Cuban Two Step? Havana, Washington and Moscow in 2016

The archetypical asymmetric relationship between Cuba and the United States has undergone historic change. After more than 50 years, bilateral diplomatic relations have been restored and in March 2016 Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba for 90 years. Obama’s desire for a foreign policy legacy is often named as the primary reason for the rapprochement between these two Cold War enemies. Havana’s changed relationship with Caracas, triggered by the deteriorating economic situation in Venezuela, is thought to be another cause. But the reconciliation can be seen in another light – as a challenge to the traditional assumption regarding asymmetric relationships that the larger of the countries dominates the smaller.

For more than 50 years Washington had attempted to economically and politically isolate Cuba, but by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century this position had been ‘turned on its head.’ It was the United States that had become politically isolated in Latin America, and it was isolated with regards to the issue of Cuba. This was in part due to changes in Cuban foreign policy in the early 1990s, which had seen the island’s political influence increase both regionally and throughout the developing world. Add to that the appearance of progressive governments, or the ‘pink tide,’ in Latin America in the early 2000s, and many Latin American leaders began to question Washington’s treatment of Havana, which appeared to remain dominated by Cold War thinking. This was most noticeable in June 2009 at the 39th General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) when, under pressure from the member states, Cuba’s suspension to the organisation was revoked. A very different scenario from the OAS’s Eighth Meeting of Consultation of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs in January 1962 when the US had applied pressure to the organisation to suspend Cuba from the OAS. To improve its relationship with Latin America, Washington had little choice but to change its Cuba policy.

The power dynamic that emerged challenges assumed thinking regarding asymmetric relationships, particularly so since Cuban-U.S. relations also had a considerable effect on the island’s relationship with Moscow. The nature of Cuban-U.S. relations, and the two countries’ shared histories, has catalysed Moscow’s interest in Cuba since the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The outcome is that the distance between Cuba and the United States, rather than between Havana and Moscow, has been the most important factor for Cuban-Soviet relations, and subsequently Cuban-Russian relations, as well. Cuba’s story contests the notion that the intensity of an asymmetric relationship decreases as the distance between the two countries increases.

Cuban-Russian relations remain important for both countries, evidenced by the Russian spy-ship Viktor Leonov docking in Havana the day before the start of the first bilateral talks between Havana and Washington in 2014. Put simply, Cuban foreign policy is not going to fundamentally change in the aftermath of this announcement, but it will remain symbolic as areas of contestation remain in Cuban-U.S. relations, most noticeably the U.S. embargo, payment for nationalised property and the Guantanamo Naval Base. The Cold War may be over, but Havana’s tropical climate has not yet fully thawed U.S–Cuban relations.


Dr. Mervyn Bain is Head of Department for Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen and has published various articles on Cuban foreign policy in journals including the Cuban Studies, Journal of Latin American Studies, Communist and Post Communist Studies, and The Latin Americanist, amongst others. He is also the author of the two books Soviet-Cuban Relations 1985 to 1991. His article “Moscow, Havana and asymmetry in international relations,” will appear in print in Volume 29, Issue 3 of CRIA in October 2016. It can be found online as a Free to Access article here.

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Franco-British defence cooperation on the anniversary of Lancaster House: What can a Treaty produce in five years?

On 2 November 2010, the French and British heads of state and government signed the Lancaster House Treaty aimed at enhancing their bilateral cooperation in all areas of defence and security, Since, the Internet has regularly offered pieces assessing the progress made over the first few years of the treaty’s entry into force. Analyses of facts have been harsh: the accord is largely doomed to “deliver little”. In public debates, the signing of the treaties aroused fears of lost sovereignty and of a fatal blow to the EU security and defence policy or to the relationship with Germany.

On the contrary, both the French and British governments have since advertised the harmony and smooth progress of the Franco-British defence relationship. The treaty receives rare public treatment during short windows of “Strategic communication” during: bilateral summits, military exercises, arms fairs or even the end of a joint military intervention. On such occasions, the discourses offer an idealised view of the bilateral relationship and announce further ambitious cooperative programmes.

