim to break down artificial disciplinary barriers that separate it from other areas of investigation. That is to defend IR as a discipline but conditionally – on the understanding that it will be at the forefront of efforts to build connections across the social sciences as a whole. I have spent a great deal of time working on ‘process sociology’ over the last six or so years because it provides indispensable resources for that endeavour.

We live in the turmoil of a serious economic crisis which was preceded by the decade of fear of ‚insane‘ Islamic terrorism. The future challenge is often identified with the rise of China (or Asia as a whole), which grows from different civilizational backgrounds. All of these challenges question the Western rationality and its ability to manage international affairs. Does it mean anything serious for the emancipation force of the (Western) Reason which seems to be one of the main assumptions as well as goals in your research? Or are these recent challenges too particular in the sense that they distract us from more fundamental problems which are embedded in the modern system of states (e.g. the problem of the ethical dilemma mentioned in the first question)? .[question]

Two points come to mind. The first is that ‘Western rationality’ developed through a process of interacting with, and borrowing from, other cultures including China and the Islamic world. Various accounts of ‘inter-civilizational relations’ have explained Western indebtedness to other societies. The second point is that ‘Western rationality’ came to be so laced with ideas about cultural, and indeed racial, superiority that those interconnections were largely forgotten. As part of that development, Western views about modernity and civilization were used to colonise other societies, to remake them in the image of the West and, at times, to eliminate peoples who were deemed to stand in the way of ‘progress’.

There has been a major re-examination of the idea of Western rationality and modernity as part of the reaction against those forms of oppression and violence. It is important to stress that several thinkers of the Enlightenment – Diderot for example – promoted that self-examination. That is also part of Western rationality, and it is evident in a range of ‘Enlightenment’ perspectives about how different peoples might live together non-violently.

A critical orientation to the West that stresses those achievements is necessary, as is the emphasis on the forms of violence and oppression that Western societies caused during the process of imperial expansion. The same point probably applies to all cultures or civilizations as they seek to clarify the principles that can enable radically different peoples to live together amicably. The notion of emancipation often arouses suspicions that it is anchored in some conception of the good life that should be lived by all. That is an understandable concern about the dangers of ethnocentrism and cultural domination. But the idea of emancipation is worth retaining to capture necessary changes such as the removal of myths about the national past or about the nature of one’s civilization. The concept has meaning if it is used to refer to the dissolution of collective delusions that have led to violence and that block the path to a condition in which people ‘make more of their history under conditions of their own choosing’.

You mentioned a very interesting issue of intercultural learning. Non-Western parts of the world had their specific political traditions whether it was Chinese cosmology, politico-religious tradition of Islam or even some others. But the question is if non-Western countries are or will be able to change the modern system of states which has been based on the Western modernity. Has something from that different political/cultural traditions influenced the current international society and its institutions and norms (international law, state sovereignty, norms of environmental protection etc.) or does the contemporary international society remain to be firmly dominated by the Western (American, liberal) project? .[question]

That is a fascinating question and one that I hope to be in a better position to answer in the future, particularly if discussions with scholars in Japan that began in 2010 continue. Bull and Watson made major contributions to understanding the revolt against the West and the expansion of international society. As you know, their work was largely concerned with showing how non-Western peoples came to accept European principles of international relations. There was a strong sense especially in Bull’s writings, of unfinished business. As he argued, international society is still dominated by a very small number of Western states (although that is now changing).

Of course, a great deal has moved on in the period since Bull and Watson produced their study of the expansion of international society. I will mention two of the most important changes – the rise of new centres of power outside the West, and the growth of the post-colonial literature that has explained how much remains to be done to appreciate the traumatic consequences of Western expansion, to understand other cultures in their own terms, and to comprehend and sympathise with claims for respect and recognition as well as global economic justice.

Whether sensitivities to those issues will alter world politics radically is hard to say. The revolt against various features of Western dominance continues, but the West continues to be at the heart of a global ‘market civilization’ that has forced different peoples together in highly unequal ways. Perhaps the question is whether rising centres of power will try to change those realities with a view to improving the circumstances of the poorest sections of world society or adopt a course that suits their interests as major powers. What from the liberal project will they preserve? What will they shed? It is too early to tell. But the principles of international society are bound to change.

