Ethics Matter: Chris Brown, LSE Professor of International Relations

Jan 18, 2011

Chris Brown reveals the roots of his current thinking, and discusses his views on Marxism, human rights, humanitarian intervention, direct versus representational democracy, and cosmopolitanism versus communitarianism.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Professor Brown, welcome.

CHRIS BROWN: It's my pleasure.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Let's start out by talking about some of your background. Among other things, you did a lot of work at one point on Marx and Marxism.

Do you find that those roots still stay with you today?

CHRIS BROWN: I am not any kind of economic determinist, and I've never had any sympathy for orthodox communism or the Soviet Union.

But many of the concerns that took me into that work in the first place are still there, in particular, of course, the international political economy being done by Marxist writers in the 1970s and 1980s, which was when I got interested in their work. They were driven by a concern for global poverty, the fact that large numbers of people in the world seemed to be being left behind.

That concern is still very much there for me, yes.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Do you think Marxism has left a residue in the larger world beyond the remnants of communism in Cuba and whatever exists still in China, for instance?

A good question. What it is still in China—"Market Stalinism" as some people refer to it.

Marx was a great thinker. He was also at times an appalling human being. I wouldn't deny that. But some of the thoughts he had on how the economy worked still have a certain relevance.

There's an influence that still resides in the intellectual world. I don't think it will go away, nor should it go away. That drive for social justice, the concern for the wretched of the earth, as the old anthem used to have it, is quite right and proper.

WILLIAM VOCKE: What other roots do you attribute to some of your background? What are other kinds of key intellectual sources?

CHRIS BROWN: There are three things. I studied at the London School of Economics in the 1960s, which was a time of student rebellion. It's fair to say that the LSE was the Berkeley of the UK.

That was quite influential to me in a mixed way because it produced in me a deep suspicion of the mob. At times things got out of hand and people forgot what the purpose of the exercise was, and you could see crowd psychology working.

It didn't turn me into an anti-democrat, but it made me very suspicious of direct democracy.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Quickly make a definition or a distinction between direct and representative democracy for our listeners.

CHRIS BROWN: Direct democracy is the democracy of public meetings. It is the idea that you decide everything by inviting all those concerned to turn up and vote. It actually happened in Athens. Of course it was only with the male citizens of the city, but still it was a mass meeting that decided things and sometimes decided things very badly and then they changed their minds.

A representative democracy is a situation where we elect people to represent us, and they make the decisions. That is the only form of democracy that works in mass societies, but it's also probably a better form of democracy even in quite small societies.

WILLIAM VOCKE: You started to talk about two or three other sources. One was LSE when you were there as a young man. What are the others?

CHRIS BROWN: The first was when I left LSE—I am back there now, but I was for years away from the LSE. I went to the University of Kent, which is the nearest equivalent in England to a liberal arts college in American terms. It had a collegiate system. It was based on Oxford and Cambridge, although, unfortunately, without the kind of money that Oxford and Cambridge have, it didn't really last.

It was a place which was important for me because I met all sorts of people who were philosophers and studying linguistics, and English and German literature students.

I'm an LSE boy. I had only really been at university with other social scientists. So that experience was eye-opening for me.

It led me to read a lot of thinkers. Partly the interest in Marx came out of this stage rather than earlier, although in a limited way earlier, but also the kind of post-structuralist writers, Michel Foucault, Derrida, people like that, because the literacy critics around me were talking about those. They interested me in them and I read them myself, although I didn't write much about them at the time.

When the movement of deconstruction/post-structuralism hit international relations in the late 1980s, for many people this was a great revelation and it was something that people were either incredibly enthusiastic about or bitterly opposed to.

I had been reading these guys for ten to 15 years because I had been surrounded by students of English, German, and French literature and philosophers at Kent who were interested in these figures. I took the post-structuralist revolution in international relations more in stride than quite a few other people did. I was less impressed by it but also less horrified by it.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Perhaps you could quickly define deconstructionism for us.

CHRIS BROWN: I don't think anyone can quickly define deconstructionism. It's one of those things that defies almost a simple definition.

