Intellectual Role Playing

It’s hard to use the phrase “role play” and not conjure up images of, I dunno, inappropriate nurse costumes or something. But I’m going to try. This article from David Bosco at Foreign Policy provides a good example of the phenomenon I’m trying to get at.*

Bosco writes:

Before joining the administration, [Samantha] Power [no relation], Koh and others argued forcefully that the new court would serve U.S. interests. In 2004 and 2005, Power insisted that an ICC investigation in Sudan could “deter future massacres,” and she lambasted the Bush administration for its reluctance to refer the case through the Security Council.

Then in 2009 Power joined the Obama Administration and in 2013 was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. And her thinking regarding the ICC seems to have evolved:

In a major speech in 2013, Power suggested that an ICC investigation would likely be ineffective. “What could the International Criminal Court really do, even if Russia or China were to allow a referral?” she asked. “Would a drawn-out legal process really affect the immediate calculus of Assad and those who ordered chemical weapons attacks?”

In effect, Power was questioning the court’s deterrent effect — something many human rights and international justice activists have taken as an article of faith. Power herself had insisted on that deterrent effect in advocating an ICC role in Sudan, differing from the “skeptics” who doubted ICC investigations could change leaders’ behavior.

Out of government she’s a fierce champion of the Court’s deterrent capabilities, and in government she seems to be less so. Since there’s no reason to assume otherwise, I can only imagine her change in views reflects a sincere reassessment of the efficacy of an ICC investigation and/or prosecution.** Perhaps being in government gives one a different sense of how actors in the international system behave, a different sense of what’s possible to achieve at various levels of coercion or threat, access to a whole range of information which changes one’s understanding of what certain policies can achieve.***

If this is the case, and we kind of “know” on a meta level that extra-systemic critics are liable to make recommendations or demands that are, given the parameters, unworkable, should we expect extra-systemic critics to revise their policy perspectives from the start? Or are the policies that ultimately do get enacted the precise result of the interaction of all the extant forces arrayed at a given time, and without people like civil-society Samantha Power exerting pressure on governments their behavior would collapse to a narrower set of interests?**** The same issue might be raised with regard to the intellectual left – even if Marxism is operatively useless, did it perhaps play an important role in keeping the non-radical left honest?

And that’s why I use the phrase “role play”. Because if we do “know” that the Marxists and civil-society Samantha Powers of the world are both doing something valuable and not always proposing viable solutions to problems in the world, then their activity takes on an element of, if not role play, then playing a role. Of course, this is a highly state/establishment-centric model, and it could just as easily be reversed; the U.N. Ambassador version of Samantha Power is also playing a role with respect to extra-systemic human rights advocates.

The easiest way to get around this sort of instrumentalized view of human activity is to use a much larger timeline. Sure, in the last ten years I suppose you could argue that Samantha Power has filled pre-established roles as they relate to an established system of policy-making and governance. But over the course of the last 100 or 200 years, the very things she’s argued most passionately in support of (human rights) have gone from an abstract concern to something that can (though not always; Syria, for example) motivate governments to take decisive action and expend real blood and treasure. Perhaps by the time I’m dead her appointment as Ambassador to the U.N. will be viewed as marking the start of an era in which promoting human rights became states’ dominant policy goal.

*It’s really about how the “Obama administration went from supporting to sidelining international justice” but bear with me
**Since tone can be hard to convey in text, it’s worth emphasizing my sincerity here. I’m not at all trying to backhandedly suggest there’s anything else going on
***The remarkable continuity between some of President Bush and President Obama’s national security policies is possibly a good example of this kind of thing
****Sort of like a multi-lectical (as opposed to dialectical) process without any of the teleology of Marxism