International political theory

Interviewer: Lucy Vernall (Project Director, Ideas Lab)
Guest: Dr Luis Cabrera
Recorded: 06/06/2011
Broadcast: 13/06/2011

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Lucy: Today we’re with Dr Luis Cabrera who’s Senior Lecturer in Political Theory in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. Welcome Luis.

Luis: Thank you.

Lucy: So what does International Political Theory look at?

Luis:  Well International Political Theorists are concerned with issues of justice, individual security, democracy, things that by their nature cross national borders, especially today in an age of globalization and increasing international integration.

Lucy: You’ve obviously crossed into international borders.

Luis: Absolutely.

Lucy: You’re not a Brummie born and bred!

Luis: No, I’m from the United States.  I did my doctoral work at the University of Washington in Seattle and I taught at Arizona State University for five years before coming to Birmingham, but I am now a Brummie!

Lucy: [laughing] Well welcome.  And you look at global poverty in particular.

Luis: I do.  I look in particular at the ways in which we might better enhance human rights, both economic rights, which speak to poverty, but also the other rights, political and civil rights, that individuals have through integration between states. That’s my particular angle.

Lucy: So one of the things that’s on the international horizon is the Millennium Development Goals which were pegged for 2015.

Luis: Yes, they will expire in 201 and so people are beginning to think very seriously about what needs to replace them. The Millennium Development Goals are a set of eight goals and many sub-goals, but all speaking directly to human wellbeing, to how people are actually doing in their daily lives, so things such as access to clean water, education and one of the debates that’s going on now is about whether the replacement for the Millennium Development Goal should be much more country specific or whether it should remain universal and that’s something that’s going to dominate much of the discourse around global poverty for the next few years.

Lucy: So who is it? Who’s going to decide what those replacements should be? Or who has a say in the process?

Luis: Well certainly we’re seeing the representatives of states beginning to think about these things, so it’s going to be a big topic in the G20 meetings moving forward, the G8, things like that.  But then there are also other groups including some that are new on the scene that are trying to have a more direct role. One that’s pretty exciting right now is called Academics Stand Against Poverty. It’s a group that was launched in the US and the UK at about the same time this Spring by Professor Thomas Pogge of Yale University and he’s a well-known global poverty philosopher. His mission right now is to try to make more direct interventions and to try to help other people do that too.   So we had a launch meeting for Academics Stand Against Poverty at Birmingham University in May and that was very successful. We had about seventy people from around the UK and Ireland, some from the continent, a couple from India and South Africa, come together and talk about what it is that academics could do to take a more direct role on global poverty, not just research it but go out there and try to do something to help alleviate it. And one of the things that people were excited about was having a major role in this Millennium Development Goal replacement effort.

Lucy: So what kind of thing would that be? How would that work?

Luis:  A good example would be the major initiative that’s been undertaken by Professor Pogge at Yale. It’s called the Health Impact Fund and the idea is to create incentives for big pharmaceutical companies to produce medicines for use in less affluent countries where they wouldn’t ordinarily have the incentive to produce those medicines.  So these would be diseases primarily affecting the poorest people in the world. The fund would create a pool of resources that could be used to entice companies to create these sorts of medicines and thereby to directly address some of the major problems that the very poor in the world are facing right now.

Lucy: So what else is going on in the world of International Political Theory? Obviously global poverty is one part of it but presumably politics is another part of it.

Luis:  Well one of the really interesting developments has been around global democracy. So for about twenty years now you’ve had some very prominent people saying that we need to shift democracy up above the state even as globalisation has shifted so many processes above the states of many economic and now some political as in the World Trade Organisation setting copyright laws, uniform copyright laws for more than 150 countries, which we all abide by now and these people have been arguing for primarily a second chamber of the United Nations and what’s exciting now is that we’ve seen in the last few years emerge a campaign for a United Nations parliamentary assembly and in just a few years these folks have been able to get 700 parliamentarians from around the world to sign onto this document saying ‘wow, this would be a good idea’.  At first it would only be advisory but many see that as an important first step to creating a truly global organisation where you’d have representatives who are directly elected and can directly serve the interests of the people within countries.

