The ancient Greeks and Plato had this idea of the philosopher kings. In their kingdom, the people enjoyed all freedoms and were governed by wise, benevolent rulers—and by them alone. In practice, this never happened because every supposedly benevolent ruler eventually came to a point where he saw his power under threat. If he is unwilling to share power, he cannot allow demonstrations, the founding of parties, or critical opinions. He needs to curtail the freedom of his citizens.
Today, autocratic tendencies are intensifying worldwide, with China under president Xi Jinping often being seen as a vanguard. The economic success of the People’s Republic has made autocracy a real option for some states. Even in the EU, where membership criteria prescribe a stable democracy, undemocratic values are experiencing a revival in states like Poland and Hungary, as well as in the thought of right-wing populist parties.
Paradoxically, in order to sustain their power, autocrats will resort to means usually associated with liberty and democracy. Take elections as an example. Virtually every autocratic state holds elections to uphold the pretense of participation, transforming people and opposition into accomplices. Whoever doesn’t play along becomes a target. A second example is internet access. In China, for instance, almost everything is being handled online. This renders life more convenient, but the state is eavesdropping, censoring, and intervening when it gets critical. Moreover, cooperation among autocracies has tightened. They join forces and help one another cope with sanctions.
The rise of autocracy has surprised many. After the fall of the Soviet Union, political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history”. He thought that sooner or later, every state on the globe will eventually democratize and people will live freely and in peace. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a premature assumption. It gives us a headache to think about the many people who still do not possess the right to speak and act freely. Our wish is to overcome the remaining autocracies one day. And to overcome them, we need to understand them.
Note: This text was originally published in the latest issue of Leibniz magazine. Read it in German here.
At the turn of the millennium, France had the best healthcare system in the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and it became a Global Health leader by contributing to setting up and funding key Global Health initiatives, such as UNITAID and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Almost two decades later, the government faces an unprecedented strike in the emergency services, while experts worried about the decrease in French expertise and influence in Global Health. France’s health leadership thus seems to be challenged both at the national and international level. This parallel is quite striking because, traditionally, the Global Health literature is blind to health development in donors’ countries. Rather it studies primarily interventions by high-income countries in the Global South. In this blog post, I want to understand how these domestic and foreign health issues can be related through an analysis of the French case.
In this new episode of our interview series, our host Jakob Angeli talks to Prof.Dr. Jonas Tallberg, professor of Political Science at Stockholm University.
Listen in, as they discuss the legitimacy of international organizations, whether we are currently witnessing a crisis in global governance as well as Tallberg’s favourite books both in and outside Political Science.
Find an abridged transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:
Students at a ‘Fridays For Future’ protest march in Invalidenpark, Berlin [Mika Baumeister/unsplash]
‘Basically nothing is being done to halt—or even slow—climate and ecological breakdown, despite all the beautiful words and promises’. Greta Thunberg’s damning speech before the UK parliament last month highlights that the greatest challenge to international climate agreements is inaction by governments. The Swedish climate activist’s central message was: ‘You did not act in time’.
“A first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment” – when NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine took to Twitter to express his admiration in early January, it wasn’t to laud the most recent accomplishment of his own agency. Quite the contrary: Bridenstine congratulated China, one of the United States’ emerging competitors in the domain of space exploration, for successfully landing a probe on the far side of the moon – a feat that none of the traditional space powers has ever accomplished.
Five decades after Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the lunar surface, not everyone might share Bridenstine’s excitement over an unmanned moon landing. Yet, China’s successful mission undoubtedly constitutes a break in the geopolitics of outer space. By performing an unprecedented and highly sophisticated operation, China made an announcement to the world: We’re in space, too, and we’re here to stay. And indeed: In the years ahead, China plans to cement its status as space power through further missions, including a crewed mission to the moon that is planned for as early as the 2030s.
But there’s more to China’s moon landing than simply a desire for international prestige. Interest in the moon’s resources, in particular water, rare earths, and the potential energy source helium-3, has surged in recent years, fuelling the imaginations of governments and private enterprises alike. In the view of many observers, future manned landings will only serve as the precursor for the establishment of permanent lunar bases, which in turn could be used as gateways for both mining operations and exploration missions into deep space. While likely still years away, the prospect of a permanent Chinese presence on the moon has sparked calls for the U.S. to step up its own space program – in order not to play second fiddle to China in an emerging space race.
