All politics is global

by John Quiggin on February 2, 2021

Reading about the recent military coup in Myanmar, I’ve seen the view that Biden’s criticism of the coup is undermined by the fact that the pretext for the coup, a supposedly stolen election, was exactly the same as that raised by Trump and the Republican Party in response to Biden’s 2020 election victory.

There’s a problem in this reasoning which is easy to see, but harder to resolve. It makes intuitive sense to say that the United States should not point fingers at other countries when it has the same problems itself. But it seems strange to say that, having just defeated an attempt to overturn a democratic election in his own country, Biden is in some way disqualified from criticising a similar attempt in Myanmar.

The answer to this question is to recognise that Biden does not speak for “the United States”, but for the party he leads. To the extant that his party supports democracy in the US, it is naturally aligned with supporters of democracy everywhere, and against supporters of dictatorship, both at home and abroad. Conversely, Trumpists in the United States are naturally aligned with dictators everywhere and opposed to democrats (with both small and capital “D”).

The first political leader to grasp this point fully was Benjamin Netanyahu, who decided to meet with the Republican opposition rather than the incumbent Democratic Administration under Obama. Netanyahu judged (correctly so far) that he would gain more by allying with a party that shared his annexationist views than he would lose by undermining a bipartisan view that “the United States” should support “Israel”.

Another way to consider this is to ask whether, in a dispute with another country, most people would side with the government of their own country, or with the one closer to their own views. It’s pretty clear in the US case, that most Republicans will oppose Biden in any dispute with a rightwing dictatorship, just as most Democrats sympathised with Trudeau, Macron and Merkel in their disputes with Trump.

There’s nothing new in this. When religion was the big dividing line in Europe, Protestants and Catholics looked to co-religionists for support against rulers of the opposite creed, regardless of state boundaries. Marxists and many other socialists have long argued that “the workers of no country” The idea that nation-states represent natural divisions of humanity is both relatively recent and historically contingent.

It’s hard to know how our understanding of world politics will change in a world where political cleavages run across national boundaries rather than between them. The very name International Relations presumes the opposite, and the implicit assumptions of the field reflect this.

{ 33 comments }

1

CHETAN R MURTHY 02.02.21 at 6:48 am

Wasn’t this the case in the runup to WWII? I remember reading about Fascist movements in various Eastern European countries, and how they had warm relations with each other and with the Nazis. Maybe I’m misremembering.

2

nastywoman 02.02.21 at 7:47 am

@
”It makes intuitive sense to say that the United States should not point fingers at other countries when it has the same problems itself”.

But didn’t the United States have a completely different problem than a country where an election TRULY was… ”rigged”?

3

Tm 02.02.21 at 7:51 am

“I’ve seen the view that Biden’s criticism of the coup is undermined by the fact that the pretext for the coup, a supposedly stolen election, was exactly the same as that raised by Trump and the Republican Party in response to Biden’s 2020 election victory.”

A view that makes no sense whatseoever (who other than open fascists would even entertain such a claim?). What I wonder is to what extent the Myanmar military got the very idea of that coup from Trump’s attempted coup. Not the idea of the Putsch per se of course, which they have done before, but the pretext of election fraud.

“All politics is global”. The remarkable part is that in our time, authoritarian politics is (again) global. Authoritarian, antidemocratic, nationalist, fascist leaders everywhere are looking to each other for inspiration, copying each other’s rhetoric and propaganda, and are close forming an united front against liberal democracy. Ironic since they as nationalists explicitly reject internationalism and cosmopolitism and understand international politics as a war of all against all. But as Chetan points out, this is not without precedent.

4

nastywoman 02.02.21 at 7:59 am

and about :
”All politics is global” –
that’s why nobody likes politics anymore –
(not even Michelle Obama) –
and I support A-political Monarchies – as once upon a time just one Multicultifamily ruled ALL of Europe – and only after ”politics” -(and ”Revolutions”) screwed it up –
WE weren’t ONE FAMILY anymore – and the only way we can solve this problem is by making ”the (British) Queen” the ”Queen” of ALL Europe again.

