Thursday, January 21, 2016

Interesting Interests

What do we believe? Why do we believe what we believe? How do we behave based on what we believe? These are all seemingly simple questions, but in the scope of international relations, these questions are deeply rooted in conflicting yet complementary theories of how humans interact with one another. By "we" I mean our American society both collectively as a somewhat cohesive polity and representatively through our national leadership and policy making apparatus. By beliefs, I mean those things of interest that as a country, we value. Their value is important to how we want to live and how we want to live with others. This raises the next question. How do we pursue and protect those things that we value?

This is the question of international relations, and to help frame our thinking about these complicated questions are two good pieces that might seem a bit dated, but they actually shed some light on how our country is interacting with global challenges today. I would recommend reading P.H. Liotta’s piece, To Die For: National Interests and Strategic Uncertainties, which looks at how we prioritize national interests. Liotta give us a sense of how prevailing realism and liberalism theories shape our country’s thinking about the value of our interests. The balancing of realism and liberalism international theories have been and continue to be guiding ideologies that provide a constructive tension as we oscillate between administrations. Liotta’s essay seems to lean on liberalism theory yet it is inadvertently blended with realism interest-based thought.

Then, look at Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne’s essay, A New Grand Strategy, from The Atlantic magazine. It is an adaptation of Layne’s 1997 essay, From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America's Future Grand Strategy, which is available with access to academic databases. They talk about two conflicting realism approaches to securing power: preponderance and offshore balancing. Although this one is a bit heavier on the academic scale, it is a good exposition of what we see taking place today. The key point to notice in these two essays is that international relations have not and do not take place in a singular plane. Every interaction between one party and another has an effect on intersecting systems writ large. Moreover, relative orders of power constantly change and new reorganizations of power arrangements continually emerge. I contend that the plane in which one perceives these interactions contains limited perspectives of overlapping relationships. In other words, relations may be shaping currents in other planes that we are not perceiving. Seeing is believing; unless, what you believe you are seeing is not what you are perceiving.