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Courtesy of the University

November 16, 2017

Prof Explains Deep-Seated Uncertainties in World Politics

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Prof. Peter J. Katzenstein, government, presented his latest research that aims to explain uncertainty in international relations which, unlike risk, cannot be quantified and predicted, in a Thursday lecture.

Katzenstein presented topics from his upcoming book, to be published in February 2018, which identifies two types of political power: “the power to control in a risk-based world and a chaotic power of surprise, … [called] protean power,” according to a Cornell website.

The word “protean” comes from the Greek mythological figure Proteus — a god with fickle and unpredictable shape-shifting powers who constantly avoids capture by humans. Protean power, it follows, is a kind of power that is exercised when one least expects it, Katzenstein said.

“[Proteus] is the metaphor for a kind of power which people have overlooked and which makes us dumb in front of our students when we confront big changes,” he explained. “To understand power dynamics and change, we need to incorporate uncertainty into the analysis.”

Protean power is different from “control power,” which is rooted in the capacity to accurately predict the future to appraise and minimize risks. Hillary Clinton, “a risk manager,” embodies this power, Katzenstein said.

Understanding how both powers play a role in politics is necessary to understand and explain political events, he said. An example of such an event is the fall of the Berlin Wall, which he said was resulted from both accidental decisions and predictable institutional features.

“You need both aspects in order to understand the opening of the wall and later the end of the Cold War. You cannot just tell [the story] just in terms of protean or control power,” Katzenstein said. “The notion that we live only in a world of risk is a conceit.”

Katzenstein criticized the social science discipline for steering away from an honest acknowledgement of uncertainty in favor of the safety of a risk-only world.

“We got this [research] for the last four years now. It has [been] almost impossible to publish this paper, finally it got accepted into a journal. …  And that’s because the notion that the world is not just risk is virtually impossible to convey to contemporary social scientists, Katzenstein said.

Katzenstein suspects that the idea of uncertainty is inconceivable not just for social scientists, but for the modernist ideology in general.

“This notion, uncertainty being important, undercuts something about the organizational logic of modernity. Every university now has to do risk analysis. … It’s a way of convincing ourselves we are in charge. … So because we are comfortable in a world in which things are predictable, we tend to favor control power analysis. And that means we are often blinded by that other kind of power.”

While Katzenstein’s research focuses on international relations, he draws upon case studies on a diverse array of topics outside of what is conventionally considered part of the discipline — high-tech bitcoins, film, LGBTQ studies.

“I cannot get help from my discipline, so I started reading on film, cultural theories of powers. … I came to a more fluid conceptions of power by stepping way outside of my field.”

Katzenstein said that the ideas for this research were born out of a personal struggle to come to terms with an unpredictable world.

“When the Lehman Brothers happened, I was psychologically disoriented for a week, because it had such a deep effect on Europe and on Germany, in disastrous ways. And then of course Obama happens. Then now Trump happens. …That’s my autobiographical [reason].”