Arguably, policy-makers’ or commentators’ discourse has been influenced, in one direction or another, by the underlying discourse of similarity, or even twinnship between France and Britain. According to a widely accepted narrative, history and culture have given France and the UK all the more reasons to be close allies and all the more reasons to fail being so. This narrative arguably raises expectations among the actors involved in this cooperation, thus encouraging further clear-cut and often dogmatic discourses on the possible output of the bilateral treaty. Expectations were further reinforced by the feeling of urgency stemming from the current economic hardship and the need to make savings through cooperation.

The examples we have from strongly institutionalised bilateral relationships indicate that cooperation practices develop and reinforce over time. Further, cooperation and regime theory illustrate that, in the absence of enforcement mechanisms, parties to a treaty are unlikely to change their behaviour significantly. Bilateral defence agreements like the Lancaster House Treaty lack such enforcement mechanisms. This article thus looks, beyond the simplifying conflict-harmony narratives, at the progress made under the Treaty in its five years of existence.

What has the treaty produced?

The letter of the Treaty indicated the two states’ commitment to pursue cooperation in two main areas of conventional defence: the ability of their armed forces to work together and deploy in operations (Art.2 and 5), and joint procurement together with the fostering of defence industrial integration (Art.6, 7, 8 and 9). The signing of the Treaty was accompanied by a Summit Declaration listing a dozen of specific projects to be undertaken bilaterally.

Since 2010, two significant projects have failed. First, the integrated carrier group was abandoned in May 2012, with the British government’s decision (it seems, for budgetary reasons) to opt for a version of the American F-35 fighter jet that are not equivalent to the catapult system of the French aircraft carrier, thus limiting the extent of to which the Navies can integrate their carrier strike capabilities. The second failure concerns medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drones, where the French government eventually opted for buying readily available American Reapers. This decision resulted from incapacity to choose among several potential industrial partners, including the Germans of EADS and the British of BAE Systems. Nevertheless, other capability projects are still being discussed between France and the UK, such as tactical drones and armoured vehicles.

Three central projects were given the green light at the January 2014 summit: the anti-ship missile Sea Venom with an integrated bilateral development and production contract awarded to MBDA, an anti-mine underwater system with a small contract to launch the demonstration phase placed in 2015, and “Future combat air systems” with a joint demonstration programme involving Dassault and BAE together with four other French and British companies.

On the operational side, the French and British Ministries of Defence have engaged in the development of a non-permanent Combined joint expeditionary force (CJEF), to be available as a first-entry force for short, high-intensity operations. Most of the work since 2010 has been dedicated to discussing the details of the plan, considering the scenarios in which the force could be used, notably pondering on the relationship of the bilateral force with other individual allies and regional alliances. While the “initial validation of concept” of the force was declared in June 2015, there remain a number of difficulties, notably in terms of doctrinal differences, language, and more importantly the exchange of information due to system incompatibilities and the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing agreement of which France is not part. Nonetheless, the bilateral work done over the past five years among the French and British militaries, through working group meetings and exercises, has permitted to reach a much higher level of interoperability. The bilateral intervention inLibya (2011) and the French-led operations in Mali (since January 2013) and the CAR (since December 2013) have also challenged the military partnership while at the same time demonstrating political commitment to its continuation.

If all of this is attributable to the treaty, it could be argued that the latter has indeed, already “delivered”, within the limits inherent to treaties with no enforcement mechanism. But how much of this has happened because of the treaty? Industrial collaborations and military exercises and interventions of course happen between all European states regardless of specific institutionalisation. In the conventional domain, only the on-going integration of the missile sector, too, requires legal backing in the form of intergovernmental agreements to be signed as supplementary clauses to the treaty. And in fact, only one article of the Treaty is actually binding (Art.6, §1, guaranteeing mutual access to shared equipment and facilities) the rest of the agreement is declaratory and unspecific. That being, progress in the projects announced at the summit is generally assessed against the Treaty itself, suggesting the effectiveness of its symbolic value. And it can be said that the Treaty has, since 2010, been reified and even personified, as it has argued it must be “kept alive”.