Lucy: So why is this necessarily a good thing?

Luis:  Well one of the reasons that people point to why it would be a good thing is because at the global level, while we’ve got a lot of governance that goes on, there’s not a lot of transparency and not a lot of direct input for people who aren’t on the negotiating teams. So for example when the WTO, the World Trade Organisation, negotiates something it’s the directly appointed representatives of the government that happens to be in power at the time. So say the loyal opposition, Labour right now in the UK, would not necessarily have a lot of voice in WTO negotiations and that’s one of the real differences between the global level and the domestic level and that’s one of the things people point to as  a reason why we should create more democratic bodies along these negotiating bodies.

Lucy: And there are those who think there’s even a step beyond that, that we could even have a World Government.

Luis: Yes, believe it or not there’s some very serious academics once again thinking very seriously about World Government.

Lucy: And you say once again because this was an idea that came up last century.

Luis:  Absolutely. In the 1940s some of the most prominent scientists, politicians, etc, in the world came out in favour very much publicly of World Government. So for example Albert Einstein dropped his scientific work practically for more than a year to stage a publicity campaign for World Government and the threat of course that made all of these folks think that World Government was the right idea, was nuclear weapons.  They had seen these two Japanese cities, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, absolutely destroyed by nuclear blasts. This was something that no-one had really seen coming and when this genie was unleashed no-one had any idea how to put it back in the bottle. World Government seemed to be one of the only ways to do that.

Lucy: And that’s come back of late.

Luis: It has, it has. The Cold War killed it.  In the late 1990s as we were seeing the intensification of the processes of globalisation, people started thinking a little bit about where all of this integration between states might actually go.  So you’ve got people like Harvard economist, Dani Rodrik, asking how far will global integration go? He speculates that it will probably go all the way to some form of world state.  You’ve got people such as leading international relations scholar, Alexander Wendt, saying that a world state is inevitable because states will demand recognition from one another and this will lead to a form of collective identity formation over the next 200 years.  Some of the really interesting theories though are the ones that deal with security, so again they’re talking about nuclear weapons and they’re saying that we’re not as scared as we should be.  So we’re living in a world where nuclear weapons have been around for decades now and we’ve actually had a couple of close calls – the Cuban Missile Crisis and a few others during the Cold War – and people such as Campbell Craig are reviving ‘one world or none’ arguments.  So he sounds very much like Einstein when he says that if we don’t get a handle on nuclear weapons, especially in an age when it looks like there’s going to be more nuclear proliferation, we’re going to see at least a regional nuclear war and possibly a full blown global nuclear war and that’s going to be the end of us. So it would simply be in our interests to begin moving much more quickly toward a World Government.

Lucy: At face value when you mention it, World Government sounds quite sinister but I suppose when you think about the potential benefits around nuclear war or even climate change then there’s something to be said for it perhaps?

Luis: I think it’s scary also the way people sometimes talk about World Government, especially if we’re talking about some all-powerful state, able to save us from certain security threats, but there are other models before us too such as the European Union.  It’s not a complete model, it can’t simply be imposed on the rest of the world but that gives us a very good idea of how integration between states might enhance opportunities for individuals, especially in the poorer states.  So if you look at the way people in Romania and Poland, say, have been able to take advantage of free movements, they’ve been able to use the transfers across borders to develop their own infrastructure and their own economies, that’s a very good model for the way integration between states might actually address global poverty and it points us to a reason to think about, over the much longer term, integrating on a much larger scale, possibly all the way to World Government.

Lucy: Well we do wish you all the best with the Academics Stand Against Poverty initiative. We’ll see how that develops and Dr Luis Cabrera, thank you very much.

Luis: Thank you.

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Lucy Vernall, and the producer was Andy Tootell.