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Ahmed Ali Salem
Assistant Professor, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates
Realism and constructivism are usually presented as conflicting international relations paradigms. Realists argue that international relations are mere reflections of the imperatives of power politics and balances of power, while constructivists contend that international relations reflect not only power politics but norms and identity politics as well. Nevertheless, the two paradigms are not contradictory. Rather, realism is compatible with certain constructivist variants, although this compatibility is largely unrecognized. Moreover, combing key variables of realism and constructivism, or even synthesizing them, is possible, but hindered by the alleged incompatibility between their ontological and epistemological bases – an allegation that overshadows the dialogue between their proponents.
Nevertheless, dialogue between the two paradigms is not the only route to synthesizing them, which is also possible through intra-paradigm dialogues, or dialogues within each of the two paradigms. Inter-paradigm dialogue is possible and potentially fruitful only after intra-paradigm reconciliations. In this paper, I discuss an intra-realist and an intra-constructivist dialogues that are likely to reconcile some the differences between the two paradigms. On the realist side in the first section, I criticize Walt’s balance-of-threats theory which is tested in the context of inter-Arab politics and attempts to fix Waltz’s balance-of-power theory, arguing that Walt’s analysis is hardly structural realist and essentially constructivist and therefore corrects, not complements, Waltz’s theory. Walt’s theory preceded the emergence of constructivism as an international relations paradigm but would ideally result in propositions remarkably similar to those of later constructivists. On the constructivist side in the second section, I discuss the insufficiency of the logic of appropriateness which constructivists use, showing how the four solutions to this problem that constructivists suggested imply realism directly or indirectly.
Section One: Intra-Realist Dialogue Heading Towards Social Constructivism
Intra-realist dialogue has been a main method to develop realism. In this section, I discuss one such a dialogue, namely, Walt’s balance-of-threat theory in response to Waltz’ balance-of-power theory. Walt’s theory, I argue, would develop realism in a constructivism direction well before constructivism was established as an international relations paradigm. I begin, however, with a discussion of Waltz’ theory and their problems that stemmed debates, sometimes heated, among realists over three decades.
Waltz’ Problematic Theory of International Relations
Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics is so impactful that it is argued to have reconstructed realism on new foundations. Hence, its label “neorealism.” But this label is also claimed by other theorists in the realist school of thought, including Gilpin and Kindermann, whose propositions on international politics differ remarkably from those of Waltz’s (Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, 1996: 80-5). This label also conceals what is new about the new realist theory, and implies that the new theory supersedes classical realism. I therefore do not use this label. I also avoid the systemic realism label because systemic theory and structural realism are not synonyms. For example, Marxian World-System analysis is systemic but not realist, arguing that causative structures exist at many levels, not only on the international level (p.130). Instead, Waltz’s theory is labeled “structural realism,” thus its contribution to rebuilding realism and distinction among other systemic theories are emphasized.
Structuring the International Political System
Waltz (1979: 118) founds his balance-of-power theory on one condition: “two or more states coexist in a self-help system, one with no superior agent to come to the aid of states that may be weakening or to deny to any of them the use of whatever instruments they think will serve their purposes.” In addition, the theory is based on two instrumental assumptions. First, states are unitary actors who seek their own preservation even if that requires universal domination. Second, the means available to states, or those who act for them, to achieve that end fall into two categories: internal efforts (i.e., moves to increase economic capability and military strength, and to develop clever strategies) and external efforts (i.e., moves to strengthen and enlarge one’s own alliance or to weaken and shrink an opposing one).
Morgenthau’s notion of the balance of power as a state strategy has no place in this theory. Indeed, Waltz takes issue with one of Morgenthau’s definitions of the balance of power as “a policy aimed at a certain state of affairs” because it turns a possible effect into “a necessary cause in the form of a stipulated rule” (p.120). Thus, while Morgenthau considers two facets of the balance of power (i.e. as a causative idea or policy, and a generated effect or state of affairs), Waltz’s theory of the balance of power “is simply a theory about the outcome of units’ behavior under conditions of anarchy” (p.57).
