Lashings of Insight: Tid-bits from the Brain Food Buffet (I)

Last month I spent five days at the 50th annual conference of the International Studies Association (ISA) in New York City.

I make a point of participating in this sprawling brain food buffet most years, and although the intensity and pace of the program can be exhausting , with 40-50 simultaneous panels, five times per day over four days, it does provide a comprehensive snapshot of academic thinking about most things international at a given point in time.

In that respect, this year’s event was perhaps especially interesting in the wake of the recent arrival of the Obama administration in the USA. The expectations that have been engendered by the heavy rotation of the “hope and change” agenda, both during the long campaign and after, are enormous. Will the new government be able to deliver as advertised? Or will expectations have to be managed and downsized?

With these, and many other issues in mind, I attended many sessions on global order and US foreign policy. Following are some of my summary observations. Processed, condensed, and unattributed, they are intended less as a record of the proceedings than as points for further discussion and debate:

  • US foreign policy will be both framed, and constrained by economic crisis, the depth and duration of which remain unclear, but menacing
  • Obama’s powerful message of hope and change is very different in tone from that of his predecessor, but could lead to an “expectations gap” which will be tough to bridge
  • choice of advisors at upper and mid levels was characterized by one speaker as “neo-con lite”; main international policy directions are more likely to be representative of continuity than change (eg. despatch of 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, and message about international policy priorities which that conveys)
  • commitment to Global War on Terror is likely to persist, even if the taxonomy has changed; careers, budgets, institutions and industries now depend on it (GWOT is “sedimented” in Washington)
  • notwithstanding the temporary bump associated with “Obama effect”, the continued relative decline of US power and influence is inevitable
  • unipolar moment has passed, but the world seems headed towards heteropolar rather than multipolar order – US will lead militarily, but EU and BRICSAM countries will be major economic forces, with other nations powerful culturally, demographically, and environmentally
  • emergent order will take time to work out; requirement for cross-balancing at various levels may result in lower levels of state-sponsored violence, but not necessarily more stabilty than during brief period of US hegemony
  • evangelical US model (deregulation/marketization/democratization) for the world political economy has been deeply discredited; authoritarian, regulated, statist capitalism seems ascendant
  • the good news? A smaller US place in the world and concomitant need for complex balancing will necessitate a larger role for diplomacy, and possibly a smaller role for the military in the overall international policy mix
  • influence of Ambassadors is set to increase and regional military commands/commanders likely to diminish

All in all, a pretty rich harvest, and I will be providing more by way of take-aways from the ISA meeting in future posts.