Critical theory and normative politics

During today’s seminar, which was every bit as energetic as I expected, I was stuck by a question. The discussion centred around the grand and frustrating neo-neo debate, where neoliberals and neorealists fall over themselves to prove how much more scientific they are than one another. While this kind of thing blasted back and forth between the two sides, some interesting critical theory questions started to come up at the periphery. What is the role of theory? How does it affect power relations within and between states? Which elites does it serve, and how? What effect does the person making theory have on the theory produced, and can that impact be bracketed or ignored?

The kind of self-awareness that such questions call upon theory to deliver demonstrates one of the ways in which critical theory might be extremely helpful to us. Indeed, if we can deal with the empirical and ontological problems and assumptions that underlie classical liberalism, perhaps we can rescue it. Classical philosophy has the great virtue that it is explicitly concerned with the good life. Not to imply that this is a monolithic thing, in terms of content, but it is a monolithic thing in terms of human intention. We’re all constantly pondering what the lines of our obituary will say, the way we are and will be remembered. As such, there is a fundamental humanity to projects that personalize political questions.

Obviously, theories like liberal institutionalism can be helpful to us. Maybe they will help us develop effective institutions to deal with real problems. The fear many people seem to have about critical theory is that it will hopelessly erode our ability to say anything of value about the world, much less act in a meaningful and progressive way. The idea that struck me – and it’s really nothing more than a shadow of an idea – is that perhaps we could use critical theory to replace some of the puffery about rational individuals and black boxes that exists in classical theory with something more philosophically rigorous. Perhaps it could enable unashamed action, rather than binding us forever in a kind of grim relativism.

An orrery of errors

Shadow on brick wall

One of the trickiest questions of environmental politics is always whether we are actually managing to deal with problems, or whether we are just shifting them elsewhere – either spatially or temporally. This is true on many fronts: with regards to pollution, with regards to resources, and with regards to the overall intensity with which we are exploiting the earth. Our experiences of environmental conditions in the rich world are certainly not reflective of the overall global story, nor of the ultimate consequences.

Looking first at pollution: during the early periods of their industrialization, the countries that are now the world’s cleanest were polluted to the point of seriously impinging upon the health of those who lived within them, particularly in the cities. London’s notorious fogs were more the product of particulate matter from burning coal than the product of the natural humidity of the place. Some Japanese cities were so saturated with heavy metals from industrial sources that they became notorious for the illnesses and birth defects that resulted. Evidently, the bulk of these problems have now been overcome in the developed world. Zoning laws, environmental regulations, new technologies, and the rest have all come together to make our air and water broadly safer than they have been since the industrial revolution.

The extent to which we can cheer this is, however, mitigated somewhat in the knowledge that much of the health and safety we enjoy is the product of misery elsewhere. Consider the conditions in the industrializing regions of India or China. Consider the conditions in the various resource sectors that provide the raw materials of affluence: from coal and diamond mines to hazardous timber industries run by corrupt national armies and organized crime syndicates in the Asia Pacific.

Indeed, resources are probably the area where this outsourcing can be most obviously seen. What forests remain in much of the developed world are fairly rigorously protected. Even Canada’s vast timber industry has requirements for conservation, replanting, and the protection of streams. I am certainly not claiming that this industry is perfect, nor entirely sustainable in its present form, but it is clear that these kind of standards certainly do not exist worldwide. Where once the big area of concern among environmentalists was the Amazon rainforest in Brazil (certainly still in danger from a growing human population and the desire for land), the real, widespread damage being done today is in Asia: where the smoke from massive land-clearing forest fires occasionally rains down on cities and where Japan uses more tropical hardwood than any other nation in the world. The primary use: shaping concrete.