Even if the balance of power were an idea, embracing it by states would have no effect because, in Waltz’s theory, state motives and objectives are not causative. The theory “claims to explain the results of states’ actions, under given conditions, and those results may not be foreshadowed in any of the actors’ motives or be contained as objectives in their policies” (p.118). Moreover, Waltz implies that focusing on motives and objectives can be misleading because the structure of international politics causes actions to have consequences they were not intended to have (p.107). A well-known example of an unintended consequence is the security dilemma: “If each state, being stable, strove only for security and had no designs on its neighbors, all states would nevertheless remain insecure; for the means of security for one state are, in their very existence, the means by which other states are threatened” (p.64).
Waltz (1979: 18) therefore condemns as reductionist “theories of international politics that concentrate causes at the individual or national level,” including state motives, because “from attributes one cannot predict outcomes if outcomes depend on the situation of the actors as well as on their attributes” (p.61). Thus, the international politics theories which explain the whole by knowing the attributes and the interactions of its parts are insufficient to explain international politics and “must give way to systemic ones” (p.37). Systemic theories of international politics, on the other hand, explains the outcomes at the international political level, inferring expectations about the outcomes of states’ behavior and interactions from a knowledge of systems-level elements (p.39; p.50). Thus, a concern and possible accomplishment of systemic theories of international politics is “to show how the structure of the system affects the interacting units and how they in turn affect the structure” (p40; emphasis added).
Nevertheless, Waltz criticizes earlier systemic theorists who focused on factors operating at the individual, national and international levels (p.18), and distinguishes his theory among theirs by denying causation of state motives and emphasizing the causative role of the structure of the international political system. For example, Hoffmann and Kaplan are criticized because they argue that “actors will produce a given result only if they are motivated to do so,” thus ignoring a concept of “the system’s structure acting as an organizational constraint on the actors, a constraint that would vary in its expected effects from one system to another.” Kaplan, for example, is criticized for claiming that “the source of change in international systems lies in the behavior of the actors, specifically in their breaking of the essential rules,” and therefore offering propositions “about decision-making units and the rules they follow rather than being about the effect of different international systems on such units” (pp.52-7).
Nevertheless, Waltz’s claim that state motives and objectives are not causal is a negation of human agency and has three important implications. First, a theory of foreign policy is neither implied nor required by a theory of international-political (p.72) because its only potential is to show the process through which “the structure selects,” i.e., the actors who conform to accepted and successful practices more often rise to the top and are likelier to stay there (p.92). Second, assuming that actors are rational or have constant will is unnecessary (p.118) because the balance of power operates mechanically without intervention on the part of rational or otherwise foreign policy decision makers. Third, the tension between power and morality is ostensibly solved by denying that foreign policy decision makers are responsible for the state of the affairs of international politics because, in order for their states to survive, they have no choice but to follow the imperatives of the balance of power. Thus, morality is not only separated (as in Carr’s theory) and ignored (as in Morgenthau’s theory) but also deemed insignificant and irrelevant to the study of international politics.
Like Morgenthau, however, Waltz fails to maintain throughout his theory this negation of the causative role of state motives and objectives. As the example of the security dilemma shows, one of the requirements for the balance-of-power politics to prevail is that states wish to survive (p.120) and consider security their top political interest (p.107). This, of course, is not an empirically established fact; rather, it is only an assumption, because Waltz argues that, “in a micro-theory, whether of international politics or of economics, the motivation of the actors is assumed rather than realistically described.” Waltz is aware that the state survival assumption, which, he admits, is a radical simplification of political reality (p.91), is not always realistic: “some states may persistently seek goals that they value more highly than survival; they may for example, prefer amalgamation with other states to their own survival in form” (p.92).
Waltz’s emphasis on survival as the state goal is a key element in his balance-of-power theory, but inconsistent with denouncing the analysis that focus on state attributes and their consequentiality in international politics. Moreover, he fails to explain why survival is the only state objective required in a general theory of international politics. How different would the theory be if state survival were substituted with another objective, or a combination of objectives, such as the wellbeing of ordinary people? And how powerful are the new theory’s explanations and predictions compared to those of the balance-of-power theory? These and similar questions are legitimate given Waltz’s claim that assumptions are employed only instrumentally in the construction of theory: “assumptions are not assertions of facts [and] find their justification in the success of the theories that employ them” (p.6).
