Reflecting on Cossa’s Power Dynamics article – Journal #11

This week we were asked to read and write a reflection paper about an article our professor, José Cossa wrote. I wanted to share it here.

Reflection on Cossa, J. (2013). Power dynamics in international negotiations toward equitable policies, partnerships, and practices: Why it matters for Africa, the developing world, and their higher education systems. African and Asian Studies, 12, 100-117. doi: 10.1163/15692108-12341253

In this article Cossa highlights five qualities of power that act as a holistic overview of power relations, while also making bold statements about power dynamics in the global sphere. I studied International Relations so I not only responded well to this article, I understood it in relation to how nations and international organizations act and react to the power struggle. While I agree with the overall notion that it is crucial for developing countries to take control and regain power over their own affairs through the recommendations offered in this paper, I would not place the full responsibility on either developing or developed countries. In relation to the mentioned dynamics, a suggestion would be to formalize a public international entity that would settle disputes, mediate negotiations and level the power imbalance that exists today. When one thinks of international organizations whose mandates are to maintain international peace and security, enable dialogue between nations and handle negotiations such as the United Nations, one cannot but help place some of the blame for the imbalance of power on them. As much as it is each country’s job to maintain and safeguard itself, as much as it is also the organizations established mainly for this reason that should also fight against, rather than perpetuate and be part of, an imbalance and struggle for power. But it is these organizations that give the already powerful, economically and politically strong countries even more exclusive power such as the Veto power and permanent membership, which in essence makes all other nations dilute in contrast. Also, because there is no public international court, there is no public international law that is binding. What is widely followed in international law is customary law, which is tradition or practice based, hence not obligatory and that explains why we don’t hear about sanctions on countries violating international agreements. Cossa poses a critical question; “what regime will have the last word when the role of these regimes intersects across the common interest?” I would answer that it is the more powerful regime that will prevail and for no other reason than its higher or more powerful position in the international arena, which is another indicator that there is no public international law this is binding on all states and there is no international court or entity to enforce the balance of power.

In relation to the spider web analogy of power, while I agree with the characteristics mentioned; complexity, elasticity, continuity, and fragility, I would also add invisibility but not in the sense Foucault describes it. Foucault discusses power as invisible in that we would not see or know about power without the existence of an individual or entity to be influenced by this power (p.103). I however mean invisible in that it is visually unseen or very difficult to notice, which basically is the key characteristic that leads to catching prey. In line with this idea of a spider web, similarly power could be considered invisible (secretive if you may) in that sometimes it can only be effective in achieving what is desired without the other entity realizing that there is power exerted over it. I would borrow from Cossa to clarify this relationship more in that he states, “at times we can only account for the presence of power through a posteriori effects on our being” (p.103). So sometimes while power is being exerted on someone, it may be done secretly enough that they don’t realize they are in the weaker position, thinking their position is equal, however would notice this effect from the consequences of that power being exerted over them. If we take this particular point to a deeper level of reflection, I would say that this also relates to the manipulative quality of power. Although I contextualize this invisible characteristic of power differently than Foucault, the overarching theme of the unseen, obscure, secretive nature of power exists, as opposed to being obvious and detectible.

With regards to hermeneutical power, I liked how Cossa, through his argument, clarifies the concept in simpler terms saying, “the farther one is from the center, the harder it is to understand textural nuances and the higher the reliance for meaning and accuracy of interpretation on those closer to the center” (p.107). I agree with this because such is also the case with religious scripture, which come to think of it, is the underlying reason why people today accept rather than contest scripture because they are more likely to think, “what do we know? We didn’t live at the time this happened so we don’t have the authority or knowledge to argue with this”. Even theologians or religious scholars, who possess the sufficient knowledge and education to interpret such texts, believe and accept sources as they are because they were not close to the source of the texts and thus do not have the authority to contest it. In addition, I agree with Cossa’s notions on preconceived notions about developing countries leading to developed countries preserving power (p.108). The lack of understanding of an entity’s position and holding preconceived notions about these developing countries does lead to a perpetuation of power because as long as the developed countries believe they know better or conduct their affairs in more appropriate ways, they will always try to “help”, or in other words impose their help on, the other less knowledgeable or less capable nations.

It was very interesting and ironically appealing to read about the five qualities of power Cossa discusses and each is insightful in its own way. I say ironically because there is nothing appealing about finding out that there is a severe power struggle and imbalance in the international realm, however it was eye-opening, educational and affirmative of opinions I already had, which made it a thought-provoking and interesting read for me. While this reading was insightful in that it explains what these power dynamics in international negotiations mean for higher education institutions in the developing countries of Africa, I would appreciate a further explanation of what these higher education systems can practically do or strategies they could undertake in order to move closer to the center to become decision and policy markers, which would eventually result in occupying leading roles in higher education globally.

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