Can Liberalism Reform Through Honesty?: Meditations on What the SubAltern/Hegemonic Theory Offers for Understanding the Problems of International Diplomacy and Law

13418%20-%20human-rights-1In Mohammed Ayoob’s chapter on “Making Sense of Global Tensions” in Towards the Dignity of Difference? Neither End of History nor Clash of Civilizations, the author offers a structural theory of international relations that defines nations as either subaltern or hegemonic, depending on their level of development, nationhood and a number of other definitive variables. This model is meant to offer understanding about a number of tense issues in the Middle East, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine, problems surrounding nuclear proliferation and disenchantment or ineffectiveness of humanitarian intervention efforts. Ayoob points out that the development of the states and building the nation in Western powers occurred over a much longer period without the international pressure of human rights and justice normativity imposed on them. This is unlike the modern subaltern states which must compress these processes into a shorter period of time while complying with stringent international law that threatens its sovereignty and thus progress at any time. This historical divide, as well as a division in current priorities between the two groups, has two results: the potential loss of autonomy for struggling subaltern states and, by extension, their very statehood, and secondly, a deep chasm in perspectives between those in the periphery and the core which continuously hampers negotiations and mutual understanding. In this paper, I will look at two examples provided by Ayoob –Iran and the bomb, and the state of Israel – to see how well this model applies, as well as touching on some situations that are perhaps not as well explained by this theory. In the end, no theory is perfect, but by looking at its drawbacks, we might better be able to see its value.

In terms of the issue of nuclear proliferation, nowhere is it so hotly debated as in the question of whether or not Iran should have nuclear development, or the bomb. Ayoob notes that the divide in the debate falls along the subaltern-hegemonic divide as there is “more than an undercurrent of sympathy for Iran amongst the developing countries…” especially in the face of Western hypocrisy about Israel’s possession of the bomb and suspicion over the “real” motives of American policymakers after the doublespeak by the Obama administration over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissle Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). (Ayoob 416-17) In fact, throughout his argument, Ayoob notes that the main issue surrounding subaltern-hegemonic cooperation is the apparent hypocrisy of Western powers in dealing with such issues – preferring to support their interests, rather than universally applicable principles. In fact, these loyalties go so far as to hamper the achievement of the West’s lofty, liberal goals by clouding Western vision about realities surrounding Iran getting the bomb: that it would actually lead to nuclear balancing, stability and likely peace in the Middle East, at least tenuously. (Waltz, 2012)

The same argument is made about the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine, largely upheld by the West, including the fact that Israel (hypocritically) has the bomb, and that Western powers preaching the importance of universal humanitarian intervention, failed to do so numerous times in the case of Gaza – most recently in the summer of 2014. A reciprocal continued distrust between the Western hegemonies like the US and subaltern countries effectively halts any consensus on these crucial issues. To a certain degree, Ayoob argues that this is due to opposing priorities between the two groups, namely that of domestic/international order versus domestic/international justice. (see Ayoob 408-10)

As provocative and appealing as this construct is, does it explain other, equally important, issues in international politics as it pertains to the Middle East? In an article looking at the geostrategic significance of the Arab Spring, Ayoob notes that Saudi Arabia, in the post-Revolution period, is unlikely to exert any regional influence because of its place as an American ally, its poor organization and its overreliance on cash to effect change (Ayoob 89). However, I think that Ayoob underestimates the power of Saudi Arabia in effecting international economies and thereby effecting geopolitics because of its vast share of oil reserves and centrality in the world economy. Whether they accomplish this on their own or at the behest of their American allies is not relevant. It is likely, however, that in the subaltern/hegemonic model, that developing nations will see KSA as a patsy for its allies, a tool in the hypocritical hegemonic machine.

Additionally, there are a few areas that this model perhaps does not illuminate very well. Intra-hegemonic arguments are not found in this paradigm – most notably in the division between America and Israel over the continued and increased illegal settlements of Palestinian territories and over the Iran nuclear situation. Additionally, inter-hegemonic disputes can alter international diplomacy and actions of core powers – particularly when facing public pressure back home and particularly when that public pressure is increasingly sympathetic to subaltern issues such as national sovereignty or indirect support of autonomy through non-interventionist sentiments. Significant internal demographic shifts tend to be lost in a state-structuralist model. Though Ayoob alludes to the global tensions precipitating an increase in terrorism as grassroots extremism gains more popularity from increasing disefranchised and suspicious subaltern populations, his chapter predates the incredible successes of the ultra-extremist terrorist group, ISIS. As a non-nation entity that is gaining vast territories, resources and increased influence, it is not completely clear where they fit in the subaltern-hegemonic model: are they a byproduct of global disparity and tensions? Are they an example of Ayoob’s messy nation-building historical model? Are their atrocities the price a future, genuine Islamic State will pay for distinct nationhood? I highly doubt that Ayoob intended the endpoint of his argument or model to be a condonation of actions from groups like ISIS, but it’s hard not to read it that way particularly when he notes horrific atrocities such as indigenous population genocides, slavery and racism, and the Nazi Holocaust as part of the “very strong illiberal and un-secular beginnings” of today’s modern, Western and secular states. (412) His deterministic outlook, coupled with an emphasis placed on the way modern human rights models hinder nation-building would set off red flags in most peoples’ minds, particularly in the age of ISIS. Where Ayoob might redeem himself, is in his hope for the reforming of the UN Security Council into a more equitable and more effective “Humanitarian Council” – something even he admits might be too optimistic but seems like the only viable option for honest international relations and the genuine protection of human rights going forward. (415)

To conclude, what can be learned from this model of international relations: the Subaltern and Hegemonic model? For starters, it gives students of international relations some insight into why perspectives tend to be similar among states at similar stages of development. It might also lend some insight into their tendency towards specific priorities over those of the hegemonic powers. Like any theory, it cannot account for all phenomena that might run contradictory to it or might exist outside of this paradigm: inter and intra-stratum conflict or disputes, as well as the increasing influence of non-state forces like ISIS which force subaltern or hegemonic powers to cooperate (or at least communicate the idea of cooperation), even when ultimately suspicious of one another because of differing stratum positioning. Ultimately, it is a realist-esque approach that holds hope for liberal ideologies, as long as honesty and equitable dialogue are at the forefront of international relations, rather than state or regional interests. Whether or not this hope is futile is another story.

Sources Referenced/ Cited

Mohammed Ayoob, “Making sense of global tensions: dominant and subaltern conceptions of order and justice in the international system,” in M. Mahdavi and A. Knight, eds. Towards the Dignity of Difference? Neither End of History nor Clash of Civilizations (Ashgate, 2012), 407-18.

Mohammed Ayoob, “The Arab Spring: its Geostrategic Significance,” Middle East Policy, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Fall 2012, pp. 84-97.

Kenneth N. Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: nuclear balancing would mean stability” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2012.


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