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Special Feature

The Burning House Theory: Security and Survival in International Politics

Have you ever seen a house burning? Have you ever survived a burning house? Now as you begin thinking about a burning house, your mind may become preoccupied with other disasters. Then you may start asking yourself, “What kind of life is considered a good life for human beings? What kind of life is appropriate for a person to live among people and how does a person’s relationship with others influence society and their own survival? Well, as you read on, you will notice that this article is not pushing you to think about being in a burning house. Rather, this article is using a burning house scenario to demonstrate three political theories: Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism. These political terminologies, are theories that have been at work for many years, and have influenced political ideas around the world.

The questions asked at the beginning of this article are similar to ones that have been the focus of various political theories for several centuries. Deliberation on these political principles resulted in Arnold Wolfers’ work: Discord and Collaboration: Essays on International Politics, published in 1963 which uses the example of the burning house to demonstrate some principles of political theories.

The burning house metaphor provides the concepts and applications of Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism. The circumstance in the Burning House metaphor, scenario #1, the heat from the fire is extremely intense, smoke has filled the room and it is difficult for the occupants to breathe and almost impossible for them to see falls within the Realism theories where occupants will see their survival as zero-sum – one occupant’s survival is balanced by the losses of another occupant.   With this in mind, self- interest and survival becomes the primary goal of each occupant with no interest in cooperation and building alliance. Acting on the Realism principles, the occupants also considers themselves as a sovereign state who are the principal actors in the international system and therefore do not anticipate help from the fire department.

The next circumstance, scenario # 2, the fire is in a distant part of the house and does not pose an immediate threat to the occupants reflects Realism view. Occupants are self-centered. They do not see the fire as posing any direct threat to their survival and security, therefore do not feel obliged to put to use resources they have amassed to extinguish the fire. The reason is that, states are in competition with one another and views self-interest as a primary goal to maintain and ensure their own security which translates into sovereignty and survival with security as its primary goal. Realism holds that in the pursuit of security, states will attempt to amass resources and that relations between states are determined by their level of power. That level of power is in turn determined by the states military might and economic capabilities. Kenneth N. Waltz in his contribution to the study of Realism said the main goal of a state actor is to secure power and security in the form of military power or political persuasion. The goal of each state’s interest in its own security and survival is prevalent today in international politics.

One example of Realism is the United States under the leadership of President George Bush. Bush exhibited some characteristics of being a realist. The U.S war on Iraq was obviously because President Bush feared the security of the United States was threatened. The act of going to war followed one of the theories of realism – states ensure security and survival of its own state even if it has to go to war to protect its security and survival. President Bush was aggressive in his pursuit of security and survival which is a guarantee of power. President Bush’s attempts to make sure of the security of the United States  and its ability to influence or control other states which in turn ensures the survival of the U.S. The level of power a state possesses determines its survival. Another underlying outcome of the war on Iraq could be the preservation of the United States culture.

An additional example to show how realism is still dominant in the world today is by looking at Indian and Pakistan. At one time, Pakistan and India were one state, but today they are split and have almost similar amount of power between them. However, both states wish to be more powerful than the other one, which is why so much conflict is occurring today. This concept of balance of power is another fundamental assumption of realism.

One more example of Realism approach in the pursuit of wealth and security through amassing resources was demonstrated by ex-warlord and ex-president Charles Taylor of Liberia. While leading a rebel group, Charles Taylor began displaying some of the qualities of Realism by establishing and supporting insurgency groups to destabilize governments in other countries within the region. Even after becoming President of Liberia, Taylor continued to pursue resources from other countries as a way of accumulating more resources in pursuit of security, survival and power. In addition to accumulating resources as President, Charles Taylor in his relation with other states within the region exemplified basic theories of Realism with regards to the pursuit of political power by threatening the political stability of governments which he considered opposing forces. Realism believes that states want to be more dominant than their neighbors and that power is control, so whoever has the power has the control. The character of Taylor was a unique example of the Realism principles of how relations between states are determined by their power and that that level of power is determined by military and economic potentials.  Charles Taylor’s approach to power is what realism views as natural to human beings; that is to be self-centered and eager for power.  To what extend this view extends to all human beings is arguable but there were reports that Taylor regularly consulted Machiavelli work, “The Prince.” Machiavelli in the Prince argues human being is set in his ways of being corrupt when it comes to power.

