Theory Talk with David Lake

The always excellent Theory Talks website has a new interview up with David A. Lake. A selection from it:

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Let’s talk about your more recent work in hierarchy. You’re asking students of IR to challenge the older formal-legal model that says legitimate authority resides inside the state, whereas outside the state there is no legitimate authority, and is therefore anarchical. You claim we should see relations among actors as predicated along a continuum of relational authority. I was hoping you could talk about how this proposal alters the way that students should understand world politics.

This is a good question to ask about my work on hierarchy. First, I think that this traditional approach, this way of thinking about variations of hierarchy in the international system, really negates the focus on world politics itself. It suggests that world politics really isn’t a separate area of inquiry, but is part and parcel of politics in general. There are elements of hierarchy in international relations, and this dissolves the divide between domestic and international politics. Once you open up that door and start to walk through it, the difference between these arenas really sort of blur together. The same processes that give us domestic politics in these sort of “more hierarchical” systems should be found in international politics. Not necessarily in the same way, but they can be modified depending on other variables in the environment; we want to look for more subtle variations than we have in the past. At the same time, it challenges scholars who work on domestic politics. What makes hierarchy stick within a country? We take for granted that it’s the constitution. The constitution, however, is nothing more than an anarchic agreement, right? Who enforces the constitution? Internationally nobody, and all of the parties are bound to the constitution only by the extent by which they accept its rules. On both sides it tears apart that dividing line between what used to be understood as domestic politics and international politics.

The other way an understanding of hierarchy affects the way we think about world politics is that sovereignty becomes a variable. All recognized states today possess some quality or quantity of sovereignty, but it varies quite dramatically and, I think, in rather unexpected ways. The more issues a state regulates, the greater its sovereignty. The more issues one state regulates in another state, then the more hierarchical the relationship. This becomes a continuum, not just a single condition that we assume is absolute, and it changes the old way by which we think about sovereignty.

Finally, it opens up the question about how these variations matter: How do they matter for policy? How do they help us explain IR? The variations are quite important. In Hierarchy in International Relations, I tried to show that subordinate states spend less on defense, they trade more with other subordinate states, they are more likely to join the dominate state in multilateral coalitions, and so on. Dominant states, in turn, are more likely to come to the aid of subordinates in a crisis, they are less likely to abuse the authority that they have been granted. Hierarchy creates a very different dynamic in relations between states and within the system that we haven’t appreciated in the past.

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