Over breakfast recently, my daughter asked whether things would ever go back to normal.  She dropped the question a few days after Donald Trump incited the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol.  President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration was still a week or two away.  I like to tell myself I’m good in these moments, and I started a story about the star-spangled-banner, thinking she would be comforted by the knowledge that the country’s national anthem was penned after the original Capitol’s destruction.  Rough patches come and go, I explained.  She stared silently into her cereal as I talked.  The pandemic lost its novelty a long time ago, Mom has cancer, and I was obviously missing the point of the question.  A few days earlier, somebody tore down the “We Believe” sign in our front lawn.  My daughter was asking about normalcy because she feared that some of the people she had seen on television might live in our neighborhood.  We pumped the breaks on Francis Scott Key.  Instead, we talked about heroes in the books she likes to read.  I gave her a hug eventually and then I lied, promising that everything would go back to normal soon.

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Much like its predecessor, the Trump administration came into office rhetorically committed to reducing the American military and political footprint in the Middle East and left office with the American role in the region largely unchanged; like its predecessor, it came into office ready to engage diplomatically on Arab-Israeli questions, with an eye toward a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and it left office with little progress on that core conflict of the Arab-Israeli arena. It succeeded in expanding the number of Arab countries that diplomatically recognize Israel, but those recognitions did little to change the immediate geopolitical dynamics of the Arab-Israeli issue. They were more a testament to the enduring centrality of the United States in the Middle East, a backhanded acknowledgement that Trump’s initial desire to de-emphasize the region in American foreign policy had failed.  Unlike its predecessor, the Trump administration increased pressure on Iran, in the failed hopes of either renegotiating the 2015 nuclear deal or, more ambitiously, bringing about regime change in Tehran.  The new Biden administration is seeking to restore dialogue with the Islamic Republic.  The Trump administration privileged relations with Saudi Arabia even beyond what previous administrations had done, but with the result of making Saudi-American relations a more toxically partisan issue than in the past.

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The era of Pax Americana—ushered in by President Harry Truman, put on steroids during the neoliberal wave initiated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and seemingly cemented by the profound changes in Europe after the Cold War—led many to proclaim the arrival of a final stage of global democratic peace and liberal order.[1] This teleological view of history has, in recent years, proved an illusion.  While progressives would like to believe otherwise, “in geopolitics, as in biology, mankind remains susceptible to new strains of old maladies.”[2] And so a world that had grown accustomed to thinking of progress as inevitable and irreversible is now being rocked by old toxic patterns previously thought crushed by the march of progress—the outbreak of a global pandemic, the rise of authoritarian alternatives to democracy, and the return of great-power competition.[3]  The comeback of these old system disturbances conforms with the twenty-first century’s wider theme of “back to the future.”[4] Their reappearance also introduces risks and complications into the international system that threaten to overwhelm the institutions of domestic and global governance. Indeed, order of any kind is becoming increasingly scarce in today’s politics of mounting chaos and randomness, traits associated with rising entropy.[5] History is accelerating, not ending.[6]

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A few years ago, I asked a colleague, “what is the relationship between rules, norms, practices, and habits?” The colleague laughed and responded, “nobody knows.” We both agreed that constructivist scholarship had grown increasingly cluttered and vague over the past thirty years.  The literature defines a range of concepts—for example, norms, rules, values, identities, habits, practices, and background knowledge—and mechanisms—such as norm creation, change, cascades, socialization, argumentation, contestation, localization, rejection, transgression, adaptation, and evasion.  However, the relationship between these concepts and mechanisms has never been clearly specified.  Basic questions, like how actors how know to engage in one mechanism over another, why some attempts at social change succeed while others fail, and again, the nature of the relationship between rules, norms, practices, and habits remain unaddressed.  Admittedly, I have contributed to these gaps, so I was relieved to find answers in Mark Raymond’s new book, Social Practices of Rule-Making in World Politics.