The central idea behind it is that you have to look at a text and you cannot assume that the text is telling you what the author wants it to tell you. You have to look behind it and find out the things that the author maybe doesn't understand about their own text. How does the text work to produce a particular kind of effect?

WILLIAM VOCKE: You were going to mention a third root?

CHRIS BROWN: The third root was the discovery of the theory of justice.

I came to this quite gradually, but in the 1980s I came to realize that this was actually to some extent what I was looking for. When I was reading Marxist dependency writers talking about global poverty, they were essentially employing implicit notions of a just and unjust world, whereas the justice theorists were trying to make those notions explicit and trying to say with some precision what constituted justice. I found that work fascinating.

It was reading people like Charles Beitz and John Rawls. That whole body of work was a third area of influence.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Would a fair but simplistic summary be that the Marxist material focused on social justice, the slight skepticism about direct democracy came from the London School of Economics, the need to look behind things came from the deconstructionist and post-structuralist international relations, and then the whole social movement have been the core pieces of your intellectual roots?

CHRIS BROWN: Yes. I have to admit that I've never really put it together like that, but it sounded okay when you said it.


WILLIAM VOCKE: It also makes sense. The progression there is very clear, and it looks like, as you said, that the key thing you've been focusing on is what constitutes justice in international relations.


WILLIAM VOCKE: What do you think of as the key concepts or ideas that you have focused on in international relations?

CHRIS BROWN: I find that to be a difficult question to some extent because if I were to analyze myself, I would say I was a better critic than I was a creative writer.

If I look back on my career, it's much more a question of jumping from area to area and exercising critical judgment rather than developing a big project. But still, that is not an answer.

I would say several things. First of all, a stress on the importance of community, and in particular a stress to support the notion of community and separate identity, is consistent with a kind of internationalism, even if it isn't consistent with cosmopolitanism.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Let's talk more about that distinction between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism, or a community approach.

Could you characterize both of those and then say what your major attraction is to the more community-oriented approach?

CHRIS BROWN: A cosmopolitan approach looks at the world without privileging the status of the individual states and communities that make up the world.

Most cosmopolitans would accept the idea that we have separate jurisdictions and states, but they would assume that they are of secondary importance to our global allegiances. Those global allegiances might be based on a religious conception of the world or they might be based on a kind of secular humanism, which treats all individuals as equal worth and refuses to distinguish between citizens and noncitizens.

The more communitarian position argues that the distinction between citizen and noncitizen is very important, that we have obligations to our fellow citizens that are stronger than the obligations we have to the inhabitants of the world in general, and we shouldn't confuse the two. There is a natural progression from the obligations we have towards friends and family outwards to the obligations towards fellow citizens and then onwards to the global situation.

WILLIAM VOCKE: That would seem to lead towards a nationalist orientation or an orientation that focuses on the tribe or the group to which you feel the strongest bond, and yet you said you were an internationalist/communitarian.


WILLIAM VOCKE: Help me with that.

CHRIS BROWN: If by a nationalist you mean somebody who thinks that the only obligations we have are towards our fellow citizens or fellow tribe members, then I am very much against that. As far as I'm concerned, we have obligations towards everyone, but we have stronger obligations towards those people with whom we are most closely engaged.

I would distinguish my kind of internationalism from the more brutal kind of nationalism because I want to acknowledge that there are obligations beyond the frontier. There is quite a gap between those within the frontier and those on the other side of it.

The kind of position I am taking is not a million miles away from the position that most statespersons would take within the western world. They would say that their first obligation is to serve the interests of the United States in America or Britain in Britain. But they would also acknowledge that they had a kind of wider obligation towards the rest of the world.

I don't think the position I am suggesting is a particularly alien one. It is actually quite common. I would contrast it with the figure who claims to be a kind of citizen of the world and give that priority. It seems to me that that never really cashes out properly.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Isn't that also a key point of distinction of Marxism, which claims that there is a universalism?

CHRIS BROWN: Marx in The Communist Manifesto said the worker has no country. He is very clear about that.

At the same time, whenever Marxist-like socialist movements have come to power or exercised power, whether as social democracies or as communist movements, they've done so within particular communities.