Niccolò Machiavelli  discussed the methods of gaining and maintaining political power in his work The Prince, published in 1532. Michiavelli supported other political scholars definition of power as the ability to impose one’s will on others, or to pursue one’s goals at the expense of others’ interests. Power can be exercised through violence or through coercion, through threat of force, or through treaties and diplomacy.

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Throughout its history, realism has faced many challenges and criticisms from different approaches; most notably liberalism. Liberalism argues that power politics itself is the product of ideas, and crucially ideas can change. From a liberalism view, cooperation is more persuasive that action forced. Realism holds the assumptions that international system is anarchical and that sovereign states rather than International Governmental Organizations, (IGOs), Non Governmental Organizations, (NGOs),  or Multinational National Corporations, (MNCs),  are primary actors in international affairs, Liberalism and Constructivism hold other views on international system. Liberalism criticizes the notion of state as unitary actors, each with a single set of coherent interests. Constructivism rejects standard realist and liberal views on international relations and argues that state interests stem from identities and international norms, rather than from the effects of international anarchy.

In the metaphor of the burning house, scenario # 3, the occupants have a well-rehearsed evacuation plan demonstrates the importance of collective action and the significance of cooperation in achieving a common goal. The differences between liberalism and Realism and other political beliefs is that Liberalism believes that an organized society creates the possibility for preplanning and cooperation and coordination.  Scenario # 4, the exits are clearly visible and unobstructed, describes some of the advantages of cooperation over competition. While the Realism principles of competition drives people to reach their highest performance, it supports separation which leads to individuality, cooperation promotes unity. People are stronger together than when they are separated.

Scenario # 4 also demonstrates how people adapt (new) behavior. Although the Liberalism and Constructivism theories discuss institutions and people’s reactions to these issues, Constructivism delves more into the behavior of people to society and norms. The Constructivism principles explores how people’s behavior change even though they initially had different set if ideas, people adapt to behavior to avoid being reprimanded.  Although the authoritative influence is lacking in Liberalism and Realism, Constructivism principles approach to behavior is through legitimacy and getting people to do what they would not have done.  This approach of authority and legitimacy resulted into keeping the exits clearly visible and unobstructed. Had this circumstances being under the Realism theory of self-interest, the exits would have been obstructed by individuals who for example needed space to store excesses of their personal belongings with total disregard for the security and well-being of others.

As for the situation cited in scenario # 5, the occupants are unsure which exits, if any, are usable, it exhibits variables of both Liberalism and Constructivism theories. Liberalism believes conflict is often a result of miscommunication or that information may have being misrepresented or unfavorable. This miscommunication may have resulted to lack of knowledge of if any, the availability and location of a usable exit.  A high level of threat is perceived in this scenario according to the Constructivism theory. However, in the midst of this threat, Constructivism makes available the presence of an intermediary and also allows for help to enable the understanding of problems faced by others.  In this scenario, although occupants are unsure of the existence and positions of usable exits, intermediary and activism under Constructivism could intervene through advocacy or providing insight to occupants on the problems they are faced with. Assistance could also be provided to help occupants.

In Arnold Wolfers’ metaphor of the burning house, Scenario # 6, one occupant  takes the lead and shouts out orders for others to follow,  describes the Realism theory where one strong state must takes the lead in anarchy in order to maintain order. The principle is that the only source of stability so far relies on the balance of power; the powerful leads and others follow.

Unlike the Realism principle, states are independent under the Liberalism theory, but they work cooperatively through other organizations where generally there is not one leader. This is what is exhibited in scenario # 7, where no one takes the lead. Although in such a disastrous situation, when there is no sign of rescue, there is paranoid which might result into anarchy and it’s survival of the fittest, this is not to say that order and cooperative groups do not arise in anarchy. Order and cooperative groups do arise in times of disaster; it is just that mostly they re not planned.

