The CSS Blog Network

Grzegorz Ekiert on the Insignificance of Communist Legacies

Soviet Union Administrative Divisions 1989. Map: Wikimedia

Grzegorz Ekiert from Harvard University visited the CSS on Tuesday, 29 November 2011 and held a seminar on the question: “Do communist legacies matter?”  In short, Mr. Ekiert’s answer was “not very much.” But this was not his main point. Instead, he focused on what this means for conventional approaches to understanding the social world.

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, many political scientists thought that formerly communist countries would have a bumpy road ahead with respect to democratization. After all, the communist system had infringed on most features of people’s lives. For outsiders at least, this made it hard to believe that several decades of communist rule had not changed the respective societies profoundly. As we now know, however, many Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania democratized relatively painlessly and joined the European Union within a few years. In some places, transitions to democracy went so smoothly, and communist legacies seem to have mattered so little, that a number of analysts have started to question whether it still makes sense to focus on these legacies.

One of these thinkers is Mr Ekiert. He argues that previous approaches to explaining post-communist transitions have failed, and that it is time to look for alternatives. That was why he began to think about the relationship between continuity and change in history. Is it possible, he asks, that political scientists have, in recent decades, too narrowly focused on change at the expense of continuity? Could it be  that there are “deep historical continuities” at work – continuities so powerful and long-lasting that the conventional frameworks of political science fail to explain them? » More

Competing Visions of Geopolitics? Follow the Metaphors!

The World islands in Dubai. Photo: Matt Hamm/flickr

Last week, ISN staff writers analyzed three competing visions of modern geopolitics – classical, critical and world-system. These visions were presented as co-equal rivals; as level-eyed competitors jostling each other for the affections of the geopolitically minded. Question – Is this an accurate characterization of modern geopolitics? In other words, are these visions largely static – are they equally prominent and do they each possess explanatory powers that are equally compelling and true? One can argue that such is not the case. Rather than being defined by horizontal competition, modern geopolitics is actually vertical – e.g., its internal logic has actually evolved and become more subtle over time, and the best way to illustrate that is to look at the metaphors its practitioners have used and now use.

Much like other social science languages, the language of geopolitics is weed-patched with metaphors. Now, we could narrowly define geopolitical metaphors as just a type of political rhetoric, but that would not capture their true essence. What these particular tropes actually signify is something more complicated. Yes, they may indeed convey tangible “facts on the ground,” as adherents of the classical school of geopolitics would have us believe, but they are also social constructs. In fact, they are constantly evolving and shifting social constructs. Wittingly or not, geopolitical metaphors are code-laden distillations of the meta-geographies that lie behind seemingly ‘real’ geographies. They embody and reflect, in other words, the actual hyper-reality of geopolitics. They are ideologically tainted, vaguely analogous, and merely approximate, or so adherents of critical geopolitics are eager to remind us. » More


Colliding Approaches in New ‘Great Games’

Map: Bibliothèque nationale de France

One obvious take away from our discussion of future forecasting over the last two weeks is that the future has not, does not, and will not occur in a vacuum. Change occurs in a complicated world populated by myriad contexts. But how do we explain these contexts effectively, especially if, in our view, the fundamental structures of the international system are currently undergoing comprehensive, paradigm-shifting change? What constructs or frameworks have maximum explanatory power, not only when it comes to characterizing all this change properly, but also in helping vector our responses well?

Geopolitics, as an explanatory construct and how-to guide for harried foreign policy establishments, has historically taken pride of place here. Indeed, the vocabulary of international relations is saturated with long-familiar geopolitical terms. But, and it’s an important “but” here, are the conceptual baggage and analytic vocabulary first bequeathed to us by Friedrich Ratzel and Halford Mackinder as applicable today as they once were? And what about the actual manifestations of this conceptual baggage – e.g., the traditional geopolitical arrangements, contours and rules of the road that have served us so well in the modern era? Are they now being irretrievably stressed, strained and changed by circumstances around them or are they managing “to hold the line”? Needless to say, members of the geopolitical school feel that any declarations of their theoretical and actual demise are flat out absurd. There are Great Games occurring all around us, they argue. The Arab Autumn, the testy and varied actors vying for influence around Pakistan-Afghanistan, the complex resource politics of Africa, the territorial rush to claim the melting Arctic by self-described Nordic states – what are these phenomena if not 21st century examples of the Great Game?

Indeed, they are real examples of this time-honored political phenomenon and we will look at all of them next week in some detail. However, these confirmations of the continued relevancy of geopolitical thinking and geopolitics itself do not mean that that the geopolitical school of international relations is not divided over just what geopolitics means and represents. Is classical geopolitical thought just as applicable today as ever? Is geopolitics just another word for Western political hegemony? To break free from this hegemony, must we develop genuinely non-Western geopolitical forms? Are such forms actually possible? And will they account for the structural changes occurring in the international system in more accurate and user-friendly ways? As we discussed last week, there are several schools of thought on all these geopolitical issues. This week, we turn to colliding geopolitical approaches in potential new ‘Great Games’ throughout the international system.

A Done Deal: Bensouda is Next ICC Prosecutor

Fatou Bensouda: the ICC’s next top Prosecutor. Photo: Wikimedia

According to Colum Lynch and a few other observers, current Deputy Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, will become the next top Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.

Earlier this week, the ICC announced that the four short-listed candidates (Robert Petit of Canada; Andrew Cayley of the UK; Mohamed Chande Othman of Tanzania; and Fatou Bensouda of Gambia), had been whittled down to two.

It has become apparent that the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties wanted to avoid an election by deciding on a “consensus candidate.” Kevin Jon Heller, at Opinio Juris, suggested that the ICC likely conducted informal polling which made clear that a consensus had formed around having an African Prosecutor. Othman subsequently decided to step aside, allowing Bensouda to emerge as the sole candidate for the job. In all likelihood, Othman understood his chances were slim-to-none given that the African Union – which had decided to support an African candidate for Prosecutor – endorsed Bensouda. » More

Business, Conflict – and Peace?

Participants at the workshop. Photo: Jennifer Giroux

On November 14, 2011 a workshop on the role of business in conflict zones took place at the Europainstitut in Basel. Jointly organized by the ETH’s Center for Security Studies (CSS), swisspeace and Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF/HSFK), various invited speakers examined the business-peacebuilding nexus from differing angles: Some discussed service industries, others legal concerns, conflict resolution, or human rights. The conference showcased the diversity of research being undertaken in the field of ‘business in conflict zones’ – and also highlighted that this is a relatively new, exciting and understudied subject with practical relevance to development and growth. » More

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