In 1939, E.H. Carr published The Twenty Years’ Crisis,[1] which argued that the world was divided into two camps: utopians and realists. Utopians like President Woodrow Wilson and his followers had made a mess of the world through their well-intentioned but naïve attempts at international cooperation. Realists were those, like Carr, who recognized that the struggle for power and survival were perennial features of human life and politics among nations. Carr wanted policymakers to face the facts, acknowledge reality, and not get lost in idealistic dreams. ‘Realism’ as a professionalized academic school of international relations was born.

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One of Donald Trump’s superpowers is to dominate all spheres of American life, and the book industry is no exception. The nonfiction market is littered with best-sellers about life in the Age of Trump. The past two years have generated numerous genres of political tomes: the tell-alls by those who have served in his administration,[1] the hosannas to his political greatness,[2] and the journalistic accounts of his norm-defying 2016 campaign and chaotic first two years as president.[3]

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Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent bring to book-length form a very sensible and persuasive argument that they have been making for some time. Great power decline is not necessarily dangerous or even destabilizing. Countries can pursue strategies of retrenchment, either of “self-help” by cutting back spending or rejuvenating their economy, or of external adjustment in paring back commitments or cementing new friendships. Such strategies, MacDonald and Parent argue, need not be destabilizing. The countries experiencing decline can regain strength and confidence.

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A decade after the end of the Cold War, the debate about structural realism in general and Theory of International Politics in particular had heated up.[1] Twenty years earlier, Kenneth Waltz had developed an explanation of international affairs based on three components: (1) the international system’s ordering principle (e.g., anarchy vs. hierarchy); (2) the differentiation of units and their functions; and (3) the number of dominant units. The demise of the Soviet Union potentially reflected a significant change in the third component of Waltz’s theory: some observers claimed that a unipolar moment had emerged, while others pointed to the rise of multipolarity, changes in the number of dominant units that could be expected to produce observable differences in international behavior and outcomes. Democratic peace theorists, globalization boosters, and prophets of the Information Revolution also pointed to potential changes in the system’s ordering principle (component one). Waltz suggested that a unipolar moment would be fleeting (and that the world remained more bipolar than many believed), and that a democratic peace and associated transformational ideologies would not change the system’s ordering principle,[2] leaving critics to revisit the “static” nature of Waltz’s theory and thinking.[3]

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Brink Lindsey, Will Wilkinson, Steven Teles, and Samuel Hammond of the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C., have written an important, nicely crafted, and provocative policy paper, representing the views of a new American political “Center,” which they have summarized for a broader audience and which has received significant praise and commentary.[1] In short, from a libertarian-oriented perspective, the paper offers a public-spirited, moderate, and appealing alternative to the partisan extremes that have been offered and debated by small government/pro-market oriented conservatives, on the right, versus supporters of big, welfare-state oriented government on the left. This alternative is presented as new centrist ideas that have the potential to move toward solving problems and mitigating the ideological conflict over pressing economic and social welfare issues, as well as related issues, on which President Donald Trump and his administration have caused unprecedented turmoil. That the report takes on the political right as well as the left suggests that it may well be on to something that the authors hope can restore lost trust in government and its leaders, who have been consumed by partisan polarization, wave elections, nationalized politics, and political incivility, with no way out in sight.[2]

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Where does wisdom begin? The question lingers in the background of new books by John Lewis Gaddis and Perry Anderson, two men who have spent their lives writing and thinking about power in different ways. Gaddis came onto the scene in the 1960s, disrupting the field of U.S. foreign relations by marrying diplomatic history with strategic studies. His post-revisionist synthesis, articulated in the 1980s, provoked a flurry of criticism but uprooted the consensus that economics determined U.S. foreign policy. The best way to comprehend power, he argued, was to see the world through the eyes of powerful people. Anderson also entered academe in the 1960s, challenging the British Left with insights from European theorists like Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Louis Althusser. Like Gaddis, he earned opprobrium, tangling with historian A.J.P. Taylor, among others, and successfully changed the way his colleagues understood the relationship between class, culture, and the state. The study of power, Anderson asserted, had to be entangled with the study of empire. Although Gaddis and Anderson have worked in separate intellectual milieus for most of their careers, in recent years Gaddis has ventured into the history of knowledge, and Anderson has turned to U.S. policymaking. Their latest books, On Grand Strategy and The H-Word, converge on the same argument: To understand a thing, you have name it correctly. Wisdom begins with a name.