Democratic socialism, which is the only version that to me makes much sense, depends on a sense of community. It depends on me, as somebody who is a relatively wealthy middle-class figure, being prepared to pay taxes on behalf, to help my poor fellow citizens. That does require a degree of identification.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Part of that obligation might be that even though it is probably most important to care for the poor at home, we have an obligation also to be engaged in international aid, for instance, AIDS control in Africa.

CHRIS BROWN: That is absolutely right. But those two obligations are not necessarily in conflict. One of the papers that I've written quite recently was on Bob Dylan and Live Aid, in which I very much make that point in contrasting the kind of farm aid that takes place in America on behalf of American farmers with the kind of Live Aid project of giving aid to the whole world.

If you're only really interested in poverty when it's somewhere else, then this is not going to carry through. There is something slightly fake about that.

On the other hand, if you are concerned about poverty in your own society, then in some ways you're more likely to be concerned about global poverty, precisely because you are more rooted and have a better sense of how the world works. It is not, in other words, just a pointless gesture, which giving a few dollars to Live Aid is.

WILLIAM VOCKE: How does this focus on community and the obligations in community relate to what are often talked of as the schools of thought in international relations—realism, liberalism, neoliberalism, and constructivism? How do those go together?

CHRIS BROWN: The kind of communitarian position I would support is not an extreme communitarian one, but is rather a kind of an internationalist position. It is actually quite consistent with a lot of the normative writings of the classical realists, and indeed of the classical liberals. In both cases the writers were people who had a sense of what the global common interest was, but also believed that essentially communities have a kind of first call.

WILLIAM VOCKE: When we talk about liberalism in international affairs, we're not talking about liberal in that liberal/conservative kind of political dimension that we talked about.

CHRIS BROWN: No. It's one of the confusing features about international relations. There is not really a conservative doctrine of international relations, and so the language does become rather inappropriate.

WILLIAM VOCKE: And by liberalism we mean a focus on both values and institutions?

CHRIS BROWN: Yes. Liberal internationalism in the 20th century through the 21st has been heavily oriented towards international institutions.

I am a strong supporter of international institutions, but I don't think one should treat international institutions as though they were global governments, because they are not. The United Nations is not a global government; it is a body composed of states, some of which are very unpleasant bodies, and we should recognize that. It is not a source of deep morality to me, but I still would support institutionalism whenever possible.

WILLIAM VOCKE: What do you think that your contribution has been to the body of work that exists now in international political theory?

CHRIS BROWN: I hope I've clarified some thoughts on the notion of global justice. I've talked a bit about intervention and rights. I've maybe signposted a certain amount of skepticism about the too ready acceptance of the language of rights.

One of the most interesting areas to me, and one where in a way I have had, if not a major change of mind, at least a shift of emphasis, has been on notions such as cultural relativism and interventionism. I've tried to get over particular positions on those subjects over the last 20 years.

WILLIAM VOCKE: On cultural relativism, you've suggested that you need not move all the way down the scale to I'm okay, you're okay, everybody's okay. How can you define that there is a community that you focus upon but yet there are some universals?

CHRIS BROWN: This to me is a very difficult subject, and it is one where my thinking has evolved, although partly because the world has changed.

Let's roll the story back a bit. Twenty years ago, you did get a certain kind of liberal triumphalism at the end of the Cold War in which people did assume that liberal ideas were universally shared and that essentially you could promote a human rights culture, strengthen it, and now that communism has dropped out, this would be a relatively easy task.

At that point I was waving a flag, saying that a lot of people in the West thought that Western values were actually universal values, whereas a lot of people outside of the West were very critical of them.

I criticized liberal values because I assumed they would always be very strongly held. There was a certain amount of bad faith on my part in arguing against these values. I assumed that they would always be there, and so kicking against them made a certain kind of sense. In fact, what we've seen over the last 20 years has been a shift away from a lot of those values.

For example, getting back to where we started in this conversation, it used to be the case that Marxist groups were actually very strongly universalists. They may not be liberal, but they had universal views; they didn't have any kind of tolerance for large areas of difference in the world.

What has happened now is that certainly the small Marxist groups in places like England, France and Germany have lost that faith in universalism, and they have made alliances with some very unpleasant people.