Now, what has the treaty not produced?

Firstly, and obviously, it has not prevented the two governments from acting according to what they perceive to be in their independent national interests, as is evident from the procurement decisions mentioned above. Secondly, the treaty has not destroyed the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). CSDP missions have indeed been launched— at France’s insistence— in Mali and in the CAR. Notably, the Franco-British pact has not made the UK any more pro-CSDP, as was evident in the British opposition to launching EUFOR Libya in 2011. Thirdly, the treaty has not created bilateral UK-French leadership in the EU or NATO, nor has it led to the harmonisation of their ways of warfare (notably when it comes to rules of engagement and decision-making processes). Fourthly, the treaty has not turned France away from Germany and more towards the United States, given that this was already the case already before 2010. Finally, it will not affected the two states’ sovereignty but only their access to certain technologies and infrastructures in limited fields of nuclear and missile technologies. And this is notably because the UK is already and primarily linked primarily to the US for its nuclear deterrent.

Finally, the treaty has had one significant unintended consequence: Lancaster House has given birth to a new sub-field and research agenda in Europe, with an array of conferencesseminars, journal special issues and PhD theses covering Franco-British relations and bilateral or “minilateral” defence cooperations. Certainly from that perspective, like the CSDP in the 2000s, Lancaster House has delivered.


Visiting Ph.D. candidate at POLIS, University of Cambridge
Ph.D. candidate at Sciences Po Paris & King’s College London
This piece is co-posted with the Ultima Ratio blog.

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Cambridge Review Co-hosts Black Sea Security Event

On 15 October 2015 the Cambridge Review of International Affairs was pleased to partner with the Forum on Geopolitics, for an interdisciplinary panel entitled Dark Waters: Security in the Black Sea Region. The Cambridge Review was delighted to welcome as speakers Vice Admiral Ian Corder, the UK Military Representative to NATO and the EU, Dr. Anna Dolidze,Deputy Defence Minister of the Republic of Georgia, and Dr. Slawomir Raszewski, Department of War Studies, Kings College London. We were further delighted to include Mr. Bruce Clark, Religion & Ethics Correspondent and former International Security Editor at The Economist, as moderator.

The panelists addressed a myriad of security concerns facing the Black Sea region, including but not limited to issues of maritime jurisdiction, energy security as related to the highly politicised commodity of gas, and increasing terrorist and separatist threats. All panelists addressed the growing role Russia played in the region, citing Russia’s actions as a growing military concern and calling for a need to deter Russia’s “adventurism” in the Black Sea region.

Thanks to our panelists, moderator, co-sponsor, and all who came!


Kaitlin M. Ball is a Managing Editor of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, an attorney, and PhD Candidate in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS).

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Urbanization: An Agenda of Under-addressed Insecurities

An urbanized place has the following characteristics: a high concentration of population, a municipal governance structure, infrastructural services, and economic activity to support the population. ‘Urban problems’ occur when the growth of one or more of these attributes are out of balance. In 2015, 54% of the world lived in cities; 70% of the world will live in urban centers by 2050 (62% in Africa, 65% in Asia and 90% in Latin America). Meanwhile, the global rural population, currently at 3.4 billion, is expected to decline to 3.2 billion by 2050.

Despite its hype, urbanization is neither inherently positive nor negative; whichever direction it takes depends on the planning and governance underlying it as well as the growing international networks of city leaders and authorities. The following is a summary of major public policy and planning issues to keep in mind. First, urbanization does not have to be discussed to the exclusion of rural development. Second is the need to focus on disaster risk management in urban planning. Third is the need to make provision of services fiscally sustainable.

