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Incomprehension in relation to governance


Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty (Part #6)


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There are many references to "lack of comprehension" and "misunderstanding" in international affairs, notably embedded in  preoccupations with the need for tolerance, dialogue and "mutual understanding" (cf International Year of Youth 2010-2011: Youth Fostering Dialogue and Mutual Understanding, UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development, 2010). Arguably such a "positive" framing obscures the nature of the cognitive and experiential challenge which merits attention and its "re-cognition".

The following indicate explicit recognition of incomprehension in the ongoing reality of international discourse -- an incomprehension which may well trigger World War III, as argued by various commentators (Luiza Ch. Savage, World War III? Macleans, 25 July 2006; Millions of Evangelical Christians Want to Start World War III -- to Speed Up the Second Coming, Global Research, 18 February 2012; Michel Chossudovsky and Finian Cunningham, The Globalization of War: The "Military Roadmap" to World War III, Global Research, December 2011).

In relation to Islam, and notably reciprocated:

In relation to the USA, notably with regard to its increasing isolation as a domineering superpower:

  • John Derbyshire (Mutual Incomprehension: a clash of civilizations. National Review, 19 March 2003):
    • There are things about us that the rest of the world doesn't understand, and there are things about them that we don't understand. Please note that mutual incomprehension does not imply moral equivalence. The fact that you and I can't see each other's point of view does not rule out the possibility that one of us is right and the other wrong. The rightness or wrongness depends on external facts... Here I am just going to look at the misunderstandings between America and the rest of the world.
  • Klaus Larres (Mutual Incomprehension: U.S.-German Value Gaps beyond Iraq, The Washington Quarterly, 26, 2003, 2, pp. 23-42):
    • Instead, the recent tension demonstrates that U.S.-German relations are characterized by a mutual incomprehension of each other's political culture and deeply held political values. Especially evident is the profound difference between the two countries' positions on the permissibility of the use of military force in international affairs, between the Bush administration's inclination to go it alone and the German penchant for multilateralism.... This mutual incomprehension and the differing priorities between the United States and Germany go far beyond the crisis in Iraq. Rather than serve as the source of conflict, the Iraq question merely brought three growing and fundamental value gaps in U.S.-German relations, and to some extent in transatlantic relations more generally, to the surface: multilateralism, nationalism, and the role of force in international relations.
  • Alan Bock (Seven Years of Incomprehension, AntiWar.com, 16 September 2008)

In relation to Europe:

  • Adriano Farano  (Eyewitness Israel: Gaza, war and the wall of incomprehension between Europe, Expatica.Survey, 22 January 2009)
  • Julia Poliscanova. Mutual Dependence or Mutual Incomprehension. Global Politics for the Next Generation of Policy-makers,  2009)
    • The European Union citizens have been subjected to cold radiators amidst chilly winters for a number of years, with the most serious gas shortages having erupted in January last year. Russian gas monopoly Gazprom is behind this; it cuts off the European gas supplies without a warning, while the EU appears to be incapable of dealing with its unreliable neighbour. How can contemporary international relations theory account for this paradox of two mutually dependent countries cooperating in such political pandemonium?

General examples of international incomprehension, ignorance and misunderstanding include:

With respect to governance, there is a degree of recognition of the (complementary) instances of incomprehension on the part of:

Misunderstanding the present: Especially interesting is the response to Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man, 1992) by John N. Gray (Global Utopias and Clashing Civilizations: misunderstanding the present, International Affairs, 1998):

It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the present to think of this new rivalry of capitalisms as one that any of the established models of a market economy can win. All are mutating in the anarchic and volatile environment of the world market. What applies in economic life applies no less in politics. It is far from being the case that the removal of their Cold War rival has the overall effect of strengthening Western liberal democracies. On the contrary, it has removed one of the principal props that had kept them stable during the postwar period. (p. 154)

Foreign policies which presuppose an eventual global consensus on liberal values will be ineffectual. This is an incisive criticism of Fukuyama's neo-Wilsonian certainty that Western values are universal; but in arguing that fault-lines between civilizations are the source of war Huntington misunderstands the present as grievously as Fukuyama does. As a result he gives a mistaken diagnosis of both the potential for tragedy and the opportunities for cooperation that our present circumstances contain. (p. 156)

For Zenonas Tziarras (The Misunderstanding of Geopolitics, Global Politics for the Next Generation of Policy-makers, 2011):

Geopolitics is often misunderstood and perceived as a monolithic methodological tool for international relations analysis that suggests an unchanged geographical structure within the international system....This means that geographical changes along with geopolitical changes create an unstable and fluid international system which cannot be locked within the normative framework of traditional and outdated geopolitical explanations

Ali Hassan Zaidi (A Critical Misunderstanding: Islam and Dialogue in the Human Sciences, International Sociology, 22, July 2007, 4, pp. 411-434) argues that western academia has largely eschewed dialogical understanding in favour of Marxist-inspired accounts and poststructuralist theorizing of the Muslim world:

The over-abundance of the critique of ideology, other forms of *ideological demystification' and anti-essentialist theorizing have resulted in the failure of the human sciences to adequately understand the emergence of contemporary Islamic and Islamist fervour and its relationship to modernity. In contrast to much, but not all, of the literature on Islam and modernity, the article develops a reconstructed dialogical theory, which draws upon both Gadamerian hermeneutics and interreligious dialogue, as a means to take more seriously the truth-claims of the Islamic Other. By drawing upon notions of *suspicion' and *silence' from interreligious dialogue, a reconstructed dialogical model can overcome the absence of critique, a charge often levelled against hermeneutic dialogue, without resorting to the Enlightenment mode of critique. Although a reconstructed dialogical framework is not without its own problems, for instance how to overcome the gap between a foundationalist Islamic worldview and an increasingly post-foundationalist secular one, it provides a better prospect for understanding the Other.


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