Debate takeaways: Bernie needs a foreign policy vision

Takeaways from the debate:

Hillary won on the gun exchange. She crushed that, and otherwise her and Bernie sparred back and forth without either candidate scoring a real blow. There were moments where they both seemed a bit unsure of themselves as well. Lester Holt gets MVP for keeping O’Malley in check.

Most interesting was Sanders’ call to normalize relations with Iran over time. I don’t think any big-league politician has said that yet. It suggests that Sanders is actually more in tune with Obama on Iran than Clinton is, and based on the diplomatic breakthoughs in the past week, it’s a good play.

But he needs to expand on it because Sanders still has no vision on foreign policy. He needs a broad narrative to tie together his position against regime change and unilateral war alongside a preference for multilalteral diplomacy and engagement with Iran and Russia.

It’s not impossible to conceptualize either. Sanders can easily invoke FDR on foreign policy in the same way he invokes him on domestic policy. Recall that FDR too sought a great power concert strategy (what Sanders is really talking about), one that involves engagement with all major Eurasian powers against a single common enemy (or alliance). It easily leads into a renewed commitment to international law and institutions as a legitimate form of international politics, and one fully cemented by FDR as well as the basis for the post-war global order.

That could be Sanders’ foreign policy vision. If he can articulate it, he can open a new front against Clinton and undermine one of her supposed strengths.

Empire and state building in Afghanistan

The Washington Post ran a report on Thursday about a little known aspect of US policy in Afghanistan: sponsorship of informal militias that pursue US counterterrorism threats. In Khost province, the CIA runs a paramilitary called the Khost Protection Force, a political-military entity that supersedes the authority of the nominally sovereign Afghan state and has committed its own atrocities:

In Khost, the KPF is more influential than the Afghan army and police, and unaccountable to the provincial government, often acting outside normal chains of command. Locally, militias such as the KPF are called “campaign forces,” an informal name Afghans use for pro-government armed groups.”

“One commander, who left the force last month, said that CIA operatives regularly hold planning sessions and that in October he received his salary directly from them. “The orders came from the Americans,” he said. They were “the real bosses.”

“Only in name is the KPF linked to the NDS,” said Mohammad Qadin Afghan, a provincial council member and former KPF fighter who maintains close ties to the force. “They still work for the CIA.”

The covert use of such proxies has been a constant and primary feature of US policy in Afghanistan since 2001. If not controlled directly by the CIA, such militias have been controlled by local warlords who become clients of US Special Forces or the CIA. These warlords then build informal power structures that undermine the formal authority of Afghan state institutions. This has been especially true in Kandahar province, the heartland of the Taliban, where the US has sponsored Gul Agha Sherzai, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and Abdul Razziq. Other regions in Afghanistan have also been ruled by warlords with ties to either the United States or other regional powers. Most prominent are Abdul Rashid Dostum of northern Afghanistan and Ismail Khan of western Afghanistan.

What’s most interesting about this detail of US foreign policy is how it resembles the ideal structure of imperialism discussed by Nexon and Wright in their classic piece about indirect rule. Nexon and Wright argue that empire is defined by patron-client relations of brokerage in which central authorities devolve power to local intermediaries. In turn, those local intermediaries enact forms of rule in the interest of central authorities, but have their own autonomy and pursue their own interests within their particular sphere of influence.

Empire works for both central authorities and local intermediaries because they can take advantage their of central positions of brokerage within the overall structure of relations. Strategically, this leads them to embrace divide and rule strategies in which the terms of rule are heterogenous among different local intermediaries. This systems is stable as long as those individuals subjugated by different local intermediaries do not communicate with each other about the terms of their subjugation, or can compare such hierarchical relations to other norms of authority that may emphasize homogenous forms of rule which should also apply to warlords.

But this is precisely the situation the United States has created. The public policy of the United States is not to rule Afghanistan through local warlords, but to support the emergence of a sovereign Afghan state which sufficient capacity to rule over its own territory based on impartial law and through formal security institutions. The United States, particularly the Defense and State Departments, have spent billions of dollars on building Afghan military, police, and judicial institutions, yet these institutions are so weak that rule of law is nonexistent and the security forces have recently lost a major city, Kunduz. What is yet to be acknowledged by these agencies is that their state building objectives have always been fatally obstructed by the terms of informal rule established by the CIA and US Special Forces.

