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1.2: Characteristics of World Politics

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    1. Nobody is in charge. A continuing feature of world politics is that there is no overall authority such as the federal government in the U.S. Each country has sovereignty, which means that it has the authority to make its own domestic and foreign policies.

    The notion of sovereignty came about after the Thirty Years War killed about one third of the European population in an orgy of battles, massacres, atrocities, starvation and switching sides. The weary survivors agreed in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that maybe it wasn’t so important after all whether a kingdom was Protestant or Catholic. Each ruler could decide for himself the religion of his state. From this beginning arose the notion of sovereignty, or the ability of each country to decide its own domestic and foreign policies.

    The flip side of sovereignty is that each country is on its own, plus whatever support it can gain from allies and international organizations. Technically, this is called anarchy, but this does not imply the colloquial meaning of "chaos." There is plenty of order in the system, since most nation-states follow the international rules. However, there is no formal authority enforcing the rules. Each country follows what it sees as its national interests. For instance, North Korea believes it is in their interest to have nuclear weapons to increase their power in the world system and as deterrence against a U.S. attack. We can’t call World 911 to stop their program because there is no World 911.

    Nation-states frequently work together when it is in their interests, sometimes within organizations such as the United Nations. For instance, after many years of negotiations, in 1983 the U.N. put together a comprehensive Law of the Seas Treaty, which made activities on the oceans much more orderly and predictable.

    On the other hand, nation-states sometimes do not follow international law and violate the sovereignty of other countries. For example, since 2015 China has illegally taken over seven islands, built military bases and claimed 90% of the South China Sea, ignoring the rights of seven other countries. In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq without U.N. approval and in spite of disagreements from many of its allies. Russia invaded its tiny neighbor Georgia, took over the Crimea and occupied part of Ukraine. Israel has built hundreds of illegal settlements in the West Bank. There is no world police to stop any of these.

    In Syria, fighting between rebels and the dictatorial Asad regime has killed about 500,000 people. Russia has backed up the government, its longtime ally, with planes, supplies and troops, totally destroying the ancient city of Aleppo and other communities. Iran also supplies also the Syrian government with weapons and fighters. The UN is helpless to stop the killings because Syria exercises its sovereignty in refusing to allow any outside intervention, and the Russians and Chinese support them in the UN Security Council.

    2. Nation states are still the primary international players. Although international organizations such as the United Nations and other nonstate actors such as ISIS and Coca Cola are much more numerous and important, nation states remain the primary players in world politics. This is despite repeated predictions that they will weaken and eventually disappear. Ain’t gonna happen in the foreseeable future. Within international organizations, nation states are again the main players.

    3. Domestic factors affect world politics and vice versa. In order to stay in power, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised the anti-European Union faction of his Conservative Party that he would hold a national referendum on whether to stay in the EU. To everyone’s shock, in 2016 the country narrowly voted to leave (Brexit), which is causing all kinds of problems in a country that imports 70% of its food from Europe. On the other hand, leaders sometimes use foreign policy to gain stature and win elections (e.g. Bush 2 used 9/11 to win in 2004), while failed foreign policies can result in leaders being pushed out of office. (Lyndon Johnson did not run for re-election in 1968 because of the Vietnam War. Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair lost in 2007 because of the Iraq War. U.S. Republicans lost in 2008 partially because of the Iraq War.) Political parties, the military and other bureaucracies may want or oppose war. Domestic industries complain about foreign imports and demand help in increasing exports. Exiles from other countries try to affect policy toward their home country. For instance, Iraqi exiles had a big influence on the decision to Invade Iraq in 2003.

    4. Perceptions Affect Reality. Perceptions influence and can become reality. People, including national leaders, see the world through filters that organize and sometimes distort reality. For instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the U.S. as trying to hurt Russia and is fighting to regain world power.

    How maps are drawn is another example. One humorous map turns the world upside down and puts Australia at the top and center instead of ‘down under.’ Some U.S. maps cut Eurasia in half to put the U.S. at the center. Japanese maps put Japan at the center. Maps from the 1600s through the 1900s used the Mercator projection, which exaggerates the size of the Northern hemisphere, where most maps were produced. Today’s more accurate maps show that Africa is 2 ½ times the size of the U.S.