Your book The Transformation of Political Community (1998), which is probably your most acknowledged piece, claims that the modern state is a totalizing project which unprecedentedly accumulated political, military and economic sources of power. This notion of the modern state as a totalizing project overlaps especially with the absolutist states of the 17th and 18th century and the Western states of the 19th century. Other authors (for example Foucault) emphasized that the modern state is totalizing in different ways. Are the contemporary Western states as totalizing as they used to be? Are they totalizing in a different way? If not and if they provide a higher degree of freedom to their citizens, does it mean anything for overcoming the ethical dilemma of men as men (i.e. men having the ethical obligations as members of universal human community) and men as citizens (i.e. men having the ethical obligations as members of particular societies)? .[question]

The idea of the totalizing project was borrowed from a major work entitled The Great Arch and designed to highlight the means by which states had forged collective identities that stood in the way of creating authorities and loyalties ‘above’ and ‘below the state. Those barriers still exist but the ‘imagined community’ of the nation is not as powerful it was in the Western world only a few decades ago – which is not to say that it is disappearing or to suppose that it cannot re-surface at a later stage. Some features of the ‘war against terror’ provided a reminder of how potent totalizing images are when people fear for their security or when they think that their way of life is under challenge.

As for the dilemma mentioned in your question, Men and Citizens was basically cosmopolitan in orientation, as are the books that followed including the more recent book, The Problem of Harm in World Politics and The Transformation of Political Community. But such is the volume of literature on cosmopolitanism now that it is reasonable to think in terms of a ‘cosmopolitan turn’ in political and international political theory.

That is not an isolated development in the academic world. It is connected with broad shifts in world politics including innovations in international criminal law, global efforts to defend human rights, and a range of attempts to alter the relationship between the human species and the ‘natural world’. So there have been several shifts in theory and practice that are part of the quest to develop a global ‘imaginary’ that goes beyond the sovereign nation-state.

You have been interested in long term processes and long term perspectives although it is not a very popular way of doing research in IR. In your recent inquiry on harm in international politics, one of your key claims is that in a long term perspective people are more and more aware of harm, which affects people who are not their fellow citizens and who may live in a distant country. Considering the tendency to imagine affiliations even beyond boundaries of the modern national state, what can be a new political organization which could encompass the ability to create wider imagined communities? Do we need to think about a new kind of political organization at all? .[question]

There are two dimensions to the widening of horizons as you note in your question. The first is the capacity to place current realities in long-term perspective – to see how they fit into long-term patterns of development, and indeed to look to the future. The second has a spatial reference and involves looking beyond the boundaries of one’s own community and thinking about the well-being of people in other societies. Neither orientation comes easy to most people – it is not the obvious starting point; most of us after all are pushed from our early years into identifying with a particular nation-state, into celebrating past glories or sharing in the sense of collective frustrations, and into concentrating about what is in its interests.

Those strong identifications with particular groups are not about to wither away. Indeed they are becoming stronger in some parts of the world, often because of a collective need for recognition. Such demands can be met at times through the devolution of power and by other familiar measures.

Claims for humanity and concerns about its past and future are nothing like as strong, but they are central to many non-governmental organizations that are concerned about climate change, world population, food and water security, global health and the rest. There is an emergent language of world citizenship that is critical for attuning people to rising levels of human interconnectedness, and to assorted challenges that can only be managed through higher levels of international cooperation. There are also various popular narratives that satisfy an evident need for understanding the history of the human species, and not least because of the awareness that climate change does not respect borders or fit neatly into histories of short-term developments. That is one of the forces pushing the widening of horizons along the two dimensions mentioned in your question.

Radical changes in human orientation to the world and in the dominant forms of political organization may take place in the future – in the decades or perhaps in the centuries that lie ahead. We cannot rule out the possibility that globalization will go into reverse and that horizons will contract accordingly, whether because of climate change, global economic collapse, some pandemic, some future global war, or something that currently lies beyond our experience and imagination.

As long as present trends continue, there will be a need to find ways of combining demands for respect and recognition on the part of specific groups with progress in establishing stronger international institutions that address the problems facing humanity. Those are matters discussed in The Transformation of Political Community a few years ago. I stand by the argument about the need to find a new relationship between ‘sub-national’, ‘national’, and transnational or cosmopolitan institutions and loyalties. How to make the transition to that state of affairs – to new forms of community and citizenship – has strong claims to be regarded as the fundamental political problem of the era.

