Sunday, July 15, 2012

International security: A case for a better politics

A better politics, you ask? 

Whether this satirical inscription on a Dutch innkeeper's sign upon which a burial ground was painted had for its object mankind in general, or the rulers of states in particular, who are insatiable of war, or merely the philosophers who dream this sweet dream, it is not for us to decide.
Immanuel Kant
 ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’, 1795

Later this month (July) I will welcome a new cohort of students who have enrolled in my course ‘International Security’. It is one of several courses I teach, and I enjoy teaching it. In the last few weeks however, as I’ve watched our domestic politics unfold and observed Japanese politics a little more closely than I usually have the opportunity to do, I’m coming to the conclusion that our focus on ‘security’ has probably contributed to our less than healthy polity.

How so?

This post is actually more closely related to last week’s post on whackademia than we should probably admit. As we’ve known for some time, many courses in the arts and humanities departments are now largely driven by economic imperatives, bottom lines, bums-on-seats, call it what you will. Those who drive university budgets want to see numbers—a beautiful set of numbers—and that generally means when a course falls below a (usually arbitrarily) determined number, it gets dropped. Sometimes it might get ‘parked’ in the scholars’ desert, like many of those jets we’ve seen parked in deserts with the hope of return eventually, but the likelihood is low.

For a course, or a ‘program’, to obtain numbers it must have something of the zeitgeist about it—it must be ‘cool’, ‘interesting’, ‘relevant’, ‘get me a job’-type attractive. Lecturers become salespeople; courses suffer the vicissitudes of fashion.

Following my stint in the Senate as a staffer, I returned to work at a sandstone university in Brisbane (which shall remain nameless). I was completing my doctorate in Japanese politics and international relations and, more by accident than design, was teaching courses on Japanese government, democracy in East Asia, and was generally considered the ‘Asianist’ in the department. I also assisted in teaching a course in 20th century conflict and terrorism—the IRA, the ETA, the Japanese Red Army—remember them? Our greatest concern then in ‘terrorism’ was the chemical or biological threats; plane hijackings were so 1970s. We were still worried about war but it was a post-Cold War world and ‘the West had won’. Or so some thought.

Enter 9/11 (2001) and International Security. That morning, Australian time (the horror would unfold later that night, our time), I was teaching my course on Democracy in East and Southeast Asia. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was my ‘talking point’ text. If Asia was pursuing the democratic ideal, it wasn’t Athenian, it was American. What, in fact, was ‘American democracy’? We were casting a broad net across the 20th century. World War I, I offered, resulted in the founding of the League of Nations; World War II saw the formation of the United Nations. The world, it seemed, sought to find a way through abhorrent times to have us all sit down and work out why it happened, and how might we make it not happen again.

In the decade since the end of the Cold war, it seemed the world was still a little tetchy; we hadn’t quite worked out the ‘New World Order’ and democracy, I suggested, wasn’t providing the answers perhaps we all wanted. Certainly, in Asia, it was meeting some resistance. As I am wont to do, I proffered a rhetorical proposition to the class: perhaps the world needs another grand event that will shake us from our complacency vis-à-vis democracy. This was the morning of what was to become etched in our minds as 9/11.

We were all in a state of shock the next day at work. Media outlets sought comment from many of us for ‘the answers’, the ‘whys’, the ‘wherefores’. My students were somewhat dumbfounded, perhaps a little spooked by our class the day before. Not as much as I was. I might have prognosticated, but I certainly didn’t have a plane-jacking of this magnitude in mind*.

But one condition the author of this essay wishes to lay down. The practical politician assumes the attitude of looking down with great self-satisfaction on the political theorist as a pedant whose empty ideas in no way threaten the security of the state, inasmuch as the state must proceed on empirical principles; so the theorist is allowed to play his game without interference from the worldly-wise statesman.
Immanuel Kant
 ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’, 1795

But where is this taking us? University politics departments were quickly driven towards ‘security’ courses. The terrorism course I had taught in suddenly trebled in numbers. Students were suddenly less interested in questions of democracy and other political philosophies and wanted answers for why 9/11 happened and how could we prevent it happening again.

Do you recall the response? It wasn’t to seek to understand others. It was ‘war’, a war on terror and a fight against the axis of evil. It was about ‘othering’ a particular group of people for their physical and spiritual beliefs. ‘Specialists’ on the Middle East suddenly popped up everywhere and the demand to learn Arabic increased, usually independently of each other. And there was ‘Tampa’, perhaps Australia’s turn for the worse in this unfolding new world order. (As an old-fashioned area studies-trained academic I found the mutual exclusivity of the two quite interesting…and bewildering. Not quite as bewildering as the subsequent accusation by an academic acquaintance that I was trying to be some kind of ‘gatekeeper’ via language knowledge into the politics of security.)

Those elements of political philosophy that might have taught us a little about who we are, where we fit in the world, how we might understand human nature, quickly withered, and were ‘parked at the desert’. Soon we had every possible variation of ‘security’ and in doing so, we excluded the politics of humanity, of understanding. Similarly, the courses in comparative government, of the type I taught were also phased out in favour of ‘security’ or ‘problems’ in the region.

As I observed our federal parliament’s very very sad ‘debate’ on asylum seekers last month, as I try to understand why our citizens are so disaffected with politics, as I try to encourage students to robustly engage in the polity, I am moving towards articulating the return of comparative government to the curriculum, of political philosophy, of more positive ways to represent how power can be distributed (for that is politics). The politics of ‘security’ should not be about inculcating the politics of ‘fear and loathing’ of our common humanity. Understanding complex issues is imperative, but it is not something you’re going to get in a 13-week course.

Such being his attitude, the practical politician--and this is the condition I make--should at least act consistently in the case of a conflict and not suspect some danger to the state in the political theorist's opinions which are ventured and publicly expressed without any ulterior purpose. By this clausula salvatoria the author desires formally and emphatically to deprecate herewith any malevolent interpretation which might be placed on his words.
Immanuel Kant
 ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’, 1795

I’ve started acting on this. I begin my course now with a discussion, not unlike this one here which sets out what we might think about. I begin with Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ (the first paragraph of which you’ve seen sprinkled through this post), I move towards a discussion of political philosophy as it challenges our notion of what makes humankind seek to solve problems through war, or peace. I want our ‘security’ to be positive and outward-looking, not inward and loathing.

And when I win Lotto, I will set up my very own P-School, an institute with a purpose to revive the fine art of political discourse and the good it should bring society, not the pettiness and point-scoring, factional fighting and narcissistic nebulousness which passes for politics today.

And there shall be courses on comparative politics! All that is old shall be new, again.
*There was a little more apprehension on my part as well and it was personal. My aunt was a pilot for United Airlines at the time, on the New York route. It was a tough few hours before we had her safety, albeit a close call, confirmed by my uncle.