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‘Mansplaining’ International Relations?: What Walt Misses
Posted on 21 May 2014 by Laura Sjoberg

Following the tradition of Saturday Night Live’s Father Sarducci, Steve Walt turned the “Five Minute University” from the 1970s into a lesson for the undergraduate class of 2014 on Foreign Policy yesterday, providing a five-minute lesson as a substitute for a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations. Walt’s lesson included five key concepts: anarchy, balance of power, comparative advantage, misperception/miscalculation, and social constructivism. While Walt acknowledges there is much more to know about the discipline (including deterrence and coercion, institutions, selection effects, democratic peace theory, and international finance), he suggests those might be “graduate level” and that “all you really need to know about the discipline” can be found his five-minute, five-concept lesson.

I’d like to introduce Steve and his audience to a (sixth) concept that comes from outside of International Relations but applies to it: ‘mansplaining.’ A term introduced by Rebecca Solnit in 2008, the idea has gained traction both in popular circles and in academic ones. Though many different ‘definitions’ of ‘mansplaining’ exist, a picture of Steve’s post could be in the dictionary next to mine: it is a short, humorous ‘explanation’ of the discipline of IR, from one of its male/masculine/(masculinist) elite aimed at its feminized/feminine/(female?) margins: new trainees and potential trainees. In that explanation, Walt accounts for a global political arena in which it appears that men and women; sex, gender, and sexualities; masculinities and femininities; masculinizations and feminizations do not exist. This might be where my definition of ‘mansplaining’ differs from others: I think a ‘mansplanation’ is an explanation made in a masculinized tone that endogenizes, makes invisible, or leaves out gender. Walt does this almost artfully: the global political arena that we can learn about from Walt in five minutes is indeed one where it is possible that women do not exist at all. That, among other things, makes it both a ‘mansplanation’, and deeply problematic.

My problems start at what Walt does not talk about, and continues as I read what he does discuss. Let’s start with five ideas that I’d characterize as key to understanding global politics, which Walt leaves out:

1. Hierarchy. While anarchy has been the structuring heuristic of the discipline of IR for as long as most of us can remember, its dominance is sociological, rather than empirical or even conceptual. Recent conversations about hierarchy in IR made possible by Janice Bially Mattern, Ayse Zarakol and David Lake indicate that I am not alone in this thinking: that many scholars see ‘anarchy’ as an empty signifier for the absence of structured governance that causes the turning of an (inaccurate) blind eye to hierarchy everywhere we look in IR: among people, among states, among cultures, among nationalisms, among corporations, among religions, among norms, among laws, and even among narratives of international history. Students trained to look for the lack of order in the global political arena (in five minutes or otherwise) will be startled by the rank-ordered (implicit and explicit) organization of most phenomena that they encounter in the ‘real world’. Waltz’s supposition that states are like-units with similar functions has never held up to scrutiny, and critical engagement suggests that focusing on anarchy obscures, rather than erasing, hierarchical structures in global politics, as I have argued before (along with many others). These hierarchies are based on race, gender, nationality, and class, among other factors.

2. The ‘Private Sphere.’ Cynthia Enloe once made the argument that, while it is appropriate to study global politics by looking at state governments, military commands, and multinational corporations, it is also appropriate to study global politics by looking at dining room tables, bedrooms, hair salons, hospital rooms, and other places traditionally understood as outside of the realm of the public sphere. Building of feminist critiques of the public/private divide, the argument that the ‘private sphere’ matters in global politics can be seen (and seen as ignored in mainstream IR scholarship) over and over again in contemporary global politics. The personal is international: IR graduates (and non-IR graduates) have the opportunity and the burden of their choices mattering to the structure and function of global politics; they will profoundly influence the lives of others around the world, directly or indirectly. The international is also personal: IR graduates (and non-IR graduates) will have their lives profoundly impacted by goings on around the globe. Whether it is the integral part Korean prostitutes played in the South Korea-US relationship in the 1970s or the role of diplomatic sociability in dictating interstate relations, non-elite people, households, and the political margins matter not only to the constitution of global politics but to the outcomes, and global politics happens as much in the bedroom as in the boardroom; as much in the poor house as in the White House.

