The clash of theories in a modern world

By Tina Renier

“World politics is entering a new phase”- Samuel P. Huntington (1993)

Theories in international relations are often ignored in our analysis of global issues and events. However, the prevailing clash of theories has been brought to the foreground at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The theme ‘Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World’ is an extremely significant concern against the backdrop of growing socio-economic inequalities, poverty, climate change, environmental degradation, war and terrorism as well as the rise of nationalism.  The word ‘fractured’ would be of special interest to structural realists who see the international political system as ‘anarchic’ whereby there is no central authority to oversee the actions of states and as a result, states are forced to defend national interests through self-help. Thus, conflict becomes inevitable.

The word ‘fractured’ also, denotes inequality in the balance of power because different states have different degrees of power in the world. Critics of the 2018 World Economic Forum opined that it is a space where only, global political and economic elite are invited to discuss pressing matters in the contemporary era.  Other critics such as Oxfam International points out the growing gaps between the world’s wealthiest and poorest people where it has illustrated that the wealthiest one per cent (1%) controlled eighty-two per cent (82%) of the world’s wealth while the poorest half of humanity received nothing. While committed and serious efforts are needed to tackle global inequality and poverty as fundamental goals in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, we must also pay keen attention to the clash of underlying theories that are deeply embedded in verbal and non-verbal agendas of world leaders.

President of the Swiss Confederation, Alain Beset implored his audience, “2018 must be the year to re-affirm international co-operation and multi-lateralism… our shared responsibility must return to its rightful place.” He also expressed concerns about “the widespread distrust and suspicion towards multi-lateralism and free trade whereby protectionist movements are on the rise and states are looking inwards instead of outwards.” The statements of Beset are more than just euphemisms geared towards the United States of America under the Trump Administration but they also unveil sharp ideological, historical and geo-political paradoxes. Liberal institutionalists stress the importance of collective values such as peace, democracy, co-operation and interdependence as well as the shift of power from nation states to institutions.

This explains the reason Beset called for “a stronger involvement of institutions in promoting security, peace and human rights.” The intriguing irony of liberalism is the economic history of mercantilism in the 16th and 17th century where protectionism of states was strongly encouraged and practiced. Let us fast forward to 2018 where the world evolved through information communication technologies (ICT’s) and scientific exploration, protectionism is no longer seen as relevant because in a multi-polar world, linkages are necessary for survival.  Jack Snyder (2004) in his renowned article ‘One World, Rival Theories’ commented that liberals see how trade and finance forge ties between nations and the liberalist perspective is exemplified in the speeches of India’s Narenda Modi and Germany’s Angela Merkel. However, the pitfalls of liberalism rest on the assumption that institutions will alleviate conflict. The fact of the matter is that states will always be in pursuit of national interests and institutions will be established in order to attain these objectives. Kenneth Waltz has done an exceptional critique of liberalism in his renowned journal article ‘Structural Realism After the Cold War’ where he posited, “liberals have shown a strong desire to get the politics out of politics… in absence of an external authority, a state cannot be sure that today’s friend will not be tomorrow’s enemy.” Consequently, there is no surprise that there is high level of distrust among leaders against nation-states and citizens against institutions. Although it is explicitly stated that multi-lateralism and free trade has expanded the scope of economic growth and human progress by allowing states to have an equal footing, the flip side of the coin also demonstrates that these popular notions have waged war against robust human development especially in the context of developing countries. A balance between dual priorities of economic growth and human development must be sought but the “politics” of international politics charades in utopian aspirations of a better world in order to mask intentions of manufactured crises and self-interests. It must be noted that it is the pitfalls of liberalism that usher the re- entry of the rise of dangerous nationalist sentiments and protectionism that are echoed by the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump in his ‘America First’ foreign policy. America’s foreign policy is more than ever, heavily influenced by the role of its individual leader.

Using Margaret Hermann’s 1980 model on ‘Personal Characteristics of Leaders in Foreign Policy’, one can argue that Donald Trump, as President of a global superpower, places high emphasis on national identity and believes that the United States of America must hold centre stage in global affairs. Nationalism, according to Hermann, is associated with a decision making style that is characterized by paranoia (distrustful of others), unscrupulous behaviour and low conceptual complexity (limited ability to process and analyze complex information). This is translated in Trump’s realist foreign policy goals of economic expansion through investments and trade as well as consolidation of the military. Trump’s low conceptual complexity is most evident in the fact that he lacks the ability to understand the critical nexus between the domestic and international systems in foreign policy and this has negatively affected the legitimacy of the United States of America as a global superpower because legitimacy operates on the foundation of approval of other states in the international system. It is also evident in the fact that his decision making style lacks rationality where biases and misperceptions are at the centrality of the domestic and international policy environments. The tug-o-war between his haphazard decision outcomes and his personal belief in protectionism has been unveiled that in his consideration to re-join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after withdrawing from it a year ago.  While a nation-state is entitled to its pursue self-interests, isolationism and protectionism are unable to successfully thrive in an increasingly complex and dynamic world where ripple effects of policy decisions affect other countries, institutions, economies and citizens across borders.

Trump’s nationalism has fuelled the emergence of the phenomenon known as ‘The Clash of Civilizations’. Samuel P. Huntington (1993) predicted the future of global politics where he postulated, “the fundamental source of this conflict will not be primarily ideological or economic… the conflict will be cultural.” Huntington’s predictive analysis did not negate the fact that nation-states are dominant actors in international relations but instead, he explained that conflict among ethnic groups, religions and cultures will occur consistently. Social constructivism is at the helm of the reason the alt-right movement in the United States and Europe is seeking to reclaim the honour and identity of white supremacy while chastising minorities and immigrants. Social constructivism is at the helm of President Trump’s distasteful “shithole” comment about African countries and Haiti. Social constructivism is at the helm of the Christian-Muslim violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and it is at the helm of radicalized movements and protests in Greece, Palestine, Turkey and several countries across the world.

The clash of civilizations can be juxtaposed with Modi’s speech. Modi mentioned that the rise of educated youth being involved in radical movements is a modern threat to a shared future because there is a differentiation between good and bad terrorism. Nevertheless, terrorism is a loaded term and radicalization of movements across the world is borne out of apathy, frustration and disappointment with the hypocrisy of establishment politics. Therefore, the oppressed masses across the world are continuously seeking alternatives especially young people who face marginalization from meaningful participation in governance and decision making and equitable access to social and economic opportunities. They have taken a cue from Marxism and they have awoken from their false consciousness but the more pertinent questions are, does conflict have to be violent in order to secure a shared future in a fractured world? and are cultural differences better resolved through dialogue and co-operation?

Tina Renier is a student at the University of the West Indies, Mona pursuing a Bachelors of Science degree in International Relations.

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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