A part of the story here is the growth of anti-Americanism and the way in which some people have been prepared to take their opposition to American power to allow them to support the positions of some people who really ought not to be supported—Chavez, the Iranians, and so on.

WILLIAM VOCKE: So taking America as kind of a surrogate for the West and Western values?

CHRIS BROWN: It is more specific than that. If you wanted to put it in a kind of dramatic way, 20-odd years ago people believed that being anti-imperialist and anti-fascist was pretty much the same thing. Nowadays they have separated out a bit.

There are people who now will support regimes that are pretty much fascist in one way or another because those regimes are anti-American, and they think they are doing this as a kind of act of anti-imperialism. I have no sympathy for that at all.

I have become much more favorably disposed towards liberal international values than I was 20 years ago, partly because the world has shifted around me in a sense. Those values are no longer quite the consensus they once were.

WILLIAM VOCKE: How does that then relate to your sense of human rights and the role that human rights and human rights institutions such as the International Criminal Court should play in the world?

CHRIS BROWN: Over the last 50 years we've increased the scale of the international human rights regime to an extraordinary extent. At times, a sense of what is really important has been lost.

If you go back to the Universal Declaration of 1948, it takes up two pages in most people's books. If you look at the most recent textbook on international human rights, it's 1,500 pages. That's what I mean by the expansion. Back then we were talking about the basics—freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom to practice religion.

One of the extreme examples is the idea that you can have a human right to two weeks' paid vacation every year. I would want to argue that it's not the same thing.

There is a sense in which the increasing details have lost the focus of the whole. Human rights has become a kind of aspirational exercise. You have something like a U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is signed up by every state in the world except Somalia and the United States, which is an interesting combination.

The interesting thing about that was that 190 countries have signed up for the International Convention on the Rights of a Child. How many of those countries are actually doing anything about it? Virtually none. It's an aspiration, in a sense.

It will be better to have a world in which you have a relatively limited conception of what a universal human right was, but that it was basically the central rights that people need in order to lead decent lives, rather than expanding it in the rate that it has gone. In a sense what that is doing is pretending that there is a kind of global consensus on these things, when there actually is not.

WILLIAM VOCKE: Is it using treaties and international conventions as a way of papering over the differences?

CHRIS BROWN: Essentially, yes.

The International Criminal Court should be put to some extent in the same category. Having an international criminal court would be an excellent idea if we had a global consensus of what constitutes a crime, a global executive, and a global police force. But to a very large extent we don't.

To create institutions which presume a global consensus when that consensus doesn't really exist is actually asking for trouble. The International Criminal Court is seen by many people in Asia as a European court for trying Africans.

WILLIAM VOCKE: It's a recipe for trouble because it then becomes something that is viewed as a tool by certain organizations, powers, interests, et cetera.

CHRIS BROWN: Yes, that's the case. It also is the case that it raises all sorts of questions about the difference between global justice and local justice. President Bashir in the Sudan has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. You might say that's a good thing because his regime has done very bad things. On the other hand, it might actually make it more difficult to solve some of the problems in the Sudan. It might make life worse actually for people in parts of that country.

There is a genuine difference between the interests of the global community in promoting a world where genocide and violence do not take place and the interests of the people of Sudan who just want the killing to stop. If the price of that had to be doing business with Bashir, then they would probably do business with him.

WILLIAM VOCKE: When you're talking about international social justice, how do you reconcile those interests, or is there a reconciliation?

CHRIS BROWN: There is no easy reconciliation. One has to look at things as they go. We need to understand our obligations to the rest of the world. We need to support the development of institutions which will help people in the rest of the world to express their rights. I haven't a problem with that.

My problem in a sense is with people who would treat the world as though that global consensus was already there rather than something that is going to have to be created.

WILLIAM VOCKE: As we talk about these issues, it seems to me that one phrase that might be used to describe many of your views is a limitationist view; limits to universalism, limits to the idea of global human rights.

Yet, you also acknowledge that universalist need and those human rights. It seems like that's a very healthy tension there in your work. Is that accurate?