3. Poverty. At least 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10/day. Even more people than that live in communities, nations, and regions where the income gap is widening, not decreasing, and purchasing power is decreasing rather than expanding. UNICEF estimate that around 21000 children die from poverty each day; that doesn’t even count the adults. Put into perspective: the leading cause of death on September 11, 2001 was not smoke inhalation or burning buildings: poverty, starvation, and preventable disease teamed up to eclipse that at least tenfold. And that happens every day. The reality is that most people in the world don’t have, and aren’t looking for, ‘comparative advantage’ – and comparative disadvantage in global politics is anything but randomly distributed. Most people most places spend most of their time trying not to starve. Nothing about global politics makes sense without understanding that, and it is a lesson that helps provide perspectives for students in any discipline.

4. Embodiment. People in global politics live in bodies. That’s why they can get sick, why they can starve, and why they can engage in feats of incredibly strength and endurance. The bodies people live in come with lineages, geographical locations, capacities, limitations, vulnerabilities, races, (presumed) sexes and genders. Whatever bodies ‘come with,’ they are also governed, (re)designed, imposed on, and injured in migration, war, labor, and other phenomena in global politics often talked about in IR in terms of transaction costs, civilian victimization, mobility, and health. Lauren Wilcox’s forthcoming book, Bodies of Violence, deals with some of these issues in impressive detail. Understanding the global political arena (from the elite to the furthest margin) as composed of bodies is an important lesson for students looking to understand how to relate to people, from next door to the next continent. An important part of understanding people as embodied is understanding those bodies as marked by (located by, ranked by, and judged by) sex, gender, race, nationality, and religion. Anyone that does not understand the simple notion of ‘where you stand is where you sit’, materially and metaphorically, will miss more about global politics than they see.

5. Earth. Bodies in global politics live in the environment around us, built and ‘natural.’ The land that people live on, the climates that they experience, the natural disasters that they survive (or don’t), the pollution and degradation that they cause and/or endure all seriously influence the ways that they can (or cannot) operate as actors and agents in global politics. Even a statist interpretation of global politics needs to understand the unique position of the physical world in shaping the ways that global politics works: the ways that the distribution of water affects how states relate, the ways that mountain ranges and bodies of water delineate borders (then move), the ways that the lack of working sewage spreads disease, the geographies of urban living, the United States’ geographic ‘isolation,’ etc.

In discussing the five principles I would prioritize (but not find exhaustive), I have expressed opinions about some of Walt’s principles – briefly, ‘anarchy’ does not tell us a lot about how the world works; ‘balance of power’ is notion that ignores underlying inequalities and issues of access, not to mention the private sphere; ‘comparative advantage’ pales in comparison to comparative disadvantage; the biggest misperception/miscalculation in global politics is the tendency to ignore the margins entirely; and the social constructivism that Walt acknowledges but does not endorse is only the tip of the iceberg into how people relate that makes up the substance of global politics.

Of course, the IR ‘experts’ on global politics can explain the world without reference to any of these concepts, much less ‘women’ or femininity. Instead, they can be discarded with jokes about the ‘fear, greed, and stupidity’ of the global elite, and ‘all you really need to know.’ If Walt’s five concepts are all students remember about an IR degree, we have done them a grave disservice. The ‘good old days’ of this account of IR came (and went) with Sarducci and the ‘good old days’ of SNL – and is about as representative of the world as they were too. Walt gives a narrow, privileged, and masculinized notion of global politics with a casual tone that defines the concepts I have mentioned, and many others, not only out of its core but out of the realm of possibility. This sort of ‘mansplaining’ narrows both the substance and the audience of the discipline of IR.