The focus of Realism in nationalism as opposed to sub-national groupings is why the issue of capability is important to the survival and security of the state. In scenario # 8, the tallest occupant can escape through the window, being tall is considered a capability in this circumstance for Realism, and therefore an advantage for the tall occupant in the burning house.

Constructivism legitimizes support for intervention which comes through cooperation and alliance with international organizations, sub-state and other actors. Legitimacy and intervention could be based on treaties, moral and how practices exist in society and this is what is expected of the volunteer firefighter is scenario # 9, one occupant is a volunteer firefighter and some are small children. Constructivism recognizes the volunteer firefighter as a learner who is building his knowledge through experience. Constructivism is a learning process in which the learner is engaged in constantly building that knowledge and is always analyzing their learning experience. Constructivism promotes the notions of diversity and adaptability and believes that learners who can adapt quickly by learning are more likely to adapt to changing conditions which in turn promotes survival in the event of disaster.

Scenario # 10, the house was ignited by a forest fire that continues to burn uncontrollably, describes a situation of providing help for the helpless when there is anarchy. This scenario portrays Liberalism and is almost similar to that of scenario # 7, where no one takes the lead. The differences between the two circumstances are that unlike #7 where order and cooperation seems to have arisen in the anarchy among occupants of the burning house, for scenario #10, efforts are galvanized by other stronger states to provide help for the vulnerable which results into future opportunity to negotiate.

The importance of institutions in the Liberalism and Constructivism principles though at different levels in illustrated in scenario # 11, the fire department is located just two blocks away and is renowned for its excellent response time.  The occupants can seek outside help because the principles of Constructivism and Liberalism do not view sovereign state as the only body in the political realm as argued by Realism. Liberalism principle maintains that there are outside organizations to help facilitate problems. Liberalism views cooperation as more persuasive while Constructivism on the other hand says that state interests stem from identities and international norms, rather than from the effects of international anarchy, a view opposed by  Realism.

The scenario # 12, one occupant had intentionally set the fire, describes both Realism and Liberalism theories. The deliberate setting of the fire is a characteristic of greed and self-interest common to Realism zero–sum theory of power. Realism holds the view that states are naturally aggresive, and  that expanding one’s territory is hindered by opposing power. The greed to acquire more territory which can be term resources and expanding control resulted in the deliberate setting of the fire to get rid of opposing forces reflects the Realism principle of pursuing power. Realism discusses the pursuit of one’s  goal at the expense of others’ interests. In pursuing his goal which can be defined in this scenario as the desire for power and security, the occupant used violence and the threat of force to achieve his goal. However, the affected occupants acted in cooperative ways because of the  uncertainty they faced as a way of ensuring their safety. This cooperative approach falls within the Liberalism principle.  Occupants realized that they are stronger together than being separated.

The last scenario, you are in the house and a laptop containing a draft of your PSC 240 thought paper is in a bedroom upstairs, shows some principles of Liberalism and Constructivism. Although constructivism started on the principle of learning, it has expanded its authority, becoming a basis of teaching, education, and the basis for the origin of ideas, and also personal knowledge. That means it is worth risking one’s life because society is served if the paper survives. Many constructivists believe that “all knowledge is a human construction.” Sherman, L. W. (1995), said constructivism hold the view that knowledge is not ‘about’ the world, but rather ‘constitutive’ the world.

Constructivism regards all learning as vital to the learner and important to society, whether original or not. Liberalism provides individuals the freedom to pursue their own goals, in their own ways, provided they do not infringe on the rights of others. As a result of the freedom provided by the Liberalism theory and the lack of competition, people become interested in the well-being of others. Realizing the importance of the PSC paper to society, occupants will cooperate and assist in retrieving the PSC paper from the bedroom upstairs.

About the author: Musue N. Haddad is a Liberian Journalist/Photo-Journalist. She holds a graduate degree from George Washington University, U.S.A. and has worked both at home and outside of Liberia. She received several national and international awards for her journalistic practices and human rights work, including the Nelson Mandela Award for “Best Student in Photo-Journalism,” Human Rights Award from the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA), for “outstanding dedication and service towards the recognition, promotion and protection of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” and Human Rights Watch Hellmann-Hammett Award, granted to writers around the world who have been the targets of political persecution.

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