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.

saudi-oilOil in the Middle East is always a contentious issue with some seeing it as the primary motive for foreign involvement and diplomacy in the region and others seeing it as a crucial tool not only in controlling world economics but also power balancing in geopolitics. Still other categorize oil as a side-factor in ideological wars on the international stage – secondary to conflicts over economic strategy, and religious or socio-cultural paradigms. The recent drop in oil prices has lead to concern over the power wielded by Saudi Arabia as the main producer and exporter of oil in the region. Are the Saudis trying to cripple American fracking as part of a competitive market strategy? Is it a Saudi retaliatory effort against Russia and Iran for their political betrayals in upholding the criminal governments of Syria and Iraq? Or is it irrelevant in the long-term as it not only benefits the economy by putting more money in the hands of consumers rather than producers, or because the industry’s days are numbered regardless with the advent of alternative methods of energy production and less demand overall? In this paper, I will briefly cover some of the theories surrounding the recent drop in oil prices, how this involves Saudi Arabia and what it might mean for the future.

Among opinions that the issue of oil prices is entirely economic is the article “Sheikhs v shale” from the December 6, 2014 issue of The Economist. The article cites the reasons for a drop in oil prices as due to “a sluggish world economy”, the overproduction of oil from OPEC countries, and fracking the US which has “boosted America’s oil production by a third.” While the article concludes with this being a positive thing, as it will put more money into the hands of consumers who will, in turn, reinject it back into the economy, it will also mean a concentration of the market into the hands of key producers. This is because high-cost producers will not be able to compete, crimping the supply and causing oil prices to rise again. Concluding that the economics of oil have changed and can now generally withstand most political shifts outside of major catastrophes, the article seems to downplay the effect of politics on the oil prices and sees the recent dip as something almost organic to the market, from which it will benefit in the long-term.

Other authors do not hold the same optimistic viewpoint and look to geopolitics as a way of accounting for human agency in effecting the oil price drop. While many blame the Saudi flood of the energy market and cite it as an attack on the growing influence of the fracking industry of the US, others like Michael Moran see oil as a means to an end, not the end itself. Oil prices are being manipulated as a geopolitical weapon which, until recently, had benefited the interests of the US in the region. While the media (in which The Economist can be included) has relentlessly repeated the ‘Sheikhs vs Shale’ debate, Moran argues that the recent flood by Saudi is actually a means of reinforcing its importance as a US ally by dealing “a direct strike […] on two already hobbled geopolitical rivals, Iran and Russia,” as well as a way of “deftly reinforc[ing] Riyadh’s centrality as the only oil producer truly able to influence global oil markets on its own.” Looking at the consequences of the Saudi flood and how these have affected its rivals, while compelling, does not necessarily imply primary motivation on behalf of the Saudis to continue pumping. Additionally, by making the argument that the Saudis have little to worry about with regards to the fracking industry, Moran also makes his argument retrospectively by equating outcomes (of reduced fracking production because of its higher cost) with reasoning – which may not be the case in terms of determining Saudi motives.

Given the insights into Saudi rule offered in the historical analysis of “Shaping the Saudi State” by Steffen Hertog, it would seem that motivations on the Saudi side might be more difficult to determine than previously thought. The deeply personal organizational structure of the government in KSA has resulted in the congealment of “institutional constellations” in politics – ministries that operate largely independent of one another, with low levels of horizontal dealings, overlap or mutual consideration. This segmentation means that there is a tendency of “various institutions to be little ‘states within the state,’” operating based on the primary motivations of those at the helm and often for individualistic reasons without structural considerations of the implications of their decisions. Given this image, it might be hard to believe that tact or clear motives are behind the recent flood of the market by Saudi.

Far more consistent at making focused strategy decisions for a variety of political-economic reasons is the United States, which Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya of the Global Research Council cites as the factor with the most influence on the recent drop in oil prices and Saudi flooding. Without splitting hairs, Nazemroaya explicitly states that the drop in the price of oil is “a US strategy of economic warfare and coercive diplomacy” meant to secure both geopolitical and business considerations in favour of American interests globally. Noting that because fracking costs significantly more than other methods of production, the Americans –knowing that they cannot compete with other producers, particularly Russia- have been “fanning the flames of instability” against Russia with regards to the Ukraine crisis. This is in addition to the fact that that there are significant energy reserves in East Ukraine and Poland which the US has its eyes on. In the case of the Saudi flood, Nazemroaya views this as a continuation in the tradition of the US using the KSA to destabilize its enemies because of the ripple effect the drive down in oil prices would have on their economies and, by extension, political positions.

Whether acting on its own authority or at the behest of its close American ally, Saudi Arabia’s effect on the current global energy markets cannot be denied. However, Juan Cole, in his article “Oil Price Fall: Saudi Arabia targets US Shale Oil, Iran, Iraq and Russia”, the author reaffirms the previous economic position by arguing that the drop in oil prices is not because of a Saudi flood or fracking but because the demand for oil has decreased so much due to “cooling economies” and the shift to alternative energy resources. In this framework, geopolitical effects are largely residual to the natural shifts of the markets. Pointing to more long-term implications of this dip in the market, Cole argues that the oil price drop and secondary political effects are mainly irrelevant because , eventually, “the economic benefit of inexpensive renewable electricity [sic] will likely outweigh the loss of oil income” and become a key method of weakening the importance of oil in the world economy. Deterministic in his outlook, Cole argues that whatever successes the Saudis and their allies enjoy are temporary as the future will bring an obsoletion of their business (and political) models eventually. While not without its own problems, the Cole article might offer a different approach to understanding the current global oil prices by adopting a methodology that is less concerned with motivations and more concerned with outcomes, less concerned with conspiratorial entities and more concerned with who benefits from what has happened, albeit in likely unpredictable ways. The assumption of a predictable, closed system by which premeditated actions yield a systemic, exact response is unlikely. Additionally, the benefits of uncovering motivations –beyond the personal ones –are yet to be determined in adding to our knowledge about the global economic, geopolitical situation.

 Sources Referenced/Cited

Juan Cole, “Oil Price Fall: Saudi Arabia targets US Shale Oil, Iran, Iraq, Russia,” Informed Comments. Nov. 29, 2014.

Michael Moran, “Is Saudi Arabia Trying to Cripple American Fracking?” Foreign Policy, Dec. 23, 2014.

“The new economics of oil: Sheikhs v shale,The Economist, December 6, 2014.

M. D. Nazemroaya, “Oil Prices and Energy Wars: The US Empire of ‘Frack’ versus Russia,” Global Research, Dec. 6, 2014.

Steffen Hertog, “Shaping the Saudi State: Human Agency’s Shifting Role in Rentier-State Formation,” Int. J. Middle East Studies. 39 (2007), 539–563.