Q: What is ‘The Trickster’s Guide to Geopolitics?
A: A blog about taking an outsider perspective towards issues related to geopolitical strategy.
Q: What are Geopolitics?
A: Good luck getting one definitive answer on this from multiple sources. Basically, its the study of how geography and politics come together to make strategy. It is especially common to find when discussing great power politics, strategic rivalry, and alliance networks, as well as conflicts. There are many schools of geopolitics, and many of them are quite frankly ridiculous, so its a real mixed bag. But as geopolitical thinkers influence policymakers around the world it becomes all the more important to study the bad and good alike as well as every shade in between.
Q: What is a trickster?
A: The trickster is something that appears in many if not most mythologies around the world. It is a type of culture-hero, partially base and partially divine. Its role is to go against the grain, parody human or animal instincts, and call into question received wisdom. For good or ill (or most often neither) when Trickster arrives nothing stays the same. Famous tricksters or trickster-like figures in mythology are Hermes, Coyote, Raven, Monkey, Anansi, and many others. In Japan there is even an entire species of tricksters, as the local raccoon-dogs (tanuki) are viewed in their mythological form.
Q: Why start this blog?
A: I have been told a few times before that I should have a blog, especially given my love for debate and discussion related to foreign policy issues. Considering my interest in mythology and also not adhering to received wisdom, a trickster theme seemed the best way to make it more unique than Yet Another Foreign Policy Blog. It has also been one of my pet causes ever since I started graduate school in International Relations to reintroduce the primary status of history in understanding the topic. Theory A and Theory B might be useful for this and that, but only real case studies offer illumination on more relevant and often ignored factors such as random circumstance, incompetence, and people’s more instinctual response to crisis.
Q: I’m a first or second year IR undergraduate and I *need* to know what your theoretical framework is!?
A: Well, because its about geopolitics without an automatic ‘critical’ thrown in before the word as a prefix you can probably guess that this blog leans realist. It is not, however, doctrinaire realist and is critical of many varieties of ideas inherent in contemporary realism. Expect more posts on this later, but needless to say the blog leans most strongly in the direction of unorthodox realism, particularly towards Neoclassical Realism. Nothing is a perfect fit however and some sampling from other theories will certainly occur if the topic makes it relevant.
What is realism?
Q: Another question which could have many different answers. I would eschew most of the contemporary theoretical definitions and take it back to basics: deception, intrigue, and power-all in the service of self-interest. The state is the main actor on the international scale, and no organization is capable of regulating their behavior but themselves. Think Machiavelli, Han Feizi, Kautilya, Thucydides, Kissinger.
Q: Isn’t realism quite an establishment theory for a ‘trickster’ blog to be focused on?
A: Not really. There are a couple reasons for this which may lead to more in depth posts in the future, but for now it suffices to put them simply:
1. The United States of America is the most powerful country in the world and, despite the perceptions of Europeans to the contrary, is not primarily a realist country. It slides around the scale of militarized liberalism with only occasional flashes of stone cold realism. I have also come to increasingly suspect that many aspects of the U.S. foreign policy establishment actually believes their own civic mythology.
2. Realism does not guarantee success. As Sun Tzu, one of the first strategists, first postulated, surprise and doing the unexpected is key to good strategy. A predictable realist is unimpressive and just as likely to be taken for a ride by a smart strategist as anyone else. Therefore, this blog is just as likely to critique rote realist thinking as anyone else.
3. Like the trickster, and the things he parodies, realism is a selfish and competitive philosophy fueled by appetite (in this case for resources and territorial control).
4. For a political theory, realism is pretty apolitical. There are left wing and right wing realists just as there are left wing and right wing idealists. A good realist can understand good strategy on the international level without undue interference from their domestic views as a big part of being a realist is to reject universal values and to deal with other countries based on what they can give you strategically-not what their internal structure is like. Think about the Sino-American alliance in the Cold War, both were more threatened by the USSR than each other and so a communist one party state and a capitalist democracy stopped being foes and started being de facto allies.
5. Finally, realism is the only IR theory which is definitively *not* Eurocentric. All other IR theories were made by Europeans alone to fit fashionable intellectual fads of their times to varying degrees. This doesn’t mean they are always wrong, but rather that they lack a historical global perspective. Almost every literate culture has left something akin to a realist text. Much like the trickster figure there are commonalities and differences from culture to culture. This is a rich and globally inclined topic to study, and one I no doubt will examine in the blog.
