The anthropomorphic fallacy in international relations discourse by Carlos Escudé

    Theoretical flaws generated by the anthropomorphic fallacy


That Vattel should have spoken of the liberty of states is neither surprising nor outrageous. But that Robert O. Keohane should state that:

an actor with intense preferences on an issue may be willing to use more resources to attain a high probability of a favorable result than an actor with more resources but lower intensity (preferences). [13]

is somewhat more disconcerting, as is the fact that in Power and Interdependence, R.O. Keohane and J.S. Nye reason that "poor, weak states" can sometimes impose their policies on stronger ones because they "may be more willing to suffer" [14] .

Even more depressing is that Kenneth Waltz should assert that:

States, like people, are insecure to the extent of their freedom. If freedom is wanted, insecurity must be accepted. [15]

"Freedom", we must remember, is a term that is always unconsciously endowed with positive and noble qualities. Quite unintendedly, the above quotation is almost a glorification of tyranny, insofar as this "freedom" of states leads to the subjection of masses of individual men and women who, without consultation, are mercilessly thrown into battle and destruction.

Stephen O. Krasner's language (and vision) are still more corrupt, insofar as he is closer to understanding the normative implications, for the Third World, of his words and concepts, and he simply does not seem to care. His anthropomorphisms sometimes reach colossal proportions, as when, for example, he tells us that "the South will have no enthusiasm for the North's attempts to change international norms in areas such as (...) human rights" [16]. What does the "South" and its "enthusiasms" mean? Who is the subject of its enthusiasms or lack thereof? Obviously not the people, but the elites. A small group of people are thus endowed by the author with legitimacy and representation over billions of people. Krasner's South is a monster that does not care for human rights. That monster, however, does not in reality exist, but is Krasner's creation. In other words, with his language, Krasner has metamorphosized the small power elites who do not care for human rights but that do exist, into something much bigger and more powerful that does not exist and has no right to exist.

Yet another shocking anthropomorphism comes from the pen of Hedley Bull, when he tells us that:

A corollary or near-corollary of this central rule is the rule that states will not intervene forcibly or dictatorially in one another's internal affairs. [17]

Indeed, the use of the term "dictatorial" to the intervention of one state in the way another state controls its citizens or subjects is one of the better examples of the anthropomorphic fallacy in contemporary international relations literature, insofar as it is a way of denying the essential social compact within each society. If we say that state A is "dictatorial" vis-a-vis state B because it forcibly attempts to prevent human rights violations in state B, then we are acknowledging the right of state B to violate human rights within its territory, and we are furthermore treating state B (and indeed, all states) as if they were organic entities where what counts are not the individual cells (or arms, legs, feet or fingers of the organism) but rather the will of the totality, as it stems from the state. Political values are clearly built into this language. The very use of the term "dictatorship" in a state-to-state level is, unintendedly and in the ultimate logical instance, a justification of dictatorship at the domestic level.

Finally, getting back to a previous quotation, that real liberals like Keohane and Nye should say (as mentioned before) that weak, poor states may be "more willing to suffer" than strong ones is downright astonishing and illustrates to what extent almost the entire field is caught in a linguistic trap with perverse practical and ideological consequences which are quite unintended. That an individual be willing to suffer in order to attain an objective is usually the product of virtue. But states do not suffer. When we say that a state is willing to suffer, what we really mean is that a statesman or government is willing to subject his or its people to suffering. This is usually not the product of virtue but of vice, and moreover it often happens while the statesman himself is feasting. Yet people, including scholars and specialists in the field, rarely stop to think about what "a country's strong resolve" really means, and stand in admiration of this sort of "willingness to suffer".

It should be underlined that these are not accidental gaffes but rather the conventional language of the field, to be found very often in the literature. John C. Garnett, for example, tells us that "although B may be weaker than A, it may be more determined (...) which may make it more powerful in terms of political effectiveness" [18] . Examples could be cited endlessly in every language. It comes from diplomatic practice and spills over, without critical examination, into this pseudo-scientific field that is caught in numerous language and mental traps. In this way, international relations theorists play into the hands of tyrants. Their language is functional to their interests, insofar as a weaker state's greater "willingness to suffer" or heroic "quest for freedom" is taken as a matter of fact. Insofar as we have incorporated the state-as-person fiction, we do not grasp the often gruesome real meaning of these fine-sounding words.