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Official portrait of US Ambassador Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson [close up]In a favorable review of The Kremlinologist, the fine recent biography of the great American diplomat and Soviet expert Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson that was written by his daughters, David Foglesong added this curious cavil. “The Thompsons argue that the Cuban missile crisis stemmed from [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev’s seeing ‘an irresistible opportunity to use missiles to solve all his problems’—including Chinese criticism, Soviet military complaints, and East German instability, as well as Cuban vulnerability—even though they acknowledge that there is very little documentary evidence to support that thesis.”[1]

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Neo: Is that your point, Councillor?

Councillor Hamann: No. No point. Old men like me don’t bother with making points. There’s no point.

—Matrix Reloaded

At first, Max Weber and International Relations may be mistaken for a very 90s book. That would be unfortunate. Most of its contributors entered the field during the immediate post-Cold War ‘reflectivist’ uprising and like many of the revisionist engagements with the canon in the 1990s, this volume presents a rather unorthodox reading of its protagonist. And yet, in many respects, it goes well beyond that. In the 1990s, there was, for instance, something like a cottage-industry among doctoral students with ‘critical’ dispositions but no clear research questions: pick a ‘real classic’ casually referenced by an ‘IR classic’ and show how ‘IR classics’ got ‘real classics’ wrong. This rather elementary exercise was peppered with fancy jargon, but none of the sophisticated ‘-ologies’ could conceal the fact that decades later a significant part of that IR generation was as perplexed by the events ‘on the ground’ as were the mainstream theorists they once criticised.

H-Diplo | ISSF Review Essay 45

Richard Ned Lebow, ed.  Max Weber and International Relations.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.  ISBN:  9781108416382 (hardback, $99.99).

Reviewed by Alexander Astrov, Central European University

Published 9 November 2018 | issforum.org

Edited by Diane Labrosse and Seth Offebach
Web and Production Editor:  George Fujii

Shortlink: http://tiny.cc/ISSF-RE45
Permalink: https://issforum.org/essays/45-Weber
PDF URL: https://issforum.org/ISSF/PDF/RE45.pdf

Neo: Is that your point, Councillor?

Councillor Hamann: No. No point. Old men like me don’t bother with making points. There’s no point.

—Matrix Reloaded

At first, Max Weber and International Relations may be mistaken for a very 90s book. That would be unfortunate. Most of its contributors entered the field during the immediate post-Cold War ‘reflectivist’ uprising and like many of the revisionist engagements with the canon in the 1990s, this volume presents a rather unorthodox reading of its protagonist. And yet, in many respects, it goes well beyond that. In the 1990s, there was, for instance, something like a cottage-industry among doctoral students with ‘critical’ dispositions but no clear research questions: pick a ‘real classic’ casually referenced by an ‘IR classic’ and show how ‘IR classics’ got ‘real classics’ wrong. This rather elementary exercise was peppered with fancy jargon, but none of the sophisticated ‘-ologies’ could conceal the fact that decades later a significant part of that IR generation was as perplexed by the events ‘on the ground’ as were the mainstream theorists they once criticised.

As a result, calls for abandoning excessive meta-theorizing and re-engaging with the ‘world’ are heard today from different quarters. In a way, Weber is a perfect candidate for studying how to do just that. After all, his theoretical sophistication notwithstanding, he cannot be accused of neglecting the worldly problems of his time and place. But then again, if re-engagement with the world is the issue, why address it by examining yet another ‘classic’ rather than the world itself? In other words, who needs another book on Weber?

One way of answering this question is by jumping to this particular book’s concluding chapter. There Ned Lebow and David Bohmer Lebow relay Hans Morgenthau’s conversation with Karl Deutsch in which the latter warned the former that it was “almost inevitable that his theory becomes ‘hard boiled’ in the hands of strategists… who know no history” (194).[1] If anything, Lebow’s volume places Weber in context, while taking measure of this context’s historical depth. More importantly, however, the history that thus provides a much needed background for theoretical discussions is not merely a history of Weber’s thinking. In some important sense, it is the history of the world. Or one particular facet of it, the one we routinely call (western) ‘modernity.’

Needless to say, one cannot expect any comprehensive discussion of modernity in a relatively small book focusing on selected aspects of Weber’s oeuvre. But this is where the book’s real strength comes through: it is exceptionally well thought through, focused and structured as a whole, and yet this structure is never allowed to turn into the infamous ‘iron cage,’ forcing each contributor to make the same point over and over again. In fact, there is no fixed point to be made, or discovered in Weber’s writings on this interpretation of those. Rather, there is a certain trajectory to be (re)traced, the one Weber himself lays out rather uneasily.

