Big think: Big deal?

I was happy to see yes­ter­day a post by Phil Arena on his (coau­thored) paper he & co. will be pre­sent­ing at Peace Science in a few weeks. I won’t be at the con­fer­ence, so it is always good to see research pub­li­cized from PSS, which unfor­tu­nately has yet to offer some sort of doc­u­ment retrieval sys­tem. I watched an inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion last night on Twitter among Arena, OSU’s Braumoeller, and UNC’s Winecoff that explored the idea of the inter­na­tional sys­tem as part of a model, which is of course a sub­ject dear to my own heart.

My main point in post­ing here is throw­ing some sup­port for Arena & co. for their work, which I find very inter­est­ing. (I also haven’t had a chance to men­tion that I really like what he’s doing with mea­sur­ing mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties.) I also have two points I wanted to raise here, since I was headed to bed when I caught the con­ver­sa­tion last night and didn’t feel like butting in mid­way through. First, I want to com­ment on the model in Arena’s post directly, and sec­ond I want to address the broader ques­tion of think­ing of the rela­tion­ship between the inter­na­tional sys­tem and “big think” in International Relations.

Modeling “the system”

Arena only sum­ma­rizes the bare bones of the model’s set-​​up, but essen­tially it cre­ates a world in which two units (not nec­es­sar­ily states, which is refresh­ing), A and B, each of which may or may not be sup­ported by major pow­ers C and D, respec­tively. (Unfortunately, from the post, it is not clear whether they account for the pos­si­bil­ity of war between C and D as a result of their intervention.)

C and D are defined as major pow­ers, but they are oper­a­tional­ized as the most and second-​​most pow­er­ful mem­bers of the sys­tem (based on Arena’s new mea­sure of capa­bil­i­ties). This bipo­lar set-​​up is my main issue here. Bipolarity lasted for a rel­a­tively brief time of major power pol­i­tics, about 40 of the 200 years of the mod­ern era.

What will bipo­lar mod­els tell us about the future, which may see the involve­ment of ris­ing pow­ers? A model of much of African inter­na­tional pol­i­tics would have to include China, the European Union, and now, it seems, even Brazil as major eco­nomic play­ers. China is also invest­ing in Latin America, his­tor­i­cally firmly within the American sphere. As ties con­tinue to develop among mul­ti­ple loci of eco­nomic power, the impli­ca­tions for mod­el­ing the geostrate­gic inter­na­tional sys­tem as a four-​​player game pile up.

This is not to say that the model Arena & co. pro­pose is not use­ful; in fact, my con­cern with the model qua model is the com­plex­ity, which Arena admits: “the rela­tion­ship between the actors’ capa­bil­i­ties and the like­li­hood of war is very com­plex.” (Indeed, I per­son­ally still grap­ple with two-​​player games.) But if the point is that war between A and B is more likely “if B has a bet­ter esti­mate of the like­li­hood that C will inter­vene on his behalf than does A,” then would the fact that C may be a choice of sev­eral poten­tial sup­port­ers, each with unique prob­a­bil­i­ties of inter­ven­ing, pro­duce sim­i­lar results? (I’m hon­estly ask­ing here.)

To sum up, I love the idea of mod­el­ing major power involve­ment in sub­sys­tem pol­i­tics rather than treat­ing their rela­tion­ship as the sys­tem, but I am con­cerned over whether doing so pushes us beyond still con­ceiv­ing the sys­tem as the rela­tion­ship between the two strongest powers.

Small world, big system?

A more gen­eral issue I want to briefly address is the idea of the­o­riz­ing about the inter­na­tional sys­tem as doing “big think” in IR. I was lucky to sit in on an inter­est­ing panel at ISA2012 in San Diego on the end of IR the­ory, and the dis­cus­sion focused on the shift in IR from big the­o­riz­ing to nor­mal sci­ence, or the test­ing of the major the­o­ries pro­posed over the last half century.

Arena asked in a tweet announc­ing his post whether this work is “big think.” The responses indi­cated that system-​​as-​​independent-​​variable qual­i­fies work as big think (although also hav­ing it as depen­dent vari­able would push it even fur­ther). While Waltz cer­tainly estab­lished the par­a­digm that IR the­o­rists should be think­ing about the inter­na­tional sys­tem, I am not con­vinced what the sys­tem really tells us in a non­po­lar world (a topic I still have yet to find time to think out loud about).

If A and B in Arena & co.‘s model all non­state actors, then do they care, or even know, if a great power or two will inter­vene? Did the pro­tes­tors in Egypt or Syria? (Marc Lynch tried to make big think sense of the Arab Spring, but to lit­tle avail.) Not to men­tion, what if A is a major power, such as Russia, agi­tated with a neigh­bor (Georgia) or a region (Chechnya)?

As I have been forced to seri­ously con­sider my over­all approach to polit­i­cal sci­ence and par­tic­u­larly the study of inter­na­tional pol­i­tics due to being on the mar­ket, it has become more and more evi­dent to me that the more I think about the inter­na­tional sys­tem, the more I think about inter­na­tional units and sub­units. If wars are more fre­quent though over­all less fatal, as Arena points out, then does that mean we are mov­ing away from major, large wars fought by major, large units? If so, should we still focus on great power pol­i­tics as the source of under­stand­ing inter­na­tional pol­i­tics? I agree with Arena & co.‘s con­clu­sion that “it is inap­pro­pri­ate to focus strictly on the inci­dence of major power war if we are to under­stand the impli­ca­tions of major power pol­i­tics,” but I would push the point even fur­ther. It may be inap­pro­pri­ate to focus strictly on the involve­ment of major pow­ers if we are to under­stand the inter­na­tional system.

What does that mean for big think in IR? Sorry, I’m still work­ing on that one.

Your thoughts?