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Theory and real foreign policy (2): elements of a way out

Por Jean Daudelin*

Relações Internacionais

[This is the second of two posts with the same title. In the first, I discuss the lack of relevance of much contemporary IR and the “root causes” of the problem. Here, I try to show how “good” theory and the right time horizon could greatly enhance the relevance of IR studies]

IR would gain a lot by going back to its roots in classical social science and political economy, particularly those few theories that make the formulation of causal hypotheses possible. I will briefly outline a few examples of propositions based on such theories and show how they produce quite interesting outcomes.

The first builds on an already old idea about the logic of state building. It is best exemplified by Charles Tilly’s famous paper on “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime” and, in my view, most usefully applied by Jeffrey Herbst in his book on weak states in Africa.  The idea is relatively simple: rulers and ruling groups will invest in the full control of a territory if and only if they can sustain it through taxation (formal or informal, extortion is very much part of rulers’ repertoire) and if their survival in power is at stake. Sounds simple enough, no?

Then why is it that Western powers are still trying, in Afghanistan, to convince Kabul rulers to invest in an effort to control the whole Afghan territory, when that endeavour is obviously too costly to sustain with whatever the country can be producing — including opium — and when concentrating forces on the control of Kabul gives any ruler access to all the money that can come from outside? More than that, why would these rulers invest in the construction of roads for instance — which would have a tremendous impact on the economy AND on their ability to control the territory — when such investment would divert resources from their quest to stay in charge in Kabul and keep competitors out?

Given Afghanistan’s geographic conditions — which make territorial control extremely costly; given the country’s economic potential — which generates too little resources to effectively finance an effort to expand Kabul’s control; and given that not controlling that territory has long been perfectly compatible with being in charge in Kabul and getting aid money and the seat at the UN, rulers show little enthusiasm for real state building. Simple inference: you want peace in Afghanistan, stop thinking that it passes through the consolidation of Kabul’s power over the whole country. Decentralized it has been and decentralized it will remain. Thinking otherwise implies throwing money into an open pit and, believe or not, this is exactly what Western powers have been doing for 15 years now…

Let’s now get closer to the much bigger Syria-Iraq crisis and on ways to resolve it sustainably. Here, I want to talk about the time horizon of the players and the need to take it into account. Time is a much neglected issue in IR and political science generally. Economists have done a better job, especially Mancur Olson with his famous “roving and stationary bandits” metaphor. Perhaps the best short statement from a political scientist can be found in the opening chapter of Robert Bates’ “When Things Fell Apart” book, again on Africa.

Bates presents a precious little graph that puts things as clearly as possible. It shows the relative incentives to tax or steal given a ruler’s time horizon. Let’s say you expect to stay in power for two years: you will want to make the best of it. In practice this means that investing efforts in things that will only produce economic impact in five or ten years, a part of which you could then capture through taxation, makes no sense at all. Conversely, if you think that you — or your allies — may still be in power ten years down the road, then alienating the whole population by stealing everything they have (as you would with a short time horizon) makes no sense either.

Take that intuition about time horizon to Syria now. If you are Comrade Bashar and his Alawites allies, your life is at stake NOW and, consequently, you don’t really care about what happens two, three or five years down the road. Will you be deterred by threats of prosecution, at some point down the road, before an international tribunal? NO. You will only care about what happens to you now. Bashar and his allies’ time horizon is extremely short and the benefits or costs that matter to them are only short term.

Now, how do you go long term? Here, let me combine the two intuitions introduced. You want to bet on the people who have a lot at stake and whose survival — political or literal — is tied to the effective long term control of a given territory. There are two groups of such people: the Kurdish leadership and the Sunni tribal leadership. How do you get them on board: by helping them get what they want, i.e. a territory of their own that they will then defend by all means, making sure that they have roads to get troops to the border, making sure that they have enough economic activity to sustain the tax bases necessary to finance those efforts. So what kind of strategy does that imply: breaking down Syria. How do you combine the two? Make the immediate survival of Bashar depend on his acceptance of autonomy and potentially independence for the Sunni and Kurdish part of his territory. The fact that this is not on the table, from our standpoint, basically dooms foreign powers’ strategy in the region.

I will stop here and refer you back to the works I have mentioned and to a few pieces that I have blogged elsewhere, here and here, that develop those arguments. But let me restate my main point: IR theory and foreign policy analysis must be based on theories that enable one to generate clear causal inferences based on the incentives of the players. I have used two examples, there are others.


* Doutor em Ciência Politica (Université Laval). Desde 2002 é Professor Associado na Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. Tem experiência em Relações Internacionais das Américas, Política Externa Brasileira, Políticas de Drogas, Mercados Ilegais e Violência. É pesquisador do Núcleo de Estudos em Política Comparada e Relações Internacionais (NEPI/UFPE) e do Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas em Criminalidade, Violência e Políticas Públicas de Segurança.


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