How does indirect rule through proxies undermine statebuilding? Since warlords and militias are sponsored by the United States – the same sponsor of Afghan state institutions – they have always had the privilege and capability to wield force and violate rule of law. For leaders who have institutional roles, the fact that the United States acknowledge alternative authorities and provides them with resources to establish their own rule forces state authorities to bend the rules to deal with the power of non-state American-sponsored warlords at the expense of Afghans not associated with warlords. Thus, proxies can exploit and oppress subnational groups, and reward their followers with acquired resources.

The result is the polarization of subnational group identities and delegitimation of any claim to authority by formal state authorities. Faced with subjugation, those excluded from warlord patronage turn to rebellion.  These are the conditions that enable the Taliban to thrive and build their own alternative power that has now grown to threaten the very existence of the Afghan state.

In relational terms, the US never delegated authority in Afghanistan to a truly autonomous and sovereign state that was the sole broker of power resources. Instead, the US engages heterogenous contracting with the Afghan state and proxy warlords and makes alternative commitments of coercive support to intermediaries operating under terms of rule that ultimately contradict each other. Since the United States has sponsored multiple actors with coercive capabilities and on different terms, there’s no way the Afghan state can legitimize and enact its own claim to sovereignty unless the US ends its relationship with its counterterror proxies.

It almost looked like the United States was going to end its relationship with warlords and militias last year when the CIA made clear that it was disbanding its militias as part of the overall US withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, the Taliban sacking of Kunduz has demonstrated the minimal coercive capabilities of the Afghan state. Given the potential for collapse, the United States remains dependent on warlords and militias to prop up the state itself and prevent a major loss of territory to Taliban insurgents. Yet, as discussed above (and shown in the Washington Post article), those same warlords erode the legitimize the Afghan state.

Ultimately, our foreign policy in Afghanistan ultimately works at cross-purposes and perpetuates the very threats that counterterrorism and statebuilding are supposed to resolve.


Robust action and the patronage of Shelly Silver

Former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, was convicted Monday on seven counts involving his corrupt abuse of office. A “sphinx-like power broker,” a “master of political chess,” Silver was renown his ability to keep his true objectives hidden while directly controlling billions of state funding. This strategy yielded unchecked power that made possible his corruption, and it lies at the heart of Albany’s corrupt ways.

Shelly’s modus operandi isn’t novel to his time or even democratic institutions, but is typical of politics defined by patronage.  Shelly excelled at robust action, a strategy originally discussed by Padgett and Ansell in their analysis of the rise of the Medicis in 15th Century Florence. Robust action is the ability to exploit a central position among weaker clients by making contradictory promises of future support. This is technically known as multivocal signaling but colloquially as “talking out of both sides of one’s mouth” or “playing both sides”. This a brokerage strategy enables a patron to maximize freedom of action while avoiding present commitments to clients that limit future choices.


When we think about the power of Shelly, we’re really considering his mastery of robust action and control over his own patronage network. As “the Sphinx”, Shelly never revealed his true interests during the all-important budgetary and legislative cycles. He promises his supporters that he’ll do the best he can in the context of ‘three-men-and-a-room’, the backroom negotiating process that defines Albany lawmaking. If he can’t pass a client’s interests into law, he blames it on the Governor and the Senate Majority Leader and says maybe next time.

That doesn’t mean that all clients are equal. Some have resources and influence that Shelly himself needs, and so they tend to get rewarded than their weaker counterparts. The opaqueness of Shelly’s intentions as well as the secrecy that involves negotiations among the leaders and governor serves to conceal the true nature of alliances and loyalties within the Capitol.

Take two clients of Shelly’s patronage with diametrically opposed interests: the renters lobby and the real estate lobby. Every few years, these interest groups battle over new rent regulations and tax loopholes and abatements that developers use to reduce property taxes on luxury housing.

As the legislature’s leading Democrat, Shelly’s liberal-progressive ideology would suggest that he (and the New York City dominated legislature) would go to bat for the renters, who represent the working and middle class of the five boroughs. Yet millions in potential campaign donations and the support of the most powerful and wealthy landlords in North America make the real estate lobby a potential friend of anyone in Albany.

We always wondered how Shelly managed to juggle these competing interests while bargaining with the Governor and the State. Generally the tenants always got the raw end of the deal, and now we know why. Shelly made millions in legal referrals for tax certiorari work initiated by Glenwood Management, the state’s top political donor (they gave a million to Cuomo in the 2014 cycle). Part of Preet Bharara’s successful conviction of Shelly stems from the implicit quid pro quo offered in this deal: Shelly gets referrals from NYC real estate while he looks out for them in Albany.