The most difficult to assess area in which such phenomena are occurring is in terms of just how much stress vital ecological and climatological systems can endure before they are degraded in the long term. I needn’t remind any long-term readers about the example of fisheries, but is also bears considering just how much toxic and radioactive sludge we can continue dumping into the sea before the problem comes back to bite us. Consider the dozens of Soviet nuclear warships and submarines that have been scuttled off obscure portions of the Russian coastline: both well-stuffed with spent fuel and other radioactive waste and, in most cases, themselves rendered dangerously radioactive. Like the concrete tomb in which the Chernobyl reactor has been encased, it is only a matter of time before these containers are broken down by time and corrosion.

A similar story of large scale pollution can be told about the atmosphere – and I am not talking about greenhouse gasses and climate change. A broad collection of chemicals including the products of burning garbage, as Japan does widely, industrial chemicals, like the PCBs leaking from the old RADAR stations along Canada’s Distant Early Warning Line, and pesticides have such chemical compositions that they break down only extremely slowly in the biosphere. They do, however, concentrate in fatty tissues and in ever-greater concentrations as they progress up the food chain. The long-term ramifications of these persistent organic pollutants are, naturally, far from entirely known.

As for climate change, this is the macro-level elephant in the room. While we don’t know exactly what it will involve, what magnitude it will be, and what it will cost to deal with, the reality of climate change demonstrates how human activity can impact the entire planet. It also underscores the extent to which our present prosperity may be banking colossal problems for future generations.

The point of this is not to be overly alarmist, nor to endorse specific policies for dealing with the above problems. The point is related to how problems need to reach a certain level of severity before action against them comes together. Look at the present political circuses about health care and pensions in all the demographically-shifting rich states. Sometimes, action taken at the point where danger is apprehended is effective. Look at the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons: the major class of chemicals that was eroding the ozone layer. Within a couple of decades of the identification of the problem, a fairly effective international regime was in place to begin dealing with it. The ozone is recovering.

Looking through the literature, you will see the ozone example a lot. That’s not just because it is a fairly good example of international cooperation on a clear environmental problem: it’s because it is one of a few success stories among myriad failures. Hopefully, in the next few decades, we will gain tools to better understand the future consequences of present choices and actions. Likewise, I am hopeful that we will develop the wisdom – individual and collective – to begin curbing contemporary demands and wasteful and destructive contemporary practices, both with an eye to global equity and another towards those who are to succeed us on this planet.


All in all it was all just bricks in the wall

Pouring fake Champagne at Abra's birthday

Substantive stuff

This has been proving quite the period on the international relations front: spats over gas between Russia and former satellite states, Ariel Sharon knocked out of politics, Hamas elected to power, the Iranian nuclear program again generating international attention, and the Conservatives emerging from twelve years of opposition in Canada to take a minority government. All are eminently worthy of commentary, though I haven’t a huge amount of time in which to do so.

At the same time, however, you need to ask how different this really is. Russia has been clinging to the trappings of power ever since it lost the cold war. Political systems that elect old men with unhealthy lives will produce leaders who die in the midst of their political careers. Corruption spawns the rejection of the corrupt: at least in reasonably democratic systems. It’s at times like this when I have the most sympathy for Waltz (sympathy for the devil?) in acknowledging the importance of the system, in understanding the dynamic between the units.

Personal stuff

A promising possibility has emerged on the housing front. Most of the details are still up in the air, including whether this will only cover the next academic year or whether it will include the summer as well. In the former case, I suppose I will have to find another place to live while I am working. Hopefully, that won’t mean carting everything I own too far on my back and in suitcases.

I began Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America today. It seems to be one of those books that basically all enlightened academics, journalists, and pundits have delved into. While it’s not directly relevant to the essay I am writing for tuesday (Topic: What is so ‘liberal’ about neo-liberal institutionalism?), I am guessing it will pay dividends in the longer term.


  • In honour of something I read today, I present the following list. My favourite fictional characters, an inexhaustive listing:
    1. Lyra (Silvertongue) Belacqua
    2. Hobbes (the Tiger)
    3. Ender Wiggin
    4. Motoko Kusanagi
    5. Diane (“A little bit crazy, a little bit bad. But hey – don’t us girls just love that? “)

    Without Google, can anyone identify the origin of each? I wonder what the collection says about me as an individual, and what kind of choices people I know would make.