Thus, even for most scholars, the Vietnam war was a contest between two anthropomorphic entities, the United States and the massively mobilized Vietnamese people, and this tends to generate admiration toward the latter instead of pity, which would surely be the more befitting sentiment if our frame of mind were citizenry-centric instead of government or state-centric. Likewise, accomplished U.S. Latinamericanists have said to me that they regretted that Argentina "caved in" to Britain under the Menem government. In their minds, Argentina and Britain are two anthropomorphic entities. They generously side with the underdog, but they do not stop to think about the consequences of a continuation of abnormal tension in the South Atlantic in terms, for example, of Argentina's country risk index, investment and development opportunities and, specifically, economic relations with the European Community, all of which affect the standard of living of the average Argentine citizen. Intuitively, they would have preferred a greater "willingness to suffer", because their mind frame in interstate affairs is government or state-centric, and they do not realize that this is contradictory with their liberal democratic convictions and their contractarian political philosophy.

If First World intellectuals fall into this mental trap vis-a-vis contexts that to them are foreign, it goes without saying that, within Third World societies, governments frequently make use of anthropomorphisms to mobilize the masses, and ordinary people (as well as intellectuals) are often deceived by the policy implications of the anthropomorphic fallacy. Indeed, the government-centric and/or state-centric frame of mind is so hegemonic that when a government official makes use of anthropomorphic metaphors to generate emotions functional to his policy, he usually does not realize exactly what he is doing, or where the trap lies.

Obviously, these ideological phenomena help to legitimize the state (regardless of how tyrannical) and are functional to the interests of the elites vis-a-vis their manipulation of the masses. They are mechanisms whereby irrationality is generated and put at the service of allegedly "national" interests that are often nothing more than elite interests. As has been said, they can be traced (at least) to Vattel's time and are built into the fields of international law and international relations. Since Vattel's time, however, the West has evolved ideologically and politically. It has forsworn absolutism and even authoritarianism. Yet at least some significative segments of its language and thought categories have remained unchanged, sometimes leading it unknowingly in such unintended directions as the legitimization of elite manipulation of the masses in foreign, usually Third World contexts.

The mechanisms that contribute to generate this irrationality have seldom been demythified. Although no worthy thinker has ever taken seriously the pretention that his/her "fatherland" was "eternal", this sort of nonsense has been stated shamelessly through the educational systems of most countries during whole centuries, and few mainstream thinkers have publicly rebelled against this type of discourse. And anthropomorphisms are much more frequent and effective linguistic traps than metaphysical ones like the one just cited, to the point that sophisticated analysts and theorists of international relations fall unconsciously into their trap.

For most international relations theory developed in the United States (including neorealists and institutionalists) the state is to the interstate system what, for individualist contractualism, the individual is to the state. The problem is that in likening the state to the individual, we inadvertently legitimize totalitarianism, which is the very opposite of contractarian individualism. This is so because by establishing the above analogy, we forget that while for contractualism and liberal democracy the rights of the individual are sacred, the only thing sacred about the state is its duties toward the individuals who are under its care. The state has individuals underneath it, while the individual is, speaking metaphorically, like an atom of society. Hence, the individual's position vis-a-vis the state is simply not comparable to the state's position vis-a-vis interstate system. To assert this, of course, is to assert the political values of contractualism, which is to abandon value-free theory. But not to assert this, and to hence go on to establish an analogy between the individual's relation to the state and the state's relation to the interstate system (and engage in all of the anthropomorphizations that follow naturally from this operation) is to implicitly incorporate totalitarian political values and also to abandon value-free theory.

In my opinion, there is no way of escaping from this interesting paradox: general international relations theory cannot be value-free. If it does not explicitly endorse "good" values and build them into its assumptions, it will implicitly and unknowingly build in values that are functional to the powers that be, irrespective of their contents. A corollary to this assertion is that international relations theory will inevitably be more normative than explicative, irrespectively of the illusions of the theoreticians.