Shelly always told the tenants the Assembly was on their side, and then they learned he played them the whole time. His arrest and indictment led renters’ advocates to wonder why Shelly got minimal positive changes to rent regulations in 2011, yet spun the outcome as a great victory in the defense of affordable housing.

“Silver was not forthcoming about what he was working to achieve,” McKee says. “Silver always presented himself as pro-tenant, but who knows what happened behind closed doors?”

Shelly’s game was multivocal signaling, promising competing clients to support one side against the other while veiling his final position. His ability to engage in robust action is a function of his centralized and personal control of budgets and lawmaking, which was sold to a handful of other highly influential actors while making promises to weaker ones which were never fulfilled.

While we should damn Shelly for his monumental corruption, we should take a lesson from his lawyer’s defense during the just completed trial. Steven Molo argued that Silver was just following the ways of Albany, that his activities were just the way business is done.
And he’s absolutely right. But the problem isn’t simply the illegal actions of Silver (and perhaps the entire process of Albany lawmaking). Albany’s corruption relates to the way state government concentrates power in the hands of its leaders, a system that Peter Galie has called “democratic centralism.” The fact that lawmaking takes place via backroom negotiations rather than through an institutionalized legislative process of budget drafting and ending in a conference committee enables leaders like Shelly to pick and choose winners and losers based on who provides the most personal benefit.

Of course, democratic centralism isn’t the only problem. Leaders are incentivized to string social advocates along while rewarding New York’s power elite because the latter line the pols pockets, legally or illegally. Not only must the secretive process of lawmaking be transformed to prevent double-dealing, but so must the campaign finance system, so that representatives no longer have an incentive to choose the few while making empty promises to the many. That includes a system of public campaign financing which would dilute the monopoly on campaign participation currently held by powerful interests like the real estate lobby.

Short of a popular rebellion against Albany, don’t hold your breath waiting for that.

Yes, some things are worth dying for

“Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?”

David Foster Wallace, “Just Asking”

External sponsor cooperation and Syria’s civil war

The Syrian civil war has proven nothing short of confounding. Its complexity is a function of intervention by the major regional actors in the Middle East and as well as other great powers. The Assad regime is supported by Iran and Russia while Turkey and the Arab states led by Saudi Arabia support the rebels. Yet cooperation among Assad’s patrons is more robust compared to those of Syrian’s rebels, which have been limited among Sunni regional powers. And then there’s the United States, which wants to support someone as an adversary of ISIS but cannot find Sunni proxies with an interest in the same threat.

Given the wide range of perspectives of how the war might progress and the appropriate US policy (much of which the war has proven wrong), studying these relationships between actors inside and outside Syria might offer a better way to think about its trajectory and potential outcomes. And lots of recent research in IR on imperial structures and insurgent organization does this, especially Daniel Nexon and Paul Staniland, which they call a relational-institutional or social-institutional approach that studies social ties and broader network structures. In particular, this approach would suggest that properties of network configurations might determine who is winning and losing in different phases of the war. A grain of salt: what follows below is a speculative and informal application of one particular network concept, certainly a real historical analysis would be much more rigorous (and hey, this is a blog, so here goes).

One important property is network density, a concept which refers to the ratio of the number of possible ties between different actors and the number actual ties. Depending on this ratio, a network will be either sparse (few ties) or dense (many or all ties). Network density in the Syrian civil war would refer to all the possible ties spanning external sponsors and domestic combatants. Density is theoretically relevant because actors define themselves and represent their own boundaries in relation to others. When those relations are mutually congruent among all actors, each has a more stable identity that serves as a basis for stronger organizational capabilities. If all actors have strong relations with each other, each has a stronger identity. Domestic combatants embedded in cliques of cooperative external sponsors, a structure in which where each actor has ties to others in the network, will be stronger because that network has a higher density. In other words, combatant cohesion and coordination depends on the degree of cooperation among its external sponsors, and density is how we can conceptualize that structure of cooperation.

If true, then the network density of great power sponsors should be a major factor in driving the trajectory of the Syrian civil war. We can make a crude representation of this by charting some relationships among actors in the war. People like to make charts like this to illustrate the complexity of ties between relevant actors, but these don’t let us see how the particular configuration of ties can condition the organizational and military capacities of different combatants. I gave it a shot below.

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 7.22.26 PMSolid lines are formal ties, while dotted are informal. Ties among sponsors and combatants are those of facilitation or direct support, while those among sponsors are of interstate cooperation, and those among combatants are military and political coordination. All reflect mutual recognition of the boundaries and roles of each actor involved in a tie.