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Many of the essays in the series “Learning the Scholar’s Craft” suggest that for a number of scholars, “learning” depends as much on mentorship, intuition, and luck as it does on the research subjects one pursues.  In this respect, my trajectory was no exception.  When I went to college, I understood very quickly that intellectual history provided a way of combining my interests in European literature, philosophy, and politics, though I can’t say that I understood that then. I found my way to graduate school primarily because as an undergraduate I had some generous teachers, one of whom encouraged me to apply for a doctoral program in the same institution—I was one of those students to whom it would never have occurred to apply to graduate school—and I was admitted to Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in History.  In those days, the “new” cultural history was on the horizon, providing, in part through its engagement with anthropology and French theorists like Michel Foucault, a way of understanding the cultural production of ideas, especially by less canonical thinkers who were not addressed by more contextualist versions of intellectual history.[1] During my first year at Berkeley, Lynn Hunt organized a conference on cultural history, and faculty members in English, French, Comparative Literature, and History had recently founded the journal Representations, which provided a perspective – the “new historicism” – that historicized literary texts and was critical of poststructuralism.

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“Wednesday, January the sixth two thousand and twenty-one—a date which will live in infamy—the United States Capitol was suddenly and deliberately attacked by a mob incited by President Donald Trump”—with just a few words substituted, this sentence repeats what President Franklin Roosevelt said when he asked for a declaration of war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.[1] “Infamy” perfectly characterizes this deliberately provoked assault on one of the most hallowed sites and institutions of American democracy.

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War is a complex and chaotic business that persistently confounds the attempts of frontline forces, junior officers, field commanders, campaign commanders, policy elites, and others to understand what is happening amidst the smoke, noise, violence, and confusion.  This has not, however, stopped war’s many participants from trying to discern the ebbs and flows of battle and use whatever information can be gleaned to chart the most propitious path forward.  Information technology has always been a central component of this effort; as the Chief of the Prussian General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, noted soon after the employment of the telegraph in battle, the goal of reliance on tools ranging from human and animal messengers to the most sophisticated, integrated satellite-based communications networks has been to improve a military’s ability to estimate and respond to the current and likely future combat situation.[1]

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In a speech at Mount Rushmore on 4 July 2020 President Donald Trump stated that the United States was under threat from a “totalitarian” “cancel culture” which was eroding American liberty, “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.”[1]  Trump’s invocation of ‘totalitarianism’ speaks to the lasting hold this highly flexible and powerfully evocative concept retains on American political discourse.  Political commentators and politicians brought totalitarianism out of its brief retirement in the post-Cold War era to be deployed as a weapon in the ‘war on terror,’ as I show in my research on the life of this concept after its mid-century heyday.[2] In the early 2000s, totalitarianism was invoked by pro-war liberal intellectuals and the George W. Bush administration to link the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the ‘good fights’ of World War II and the Cold War.[3] In this construction, ‘Islamofascism’ took the place of Nazism and Communism as the ideology perceived to represent an ‘existential’ threat to Western civilization.

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In a previous essay, I set out the thinking of political philosophers in the ancient Mediterranean concerning the differences between what they termed aristocracy and what they termed oligarchy.  These thinkers defined the characteristics of these political regimes, and gave them the names we still use for them: both “aristocracy” and “oligarchy” derive from this ancient political conversation. Writers from Plato (380 BCE) to Polybius (150 BCE) to Sallust (40 BCE) described aristocracy as rule by the few, but in the name of the general populace, and sincerely in their interest.  Oligarchy was by contrast its evil twin: rule by the few but driven only by the oligarchs’ unrestrained appetites, with no thought for the good of the people.

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Many popular movies, television series, and even animated films depict torture as an effective means of gaining information from suspected criminals and terrorists.  Yet, torture, and cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees violates international treaties as well as U.S. law, and many counterterrorism experts have questioned its efficacy relative to other means of gathering information.  Nonetheless, many Americans—having seen torture work on the screens—continue to believe it its usefulness.  Public debate around torture as a tool of counterterrorism was heightened by the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with officials in the Bush Administration defending the use of what they termed, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ against suspected terrorists.  While public discussions regarding torture have waned somewhat in recent years, the appropriate means of interrogating suspects continues to be a salient topic in academic and policy debates.

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