  • Once again, though three of this week’s readings are supposedly in the Wadham Library, none are actually on the shelves. I don’t know if they are sitting in one of the many stacks of books that people like to decorate the desks with or if they have been stolen. In either case, it is frustrating.
  • Kudos to Bill Gates for making a staggering personal contribution of $600M to the Global Plan to Stop Tuberculosis. That’s more than ten times what the entire United Kingdom is donating.

The shape of Canada’s 39th Parliament

As my brain reels from lack of sleep and I prepare to go to class, here are what I expect will be the final numbers:

Party – (My prediction) – Actual Seats – Vote ShareConservative: (125-128) – 124 – 36.25%
Liberal: (94-96) – 103 – 30.22%
Bloc: (53-57) – 51 – 10.48%
New Democrats: (28-33) – 29 – 17.49%
Independent: (1) – 1 – 0.52%

I need to scamper to my lecture, hopefully picking up some breakfast en route, but discussion will surely follow.

Don Bell, the incumbent Liberal candidate in North Vancouver for whom I voted a second time, won by 3334 votes or about 6%.

The big questions now: What will Harper’s coalition look like? Who will end up in cabinet? How long with the whole thing last, and what will it achieve?

Election Day

The polls in Canada are open, but there is a ban on the media reporting any results until they close in the Yukon and British Columbia: eight time zones away. By the time that happens, at 3:00am tonight, I should already be asleep, with a superb essay for Dr. Hurrell printed and consigned to a neatly labeled envelope.

In short, I am looking for any interesting information from people back home: electoral predictions, observations, celebrations, lamentations – whatever you care to share.

The only personal message that I want to send to people in Canada is to take the trouble to get out and vote. This applies especially to friends of mine. While I know that most of you are going to vote anyhow, it’s worth remembering that the turnout among young voters is just abysmal. Regardless of the outcome, this election is going to change the course of Canadian politics. As such, it seems like a basic democratic responsibility to contribute.

[Update: 6:37pm GMT] As a Canadian citizen running a blog from outside Canada that isn’t hosted inside Canada, I am pretty sure I can report whatever I want – regardless of media blackout laws. While I don’t have any early polling results on hand, here is my personal electoral prediction:

Liberal: 94-96
Conservative: 125-128
New Democrat: 28-33
Bloc: 53-57
Independent: 1

The total number of seats in the House of Commons is 308, so a majority would be 154.

[Update 11:36pm GMT] As I understand the closing of polls and the time zones:

Polls in Newfoundland close in fifteen minutes.
Polls in Atlantic Canada close in just under an hour.
Polls in Ontario and Quebec close in three hours.
Polls in British Columbia close in three and a half hours.
Exciting stuff, but no results yet.

[Update 12:23am GMT] Regardless of your political stance, this is an exciting night. The Liberals have been in power since I was ten years old: more than half of my life. All signs indicate that Canada will have a new Prime Minister tomorrow. What’s this going to mean? It’s a question that feels much more pressing than that of whether world war one confirmed or refuted liberal theory: the topic of tomorrow morning’s seminar.

[Update 12:47am GMT] For the moment, at least, it seems that both ProAlberta and Captain’s Quarters (blogs that had declared an intention to publish polling results as they come in) have been overwhelmed by the number of people attempting to access them.

This probably marks the high point in worldwide interest in Newfoundland for at least the last couple of years.

[Update: 2:06am GMT] People have been posting numbers in the comments which, as I understand it, is fine as long as you’re outside Canada. I haven’t seen any numbers myself that I have any reason to believe are credible. In less than an hour, the real numbers will be released by the CBC. Personally, I will be waiting for definitive coverage.

It also seems that Radio Canada International is, intentionally or not, already streaming polling information. It’s only available in RealPlayer or Windows Media format, so I cannot listen. Since the real results will be coming up soon, there really isn’t much point.

[Final Update: 2:21am] The best numbers I can see are up at The Surly Beaver, which is running from London. If you don’t want to wait 39 more minutes for CBC results, scoot that way.

