Pop culture and International Relations: Stop geeking out

Attention conservation notice: Semi-structured thoughts on an emerging genre of IR/political science studies.

Disclaimer: I reserve the right to distance myself from any and all ideas in this essay.

I’ve been reading stacks of books about popular culture and international relations recently. Let me grossly simplify the warrants that such pieces often provide for the time that their authors spent writing them and the time they want their readers to spend consuming them:

  • Popular culture/science fiction provides a great way to introduce students to concepts in international relations and political science.
  • Popular culture/science fiction changes the way that people think about IR/political science already, so we should understand what it is saying.
  • Popular culture/science fiction gives us greater shades of meaning about how people think about core topics in IR, like war, peace, and even the nuclear taboo.
  • Fictional universes enable scholars to engage in theorizing that gets at the core of topics related to social science, thereby potentially helping us to understand the real world.

These are strong claims, and they merit attention–if popular culture matters to a lot of people (and it does), and if popular culture tells us something about how people see the world (which seems plausible to me!), then it follows that IR and political science as a field are paying too little attention to a major part of the constitution of world politics.

Yet despite my great sympathy toward these projects, I find many of the actual engagements along these lines deeply lacking.

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Women Also Know Stuff About Resource Politics

I’m leaving this post as a live marker of citations as (1) a public good for other researchers on resource politics (particularly oil/gas) and (2) a private good for me.

Many prominent researchers on the role of resources in political development and institutions are men, such as Michael L. Ross, Victor Menaldo, Jeff Colgan, and Jeffrey Sachs. But many more are women. This post stands as a statement about why researchers cant say that women don’t do resource politics. Its not meant to be exhaustive (for one, it focuses on the political science side of resource politics) but I am interested in keeping it up-to-date.

Big Theory

Rentier State

Democratization

Institutions

Conflict

Women’s Rights

Leader/Regime Survival

Measurement

Economic Development

Health/Nontraditional debates

Water

Get an International Relations Ph.D. in 5 Minutes

At Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt lists the five things a B.A. graduate in International Relations will actually remember five years after graduating. I think his list is (a) right and (b) horrifying because its right, because it largely recapitulates some lessons that IR scholars confidently but wrongly impart to their undergraduates, even though we know better.

Taken together, Walt’s list is an excellent summary of the kind of international relations you should understand if you were trying to become the next Otto von Bismarck. The focus is almost entirely on great powers and their employee-officials–the admirals, generals, diplomats, and merchants who want certain things from their governments and societies. It well describes the sort of status games and international relations that defined intra-European relations between roughly 1865 and 1945.

Yet for those of us trying to understand worlds beyond that–not only the world of 2016, but how international relations functioned in East Asia or ancient Assyria–Walt’s toolkit offers almost no purchase. Are you interested in how to explain TTIP or TPP? The only thing that Walt offers to you is comparative advantage, which hardly suffices to explain why rich-world governments are trying to export protections for intellectual property. Curious about why Russian and American nuclear stockpiles have been diminishing in quantity for decades? Good luck–the only tool Walt offers is balance of threat, which cant tell you why Washington viewed Moscow as so much less of a threat in 1989 compared with 1981. And if you want to craft an effective strategy for dealing with global climate change, well, once again you only have one tool: Walt suggests that something called social construction explains why attitudes toward global warming are shifting. Of course, without a lot more work, you cant explain why those shifting attitudes are only weakly (at best) influencing global coordination on the issue, or why its proven so much harder to fix carbon emissions than CFC emissions, or why national opinion polls reveal so much variation between (say) the US and other wealthy countries. And if you think that peoples identification as members of a nation, race, or gender matters for international society, you’re similarly relegated into this vague laundry list of social construction–not the real issues of war, trade, and bureaucratic politics.
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Thinking about shooting an elephant

When I started doing international relations professionally, I subscribed to many beliefs I no longer hold. One such belief was the idea that states are the principal actors in international relations, and that as a consequence real IR scholars study what states are and what states do.

I won’t detail all of my disagreements with this proposition, not least because, as a working matter, most of my work still involves trying to figure out how particular states work and how particular states interact. But over the past seven years Ive become increasingly interested in how individual people involve themselves in international relations.

Viewing the world from the individual-up instead of the state-down has a lot of interesting implications–not least the fact that one suddenly realizes that all of those people getting on airplanes, making goods for trade, and depicting other countries in fiction are doing a lot more international relations than professors clacking away in their offices.

Engaging in the international entails learning how one relates to others on the basis of categories that are assumed or irrelevant when one deals with others in the domestic. For expats, a category into which I once fell, performing the roles associated with national identity becomes rather more obvious. Much as I have been most conscious of my racial identity in contexts where I am a visible minority, so I am most aware of my national identity and all that entails when I am treated not as me but as an American.

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The Credibility of the Dark Side

A recurring theme in international relations, and the social sciences more generally, concerns the importance of credibility. In situations as diverse as nuclear deterrence or hiring a babysitter, judgments of whether another actor will do what they say they’ll do can dramatically alter the outcomes of any social process. Since credibility forms the basis for action in many instances, thinking through its basis matters a lot. Is credibility a property or a trait of an actor? Is it entirely situational? Is it conditional on a combination of actors incentives and type?

Its in that spirit that I want to investigate why anyone would ever trust Darth Vaderand to show why under some circumstances trusting a Sith Lord is the rational choice.

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