At the end of The Transformation of Political Community, you mentioned the EU as a hope for a more ethical settlement of political affairs. Has the EU fulfilled your expectations? How would you respond to the contemporary opinions which claim that if the EU should have any future at all, it needs to be federalized? .[question]

That is a hard question to answer given the financial crisis that dominates EU statecraft today. We do not know if the crisis will be ‘resolved’ by creating stronger regional institutions and, if it is, then how those institutions will cope with the ‘democratic deficit’ that has been the subject of discussion for many years. No-one knows how the balance of power between ‘nation’ or ‘state’ and ‘Europe’ will develop in the coming months and years. It is not impossible that nationalist orientations will become stronger, and that Far Right movements will grow in influence. Nor is it impossible that a stronger Europe will emerge in the coming years although it might seem foolish right now to be confident about that.

But it is hardly surprising that regional experiments such as the EU do not develop smoothly but come up against problems that, for some, bring the whole project into doubt (or confirm the belief that it is unwise to surrender too much sovereignty), and for others require new initiatives in creating post-sovereign associations. As a non-specialist, I defer to others on how those tensions may work out – and on how they are best characterized at the present time.

All I would add is that some twenty years ago when I returned to the UK from Australia there was a good deal of discussion about such concepts as a ‘Europe of the regions’. There was a normative vision in other words that had the capacity to inspire. Such visions are thin on the ground at the moment; the search for ‘technical’ solutions has the upper hand. Whether that will change, and whether there will be advances in developing an ‘internationalism of the Left’, are unclear.

Your research is supposed to have a practical dimension in the sense that its goal is to influence ways of doing politics. Would you say that your research actually has or should have policy impact? Or in other words, who – except for people studying your books as a part of their academic work (students who have been assigned the books within university courses and groups of scholars who do research in the field of Critical Theory) – should read your research? What can these people do after reading your research or how should they change their attitudes or behavior? .[question]

There is increasing pressure in the UK to demonstrate that research has ‘impact’, an argument that has similarities with older claims about the need for ‘policy-relevance’ that have been debated down the years. Some of those claims are, in Cox’s distinction, ‘problem-solving’ rather than ‘critical’ – that is, they operate within existing political structures rather than call them into question. That is not to suggest that all policy-relevant research is limited in that way – only to stress the danger of short-term preoccupations with ‘solving’ the problems of the moment.

There is in any case a need for analyses of the long-term development of social and political relations that can underpin reflections on current challenges and possible solutions. That in itself is a major challenge for contemporary research. Connecting that with the ‘practical dimension’ is immensely difficult. There are trade-offs that different people will manage in their own ways in the light of what gives them personal satisfaction.

My view of the ‘practical dimension’ is that it is necessary from time to time to consider the links between philosophical analysis – or studies of long-term processes – and specific issues such as the problems surrounding humanitarian intervention or the international relations of the EU. Theoretical issues can be clarified in that way. At the same time, something can be said about the ‘praxeological’ implications of analyses that are basically philosophical or sociological in character, and not obviously connected with any ‘policy position’.

One of the purposes of academic work is to take the broader perspective or longer-term view that is hard to reconcile with the demands for policy-relevant research. The problems are compounded because of the growth of academic specialization. There are mounting pressures to demonstrate competence in, and to contribute, to specialist areas. My research has focused on making connections between fields of inquiry – on intellectual synthesis in short. Publications on such matters are inevitably aimed at fellow-academics and students, some of whom will pursue careers in government, the NGO sector, in education and similar professions.

There is an important point to add about the role of research-driven teaching. Through teaching as well as publications, academics invite students to think about large ethical and other questions about public policy. That is an important part of the role but not always highly-valued.

I have had the privilege of teaching around six thousand first-year students in the course of my career. I mention that to stress that the ‘audience’ which you mention in your question goes beyond other members of the research community. That is not exactly promoting ‘policy-relevant’ research in the ‘corridors of power’. It lacks the glamour of the role of the ‘public intellectual’. But teaching can be geared towards a ‘cosmopolitan education’ that invites others to question accepted attitudes about institutions and to reflect on social ideals and long-term human potentials – where ‘long-term’ refers to decades, if not centuries ahead, and ‘human potentials’ to political objectives that are not restricted to nation-states.

Thank you finally for the opportunity to think about the issues raised by your questions.

Aleš Karmazin has studied International Relations at Aberystwyth University and currently is one of the editors of Global Politics magazine.

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Aleš Karmazin
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19. 10. 2012