Last week I attended a lecture by Stephen Walt on Why simplistic hypothesis testing is bad for International Relations.1 The lecture took place at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg (VA) were I am currently residing as a visiting scholar. Walt’s talk was based on an article that he co-authored with John Mearsheimer for the EJIR special issue on The End of IR Theory, 2013. While Walt made some convincing arguments about the steady increase of non-theory driven big data analysis and how they change IR as a discipline, I was rather nauseated by his unreflected conception of theorizing as virtue.
Yesterday, Bob Keohane gave a lecture at the Berlin Social Science Research Center (WZB). He presented a new paper co-authored with Julia Morse, who is a PhD candidate at Princeton. (Keohane, in case you somehow don’t know, is famous for his work on neoliberal institutionalism / the cooperation paradigm.)
Instead of summarizing the talk step-by-step, I’ll be a bit lazy and point you to the WZB’s announcement of the event:
“Counter-multilateralism” is an apt phrase to describe a pervasive contemporary phenomenon: the strategic use of multilateral institutions to challenge the rules, practices, or missions of multilateral institutions. States and non-state actors, intergovernmental organizations or non-governmental organizations form coalitions that respond to dissatisfaction by combining threats of exit, voice, and the creation of alternative institutions.
Keohane and Morse essentially claim two things:
- International politics is mainly about “cooperation in a crowded institutional space” (instead of, say, anarchy). That means that for any given problem, there will probably be a high degree of existing institutionalization, i.e. international regimes and/or organizations in place.
- When actors are dissatisfied with the status quo (and can’t change it from within), they will try to form a coalition in order to establish another institution that better suits their interests (instead of trying to act unilaterally).
In reference to the late Albert Hirschman, Keohane argued that actors will try to amplify their potential voice by “using multilateralism against itself”. This act of “counter-multilateralism” (“C-M”) can take one of two forms: Regime shifting (the coalition pushes issue X from institution A to institution B) or competitive regime creation (the coalition creates institution C to take over from A).
Keohane then gave a number of examples of successful and failed attempts for both types. Together with the remarks by the WZB’s Sonia Alonso (who was the first discussant), these cases did a good job of illustrating the many faces of counter-multilateralism and that Keohane’s framework offers a useful typology.
Nonetheless, the talk fell a bit short compared to the claims in the abstract:
[These coalitions’] intention is not merely to choose different venues for collective action (“forum-shopping”) but to change the practices or restrict the authority of the status quo institutions. (…) What are the condition that tend to generate counter-multilateralism? What does counter-multilateralism mean for Global Governance?
First, it’s not entirely clear to me how counter-multilateralism differs from forum-shopping and just general bargaining strategies. What’s the value added by using the concept? Also, there are some analytical problems. If the coalition’s demands are met before they really pursue the exit option, how will we know C-M when we see it? And in case it really comes to either regime shifting or competitive creation, what happens next?
Second, the conditions under which Keohane predicts C-M aren’t exactly precise: Actors need to be dissatisfied with the status quo (but just how much?), perceive C-M as a viable option (based on what?), and in order to succeed they should be powerful (how powerful?). Overall, C-M will become more common (to what effect?), as global politics are highly institutionalized while power is very dispersed (really?) and acting unilaterally is just not what states do anymore (really?)…
Don’t get me wrong: I think this is a great framework to think about the dynamics of international institutions. It’s just that – from what we’ve heard yesterday – Keohane seems to offer “just” a typology, but neither testable hypotheses nor precise indicators. I’m looking forward to the paper(s) on this idea.
Apart from teaching me a lot of interesting things, last week’s conference showcased the whole range of academic presenting. Now that I have witnessed some U.S. variants of familiar European patterns, I feel confident enough to attempt a typology of what could be called the Varieties of Powerpoint.
-1- The Wall-of-Text Orthodox
Unfortunately, this is the bread-and-butter type of presentation, at least in European settings. Usually it involves slides using the respective institution’s (slightly old-fashioned) corporate design, very few images in a comically low resolution, and lots of text. If you’re particularly unlucky, this text will then be read out loud by the presenter.
In any case, he or she will have a hard time getting through all of the 23 full-text slides, leading to a dizzying whirl of words when skipping through “the less important points here”. The good thing here is that, if you were to miss the talk (e.g. because you were sleeping) but could then acquire a copy of the slides, you would still know more or less everything of importance in the paper. Of course, the downside of this style of presenting is that you actually might doze off…
Pros: If you don’t want to read the paper, you’ll find the money quotes here
Cons: Boring; no added value of having slides; you either fall asleep or get angry
Bonus point: If there’s a single “funny” thank-you image on the last slide
Who does it? Mostly the Germans
I’m very sorry about the lack of posts. Here’s a brief updates with first impressions from the ISA Convention in San Francisco:
- Twitter: Check out the Tweets using the #ISA2013 hashtag! There’s a wild mix of funny and/or insightful stuff going around.
- Jet-lag jinx: Yesterday I proudly told everyone how I’m not jet-lagged at all. And I wasn’t. Today I woke up at 5 am, thinking that I really need to write something for the blog, and then couldn’t sleep anymore. Bad karma?
- Varieties of Powerpoint: The very first panel I saw had them all. The over-achiever, with fancy slides like in a TED Talk, who unfortunately failed to get to his results before the time ran out. The German academic with classic wall-of-text slides. And the pro, with slides so well done that I got self-conscious about my own… wish me luck!
- Attendance: The conference dynamics are a mystery to me. The aforementioned panel had a pretty famous discussant and I was sure a lot of people would show up. In the end, a crowd of 8 was listening to 7 panelists. I’ll try to improve my forecasting skills in that regard.
- People currently in Berlin, please stop reading now.
- Weather: Sunshine! We had lunch outside! Palm trees and blue sky! No matter how the conference will go the next three days, the trip was worth it…
(Tip of the hat to Kai S., who provided at least 50% of the idea for the image above.)