A Merry IR Christmas!

I puttered around with this last year.  It seems an apt moment to re-post it.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!


The Three Ghosts of IR Theory*

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the lab

Not a creature was stirring, not even a crab;

The monitors glowed dully with Microsoft’s wares,

In hopes that dissertation fairies soon would be there.

The first-years tossed and turned in their beds,

Wrestling with Political Theory deep in their heads,

But I puttered on, deeply immersed in Chapter 5,

Trying to make sense of an old government archive,

When out on the quad there arose such a clatter,

That I peered through the lab windows to see what was the matter.

I let out a gasp, for what did I see,

But the three frightful ghosts of IR theory!

Monstrous figures rent out of time,

They were the very embodiments of IR paradigms!

The first approached me, and seeing me aghast,

Declaimed, “It is I, the Ghost of IR Past!

Realism is my bellicose and bloody domain,

And in it everything states do is foreordained.

Domestic politics are put in a black box,

And institutions are a load of bollox!

But sadly my predictions did not bear fruit:

The end of the Cold War made my viewpoint moot!

So now all I do is haunt the hallways of Chicago,

Trailing old Mearsheimer like a sad little shadow.

I sought to be timeless and quite ahistorical,

But now I’m just a straw man, a device rhetorical.”

Barely had I made sense of his sorrowful speech,

When the second figure drew nigh and began to preach:

“It is I, the Ghost of IR Present!

Rationalism is the theory I represent.

States are rational actors, just like you and I—

Always wanting their utility to be amplified!

Understanding politics is no difficult task, you see—

Simply identify all the main interests in society.

Then add a rough measure of power,

And you’ve got a new dissertation chapter in under an hour.

But make sure all your studies have a large N,

Lest you encounter an actual expert on Phnom Penh,

Who could go on to point out your paper’s many flaws,

And leave you desperately grasping for straws.

Do remember, whenever your study is in doubt,

To let ‘Bayesian updating’ be your shout!

Sure, my critics say I’m non-falsifiable,

But the power of my reach is undeniable.”

The smug countenance of this shade moved away,

And in its lieu came a much quieter fay.

She began, “Do not despair!

In the future IR will not always be so square.

I am the Ghost of IR (Forthcoming):

Know that one day the field will be more becoming.

A multiplicity of diverse perspectives will be welcome,

And qualitative scholars won’t have to flee to Belgium.

We’ll actually read what they write in the humanities,

And we’ll finally overcome our economics envies.

In this great post-positivist paradise,

Having regional expertise won’t be seen as a vice;

Instead everyone will ‘soak and poke’ all day,

And head off for extensive field research in Bombay.

Your APSR articles will no longer be your main metric,

We’ll all have become so much less Euro-centric—

Well, except for mandatory readings of Foucault,

To whom we’ll all still have to kowtow.

While that day has not yet arrived,

Towards it you must nevertheless strive!”

Those rousing words, I do freely confess,

Made my heart swell deep within my breast.

With that, the three shades began to drift away,

Having brought me some solace during their stay.

And I heard them exclaim, as they moved out of sight—

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”


* I would like to thank Ilona de Zamaróczy for her assistance with this project.

The Coming Personalization of American Foreign Policy

If 2016 has taught me anything, it’s the folly of making predictions.  Accordingly, this post represents not a prediction about the future, but instead a way of thinking about how President-Elect Donald Trump seems to be approaching foreign policy and especially diplomacy as the January inauguration draws near.

Feminist thinkers have long used the phrase “The personal is political.”  In an unintended way, this phrase arguably captures a great deal of Trump’s mindset.  Many observers have noted Trump’s preference for people over institutions; he seems to put his trust in flesh-and-blood individuals over disembodied organizations, and loyalty and personal connections go a long way with him.  Furthermore, while his own promises seem important to him (although perhaps selectively), policies, practices, and traditions he has not personally helped develop seem to hold little sway.  All of this leads to a personalization of policy-making: an environment where Trump and a small, inner band of confidantes formulate policy on topics that directly matter to him while keeping established stakeholders at arm’s length.

It will of course not be the first time in American history that the Diplomat-in-Chief has evinced these tendencies: the Nixon White House was permeated by a thick atmosphere of paranoia, racism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism that even Trump and company will have trouble rivaling.  (Those interested in India and desirous of a close-up look of the Nixon White House should pick up Gary Bass’ excellent The Blood Telegram.)  And look, even that human-rights-abusing, genocide-enabling administration managed to generate a few foreign policy successes.  So perhaps not all is lost.

Yet, personalizing American foreign policy opens the door to a wide range of potential pitfalls. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it can become difficult for third-party observers to separate the signal from the noise in highly personalized atmospheres, since there aren’t the lower echelons of the bureaucracy to consistently reinforce the desired message.  Did Trump’s decision to accept a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president represent a drastic rethinking of America’s diplomatic stance towards the island?  No one really knows (including perhaps Trump), because the policy is not broadly emanating from across the communications apparatus of the American state.

Making politics personal carries other risks.  For instance, in a thoughtful article Bloomberg Businessweek discusses the heightened risks that Trump-branded real estate, particularly skyscrapers, are likely to face during his administration.  Who should pay to secure these highly visible, newly prominent buildings?  (For a map of their locations around the world, see here.)

One way increased personalization may be measurable in the near future could involve seeing if Trump nominates a larger-than-usual number of political appointees at the ambassadorial level.  Over the past half-dozen administrations, the percentage of American ambassadors drawn from outside the State Department’s pool of career diplomats has varied between 26% and 38%, according to data maintained by the American Foreign Service Association.  (For those curious, after several bungled nominations early on, the Obama administration ended up clocking in at around 30% political appointees over his two terms – which, depending on the exact data you use, is either the lowest or second-lowest number of political appointees by a modern 8-year president.)

A larger number of political appointees by the Trump Administration would signal a desire to bypass the State Department and keep its “experts” at bay, as well as political patronage on a larger-than-usual scale, even for Washington, D.C.  Indeed, we’ve seen Trump advocate for political appointees like Anna Wintour (!?) in the past.  And in an interesting twist, Trump is not limiting himself to nominating American ambassadors: he suggested a few weeks ago (via a tweet, of course) that he wouldn’t mind if the United Kingdom appointed former UKIP leader Nigel Farage as its ambassador to the United States.

Fortunately, there is probably a ceiling on how many political appointees Trump could name, if only because few well-heeled Americans are clamoring to be the U.S.’ top representative in Dushanbe.

The Amazingness of Imperial British Record-Keeping

Would you like to know who passed their driver’s license exam in Uganda in June of 1912?  I know, who wouldn’t?!?  Well, thanks to the amazing thoroughness of Britain’s colonial records as well as the fantastic Africana archive at Northwestern University, now you can!

Uganda May 1912 Driver's Licenses - Cropped.jpg

I find it interesting that while the historian in me loves the completeness and detail of records preserved in old archives, the civil libertarian in me is aghast when the U.S. government collects infinitely larger troves of such data today.  If the NSA simply recast its mission as one of aiding future historians, I would be way more on board.  It will be fascinating to see how historians 50 years from now will view the present era with the help of Big Data.

(Also, when did “motorcycle” become a single word?)