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Singing our world into existence- IR theory and 9/11

(in response to: 'Singing our world into existence: International Relations theory and September 11',
Presidential address to the International Studies Association, February 27, 2003, Portland, OR, by Steve
Smith, AcSS.)


Steve Smith's “paper focuses on the relationship between IR theory and ethics.” He maintains that the
discipline's commitment to a “value-free conception of social science”, separating facts from values,
together with its culturally and historically narrow frame of reference, and notion of violence, helped
“sing into existence the world of September 11” by representing dominant interests as value neutral,
universal theories.

(Almost) none of which the author wishes to disagree with. However, while Steve takes a brave stance,
at least within the field of IR, it must also be noted, although he raises important and pertinent
concerns, many issues have been in the arena for centuries, if not millennia. Further, although pushing
at boundaries, he stays firmly entrenched within western academia, (as evidenced by his sources) and
confines himself to approaching 9/11(2001) from the conventional (western) academic position, i.e. that
the attacks were unexpected, carried out by ideological opposition and subsequent US (government)
action was an understandable response, or perhaps an excuse to pursue geopolitical objectives.

Nevertheless, with regard to the current state of IR and its ascendant thinking, his arguments uncover
some deeply troubling rationale and contradictions.

Let us examine our considerations independently, starting with IR and its basic structure, then 9/11 and
the geopolitical ramifications, before questioning complicity.


Steve reminds us “EH Carr argued, (history is) written by people with a view from somewhere for some
contemporary purpose”. Even more emphatic was Carr's recommendation to “Study the historian
before you begin to study the facts… By and large, the historian will get the type of facts he wants."
That being said, is it surely not best to know their position and understand how they arrive at it (my
country, right or wrong, or, what is best for the long term future of humanity, for example)? Really, this
question should remain paramount in every moment of study for the greatest understanding - what is
the position, motivation of the author/lecturer?

To use a prominent example pertinent to IR we need look no further than Hobbes and his arguments
that man in nature is war of each against all and that violence through structured authority is the only
way to avoid it. Hobbes also effectively argues: all I want is good, all i hate is evill, thus validating
conquest for whomsoever is in power. But there are severe and dangerous problems and errors and
perspectives from all sides of his arguments.

His notion of good he sees in things, objects, to be possessed. Necessarily creating a problem for those
who do not want to be possessed and through disputed ownership, in effect, labelling himself as evil
through the eye of the other. This is perhaps no more than a difference in perspective, proximate versus
ultimate, external versus internal, however, as we consider his notions of man in nature his arguments
fall apart, in light of anthropological findings.

Unless one is a creationist, it is generally held that humanity evolved from some ape-like creature, and
a primate certainly. Primates exist within social groups, as far as i can understand, without exception.
This immediately disproves Hobbes with regard to man in nature and validating structured authority.
Indeed, given the resistance of all nature to violence, except from necessity (food, security, procreation)
it is unlikely even inter family/tribal violence occurred much before space became a premium. If further
proof were needed one could point to speech, what need of it with war of each against all? And how
come humanity's earliest words: mouth, eye, finger, milk... appear to relate more to grooming than to

So, there is no scientific justification to Hobbes' position, it can exist only on faith (ignorance). Yet,
somehow, his suppositions become foundational for academics seeking to validate the state, and
violence. Why?

Why was Hobbes writing? Simply we could argue he was proposing his version of truth. Fine. His work
tells us a lot about his truth, his attitudes towards others and possessions etc. And when taken in
conjunction with his position in society, his mercantile interests, and the wars raging across Europe, his
motivation becomes almost transparent. One must also consider for whom he was writing. Who would
find the ideas that man must be controlled, of authority being above the law, of anything I want as being
good and violence as a means to an end appealing?
The question does not need answering, yet Hobbes' arguments are taken at face value as though the
last three and a half centuries of learning had never happened! (In all honesty, if one really wanted to
study Hobbes, one should be studying him not for the validity of his arguments, but for how authority
uses them to justify its motivation and objective.)

Nevertheless, Hobbes is generally described as a realist within IR. And a considerable number of
'realist' academics continue to use his arguments to justify theirs, without ever acknowledging the fault
lines that run through his suppositions.