1) City bias and rural neglect: The rural and urban are two sides of the same coin, an idea largely overlooked in most articles and reports addressing the challenges and trends of today’s rapidly developing mega-cities. Neglecting the rural side restricts the conversations necessary for improving rural development, such as increasing agricultural innovations and systematically documenting land rights, all of which enhance long-term rural prospects.

The Harris and Todaro model, despite its theoretical shortcomings, argues that the rural push and the urban pull is generally motivated by perceived urban-rural differences in expected income rather than actual earnings. The reality is that rural migrants may find themselves in crowded urban slums living on the margins of a saturated formal sector working in dead-end service jobs. Poverty, marginalization, and insecurity are permanent conditions for the vast majority of migrants and refugees (depending on the driver of migration). However, the model suggests that if expected urban income equals rural income, there may be less incentive to migrate.

Since restricting urban-rural migration has been shown to be ineffective in limiting city growth, even harming economic, social and environmental development, it is far better to have policies that respect mobility as a basic human right while improving both rural and urban development, especially through improving land rights, use and distribution in addition to promoting economic competitiveness and improving rural livelihoods. The ideas of resiliency and smart planning needn’t solely be highlighted in urban environments, although both the rural and urban agenda will require diversified policies to address unique challenges.

2) Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) into Urban Planning: The benefits of urbanization amass according to the agglomeration theory—urban areas are seen as having inbuilt advantages that increase opportunities and enable cities to be great drivers of growth and poverty reduction. Urban life is associated with higher levels of education, better health, enhanced political and culture involvement, and better access to social services.

While there may be increasing opportunities, sustainable development challenges will become increasingly concentrated in cities, namely lower-middle-income countries, bringing about issues of waste management, greenhouse gas pollution, limited housing, health, poor living quality and other issues that call for a re-thinking of interdependent systems. Disasters will likely further aggravate the aforementioned environmental and socio-economic inequalities. With the Syrian conflict pushing refugees to primarily urban centres, namely in Lebanon and Jordan; the Ebola outbreak’s impact on Freetown; and Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation of Tacloban, cities are facing the impact of different disasters.

The tasks to address are then two-fold: 1) the day-to-day chronic stressors that weaken social fabric (high unemployment, inadequate social services, inefficient transportation systems and poor sanitation); and 2) the acute shocks that are sudden (i.e., earthquakes, tsunamis). Disaster and climate risk management should be placed at the core of all development planning, investment and decision making, given that the growing interdependencies of different systems will yield particularly high costs for human lives, infrastructure, and environmental losses. Three areas will need to be standardized in urban planning: a) highlighting the role of DRR for increasing risk information for decision-making; b) having a governance framework to address DRR through clear roles and responsibilities; and c) requiring different departments and sectors, as well as the public, to work together in identifying measures in preparedness, recovery and response. The good news is that the majority of 2050’s urban infrastructure has yet to built (up to 75%), allowing space to see ways of building up hazard-resistant systems and improving existing facilities (i.e., storm-resistant housing and other innovations).

3) Fiscal Sustainability of Service Provision: Finally, service provision will especially be a fraught issue in rapidly expanding cities for two reasons: 1) increasing competition and involvement in the informal sector often leads to urban poverty, signaling pronounced challenges to enabling the same availability of safety nets in urban areas as there are in rural areas; and 2) while the government may respond with social protection programmes, this raises questions on their prolonged fiscal sustainability depending on growth projections.

