On Grading States

Did you care about your grades in school?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  Perhaps you thought that your own personal learning and experience was more important than some arbitrary number some outside entity assigned you.  Or perhaps you realized that regardless of how your grades were obtained, it mattered because others (parents, peers, universities) believed them to matter.

Recently a number of IR scholars have been pursuing a similar line of inquiry, but for states rather than schoolkids: do governments care about the grades that they get from outside observers?  There are, after all, an extraordinary number of international actors that periodically rank countries all around the world on a wide range of criteria, from how free they are, to how easy it is to do business in them, to how happy they are, to the degree they can be considered a “failed state,” or even on how well they provide their citizens with iodine.

Do these rankings matter at all?  Do governments change their behavior in response to receiving either good or bad grades?  An excellent piece recently published in the Washington Post by Duke University political scientist Judith Kelley provides a quick literature review of the emerging consensus on what is being called “Scorecard Diplomacy.”  I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read it in full, but the main bits are probably these:

Why should states, or anyone else, care about scorecards? First of all, they are easier to understand and digest than complicated policy reports. Instead of emphasizing detailed data, they sort countries into categories (e.g., countries that are succeeding vs. countries that are failing), or rank them with some score, showing which countries are at the top and at the bottom. These categories and rankings are framed to pressure the countries being ranked. For example, if your country is at the bottom of a well-respected scorecard for “Ease of Doing Business,” you might find that international businesses start to avoid investing in your economy.  […]  My recent book on the TIP report on human trafficking explains what I call the “cycle of scorecard diplomacy.” The TIP report doesn’t just rank countries. Producing the report involves U.S. diplomats on the ground engaging with governments year-round and orchestrating indirect pressure by media and civil society.  […]  Because countries are rated again and again, they have an incentive to improve their behavior in the hopes of boosting future grades. As a result, states pay more sustained attention to an issue than they would do if they were just shamed in an ad hoc way.  Beth Simmons and I have shown that countries criminalize human trafficking more quickly when they are included in the report, get worse grades or see their grades drop. My work on TIP shows that this is not just because countries fear being sanctioned. The stigma of the scorecard makes states change their behavior. Countries that criminalize trafficking also work harder on related efforts to fight the problem. In many countries, the TIP report has led states to set up new institutions, to train judges and police, to improve shelters, and to increase trafficking prosecutions and convictions. Thus scorecards can prompt real changes.

In addition to the evidence that Kelley, Simmons, and others have found, my own work going through U.S. diplomatic cables confirms that government officials around the world really do care about the results of external benchmarking.  For instance, in November 2009 the Tanzanian president told visiting American diplomats that following a poor outing in the World Bank’s Doing Business report that year, he had set up an inter-agency team to respond to the shortcomings in Tanzania’s business environment the report had called out.

Taking a step back, the bigger picture here is that International Relations as a discipline is increasingly cognizant of the fact that states are not the hyper-rational, soulless, emotionally-stunted creatures that many scholars depicted them as during the realist and rationalist heydays of the 1980s and 1990s.  States are disembodied, corporate actors, yes, but they are ultimately comprised of individual human beings and often respond in typically human ways to circumstances.  For instance, states can be shamed; states avoid actions that will cause them cognitive dissonance, even if they are in the state’s material interest.  States “puzzle about problems” and learn from one another.  In short, states are “social.”  So maybe it’s actually not that surprising that they do care about their grades.

A Pandemic in the IR Classroom?

In February I attended the International Studies Association’s annual conference, held in Baltimore, MD.  At the conference, I had the great fortune to participate in two pedagogy panels which showcased the wide range of techniques that are being used in classrooms all over the world to get students excited about learning International Relations (IR), meet a wider range of students’ learning styles, and improve learning outcomes across the board.