[Super Final Update: 3:02am GMT] The CBC numbers are up. Here are the preliminary figures: Elected, (Leading), Vote share

Conservatives: 12, (75), 34.99%
Liberals: 18, (52), 38.31%
Bloc: 1, (28), 1.55%
NDP: 3, (20), 22.00%

It felt really good to be part of the media for a while, but I am happy to let the pros take over now.

Electoral calculus

The latest electoral predictions: Seats (% of national vote)

Liberals: 94 (28.2%)
Conservatives: 128 (37.4%)
New Democrats: 28 (17.8%)
Greens: 0 (4.4%)
Bloc Quebecois: 57 (11.2%)
Other: 1 (1%)
Total: 308 (100%)

If % of votes directly equalled seats, the predicted results would be:

Liberals: 87
Conservatives: 115
New Democrats: 55
Greens: 14
Bloc Quebecois: 34
Other: 3
Total: 308

To me, the most interesting thing about this is how, while the two major parties would be relatively unaffected by a switch to proportional representation (PR), it would really hurt the Bloc (who must benefit from the first past the post system) and really help the Greens and New Democrats. All the more reason to support PR, in my opinion.

Source of predicted figures: democraticSPACE.com

Canadians go to the polls on Monday

With the election three days away, the news source I respect most has endorsed Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party. The Economist‘s argument is a straightforward one: the Liberals have become a problematic governing party as the result of corruption, internal divisions, and an ineffective Prime Minister. This is a sentiment I have frequently expressed myself. They portray choosing the Conservatives as a gamble, but one that is worth taking. As usual, it is a defensible position, though not one that I agree with.

Despite the extent to which it seems to have dominated this campaign, the sponsorship scandal has been overblown. The levels of money involved are fairly small and the furor needs to be set beside the strong governance record that the Liberals have had. We’ve had a long period of growth, low inflation, and the like. Whether the Conservatives would be able to perpetuate macroeconomic stability and economic growth of not, credit should be given to the Liberals for carrying it this far.

The second half of the equation is whether the Tories can be trusted in power. They have taken pains to at least appear different from the ugly face they took on during the teeth-gnashing days of the Canadian Alliance. Even so, it’s quite legitimate to ask whether things have really changed on the blue side of Canadian politics. One of Paul Martin’s best moments as PM was defending same-sex rights as an equality matter under the Charter:

The Charter was enshrined to ensure that the rights of minorities are not subjected, are never subjected, to the will of the majority. The rights of Canadians who belong to a minority group must always be protected by virtue of their status as citizens, regardless of their numbers. These rights must never be left vulnerable to the impulses of the majority.

That said, he could certainly have done more to shift Canada further towards a sensible policy on narcotic drugs (based on harm reduction among users and combatting the violence and organized crime that a criminalized drug trade spawns) and could generally have given a more impressive demonstration of leadership and direction. He could also have done rather more to repair Canada’s contribution to the international system.

Clearly, the Liberals are in need of rejuvenation and reform. Ideally, a new leader should emerge who is both more capable of delivering policy progress and less connected with all the advertising and Quebec ugliness that has tainted the present Liberal leadership. Perhaps a Conservative government is the only outcome that would allow the Liberals to reorganize. Indeed, giving Paul Martin another shot as Prime Minister would hardly send a message that change is required. Having a Prime Minister with a stronger connection to the west would probably be a good thing, and might serve to help counterbalance the self-obsession and cronyism that seem to be involved in Ontario and – especially – Quebec politics.

While it’s hard to predict the outcome of an election, it’s easier to predict what each possible outcome would resemble, at least in the medium term. A majority Liberal government looks out of the question, and would be a perverse outcome anyhow from an election in which they definitely failed to outmaneuver their opponents. A minority Liberal or minority Conservative government is the most likely possibility. Another Liberal-NDP coalition would be a return to politics as they have been lately, more or less. I am less certain what kind of coalition the Conservatives would form. Indeed, that might be the most mysterious possibility of all. A majority Tory government, while not impossible, also seems highly unlikely. Canada, it seems, is likely to end up with a muddle: a situation that definitely reflects my own feelings about this election.

