Posts Tagged ‘Max Weber’


Hegel and the Plurality of Public Diplomacies

July 26, 2018

I kind of realized that these two posts can be boiled down into a much simpler form by stealing from Hegel (not many things that this applies to I suspect).

In a nutshell Hegel’s theory of the state (chucking the dialectic of out the window ) is this.  There is civil society: there are lots people pursuing their private interests.  This is good and produces the dynamism of the modern world.  The problem is that many of these purposes produce conflicts and negative results.  This means the job of the state is to produce unity from this diversity.  Fortunately the modern state is run by functionaries who form a ‘universal class’ rising above the particular interests of different groups in society and by doing so promote the advance of Reason.

Hegel’s theory was aimed at those (ie the liberal tradition) who did not see any fundamental conflicts within civil society and for whom the state was at best a minimally necessary supplier of police and courts.  Marx took the view that the dominance of a the economic conflict in society was such that job of the state was to help out the capitalist class.  After the revolution though the central conflict would disappear and with it the need for a political state.

Max Weber was rather more pessimistic about the universal class seeing them as acting on a basis of rules and narrow calculations of relations between means and ends rather than any grasp of a higher Reason, not to mention their propensity to defend their own interests.  More broadly the analysis in my earlier posts suggests that Hegel rather overestimated the capacity of the state to actually unify things, its more that the state comes to reflect some of the tensions within civil society.

What is interesting is that the historical and empirical record of public diplomacies fits extremely well with the concept of a tension between a plural civil society/unifying state.   On one hand civil society actors constantly try to enrol the support of the state for their projects while states struggle to impose some sort of strategy or order on civil society (and also themselves), hence the search for the holy grail of the modern state; coordination.

Some of the different ways in thinking about public diplomacies/cultural relations/soft power come from looking at the field from a top down (state) or a bottom up (civil society) perspective.

  1. Although they appear very different concepts of political warfare and nation branding can both be seen as  efforts to produce a single point from which a whole range of public diplomacies can be organized into a common programme.  In practice the more stringent the unification the harder it is to produce it and the less time it can endure.
  2. ‘Soft power’ is applied as a catch all term to some of the more desirable bits of civil society even though they they are frequently incoherent or even contradictory.  A soft power strategy needs a capacity to choose.  Efforts to estimate soft power are basically about counting all manner of shiny things and saying that having shiny things is good.
  3. In policy terms the real challenge is to recognize there is a tension here and to find ways to produce sustainable coherence or managed diversity.  In research terms the issue is to understand variations across countries and across time.


On Hegel I looked at:

Avineri, Shlomo. Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Hassner, Pierre. “Georg W.F Hegel.” In History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, translated by Allan Bloom, Third., 732–60. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity : Twelve Lectures. Cambridge: Polity in association with Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Edited by Allen W. Wood and Hugh Barr Nisbet Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011.


Public Diplomacies and the Pathologies of Liberal Statecraft

March 29, 2017

Judy Dempsey at Carnegie Europe has offered some suggestions about what the EU can do in response to the cycles of protest and repression in Belarus and Russia, she calls for a public diplomacy response: broadcasting, internet freedom, student exchanges and preparing for the day after Putin and Lukashenko by supporting opposition movements.

Seems reasonable but it also seems to reflect the basic patterns of Western statecraft over the past 25 years: make some tactical responses and wait for history to do its job.  The problem is that is precisely what has produced situations like Syria or Libya.  It’s like the plan of the underpants gnomes: phase 1: steal underpants  phase 3: huge profits while  phase 2 is a blank.

It also reflects an older realist critique of liberal statecraft and its displacement of politics. Reinhart Koselleck makes the point that enlightenment political thought shifted the moral and political burden of revolution onto History ie revolutionaries don’t kill people, History does.  Max Weber’s demand for an ‘ethic of responsibility’ is for politicians to deal with the consequences of their choices and not to retreat behind empty formulae or abstract categories.

In confronting the situations in Russian and Belarus the position is effectively we support regime change and we’ll take some steps that possibly push things in a regime change direction but we don’t want to take responsibility for this. What we don’t want to do is to think through possible consequences, for instance Russia deciding to ‘help’ in Belarus, or to recognize that not all values are consistent with each other and that choices need to be made about which should be prioritized.  It is this refusal to recognize, let alone fill, the space between the present and History that creates the impasse of Western statecraft.


Ask Max Weber: What’s Wrong With British Foreign Policy

May 20, 2015

Britain’s lack of appetite for international affairs attracted some negative commentary during the election campaign, even the Iranians weight in calling for a more active foreign policy. Given that there’s a widespread belief in Iran that the British are as malevolent as the Americans this was a pretty big deal. The three main parties all had pretty much the same foreign policy in their manifestos so it wasn’t going to become a big issue.

So what’s going on? One explanation is that it’s to do with popular war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan. Public opinion won’t wear an active foreign policy. Given that Chatham House’s regular survey continues to show 60% support for a significant international role I’m not convinced. In fact Max Weber offers an alternative explanation; it’s the elites that are the problem.

Weber’s argument goes like this.* Support for active foreign policies come from elite groups who gain material (arms contracts?) or other benefits (status, promotions) from success in the international sphere. The success generates prestige that serves as one mechanism to legitimize the elite. In this scheme nationalism is the tendency of the ruled to identify with the rulers – and the more successful they appear to be the more popular they are.

So how is British foreign policy going? Well we invaded Iraq and then having told everyone we knew what we’re doing discovered that we didn’t. The army decided to have another go and got us involved in Helmand, and made it clear that we still didn’t know what we were doing. David Cameron’s Libya mission has gone south and on Syria I’m not convinced that he was really trying that hard. The political, military and foreign policy elites have all been thoroughly deflated on foreign policy. The politicians don’t know anything about foreign affairs and are more interested in clinging to office. I get the impression that senior military, FCO, and intelligence people are anxious to pass the buck – which explains their enthusiasm for the NSC. And the Iraq fallout isn’t over yet because we’ve still got the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War to come it covers the period up to 2009 which means that there are people still in senior positions who are implicated in events – so don’t expect brilliant new initiatives coming up from below to enthuse the political leadership any time soon.   New thinking is going to have to come from outside the government.

*Randall Collins discusses this in chapter 6 of Weberian Sociological Theory (Cambridge: CUP, 1986), this draws on the argument in Chapter 9 of Weber’s Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California, 1968).