A Model of Stance
This article is part of the Deconstructing MUN: Stance series. Check out the rest of the series below!
Part 3: A Model of Stance (currently reading)
I shall first introduce the model of stance which I will be using:
History → Principles → Policy
The national interest of a state may be highly subjective and fluid, but it is always constructed with the country's past in mind. The history of the country lays the foundation for all subsequent thoughts and worldviews adopted by policymakers. Eventually, these policymakers will then determine what the national interest should and should not be based on their own beliefs.
Although most countries have lengthy histories filled with countless trivia, the historical events that tend to be most relevant for you to understand as a delegate are those that once potentially posed a threat to the legitimacy wielded by the government of the day. Wars, conflicts, economic crises, social upheaval, major crimes, and more are just a few common historical episodes that leave the most impactful and memorable imprint on the collective psyche of the citizens.
Besides looking into these spectacular events, there are also more enduring elements like law, policies, and cultural norms which affect the day-to-day behaviour of citizens. Even events that are far closer to the present day (such as elections, government appointments, and recent socioeconomic trends — otherwise known as "current affairs") form part of a country's history, albeit a more contemporary one. All these factors combine to form a cohesive narrative of the country's history.
To briefly illustrate how you might put this analysis into practice, we can use China as an example. Despite boasting a civilisation spanning thousands of years, China suffered tremendously at the hands of foreign powers in the 19th Century primarily due to weak governance and the Europeans' gunboat diplomacy (Fairbank, 1969). Subsequently, the Communist Party of China took power in 1949.
Today, we observe that China is extremely fixated on asserting its dominance in the global order and eliminating any sign of vulnerability especially to external powers. Hence, the notion of territorial sovereignty and integrity, as well as the central government's ability to exercise influence on all its lands, is a key preoccupation of the administration.
Recent political developments can also be part of the history section. In the United States (US), anti-interventionist populist sentiments grew as a reaction to previous administrations' preoccupations with military operations in far-flung lands and active multilateralism (Benaim & Hanna, 2020). This, among several other factors, contributed to the 2016 election of President Trump who had campaigned on those exact same grounds — that it is time for the US to return to strategic isolationism.
While there is certainly room to debate the soundness of his administration's decision to reverse a decades-long foreign policy, what is certain is that the general thrust of his administration's foreign policy can be inferred from the events leading up to President Trump's 2016 election. The foreign policy of a state is typically derived from its history.
This is where national interest can be codified into something slightly more substantial — you may think of it as a state's list of key concerns. As previously mentioned, China's present concerns had been heavily moulded by its prior humiliation as a victim of foreign interference. The principles which China adopted from that historical trauma are to maintain strict political control over the entire nation and aggressively defend places which it deems as within its territorial sovereignty.
On the other hand, the main US foreign policy principle being applied today can be easily summarised due to the incessant messaging of the current administration: America First.
It should therefore make sense that what has affected the state in the past will mould its current preoccupations as well. Typically, the more historically significant an event, the higher the propensity for it to affect a core and fundamental principle of a state — such as the pacifism of Japan or Germany's commitment to multilateralism after World War 2. One could also argue that the Cold War was the impetus for the US to see itself as the global policeman and the foremost superpower of the world.
Unlike national interests, stance differs in that it is not just concerned about what is important to the state. It seeks to change the status quo, such that the national interest can be pursued. This comes in the form of policy.
Policy is as its name describes — a series of policies! The US' invasion of (insert country — Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait under Iraqi occupation etc.), Russia's annexation of Crimea, even Singapore championing the UN resolution "Sanitation for All" are all examples of policies.
Recalling once again the importance of territorial sovereignty to China, the most sensible policy (in China's worldview) to guarantee this is to preemptively project its power onto areas where it feels the most vulnerable. The policy of claiming 'islands' and building outposts in the South China Sea is a key example of this. Policies are creative solutions adopted by states to ensure that their principles are fulfilled to the best possible extent given finite resources of the state.
Your Role as a Delegate
Stance can aid you in making sense of what other states are doing, as well as developing your own ideas on what to say and what to propose in council for your own state.
As an example, let us investigate the threat to international security posed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)'s nuclear weapons. To understand the DPRK's stance on nuclear weapons — beyond the fact that they obviously want nuclear weapons — one must first venture into the history of the matter.
Ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the DPRK has been in an unsteady truce with South Korea. The combination of its command economy, closed-door policy, and international sanctions against it has also greatly impeded its progress in acquiring economic resources (e.g. fuel, money, food).
With the ever-present threat of regime extermination by the US (who maintains an active military presence in South Korea till this day), the North is primarily concerned with the security of its nation from the external threats posed by the American and South Korean military.
Internally, the DPRK also assigns a very high priority to regime stability and survivability. The government relies heavily on propaganda and projection of military power to assuage the concerns of its citizens. Ensuring that citizens remain loyal and obedient is a foundational requirement for the stability of the Kim regime.
Given the reclusive nature of the Kim regime, credible information about the DPRK can be hard to come by, especially since official state media reports tend to exaggerating the success of government policies as part of the DPRK's broader propaganda campaign.
Fortunately, we can still infer the principles behind the DPRK's national interest by looking at its history. From the section above, we observe that the DPRK have two leading priorities: deterring external military threats and ensuring regime stability. Hence, any foreign policy pursued by the DPRK must achieve at least one of these two goals.
