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Taking International Relations into the Degrowth Era

By: Jack Ainsworth


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Image by Gerd Altman, from Pixabay

As a young movement, many of degrowth’s intellectual confrontations and practical obstacles are yet to come. As a normative concept with a broad scope of practical and analytical applications, we can reasonably expect degrowth to be challenged by various intellectual disciplines as its exposure increases. The challenge from the notoriously stuffy and conservative discipline of international relations is undoubtedly on the horizon; I wish to present some of the key takeaways from my own research from which we may begin to consider a degrowth-informed approach to international relations. Discussing this may provide answers to extremely valid critiques of degrowth and localism, like those of growth-minded globalists, who ask me “surely we are digging our own grave through degrowth, won’t China subsume us as we fall behind?”, or feminists and minority-rights activists asking, “how can we possibly protect the vulnerable without a centralised authority?”.

Traditional theories of international relations and Degrowth

International relations has always struggled to step outside of its traditional intellectual current. The clue rests in the name of the discipline itself; it has, for most of its history, been the scientific study of relationships between national, sovereign states.

The two most popular theories of international relations since its formal introduction into academia in the 20th century have been ‘realism’ and ‘liberalism’. Realism, simply put, sees relations between states as a zero-sum game. With the absence of a world government and a perceived scarcity of resources available for our survival, realism dictates that states attempt to accrue power and dominate over others in order to ensure their own survival. For realists, peace is merely an interlude to war. Their pessimistic view of human nature deems conflict as inevitable, with peace only being sustained temporarily when a so-called ‘balance of power’ produces a fragile restraint on violence. Liberalism, a slightly younger albeit equally influential theory of international relations, suggests that cooperation between states is possible by way of the mutual benefits gained from cooperation. Liberals praise economic interdependence as a peace mechanism, for in a thoroughly interconnected world, the war between economic partners becomes unprofitable. Liberals also put forward the somewhat dubious claim that democracies do not fight each other.

Three key problems emerged out of my research, which sought to approach these two traditionally hegemonic theories of international relations from a degrowth perspective.

Firstly, both approaches to international relations heavily rely on economic growth as a linchpin for their inner workings. For realists, economic growth is essential for the simple reason that wealth = power. Prominent real-liberal theorist Robert Gilpin suggests that “the pursuit of economic growth and the pursuit of power are indistinguishable”, for if we cannot grow our economy, we cannot maintain a competitive military. For liberals, continuous economic growth is essential to maintaining the economic interdependence necessary to keep the world peaceful. The tension here with degrowth thinking is somewhat self-explanatory, in a political economy of degrowth, economic growth as we know it must be abandoned in favour of a reduction of our material footprint and an eventual ‘steady-state economy. 

Secondly, realism and liberalism make sweeping, a-historical assumptions about human nature and behaviour, which comes into conflict with degrowth’s general intellectual approach that institutions, social structures, behaviour and the economy itself are all products and constructions borne out of our current historical conditions. For realists, humans are naturally violent and our lust for power is an essential aspect of our species. Such an assumption follows the social-Darwinist model of human behaviour. For liberals, individuals possess a natural harmony of interests, in which it is assumed that the world is on a path towards global cosmopolitanism. Enlightenment values of reason, utilitarianism, liberty, secularism and progress are deemed destined to become the essential, universal aspects of global culture. Both views of human nature are problematic from a degrowth perspective, primarily in light of their universalising tendencies. Degrowth (and political ecology as a whole) values theoretical pluralism, sometimes termed a theoretical ‘pluriverse’, which takes the view that the homogenising Western development model is to blame for climate breakdown. A diverse array of cultural, political and economic models that are particular to certain cultures and biomes is required to reverse this path.

Finally, both traditional theories of international relations are reflecting on the modern nation-state, which for its functioning requires a highly efficient, centralised system to produce the scale of growth and complexity required to remain competitive in military and economic senses. Realism and liberalism both possess highly centralising tendencies, in which power is concentrated in the upper echelons of the state and the boardrooms of multinational corporations, and in which strict hierarchies ensure the optimal division of labour and an efficient production process. Degrowth imaginaries, on the other hand, require a radical decentralisation of economic and political power, through the shortening of supply chains and devolution of political power to foster a more direct democratic approach to politics.