Urban centres will need to plan how the benefits of city life will be equitably shared, especially through policies that aim to balance the distribution of urban growth. This can prevent excessive centralization of administrative and economic functions, enabling better access to social services and efficient service delivery. Good governance is crucial to for economic and social development and this requires listening to those on the “fringes” by taking note of innovations in slums and including informal settlements into citywide planning documents. Another way to address this is through prioritizing data for policymaking in a way that accounts for the differences of service delivery in urban centers versus that in more stretched out rural areas. New metrics, both quantitative and qualitative, first need to be differentiated in qualifying urban, rural and peri-urban environments ( demanding comparative adjustments) and most importantly need to reflect the actual issues and indicators that the urban-poor view as important to their lives to combine with or develop new indicators in multidimensional composite scores.

In sum, public policy cannot afford to lag behind the rapid path of urbanization. Alongside considering proactive planning into new models of urban development, this requires integrated approaches alongside accurate and timely data on global trends to evaluate current and future policy priorities.


Ruth Canagarajah completed her MPhil in Public Policy at the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS).

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Remembering the 2014 Gaza Conflict: One Year On

On 20 July 2015, Ardi Imseis was invited to brief the United Nations Security Council Arria-formula meeting on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of Israel’s 2014 offensive against the Gaza Strip. Excerpts of his address appear below:

I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude to the Permanent Missions to the United Nations of Malaysia and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for extending an invitation to me to address you.


The humanitarian impact of the 2014 hostilities on the people of Gaza was immense by any measure: over 2,250 Palestinians killed, including at least 1,462 civilians, of which more than 550 were children; close to 500,000 people displaced at the height of the hostilities, with approximately 100,000 remaining internally displaced, their homes destroyed or severely damaged and uninhabitable.

Public infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, suffered heavy damage, affecting nearly every aspect of daily life. Alarmingly, this included the bombardment and abuse of United Nations premises, inviolable as a matter of international law, resulting in the death of at least 42 Palestinians, including 16 children, and the injury of 230 others who had taken shelter there. While far less in scope and scale, Israelis too suffered, with 72 killed, among them five civilians, including one child.

While much more can and has been said about the humanitarian impact of the 2014 hostilities on Gaza…I have chosen to focus on the matter of accountability under international law, and what the Council and its members can do to address the root causes of what is, by now, one of the longest running conflicts on the agenda of the United Nations.


In this regard, the conclusions and recommendations of the latest Independent Commission of Inquiry on Gaza are a good reference point. After documenting “substantial information pointing to serious violations” of international humanitarian law and human rights law by Israel and, to a much lesser extent, Palestinian armed groups, including possible war crimes, the Commission urged “all those concerned to take immediate steps to ensure accountability, including the right to an effective remedy for victims” (para. 74). In this context, the Commission recommended that “the parties should cooperate fully with the preliminary examination of the International Criminal Court and with any subsequent investigation that may be opened” (para. 82). It also called upon the parties to promptly establish “credible, effective, transparent and independent accountability mechanisms” (para. 83).


While much can be said of the obligations of Israel and the Palestinians vis a vis the 2014 Gaza conflict and its aftermath, matters of economy along with the nature of this occasion compel me to focus on some of those of the international community, including as raised by the Commission of Inquiry.

It is trite to point out that the Council is fully empowered to address the situation in Gaza through any number of measures, including through the adoption of binding decisions under the Charter. This could conceivably include in a decision requiring Member States to cooperate to bring Israel’s blockade of Gaza to an end, or indeed, its prolonged military occupation of Palestine altogether. At the very least, this would trigger obligations of Member States not to recognize as lawful the situation created by Israel’s internationally wrongful acts in occupied Palestine, nor render aid or assistance in maintaining that situation. In addition, the Council could also take decisions requiring Member States to sever economic, diplomatic, and other relations with Israel until it complies with its decisions. The Council could also take a decision requiring all Member States, including Israel, to appropriately prosecute or extradite persons alleged to have perpetrated war crimes arising out of the 2014 Gaza conflict or to otherwise cooperate with the work of the International Criminal Court in that respect.

