Political Ideology and International Relations / by Simmon Li

A short exploratory essay on the politics of antagonism

The international politics of an increasingly globalized world have large ramifications on the population of the world as a whole. This short essay is simply a means to ask questions and act as a guide to assembling further materials of relevance in relation to the questions asked. Fundamentally, the question probes how adversarial theories of world politics affect political calculations, and how a different approach on the theoretical level which lacks focus on adversary would impact the international political landscape.

Immediately, the question presents some difficulty in the definition of “adversarial theory”. The idea here is to relate core political ideological pillars to the outcomes and expectations of parties in the rendering of global politics. As an example, the realism school of thought in modern, Western international relations theory. Fundamentally, realism is an antagonistic approach to international relations which presumes an “us vs them” basis for international politics. Arguably, it relies on a certain level of functional nationalism, combined with the famous “rational choice” model of decision making applied on a nation-state level. In this way, international politics mirrors the anarchy of the natural world, where might is right and a species’ own survival is paramount. The elements of such an analogy could be individually addressed and evaluated; however, even in nuanced realist theories, the fundamental assumption is one of adversary, antagonism, and competition. While some of these conditions reflect the reality of economics (especially considering resources such as rare earth metals), a competition takes two, at the very least; or, as the saying goes: it takes two to tango. In the end, a prisoner’s dilemma may ensue, in which the most good results from a co-operative and collaborative approach to international affairs.

What role, then, does liberalism play? I believe that the fundamental ideology of the liberal school of international relations has it right: the focus should be on creating co-operation. However, as put to me on an elementary level, the difference between the liberal school and the realist school is that the realists are concerned about absolute gains in relation to its adversaries, while the liberal school is concerned with relative gains. Again, at the foundation we find antagonistic assumptions. Not surprisingly, both rationalist theories base themselves on the idea of gains in relation to an adversary. The ideology behind the liberal school is on the right track, but the implementation and expansion of the theory fails to do the ideology justice.

Like the rationalist theories of IR, constructivist approaches to international relations amount simply to a less antagonistic competition in the physical or capabilities sense, but ultimately still find at its foundations an adversarial, competitive game. In the lingo, the idea of soft vs hard power exemplifies this kind of thinking when it comes to the stage of international political maneuvering. Hard power is something prized by the realists, capabilities that make your adversary think about how they should best approach their next move. Soft power is treated in much the same way, the primary difference being that it is not as easily quantifiable as hard power is. In the end, the idea of national identities and international norms sit between antagonism and collectivism. Norms can encourage either an adversarial and antagonistic approach to world politics, or it can foster cooperation and collaboration. In this sense, both the liberal school and constructivist approach to international relations fall short when it comes to the main driver of decision making: antagonism.

As the US-China debate is all the rage these days in the international relations field, it would be apt to consider some of the political ideology (or at least, the very surface roots that I am familiar with) in relation to Western political ideology.

The saying goes that Chinese political ideology is deeply rooted in the idea of sovereignty. Let me clarify. In Chinese philosophy, a state or nation is not considered to be complete unless it is surrounded by a wall. The Chinese character for “kingdom” reflects this ideology: 国  It’s interesting that, within the “walls” of the character, strokes that resemble the character “king” sit: 王. While this may be fluff, I think it is a profound reflection of a deep seating political ideal of what a nation-state should be. I believe that The Art of War plays heavily into Chinese political ideology. In it, the ultimate goal (as far as I am aware) is to avoid the battle in the first place. It is, seemingly, a much more collaborative approach. There was someone that wrote a book that is relevant when it comes to the comparison between Eastern and Western political ideology. The book compares the premises of both chess and go and relates the underlying drive of the games to the dominant political ideology of each society. Obviously, there is much more I need to learn about Eastern political theory and ideology as I know very little.

The next question deals then with the modern manifestation of these ideologies in actual political action. China and the US are engaged in often adversarial world politics, seemingly with all the other nations of the world riding in tow.  (Interestingly, this type of analysis could probably be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). What is the underlying cause of this antagonism? Is such antagonism a necessary feature in world politics? Do the fundamental political ideologies of nations in some way, shape their foreign policy? What role do emerging norms within the international community play? Will norms like the International Criminal Court, the United Nations, and the new expanding G8 and G20 play increasing role in internationalizing the norm of co-operation? Within that context, are institutions like NATO constructive? Are “rationalist” theories effective when it comes to the challenge of collective, global action problems?

At the end of the day, we, as a human race, may be facing a prisoner’s dilemma. When it comes to consumption of finite resources, capital, and land; will we be best served by our current political ideologies and habits? Clearly, there is more research to be done, but the author believes that the winds of change are already blowing, and perhaps we are already on the cusp of a paradigm shift that will result in a shift of political ideology. This kind of paradigm shift can already be seen reflected in the economic reality of globalized finance (and brings up the question of states and markets, which is another topic for another paper).