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Statecraft and the State

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Reading this post reminded me that I had thoughts, a year or so ago, about the disconnect between how the academic literature breaks down the state and the way that policymakers consistently seem to fail to understand that other states have domestic politics. In particularly, I was frustrated by the belief, apparently endemic to the US pundit and strategic class, that authoritarian states don’t operate under domestic constraints, and consequently can do whatever they want. It’s not quite right to say that academy has figured out how to successfully integrate domestic politics into theories of foreign policy behavior, but we’ve certainly worked on the question. The policy community, however, seems almost utterly uninterested in this literature, to the extent that “well, Ahmadinejad/Putin/Chirac/Chavez/Milosevic/Calderon/Netanyahu/Kim could comply with our demands, but his domestic coalition would almost certainly fracture, and it’s tough to expect leaders to do things that will lead to their downfall” becomes a repetitive refrain.

Then it occurred to me that hey, I teach in a policy program, and I can teach pretty much anything I want for my elective, so better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Accordingly, last spring I taught Statecraft and the State, a course geared towards breaking down the idea of the unitary nation-state, of understanding the state as one actor within society, of appreciating the role of domestic politics in foreign policy, and finally applying these insights to Iraq and Afghanistan. I ran the course as a seminar, with a student leading discussion each week.

We started off with what I took to be the basics, including Weber’s Politics as a Vocation and Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States. The former lays out a basic definition for the state, while the latter gives a good account of how the state moved from being one coercive actor among many to becoming the central purveyor of societal violence. I included the Geary as a useful corrective about the myths behind nationalism, as well as the development of modern nationalism; I considered going with Benedict Anderson, but thought that he was a touch too academic for the course. In retrospect, I probably should have just gone with the Anderson.

The heart of the course was the combination of Joel Migdal and James Scott. Migdal places the state as an actor within society, one purveyor of “narratives” within many. The state can’t simply do what it wants; it competes with other actors in order to provide services and communal understanding. In order to reinforce the idea that the state and the State are different things, we then moved on to James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. The students loved Scott, but I think that it ended up being just a little bit too powerful for the course. The students did a good job with Scott, but from that point forward interpreted everything within the context of his argument about high modernism. The Migdal, on the other hand, didn’t catch on nearly as well, and the Migdal is pretty important to tempering our understanding of Scott. This is to say that discussion became a little bit too state-focused, and not enough society focused.

We then moved to some works that straddled the academic policy divide. On the academic side, we read Jack Snyder’s Myths of Empire and Robert Putnam’s the Logic of Two Level Games. The latter was my concession to the 50% or so of our program that deals with economics and trade policy, although the concept works with any negotiation. On the policy side, we read the Beginners Guide to Nation-Building, which was really a guide to state building. This was written as a template for US foreign policy agencies to approach state-building in places like Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It’s an interesting, readable document that crystallizes many of the lessons learned over the last fifteen years. It also suggests just how terrible the US approach to state-building has really been.

The Iraq and Afghanistan sections both went pretty well. I had not previously read Charles Tripp, and found his History of Iraq an absolute gem, especially for this course. He takes what amounts to a state and society approach, discussing in depth the relation between the Iraqi state and the various vested interests in Iraqi society. We also read Ali Allawi’s The Occupation of Iraq, which is a crushing narrative of the various failures of the US occupation that also focuses on state and society. For Afghanistan the Robert Crews edited volume had some quite good articles on the rise of the Taliban and its statecraft, including a nice discussion of the reasoning behind the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan; the author argued that Al Qaeda pushed for the demolition in order to drive a wedge between the Taliban and the international community.

Altogether I think that the course worked, although if I teach it again I’ll make some changes. I would have liked to devote some attention to Iran, not because I suspect that my students will soon be nation-building there, but rather because it’s the focus of international coercive efforts and because its internal politics are of great consequence for those efforts. Unfortunately, I probably won’t teach the class for a few more years. I’d be interested in hearing alternative approaches to the same subject, however. I’m also curious whether anyone else has ever developed a class entirely in response to a pet peeve.

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