“Looking at” International Relations

This semester, I am taking a class called “Introduction to International Relations.” This class is a requirement for my degree in political science at the University of Calgary. In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith makes a compelling argument against compulsory classes:

“The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability. It seems to presume perfect wisdom and virtue in the one order, and the greatest weakness and folly in the other. Where the masters, however, really perform their duty, there are no examples, I believe, that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs. No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given.

During this first week of classes, professors have been quick to lower the standards. Examples of this include such statements as:

“Please don’t ask me for an extension, but you will anyway.”

“Instead of refusing to accept late assignments, you will instead lose three points per day for your late assignment.”

“This was part of your assigned reading, if you bothered at all to look at it.”

“Most of you do not want to be here, but are required to take this class.”

The professors who are the most demanding consistently command the greatest respect. Additionally, as Adam Smith notes, students also tend to rise to the challenge.

On excellent professor of mine said, “In this often impersonal, bureaucratic university, I want you to know that you students in this class are my primary responsibility for this semester and that I am available to guide you to the best of my ability throughout this course.”

This comment inspires students to strive for excellence and the students have a teacher whose example is worthy of imitation.

Since I have only taken two classes in my first introductory course in International Relations, I do not know very much about this sub-discipline. And so, this brief reflection is based on my initial impression of International Relations as a field of studies.

I perused the assigned textbook. From the outset, the authors say that they prefer to use the term “world politics” instead of international relations. What is politics? Since politics is derived from the Greek word polis, politics was classically and fundamentally about the affairs of the polis, or city-state (as we tend to translate it). What then is meant by “world politics”? The term in Greek would be “cosmopolis.”

According to Wikipedia, the source of this phrase can be traced to Diogenes of Sinope who, when asked where he came from, answered, “I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês).”

“Cosmopolitan” is defined as follows:

“Cosmopolitanism is the ideology that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community based on a shared morality. Cosmopolitanism may entail some sort of world government or it may simply refer to more inclusive moral, economic, and/or political relationships between nations or individuals of different nations. A person who adheres to the idea of cosmopolitanism in any of its forms is called a cosmopolitan or cosmopolite.”

While the professed purpose of the class is to provide students with an overview of several ideologies in international relations, I wonder about the extent to which the textbook being centered around “world politics” favors the cosmopolitan one.

Very often the problems of international relations are presented as questions of “either/or” when the truer account likely involves the word “and.” (E.g., Individual AND community.) If we resist systematic thinking, we are likely to find that the good of the individual and the common good are not actually in such severe tension as we might expect.

Edmund Burke grasps this interplay when he discusses “little platoons“:

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

Perhaps there could be an implicit “and” between the words “world politics.” Eric Voegelin begins his six volume work Order and History as follows:

“God and man, world and society form a primordial community of being. The community with its quaternarian structure is, and is not, a datum of human experience. It is a datum of experience insofar as it is known to man by virtue of his participation in the mystery of its being. It is not a datum of experience insofar as it is not given in the manner of an object of the external world but is knowable only from the perspective of participation in it.”

Voegelin goes on to discuss the nature of human existence acknowledging that “man is not a self-contained spectator”, [but rather…] “an actor, playing a part in the drama of being and, through the brute fact of his existence, committed to play it without knowing what it is.”

Aiming to consider how “world politics” might make any sense, I began to consider that perhaps “world”, as an abstract noun relates to the mystery, to the idea beyond our full grasp and “politics” is connected to our direct experience, to our participation in “little platoons”.

Peter Kreeft makes a helpful distinction between abstract and concrete nouns that I find relevant to this discussion. He says:

“Humanity” does not go with “God” (“God and humanity”) because “God” and “man” are concrete nouns, like “dog” and “cat”, while “divinity” and “humanity” are abstract nouns, like “caninity” and “felinity” or “dogginess” and “cattiness.”

From Voegelin talking about the “quaternarian structure” of being including “God and man, world and society”,  he seems to be stressing the totality of being including the immanent and the transcendent.