These are but a few examples of what the Council could theoretically do to address the appalling situation in Gaza, the facts of which speak for themselves. Of course, what is required is neither new law nor new facts, but rather the existence of sufficient will among Council members to act in unison in line with the purposes and principles of the Charter. And despite differences of opinion that may exist within the Council, there is ample precedent to go on.

Take for example the Council’s consistent pronouncements on the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, or the illegality of Israeli settlements in the OPT, or the illegality of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. Each of these are contained to varying degrees in Security Council resolutions 252 (1968), 298 (1971), 446 (1979), 452 (1979) and 465 (1980), among others. What some of these resolutions demonstrate is that even where a Council member may disagree with the majority of the Council, use of an abstention (and in the case of a permanent member, an abstention over a veto) can offer an effective means of registering such disagreement without frustrating the will of the Council as it seeks to discharge its solemn legal obligations under the Charter.

But where the Council is unable to act due to lack of a sufficient majority unimpeded by the veto of a permanent member, the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry remind us that that does not signal an end of the matter. As High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, all Members of the Council, indeed all Member States of the UN, are under independent legal obligations to not only respect, but to ensure respect, for the terms of those Conventions. This includes the legal obligation, under article 146 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to pass laws at the domestic level that criminalize the commission of grave breaches of the Convention (all war crimes under international law), and also to locate and try persons suspected of having committed or ordered the commission of such offences. Under article 147 of the Convention, these include willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment; willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health; unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person; the taking of hostages; and the extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.

This is, in part, what the Commission of Inquiry intimated when it recommended that members of the international community “exercise universal jurisdiction to try international crimes in national courts,” and “comply with extradition requests pertaining to suspects of such crimes to countries where they would face a fair trial” (para. 89).


It is well to recall that the principle of universal jurisdiction was first used by the Supreme Court of Israel in litigation involving Israel’s prosecution of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Today, a growing number of High Contracting Parties, including a number of Council members, have enacted or begun to enact domestic legislation empowering their courts to invoke universal jurisdiction, in some degree or another, in accordance with their obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention. These mechanisms should be examined closely with a view to employing them to ensure a measure of accountability for war crimes committed during the 2014 Gaza conflict.


Since at least the imposition of Israel’s blockade in 2007, the issue of Gaza has attracted a great deal of attention, all of it warranted. Nevertheless, one cannot discuss the issue of Gaza in isolation from the rest of what is unfolding in the remainder of occupied Palestine. This was a matter not lost on the Commission of Inquiry in its consideration of the issues before it. Nor should it be a matter lost on any of us today.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip has presented some of the most considerable challenges to the international system in the post-1945 era. The advent of the UN Charter was meant to herald a new world order based on peaceful resolution of disputes, suppression of acts of aggression, and development of friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples. Nevertheless, whether in breach of the general prohibition on the use of force, the unlawful acquisition of territory through the threat or use of force, the prolonged violation of a peoples’ right to self-determination, or the systematic settler colonialism at its root, the illegality of Israeli practices in occupied Palestine – of which these are but a representative sample – demonstrate that the question of Palestine triggers legal principles that go well beyond the relatively narrow positions of each of its immediate protagonists. Rather, the principles at play are of such fundamental import to the maintenance the international system as such that each State has an interest in ensuring against their violation. Put simply, the situation in occupied Palestine is about more than merely the place and its people; it is about the maintenance of the international rule of law as we know it.

Having regard to the reasons behind the very establishment of the UN Charter system, and the promulgation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, helps bring this point into sharp relief. For centuries prior to the interwar years, the use of force in international relations was a perfectly legitimate tool of statecraft, “policy by other means,” as von Clausewitz put it. Likewise, the right of conquest of territories occupied as a result of such use of force was considered axiomatic. Of course, this all imploded during World War II, with consequences that need not be recalled in full. Suffice to say, as a result of these events, including the despicable treatment of civilian populations subject to foreign military occupation in central Europe during the war, the UN Charter was promulgated, affirming the prohibition of the use of force in international relations, along with its corollary prohibiting the acquisition of territory through the threat or use of force. Likewise, the Fourth Geneva Convention was promulgated prohibiting, among other things, collective penalties, forcible transfer of protected persons, and the transfer by an occupying power of its civilian population into the territory it occupies. Indeed, as a matter of international law, occupation is meant to be a temporary condition, with sovereignty never vesting in the occupant but rather in the people occupied. By all objective accounts, these were the principles that underscored the foundation of the UN Charter system. And by all objective accounts, including those of the United Nations, these are the principles that are under direct threat in occupied Palestine.