Morgenthau managed to escape these contradictions because he never forgot his commitment to the liberal political value whereby, while the individual is responsible for him or herself, the state is responsible for the individuals whom it must represent and serve. Indeed, putting it in his own wise words:

The individual may say for himself: `Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (...),' but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care. [19]

If the state has no right to sacrifice the individual for the sake of justice abroad (this is the issue that Morgenthau had in mind), then much less has it got the right to sacrifice it to satisfy the whims, vanity or ambition of an official or an elite. This is, of course, a value judgement based upon an assumption about what the relations between the individual and the state should be. The assumption is a contractarian one and comes from the tradition of Hobbes, Locke, John Stuart Mill, Rousseau, Alberdi and Renan: the state is based on an underlying, implicit social compact, and the only valid justification for the existence of the state lies in the defense of the rights and interests of its individual citizens. It is my contention that the use of the state-as-person fiction unintendedly carries the opposite, totalitarian assumption, whereby the individual lives to serve the state, and that it is impossible to build a general international relations theory without an implicit conception of the state, which will not be value-free.

It should be noted here that I find it remarkable that my reasoning on this point should converge with that of an interpretive scholar such as Richard K. Ashley. The philosophical assumptions on which the present paper is built, which are those of contractarian individualism, are explicitly rejected by Ashley. Yet this difference in our initial assumptions does not interfere with the identification of the serious logical contradictions incurred into by the neorealists and institutionalists. On the other hand, there is no need to recur to critical theory to identify these contradictions: a correct logical analysis leads to their identification from within contractarian individualism. This is much more useful and convincing than doing so from the arguments of a contending radical perspective.

But Ashley's exercise is interesting because it serves as corroboration. Criticizing utilitarianism and contractualism, Ashley tells us that they threaten to fracture the "statist" pillars of neorealist and interdependentist international relations theory [20] . Assuming myself as a contractualist, I would put it the other way around: the "statism" (i.e., the conception of a state-as-actor that is analogous to the individual) of mainstream international relations theory betrays liberal democracy itself. Thus, I fully endorse Ashley's conclusion on this score:

Despite its statism, neorealism can produce no theory of the state capable of satisfying the state-as-actor premises of its international political theory. On the contrary, by adopting a utilitarian theory of action, order, and change, neorealists implicitly give the lie to their idée fixe, the ideal of the state-as-actor upon which their distinctions among "levels" and their whole theory of international politics depend. [21]

And the extent of my convergence with this author reaches what to me are bewildering proportions when he tells us that:

The history of utilitarian thought is, after all, largely the history of philosophical opposition to the "personalist" concept of state required by neorealism's international political theory. [22]

Indeed, the history of the political philosophy on which liberal democracy hinges is the very opposite of the policy implications of both the statism of mainstream international relations theory and the policy implications of the anthropomorphic fallacy. Yet despite this philosophical tradition at the level of civil society, the vested interests of the state as an absolute unit and the need to legitimize it and its manipulations of its citizenry vis-a-vis the interstate system, have conspired to make it very difficult to identify these contradictions, and have made a statist theory of international relations functional to the established powers.

On the other hand, it may be no accident that these phenomena can be more easily identified, exposed, and their contents demythified today, in the dawn of a new age in which the nation-state is increasingly in crisis. Paraphrasing Robert W. Cox, the anthropomorphic fallacy corresponds to a hegemonic structure of a world divided into states. To some extent and for a variety of reasons, the present world order, which is still divided into states, has evolved towards a nonhegemonic structure. The management of power relations is at present more difficult to obscure. And we can, rationally, identify logical flaws in our discourse that are the product of the historical process that led to the present power configuration and frame of mind.

In other words, it has become more feasible to identify the contradictions incurred by ideologies whose function has been to legitimize the nation-state, and it has likewise become possible to identify linguistic traps and thinking-modes such as the anthropomorphic fallacy that (while functional to the legitimization of the nation-state as an unproblematic concept), are contradictory to foreign policies based on an honest and true (albeit bounded) citizenry-centric rationality under contractarian assumptions.

Nonetheless, in the Third World, where states are indeed often weak, and specifically in Latin America, where states are often more artificial than in some other regions and where nationhood is more a myth than a reality, the anthropomorphic fallacy is still of great functionality to the ruling classes as an instrument for mobilizing loyalties, and it is thus widely used, often affecting foreign and defense policies and contributing to leading them away from a citizenry-centric rationality. Its demythification is therefore all the more relevant and all the more difficult.

 
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