International Relations

War of All against All?

Portrait of Thomas Hobbes, Photo: lisby1/flickr

New interpretations of the foundational texts of a movement or ideology may be the most passive-aggressive form of intellectual combat.  Done well, however, it can also be one of the most satisfying.   A case in point: Arash Abizadeh’s article, “Hobbes on the Causes of War: A Disagreement Theory” in the May 2011 issue of the American Political Science Review.

Academic schools always seem to have their prophets and sacred texts, but textual infallibility is rare.  For the embattled Realist tribe, however, Hobbes’ Leviathan once came pretty close.   Chapter XIII contains perhaps the most famous of all descriptions of human nature and its consequences for political life, that “without a common power to keep [us] all in awe … the life of man [is], solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  Everyone once knew (or thought they knew) what this meant.   Indeed, the eloquence of this famous sentence once left many with little doubt: at least for Hobbes if not always for us, coercive power is the primary good.  In its absence (as in international politics), ‘force and fraud’ are the two primary virtues.

But as Abizadeh points out, the ground has begun to shift beneath Realists’ feet.  It has already been demonstrated, he tells us, that the chief function of Hobbes’ sovereign is to provide an “authoritative mechanism for governing” not conflicting wants, desires and interests, but “moral language,” — which would locate the source of war even for Hobbes at the level of “ideology, culture and socialization,” rather than systemic-structural incentives or depraved human nature.

Technology Finance

Bitcoin: Cryptography and the Crowd

Direct democracy from a geek’s perspective. Image: TraderTim/flickr

Bitcoin is the world’s first decentralized, digital currency. Its extraordinary performance over the last half year has caused quite some stir, not only among ‘cyber geeks’. Users and supporters see Bitcoin as a technological breakthrough and expect its spending possibilities to increase as exponentially as its price. Meanwhile, critics point to many of these same characteristics as flaws. They are waiting for the bubble to burst, calling it a structurally flawed experiment.

How it works: This video – made possible with donations from the Bitcoin community– explains the basic idea behind the new currency:

To acquire Bitcoins, users can buy them on a trading platform or become ‘miners.’ The latter requires hardware and electricity – both usually purchased with conventional money.

Government Religion Human Rights

Ghana Moves to Arrest Homosexuals

Dangerous Signs of Affection. Photo: ebel/flickr

In a new burst of African homophobia, Mr. Paul Evans Aidoo, a government minister in Ghana, has drawn much national support and international condemnation after calling on the country’s intelligence services to round up Ghana’s gay population. The move by the minister follows months of campaigning by the Christian Council of Ghana calling on Ghanaians not to vote for any politician who believes in the rights of homosexuals in the upcoming elections. The comments from the National Democratic Congress (NDC) politician come in the feverish run-up to the 2012 elections and have drawn wide support from political, religious and social leaders throughout the country, such as representatives of both the Christian as well as the Muslim clergy.

Currently, Ghana’s constitution does not extend human rights or legal protection based on sexual orientation. In fact, its criminal code contains a clause prohibiting “unnatural carnal knowledge”. This ambiguous phrase reflects a pervasive homophobia cultivated across the whole society. Even Ghana’s usually fairly vocal human rights activist community seems complacent. Amnesty International Ghana Director Laurence Amesu is refusing to take a position on the law, just like Richard Quason, the deputy commissioner of the Ghana Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice.

The lifestyles of gay, lesbian, bisexuals and transgender people are currently listed as criminal in 38 African countries. The call from Mr Aidoo thus marks only the latest in a series of expressions of officially condoned homophobia across the continent.


A Reading List on: Humanitarian Intervention

Books in perspective: Flickr/darren 131

Proponents of humanitarian intervention argue that it responds to a fundamental moral imperative, the prevention of human suffering. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) — which obliges states to protect their own populations and the rest of international community to hold to them to their word — was unanimously adopted at the 2005 UN World Summit and has become part of everyday diplomatic discourse.

Yet for all its moral urgency, critics point out that humanitarian intervention undermines the sovereignty especially of weak states and has imperialistic overtones.  Or, on the other hand, that it too often amounts to little more than empty rhetoric, offering little protection to the vulnerable.

Profound disagreements also exist about the proper application of R2P.  Russia invoked R2P in relation to Georgia, but the principle has yet been applied in the context of Sudan or Somalia.

This syllabus will introduce you to one of the most contentious topics in international politics.


This Week at the ISN…

It's week 30 on our 2011 editorial calendar, Photo: Leo Reynolds/flickr

This week the ISN hones in on the following topics:

  • In Monday’s ISN Insights package, Professor Gerard DeGroot of the University of St Andrews opines about the decline of American power.
  • We offer up a reading syllabus on humanitarian interventionism on Tuesday.
  • On Wednesday, ISN Insights analyzes recent efforts aimed at reforming global drug policy, with a headlining article from Dr Markus Schultz-Kraft of the Institute for Development Studies.
  • We highlight an audio-visual presentation of the first decentralized digital currency — bitcoin — on Thursday.
  • And Friday’s podcast interview with Andrea Stieglich of the Economist Intelligence Unit takes a closer look at Bolivia’s state of affairs.

Catch up on last week’s coverage here on: Pakistan’s energy security; market interventionism; US foreign policy in East Asia; the case for rebel victory; and a CFR conversation with Paul Kagame.