Right?

5

Max 02.02.21 at 8:28 am

“It’s pretty clear in the US case, that most Republicans will oppose Biden in any dispute with a rightwing dictatorship […]”

I don’t think this is clear at all. During the Trump presidency, congressional Republicans were often closer to their traditional policy views than to those of Trump with regard to NATO, Russia etc.

6

Hidari 02.02.21 at 9:16 am

‘I’ve seen the view that Biden’s criticism of the coup is undermined by the fact that the pretext for the coup, a supposedly stolen election, was exactly the same as that raised by Trump and the Republican Party in response to Biden’s 2020 election victory.’

Really? Who?

Because that would seem to be a staggeringly bizarre thing to say. I can see why people might criticise the Republicans for condemning the coup (assuming they do) as this was the same ‘line’ as they had in the last election, but Biden? That would seem to be an extremely weird argument to make.

7

nastywoman 02.02.21 at 9:24 am

@
”During the Trump presidency, congressional Republicans were often closer to their traditional policy views than to those of Trump with regard to NATO, Russia etc.”

You mean:
”Americans who had developed some kind of ”family-feeling” for their ”friends” –
(and Allies?) – while ”Right-Wing Political Americans” who think that developing friendly feelings for other ”Politicians” of other nations -(if they aren’t nationalistic Right-Wingers too) – is not… ”trumpy” enough?

And I understand that all of this is difficult to understand BUT you HAVE to understand that in America the idiotic narrative that Reactionary Right-Wing Politicians and Bernie are just the same because both are considered to be ”Anti-Mainstream”.

8

Trader Joe 02.02.21 at 2:54 pm

Biden is obviously right to support democracy and an elected government.

That said, was Myanmar’s election ‘stolen’?

Opposing Trump’s rebels was obviously correct because we know the US election wasn’t stolen, but what if went the other way? What if Trump had won and we all strongly suspected that he had stolen it and was quashing an investigation. What then?

I haven’t any notion about the state of politics in Myanmar and my inclination is to support the Nobel prize winner over the army but still, if the election was stolen perhaps the coup isn’t wrong. Most don’t think attempted coups in Syria or Venezuela were wrong. I admit a lack of knowledge here and welcome those with more – I’m just unwilling to rule all coups as automatically ‘wrong’.

9

Mike Furlan 02.02.21 at 3:53 pm

There is the issue at hand, Democracy.

And then there is the larger issue, which is that Biden, and anyone other than the most extreme Fascist politician of the moment is wrong, about everything.

Biden is wrong about _____, for reasons.

Yesterday I heard, “Biden has had a week, why hasn’t he taken care of Covid-19?”

The NYTimes is now fact checking Biden, finds “proclivity to err when speaking off the cuff.”

“… in the US case, that most Republicans will oppose Biden in any dispute …” And the corporate owned media will support them.

10

John Quiggin 02.02.21 at 6:32 pm

Hidari @6 Here’s Blinken

https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-donald-trump-democracy-myanmar-foreign-policy-b655d66e009ca031ad55a76862f9c22c

“I think there’s no doubt that the attack on our own democracy on Jan. 6 creates an even greater challenge for us to be carrying the banner of democracy and freedom and human rights around the world because, for sure, people in other countries are saying to us, ‘Well, why don’t you look at yourselves first?’”

11

torff 02.02.21 at 6:57 pm

This criticism of IR is precisely what gave birth to the field of Global Studies, which takes as given the (at least partially) transnational nature of political, social, cultural, and economic phenomena.

12

Hidari 02.02.21 at 6:59 pm

Ummmm……far be it from me to criticise an OP but that’s not exactly what Blinken is saying. Blinken is just providing boiler plate American Exceptionalism/imperialism.