This basic representation of ties suggests that Assad’s external patrons have a more dense network: Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias all form a dense clique – cooperative ties are shared by all actors and make possible collective agreement about regional order and the roles each actor in the clique.  They form a counterhegemonic bloc to rival the mostly status quo powers, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf States, and the United States as the hegemonic guarantor of regional security. Yet the density of that latter network has fluctuated over time due to changing ideological, sectarian, and geopolitical interests. Sunni external powers states support rebels that want to overthrow the regime, but their own rivalries have previously limited support. Since the start of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been rivals since the latter supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its affiliates across the region in challenging the old order, which the Saudis sought to uphold. At the same time, while the United States supports regime change in Syria, its primary threat is ISIS and seeks to develop proxies oriented toward that adversary, not Assad. Thus, in the most bitter conflict in the region, the United States and Sunni states are pursuing different foreign policies – their interests in Syria effectively promote non-cooperation and result in a more sparse external sponsor network for Sunni rebels.

With no shared vision of how Syrian rebels fit into a restored regional order, external powers mostly refrained by coordinating their support for rebels from 2012 through 2014, and Assad recovered after appearing to fall in 2011. Since each external power pursued its interests through its own proxies, there was simply more of them with independent sources of support. The result as a more fractured opposition vulnerable to infighting among its factions. Although the absence of external cooperation limited over rebel coordination and cohesion, this context was best exploited by ISIS, which grew in strength based on informal ties to Sunni states and ties to non-state actors around the region (no, these are not pictured but are relevant). Meanwhile, Assad consolidated his position while backed by his more dense external sponsor network.

But rebel cohesion and coordination does improve as those same external sponsors engage in cooperation. Turkey and Saudi Arabia put aside their differences once it appeared Assad might be victorious and collaborated on rebel support. Their new cooperation led to the formation of a rebel operations room known as Jaish al-Fatah, which all major rebel groups except for ISIS and the Kurds. Jaish al-Fatah successfully executed a coordinated campaign against the regime in Idlib province throughout most of this year. This campaign was the main military shift that again led to observations that Assad’s position was weakening, especially as the rebels began to threaten Assad’s main base of Alawite support in Latakia.

We see this same trend – rebel military effectiveness increasing as cooperation among external powers – in the war’s current stage involving Russia’s intervention on behalf of Assad, which appears to be a temporary deepening of ties within that clique. Despite claiming to target ISIS in Syria’s eastern provinces of Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor, the offensive has targeted the Jaish al-Fatah coalition in Idlib and rebel controlled areas in neighboring Aleppo. Russian airstrikes combined with the deployment of Syrian forces supported by Hezbollah and Iraqi militias (and all coordinated by the Iranian Quds Force) are intended to drive the rebels out of those areas and provide breathing space for the regime.

Yet this increase in the robustness of external power cooperation has also occurred for the rebels, who have mostly held their own in the face of regime counteroffensives supported by Russian airpower and intelligence. Part of their battlefield success is attributed to the deployment of TOW anti-tank missiles which have been used with great success in Idlib and around Hama. Those TOW missiles are evident of increasing cooperation between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Only the United States can provide TOW missiles and previously refrained by supplying them because of fears that Nusra or ISIS would then obtain American arms (which has already happened). Those risks are now less relevant in a context of Russian intervention and Assad’s growing strength. The United States can’t accept a stronger Assad as an outcome of Russian intervention, and so its interest in denying Russia regional influence has finally led to covert cooperation with the nascent clique of Sunni external sponsors.

In each of the conflicts phases (Assad’s stabilization, the formation of Jaish al-Fatah, and the Russian intervention), changing levels of network density among external powers appears to drive the conflict’s trajectory. Given the number of players and possible relationships, its hard to see how network density can get stronger on either side, and perhaps this suggests that the conflict is heading toward a mutually hurting stalemate.

Overall, thinking about the conflict in terms of network configurations thus might tell us a lot about it. And certainly there is more to studying relationships than simply density – other properties like centrality and the presence or absence of social mechanisms like brokerage and yoking are especially relevant since they bring ideology into our explanation in a worthy way. Research that continues this relational focus will be especially insightful.