To offer a modern day example of choosing information to suit ones purposes, one could consider
Waltz's use of Woodrow Wilson's mystification about the source of war, remarking that, “the causes of
the war now being fought (WWI) were obscure, that neutral nations did not know why it had begun and,
if drawn in, would not know for what ends they were fighting”, in 1916. Whereas by 1919, Wilson had
come to the conclusion: “is there any man, is there any woman, let me say any child here that does not
know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry?" Hardly useful, one
would suggest, in setting out the thesis for 'Man the State and War'.

It is unfair to single out Waltz, such practice is endemic within academia, and most particularly amongst
the self proclaimed 'rationalists'. Academics, who, in general, take the view that man is violent, cannot
escape his nature and structured authority, which is inevitably infected with the same violence, is the
only possible solution. The black-box model, as Steve calls it (although 'can of worms' might perhaps
be a more appropriate term).

The black-box model does not examine internal workings, it has an output, violent actors in the
international arena, and an input, violent humanity: fait accompli. In effect, we start with the conclusion,
and work backwards to justify it, and evidence that does not fit is sidestepped or ignored. One must say
this is hardly rational, excepting that is, the rationality of justifying and enhancing ones own position
within the structure, and reinforcing said structure. That is rationalism at the basest of levels, thinking
only in terms of personal and proximate: the rationale of a single celled organism.

Yet, because it validates the hegemony (and its methods), its supporters naturally dominate the debate,
effectively hijacking the notions of what is real, and what is rational. Inferring, in effect, anything beyond
their straitjacket terms of reference is either unreal or irrational! From such an aspect a more honest
title, for those who willingly label themselves realists, rationalists and the like would be justificationists.

This is one aspect of reasoning within IR (and academia in general), there are two, perhaps three more.
The vast majority, particularly within IR, fall into the second camp and could perhaps be identified with
the likes of Kant: a decent sort of person, from a comfortable background, generally happy enough to
coexist with fellows and generally cosseted within academia for their entire life. That is, without any real
conception of what is, “out there”. “Out there” has generally, largely been understood through books,
from historians without (necessarily) knowing the “type of facts he wants". And because they exist within
academia, are generally polite to one another and sit down and discuss hypotheses and theories until
an answer can be reasoned out, they believe the world's problems and tensions can be solved through
reason. All one has to do is find an answer, and apply it, and the issue will be resolved. We could
perhaps entitle this group reasonists.

Then there are a few, a very few, on the edge, critics, perhaps exemplified by the likes of Edward Said,
that recognise the foundational corruption to the core of the structure. In truth this group spreads far
and wide, they come in the form of writers, like Orwell and Dostoevsky or musicians, like Lennon and
Guthrie. In actuality they are commonplace in culture, perhaps typified by the seething resentment,
found in modern blues and reggae derivatives, yet from the perspective of IR they do not even exist.

Lastly we have what one might call the engineers, those who explain how the system operates, from a
functional perspective, and offer suggestions towards efficiency and enhancement. Such individuals are
rare indeed, to my mind come less than a handful of examples: Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Rousseau,
(perhaps) Nietzsche. To be sure there must be more but all too often they fall into the trap of reasonism,
believing man is rational, open to reason and can be expected to act accordingly. Whereas Rousseau
recognises passion (and fear) trump reason every time.

Before we leave IR and consider 9/11, let us just re-emphasise our initial argument. No position comes
without values attached. Everything one does is motivated by something, be it feeding one's family or
finding the ultimate truth, or enhancing one's position, or challenging (perceived) injustice, or for a quiet

Accepted, the above is an over simplification, few of us fit entirely into one category. But, in essence, it
covers all that consider our world, the way it functions, and are motivated to, and interested in, justifying
their position.


Received wisdom has it that on the above date, nineteen hijackers, mainly of Saudi origin, under the
authority of al-Qaeda and operating out of Afghanistan flew planes into the twin towers of the WTC and
the Pentagon and a further plane, perhaps intended for the White House crashed as passengers fought
with hijackers. The US administration then instigated a “war on terror” to rid the world of terrorism and
create peace loving democracies where once there had been violence and fear. Or, perhaps, the US
administration used these attacks as an excuse to pursue geopolitical objectives and assert its
hegemony. Namely, the oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Arabian Sea, control of Middle East oil
reserves and an ideological beacon (plus of course as a showcase for its weaponry).

