Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 15:15 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 15:15 | SYDNEY

Reader ripostes: Isms and atoms

17 September 2010 14:42

Below, Richard Broinowski replies to Martine Letts' post on Australia's nuclear future. But first, Richard Green writes:

I thank Matt Hill for his enlightening reply to my query about the epistemological debates with International Relations.

The divisions in IR do somewhat parallel the divisions in economics. Realism, liberal-internationalism and constructivism may not have common overarching assumptions, but each is an attempt at a universal approach. In the same fashion, neo-classical economics and the various heterodoxies do not share assumptions (though they venerate the same hero ancestors), but each does try to create an approach that can be used across the entire discipline, thereby establishing that there is 'a discipline'.

There is another interesting parallel. Shortly after my first email I discussed the topic with a colleague studying IR who describes himself as a constructivist. He had great difficulty pinning down a definition of what this was. From his explanation (and Matt's) it sounded a great deal like what economics calls institutionalism — a term that has been around for nearly a century and an approach implicit all the way to Adam Smith, but which has never been pinned down. 

Institutionalism and constructivism can make very insightful study of a known and studied situation where overarching assumptions would be flawed, but neoclassicism in economics (say, marginalism) or realism can make assumptions (flawed or otherwise) about behaviour in a previously unseen situation whereas the former approaches are equivocal. The latter can only cast a flickering and distorting light on new areas, the former is a bright torch that works only in areas that are already brightly lit.

Another thought regarding the role of agents. Matt describes an overarching assumption about the primacy of states, and the emerging acknowledgment of other agents. In economics, the dominant approach has been to use a representative agent from which deviations in individual behavior are random — this way, a large enough population will act in aggregate as if all members are this representative agent. Traditionally this was homo economicus, the utterly rational human, now being modified as behavioral economics discovers systematic biases in human decision making.

This underlies orthodox microeconomics, as well as the most popular branches of macro. Contrast this with post-Keynesians, who disparage any attempt to anticipate aggregate behaviour from individual behaviour as being riddled with fallacies of composition.

I mention this because on the sidelines there is an attempt to use complexity theory to create models based on individual agents (people) acting in an organic (that is reacting to each others reactions, a form of evolutionary game theory) way to produce the aggregate outcomes we observe in economics. This could produce the kind of approach that absorbs the insights of an institutionalist approach (for instance, incorporating the costs and benefits, as well as approbation and disapprobation that are associated with following and enforcing cultural norms), whilst providing techniques and insights that are applicable in areas not yet studied.

If this approach works in economics, it would work in any social science, and it may do for constructivism what it could do for institutionalism. As an approach, it is very much a pipedream at the moment with no great hopes for success, but it bears thinking about. Are economics and international relations destined to become specialisations of a unified social science'

Richard Broinowski:

Martine Letts poses two nuclear alternatives for Australia – engagement or estrangement. The engagement she advocates includes expanding our ‘responsible’ uranium exports subject to strict adherence to non-proliferation norms, expanding our small and diminishing nuclear infrastructure, having a strategic and nonpartisan debate about future energy needs, and retaining our nuclear non-proliferation credentials by continuing active participation in nuclear diplomacy and retaining our seat on the IAEA Board of Governors. I imagine she also wants nuclear reactors to secure a ‘clean’ base load to meet increased energy demands.

Several comments are relevant.

Due to commercial pressures, our bilateral safeguards have become increasingly lax since they were originally formulated in 1977. We can no longer keep tabs on Australian atoms in an increasingly complex international industry, and have less and less capacity to ensure that Australian obligated nuclear materials won’t end up in nuclear weapons programs. Some of it already has.

Australia’s nuclear infrastructure is small because we have no nuclear power reactors. But with the new Opal research reactor in operation at Lucas heights after many false starts, it is hardly diminishing.

A strategic and non-partisan debate on Australia’s future energy should not just be the narrow and misleading one about nuclear replacing fossil fuels as base-load generation. It should examine the hazards as well as the advantages of nuclear technology, and the comparative costs of nuclear versus other low-emission technologies including wind, geothermal, tidal  and biomass. It is disingenuous, as some pro-nukes suggest, that the Australian public only oppose nuclear power because they are ‘emotional’ or misinformed.

Australia gained its IAEA Board of Governors’ seat in 1957 because of our uranium resources. We retained it not because of our nuclear assets, but because of our active international diplomacy, particularly when Gareth Evans was Foreign Minister. We could as easily lose the seat at the whim of our South East Asian neighbours, but this wouldn’t necessarily handicap our non-proliferation diplomacy.