On the first day of class, the professor discussed certain theories of International Relations, much like the overview given in the textbook. He mentioned such theories as idealism, realism, and Marxism. What is meant by theory? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology the word is derived from Greek and means “looking at”. Upon reading this, I immediately recollected C.S. Lewis’s “Meditation in a Toolshed“. In this essay, Lewis draws a distinction between “looking at” and “looking along” an experience.

I encourage you to read the excellent two-page essay. Here is an excerpt:

As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? Which tells you most about the thing? And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted. It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some “ideology” (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.

It seems that the entire aim of international relations is to “look at” ideologies. But we are not outside of international relations and beyond ideology. We are participants in the world. What would it be to “look along” international relations? Does a United Nations bureaucrat truly “look along” INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS or, does he (at best) “look along” perhaps interpersonal relations? It is easy to employ anthropomorphic language to abstract entities, but what do we learn about politics then? What do we learn from this about human nature and the affairs of the city?

As Lewis argues, “looking along” must precede “looking at” because “You discount them [the phenomena in question] in order to think more accurately. But you can’t think at all – and therefore, of course, can’t think accurately – if you have nothing to think about.

Furthermore, he maintains:

“[It] is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is. That is why a great deal of contemporary thought is, strictly speaking, thought about nothing – all the apparatus of thought busily working in a vacuum.”

It is quite early for me to make any judgments about International Relations (or World Politics), but these are the initial issues that come to mind.

Rather than “either/or” approaches, let us try to insert the word “and” in order to gain a broader view.

If we are assigned the task of choosing “one system” through which to “look at” an issue in current affairs, I do not see how this would be a very profitable exercise. Eric Voegelin was paraphrased in an Introduction to his book The New Science of Politics as encouraging people with the words, “Don’t be an Ism-ist!” When it seems that International Relations becomes a course in Ism-ism, I will try to resist the constraint of system construction and adoption. It is a temptation to make this substitution for thinking.

The textbook for my class even defines a theory in this manner. It says:

“A theory is a kind of simplifying device that allows you to decide which facts matter and which do not.”

The world is more complex and we are in it and so we cannot “look at” things perfectly, but we ought to try to sharpen the vision we get through the lens of our experiences of “looking along.”

Today I was discussing war and battle with some classmates. We had been reflecting on the idea that a soldier does not choose to die for his country, but rather lays down his life for a friend, for the guy next to him. “Looking at” war and “looking along” battle offer two different perspectives and both are important to gaining insight into the broader picture.

Dr. John von Heyking succinctly says, “Politics really is about the myriad of one-to-one relationships among people getting things done; politics is about friends helping friends.” International Relations seems be to ordinary politics what macro economics is to micro economics. Ultimately, the former in both cases is merely an effort to understand the aggregate of experiences “looked along” in the experiences of the latter.

Politics is about human action. Only humans act. Relating is a human action performed between persons, not between nations.

And so ends a hasty analysis of Week 1. I invite your comments.


One thought on ““Looking at” International Relations

  1. It is good to learn about worldly things. That’s what you will find in comparative and in international politics. Besides, you half audited an IR class once. When I was studying IR, the trend was to count weapons. Ooooh, the Ruskies have more bombs than us! Now, they count ideologies, it seems. It’s a bit boring. My former boss is an IR guy, and his own progeny slept right through an entire semester of IR.. Nuff said.

    In the War and Interpretation class, you are going to read letters exchanged in 1245 between Innocent IV, the Bishop of Rome, and the Mongol general Kuyuk Khan, one of Ghengis Khan’s successors. With Hobbes in the background and Voegelin in the foreground, you will learn most of what one needs to learn about so-called international relations, if you meditate on the content of the letters and the events surrounding them.

    In the meantime, you are forced to learn to count ideologies. Be sure to be the best ideology counter in that class. We force bean counters to take POL310, so it all balances out.

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