    Also, we all make snap judgments based on stereotypes. Today, many Americans see Muslims as radical terrorists and many Muslims see Americans as militaristic bullies. The U.S. obsesses about jihadists when domestic white nationalists kill many more people. Sixty percent of the population in the Middle East believes that 9/11 was carried out by the CIA and Israeli intelligence in order to cast blame on Muslims for the attack.

    The U.S. comedian Ahmed Ahmed always gets stopped at airports because there is a terrorist with the same name. He has to explain, “I’m not the terrorist, I’m the comedian.” He wonders if people go up to the other Ahmed Ahmed and say, “Tell me a joke,” and he says, “I’m not the comedian, I’m the terrorist.”

    Sometimes we interpret others peoples’ actions in a negative way while expecting them to see our actions in a positive way - ‘mirror imaging.’ Both the U.S. and USSR saw each other as hostile and aggressive during the Cold War (and are doing so again today), and this is how Israeli and Palestinian, Indian and Pakistani, and Iranian and American leaders still see each other.

    Perceptions also come from historical experience. China suffered 100 years of encroachments, military humiliations and exploitation at the hands of arrogant westerners and Japanese before becoming strong and independent in the late 1900s. They still don't trust the West and want to regain the power and respect they had in the 1600s. Russia is paranoid about invasion after suffering huge casualties from centuries of attacks by the Mongols, Swedes, French and Germans. Iran mistrusts the U.S. because they suffered under the Shah after the CIA engineered a coup to put him in office. The U.S. has been protected by its oceans and Britain by the English Channel. Both often see the outside world as corrupt, something either to be avoided or reformed.

    5. Cooperation and Conflict. There is a huge amount of unnoticed cooperation in the international system that we take for granted. For instance, an international organization called ICANN decides on each country’s internet suffix. In 2009, they decided to allow new suffixes and the use of Chinese, Arabic and other non-Roman languages. Intelsat decides where communication satellites should be placed in orbit. Even during the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR cooperated in numerous ways to avoid conflict. NATO members work together on military matters, e.g., intervening to stop the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s.

    Increased international trade and investment increase interdependence and further more cooperation. It’s not a good idea to bomb a country that supplies you with oil or computer chips.

    The G7 countries (the big democracies) meet in regular summits to cooperate in economic matters, and also in fighting terrorism - by freezing assets, extraditing suspects and sharing information. However, the G20, which also includes rising countries and constitutes 85% of the world economy, is becoming more important.

    There has also been cooperation in developing a series of international treaties on acid rain, the ozone layer and global warming.

    In contrast, the media focuses on numerous conflicts over security, trade and other matters. Usually these are resolved through diplomacy, but there are also plenty of military conflicts in spite of the United Nations and other international organizations.

    6. Continuity and change. Today, things are changing more and faster, but many things remain the same. Years after 9/11 supposedly changed everything, global trade continues, China continues to rise, and India/Pakistan, North Korea and Israel/Palestine remain flash points. The nature of war has changed dramatically, with precision bombs that can go through the doorway of a building, drones that can be controlled from several thousand miles away and cyberattacks that can cripple governments, banks and utilities. However, much of war is still being fought by infantry walking down alleys and kicking in doors.

    Today almost half the world economy is trade, travel is so cheap and routine that ordinary workers in Europe fly to other countries for weekend parties, and international Internet communication is so normal that a recent TV ad showed several guys in different countries competing in a video game. But Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood still depend on close geographic proximity. And personal relationships still count. Bush 1 was a compulsive networker - his family sent out 20,000 Christmas cards each year. He was always making phone calls, visiting and receiving visits from foreign leaders. When it came time to invade Iraq, he was able to assemble 28 allies to participate. Eleven years later, Bush 2, who had an arrogant attitude toward other countries, could only assemble a few.


    1. Give three examples of how world politics affects you personally.

    2. List five characteristics of world politics today and an example of each.

    3. What kind of a) system, b) domestic and c) individual factors affect world politics? Give one example of each.

    4. Take off all your clothes, check the labels and list the countries where they are made.

    This page titled 1.2: Characteristics of World Politics is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lawrence Meacham.

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