Furthermore, Waltz’s assumption of only one state objective raises questions of moral choices. For example, prioritizing state survival over the wellbeing of its ordinary people is based on a moral commitment different from that on which the opposite priority may be based: the former is Hegelian, privileging the state’s efforts to preserve its individuality and claim to autonomy; the latter, Kantian and Beitzian, dispensing with the idea of the state’s national interest and instead appealing directly to the rights and interests of all persons affected by the choice (Murray, 1997: 163-4). As Waltz avoids to address this issue, thus forecloses an important aspect potentially differentiating states and thus possibly impacting international politics, it is legitimate to accept Murray’s argument:
A realist perspective, by way of contrast, recognizes on the one hand the importance of the defense of the state to the preservation of the communities which represent the principal bastions of the good that it values, and thus permits the national interest a certain moral dignity, but, on the other hand, refuses to allow this to extend to the defense of the institutions of the state in themselves, or to the point where it is no longer restrained by, and subordinate to, broader moral principles (p.167).
But if state motives and objectives are not causes of Waltz’s balance of power, what is? It is the international political structure, “the system-level component that makes it possible to think of the units as forming a set as distinct from a mere collection” (Waltz, 1979: 40). A system’s structure acts as a constraint on its units, thus “disposes them to behave in certain ways and not in others, and because it does so the system is maintained. If systemic forces are insufficient for these tasks, then the system either dissolves or is transformed” (p.58). Although Waltz explicitly states that “structure operates as a cause, but it is not the only cause in play” (p.87), he fails to show the other causes. We are therefore left with the international political structure as the only demonstrated cause of international political outcomes and shaper of political processes in Waltz’s theory.
A closer examination of Waltz’s international political structure reveals where causality exactly lies. For any system, Waltz argues, the structure is a positional picture, “a general description of the ordered overall arrangement of a society written in terms of the placement of units rather than in terms of their qualities” (p.99). Unlike national politics which consists of differentiated units performing specified functions, the international political system consists of “like units duplicating one another’s activities” (p.97). These units are states. Waltz justifies the state-centrism of his theory by the central role of states in international politics:
So long as the major states are the major actors, the structure of international politics is defined in terms of them… a theory that denies the central role of states will be needed only if non-state actors develop to the point of rivaling or surpassing the great powers, not just a few of the minor ones (pp.94-95).
The structure of the international political system of states is defined by anarchy and the distribution of capabilities across states (pp.81-2). Anarchy is the principle by which the states are arranged. It is held constant in all structures of the international political system, and thus should be treated as the constitutive force of that system, not a direct cause of outcomes in it. Holding anarchy constant has the effect of distinguishing states only by their greater or lesser capabilities for performing their similar tasks. Thus, changes of the arrangement of states in the system, which are the only structural changes (p.80), are a function of changes in the distribution of capabilities among states.
The structure of a system changes with changes in the distribution of capabilities across the system’s units. And changes in structure change expectations about how the units of the system will behave and about the outcomes their interactions will produce (p.97).
In other words, changing the distribution of capabilities causes a change in the structure of a system, which in turn causes a change in state behavior and the outcome of state interactions.
In turn, a change in the distribution of capabilities is a function of changes of states’ power because, in Waltz’s theory, “capabilities” is only another word for “power.” “Power is estimated by comparing the capabilities of a number of units,” and states are therefore differently placed in the structure of the international political system by their power (p.97). Thus, Baldwin (1993: 16) mischaracterizes Waltz’s concept of power as only relational, i.e. an agent is powerful to the extent that he affects others more than they affect him (Waltz, 1979: 192). In Waltz’s theory power is also causal (i.e. the power wielder affects the behavior, attitudes, beliefs, or propensity to act of another actor). But it is causal only indirectly because its distribution is the foundation of the structure of the international political system whose change leads to change in states behavior and the outcomes of state interaction.
In addition to shaping the structure of the international political system, power is central to states because it provides them with four important things:
First, power provides the means of maintaining one’s autonomy in the face of force that others wield. Second, greater power permits wider ranges of action, while leaving the outcomes of action uncertain… Third, the more powerful enjoy wider margins of safety in dealing with the less powerful and have more to say about which games will be played and how… Weak states operate on narrow margins. Inopportune acts, flawed policies, and mistimed moves may have fatal results… Fourth, great power gives its possessors a big stake in their system and the ability to act for its sake (pp.194-5).
