The Strawman That Stirs The Drink

by TNR Staff | March 19, 2007

by Daniel Drezner The Economist was good enough to review my new book All Politics Is Global: Explaining International Regulatory Regimes in their latest issue. Even better, the magazine liked the book. However, with my shameless self-promotion out of the way, there's one paragraph of the review that made me contemplate how I framed the book:
Mr Drezner believes that what really matter [in determining the development of international regulatory regimes] are the domestic preferences of powerful governments: "States make the rules." This directly contradicts Thomas Friedman's flat-world notion that globalisation has emasculated the state. Mr Friedman's ideas--such as that capitalists worldwide now form an "electronic herd" that tramples down borders--are, according to Mr Drezner, "simple, pithy and wrong". As evidence, Mr Drezner provides case studies ranging from internet protocols to anti-retroviral drugs. He shows that "great powers cajole and coerce those who disagree with them into accepting the same rulebook."
I've found my own way to thank the Economist for the review, but I now realize that I owe someone else a debt of gratitude--Thomas Friedman. The World Is Flat , The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and Friedman's New York Times column have made the man a walking pinata for political scientists, economists, sociologists, and lots of critics who think and write about globalization. Why? Because Friedman is the classic "strawman"--someone who clearly articulates such an extreme caricature of a thesis that anyone and everyone can look reasonable by comparison when they knock it down. Social scientists love to bash a good strawman in developing an argument--particularly if the straw is selling huge number of books, triggering appearances on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," and generating buzz (even negative buzz) at all the realy cool conferences. A great strawman allows us to say we're going against the conventional wisdom, using our training and erudition to devise new and novel hypotheses about the world. Of course, a good piece of social science should critique not only strawmen, but also more sophisticated and nuanced arguments (and I certainly hope All Politics Is Global accomplishes this task). The best of all worlds, however, is when you as the author can bash the popular arguments and bash constructively critique the scholarly work. I suspect Friedman can assuage any hurt feelings he might possess about his strawman status in the comfort of first class lounges at the world's finest airports, not to mention the gargantuan book royalties that are a positive force in reducing America's trade deficit. Still, there are good strawmen and bad strawmen, and Friedman is among the best at his craft--and that's the fact he should reflect on in case the criticism ever gets to him. Friedman's popularity and bully pulpit might make him the biggest strawman alive in the social sciences--but that in and of itself could be a strawman argument. I therefore submit this question to my Open U. colleagues and readers--who is the most popular strawman in your field?

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