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The US today is a great danger to international security not because we are expansionist, or militaristic, or hegemonic, or anything like that. The danger we pose stems from the fact that we both cannot be trusted and often seem sort of incompetent at managing foreign policy. For example, we said that if Qaddafi gave up his WMD programs, we would welcome him back into “the community of nations.” He held up his end, and shortly thereafter, we supported his overthrow. Then there’s Obama’s red line in Syria. I don’t think the US should have “drawn” the red line at all; but once it did, the fact that it nothing when it was crossed is damaging to our credibility. We made assurances to Ukraine about its territorial integrity, and what good did that do Ukraine. North Korea develops nuclear weapons, and now we really can’t do anything to them. The two lessons we have taught the world are: 1) we won’t protect you; 2) nuclear weapons are the only thing that will protect you.
Now, if you were sitting in Tehran, what possible reason would you have to trust the United States in some sort of agreement about nuclear weapons/technology? If you were in Taipei, would you trust that America would be there to protect you. I think that the United States’ loss of credibility, and I don’t mean moral credibility, in the international system presents a potential grave destabilizing force for the world.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine presents a further destabilizing force, because he has shown that the “post cold war world” is the same as the “cold war world” and every other system of great powers. The post-Soviet Union, post-Gulf War norm of territorial integrity has been violated with no consequence. I don’t think anyone ever thought that we would go to war with Russia over Ukraine, nor should we have; but it was something best left unsaid. Now it is clear: if you are a great power, you can do whatever you want and the rules do not apply to you. We have geographically expanded the Concert of Europe, but we’ve never left its basic framework. (I can’t recommend E.H. Carr enough; there is no one who explains this better than he does.)
Finally, and related to the Concert of Europe, is ISIS. ISIS is not itself a direct threat to the United States; but it is trying to inspire “lone wolves” to carry out terrorist attacks around the world, and it may have some success in doing so. Furthermore, ISIS is actually an evil organization that must be stopped. Hundreds of students have heard me caution against ever using words like “good,” “bad,” “right,” or “wrong.” Well, ISIS is an exception. It is evil. If we really want to defeat ISIS we should ally with Assad and Iran on this issue. Assad does not present a threat to the US, ISIS does. We should work together with Assad and Iran to defeat ISIS, and then when that task is complete, we can ally ourselves with someone else to take out Assad. Concert of Europe. Except imagine the Concert of Europe with 24 hour cable news networks; they drum up support for a war against X, and 2 months later have to push working with X to defeat Y. I think it seems too much like 1984 for the American people and that we don’t have the flexibility of mind to mentally cope with those kind of rapid realignments, which are not particularly abnormal.
" I think that the United States’ loss of credibility, and I don’t mean moral credibility, in the international system presents a potential grave destabilizing force for the world. [...] Putin’s invasion of Ukraine presents a further destabilizing force, because he has shown that the “post cold war world” is the same as the “cold war world” and every other system of great powers. [...] Finally [...], ISIS is not itself a direct threat to the United States; but it is trying to inspire “lone wolves” to carry out terrorist attacks around the world, and it may have some success in doing so."
Jonathan Cristol: The UN System is overly bureaucratic, vaguely corrupt, and ineffectual on macro issues; but it is the best system we have at the moment, and I am strongly supportive of the UN. I think that the whole notion of sovereign equality is sort of nonsense and is something that just makes it easier to work together (Putin showed that all sovereigns are not equal); but the UN is very good at a lot of the more mundane things that people don’t see and that don’t make headlines. And it is a better place to play the realist game than to play it on the battlefield.
It is very easy to pretend to have a serious discussion about Security Council reform. The US can support a permanent seat for Japan, our standing in Japan rises, and we can sleep comfortably knowing that China would veto that proposal in a heartbeat. It is very easy to support all sorts of reforms that you know are not going to happen; but this system was designed by the victors of WWII to perpetuate their own dominance of the system. And this system is now long established, accepted, and is fairly stable. If it changes, it will be due to some kind of exogenous shock, not meaningless protracted debates at the UN.
"Popular culture is a useful teaching tool because it can illustrate concepts in IR theory in ways that are simple to understand... If pop culture influences world events, we as “IR people” should be avid consumers of pop culture. "
"There will not be any meaningful Security Council reform this year. Or next year. Or next decade. Or ever. I think that that is one of the safest bets that you could make in world politics... Under what possible set of circumstances would any great power agree to make itself less powerful; particularly while increasing the power of a rival? I just cannot imagine any scenario in which that happens; and in fact I think it is, at least theoretically, not actually possible."
A problem with using pop culture in the classroom is that as we as faculty age, the amount of pop culture that we share with our students decreases. If you’re used to using examples from The Simpsons, there are now a great many episodes that came out before our students were born, and you can’t assume students will get the reference. I said to a class once that I found it depressing that they didn’t get some of my references, to which a wise young woman replied, “...and it’s only going to get worse.” She was right.
It is important to mention that outside of the classroom IR scholars can learn a lot from popular culture. Jutta Weldes’ book To Seek Out New Worlds is the classic text on this issue. I don’t want to write up a whole treatise on this subject, but one example is that pop culture can provide us with long-term war game scenarios that actual war games cannot provide (re: Deep Space Nine; Battlestar Galactica; and Babylon Five). In addition, pop culture influences real world events; ten years ago Jack Bauer (24) entered the national conversation on torture, provided some of the framing of that subject, and arguably made it more palatable to the American people; and just minutes before typing this, I was reading about how Thai protestors have adopted the symbolism of The Hunger Games, which has made authorities reluctant to allow the film to be seen at all. If pop culture influences world events, we as “IR people” should be avid consumers of pop culture.
"The single best piece of advice I can give, and this comes from many, many years of experience is that if you want to be a leader or a diplomat or any sort of successful person in this field, you should be a nice person-- to everybody. Being a nice person, that people want to be around, is far more important than your grades or any academic achievements."
Jonathan Cristol: If you asked me four years ago, will Russia invade and annex part of another country, I would have thought that there was almost zero chance of that happening. It did (and I should have known better). 2034 is a long way away, we could be a united world waging a vast insurgency against our alien masters.
*Jonathan can be reached via email at bgia(at)bard.edu .