These two theories of international relations are products of their time and historical conditions. The study of international politics has hitherto reflected the characteristics of the Western development model, one of perpetual war in pursuit of new commodity frontiers to fuel our insatiable desire for economic growth, compounded by the unwavering dominance of top-down patriarchal authority, and the historical hijacking of Christianity to thinly veil our chauvinism in a divinely ordained cloak.

Furthermore, international relations remains tightly bound to what Robert Cox calls ‘problem-solving theories’ of international relations, in which scholars observe our system, try to identify patterns, and attempt to predict how we may orient our actions to prevent these problems in the future. This approach sums up why many scholars deem international relations to have largely been a “failed intellectual project”. Therefore, we must re-orient the discipline towards a more active and interventionist approach, typified by the burgeoning ‘critical’ school of international relations. By interventionist, I mean that international relations must cease to be simply an analytical reflection on reality. Rather, we should seek to actively incorporate international relations into political praxis and shape it into a more desirable form with specific, liberatory objectives. Our economic and political architecture are both inventions, created by humans for certain objectives and the international political system is no exception to this rule. It is not like many would have you believe, subject to eternal laws or constrained by assumptions about human nature.
 Unless the future takes a bizarre turn, and humanity is united in one country under the flag of ‘DegrowthTopia’, in which the only ‘enemy’ that remains is the extra-terrestrial, the puzzle of how we relate and interact with those beyond our borders and communities will remain. It would be ridiculous and dare I say negligent to assume that violence will simply disappear in a political economy of degrowth and that our nuclear arsenals will go up in a puff of smoke as soon as we begin to degrow. We must be theoretically and practically prepared to have these conversations about how best to protect ourselves and others in a decentralised future, for degrowth thinking has mostly avoided the topic until now.

International Relations and Degrowth: two proposals

I wish to offer two tentative proposals for considering a degrowth-informed approach to international relations. From a theoretical perspective, an appreciation of complexity is a sensible starting point. Complexity theory has its roots in systems theorising, put simply, it suggests that due to the unpredictability of all of the systems that construct our reality, one-size-fits-all approaches to controlling these systems are misguided. Dr Elizabeth Sawin notes that we continue to act as if the world is infinite, simple, and disconnected, thus making it easily controllable. The opposite is in fact true. The world is finite and connected in webs of mutual causality, most of the effects of which we cannot feasibly predict in the long term. The takeaway from this for thinking about international relations is simple: we must abandon dogmatic and totalising approaches to international relations and instead seek to understand, on a case-by-case basis, problems specific to certain contexts. Specific problems require specific solutions that are informed by local knowledge, contextual understanding, and an air of caution for the potential unforeseen future effects of our actions.

In a more practical sense, a convivial approach to the possession of the tools of violence may better help us consider defence and security in a political economy of degrowth. Arms adorn our military parade, reflecting the power of the beholder, our nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles represent what is supposedly required to defend ourselves from outside threats. When considering what defence will look like in a political economy of degrowth, two things must be considered: what tools do the political entities of a degrowth society require to protect themselves, and if they require less sophisticated tools than the ones that we currently possess, what should we do with the tools that we no longer need?

I suggest that in a decentralised society, in which power is transferred to the municipal level, certain defence mechanisms may be necessary in order to ensure the security of those living in each community. Arms, if their use continues into a degrowth paradigm, may be owned in common, as they are in Rojava, in which collective participation in policing and defence exists, with those defending their community being wholly answerable to each other and their community, rather than a higher authority. The defence of a municipality would theoretically require relatively modest tools, leaving the question of what to do with our weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) up for debate. The possibility of democratic ownership of nuclear weapons seems far-fetched even for the most fervent direct democrat. The mere existence of WMDs is a product of the centralisation of power, leading me to assume that a degrowth future would be hard to wed to a nuclearized world.

Continuing to introduce degrowth into various intellectual traditions is essential for its progression as a normative political economy theory. The ideas raised in this article are discussed in greater detail in my own research dissertation, which I hope will be one of many forays into a greater dialogue between international relations and degrowth.


About the author

Jack Ainsworth

Jack Ainsworth is a final-year international relations undergraduate at the University of Exeter, UK, dedicated to forging intellectual pathways between international relations theory and degrowth, with the aim of understanding how peaceful relations between polities may be fostered in a political economy of degrowth.

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