There was some great stuff on offer: Felix Rösch of Coventry University uses a form of dancing called Contact Improvisation in his classes to get students to not just think about IR but also feel about it–the necessity for empathy and trust on the dance floor serves as a way for students to begin reimagining the status quo of world politics).  Andreas Aagaard Nøhr and Gustav Meibauer discussed a simple-but-elegant way in which Powerpoint presentations can be turned into Choose Your Own (IR) Adventure stories for students.  The diplomacy-focused simulation they presented had our group weighing the pros and cons of serving Icelandic fish head stew at the diplomatic gathering that we had been tasked with virtually organizing!

There were also several presentations about ways to use games and simulations in the IR classroom, something I’m always super excited about in principle but get scared of when it comes time to put it into practice. During the talk, I started thinking about various well-known board games, and how they might be related to IR theories.  Specifically, it occurred to me that IR educators might be able to take advantage of a major new trend in the board game world: the rise of cooperative board games.

For a bit of context, consider board games as existing on a spectrum from purely zero-sum games to highly cooperative games where individual victory can only be achieved via group success.  Let’s illustrate with a few IR-related board games.  At one end of the spectrum might be Risk, which is the board game incarnation of a quintessential winner-take-all, hyper-offensive realism (replete with “the stopping power of water“!).  A bit further along the spectrum would be Diplomacy,  which I would argue resembles classical realism, with real politik somewhat attenuated by alliances, private and public communication systems, and rudimentary international norms.  [Diplomacy has gotten a fair amount of attention from IR educators already – here’s the take of my former colleagues Dave Bridge and Simon Radford.]  The next step up might then perhaps be the well-regarded Settlers of Catan, which somewhat approximates neoliberal IR theory: we’ve moved out of the realm of outright warfare into economic competition, but relative gains still tend to outweigh absolute gains.  In a great post, Mintaro Oba highlights how players often choose to modify the game’s official rules in order to make certain tactics more or less usable, and also notes how norm violators can be sanctioned by other players.  So informally “modding” the game can certainly incorporate some of the key insights of constructivist IR theory.

While Settlers is a great game (I should know, I’m the reigning champ in my family!), it is not the be-all and end-all in terms of board games.  One can still climb up a few rungs on our continuum and get to wholly cooperative board games like Pandemic.  In Pandemic, a team of 2-4 players must work together to prevent several ferociously spreading infectious diseases from destroying humanity.  While each player controls their own avatar and can take whichever actions they wish to combat the plagues, players swiftly learn that the only way in which they will prevail is if they closely coordinate, often down to the level of what means of transportation characters will use to move from one region to another.  Typically, 15 minutes or more of intense group discussion may precede a single turn being taken.

In terms of mapping it onto an IR theory, Pandemic arguably showcases several of the features of “epistemic communities.”  Epistemic communities are groups of technical experts in a single issue area whose power stems from their collective application of reason and expertise to a given problem.  Still, though, I find that Pandemic offers a less useful vision of global politics than do some of the other games mentioned above.  This is because the game completely removes power differentials and national self-interest from the gameplay.  In the world of Pandemic, all parties are guided by altruism and a desire for the group as a whole to do well… or else the world ends.  But recent history has shown us that even when potentially devastating global threats like Ebola/Avian Flu/H1N1 or global warming are taking place, international cooperation still occurs in an overall context of national self-interest. (Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Change Accords is a clear case in point.)

So, are cooperative games not useful in the IR classroom?  What if we modified the rules of Pandemic a bit to make it resemble real world politics a bit better?  For instance, the instructor could assign each player responsibility for a specific region (just like in current structure of the World Health Organization, which is organized along regional lines) and, unlike in the official version of the game, players would receive individual scores, not a single collective outcome.  These individual scores would depend on whether or not the group succeeded in stopping the virus, but with points subtracted for the magnitude of the deaths in the player’s assigned region.  We are now in the realm of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s stag hunt, where overall group success exists in uneasy balance with individual incentives.  Done properly, our students would have a chance to gain first-hand experience with and reflect upon the wide range of social techniques societies have devised to prevent free-riding in collective action situations.

Who knows, maybe next time I get asked to teach IR 101 my students and I will see what we can get out of playing board games along the IR spectrum!

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.