Monday, February 26, 2007

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The vocabulary of international relations

Over at Duck of Minerva, Patrick Jackson asks a very good question:

I am considering for my introductory World Politics class in the Fall. I call it "IR Vocabulary," and the basic idea is to split students into pairs and have each pair go off and find consensus definitions of key IR terms, My intuition here is that in order to have a good discussion about world politics, there are some basic terms that we need to know; some of these terms are more or less empirical and refer to objects in the world, while others are more or less conceptual and refer to ways of making sense of those objects. [Yes, yes, this is an unstable distinction; yes, empirical terms are conceptual and vice versa . . . but there is still a difference, if only a difference of degree, between a term like 'the balance of power' and a term like 'the Security Council.']

So here's my question for all of you: if you were going to draw up a list of twenty key terms that people ought to have working definitions of in order to sensibly and meaningfully talk about world politics, what would they be? What is the basic vocabulary that people have to know before they can start in with the arguing and the debating and the pondering?

Click on over to give your answers. Of the top of my head, mine are below, split 50-50 between empirical and conceptual:
Treaty Peace of Westphalia
July 1914
Bretton Woods
Security Council
Cold War
European Union
globalization (admittedly, could go in either category)

balance of power
security dilemma
prisoner's dilemma
credible commitment
offense/defense balance

UPDATE: I've fixed the Westphalia term, because there actually is no Treaty of Westphalia. I knew this, but was sloppy about it in the post. Apologies.

posted by Dan on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM


Empirical: OSCE, geneva concentions
Conceptual: Force Multiplier

posted by: Eric Blagadoush on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

For people to talk sensibly and meaningfully about international relations, the most important concept they must understand is Zathrasianism. I'm not sure I see how there could even be an argument about that.

Otherwise I would suggest "human rights," "unipolarity" (a better, beause more specific, word than hegemony), and perhaps most importantly "American national interests." At the moment I would say we ought to be giving at least as much thought to whether a commitment is sustainable over a long period of time as we to do to whether it is credible over a short period of time.

In the empirical category I think one probably must include 9/11; that wouldn't have been possible ten years ago, and may not be necessary ten years from now, but right now 9/11 is the decisive influence on national security policy in the United States and on foreign policy in many other countries. The other item in that category would have to be the Shanghai Communique, currently the most important agreement about the most difficult issue between the two most significant countries.

posted by: Zathras on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

Yes, "polarity" in Waltz's "structural" sense should be added. Even if you don't think his basic structure matters all that much, you need to consider his notion that it does--that it colors, pervades, sets paremeters for, a great deal that occurs between nations.

Then, if you accept this point, or merely on raw empirical grounds, notice should be given to the emergence, c. 1990, of unipolarity/the demise of the only great power that could begin to match the United States--the collapse of the Soviet empire, first of the loss of east Germany and five countries of central Europe, then of the Ukraine and the other SSRs. When the map is redrawn that drastically, the events behind it deserve listing.

posted by: JStrauss on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

I would at, at a minimum, deterrence to the conceptual category. If you had to take one out, it would be "reputation."

posted by: Seth Weinberger on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

"Credible commitment" and "reputation" are too closely related, delete "credible commitment" for undergraduates.

I'm struck by the dominance of international security among concepts. How about "law of comparative advantage"? If the kids understand that, you can teach them any other IPE topic.

How many of the concepts have active research communities? No more than half, I think. That's interesting in itself.

Nitpick: apostrophe should be "prisoners' dilemma" since there are two prisoners.

posted by: arthur on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

I would substitute "Balfour Declaration" (or for "Peace of Westphalia".

posted by: asg on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

re: twenty magic words


1. Greeks' War with Troy & with Persia - Homer & Herodotus, Pelopponesian War - Thucydides
2. Alexander the Great - Hellenistic Period
3. Pax Romana, Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantines
4. Arab Empire, Caliphate, Ottoman Empire, Crusades, Byzantines, Islam, Judaism at War
5. Italian City States - Machiavelli, the Prince & Discourses on Livy
6. Holy Roman Empire - Neither Holy Nor Roman Nor an Empire - the Hapsburgs, Spain and the Discovery of the Americas - Imperial France & Louis XIV's plans for European hegemony
7. Africa - Slave Trade - Spain, England, Dutch, French, Americas and Colonialism in the New World and the Far East and Africa - Imperialism
8. Napoleon - Congress of Vienna 1815 - Reforms of Napoleon- Rise of Nationalisms-Breakup of Ottoman Empire and emergence of independent kingdoms of eastern europe and independent italy and a united Germany
9. WWI - Treaty of Versaille, Treaty of Sevres, Treaty of Lausannes and the Anglo-Iraqi War of 1919-22, the Greco-Turkish War of 1920-22, the Chanack Crisis of 1922 and the making of the modern middle east by 1923 with the emergence of modern Turkey and the fashioning of the protectorates and the signing of the various oil deals. Fourteen Points, Versailles, failures of American mandates and ratification here.
10. WWII and the ratification of Bretton Woods/UN and the post WWII multilateral regime.

II. ten conceps

1. polar/bipolar/multipolar
2. hegemony
3. unilateral/bilateral/multilateral
4. balance of power
5. interdependence
6. diplomacy and non-warlike measures
7. "war as politics by other means" - clausewitz
8. creating a stable postwar regime (Congress of Vienna, Bretton Woods/UN, etc., Pax Romana, etc.)
9. Bargaining scenarios, Nash Bargaining problem, Game Theory, Utilitarian Theory, Microeconomics as it pertains to game theory & bargaining scenarios under conditions of uncertainty or limited certainty
10. National Ideology & National Identity (German); Supranational ideology & Supranational Identity (pan-Turkism).

--arthur j kyriazis, philly

posted by: arthur john kyriazis on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

Not being an IR person, these are the conceptual things that have confused me that I think would be helpful to have explained:

Commerce and Trade: Zero-sum game?

War: It's "illegal" now and everything warlike has another name. We are merely "using force" in Iraq, IIRC. Is this good, bad, useful, not?

Multilateralism: Why does the UN count but the "coalition of the willing" doesn't?

Supply/Demand and Substitution: Why is a gas tax necessary? Why does stability in the ME matter? (i.e. isn't instability in the ME more-or-less the same as a gas tax with respect to finding alternatives to oil?)

Creditable Commitment seems worth keeping. It is highly relevant to the current situation (e.g. Who wants to lay odds on Japan getting nukes if we pull out of Iraq in the next 5 years). cf my NATO comment a few posts up.

Hari Seldon and the limits of theory.

posted by: mrsizer on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

Identity what? Like national identity? I didn't know that was a concept of IR.

posted by: bjadk on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]


Over here at Georgetown it turns out that the faculty in IR all have different definitions of what it is. And the differences are consequential for how you then conceptualize and understand international politics.

E.g., is it lack of a centralized, authoritative government, or lack of political order itself?

posted by: Kate on 02.26.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

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