Columbus Day and the Whiteness of Italian-Americans

It’s Columbus Day, which has many people wondering why the United States has a national holiday for someone who initiated a half millennia of ethnic cleansing, a passive kind of genocide. What’s interesting is how Columbus day is about recognizing Italian-Americans as ‘white’, but simultaneously reinforces dominant racial categories that devalue non-white ethnicities of indigenous culture. Italian-Americans are recognized as ‘civilized’ alongside Anglo-Saxons, yet this narrative simultaneously represents ethnicities of color as the ‘uncivilized’ recipients of Eurocentric culture, provided by those same Italian-Americans.

Columbus Day celebrations began in New York City around 1792 and were very popular with immigrant Italian-Americans, millions of whom arrived between 1890 and 1920. The symbolism of Columbus for this group is what matters here: Columbus helped define the Italian diaspora’s identity by confirming their connection to their homeland and also their identity as Americans. In this way, the Columbus narrative discursively assmiliates Italian-Americans as an equal part into ‘white’ American society, initially established by Anglo-Saxon Protestants who otherwise looked down on the ‘ethnics’ of Italy and Ireland. The integration of previously ‘non-white’ Italians becomes complete with their successful promotion of Columbus Day as a national holiday, which is recognized by Roosevelt in 1937.

The problem with Columbus Day is that many people recognize him as an aggressor, one who begins a new historical era defined by the subjugation of entire swaths of non-European populations from around the world. Columbus is associated with the near genocide and domination of indigenous peoples, who are alternatively displaced and cleansed from their existing territory in North America or pressed into indentured servitude in Latin America. Among peoples of African descent, Columbus opens the ‘New World’ to slavery as an institution of labor exploitation. Both these groups are represented throughout the history of the Americas as being ‘non-white’ and ‘uncivilized’ as compared to the ‘white’ and ‘civilized’ European settlers who govern colonial societies.

Colombus is the historical actor who lays the foundation for these racial categories and institutions that we generally understand as white supremacy. His great ‘discovery’ is also a claim toward expropriation and the denial of indigenous claims toward not just land but status as members of a common humanity who must also be treated as equal persons.

And so today, when Colombus is celebrated with a national holiday that implies the assimilation of Italian-Americans as Americans, his image serves to remind non-white groups of their continued exclusion and subjugation, especially among Native Americans who have been confined to reservations. This is the paradox of Italian-American whiteness – we become American while reminding others that they are not. Becoming part of civilized society requires reproducing categories of racial dominance by displacing them onto indigenous and African peoples. Terms like ‘dago’ and ‘wop’ may have gone out of style, Italian-Americans should remember that they too once lived under such conditions and relationships relative to dominant whites.

The question for Italian-Americans then becomes: how can we celebrate our heritage without reproducing white supremacy? Ditching Columbus as the symbolic figure of Italian-Americans would be a big start, and certainly there are more impressive figures than he. Why not Fiorello LaGuardia, the Italian-American mayor of New York who led the city through World War II and is known as one of the most important city mayors in US history?

Even better – Italians-Americans should recall when they too were defined as ‘ethnics’ and stand in solidarity with peoples who continue to be subject to racial domination. Recognizing holidays like Indigenous Peoples Day alongside Italian-American celebrations would demonstrate mutual respect of each group’s history in the United States and promote equality instead of perpetuating white supremacy. More simply, we should stop just trying to be white.

A flashback to 1990s constructivism

Reading the news on Iran gives me flashbacks to reading Alexander Wendt in grad school and social constructivists popular in the 1990s. These scholars popularized an optimistic approach of international relations that suggested cultural change in world politics could promote cooperation and multilateral global governance. While today’s relational constructivism has largely moved toward studying social ties rather than ideas, social constructivism can still be useful in explaining the relationship between diplomacy, national identity, and future cooperation. It can certainly be applied to the current relationship between United States and Iran, one defined by new diplomatic engagement and has challenged Iran’s perception of the United States and its own identity within world politics.

Back in the 1990s, social constructivists made the progressive claims that anarchy was only what states make of it. They assumed that states were not predisposed toward competition solely because of anarchy. Instead, the effects of anarchy on competition and cooperation depended on what states thought of each other. If states spread new ideas about each other’s identities and associated norms about how states ought to behave based on those identities, they could engage in peaceful interaction as members of a common international society (Wendt basically is extending the English School). Anarchy itself is an “empty structure”, and changes in the meaning of anarchy correspond to changes in what states thought of each other, namely their identities and the perceived identities of others.

A key mechanism in constructivist theorizing is known as reflexivity, whereby individual actors engage in a critical reflection on their relationship to the world around them and realize how their actions reproduce conflict. When states think and act reflexively in relation to other hostile states, they present a cooperative identity to enemies to falsify their expectations of hostility, thereby causing both to change how define themselves in relation to each other.

