Academia, government, the corporate world. They all like to have neat little theories with neat little acronyms averaging out to around three letters. Sometimes these are helpful classifications and sometimes not. Often, they seek to bring order to a chaotic world by creating an archetype for specialization.
When it comes to international affairs, we certainly have our own list of such categories. As with the other fields, some are actually useful and simplify things, and others fail in this regard. Not enough, however, accurately reflect the level of division and divergence which really are some of the biggest features of the international landscape.
I would like to introduce what I think (and hope) is an original contribution to the field: International Flexibility Theory-henceforth for simplicity’s sake to be referred to as ‘IFT’. IFT is not to be considered as an entire comprehensive theory of international relations, nor is it necessarily attached to any previously established school of thought. It is, rather, a kind of strategic observation which could be added to a variety of topics. Its very nature, however, probably jives with some topics and backgrounds better than others.
The key point of IFT is a very simple one: (1.) The ability of a state to rapidly change for pragmatic purposes, and thus re-mold its core values, the better the international performance of that state. Building off of that idea, we can follow up with (2.) the more flexibility a country has in its internal structure, the more flexibility it will have in its foreign relations. To put the negative side of it simply, if the core value of a state is survival, be it of the governing class (regime) or of the geographic entity, the sweet seductions of retrenchment or ideological uniformity are a false siren song luring the ship of state to be dashed upon the rocks. This means that the governing class cannot be allowed to grow complacent, be it with their own civic ideology or that of one being internationally faddish. (3.) Since the contexts of different states, (historical, geographic, political, etc) are obviously dissimilar, the lack of uniformity and divergence as different states compete against each other by following different paths is actually internationally useful for the political scientist, as it means that observation of this creation of new models may contribute new ideas of governance or diplomacy to those who otherwise would not experience them. Since the context of each countries’ or alliance network’s existence cannot be replicated, it goes without saying that any new ideas which one might want to adopt must be re-tooled to a new context-but to accept that there is no universal political model still opens the door for more creativity for the theorist and practitioner alike as well as the innovator learning from the experiences of others.
None of these points may seem particularly insightful or new, and in fact they are not on their own. But in an era of the contested breakdown of the grand alliance of global capitalism, liberalism, and humanism-after they themselves outlived international socialism, and both had replaced Victorian colonialism and made significant inroads at the expense of divine right monarchies, it seems important to remind scholars and policy makers alike of the deficiencies of a universalist approach to international political theory.
It has become common place enough to seem trite to cite the utter failure of ‘The End of History’ type theories. The fact is, outside of triangulating centrists and the New York Time’s op-ed page, no one really believes in these things anymore. But among certain influential chattering classes, some scaled down (and often militarized) version of this neoliberal fantasy is still validated. Furthermore, once we acknowledge that it is precisely this order (or its remnants) which has held strategists back from really engaging in civic flexibility (as stipulated in IFT) it becomes relevant to observe that whatever one makes of the recent upswing in nativism (I am, personally, not a fan) it holds the advantage of being more beholden to local circumstances, and more willing to diverge rather than being a movement with global pretentions. The common insult ‘globalist’ used by people of today’s right actually speaks a grain of truth, if sloppily applied.
To build off of that example, the liberal order itself came to defeat the socialist alternative not based off of ideological or economic superiority, but rather, according to IFT, because it was more flexible to adaptation than its primary competition. The political and economic systems of what was called the Free World were actually extremely divergent from one other, their common interest largely being either geopolitical opposition to the expansion of the USSR’s power or local opposition to the spread of communism in the near abroad. It really was an alliance of convenience, and only when things were clearly swinging in the direction of the United States did it start to become a proper ideological and international project. Compared to the explicitly international objectives of the socialist bloc, this gave a flexibility advantage to the goals of the alliance. Meanwhile, in the socialist bloc, the attempt to hold it together (under Moscow’s thumb) as a cohesive and more uniform alliance exacerbated the Sino-Soviet Split and the alienation of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia itself, most famous today for its messy breakup (I would add as an aside, inevitable since 1919 and hardly reflective of Tito’s government or even the Cold War) then went its own unorthodox way and succeeded, despite its many handicaps and being one of the most devastated states of World War 2, to make impressive gains in development and diplomacy. Cuba also, more isolated by geography than anything else, entered a path that kept its model sustainable long after the end of the Cold War.
Going back to even further, the vast material supremacy of the Allies over the Axis was in part due to their more sprawling societies. Sure, someone like myself can say that the root of this is in geopolitical security, but geopolitical security can still make a state stable enough to handle dynamic pressures others cannot. The highly centralized ethnocentrism of the Axis, coupled with a single minded desire to upend the power of competitive states, made a brought coalition against them inevitable, not to mention fascism’s predilection for romantic ideals and smug sense of superiority for certain ethnic groups could be argued to have negatively affected strategic decision making from Barbarossa to Pearl Harbor. Such appeals to nativism and supremacy themselves become a rigid doctrine where people are too proud to admit error or a fate to be surpassed by another state. Pride and self-flattery are always the enemies of IFT. So too is triumphalism, as it exacerbates the dismissal of change and learning from the experience of others.
This is not a new idea. More of an experimental approach I want to throw out there and see where it goes as it evolves. In the future I would like to do a vigorous historical study covering many more eras and locations and see if a general trend emerges as theorized here. From what I know of history, I can already think of countless examples where the flexible power or group of powers had an innate advantage specifically because they were more open to change than their competition, and more willing to accept divergence from whatever their idea of the ‘norm’ was. From the Franco-Ottoman Alliance in the 17th Century to the Meiji Restoration of the 19th, it is societies willing and able to question their own status quos who have held the adaptable advantage over those who do not when competing in the anarchic inter-state system.