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Do IR Theorists Ignore Friendship?

October 16, 2010

Via RCW’s Blog, an odd piece up at the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse site:

In turn, both realism and idealism in foreign policy are manifestations of two very powerful modern ideas—individualism and egalitarianism—that capture only part of the truth about human sociability, and that mislead us when we allow their partial wisdom to be taken as the whole truth. Many modern political philosophers have contended, and with great influence on the cultures in which they have thought and written, that human beings are fundamentally self-interested actors, primarily concerned with the satisfaction of their own material interests. Realism is a relatively straightforward application of this insight into individual human nature to the character and behavior of aggregations of human beings, nations, and states.

Much modern political thought has also been insistently egalitarian. Seeking to overcome commitments to narrow identities—such as clan, tribe, or nation—that often foster conflict, many modern thinkers have emphasized the equal dignity of all human beings. Idealism is a relatively straightforward application of this idea to the life of nations, all of which must be held to be of equal value.

The author, Carson Holloway, however, disagrees that these theories do not understand how people work:

Modern individualism and egalitarianism both misunderstand the nature of solidarity or friendship among human beings and hence among nations. In their elevation of self-interest, both individualism and political realism tend to miss completely the role of friendship in human affairs. While it is true that self-interest is a powerful force, it is not the sole motive of human action. Men and nations sometimes do, and often should, act on the basis of friendship, or a sense of commitment to others that they view as “other selves,” to use a term Aristotle applied to friendship. Conversely, the cosmopolitanism of modern egalitarianism and idealism, while understanding the importance of human solidarity, mistakenly believes it can be extended to all human beings or nations indiscriminately. While it is true in some cosmic sense that all individuals and all nations are of equal value and dignity, it is not the case that that equal dignity is equally entrusted to all other men or nations.

Now, the problem here is not that IR theorists do not perfectly understand human nature. Clearly, they don’t. Nobody lives like Machiavelli’s Prince or the Hobbesian natural man in our everyday lives, nor are most people beings who have transcended the limits of culture. Any student of psychology, sociology or anthropology would laugh an IR theorist out of the room if they did claim their models presented the truth about human nature. The problem is that states are not people, and they are especially not people as we experience them in our everyday lives. There is plenty of literature about this, but then again you wouldn’t expect the Witherspoon Institute to be on the cutting edge of constructivist and psychological IR theory. Leaving aside those objections, though, both realists and idealists have a variety of assumptions which make states radically different actors than individuals. The obvious structural objection is that states live in anarchy, whereas most individuals live within communities and societies with some type of rules. Our friendships would be a lot different if we were all supposed to fend for ourselves. Even for non-structuralist IR theories which don’t find anarchy particularly explanatory, governments are inherently tasked with making “high politics” that the average person is not involved in, nor, as RCW’s Domenech points out, do governments inhabit the same sort of social space individuals do. Nor are governments permanent people with continuous experiences.

Ultimately, Holloway’s theory of friendship boils down to some relatively conventional exhortations to acknowledge Israel’s shared “civilizational” ties. But he then goes on to explain that this sort of friendship should compel the US to abandon its “neutrality” between Israel and Palestine.

Some will no doubt suggest that for America openly to act on such an understanding would be insulting to Arabs and Muslims and would irreparably harm our relationship with many nations. No such consequences need follow, however.

We do know that proclaiming our friendship for Israel, both in word and deed, does insult many Arabs and Muslims. Holloway writes as if the only reason that other countries are upset about US support for Israel is because it lies under a hypocritical veil of neutral rhetoric. It’s true that hypocrisy does not do the US many favors. Certainly I have been critical of statesmanship that relies on winning over others with empty rhetoric and avoiding actual policy change. That only means that efforts founded on equivocation will yield no success. It hardly implies being honest about undertaking policies people hate will make other states approve of them.

The limitations and inequalities of friendship are an obvious fact of human life, and no reasonable man feels slighted when two others who share a common history acknowledge a friendship to which he is not a party.

This is also evidently false, and another example of Holloway distorting the nature of international politics to make it fit human political arrangements. The actions that international “persons” engage with would be shocking if we encountered it in our own lives. The personal communities we live in usually do not have people routinely trying to kill, threaten, or steal from each other. We would certainly feel “slighted” if someone intervening in such a dispute showed clear bias to the other person if we thought they had the power to get us what we wanted. The example Holloway pulls of the “Special Relationship” as proof that friendship need not have any negative consequences also seems faulty. Certainly there have been times where obeying the demands of friendship with London would have bothered Paris, Cairo, Buenos Aires, or Moscow. If Britain were more intensely engaged in an international dispute where we valued the political opinion of its opponent, the Special Relationship would certainly be more controversial.

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