I read ‘challenge’ to mean ‘responsibility’. In other words, Blinken is obviously arguing against people (i.e. people like me) who might say ‘how dare you prance around the world lecturing the world about democracy, your own government and political system is a total shambles.’

Instead: ‘That adds to the weight on Biden as he seeks to fulfill a campaign pledge to dramatically reposition the U.S. as a global leader’.

And later on: ‘“The United States remains a country in the world that is looked to for leadership,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.’ (glorious use of the passive there. Never was omitting the subject so important).

In short: ‘But it seems strange to say that, having just defeated an attempt to overturn a democratic election in his own country, Biden is in some way disqualified from criticising a similar attempt in Myanmar….’ doesn’t seem to me to be the critique. The critique is, surely, as I said, that the United States’ system is such a disaster that they have no right to lecture anybody about anything, ever, which is of course unarguably true.

‘To the extant that his party supports democracy in the US, it is naturally aligned with supporters of democracy everywhere,’.

Yes, the word ‘naturally’ is doing quite a lot of work here. I think you will also find that the Democrats’ (and, indeed, most American liberals’) definition of democracy is not quite the dictionary one.

But that’s just my opinion.

13

Tm 02.02.21 at 7:07 pm

JQ 10: I may have misinterpreted your earlier statement. I‘m not sure what Blinken really intends with that statement but perhaps this should be taken as political rhetoric?

14

Hidari 02.02.21 at 7:57 pm

@8 The Aung San Suu Kyi whose virtues the corporate media are currently extolling is the same Aung San Suu Kyi whom the same corporate media were accusing of being a genocidal monster exterminating the Rohingya in the murky distant past of (check notes) last year.

Presumably there are corporate and intelligence agency interests at play here to which we plebs are not privy.

15

Kindred Winecoff 02.02.21 at 8:37 pm

“It’s hard to know how our understanding of world politics will change in a world where political cleavages run across national boundaries rather than between them. The very name International Relations presumes the opposite, and the implicit assumptions of the field reflect this.”

This is a solid post otherwise, but this conclusion is a pretty wild overstatement.

16

LFC 02.02.21 at 9:09 pm

It’s hard to know how our understanding of world politics will change in a world where political cleavages run across national boundaries rather than between them. The very name International Relations presumes the opposite, and the implicit assumptions of the field reflect this.

A brief glance at the modern disciplinary history of International Relations, mainly (though not only) in its English-language incarnation, calls this (“implicit assumptions of the field”) into question. In the 1970s there was a wave of scholarship on so-called transnational relations, which among other things criticized the assumption that political cleavages are synchronous with national boundaries, and that wave of scholarship has now been assimilated into the field so that every first-year textbook will make the point in some way or another. Even hard-core realists or others whose work assumes that countries (“nation-states”) are “unitary actors” in a “self-help” world only take this as a simplifying assumption, which most of them admit does not capture empirical reality in its complexities. For every Mearsheimer writing about “great power politics” in a rather traditional vein, there are ten or twenty people in the field of International Relations writing about all kinds of cleavages, forces, and phenomena that transcend or cross national boundaries, from religion to ethnicity to migration to ideologies to corporations to diasporas to sub-state and/or globally focused violence (e.g. terrorist groups), and the list goes on. The International Studies Association (of which I used to be a member but I let my membership lapse) has entire sections devoted to these topics, and if you go to an ISA conference (virtual these days, I suppose) you will find tons of panels addressing them.

Hence, it makes no more sense to refer, without further specification, to “the implicit assumptions” of the field of International Relations than it would to refer, without further specification, to “the implicit assumptions” of the field of Economics.

17

LFC 02.02.21 at 9:16 pm

P.s. Not to mention the people in IR (of which there are some) who write about things like pandemics and global warming.

18

John Quiggin 02.02.21 at 11:11 pm

@16 The switch from “Political Economy” to “Economics” reflected the implicit assumption that the field was being placed on a scientific basis. The naming of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences made that explicit. I think/hope that the level of hubris has retreated a bit since then.