Given its object of study, one would think that the field of International Relations would be a particularly cosmopolitan and ecumenical discipline. In many ways it is. But in some respects it resembles a collection of warring tribes. This has probably declined somewhat since the Big Debates of the 1990s—the Neo-Neo Debate, epistemology wars between neo-positivists and ‘critical’ theorists—which still provide many of the key readings for students of IR theory. But these Big Debates didn’t really end in a definitive victory for one side. They mostly gave way to a Cold Peace amongst relatively insular scholarly communities. Well they maybe did – it’s hard to know for sure.
One of the interesting phenomena about how IR scholars talk about their field and their tribe is that they often refer to it as ‘mainstream’. Often, this is done by those who feel they are outside of the mainstream. (Interestingly, there does not appear to be an accepted metaphor to refer to those who are not part of the mainstream – backwaters? Counter-currents?) But what does this mainstream consist of?
Following Frank Nullmeier’s review of “A Theory of Global Governance” (TOGG) in our previous blogpost, Michael Zürn responds to some of the remarks made by the author. Is TOGG deficient because it does not focus on decision shaping through global capitalism or on power relations between multinationals and child labor? No, he argues, because TOGG is a theory about the effects of the system of global political institutions and does not seek to answer questions about IR in general or provide a new theory of the World Society. Instead, it shows how extra-political relations of power and dominance impact the political system and become institutionalized therein. Lastly, the image of the Owl of Athena that only sets out at dusk is somewhat inaccurate as a comparison, Zürn claims. TOGG does not merely look backwards and assess the strength of Global Governance as it emerged in the 1990s – it examines why this system is on the brink of the abyss, while simultaneously asking for the conditions under which it may survive in the future. Read the whole German article here.
In his post, which originally appeared on Theorieblog, Frank Nullmeier critically examines Michael Zürn’s “A theory of Global Governance”, published in 2018 by Oxford University Press. The “Global Governance System” (GGS), as proposed by Zürn, is based on the exertion of global authority primarily through international organizations, whose political and epistemic authority has grown substantially over the past thirty years, even though they only act within a certain policy area. The consequences are severe legitimacy problems of the GGS. Nullmeier analyses the theoretical implications of such a vantage point, arguing that focusing on normative integration of international organizations comes at the expense of questions of state power, violence, and economic struggles, which are regarded as exogenous. Read the full article in German here.
For lack of a better term– or for reasons of inexactitude– scholars have zeroed in on the term ‘backlash’ to describe our current political moment. I would like to take some time to unpack this historically, and to offer some tentative thoughts on how to re-frame contestation as distinct from mere ‘backlash’. To begin with, a ‘backlash’ is defined as a strong negative reaction to a social or political development. It often harkens back to a fabled past and represents an attempt to reclaim a set of privileges. Images of segregationists in the American South come to mind. And yet, not all those who contest the current order are reactionary. In fact, many social movements are born from a desire to emancipate. The concept of a ‘backlash’ precludes this possibility. It articulates a subtle suspicion of those who would question prevailing orthodoxies, regardless of the substance of their critique or the manner with which they engage politically.
In framing contestation as a ‘backlash’ we accept the grand narrative of a liberal teleology. That is, the almost evangelical belief in a rules-based international order, which privileges markets and individual autonomy. For better or worse, we are told that there are no real alternatives. This is a lethal form of intellectual inertia: it sanitizes politics and immobilizes debate precisely when we need it most.
Diffusion is known as a process that ties together the centers of the world ever more closely. Once the privatization of water supply made it on the international agenda, privatization soon became a topic in capitals all over the world. Once it becomes the world standard to have a ministry for digital affairs, governments around the world will establish such an organization. Still, there is another and more hidden network of diffusion: diffusion that connects the world’s peripheries – sites of marginalized populations both in the Global South and the Global North. Here, an innovation does not move between the centers of power; it moves between the peripheries forgotten by the centers.
Dental therapists in the US are a case in point of such peripheral diffusion. They deliver basic dental services to underserved populations in peripheries, services that are normally delivered by dentists. Dental therapists work around the world in sites that are considered underserved. The profession was first established for dental services to schoolchildren in New Zealand in the 1920s, following bad health status of recruits. Now, there are dental therapists in 53 countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe. In the US, they were introduced for the first time in Alaskan Native communities. Currently, the dental therapist movement is introducing this profession in peripheries all over the US.
This movement and the spread of dental therapists in the US draw attention to important features of peripheral diffusion in a globalized world.