Thursday, December 16, 2010

Animal Planet Theory of International Relations

While having a beer with my Teaching Assistants from my Intro to IR class, a couple recommended that I blog about my Animal Planet Theory of IR.  Since they have done so much work for me, and because they let me drink some of the beer I bought for them, I shall do as they ask:

Variants of realism argue that the environment among countries is very much a Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest.  Those countries that fail to compete are eliminated from the system or, at the very least, are made irrelevant and subservient.  The problem is that the folks making such arguments either haven't had small children or did not watch TV with them.

When my daughter was younger, she watched a heap of Animal Planet shows, and the thing one quickly realizes is that even in a harsh world where there are predators everywhere (some folks in IR question whether predators need to exist in order for anarchy to be so nasty and for security dilemmas to develop), there are a myriad of strategies and endowments that allow heaps of different species to survive and thrive, if not dominate.
  • Speed can be handy (Cheetahs)
  • You can be slow if you have a shell (turtles, snails).
  • You can be poisonous (heaps of spiders, snakes, etc).
  • You can just appear to be poisonous (red frogs).
And so on.  You get the idea--that there is not one single way to survive but many.  This points to a key problem in most Realist theorizing--that there is a single best way to adapt to international pressures.  Certainly, Realists are right in that international pressures do push countries around, and they are right that countries that fail to adapt will become marginalized and even conquered (Poland disappeared from the maps of Europe for the entire 19th century).  Yet, countries can choose a variety of strategies to adapt to international pressures.

In the 1980's, there was much debate about who adjusted well to the international economic shocks of the 1970's, especially higher oil prices (Between Power and Plenty).  The new conventional wisdom was that governments that could best resist societal pressures (France, Japan) adapted better than those that cannot (US).  However, over time, it become clear that the US strategy of letting the market force much of the adaptation was not a bad way to go (Irony of State Strength).  The point is that there are a variety of tradeoffs that outside pressures may impose, but how one manages those tradeoffs will vary. 

We need other elements to produce predictions and explanations for the choices countries make, since there is more than one way to skin a cat or to survive in the international system.  I am not the first IR scholar to say that Realism is indeterminate.  I am just the first one to invoke Animal Planet to make that point. 


Chip said...

hmmm, I think you've got yourself a textbook in this post...

Theo McLauchlin said...

Actually, I just remembered something that the evolutionary biologists in my wife's lab have pointed out. Past a certain point, adaptation is counterproductive: a species gets so well-adapted to its environment that it cannot handle changes to that environment. I think the recent economic troubles of Iceland speak to this, as does the conquest of France in 1940: the perils of doing a great job at one thing.

Combine this point with yours. If there are multiple ways to survive, then going after perfection is unnecessary. Under the point about adaptation above, going after perfection is also counterproductive. To a degree my point is old hat for those, especially defensive, realists who rely on misperception, since no state should be too certain of its evaluations. Your point suggests that states don't need to be too certain, either; they can keep their options open and guard against new stimuli.

Chris C. said...

There's an interesting thread in history too in some of the British History books I've been reading that Britain was fortunate it got such terrible kinds at crucial points in its history since they became the impetus for reforms. From King John to King James, the weak links eventually made Britain stronger. Sometimes, it may be beneficial not to always be strong and capable of resisting all change.