At this point, we arrive at the main question: why does the DPRK rely on nuclear weapons to secure its (and its ruling regime's) safety and security?
Let's break this down systematically.
The Agreed Framework in 1994 was a deal between the US and DPRK that would allow the DPRK to remain part of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty as long as it permitted inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange, the US would assist the DPRK with the construction of new light water reactor power plants to replace the DPRK's existing ones in order to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation. Furthermore, the US even agreed to suspend one of its joint military training exercises with South Korea — a major policy success for the DPRK at the time.
Not only did the DPRK manage to achieve one of its key interests by obtaining technical aid from the US (a leading country in nuclear power research), it even did so peacefully while defusing some military tensions with the US. While the DPRK did have to concede its nuclear weapons ambitions, the agreement placed the DPRK in a better strategic position by gradually repairing its relationship with the US.
However, several factors led to the failure of the agreement, which was completely abandoned by 2003. Less than a month after the agreement was signed, the 1994 US elections resulted in the Republicans seizing political control of the US Congress from the Democrats. The opposition of Republican politicians towards the agreement led to several roadblocks in which the US did not consistently hold up its end of the deal.
Irked by the constant delays, the DPRK eventually resumed its research programme on uranium enrichment, a key component in the development of nuclear weapons. The escalating tensions, non-corporation, and mistrust between the US and the DPRK finally resulted in the breakdown of the agreement.
At this point, we can put ourselves in the shoes of DPRK policymakers in reevaluating the available options. Attempting to renegotiate the deal would likely yield little, if any, success, especially given that the US has been fickle in its commitments and belligerent in its stance. Market reform to boost economic productivity is, as always, out of the question as it threatens a core tenet of the regime's ideology.
Hence, the next best course of action would be to shift from attempting to cooperate with the US to deterring the US from military confrontation. However, the DPRK's lack of resources prevents it from building up large enough conventional forces to even threaten the US. And the only way for the DPRK to accomplish this cost-effectively is to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons and rely on the threat of mutual destruction to pressure the US into acceding to its demands.
In fact, one can attribute the US-DPRK brinksmanship in 2017-2018 as an example of the DPRK pursuing this strategy; the DPRK managed to bring the US to the negotiation table on its own terms, as well as secured an audience with the sitting US President, bolstering the regime's appearance of legitimacy to its people (Padden, 2017).
Let's now assume that you are representing another state which is primarily interested in deescalating tensions in the Korean peninsula, with the denuclearisation of the DPRK being a secondary concern. In this scenario, it would be wise to refrain from proposing any further sanctions against the DPRK as it may cause the regime to feel that its grip on power is being threatened (recall the DPRK's principle of ensuring internal stability). The more the DPRK perceives that its core interests are threatened, the more likely it is adopt riskier strategies to secure those interests.
Here, we reach the crux of our policy analysis — the DPRK only resorts to a military-focused strategy when its diplomatic avenues have failed to achieve their intended outcomes. With this revelation in mind, you can now start thinking of ways which would convince the DPRK to tone down their military aggression as well as give them incentives to engage diplomatically with the rest of the world.
I hope that the above framework has helped you better understand how stance can be systematically analysed. Even though international relations (IR) may seem like an extremely complex system (and it is!), there is no need to be intimidated by it. Simply by taking the time to research a state's history and thus figure out the main principles behind a state's foreign policy, it becomes more obvious why states choose certain paths and where those paths may lead. After that, you may need some imagination to craft actionable policy steps.
Furthermore, I also hope to show that subscribing to any one of multiple IR theories is both unnecessary and unhelpful to the practitioner of IR. While the theories may aim to predict global trends and shifts in the dynamics of the international system as a whole, one must recognise that the system is far too big (193 member states of the UN!) for any comprehensive theory to be developed.
On the contrary, it is much more meaningful to start from first principles and individually analyse each state in relation to the presented issue. This also prevents you from being distracted by dogmas such as 'liberal values' or 'responsibilities and duties'; they are red herrings used by those in power to project a certain image or justify certain decisions.
In reality, the international order is nothing more than states pursuing a series of actions to maximise their operating space. The international order is also highly malleable as states attempt to shape it to their advantage using all the resources and power at their disposal.
Finally, there are definitely more subtleties that the framework currently allows for, such as splitting it along the lines of authoritarian governments versus democratic ones, or formulating foreign policies for states with more apolitical bureaucracies. However, that is beyond the scope of this article, and you may even add such observations into the history element of the framework, thus allowing for richer and multilayered analysis to emerge. If there is demand, it may even prompt yours truly to write another article explaining how one can deal with such differences.
I hope that this article allows you to have a clearer thought process on stance (especially for those of you attending SMUN Online Conference 2020), and do let me know if there are elements of this framework that you think can be further improved. All the best!
Benaim, D., & Hanna, M. W. (2020, April 16). The Enduring American Presence in the Middle East. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2019-08-07/enduring-american-presence-middle-east
Fairbank, J. K. (1969). Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842–1854. Stanford University Press.
Padden, B. (2017, June 12). North Korea Sees Humanitarian Aid as Leverage. VOA. https://www.voanews.com/a/north-korea-sees-humanitarian-aid-as-leverage/3896594.html