Justificationists will generally support authority's line, the 'moral high ground', as it will always be
named. Reasonists will more likely look for reasons (beyond good and evil) and in turn develop
scepticism towards the establishment line. But, nevertheless, remain trapped within their reason, and

However, in contrast to the received wisdom of the unexpected attack, there are also arguments,
suggestions, that there was considerable fore knowledge, passed on by respected secret service
agencies, including the Israelis, Egyptians, British and Germans. There also remain a host of
unanswered questions (beyond “shock and awe”) from the FEMA, NIST and 9/11 Commission reports,
most notably with regard to the collapse of the towers' and building 7. In addition, data from the flight
recorders – the black boxes – has not been released, there has been no explanation as to why the steel
from the towers and building 7 was shipped to China before forensic examination, nor has any video
footage of the plane hitting the Pentagon ever been released. These anomalies, together with the
administrations' steadfast refusal to investigate the 'put options' placed on Boeing and American Airlines
stock in the days preceding the attack suggest there is more to 9/11 than meets the eye. After all, if
someone is betting on stock falling it is likely they have fore knowledge, and in this case, surely, this
must point towards the 'terrorists'.

Justificationists most notably, but academia in general, has a habit in such circumstances of crying
“conspiracy theory!” But let us just remember what conspiracy means: two or more people planning
together. From such an aspect any plan is a conspiracy, whether it be nineteen Arabs with box-cutters,
or “a new pearl harbour”.

The point here is not to say which scenario is correct, but to remain open to all possibilities and remain
focused on understanding the truth. Reasonists however, being ordinary decent people, find it
extraordinarily difficult to come to terms with the idea that anyone could be so cynical and brutal,
particularly towards their own citizens. Although, as Steve recognises, this is small beer by comparison
to the numbers trampled daily under the march of global capitalism (justificationists may quietly cede
the possibility, knowing the depths to which power can stoop to validate its position (after all, what
justificationist worth his salt has not read Machiavelli? and therefore understands our prince, on
occasion, must be prepared to do a little evil, in pursuance of a greater good) but will remain silent to a
man, for fear of their own interests, and in the sure-fire knowledge, if their authority was replaced its
successor would, in essence, be no different).


There is an argument that says any action is a political action. Indeed, even breathing converts oxygen
to carbon dioxide, thus contributing to global warming. From such an aspect, anyone who participates,
in any way, in a democracy effectively validates it at the same time. And therefore must be complicit in
the actions of their state.

At the other extreme, lies the argument that leaders have always been the same, from the Pharaohs
and Caesars to the Hitlers and Churchills – brutal, arrogant, power hungry – a never ending supply, to
dominate structured authority throughout its existence. So, regardless of what we do, or what we say,
they will still fight their wars and pursue their objectives. And therefore, such monsters being completely
beyond our control, we have no complicity.

To be sure Steve overestimates the importance of IR, if he imagines that it can have had an influence
over the geopolitical objectives of the White House (or for that matter, the Saudi conspirators). With or
without IR they would have pursued their ideological path, citing prominent justificationists, like
Fukuyama and Huntington (or Allah) in validation.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say, because of entrenched thought, an almost entirely first world approach
and perspective, a general naivety with regard to political actors in the real world and, sadly, a
resistance to standing up to be counted, if not complicit, then IR is most certainly compliant.

In conclusion

Steve looks towards the future with hopeful ideals for IR, with open eyes and awareness that no
argument/position comes without some form of motivation. Three cheers! But one feels this is a
gargantuan leap (if not to fall prey to superficiality) and one that will be resisted, dismissed and
undermined by justificationists (from all walks of power) whenever and wherever they find the
opportunity. And, given the current political climate, and prevailing wind, a position that will be shot at,
for those brave enough to raise their heads above the parapet.

A closing thought, Steve argues, “truth is not ‘out there’, waiting to be discovered.” How can he know
this? He cannot. That is not to say anyone knows what that truth might be, nor that any one person can
either find it or speak for it. No one (barring God, perhaps) can have a monopoly on truth, but denying it
begs the question: if you're not searching for truth, what are you searching for?

Truth, our truth, imperfect and manipulated that it may be, is effectively what validates and frames our
lives: gives them reason. Some look for validation, others for understanding, knowledge, truth, and
most of us exist somewhere between the two (accepting structural truths (property, money, the nation
state/religion, violence... ) without question for the security and standing they deliver).

Universal truth, or the meaning of life, however one wishes to represent it, fascinates and inspires all
those with an interest in discovery. Long may it continue! No one can know it, but through knowledge
and understanding, and sweeping away prejudices and justifications we all have the potential and
capacity to bring our personal truths closer to holism.

Was that not why Plato founded the Academy?

Vitam Impendere Vero!