Q: What got you into International Relations in the first place?
A: I have traveled alot internationally on the cheap while getting an undergraduate degree in history. My own travels I saved up for as well as Semester At Sea (the greatest experience a student can have-no really). If you smush those things together in the formative years you get a strong desire to damn the risks and jump fully into graduate school in IR, which I did in Britain.
Q: So your nationality is?
A: American, but having gone through my entire IR education in the UK and being most influenced by Chinese and Arab strategic thinkers, you can hardly expect this blog to be very reflective of my nationality. Its written for anyone interested in geopolitical strategy no matter where they come from.
Q: Why should I believe anything you say?
A: You shouldn’t. You should always be critical and do your own research if you want to know more. Furthermore, its a blog not a peer reviewed article. The views here are only my own and serve a critical and editorial purpose. I have actual publications out there and this is meant to be much more informal and assessable than those.
Q: So, what is the general philosophical / ethical position here?
A: To put it in extremely nerdy terms because I do in fact have a humongous amount of experience playing and hosting tabletop RPG’s: This blogs moral alignment moves around between True Neutral and Chaotic Neutral.
I got asked by a few people for more detail on my own world view in general and ended up writing a somewhat expanded take which I’ll put here for anyone more interested in going outside just the IR framework:
I started out adulthood as a typical American liberal-libertarian but changed a lot through the study of history-which is one the key reasons I have become adamant that to really learn history must inform philosophy and not the other way around in one’s informative years.
I dont have a value system in the sense of some preexisting established thing I consult before I analyze the world aside from a bland net ‘lets reduce suffering if possible’. My personal views and political views have some degree of separation (I am personally a tragicomic Cioran like antinatalist who agrees with Boyd Rice’s pithy statement ‘the more you know the less you care and the less you care the more you know’ but also realize this is unworkable for most people and the need to come up with a political system with group appeal and a strong definition of civic virtue is necessary and desirable-also to reduce public health threats that make everyone more miserable in the Shopenhaurian or Epicurean sense).
When Im being flippant and just summarizing-and only referencing modern figures for accessibility- I often say Im the mid point of a triangle with Kemal, Tito, and Nixon as the outer points and I hover around between depending on the issue. But really it boils down to what is observable in the humanities across different societies as general patterns-understanding politics (but not the technological context of it) as cyclic rather than progressive, tribal (in a governing class rather than ethnic way-Ibn Khladun’s Assibyya or ‘group feeling’, could also be called pragmatic solidarity to make competition more effective) and very much rooted in the predetermined options made available by geography and material factors. Also being able to rate societies and eras success and failures on their own contexts rather than some imaginary universal morality while still retaining the ability to state that one can find some things more personally preferable than others. I mean, the most long term successful forms of government in history for longevity are dynastic China and Ancient Egypt, but I don’t desire to live under either really. One conclusion that can be made across the board, however, is the dangers of monotheism and modes of thinking like it and derived from it, as it overrides the ability to make complicated appraisal and still retain the ability to judge things at the same time. This is the core of my objection to seeing policy through either Jesus or Kant, effectively. Nuance of thought requires setting aside the biases of monotheism (or Plato) and the idea that any society can bring about a universal teleology. In the end, no matter what I or anyone want, I do think the humanities is just our own sub set of zoology and we could probably learn from many zoologists of pack animals some ways to better put the humanities in context. The separation of man from animal was an error, and the only difference I see is that our hubris is larger and causes us to be far less rational than most other species. Hence the necessity of the humanities to look further into this problem.
The apparent irony, of course, is that I appear to become more left wing with time as a consequence of becoming more philosophically conservative (in the old pagan way). But this makes perfect sense to me as in a world of rise and fall and more chaos than planned order it becomes apparent that human vs human struggle is inevitable. There is no final end point save extinction, and that group solidarity and social mobility are the only things that can make an effective (if temporary) new government when an old one starts to outlive its usefulness, which all forms of government will inevitably do. As Khaldun said ‘blindly following ancient customs does not mean the dead are alive but rather that the living are dead.’ Even that terribly boring grandma worshipper Confucius could see this, so it would do well for our contemporary political class to be able to see it too. Not to mention that we clearly need to look at alternatives to deal with the crisis of the anthropocene.