Elliot Cohen and the Canadian Forces

After the today’s core seminar, I went to a Changing Character of War presentation given by Professor Elliot Cohen. Focused on examining the American military, especially with regards to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, if offered a familiar but well expressed perspective. All the standard big issues came up: public opinion, the differences between the branches of the military with regards to the conflict, current controversies, military relations with allies, private military firms, and the rest. I asked him afterwards about the perspective he has seen on the Canadian armed forces, among those serving in the United States. His response was a typical one: that they are good people profoundly hamstrung and sapped by a lack of financial and material support. The operational tempo of the Canadian Forces has never been higher relative to its capabilities. As Allen Sens so effectively conveys in his Canadian Foreign Policy lectures at UBC: by almost any measure, both long-term procurement and short-term funding are grossly inadequate.

Right now, Canada has about 62,300 active forces personnel (the 60th largest army in the world) and it is funded at the level of $12.9 billion per year. That is 1.1% of Canadian GDP. We have 114 tanks (obsolete, in Germany), about 300 infantry fighting vehicles, and about 1000 armoured personnel carriers. The Maritime Command has four Victoria Class submarines (diesel, obsolete), three Iroquois Class destroyers, and 12 Halifax Class frigates (the backbone of the navy) – all hampered by completely inadequate helicopter support. We also has 12 Kingston Class coastal patrol vessels, used for things like search and rescue and fisheries enforcement. That is one boat per 16,840km of coastline: the equivalent of 2.38 boats to patrol the entire circumference of the earth.

In terms of airlift capability, the best we have is 32 CC-130 Lockheed ‘Hercules’ combat transports. Stripped of all other cargo, they can carry two Light Support Vehicles (ie. jeeps). We entitled the 2005 International Policy Statement: A Role of Pride and Influence in the World, but when we sent the Disaster Assistance Response Team to Asia after the tsunami, we had to rely primarily on private chartered airlift to deliver the bulk of their equipment to the theatre of operations. We do have five CC-150 Polaris aircraft, but they are incapable of carrying large equipment and lack any defensive capability. One of the five was converted into a VIP transport during the 1990s and two more are slated to be converted into air-to-air refuelling vehicles.

At present, more than 1400 Canadians are deployed overseas: more than 1000 of them in Afghanistan as part of Operation Archer. To field a force of that size, about another 8000 individuals need to be in the process of preparing for deployment or returning from one. The next largest commitment is 190 troops serving in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights. The next largest operations are 32 people each in the Sinai and Sudan. Of the 15 missions ongoing, five involve ten or fewer people. Eleven involve fewer than 20, according to the Canadian Forces webpage. We may have opted to put Canadian peacekeepers onto some of the new pieces of currency, but we haven’t opted to put terrible many out there in the world. In those places we have, they are often equipped at an inadequate level: the lack of armoured jeeps in Afghanistan being a notorious example.

Canada likes to maintain an international image as a helpful fixer and a leader in peacekeeping. We expect to be treated as an equal by our allies and generally considered a contributing member of the internatioal community. We take pride in backing things like the worldwide land mines ban through the Ottawa Process and the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. If that’s a role we want to play – or at least an image we want to maintain – we’re going to need to commit the necessary resources.

While it’s not particularly clear that any of the political parties running in the present electoral campaign is serious about making that commitment, it’s something that Canadians should be asking about. Whether you support the military or not, whether you support peacekeeping and other forms of international military engagement or not, it seems clear that trying to do these things on the cheap is the worst of all strategies. It endangers the lives of those serving while not producing the security which is the object of the mission. Looking at the numbers above certainly makes Stephen Harper’s plan to militarize the Arctic seem particularly wasteful of scarce resources.

“Nothing is more deceitful,” said Darcy, “than the appearance of humility.”

