Monthly Archives: November 2012

Backing the Wrong Afghans

In any imperial foreign policy, it is absolutely essential to secure effective clients. The patron-client relationship may be structurally unequal, but clients usually retain a large degree of latitude. Monitoring the client is likely to prove difficult, especially as the client will almost always have better knowledge of local conditions and stronger relationships with major local social actors. The relationship binds the two actors together and makes the patron vulnerable to decisions made by the client. Sometimes, tails can wag dogs.

America’s perennial problems with its client-states are analysed in Hilton Root’s excellent ‘Alliance Curse’. Unfortunately for the US, the campaign in Afghanistan exhibits many of the familiar problems of the alliance curse – and that’s without even considered the poisonous relationship between the US and Pakistan. Apparently, $900 million of the cash reserves of the Afghan central bank were stolen by a small number of individuals in the ruling elite through use of a ponzi-scheme. The existence of such an enormous ponzi-scheme is a very bad sign, as it signals something massively wrong with the governance of the financial sector and/or a failure of capitalist state-building (as in Russia and some other former Soviet bloc nations in the 1990s). Apparently, many of those involved have got away scot free and remain in Kabul – with the authorities unable to even ask for the money back, let alone prosecute, due to their power and influence. This latest scandal adds to an already long list, perhaps most shockingly the allegations of involvement by President Hamid Karzai’s brother in organised crime and the drug trade.

This sort of extreme corruption and venality is extremely helpful to insurgent groups like the Taliban who, in line with Mao’s strategy of people’s war, often cultivate ascetic and even monkish ethics amongst their cadres in order to win over the populations in which they operate and to draw a contrast between themselves and the venal puppets they oppose. Nepalese Maoists were apparently quite scrupulous about handing out receipts to those they ‘taxed’.

Like it backed the wrong Vietnamese in Vietnam, the US backed the wrong Afghans in Afghanistan. With friends like these…

Breviosity on Fukuyama

Dr Martin Hewson over at Breviosity posted a link to my series of posts on Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order last week. He himself has written a review of Fukuyama, which makes several interesting points from a perspective sympathetic to a biological/evolutionary account of politics. It seems we’re in agreement that Fukuyama’s account of the emergence of political modernity places a strong emphasis on path-dependence and long-term divergence between major civilisational areas. As Hewson notes, this created some difficulties for Fukuyama’s previous claim that liberal democracy can be expected to be embraced throughout the world:

The problem of political development Fukuyama phrases as the question of how to get from Somalia to Denmark. At the beginning of the book, Fukuyama promises that he will be supplying an answer. But by the end of the book we are left wondering if the answer he implicitly supplies is: the best way to get to a Demark is not to start in a Somalia.

Shilliam on Subaltern Solidarity, Ethiopia, and Carr’s ‘The Twenty Years Crisis’

Robbie Shilliam has posted an interesting post over at The Disorder of Things examining a crisis of the interwar period little discussed within mainstream international relations debates, the invasion of the last independent African polity by fascist Italy. He contextualises this crisis within a wider genealogy of colonialism and the struggle by black Africans for liberation.

Shilliam’s chosen register and preferred theoretical influences are a long way from my own. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting take on a really important subject and I’ve tried to contribute to the debate in the comments. I’ve been thinking a lot about how fragmented international relations theory has become recently and how difficult it is to actually get some kind of productive debate going within the discipline. Thus I’m going to try to reach across to those occupying rival camps a bit more in future, as I’m sure that there are productive exchanges to be had even if we are increasingly speaking different theoretical dialects.

Payne’s Manifesto for Political Economy

Over at the website for the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, Tony Payne make a great case for political economy. Payne is subtle and intelligent commentator on the global politics of unequal development – he wrote the textbook on the subject in fact – from within the pluralistic neo-Gramscian tradition advanced by Robert Cox, presenting pluralistic and multicausal explanations of political phenomena which acknowledge the role of both impersonal structures and the latitude available to agents.

Anyway, here’s the comment I left on the page.

A great manifesto for the study of political economy! Particularly clear and persuasive is the argument that political economy has to be at the heart of the study of all aspects of politics. Within my own sub-discipline, international relations, we have witnessed the same decentering of academic debate due to the rise of both hard rational choice methods – which rather curiously tend to avoid tricky questions of distribution – and of constructivist approaches focusing on norms and ideas. Returning to Laswell’s dictum that politics is about ‘who gets what, when and how’ holds the greatest promise for enabling the study of politics to produce relevant, critical insights into the world in which we live.

My comment might be criticised by some for a rather traditionalist and familiar set of arguments. But I think a strong case can be made that the reward-structures of academia promote novelty for its own sake much of the time, giving rise to much worthless methods-driven research and theoretical ‘churn’. It might be better, therefore, to refine the tools we have at our disposal and produce, not more, but better accounts of politics. Doing so might help us produce more empirically grounded, more theoretically rigorous and more compelling explanations of crucially important political phenomena. Returning to the core remit of political economy seems like a promising strategy to achieve this goal.