CHRIS BROWN: I would hope so. There is a tension there. But if you try to get rid of that tension by denying one part of the equation, then it causes problems.

WILLIAM VOCKE: That suggests that in the discipline—and you've already suggested this in our talk—that you see yourself as something of a critic of each side, and as someone who kind of moves between camps and points out the inconsistencies in each camp. Is that accurate?

CHRIS BROWN: It sounds a bit self-serving to put it like that, but yes. I suppose I am admitting this.

WILLIAM VOCKE: The one who looks at the intellectual challenges that each side presents, and suggests alternatives to those.

CHRIS BROWN: I don't feel confident signing up for big programs. Put it that way.

WILLIAM VOCKE: How would you like your ideas to be reflected?

Do you think they are reflected, in either policy or in how people react to international issues?

CHRIS BROWN: What I would like to see in policy terms is people being prepared to make nicer judgments than they normally make.

Let me take an example of humanitarian intervention, because it is quite an important issue. I have held pretty much exactly the same views on this for the last 25 years. What happened is that there has been a complete rotation of other people around those views.

I still hold now the view I held then, which is roughly speaking, a similar view to that put forward by Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars. It is that on the whole, intervention, especially physical intervention, is a bad thing except in circumstances of genocide or enslavement or very extreme circumstances.

When I first held that view, it was heavily criticized by cosmopolitan writers who said, "No, intervention to support human rights in principle is no reason why you shouldn't do that." But, back in those days it was an entirely abstract discussion because at the time of the Cold War nobody was going to intervene for anything like that.

Then the politics shifted. I still hold the view that one ought to intervene to stop genocides. It is genuinely the case—I don't know if the debate is like that in the States—but it is nowadays regarded as an imperialist point of view. Rather than being regarded as some kind of rightwing communitarian position, it is regarded as an incredibly universalist position.

To stop a genocide, you're interfering with people's freedom. This is an act of imperialism. You get quite serious writers saying that the call to intervene to stop the killing in Darfur is just an excuse for the United States and the West to use imperialist techniques, which is nonsense.

What I am arguing there is, first of all that I am right.


CHRIS BROWN: I've held the same kind of views for about 25 years, but the debate has circled around in such a way that I have gone from originally being seen as some kind of supporter of communitarian identity, and I am now seen as some kind of radical universalist by some people.

What I would want to argue—and this is where I talk about a nicer judgment—is that people ought to be able to look at things and make judgments on the merits of the case. Instead of saying, "George Bush is in favor of this; therefore, we have to be against it," one should be asking, "Does this position make sense? Never mind who is in favor of it, never mind who is against it, is there a real problem here?"

I wrote a piece on preemptive warfare. The notion of preemption is a really important one. It deserves serious consideration. Yet, a lot of people have said, "You can't write about that. This is appalling. You're just supporting Bush Administration foreign policy." Well, I am not. What I am saying is that in a world where you have instantaneous communications and near-instantaneous threats emerging, you cannot necessarily use the same criteria for anticipatory use of force that you did 150 years ago.

WILLIAM VOCKE: And you couldn't wait until the troops were massed at the border.

CHRIS BROWN: Exactly. Back in the day, you didn't want to preempt because you had plenty of knowledge of when the attack was coming. Surprise attack was very difficult. We now know it is not.

WILLIAM VOCKE: How about the gap between the academic world and the world of international political theory and policy? Do you see that gap as being something that is bridgeable? Are you concerned with having an impact on direct policy or on the larger environment in which policy is made?

CHRIS BROWN: The situation in the United Kingdom is rather different from the United States. In the United States it is quite common for people to move between the academic world and policy. When President Obama was elected, several people I know moved into government positions from the universities. But that kind of thing on the whole is much less something that will happen in the United Kingdom.

Influence is a much more indirect thing. If you can influence the general intellectual environment, then that will have an impact. But it won't be the kind of direct one, and I don't yearn for that kind of direct influence.

WILLIAM VOCKE: You've certainly had enough impact already on the academic world and the world of thought.

Let me formally thank Professor Chris Brown at the London School of Economics for being with us today and for giving us some of his fundamental ideas on international political theory.

CHRIS BROWN: Thank you for inviting me. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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