My workspace

Realism and neorealism

With a litre of dark coffee beside me and tables heaped with books, I can tell that the term has begun. During my core seminar tomorrow morning, there’s a one in seven chance that I will need to present for fifteen minutes on the differences between realism and neorealism. One approach, I suppose, would be to take Waltz’s conception of ‘thought’ as compared to ‘theory’ and build a presentation out of examining it. By a lucky coincidence, I have a copy of a take home exam for Robert Crawford’s international relations theory course written on that precise topic. You can get a sense of Crawford’s hostility to Waltz from the question itself:

In an obviously self-serving argument, Kenneth Waltz distinguishes between “thought” and “theory” in international relations. What is the basis for this distinction, and to what extent does it further, or undermine, the pursuit of knowledge in world politics?

I don’t know anything about David Williams, but I am pretty sure Jennifer Welsh is no neorealist. Come to think of it, she probably knows Robert Crawford.

I am decreasingly of the opinion that Waltz is ‘wrong’ in the sense normally applied to the word. It’s more that he has quite an unusual project. Waltz identifies theory as “a means of dealing with complexity” and goes on to say that “in making assumptions about men’s (or states’) motivations, the world must be drastically simplified; subtleties must be rudely pushed aside, and reality must be grossly distorted.” What he is doing is fundamentally more artificial than a straightforward attempt at getting a sense of how world politics works and how we might hope to change it. Indeed, that kind of unstructured approach is exactly what Waltz would categorize as “mere thought.” Hoffman says that: “Waltz’s own attempt at laying the groundwork for theory is conceptually so rigorous as to leave out much of the reality which he wants to account for.”

The danger arises when Waltz makes the same move as many sleazy economists. They build theories strongly abstracted from reality (high school dropouts have perfect understanding of the advanced mathematics involved in generating net present values, and other ludicrous assumptions) in the hope of developing a parsimonious explanation of a good part of the phenomena being observed. The devious step is when they come to love their models too well and carry on, by sheer momentum, applying them in situations where their own assumptions make them entirely invalid. Especially when making normative judgements or advocating policy, all those bits of real-world complexity that were deliberately forgotten need to be considered again. Likewise, there is the need for an awareness of how theory itself impacts the world. Otherwise, theory becomes nothing more than “an anti-political apology for brute force and cynicism” as Kalevi Holsti pointedly described neorealism.

Given the passions that tend to get inflamed both within supporters and opponents of neorealism when the subject gets debated, tomorrow’s seminar promises to be an interesting discussion. Indeed, among IR scholars, the position you take with regards to IR theory is one that goes a long way towards defining your personal and intellectual identity. As Robert Walker identified in 1986, theory is never a neutral thing: “Theory is always for someone, for some group, for some purpose.”

In the end, I would contend that ideas pertaining to vital questions about world politics are necessarily ‘thought’ as opposed to ‘theory’ as defined by Waltz. While he would probably agree, using the cover that theory can never be comprehensive, I don’t think that’s an adequate response: at least not if people are going to go around identifying themselves as neorealists. If neorealism is a partial explanation, it cannot comprise our whole intellectual outlook.

Richard Dawkins

Apparently, on Monday February 13th, there will be a lecture in London presented by Richard Dawkins. It’s entitled: “Darwin’s meme: or the origin of culture by means of natural selection” and I would be interested in going if I can find at least one other person who would also be so inclined. It is happening at the Darwin Lecture Theatre, Darwin Building, UCL, Gower Street, London at 6:30pm.

On a related note, Louise apparently knows Professor Dawkins’ daughter Juliet. Regrettably, I did not get the chance to meet either her or her father before Louise made the journey back to Lancaster. Along with Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins is probably the Oxford resident who I would most like to meet.


To do in the next few days:

  • Prepare realism v. neorealism presentation (ASAP)
  • Opt out of another term of college meals in hall (ASAP)
  • Merifield application (Wednesday)
  • Complete ORS application, submit directly to University Offices (Friday)
  • Pay Hilary term fees and battels (Friday)