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GKAT Events – Winter Term 2018/19

September 17-18, 2018, Heidelberg Center for American Studies

Workshop "The Shifting Patterns of Global Authority: Driving Foreign Policy Change?"

Conveners: Florian Böller (HCA) and Sebastian Harnisch (Institute for Political Science)

On September 17 and 18, GKAT members Sebastian Harnisch and Florian Böller hosted a workshop entitled “Shifting Patterns of Global Authority: Driving Foreign Policy Change?” at the HCA. One of the distinct features of U.S. authority used to lie in the self-limitation of its material power by adhering to the universal norms, rules, and institutions within a liberal world order. Because authority is a relational concept, establishing rules-based relations between a leader and followers, U.S. authority hinged on the continuous willingness of subordinate actors to support America’s course. Today, however, there is considerable evidence that international support for U.S. leadership among key audiences, its allies and partners, their societies and businesses, or tolerance by rivals and enemies is declining. The workshop on “Shifting Patterns of Global Authority” therefore looked at regional and global responses, adaptation, and changes within the transatlantic realm as well as among rival nations (e.g. China), allies and partners (e.g. European Union, Saudi-Arabia, India), and the international community (United Nations). At the workshop, established scholars as well as junior researchers from the U.S. and Europe discussed, for example, how to conceive of authority in a multipolar world and how global authority is linked to normative orders (human rights, universal values) and material elements of power (military, economy). Moreover, the presentations sought to grasp how domestic actors conceive the shifting meridians of authority and in which way policy-makers are constrained by changing power relations and shifting ascription of authority in the global sphere.

In their frame work paper, Sebastian Harnisch and Florian Böller (Heidelberg University) argued that despite similar systemic pressures, most notably through processes of cultural, political, and economic globalization, different states have chosen to support, contest, or dissent from the U.S.-led global order in non-obvious ways. To offer a theoretical framework which other contributors can build on, Sebastian Harnisch and Florian Böller analyzed the social mechanisms by which the transformation of international authority is refracted through domestic institutions, focusing on state-society relations (politicization and populism), inter-institutional relations (domestication), and state-corporate relations (economization).

China arguably presents the most serious competitor when it comes to challenging U.S. authority on the global stage. However, Deborah Welch Larson (University of California, Los Angeles) presented a critical analysis of China’s “Quest for Global Authority.” The starting point of her paper was that authority in the international system is closely tied to a state’s status. Like status, authority must be recognized by others, but it also refers to legitimacy. Larson outlined that China has professed its support for free trade, the WTO, and controlling climate change. But China would not yet have the status or authority to take the place of the United States as the leader of a new world order. While Larson argued that China has created new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, she sees them as complementary rather than competitive with the established World Bank and Asian Development Bank. For Larson, China’s authoritarian political system increases the suspicion of European countries in its future intentions despite Beijing’s attempt to divide Europe from the United States.

Mischa Hansel (Stiftung Entwicklung und Frieden Bonn) explored in his paper the use of colonial history by Indian decision-makers in response to the emergence of new international authority patterns. Hansel argued that Indian decision-makers engage in strategic framing efforts to selectively restrict domestic political space for transnational activists by making accusation of “foreign hands.” Also, and with respect to domestic audiences within the South Asian region, they seek to portray Chinese infrastructure and development initiatives as renewal of colonial asymmetries and patterns of foreign dominance. Hansel’s contribution thus highlighted how domestic actors make sense of authority shifts on the international level.

Guri Rosén (University of Oslo) presented a paper written together with Marianne Riddervold (Inland University of Applied Sciences) on Europe’s reactions to the American decline of authority. She started with the observation that since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, European leaders have been struggling to understand and accept the foreign policy strategies of the American administration. Barely recuperated after Obama’s Asian pivot, Europe now has to deal with one of its closest allies questioning not only the cost of the alliance but also the values underpinning it. In Rosén’s assessment, while the European Union largely rejects Trump’s America First approach, the member states and the Commission strive to preserve elements of the traditional liberal order, in particular in the area of multilateral trade.

In her paper on the “United Nations as an Arena of Contested Authority”, Catherine Hecht (Vienna School of International Studies) presented the results of a content analysis of UN General Assembly debates from 1982 to 2016. Hecht focused on statements that contested elements of the traditional liberal world order such as macroeconomic policies, human rights support, or military interventions. The results of Hecht’s study presented indeed a counter-intuitive finding. The overall percentage of United Nations member states engaging in contestation, in fact, decreased significantly in recent years. This indicates, as Hecht maintained, that support for the United States and for the normative order it created have to be seen separately when it comes to authority shifts.