As we consider how to respond to the situation in occupied Palestine following Israel’s 2014 offensive against the Gaza Strip, it is respectfully submitted that the Council keep these considerations foremost in mind.



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Do global market mechanisms turn us into homo economicus?

Following the 2008 Financial Crisis vehement criticism of neoclassical economics as an academic discipline, and of the global economic and financial system which has been built using its findings, has become the mode du jour. This is as true of International Relations as is of other branches of the arts and social sciences – as demonstrated by recent (complimentary) reviews in CRIA of Ha-Joon Chang’s most recent book and of a kind of revisiting of the work of Karl Polanyi.

Chang has become something of an anti-austerity rock star, and Polanyi a ‘lost genius’, because they, among others, are proponents of a ‘new’ kind of critique of orthodox economics. This critique doesn’t follow the line of what was the more ‘popular’ critique of orthodox economics, Marxism. It therefore doesn’t fall prey to many of the arguments which have been used to dismiss it (namely that attempts to implement Marxist economic theory in practice have by-and-large been colossal failures).

They have instead suggested that neoclassical (or ‘market’) economics doesn’t work not simply because it is an exploitative system run in the interests of the minority against those of the majority, but because the presumptions which it makes about human behaviour are out-of-step with how people actually behave. The rational, calculative animal that markets rely on to maintain their dynamics, homo economicus, simply doesn’t exist.

Some, following the observations of psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, conclude that ‘rational’ human decision-making isn’t as ‘rational’ as we think it to be. Others, following Polanyi, claim that it is difficult to come to the conclusion that people are inherently ‘self-interested’ and ‘materialistic’ when they are embedded in webs of social context. Economists and economic historians drawing on either or both argue that, to paraphrase Chang himself, these shortcomings mean that economics as a discipline should not be treated as a science. Economics is instead best seen as a branch of the humanities akin to politics or history, and the ‘facts’ of the market should instead be considered ‘opinions’.

This line of argument, however, isn’t new – something demonstrated by the fact that Polanyi’s magnum opus, The Great Transformation, was originally published in 1947. Debates over the point(s) made by Polanyi and others have been going on in sociology and in anthropology for well over half a century. Some of the conclusions reached can tell us a lot about what might be wrong with the approach taken (broadly speaking) by Chang, Polanyi, and many, many others.

The ‘conclusions’ which I’m referring to are those reached by a number of sociologists influenced by the work of Michel Callon. A ‘founding father’ of a theoretical current in Science and Technology Studies called ‘Actor-Network Theory’, Callon argued in his 1998 work The Laws of the Markets that what had blighted critiques of orthodox/neoclassical economics is that they had treated the discipline in a theoretical manner. Critically-minded sociologists and anthropologists had been narrow-minded in viewing economics as a set of hypotheses to be verified and/or falsified, rather as an object of study in and of itself.

So what Callon (and those who, roughly speaking, ‘follow’ his theoretical inclinations and line of argument) is saying is that to try and figure out whether the neoclassicists were originally ‘right’ in the first place or not is to miss the point. Neoclassical economics has had an incalculable influence on the social, political, economic and legal structures prevalent in the world today, and trying to prove the assumptions underpinning the discipline wrong is not going to change any of that.

