Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How international relations have changed

I just re-read Susan Strange’s The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power in the World Economy, conceived and written in 1989-1993, first published in 1996, and now in its 12th reprinting. It stands up remarkably well as a description of the way that authority has been ebbing away from sovereign actors toward (on the one hand) big businesses, bankers, and accountants, and (on the other) nongovernmental organizations and criminals. Strange's basic argument for why international relations must take into account sub-national actors strikes me as having been largely validated by the events of the last decade and a half:
State power is declining. It is less effective on those basic matters that the market, left to itself, has never been able to provide – security against violence, stable money for trade and investment, a clear system of law and the means to enforce it, and a sufficiency of public goods like drains, water supplies, infrastructures for transport and communications…. Many states are coming to be deficient in these fundamentals. Their deficiency is not made good by greater activity in marginal matters, matters that are optional for society [such as greater regulatory meddling or social legislation].
I recommend the book warmly.

However, there are also two particular ways in which the book strikes me as notably dated, and not just because she won the methodological argument about making the discipline of IR more inclusive.

First, it’s striking how large the shadow of Communism looms in the book. Throughout the book, centrally planned socialist alternatives remain alive as a counterpoint to the emergent global political economy. Were the same book to be written today, no one would bother to make such contrasts. When she was writing the book in 1994-5, however, centrally planned socialism remained the conceptual elephant in the room, albeit less for its threatening aspect than for its putrescent stench. A student reading the book for the first time today, for whom centrally planned socialism exists only as a discredited anachronism in places like Cuba and North Korea, will doubtless wonder why Strange keeps contrasting the emergent system she is describing to a mode of political economy which today seems as dead as feudalism.

The second shadow that looms over the book (in this case, cast not from the past but from the future) is the rise of China, the prospect of which appears nowhere in the book. When discussing possible objections to her thesis, Strange acknowledges that East Asian state-led development may be an exception to her argument. Her referent countries, however, are limited to the (then so-called) "Asian Tigers," that is Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore -- which she rightly dismisses as exceptions produced by the Cold War. But the notion that mainland China might soon emerge as a worldbeating economic player, still led by the centralized political power of the Communist Party, remains completely unforeseen. Here the dating is obvious: no one today could write about the relationship between the balance of power between states and non-states without including an extensive discussion of the Chinese example. For Strange in 1995, however, China warrants only a couple of passing mentions, most of which are in reference to the historical importance of the Chinese Triad gangs.

None of this is to take away from Strange’s book, which as I say remains largely correct, as well as beautifully and concisely written. But it does show how much the world has changed in the last fifteen years.

No comments: