Ernst Haas Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science and Progress in International Relations: Conversation with Ernst B. Haas, Robson Research Professor of Government; 10/30/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Theories and Ideas

In terms of what you then went about focusing on in your career, in a nutshell, your focus has been on communities beyond the nation state. Is that fair?

Absolutely.

What drew you to that? Is it all the things we've already discussed? Anything more beyond that? Was it the historical period when you emerged as a scholar that was important? You entered the job market, say, in the late-'40s, maybe 1950?

I entered the job market in '51.

I would put it a little differently. What attracted me to the one theme that underlies everything I've done -- that theme is the conditions under which the state as we understand it disappears, disintegrates, weakens, changes -- okay, why the interest in the state? Well, because I grew up under a system of an extraordinarily powerful state that victimized me. So my idea was, how in the future do we get rid of states of that kind?

So that was a problem that you were willing to devote your life to?

You're putting it very dramatically. I didn't sit down and say, "Look, Haas, you're going to devote your life to this." It didn't quite happen that way. But in that respect, yes.

In your works that I've looked at, there is a notion of evolution as you look at societies. I'm going to apply that evolutionary notion to your ideas. They have evolved over time.

Oh, yes.

One set of ideas grew into another. In the beginning you worked on European integration. You focused on a functional analysis of what was going on and had insights about the way these regional communities evolved. But then, in a way, you backed away from that research. You didn't find that the evolution was going in the way you thought. And that actually took a little courage on your part, did it not? Or am I mistaken?

You're slightly misstating, I think. Yes, it started out the way you said. I picked European integration as my initial example, 1) because I knew the languages, so that made it easy; 2) because at that time, the mid-1950s, it was the most highly developed real-life instance of movement away from the nation state. So it was a laboratory, so to speak. My first book came out of that, and three or four Ph.D. dissertations. And then one of my students, Phillippe Schmitter, and I decided to try out the same theory outside of Europe. He was a Latin America specialist. So we tried it out on what was then going on in Latin America, and concluded that the same theory applied to Latin America would predict the failure of regional community formation, which it did. The theory predicted correctly. Having accomplished that, what else was there to study?

So I said, "Okay, let's see, let's try to find a case where the conditions that are found to be working in Europe for a successful transcending of the nation state can be duplicated at the global level. So I picked a global organization affiliated with the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, which had an institutional structure which superficially resembled that of the then - European Community, to study. And that became my second major book. The conclusion was that the theory applied to regional integration will not work. Or if you apply it at the global level, it will predict failure of further integration. That accomplished, I got bored with the subject, then looked around for something else to do.

The latter part of your career focuses on learning in international relations.

Right.

Specifically in multilateral organizations. And how did you move to that way of conceptualizing the problem?

Well, that, you could say with the benefit of hindsight, was implicit in what I was doing right along, only I hadn't used that kind of language for it.

The emphasis on learning, which has preoccupied the last third of my career, grew out of a different interest, which was not part of the original interest in transnational community formation. That new interest (and that's where the evolutionary argument comes in) was whether what you know as a political actor -- the kind of knowledge you have in your head -- makes a difference in the kind of political decisions you make. And that's where science came in.

The question I asked, or the hypothesis which I formulated, was if people think in terms, shall we say, analogous to scientific problem-solving, they are more likely to hit on political formulas that would have the result of undermining the nation state. That was the hypothesis I was working with. In my most recent book, I used the terms nationalism, liberalism, and progress. The notion of progress refers to what I've just described.

So this led to a series of articles and books of which the one on nationalism is just the most recent one, and the gross answer to the hypothesis I've just stated is "No. It doesn't work that way." Which led me to refine the hypothesis, and ask, "Under what circumstances might certain kinds of knowledge make a difference?" And refined in that way, I found some instances in which, yes, knowledge does make a difference, and knowledge is power. Having redefined the hypothesis in that fashion, [I tried] to systematize what I learned.

This is something that a social scientist has to do a lot, to bump his theories up against reality and change them if the reality doesn't match the hypothesis.

Well, that's the name of the game. I mean, the name of the game, if you'll pardon the use of a cliché, is to push back the frontiers of knowledge. The wrong kind of push doesn't work, you've got to find another kind of push.

So you then began focusing on what you call "epistemic communities."

Yes. Actually, my son invented the term.

Your son, Peter Haas, who is also a political scientist, invented that term. And what are epistemic communities and why do they become a focal point for this kind of study?