This importance of power justifies Waltz’s focus on it, and qualifies his theory as another theory of means, not substance (i.e. preferences and morality).
The focus on power entails the importance of measuring it accurately. To avoid the consequences of the indeterminacy of national power that led Morgenthau (1960 : 205) to the uncertainty, unreality, and inadequacy of the balance of power as an objective law of international politics, Waltz adopts two strategies. First, he claims that measuring and comparing states’ different combinations of capabilities, difficult as they are, especially as the weight to be assigned to different items changes with time, are in fact less important to identify the great powers than most theorists think because “historically, despite difficulties, one finds general agreement about who the great powers of a period are, with occasional doubt about marginal cases” (Waltz, 1979: 131). He justifies his theory’s focus on the great powers on the basis that these states make the most difference. Therefore, “a general theory of international politics is necessarily based on the great powers” (p.73).
Second, he includes in the list of the determinants of national capabilities only power components that can be measured and compared relatively easily. For example, a great power must enjoy sizable population and territory, rich resources, capable economy, strong military, and stable and competent political system (p.131). Waltz explicitly excludes the ideational elements of power such as national characteristics and morale, ideology, form of government, peacefulness, bellicosity (pp.97-8). Thus, contrary to Baldwin’s (1993: 17) claim, Waltz’s list resembles only partly Morgenthau’s list of the elements of national power.
Unsolved Problems, Possible Corrections
Waltz excludes foreign policy and focuses only on materialist components of power, thus nearly closing the two windows through which moral and ideational elements had been smuggled in Morgenthau’s theory. As a result, Waltz produces perhaps the most coherent and parsimonious statement of realism, or arguably all general theories of international politics. It is also arguable that the tradeoffs of parsimony in Waltz’s theory undermine considerably its apparent elegance. These tradeoffs include the theory’s mechanical and deterministic operation, weak explanatory and predictive power, and limited scope and usefulness.
First, this interpretation of international politics is mechanical and deterministic. According to Waltz (1979: 75-77), no state can resist what the international political structure imposes without fatal consequences. In other words, states responding to the pressures of the structure of the system move along one of two trajectories with no assigned probabilities of success: they either accommodate their ways to the most acceptable and successful practices in the system, which they learn through socialization and competition, or die. Waltz (2000: 24), however, rejects this criticism, arguing that the theory does not imply that structures determine the actions of states:
A state that is stronger than any other can decide for itself whether to conform its policies to structural pressures and whether to avail itself of the opportunities that structural change offers, with little fear of adverse affects in the short run.
Nevertheless, this note concerns only the strongest states in the system, and undermines the assumed anarchic nature of the international political system as discussed at the end of this subsection.
Second, Waltz (1979: Chapter Eight) considers bipolarity a stable structure of the international political system, and therefore views the bipolar system of the Cold War as robust. Although he expected its lifetime to be shorter than its multi-polar predecessor (p.162), he was unable to predict its end, and could not expect the changes that led to the radical transformation of the structure of the international political system that ended the Cold War only one decade after publishing his Theory of International Politics. This predictive weakness may be justified by the complexity of social phenomena. After all, as Waltz asserts, “prediction is an insufficient criterion for accepting a theory’s validity, for predictions may be right or wrong for many different and accidental reasons” (p.28), and the predictions of the balance-of-power theory is indeterminate anyway (p.124).
What is less tolerable is the theory’s inability to explain such changes because it stops short of illuminating the mechanisms through which the relative distribution of capabilities between major powers change thus making possible a system-transforming change of the number of its poles, moving away from bipolarity in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These mechanisms are not addressed in Waltz’s theory simply because they are in fact changes in states attributes and interactions produced by forces neither central nor consequential in Waltz’s systemic theory of international politics, and allegedly lying outside of the theory’s purview. Theory attempts to explain the constraints that confine all states and give general answers to the question “what will a state have to react to?” but cannot explain particular reactions of states because these reactions depend not only on international constraints but also the characteristics of states (p.122). This inability to explain changes of the international political system should be underscored given Waltz’s assertion that “a systems theory explains changes across system, not within them” (p71). In other words, this is the central domain of systemic theories such as Waltz’s.