May Darwich (Durham University) investigated the case of Saudi-Arabia and its role of claiming authority in the contested regional order of the Middle East. Darwich’s paper argued that the Saudi Kingdom’s newly-found militarism is driven by its attempt to assert its role as a regional power. This behavior, Darwich explained, must be seen as a role location process resulting from the interaction of a state and the interested audience as it reacts to cues and demands. In this bargain, actors seek recognition for their role. For Darwich, the Saudi military intervention in Yemen reveals the Kingdom’s social desire and its struggle to be recognized as a regional power.

Last but not least, Georg Wolf (GKAT, Heidelberg University) presented his paper on “Vietnam as a Transformative Moment in U.S. Authority.” Wolf’s paper examined American East-Asian diplomacy with a focus on the phase of heightened American involvement in Vietnam. Viewing the conflict from the perspective of the American Right, Georg Wolf showed how domestic actors tried to cope with the American leadership role and attempted to restore American authority during the quagmire. Wolf argued that conservatives played a central part in Nixon’s decision to seek rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China.

In sum, the workshop presented innovative and original research for the study of global authority change and the respective varying responses on the level of foreign policies. The workshop participants currently prepare the presented manuscripts for publication in a special issue format.

October 23, 2018 | 6.15 P.M.

"America’s Decade of Confusion: The Political Consequences of Financial Crisis"

Alasdair Roberts

University of Massachusetts (Amherst),
School of Public Policy

On October 23, 2018 the HCA welcomed Alasdair Roberts, professor of political science and director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. His lecture constituted the first event of the twenty-fourth Baden-Württemberg Seminar, jointly organized with the Graduiertenkolleg „Authority and Trust“(GKAT). Florian Böller, postdoctoral researcher of the Graduiertenkolleg, introduced Professor Roberts, pointing out the highlights in his accomplished academic career. Professor Roberts‘ lecture introduced the audience to his theory of sequential intervals of hubris and crisis in democratic governments and its relevance for the United States’ current political sentiment. His analysis of today’s general mood in the United States revealed an imminent sense of calamity, spread by newspaper headlines and recently published books – a sense of decay that for once cannot completely be blamed on Donald Trump. Already four to five years ago, headlines in prominent American newspapers asked „Is there something wrong with democracy?” Democracy’s apparent crisis occurred at the same time as the rise of authoritarian systems. Are democracies just not fit for grappling with twenty-first century challenges?

To approach an answer to this question, Professor Roberts consulted history. Fifteen years ago, another extreme phenomenon agitated the United States – a feeling of democratic hubris. According to President Bill Clinton in 2000, America had “never enjoyed so much prosperity” as it did at that moment in time. Moreover, the country had been immersed in a similar state of hubris multiple times before the 2000s. President Kennedy referred to similar feelings in a speech in 1962, when he stated that the “old sweeping issues have largely disappeared.” But his feeling of accomplishment was followed by malaise and the sense of a “broken democracy” in 1974-79.

“So, where are we now?” Professor Roberts asked following this historic discourse. At the moment, America experiences the “ugly” years of deep crisis. If the low point was triggered by the 2008 financial crisis and the crisis pursues the same pattern as past intervals of hubris and crisis, the American population is only half way through the current turbulence. However, this moment of uncertainty and desperation will result in the creation of a new consensus by political entrepreneurs, and institutions will realign. Professor Roberts bid his audience farewell with confidence and hope, reassuring his listeners that processes of political recreation are oftentimes invisible to the public eye. Citing Four Crises of American Democracy, he concluded that “we should resist the temptation to make broader judgements about democracy in this difficult moment. Democracy does not work neatly, but it works.” Following his enlightening talk, the audience posed questions that further elaborated on Professor Roberts’ talk.

November 8, 2018 | 6.15 P.M.

"Popular Fiction Portfolios"

James English

University of Pennsylvania,
Department of English

On November 8, the HCA’s Baden-Württemberg Seminar continued with a lecture by James English about patterns of contemporary fiction readers. James English, who is the John Welsh Centennial Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, had followed a joint invitation of the HCA and GKAT, the HCA’s research training group. Tim Sommer, currently a member of GKAT, opened the evening and welcomed the audience in the HCA’s Atrium. To commence his talk, Professor English pointed out that his project had originated to some extent in positive psychology, a subject that studied the concept of wellbeing as an increasingly important factor in cultures and cultural endeavors. Scholars were particularly intrigued by studies that attempted to prove a connection between reading and happiness. Yet, such studies often yielded unsatisfactory results, which was largely the result of inadequate data and the complexity of analyzing reading behaviors of different readers across different genres. Eventually, these inadequacies led literary scholars to draw from digital data found on platforms such as Goodreads. Such sociological cybermetric reader studies were less time consuming and cheaper and therefore a rapidly growing field, so James English. Goodreads offered especially interesting data, since it enabled its users to “shelve” their favorites, which in return enabled scholars to connect personal reading preferences to general evaluations.

