Daniel W. Drezner

An unusual — dare I say eerie — convergence of IR theory and practice

A few days ago, Nick Pope had an unusual op-ed in the New York Times.  It was about unidentified flying objects and why the United States should take them more seriously:  A healthy skepticism about extraterrestrial space travelers leads people to disregard U.F.O. sightings without a moment’s thought. But in the United States, this translates ...

A few days ago, Nick Pope had an unusual op-ed in the New York Times.  It was about unidentified flying objects and why the United States should take them more seriously: 

A healthy skepticism about extraterrestrial space travelers leads people to disregard U.F.O. sightings without a moment’s thought. But in the United States, this translates into overdependence on radar data and indifference to all kinds of unidentified aircraft — a weakness that could be exploited by terrorists or anyone seeking to engage in espionage against the United States. The American government has not investigated U.F.O. sightings since 1969, when the Air Force ended Project Blue Book, an effort to scientifically analyze all sightings to see if any posed a threat to national security. Britain and France, in contrast, continue to investigate U.F.O. sightings, because of concerns that some sightings might be attributable to foreign military aircraft breaching their airspace, or to foreign space-based systems of interest to the intelligence community…. The United States is no less vulnerable than Britain and France to threats to security and air safety. The United States Air Force or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should reopen investigations of U.F.O. phenomena. It would not imply that the country has suddenly started believing in little green men. It would simply recognize the possibility that radar alone cannot always tell us what’s out there.

Why, why indeed has the United States been so reluctant to, “recognize the possibility that radar alone cannot always tell us what’s out there”?  Oddly enough, international relations theory has an answer.  I’m not saying it’s the right answer, mind you, but it’s a very interesting answer.  My dear readers, I give you Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall, “Sovereignty and the UFO,” Political Theory, Volume 36, Number 4 (August 2008):  607-633.  Here’s the abstract: 

Modern sovereignty is anthropocentric, constituted and organized by reference to human beings alone. Although a metaphysical assumption, anthropocentrism is of immense practical import, enabling modern states to command loyalty and resources from their subjects in pursuit of political projects. It has limits, however, which are brought clearly into view by the authoritative taboo on taking UFOs seriously. UFOs have never been systematically investigated by science or the state, because it is assumed to be known that none are extraterrestrial. Yet in fact this is not known, which makes the UFO taboo puzzling given the ET possibility. Drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, the puzzle is explained by the functional imperatives of anthropocentric sovereignty, which cannot decide a UFO exception to anthropocentrism while preserving the ability to make such a decision. The UFO can be “known” only by not asking what it is. 

Now I suspect that approximately 95% of my readers are going to dismiss Duvall and Wendt’s argument just based on the abstract.*  Indeed, the abstract as written seems consciously designed to go straight into an amusing post on NRO’s The Corner [That’s right, he’s daring you!!–ed.]   Hell, I’ve read the paper and my immediate reaction to that abstract was similar to Michael Munger’s.    That would be a mistake, however.  Wendt and Duvall are quite careful to distinguish between the literal category of “unidentified flying objects” and the hypothesis that those unidedentified flying objects are actually little green men.  They then attempt to develop a theory for why Pope’s warning has not been heeded.  That said, I highly recommend Henry Farrell’s analysis of the paper to see the flaws in their argument.  Still, give Wendt and Duvall some credit — it’s pretty rare to write about a topic this arcane and then find a New York Times op-ed on the same subject come out the same week as a journal paper.  *In my experience, a big problem with abstracts is that they are often the last thing written, hastily cribbed together in order to get a paper off one’s own desk and into a publication.  This is a shame, since a paper’s abstract is likely to be read far more often than the paper itself. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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