19

LFC 02.03.21 at 2:29 am

JQ @18
Fair enough.

Still, my impression, and it’s no more than that, is that even though “mainstream” economics does have a few shared assumptions, there are obvs. different flavors of economists working from different interests and starting points.

In any case, International Relations, perhaps partly because as an organized academic field it is not as old as many others, has had a marked tendency toward, among other things, navel-gazing and internal debates about what its assumptions, implicit or explicit, should be, more so I suspect than some other fields. The other somewhat odd thing about IR as a field is that in U.S. academia it is usually — not always, but usually — considered part of, or a subdivision of, political science, whereas outside the U.S. it is more often its own freestanding thing. (Kindred Winecoff can explain/discuss all this better than I.)

One final thing of perhaps some interest: the field of IR, esp though not only in the U.S., has some of its origins — not much talked about until fairly recent years — in racist worldviews of the early C20th, on which see, e.g., R. Vitalis, White World Order, Black Power Politics (Cornell UP, 2015).

20

Ebenezer Scrooge 02.03.21 at 2:57 am

@18: History is the queen of the social sciences. Economics is finally following the historians, and becoming empirical and self-distrusting. It might become as scientific as history sometime in the next 30 years.

21

nastywoman 02.03.21 at 4:23 am

@
”Ummmm……far be it from me to criticise an OP but that’s not exactly what Hidari is saying. Hidari is just providing boiler plate American Exceptionalism/imperialism.

Okay!! –
so – no more joking – Hidari and I take it ALL back with this ”Monarchy” Nonsense –
(even if it made kind of sense to say ”ALL family is Glaobal”) – if YOU stop calling your own words ”boilerplate” just because YOUR own words are just another version of Blinken’s words – and isn’t it time for all of US to consider – that it is REALLY ”strange” to say that, having just defeated an attempt to overturn a democratic election in his own country, Biden is in some way disqualified from criticising a similar attempt in Myanmar?!

22

John Quiggin 02.03.21 at 4:34 am

@LFC and KW Thanks for interesting responses. I can never tell which parts of a post are likely to attract attention, favorable or otherwise!

23

Felicia Patch 02.03.21 at 5:41 am

i think the folks in the US Foreign Service are on top of messaging. i also suspect that they understand that cleavages in ideology, tactics, and groups cross national boundaries, as has been talked about in the field for decades.

One diplomat wrote this after the Jan 6 Capitol riot:

“This morning, as America tries to make sense of what happened yesterday, we as diplomats are trying to make sense of what we say to the world about yesterday’s events, and America generally.

I am reminded of the most remarkable speech I’ve heard in my foreign service career. I was in my second tour, serving as a political officer in Cambodia. It was July 4, 2006 and it was the first Independence Day reception we were holding in our brand-new embassy, a symbol of our enduring commitment to the Cambodian people. Cambodia then – as now – had amazing and resilient people who had survived genocide and were working to rebuild their society. Cambodia then – as now – faced grave challenges to its democracy – an authoritarian ruler who had been in power for decades, restrictions on press freedom, harassment and arrests of political opponents and civil society leaders. We wanted to encourage the Cambodian people to believe in and work for democracy. We wanted to challenge Cambodian leaders to respect human rights and uphold rule of law. But America was in the midst of its own crisis. The Abu Ghraib scandal had shown American servicemembers humiliating and torturing Iraqi prisoners. It demonstrated that we did not consistently uphold the very values that we espoused. What could we say?