Third, if changes-across-system is the central domain of the theory, then its scope is indeed limited. Waltz (p.70) admits that “structure is certainly no good on detail.” But most international politics are indeed details. Writing before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Waltz identified only one change of the international political structure during the previous four centuries – that is, the move from a multi-polar to a bipolar system at the end of the Second World War (p.163). As for the dynamics within a stable system, the theory is not very useful. When balances do not form and states do not conform to the successful practices of other states, forces that lie outside of the theory’s purview are claimed to be at work. This is yet another example of the theory’s incompleteness.
Waltz alerts the readers of this limited domain of the systemic theories which “can tell us what pressures are exerted and what possibilities are posed by systems of different structure,” but cannot tell “just how, and how effectively, the units of a system will respond to those pressures and possibilities” (p.71). Specifically, they tell us “what international conditions national policies have to cope with,” but not “how the coping is likely to be done” (p.72). Thus, Waltz’s theory is perhaps useful only for a general understanding of the history of international politics, but of no use for decision makers who are concerned with states’ detailed responses to immediate stimuli.
In response to this criticism, Waltz (2000: 27) only reiterates his sharp distinction between international politics – the domain of structural realism – and foreign policy analysis:
international political theory deals with the pressures of structure on states and not with how states will respond to the pressures. The latter is a task for theories about how national governments respond to pressures on them and take advantage of opportunities that may be present.
The failure to respond convincingly to these criticisms, I argue, lies in the questionable foundations of the theory, its lack of clarity on and specification of unit-level causes, and its unnecessary fixation of variables, especially anarchy and its self-help implication, treated as constants. I now turn to defend this argument.
First, Waltz’s parsimonious theory does not capture the complexity of the studied phenomena because, to achieve parsimony, Waltz resorts to two strategies. On the one hand, he begins with unrealistic, simplifying assumptions, and adds more of them while developing the theory. Edifying the theory on such assumptions is justified on the basis that “assumptions are neither true nor false and that they are essential for the construction of theory” (p.119). On the other hand, he isolates one realm of international politics from all others for purpose of simplification, thus focuses on the structure of the system to the exclusion of state attributes and interactions. A similar justification is in order:
The question, as ever with theories, is not whether the isolation of a realm is realistic, but whether it is useful. And usefulness is judged by the explanatory and predictive powers of the theory that may be fashioned (p.8).
This strategy of making instrumental and simplifying assumptions and isolating realms as a way out of the order-in-complexity problem obviously follows the advice of a number of logical-positivists such as Hayek (2001: 55-70), Scriven (2001: 71-77), and McIntyre (2001: 131-143), who recommend that social scientists ignore complexity, come up with general theories not focused on prediction, and redefine their research problems and develop parsimonious theories before collecting data. Adopting this strategy, however, results only in limiting the scope of Waltz’s theory and minimizing the cases where it is supposed to apply successfully. If there is no escape from assumptions, they should be as realistic as possible. In addition, they must be theoretically scrutinized and empirically tested (Moravcsik, 1993: 7), and their number must be as small as possible.
Second, Waltz fails to show examples of non-structural causes of international political outcomes, with the exception of the assumed state objective of survival. Indeed, the relationship between the two components of the international system, namely, its structure and interacting units, is at best under-theorized. While Waltz implies that the two components affect each other (Waltz, 1979: 58, 72), and demonstrates how the former constrains the latter, in nowhere does he show how the latter affects the former. It is plausible that a proper theory of international theory is the one which “allows for the handling of both unit-level and systems-level causes,” and can therefore account for “both the changes and the continuities that occur in a system…without proliferating variables and multiplying categories” (p.68); but Waltz’s theory does not live up to this challenge of theorizing on both the unit and system levels.
Third, Waltz unnecessarily treats as constants two systemic components that take varying values in reality. These are the anarchy of the international political system and its corollary of the self-help system. The latter is discussed thoroughly by a number of realist, neoliberal institutionalists, and constructivists, most notably Alexander Wendt, as referred to in the third chapter. The former is hardly addressed in the literature, although it is the most basic foundation of Waltz’s theory.
