SSU Forum with Professor Peter J. Katzenstein

Date: Thursday, April 19 2018, 18:30-20:00
Venue: Conference Room, 3rd Floor, Ito International Research Center
Subject: "Power in Uncertainty: Exploring the Unexpected in World Politics"
Lecture: Peter J. Katzenstein, the Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor of International Studies at Cornell University
Language: English
Hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, the University of Tokyo
Abstract: This lecture introduces the concept of “protean power” as the basis for a better analysis of unanticipated events in world politics. Protean power is the effect of actors’ agility as they adapt in situations of uncertainty. This definition departs from conventional definitions of power, which focus on actors’ evolving ability to exercise control in situations of calculable risk and their consequent ability to cause outcomes these actors deem desirable. I argue that this conventional view is overly confining; inclusion of protean power in our analytical models helps us to better account for unexpected change in world politics. Notably, actors respond to shifts between risk and uncertainty, in both context and experience, with affirmation, refusal, improvisation, or innovation. In doing so, they create room for control and protean power as effects, rather than causes, of such practices. However, protean power should not replace control power.
These two basic forms of power relate to one another, in a variety of ways, in complex contexts characterized by both risk and uncertainty.

The Security Studies Unit was delighted to host Peter J. Katzenstein, Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor of International Studies at Cornell University, who delivered a talk on the concept of Protean power in the context of a changing perception of the world political environment, from one dominated by the idea of risk and risk management to one in which the pervasiveness of uncertainty, and even radical uncertainty, becomes pivotal to a conceptual shift in political science.

Professor Kiichi Fujiwara, Director of the SSU, opened the event by introducing the guest as a very distinguished scholar, author of numerous publications which have attained worldwide praise.

Professor Katzenstein thanked the host and opened his talk by commenting on an image of Proteus, a character of Greek mythology. Proteus, son of Poseidon god of the Ocean, could foresee the future and change his appearance assuming the form of any creature. He has therefore become the symbol of versatility, mutability, adaptability. This image is central to grasp the essential argument of the book that Professor Katzenstein presented in his talk, Protean Power: Exploring the Uncertain and Unexpected in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2018), a volume he co-edited with Lucia Seybert. This project started in 2008 in the aftermath of the financial crisis, which revealed weaknesses in the way in which the social sciences were handling the conceptualisation of the world in its complexity. In economics, the idea of uncertainty has almost entirely disappeared. Economists convert uncertainty in risk and create risk models to manage it. Those models function for a while, but invariably the time comes where they completely diverge from reality and collapse. However, this scheme is not only present in the economics, but also in political science and International Relations. Professor Katzenstein illustrated then how the idea of risk and its limits descend from a conceptualisation of power of Hobbesian origin, namely of power as control, power as a creation of some kind of order. Yet an alternative image of power exists, a kind of power which is more fluid, as commonly discussed in the humanities and cultural studies. This is Protean power.

In the book, the authors reflect on the problem of unpredictability as the newly emerging character of contemporary international politics. How is it possible to deal with the unexpected? One possibility is to look at how control power is diffuse. As argued by Professor Richard Haas, the current era is one in which power is very diffuse. If one ignored the unexpected, can easily trip up. In the current way to deal with uncertainty, scholars try to re-calibrate their conceptions of power after facts which have disproved previous formulations, by including more areas which had been previously left uncovered. However, from the perspective of control power, there are always uncovered areas. Protean power instead is the effect of improvisational and innovative responses to uncertainty, based on the systemic circulation of power potential waiting to be actualised. Such Protean power co-exists and co-evolves together with control power.

Modern organisations, Professor Katzenstein argued, do not like uncertainty, and they heavily rely on risk analyses. This has important political implications. In IR, power has been mostly conceptualised in terms of capabilities and their measurements, an idea of power centred on agents. However, theorists of power argue instead that power resides in the relationships between subjects, not in agents. Different conceptions of power are rooted in different epistemological worldviews, particularly different images of physics. Control power has affinities with the ordered and predictable world of Newtonian physics. While Newtonian physics remains a powerful explanatory format, it is incapable of explaining particle physics, for which quantum physics has emerged in the first part of the twentieth century. One may argue that Protean power is based on a conception of science which is closer to quantum physics than Newtonian physics. The different logics of risk and uncertainty or of control power and Protean power lead to different kinds of context analyses and their corresponding responses. Actors who experience the world mostly as risky will become affirmative in the case of a risky context, or improvise in an uncertain context, where risk cannot be properly calculated. Actors who experience instead the world as mostly uncertain will have an attitude of refusal if the context is perceived as risky, and of innovation if the context is experienced as uncertain.

Professor Katzenstein offered then a number of examples and additional reflections on the properties of Protean power. IR theories have for the most part incorporated the idea that the world is a risky environment, as opposed to uncertain. This however is increasingly challengeable. Alternative ways of thinking already exist, particularly in the continental tradition of political thought, where power is conceptualised as inherently inter-subjective. This appear to be the way to reappraise power, risk, and uncertainty.