IR Professor Interview Series: Tony Lang

Anthony F Lang, Jr holds a Chair in International Political Theory in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews and is Director of the Centre for Global Constitutionalism. He is currently one of the co-editors of a new journal, Global Constitutionalism, associate and book review editor of Journal of International Political Theory, and serves on the editorial board of Ethics & International Affairs.

Firstly, what research are you conducting at the moment?

I’m doing a paper with Michael Boyle, a former lecturer here, on the American ‘way’ of intervention. So, in essence, does the American style of intervention differ from that of other liberal nations like Britain and France. Our hypothesis is that American intervention is unique in that it tends to be punitive, that is they are trying to punish someone or something for a wrong that has been committed. Interestingly, we found their interventions lead to constitutional re-writing after the fact. All of which we argue, derive from a particular aspect of American liberalism.

Image courtesy of Tony Lang, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Tony Lang, some rights reserved.

What case studies are you using to explore this hypothesis?

We have a couple of qualitative case studies, one of which is the American intervention in Cuba in 1906. It did all these things I just said, it tried to punish, it rewrote its constitution and there is also some social engineering in the Cuban marketplace. Another one is the American intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965-66 as a part of the anti-Communist mood of the day, but also has these same elements feeding into the intervention: punishing the Dominican Republic and espousing American liberalism.

Much of your writing and research is concentrated on constitutional thought. With the recent referendum on Egypts Constitution, what are your thoughts on the likelihood of its success?

To go back, in the case of Egypt, I think the revolution was a great thing. Then you had the Muslim Brotherhood coming into power through a legitimate democratic vote. So I think the way Mohammed Morsi was toppled was illegitimate. I also tend to think he was a really bad President. He was simply unwilling to compromise or work with Parliament. He governed poorly. Unfortunately, he was toppled, but ultimately that falls to his inability to govern.

I think the new Constitution is a good one. People in Egypt want to move forward, that is my sense, although I don’t have empirical evidence to support that claim. There is a long-standing problem with the military having far too much strength in relation to the Egyptian state and this Constitution perpetuates this constitutional limitation. Though, with this said, I think sometimes Western observers of the Middle East set incredibly high standards for constitutional progress. They think it should be this perfect Jeffersonian democracy and its never going to be that way.

What do you think of Obamas foreign policy in the Middle East?

Gosh, Obama’s really interesting. I think his foreign policy is good in lots of ways, its traditionally realist – very Morgenthau-esque in my opinion, in the sense that Obama is looking to secure American interests first. He set himself up as an agent of change in the domestic context, yet he never set himself up internationally to do the same. While he had the speeches in Berlin and Cairo, I viewed that as more of a call to reaffirm American ideals and to move himself away from the aggressive foreign policy of George W. Bush.

Specifically, I think the way the USA played a role in the Libyan intervention in 2011 was quite crucial, but also respectful of the fact that this was a British and French initiative. That intervention was a major success in his presidency. As for Syria, the US doesn’t have the historical links to Syria like they did in Libya, so this naturally has made the decision-making process far more difficult. I think the place where Obama has not been so good foreign policy-wise has been his dealings with larger powers like China and Russia. I don’t think the administration has been as good at thinking about the interests of great powers like that. The people that surround Obama in foreign policy, like Samantha Powers, who are more aggressive about their humanitarian ideals (which is fine), seem to limit how the administration can interact with these larger states.

Do you see the US being the hegemonic power in my generations lifetime?

Predictions are always dangerous. But I think the more the US keeps itself out of initiatives like the ICC and Kyoto Protocol, while they are undoubtedly flawed, the more it will reduce its influence and ability to do things in the international arena. At some point, sheer military power can only take you so far. The US can continue to be a powerful country; I don’t think it will decline at the rapidity with which the British Empire evaporated. So I guess in your generation’s lifetime, America will be important, but not as powerful as Americans want to be.

There’s an image Americans have of themselves – that we are the most powerful country in the world and we will perpetually fight the bad guys, whether it be the Soviet Union or the Taliban. This is obviously false. Scholars like Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan were quite clear that America is powerful and can have a positive and important influence on the world, but if we assume that we can solve all of the world’s problems we are going to have severe problems. That’s what we had under George W Bush, thrusting ourselves into Iraq as if we were the saviour of the international system. Granted, I think Iraq is better off today than it was under Saddam Hussein, but the process and the way the Americans did that was a huge mistake.

Lastly, what work of fiction would you recommend to young political thinkers?

That’s an interesting question, because I have a love for science fiction and fantasy. There are easy answers, like every person should read Lord of the Rings. But there are some great works by the author China Mieville. He went to LSE and got his PhD in International Law and went on to write fiction in the genre ‘steam punk’. He’s written a great IR book called ‘The City and the City’. It’s a detective story in a world where two cities exist together and the people who are in the one city have to purposely ignore the citizens of the other city. There’s a police force called the Breach, who appear and punish you if you acknowledge the ‘other’. You can see the analogies between this and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how people there have to go live side-by-side, but pretend they don’t. It’s also a story about international law, because we have to live together and international law is this ‘magical’ idea that is supposed to enforce these ideas, but has a problem doing so. I would highly recommend it.