Transnational Institutions and Organizations: Required Adjustments and New Opportunities for Change

Photo: Lily/flickr

As an unmatched treatise on “hard power,” Carl von Clausewitz’s On War has stood the test of time. A major reason for its longevity has been its prismatic approach towards its subject. To Clausewitz, hard power is never just one thing. Instead, it is, among other things, a dual, a form of commerce, a game of cards, an act of force designed to impose one’s will on another, a continuation of policy by other means, and a trinity or interplay of 1) primordial violence, hatred, enmity, and blind natural forces; 2) chance, probability, and the creative spirit; and 3) policy and reason. That Clausewitz used all these metaphors and characterizations was no accident. He knew that if he was going to describe an innately complex phenomenon such as war effectively, he needed to look at it in a prismatic way.

In our own humble way, we have adopted the same approach in our Editorial Plan. Thus far, we have explored our core theme – the structure of the international system is fundamentally changing – in prismatic ways. We have looked at how systemic change (not change at the margins) is impacting 1) how we forecast future political trends and developments, 2) just how “reality inclusive” geopolitical analyses remain today, 3) how on-going global interdependence and effective multilateralism are evolving, and 4) how nationalism and the Westphalian System are faring in a global environment that is both hostile and supportive towards them both. These various perspectives, however, have not exhausted the angles of analysis available to us in our prism-like investigation of a changing international system.

Therefore, this week’s focus is on the stresses and strains transnational institutions and organizations are experiencing in trying to adjust to a post-Cold War world. That many of these political and governmental mechanisms were created to address 20th century problems goes without saying, as does the truth that 21st century challenges are putting them under serious strain. What these strains look like represents the first of two passes we will take over this subject. Since we will discuss these institutions’ and organizations’ relationship to changing power dynamics in the international system later this spring, what we largely want to do this week is 1) look at the “huffing and puffing” IOs and transnational institutions are experiencing as a result of changing global dynamics, and 2) begin to analyze what adjustments they are trying to make in order to realign themselves with changing international relations paradigms.


The Future of Nationalism and the State – Introduction

'Liberty Leading the People' by Eugène Delacroix. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Thus far in our Editorial Plan we have posited a simple overarching theme – the international system is indeed undergoing irrevocable and tectonic changes. To illustrate this claim, we have done three things thus far. First, we asked ourselves what the trajectory of these changes might look like. We looked, in other words, at the challenges and opportunities afforded by international relations-centered future forecasting. Second, we built on this exercise in ‘futurology’ to look at the traditional geopolitical dimensions of international relations today and tomorrow. Last, we then looked at geopolitics’ theoretical opposite – i.e., we looked at the arguments presented by those who would have us pursue global interdependence and effective multilateralism rather than hew to traditional geopolitical lines.

This week and then starting again on January 2 (yes, we will feature new material during Christmas week, but it won’t be part of the Editorial Plan), we will ‘sandwich’ our previous analysis of global interdependence between our initial discussion of geopolitics and our current discussion of nationalism and the state. Over the years we have tended to hyphenate these two categories, but we know better now. Nationalism is a broader concept and carries with it considerable socio-cultural ‘baggage.’ We therefore plan to look at it first this week and pit it against a rival concept that has equally vociferous advocates – multiculturalism. Then, after the Christmas break, we will resume our discussion by looking at the state of the state in international relations. By twining our analyses of nationalism and the state in this way, we will have addressed the geopolitics of international relations, its potential for interdependence and multilateral cooperation, and its still-dominant Westphalian dynamics. As usual, we wish you happy reading.

An Impediment to Global Governance – Strategic Culture

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In today’s discussion of global interdependence, we highlight a common weakness of those who advocate increased global governance – e.g., the belief that the cluster of values and beliefs that support the concept are universal and not culturally bound. This is of course not true – any attempts at formal global governance must reflect the principle of socio-political subsidiarity if it is to succeed. But in embracing the principle of maximum local control, the seed of collective governance’s destruction, or at least its diminished strength, is at hand. One reason is that the localism represented by subsidiarity is not necessarily compatible with global governance, and the reason for that might be a nation-state’s strategic culture.

According to the political scientist Jack Snyder, strategic culture “refers to a nation’s traditions, values, attitudes, patterns of behavior, habits, symbols, achievements and particular ways of adapting to the environment and solving problems with respect to the threat or use of force.” Alastair Johnston, in turn, defines strategic culture as a “system of symbols…which acts to establish pervasive and long-lasting strategic preferences by formulating concepts of the role and efficacy of military force in interstate political affairs, and by clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the strategic preferences seem uniquely realistic and efficacious.” These definitions are a big improvement over their less “scientific” forefathers – i.e., the 19th century, Social Darwinist notion of “national character.” Ardant du Picq, for example, noted in his infamous “Battle Studies” (one of the founding texts of the 19th century European military Cult of the Offensive) that the French military historically had no choice but to be offensively-minded. After all, the typical Frenchman was too skittish, nervous, glory hungry, and “Latin” to ever prefer defensive over offensive warfare. (Never mind the Maginot Line.) This type of stereotyping was quite common in the late-19th and early 20th century, but its crudity and caricaturing of nations and peoples soon caused it to lapse into disfavor. The typical Japanese soldier, if we recall, was often portrayed as a robot, an ape or as lice in virulent WWII propaganda, which was nothing if not the ungainly child of earlier “national character” parents. So, it’s interesting to see how the concept of strategic culture has dubious roots, got sanitized over time and yet gained explanatory power in the process. National obsessions and myths do remain an impediment to transnational governance.

Global Interdependence – An Introduction

Image: iStockphoto

As expressed over the first four weeks of our Editorial Plan, we at the ISN believe that increased global interconnectivity – on the social, economic, political and technological levels – has resulted in fundamental structural changes to the international system. In turn, the problems that arise from this interdependence now often transcend the geopolitical and strategic capabilities of nation-states and demand from us new forms of cooperation and governance. But with no one ultimately and officially in charge, how do we regulate the global commons or manage our financial flows to maximum effect? How should we combat transnational crime and international terrorism, or even ‘fight’ pandemics and climate change? “Leaving things primarily to state sovereignty, anarchy and chance is not a wise response to our new global reality,” Knight et al rightfully observe. But while everyone agrees that we can only address these kinds of problems through cooperation and collective management at a global level, there is a significant debate over just how we should politically organize ourselves to deal with the structural changes we are collectively experiencing.

There are those who believe that normative or rights-based global interdependence and citizenship is a superior organizing principle to political collectivization, which can lead to anti-democratic forms of “outsourced responsibility.” They argue that instead of building transnational political structures and practices, which can potentially be opaque and self-interested, it is better to create a more flexible ‘world society’ of common values. Not surprisingly, opponents of this approach argue that respecting, protecting and building cosmopolitan diversity is all well and good but it is not enough to overcome structural inequality. Only developing and implementing more formal global governance architectures will do that, which means pressing ahead with the “transnationalization” of the world – of its political behaviors and practices, of its economic practices, and of its norms and laws. Their suggestions range from the modest (sovereignty-yielding neoliberal cooperation) to a more comprehensive post-Great Sheriff global system. This week we will mull over the debate between these two types of global interdependence advocates, starting with those who believe global governance is both unavoidable and good. Those who disagree will be our focus later in the week, as will an anticipatory look at global multilateralism, which will be our focus next week.

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.