Looking around the globe today it does not take long to see that world politics is awash with emotions. Nations adopt policy standpoints that suggest an acute anxiety of an untrustworthy and hostile ‘outside’. The same countries can be, paradoxically, themselves divided by emotional legacies left by historical grievance and injustice. Military insurgent and extremist groups function through the strategic manipulation of fear and terror. States continue to talk tough, seeking to intimidate and deter ‘rogue’ counterparts with the threat of sanctions and military action.
As the rhetoric and warlike maneuvers of the U.S. and North Korea accelerate, the media are increasingly considering the prospect of “accidental” war between the U.S. and North Korea. But if war does start, it will not be accidental. It depends on deliberate choices by both sides about whether to escalate violence or pull back and reassess. Those choices are made by politicians, who are often swayed by domestic political pressures.
The myth of accidental war is a pernicious consequence of liberal international relations theory, which argues that since the consequences of war are so horrendous, no sane person would willfully choose war. Therefore, war occurs only when “madmen,” like Hitler, are in power, or when otherwise rational leaders miscalculate the consequences of their actions. My blog last week argued that the U.S. may be slipping into war with North Korea, but it is important to understand that if it does happen, it is not accidental. It is a product of choices being made now that people and leaders need to be responsible about.
Teaching theories of IR (or of anything really) doesn’t have to be done in an unstimulating way that puts students to sleep. I find that it often helps to relate complex, theoretical ideas to scenes that can be visualized and are either commonplace or known to students from pop culture. This is where I usually reference themes from or situations in movies or TV series in order to make sure students grasp theoretical concepts of IR.
One such movie series that has proven useful is the Back to the Future (BTTF) trilogy. The movies were first released in 1985, 1989, and 1990, respectively. Throughout the trilogy, protagonist Marty McFly journeys to four different points in time: 1885, 1955, 1985, and 2015. As such, it also took a stab at predicting 2015 from a 1980s perspective. The fact that “the future” was set in 2015 is why the trilogy re-appeared frequently in the media last year and even in the current presidential race. The different time periods in BTTF have been valuable for bringing concepts in courses such as IPE and IR theory to life.
Though there are surely many more examples, I identified four “best uses” of BTTF for connecting it to IR theoretical themes: (1) power-transition theory/U.S. global hegemony, (2) IPE export-led development strategies, (3) realism’s assumption that history repeats itself, and (4) constructivism’s challenge that anarchy is what states make of it.
Professor Amitav Acharya is the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C., and the Chair of its ASEAN Studies Initiative. He served as the President of the International Studies Association during 2014-15. He is author of Whose Ideas Matter?, The Making of Southeast Asia, Rethinking Power, Institutions and Ideas in World Politics and The End of American World Order.
Thucydides. Hobbes. Machiavelli. Realists have (re)turned to these thinkers time and again in order to construct and fortify the basic contours of their theories of global politics. From their texts, realists have extracted and put to use a series of ontological arguments concerning the nature of power, the human, the state, and the global milieu through which these forces traverse. The consequent interpretations of global politics tend to be ones that dramatize a tragic and unending struggle for power among nation-states that takes place under a condition of anarchy and insecurity, where morality holds little hope for redemption. While the discourses of realism substantiate this agonistic sense of global politics with rotating reference to a pantheon of classical and modern philosophical figures, they nonetheless consistently fail to mention one particular name: Nietzsche. This is a remarkable absence considering the fact that Nietzsche was the most decisive intellectual influence for realism’s principal modern architect, Hans J. Morgenthau. It was Nietzsche, more than any other thinker, who served as Morgenthau’s ‘foremost intellectual authority’ (Frei 2001: 94). From his lifelong encounter with Nietzsche, Morgenthau developed his basic way of looking at people and things, the ontological and conceptual coordinates that would ground the realist paradigm (Frei 2001: 94). This intellectual convergence between Nietzsche and Morgenthau presents a serious challenge to realists. It reveals to them that one of their most important philosophical forerunners remains a little known figure, an unnamed origin.