Category Archives: IR and Hierarchy

Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack [Review]

Attention conservation notice: Doug Mack has written a good, short, breezy book about the territorial possessions of the United States, a topic that should help to shake conventional ideas of what the “United States” is.

One of the great thrills of social science should be the constant rediscovery of the world as begging for explanation. Viewing social life as a dynamic process should prompt a constant unsettling with the superficially —a disenchantment with received wisdom and estrangement from the familiar. When we flatter ourselves, social scientists preen themselves on exactly those dimensions: interrogating this and wrestling with that.

Of course, social life being infinite, most of the time we fail at this task. Intellectual fashions provide the most obvious evidence that much of what seems to be deep engagement really arises from fads. More fundamentally, however, researchers often proceed from “stylized facts” about parts of the social world that are merely better drawn caricatures of social life than the non-specialist presents. Even if we manage to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of conventional wisdom in some particular niche, the necessity of producing a steady stream of work that engages our fellows and our blind spots about our own ignorance (compounded by the epistemic arrogance that a professional standing as an “expert” breeds).

I am at least as guilty of these tendencies as the next social scientist. There is one small region in which I am slightly less guilty than my fellows, however: I think — I hope — that I take the peculiar composite nature of the United States government a little more seriously than the average scholar of international relations. For me, the “United States” is never a unitary actor, even if its outward appearance sometimes puts such a mask over its structurally divided government. Instead, I view the country as a patchwork actor, one marked by multiple traditions of identities, governed by two major parties who alternate according to a coin flip, and divided into fifty states and territories. 

It’s the “and territories” that, as Doug Mack describes in his new book The Not-Quite States of America, people often forget. A chance encounter with ceremonial quarters honoring Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands jolts Mack into realizing that millions of people—many, although not all, American citizens—live in what can only be described as a U.S. empire. Unsettled by this estrangement from the familiar, he sets out to visit them to learn about their people and their culture to make them more comprehensible. Mack’s book is a sugar-coated challenge to the way you will think about the everyday politics of “America”– and a surprisingly sharp (if inadvertent) challenge to categories IR and comparative scholars employ to divide the world.

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Conditional Authority: When Centers Restrain Delegation

Just another day in the life of a state that only appears Weberian.

Attention Conservation Notice: Notes on making U.S. state and political politics legible to international-relations scholars.

Enough about the passing political scene. Let’s talk about something both less, and more, urgent: how do governments arrange their relations with sub- and super-ordinate authority?

Some quick background. There are many reasons to suspect that different arrangements of governance hierarchies offer different advantages and disadvantages. Centralized governments, for instance, can mobilize resources behind a single goal; consider that the North Korean government has been able to develop a nuclear weapons program despite having an economy on par with Kenya’s (by per-capita GDP) or Bosnia (by overall GDP). On the other hand, decentralized governments can pursue a wider variety of goals more efficiently. Splitting a unitary government into many can allow for different communities to have different policy outcomes or credibly commit that one community will not dominate another. Accordingly, real-world governance hierarchies appear in many different forms, from empires (which treat different peripheries differently, allow centers to act autonomously, and hold that centers can ‘invest’ subordinate authorities) to confederacies (in which centers are bound and invested by their subordinates).

These patterns combine and re-combine at many different “levels of analysis”, from internal office organizations (and re-organizations) to different accounts of how American primacy shapes global and regional orders. The rhetorics around such orders often obscure this; witness how many people still believe that ‘anarchy’ distinguishes international politics from domestic political orders, for instance. (What is more anarchic: intra-EU relations or intra-Somalia relations?) Similarly, contestations of hierarchy can obscure (or reveal) true hierarchical rankings, while great powers often have reason to behave as if they were just ordinary states. Accordingly, even though these considerations are a part of ‘international’ life, they remain obscured.

Yet the dynamics of center-periphery relations also remain occluded in the fora in which we should observe them readily. That includes not just relations we normally consider ‘domestic’, as between the federal government and the constituent members of the American Union, but also those we call ‘municipal’, as between a state government and the various local governments within its remit. The arguments for having a state government sponsor (typically many) local governments are manifold, but usually rest on some notion of popular sovereignty, the normative desire to allow distinct communities distinctive policies, a crassly reactionary desire to prevent redistributive or progressive politics, plain rent-seeking, and stealth arguments against democracy (surely one reason to divide school boards from ‘normal’ politics is to prevent Those People from winning elections, whoever Those People may be).

Yet a puzzling phenomenon recurs. Authorities delegated downward, from center to periphery, within U.S. states seems much more contingent than standard static analyses suggests. Why do states grant prerogatives they don’t want local governments to enjoy?

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