Monday, October 24, 2011

Re-hashing Old Debates

Stephen Walt posits that Liberals are musicians and Realists are jocks in his column on China and American higher education.  He argues that Liberals underestimate the competitiveness of international relations whereas realists see that providing others with any advantages can be quite detrimental.  The metaphor is fun to play with, so let me continue with sports and IR.

Where Walt sees sports as competitive, which means that teams do not help other teams, he ignores the big problemo for Realists: there is more than one way to compete.  Let's stick with Walt's American football analogy: any Sunday, one will see different teams with different strategies playing against each other.  Sure, there is lots of imitation among the innovation, but successful teams adopt new strategies depending on their own strengths and weaknesses and those of their adversary.  While Walt would make much of the cheating that Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots did a few years ago, I would note something else--that Belichick is known for adapting to circumstances.  A defensively minded coach is now heading a team focused on scoring much more than preventing the other team from scoring.  At the same time, other teams have been successful by focusing on great defense and do-no-harm offenses.  No single strategy is correct.  But realists tend to believe that smart leaders can divine from the international system the single best way to compete.

In the jungle, where survival of the fittest is not hampered by rules or a League commissioner, we still see a multiplicity of strategies and attributes that allow a variety of species to exist (well, until the humans destroy the forest) and thrive.  The same is true in international relations--there is no single best strategy most of the time, and lots of choices have difficult tradeoffs and uncertain outcomes.  

Moreover, Walt gets Liberals wrong.  We are not all the same.  I am skeptical of international organizations (despite my recent re-kindled love for NATO).  Liberals understand that the world is competitive, not because we all seek power, because countries have different interests.  Sometimes these interests compete, sometimes they push in the same direction, and sometimes they are irrelevant to each other.  Liberals may not concur about the frequency of interest conflicts or how intense they may become, but we do not believe that they do not exist at all.

The funny thing is that Walt notes at the top of his piece that there are conflicting dynamics when it comes to Chinese consuming American higher education: that some may stay to enrich the American pool of educated folks; some may go back carrying the seeds of reform from being infected by American ideas; and some may go back, helping China become more powerful.  Who is to say which dynamic is going to have the greatest impact?  I would bet more on the second than the first or third.  Perhaps I am optimistic (another cardinal flaw of Liberals)


JWells said...

I was pretty disappointed with that post. He compares musicians' attitude toward bandmates with athletes' attitudes toward competitors. Of course musicians want their bandmates to be better, but they compete with other bands to produce more popular (not necessarily better) music in order to sell albums and concert tickets and be selected for Super Bowl halftime shows. He even writes, "Players have an interest in helping teammates get better..." which to me is not a trivial point compared to what he writes above: "So members of a band or an orchestra should help each other out, and not worry about whether one player is improving faster than the others are." I just found the whole argument silly.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Prof. Saideman! Completely agree.