An altogether more interesting (and controversial) direction which Callon takes this argument in is to introduce the notion of ‘performativity’, referring specifically to the ‘performativity of economics’. Here, Callon states that trying to figure out what ‘human behaviour’ is in its most original form is futile because the ‘engineering’ done by technocrats influenced by neoclassical economics itself has an impact on the way we have that makes trying to figure out how we might ‘naturally’ behave pointless. It’s a classic constructivist move. Economists are wrong in assuming that there is such a thing as ‘human nature’, but in assuming that it exists have essentially brought the world they imagined to be true into being.

Economics makes this ‘imagined world’ a reality, according to Callon, through a form of action called ‘framing’. This means that either tangible goods (such as property) or intangible goods (such as labour) are divorced from the interpersonal or socio-cultural connections associated with them through the vagaries of ‘the system’. If you own a house and don’t adhere to the adage of ‘buy low, sell high’ because of the sentimental value attached to it, for instance, you stand a chance of getting battered by a crash in property markets. You will, it follows, not repeat the same mistake again.

Where we can see such ‘framing’ occurring on a grand scale is in the recent events in Greece. Here, SYRIZA attempted to steer a course away from the ‘austerity’ demanded by orthodox economics, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the IMF, and promptly stopped because they ran the risk of sending the country into financial meltdown. Yanis Varoufakis, the country’s exuberant ex-Finance Minister, has wisely stayed out of the matter after realising that confronting the ‘minotaur’ of economic orthodoxy had led to Greek bonds rapidly becoming next-to-worthless, or at least more worthless than they were when S&P downgraded their bonds to ‘junk’ status in 2010.

The whole assertion that ‘this is a coup’ only goes so far, however. Greece’s creditors had, over the course of the negotiations between Greece and ‘the Troika’, made clear that offering Greece debt relief could be problematic. This was in part because the regulations governing the Global Financial System had already been set and in part because taxpayers would be outraged that what they saw as Greek profligacy was affecting their wallets. To ‘perform’ an economy, it follows, one has to stick to the script. All of the agents involved may not be ‘naturally’ inclined towards behaving in such a dispassionate way, but because of the (potential) consequences if they don’t, to a great extent they have to.

Following this line of argument doesn’t mean suggesting, however, that the global economic and financial system is bereft of some very serious and fundamentally compromising flaws. Callon and other adherents of Actor-Network Theory don’t try to argue that the systems which they study are stable or even that cohesive – quite the opposite, in fact. The IMF backtracking on their generally hardline stance towards debt relief is an example of a modification, in some small way, of the ‘system’.

What I do suggest is that IR scholars wishing to analyse contemporary global capitalism take a step back and, to paraphrase another developer of ANT, Brutno Latour, ‘let the actors speak for themselves’1. Studies of global capitalism need not be devastatingly critical or enthusiastically positive – it is possible, and perhaps preferable, to treat it not as something that is necessarily ‘bad’ or necessarily ‘good’ or more appropriately for this piece ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, but rather as something that simply is.

For an explanation of Callon’s line of argument which is (thankfully) largely devoid of the jargon that Callon tends to write in, see Andrew Barry and Don Slater’s 2002 article ‘Introduction: The Technological Economy’ in Economy and Society, volume 31. If you’d like to read a (rather angry) riposte to Callon’s thesis, see Daniel Miller’s 2002 article ‘Turning Callon the Right Way Up’ in the same volume of Economy and Society (a special issue devoted largely to Callon’s work regarding markets). 

Those looking for an introduction to Actor-Network Theory in general should read either Callon’s 1986 piece ‘Some elements of a sociology of translation’ in the John Law’s edited volumePower, Action and Belief: a New Sociology of Knowledge or (preferably) the introduction to Latour’s 2005 book Reassembling the Social: an Introduction to Actor-Network Theory.

Jack Smith is an undergraduate student with the Human, Social and Political Sciences faculty at the University of Cambridge and is an intern with CRIA. He is affiliated with King’s College.

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