James English and his team began to use such data to determine whether people read narrowly or broadly, that is whether their choices tended to be similar or diverse, in order to test the so-called “omnivore theory.” This theory states that individuals choose what they consume not in accordance with their class or education but freely and thus from all aspects of cultural production. In the era of the digital revolution, this theory had gained wide acceptance, not the least because the Internet offers an endless array of choices. Therefore, a cultural omnivore was able to consume varied cultural products with little or no effort involved. Professor English’s study first investigated this theory by focusing on the readers of specific genres such as bestsellers and works on the short lists for literary prizes. However, those results were inconclusive, eventually leading the team to focus on single readers and their tastes instead. An analysis of reading lists published on Goodreads then showed that, in contrast to the omnivore theory, most people read rather narrowly, and most overlap of tastes was the result of a difficulty to distinguish between certain genres. For example, individuals who enjoyed reading fantasy novels also were likely to read novels categorized as Sci-Fi. Yet, the majority of such genre categorizations did not distinguish clearly between the two but often identified a novel as Fantasy and Sci-Fi. James English emphasized that even though his findings suggested narrow reading habits, there were no prior studies available as reference and therefore no way to be certain about the meaning of such results. Yet, he alerted the audience to platforms such as Goodreads that encourage narrow reading patterns through the use predictive algorithms, which suggest books to users based on their preferences. Professor English than closed his lecture by emphasizing once more that one should regard these findings as a starting point for further research. After a final round of applause, the audience used the opportunity to engage in a more detailed discussion of this project.

November 28, 2018 | 6.15 P.M.

"Sustainable Forms:
Routine, Infrastructure, Conservation"

Caroline Levine

Cornell University, Department of English

On November 28, Professor Caroline Levine visited the HCA to speak about her research into forms and New Formalism. The David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of the Humanities at the English Department of Cornell University published her highly acclaimed findings in 2015. After a brief introduction by Dr. Philipp Löffler, assistant professor for English at Heidelberg University, Professor Levine took the stage and commenced her lecture. The basic assumption of Caroline Levine’s work is that forms determine all aspects of human life. They appear in different guises as organizations, rituals, patterns, or abstract ideas such as space or time. Not only do they influence our social life, but also politics and arts. All forms, so Professor Levine, have certain sets of portable limitations and qualities, also called affordances. As a result, one can predict how forms play out in different circumstances, regardless of where or when they are implemented. Although Caroline Levine regards this as an advantage, forms and Formalism used to carry a bitter taste in academia. Especially literary studies have developed a culture of celebrating works that resisted or broke with forms such as the avant-garde while on the other hand disregarding texts that adhered to or perpetuated existing conventions. Professor Levine emphasized that especially regarding the growing need for sustainability, the resilience of this destructive culture seemed odd or at least counterproductive. In her work, she therefore strove to improve the image of sustainability among scholars of the humanities.

Following these statements, Caroline Levine then devoted the second part of her lecture to answering the question why it would be beneficial to study forms. Through the examination of existing negative forms, such as white supremacism and sexism, one was able to learn how such structures sustained themselves. In return, this would enable scholars to design a self-sustaining positive form as a replacement. As an example, Professor Levine compared racism’s influence on American societies and a food program initiated in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Racial hierarchies had such a pervasive influence on every aspect of social life in America that it affected institutions, organizations, and traditions. In these racially constructed forms, American society reaffirmed the idea of a racial hierarchy. This feedback loop between reciprocally affirmative structures enabled the “form” racism to continue for so long. Caroline Levine argued that Belo Horizonte’s food supply system made use of a similar strategy. It had deliberately been imbedded into every existing governmental ministry, making changes costly and maximizing its reach. Even though the benefits were apparent in this example, Professor Levine pointed out that the most difficult challenge was to redefine conventional forms in an aesthetic manner. For a long time, subversive and disruptive art had dominated the academic and public understanding of beauty. Therefore, redefining conservation and routine as admirable and beautiful was crucial to creating a sustainable life. Caroline Levine closed on the notion that this would be the future responsibility of the humanities and literary studies and that it was necessary to reexamine and adjust what all of us perceived as beautiful in everyday life. After a round of applause, the audience was keen to discuss Professor Levine’s work in further detail and find out more about its prospects.

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