That day, Amb. Joe Mussomeli spoke about the fragility of democracy. He highlighted the strength and resilience of the Cambodian people, and outlined the challenges that the country faced and the steps needed to overcome them. Then, in a tone of humility and solidarity, he described the challenges that the U.S. had faced over its history in preserving democracy and respecting the human rights of its citizens. He spoke about the Alien and Sedition Acts and the shameful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. He spoke about McCarthyism and how so many fine American leaders and government officials were unfairly vilified in a witch hunt that mesmerized the country. He described the long and uncompleted road to civil rights for Black Americans. He talked about how important it was for Cambodians to continue to work for democracy, speaking not because the U.S. had an unblemished record in preserving our own democracy, but precisely because we had battled against challenges of our own so many times. This is hard, he said. We know. We are with you.

The day after the President inspired an armed mob to storm the Capitol and attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, this must be our message too. In case there was any lingering doubt, yesterday was the final, dramatic ending to the notion of American exceptionalism. We can no longer imply that other countries should listen to us because of our untarnished record of defending democracy and civil rights. We can no longer pretend that police treat black and white protesters the same. We are not the City on the Hill that we have wanted to be.

And yet, even after yesterday’s events, we are still a country that strives to live up to those ideals. We are a country where members of Congress – just hours after being threatened by violent protesters – returned to the Capitol and stayed until 3:45am to certify the results of the presidential election. We are the country where the Georgia Secretary of State patiently and respectfully rejected presidential pressure to falsify the election results, even though it meant that his own party would lose power. We are the country where voters danced in the street while standing in hours-long lines to vote, and black sororities strolled to the polls. We are the country that just elected a Jewish American and a Black American to Congress in a state that was once the heart of the confederacy. We are the country where a Catholic president and a Black and Indian female vice president will be sworn into office on January 20.

We are not a country that has figured everything out and can speak to others from a position of supreme moral authority. We are a country that has been and continues to be engaged in the struggle of trying to become what we imagine ourselves to be. When we speak to foreign audiences around the globe, we can’t offer them the assurance of a tried-and-true path to perfect democracy. But we can offer them what we have learned along our own journey, and our commitment to get up every morning and continue the fight no matter the obstacles. It is hard, we can tell them. We know. We are with you.”

24

Hidari 02.03.21 at 7:54 am

‘a symbol of our enduring commitment to the Cambodian people’.

Is this…..is this…..a joke?

https://www.historycentral.com/Vietnam/cambodia.html

https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/pol/pilgerpolpotnus.pdf

Another point that is not strictly relevant: but perhaps literary scholars can elucidate: there’s a very specific tone to American imperialistic discourse, humourless, pompous, pretentious yet (under pressure) hysterical. It’s difficult to define, but easy to spot. Needless to say when some American starts wittering on about their moral authority or global leadership I always imagine the writer occasionally standing up from their laptop to put their hand on their chest and gaze off into the middle distance at a fluttering American flag, just in front of the setting sun.

Also be aware of the imperial ‘we’. Always stop and ask: sorry who is ‘we’?

25

Tm 02.03.21 at 8:06 am

Hidari 14 (2/2/2021): “The Aung San Suu Kyi whose virtues the corporate media are currently extolling is the same Aung San Suu Kyi whom the same corporate media were accusing of being a genocidal monster”

I don’t read the corporate media much, especially not anything from the Murdoch empire definitely the most corporate of the corporate media). But I have the impression that Hidari could find better news sources if he wanted to (and these are free, I’m not quoting NYT because of paywall):

ABC News 2/1/2021: “While Suu Kyi had been a fierce antagonist of the army while under house arrest, since her release and return to politics, she has had to work with the country’s generals, who never fully gave up power. While the 75-year-old has remained wildly popular at home, Suu Kyi’s deference to the generals — going so far as to defend their crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that the United States and others have labeled genocide — has left her reputation internationally in tatters.”
https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/reports-military-coup-myanmar-suu-kyi-detained-75602314

Vox 2/2/2021: “Atrocities against the Rohingya and others happened during Myanmar’s flirtation with democracy, during the tenure of Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi was Myanmar’s champion for democracy, the famous daughter of the man who helped win the country’s independence. For her activism, the military placed her under house arrest in the late 1980s until 2010. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her pro-democracy efforts, and as the country took steps toward democratization, she became its de facto civilian leader in 2015.