Because they're carriers of scientific knowledge into politics. Epistemic communities are associations of professional experts in a particular field who, because of the knowledge they have, have an unusual influence on politicians and bureaucrats, and are, therefore, able to penetrate government departments and make their ideas part of policy. That's an epistemic community. And, you know, they don't operate in all fields of policy. They only operate in fields of policy where science matters. In the field of human rights, forget it. There are no epistemic communities. Science is irrelevant to that field. In environmental politics, it matters a great deal.

And also monetary and development policy.

Exactly.

You say in your book, "Science, in short, influences the way the politics is done" in these contexts we're talking about. "Science becomes a component of politics because the scientific way of grasping reality is used to define the interest that political actors articulate and defend. The doing of actors can be described by observers as an exercise of defining and realizing interests, informed by changing scientific knowledge about man and nature."

Did I say that?

Yes.

Pretty good.

Page 11 in your book on that field.

Pretty good.

But this suggests to me that you remain something of a student of the German sociologist Max Weber?

Yes, exactly. Weber is the single most vital intellectual influence on my thinking.

And why is that?

I can't give you a really good answer to that one. I guess just because ... the short answer is that I resonate to the way he thinks. Why do I resonate to the way he thinks? I don't know myself. If you allow me to use a sort of technical term here, it's that in terms of the ontological commitments that he made, of which I only became aware gradually as I matured, I found out that mine were the same as his.

In the beginning of your book you say, "I take my stand with Max Weber: 'Interest (material and ideal), not ideas directly, determine man's action. But the world views, which were created by ideas, have very often acted as the switches and channeled the dynamics of interest.'"

Yes, that's Weber.

Right.

And I buy that.

Yes. And it's essentially a summary of the way you've tried to think about ideas, scientific ideas, and their relation to international politics.

Exactly.

Now this is a world in which the focus is not on political heroes, on great men changing the world.

That's right. That's right.

How do you account for that? That epistemological choice?

That epistemological choice was a self-conscious one. To explain events by saying that some big shot pushed all the right buttons at the time is much too easy. Because the great majority of events of which history is made up, you cannot account for by some big shot having pushed the right buttons. And to use the exceptional as the normal is not scientific procedure.

And so the emphasis then becomes on looking at the actual work of international organizations --

Yes.

-- and how those organizations are impacted by new scientific ideas.

Yes. Rather, how they're impacted by any ideas, right?

Yes.

Including scientific ideas. I'm not just looking at scientific ideas.

No, right. But how do men and women begin to think about cause and effect --

Exactly.

-- in the worlds that they're dealing with.

You've got it.

Give us a specific example with regard to environment or monetary policy where this is played out.

In the field of the environment, the notion that the pattern of the consumption of fuels based on coal and oil could make a difference to the kind of lives we lead, not in the sense of oil prices going up or down, but in the sense of what kind of air do we breathe, what kind of resources will be available 100, 200, 500 years from now, this kind of long-range thinking, which is barely ten years old as far as international politics is concerned. It's older than that in scientific circles. But as a political principle, that resource management and resource exhaustion, particularly with respect to nonrenewable fuels, that this is something to be taken very seriously, is a very recent thing. And it's based entirely on something that a bunch of scientists preached, which at first was rejected by governments -- which is still being rejected by a lot of governments, particularly late-developing countries, because they do not wish to make the adjustments that are necessary to go from oil-burning industries to industries based on some other source of energy.

So, further your analysis here. What are the dynamics as the subtle, scientific points penetrate the system?

The dynamics are first of all, enough politicians have to believe that the cause of some undesirable event is the cause the scientists say it is. Scientists claim, "The reason there's global warming is because of the kind of fuel we burn." Okay, you've got to believe that, first of all. Now there's an awful lot of them who did not believe it, and there's still a lot who don't believe it. But a critical mass of people who accepted the accuracy of this physical chemical analysis, that had to come about first. Took awhile. All right; that's just step number one.

Step number two is you then have to have enough allies in the body politic that subscribe to this principle to exert pressure on political parties and bureaucracies. To do the proper policy things that ought to be done in order to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Eventually, you've got to persuade heads of governments to subscribe to international agreements -- to negotiate and subscribe to international agreements that try to regulate this. That happened after 1992.

And why is this first phase so critical? That is, where the epistemic communities actually touch base in the bureaucracy?

Well, because no one ... or very few practical politicians (all bureaucrats are busy doing what they're doing) would take the time to educate themselves unless pushed that way by somebody else. To learn the lessons that are necessary before the change in policy becomes something to be envisaged.

Next page: Nationalism and Beyond

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