These constructivist assumptions about ideas and social interaction go a long way toward explaining the current disagreements in Iran regarding its own identity and that of the United States. Since the 1979 revolution, Islamic Republic has always defined itself in opposition to the threat of American imperialism. Based on American support for the Shah as a regional client of the post-war international order, the Islamic Republic sees the United States as a constant threat to Iranian sovereignty. This assumption serves as the basis for Iran’s revolutionary identity and the perception that it must challenge the United States across the Middle East or risk domination.

However, the successful conclusion of negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and end of punishing sanctions against Iran is a major problem for its historical identity. According to Joost Hilterman, the nuclear deal is a signal to Iran that the United States no longer is pursuing a policy of regime change, in which the United States would seek to overthrow the regime and establish a new one consistent with American interests and values. By signaling the absence of such threat, Iranian elites have to reconceptualize American identity based on unexpected cooperation:

Iran’s favorite scapegoat can no longer plausibly be regarded as the root of all evil in the world…’Our Great Satan without sanctions is just not the same anymore,’ said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and supporter of Mr. Rouhani. ‘Perhaps we should use ‘lesser Satan’ now or something like that.’

Tonight on 60 Minutes, President Rouhani will reciprocate this reduction of hostilities when he says that the phrase “Death to America” – a staple of Iranian anti-Americanism – does not refer to the American people but American policies. Rouhani is signaling that the Iranian regime no longer views the United States as an existential threat and accepts its sovereign autonomy and right to make decisions about world politics along with Iran. Iran’s Foreign Minister has said much of the same.   Apparently lesser Satans can be tolerated in world politics, and even be a negotiating partner in dealing with the regions many other issues.

The downgrading of hostilities between the United States and Iran is a major challenge for hard-liners in the regime who rationalize a hawkish foreign policy based on hostility to the existing order. Certainly Ayatollah Khamenei wants to retain the existing Iranian sense of self, and has sought to reinforce it by stating that there will be no future cooperation with the United States.

But maintaining revisionism no longer make sense if the United States and other great power are willing to sit down and peacefully resolve disputes through reciprocal concessions. And neither does a national identity defined in terms of absolute rejection of the order in which Iran is now participating. Now that the Islamic Republic has taken its place within the broader ‘society of states’, a revolutionary identity is no longer consistent with the ideas about Iran held by other nations, and thus its ideas about itself must change as well.

Social constructivists can make a fairly strong claim here to explain the ongoing struggles about Iran’s identity using the concept of reflexivity. The cooperative actions of the United States and Iran – choosing to relax sanctions and commit not to use military force in exchange for Iranian cooperation – have established a new cultural context in international politics, and Iran’s identity is now adjusting accordingly. The Obama administration deserves a great deal of credit for triggering this change based on its persistent diplomatic engagement with Iran. Whether speaking to Rouhani on the phone, sending letters to Ayatollah Khamenei, or wishing Iran a happy new year on Nowruz, the administration has presented itself to Iran as a potential partner in cooperation and falsified expectations of hostility learned during the Bush administration. In this way, Obama and Rouhani are acting as reflexive partners who deliberately challenge existing beliefs about each other’s intentions to produce a new shared understanding about cooperation.

Relational constructivists would certainly oppose this explanation. They would argue that the United States and Iran engaged in bargaining over their identities using rhetorical commonplaces, which were always subject to definition and redefinition in the course of the negotiations. They would reject the idea that agent identities and structures are different kinds of things, and instead would point to the relational ties between the United States, Iran, and other actors that made such discourses of cooperation possible, namely the multilateral ties among the P5+1, which gave American promises of restraint more credibility and also denied Iran the opportunity to weaken the sanctions regime by fracturing P5 unity. Rhetorical and relational dynamics would explain cooperation, not reflexivity inside the minds of each actor.

These explanations are quite useful, and relational constructivism is a dramatic improvement on the social constructivism of the 1990s. But it is hard to think about how cooperation does emerge here without going back to the different approach toward Iran taken by the Obama administration. American identity does seem to change, going from unilateral neoconservatism to a more restrained multilateralism. As a concept, reflexivity does much of the work here, and it suggests that we shouldn’t so easily discard social constructivism as a theory of culture and identity in international relations. IR theorists might use this case as a point of departure to think about reflexivity in the context of relational constructivism. Yes, relationships matter as conduits for ideas and can’t spread without them, but those ideas have to originate somewhere.