Those steps were tentative, however, and incomplete. Once in her role, Suu Kyi deferred to the military, which still retained significant power under the new arrangement. As the crackdown against the Rohingya intensified, she received international criticism for her silence. She has referred to evidence of atrocities as “fake news” and framed the crackdown as operations against terrorism. In 2019, she defended Myanmar against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.

Suu Kyi was — and is — extraordinarily popular within Myanmar, but her refusal to condemn specifically the treatment of the Rohingya showed the fault lines in Myanmar’s democratic experiment.”
https://www.vox.com/22260213/myanmar-coup-rohingya-genocide

26

Tm 02.03.21 at 8:22 am

JQ: “When religion was the big dividing line in Europe, Protestants and Catholics looked to co-religionists for support against rulers of the opposite creed, regardless of state boundaries.”

On the other hand, the Protestant princes allied with Catholic France against the Catholic Emperor. But let’s not get into quibbles… What is interesting perhaps is that ironically, the religious wars of that era helped give birth to the modern nation state in that the state gained the power to determine the religion within its boundaries, which promoted ideological homogeneity in those proto-nation states.

27

Tm 02.03.21 at 8:24 am

… of course, the modern liberal state has long given up that claim on ideological homogeneity of its population, which is precisely what distinguishes liberal democrats from authoritarian nationalists.

28

John Quiggin 02.03.21 at 8:55 am

Following up @22, I spent a lot of time worrying about Democrats/democrats, but the point that “International Relations” presumed that nations were the primary actors seemed to me to be undeniable. Just goes to show.

29

bad Jim 02.03.21 at 9:31 am

Felicia Patch, oh! Ow! Oh wow!

Caliban:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse.

So the exponential increase in processing power, wiring the globe with fiber and cable, providing instantaneous high-fidelity connection almost everywhere…

has left us almost where we started, balanced on a knife-edge between democracy and autocracy, facts in dispute, even the notion of a shared reality in shreds. Popular delusions have if anything become even crazier.

Once upon a time people had to pore over their copies of the Bible, a single book, to tease out clues about when the world would end (spoiler alert: two thousand years ago; Paul et al said real soon now). Now we have as many divergent apocalypses as we can bookmark, who also say the world will end real soon now; as ever, the conviction that we’ll experience the end is especially compelling.

Which is to say what? That not much has changed in my lifetime. There are some still ranting about communism. I’m not sure how new the pedophilia panic is; it probably predates me. The fixed thought that there is a great evil is always enthralling.

30

Gorgonzola Petrovna 02.03.21 at 10:50 am

“To the extant that his party supports democracy in the US, it is naturally aligned with supporters of democracy everywhere, and against supporters of dictatorship, both at home and abroad.”

Whatever it means, hopefully the party bosses are pragmatists who don’t care about this sort of thing. It’s dangerous to believe your own propaganda.

31

Kindred Winecoff 02.04.21 at 8:24 am

I truly apologize for raising an issue and then disappearing. We’re at the start of our semester over here, and that’s always a busy time, so that’s my excuse.

In any case, I do agree with most of the substance of JQ’s post here, but I still insist (as I have occasionally done in response to his arguments for years now) that his impressions of International Relations are quite out of date even as caricature.

Which is not to say that IR does not merit critique. Lots of issues here, etc.

32

John Quiggin 02.04.21 at 9:41 pm

Thanks for this Kindred. I didn’t mean to suggest that the field of International Relations is now dominated by a model of interactions between atomic nation-states. I was just saying that this view is implicit in the name of the field, and was taken for granted in the past. At some point, perhaps, some other name such as “Global Studies” mentioned above might supersede IR.

33

Tm 02.06.21 at 8:46 am

Excellent news: Biden ends US support for Yemen war.

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