A Pragmatic Take on the U.S. Role in the World



Deborah Avant, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

Date and Time

November 3, 2016 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Encina Hall, 2nd floor

 - This talk is co-sponsored by the Program in International Relations at Stanford University -

Abstract: Debates about how the United States’ should behave rarely address the central problem. Global challenges – from violent extremism to migration, inequality, climate change, epidemics, and economic or technological disruptions – unfold alongside governments that are increasingly ill fit to meet them. Global connections have generated concerns on scales that do not match the scale of the nation state. Analysts at the National Intelligence Council understand this and claim that the key to global power in the future will be the ability to marry national power and technological advantage with the ability to connect across a broad array of stakeholders. Arguments about engagement and retrenchment focus American strategy only on traditional relationships with other states. The growing body on new or networked governance forms rarely link their claims to a strategy for action. A slate of recent suggestions about how pragmatism might offer useful advice for United States action are built on assumptions that pragmatic action is inherently incremental (and thus of questionable use for meeting global challenges) and that US preferences are clear and fixed (something notably undermined by the fundamentally different visions of “the US” evident in the 2016 presidential campaign). I concur that pragmatism is useful, but it is not purely incremental, nor does it work through fixed preferences. Pragmatic thinkers like William James, John Dewey, and Jane Addams saw the potential for great transformation not simply incremental change. And transformation was possible precisely because they saw preferences as mutable and shaped through social interaction in relation to available means. Building more firmly on these philosophical roots suggests a pragmatic framework that both refocuses analysis of past American success and offers a more productive way to think about the future. 

About the Speaker: Deborah Avant is the Sié Chéou-Kang Chair for International Security and Diplomacy and Director of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.  Her research (funded by the Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation, among others) has focused on civil-military relations, military change, and the politics of controlling violence.  She is author/editor of The New Power Politics: Networks and Transnational Security Governance with Oliver Westerwinter (Oxford University Press, 2016); Who Governs the Globe? with Martha Finnemore and Susan Sell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), The Market for Force: the Consequences of Privatizing Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), and Political Institutions and Military Change: Lessons From Peripheral Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994) , along with articles in such journals as International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, Security Studies, Perspectives on Politics, and Foreign Policy.  Under her leadership the Sié Chéou-Kang Center launched the Private Security Monitor (http://psm.du.edu/), an annotated guide to regulation, data and analyses of global private military and security services, in 2012 and in 2013 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from University of St. Gallen for her research and contribution toward regulating private military and security companies. Professor Avant serves on numerous governing and editorial boards, and is editor in chief of the International Studies Association’s newly launched journal: the Journal of Global Security Studies.  

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