Waltz argues that anarchy is the enduring character of international politics that “accounts for the striking sameness in the quality of international life through the millennia” (p.66), but gives one meaning to anarchy, that is, self help: “The international imperative is ‘take care of yourself’!” (p.107). This is another way of saying that, each state is an autonomous political unit, or sovereign, and equal to all the others: “none is entitled to command; none is required to obey” (p.88; p.95). Waltz defines sovereignty rather loosely as follows: “each state decides for itself how it will cope with its internal and external problems, including whether or not to seek assistance from others and in doing so to limit its freedom by making commitments to them” (p.96).
Nevertheless, his emphasis on state sovereignty and equality as defining anarchy, the constitutive element of the causative structure of the international political system, is problematic because sovereignty and equality are eroding, and therefore constitute shaky foundations of a general theory of international relations. On this point, Osiander (2001: 283) makes the following persuasive argument:
Growing interdependence as a result of industrialization has, for a century or more, continuously undermined the capacity for self-reliance of international actors (states) and will diminish it further. This development has been accompanied by an ongoing swing of the pendulum away from near-total autonomy of states and by a proliferation of international institutions trying to “get in” on the management of transborder politics… There is a clear de facto trend in international politics away from classical sovereignty and toward something closer to landeshoheit, territorial jurisdiction under an external legal regime shared by the actors. Like the estates of the [Holy Roman] empire, modern states are also tied into a complex structure of governance that creates a network both of cooperation and of mutual restraint. Participation in this network is voluntary in principle but difficult in practice to escape because of the high cost escaping would entail.
Although Waltz can still treat sovereignty and equality instrumentally as assumptions necessary for constructing his theory, insisting on sovereignty and equality as defining anarchy has the potential of magnifying another problem in theory. Namely, defining anarchy in terms of sovereignty and equality undermines the power-base of Waltz’s account of international politics, and thus creates a contradiction in the theory. Indeed, this definition raises a dilemma for realists as they attempt to answer such a simple question as whether states respect the sovereignty and equality of other states. If their answer is yes, as Waltz would apparently do, then they must either accept the significance of the legalistic-moralistic framework of international relations or search for another explanation of the prevailing practice of observing this well-established norm. Power politics, realism’s lifeblood, seems unable to provide such an explanation, especially as evident in the post-Cold War era. It might be plausible that respecting state sovereignty and equality was an expression of the balance of power in Europe or worldwide at certain historical periods, but it is hardly convincing that the United States, for example, is now restrained from attacking an enemy such as Cuba because of dyadic or global power calculations. Other factors must be at work. On the other hand, if the answer to the question of whether states respect the sovereignty and equality of other states is no, and power relations in international politics are highlighted instead, then Waltz’s emphasis on state sovereignty and equality as partly defining the structure of the international political system is misplaced and ignores the strong hierarchical elements in the international political structure.
Therefore, realists would either accept norms, identities, institutions, and cultures as forces in international politics, or insist on materialistic power as the only defining element of the structure of the international political system. Both choices entail a revolution in the realist school of thought: the first has the effect of converging realism with constructivism; the second admits the mixed anarchical-hierarchical nature of the international political system and therefore (1) makes possible the yet imaginary scenario of moving from one system to another by moving from an anarchic to a hierarchic realm (Waltz, 1979: 100) or, more accurately, moving along an anarchic-hierarchic spectrum or continuum; (2) highlights the significance of powerful non-state actors in international politics and downplays that of weak states; (3) makes the study of internal politics more relevant to the study of international politics.
Waltz (p.132) comes closest to admitting the mixed anarchical-hierarchical nature of the international political system when he emphasizes the inequality inherent in the state system:
At the pinnacle of power, no more than small numbers of states have ever coexisted as approximate equal; in relation to them, other states have always been of lesser moment… The inequality of states, though it provides no guarantee, at least makes peace and stability possible.
However, he fails to take this point to its logical end: while anarchy constitute relations among great powers, “at the dyadic level, at least, anarchy is only one possible set of relationships” (Lake, 2001: 132). This is yet another criticism of the limited scope of Waltz’s theory; as it focuses only on great power politics to the exclusion of international politics of the developing world, thus failing to account for non-anarchic relationships in international politics.
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