This trajectory invariably begins with Weber’s conceptualization of modernity as a polysemic experience, subdivided into various distinct realms, each governed in its peculiar way.  Then comes Weber’s failure to sustain these clear-cut distinctions, together with his analytical rigour that does not allow him to take easy shortcuts and his ethical and political convictions that make capitulation impossible. Lebow chooses to define the resulting situation as “tensions” and identifies four of these: epistemological, sociological, political and tragic. (1-8, 172-95)[2] These four nodal points, in turn, provide the book with its structure.

This underlying structure is never advertised explicitly, but once it becomes clear, the choice of contributors appears only ‘natural.’ One would expect Patrick Thaddeus Jackson to focus on the ‘epistemological’ tension,[3] Stefano Guzzini – on the ‘sociological’ one,[4] with John Hobson adding historical and postcolonial dimension to it,[5] Jens Steffek – on ‘political,’[6] and Lebow himself – on ‘tragic.’ Yet, it is not that straightforward. The boundaries between ‘tensions’ are challenged and traversed, rather than established. Thus, Jackson’s discussion of Weberian ‘ideal types’ brings in sociology of knowledge and politics. Guzzini locates Weberian ‘international relations’ at the impossible and yet necessary intersection of two realms that are supposed to be categorially distinct: constitutive political ontology and explanatory theory of action. This particular transgression, in turn, becomes clearer following Lebow’s reconstruction of Weber’s intellectual context and Hobson’s dissection of his Eurocentrism.

It is fascinating enough to follow these reconstructions and dissections in detail, but perhaps even more interesting is their cumulative effect, which is best appreciated when looking at the volume as a whole: an appreciation of the fact that the ongoing drawing of meaningful distinctions – something every student of theory is supposed to learn, and not least from Weber – is bound to result in the recognition one’s own limitations. This is what Morgenthau defined as “tragic” in Scientific Man vs. Power Politics.[7] To understand politics, we need to grasp man in his complexity that goes well beyond his rationality. But to understand politics, we have no choice but to rely on reason.

Morgenthau’s refusal to see this ineliminable limitation as a mere ‘contradiction’ to be resolved one way or another is what sets him apart, according to Lebow and Bohmer Lebow, from other immediate students of Weber, both on the right (Carl Schmitt) or on the left (Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer). But this is also where one could start raising questions about the limitations of Lebow’s own framework. For Morgenthau, ‘tragic’ is almost a characteristic of ‘political.’ For Lebow, the two are distinct, and yet related in a way that is somehow more significant than in the case of other ‘tensions.’ (173-7)[8] Why exactly remains unclear, mostly because, throughout the volume, both ‘tragedy’ and ‘tensions’ are used as metaphors rather than fully-fledged concepts. As such they still do an important and interesting job, but the reader is left with a feeling that both could be pushed further. For instance, in the direction of Michael Dillon’s early discussion of ‘tragedy’ by now significantly extended into the realm of biopolitics;[9] or that of Derridean ‘undecideables’ once explored by Jenny Edkins in relation to the ‘political.’[10] To be sure, this particular trajectory may be too postmodern for a volume dedicated to the exemplary modernist; and yet, by following it we may arrive at a better understanding of what exactly connects an exegesis of Weber to the world of today. Is it not the case, after all, that the frustrating breakdown of analytical distinctions so evidently on display throughout the volume matches the way in which the world itself is turning into a ‘zone of indistinction’?

 

Alexander Astrov is Associate Professor in the International Relations Department of Central European University.

©2018 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License

 

Notes

[1] David Bohmer Lebow and Richard Ned Lebow, “Weber’s Tragic Legacy,” in Max Weber and International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017): 194.

[2] Richard Ned Lebow, “Introduction,” in Max Weber and International Relations: 1-9; Bohmer Lebow and Lebow,   “Weber’s Tragic Legacy”: 172-199.

[3] Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, “The Production of Facts: Ideal-Typification and the Preservation of Politics,” in Max Weber and International Relations: 79-96.

[4] Stefano Guzzini, “Max Weber’s Power,” in Max Weber and International Relations: 97-118.

[5] John Hobson, “Decolonizing Weber: The Eurocentrism of Weber’s IR and Historical Sociology” in Max Weber and International Relations: 143-171.

[6] Jens Steffek, “International Organizations and Bureaucratic Modernity,” in Max Weber and International Relations: 119-142.

[7] Hans Morgenthau, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946)

[8] Bohmer Lebow and Lebow, ’Weber’s Tragic Legacy’: 173-177.

[9] Michael Dillon, Politics of Security: Towards a Political Philosophy of Continental Thought (London: Routledge, 1996)

[10] Jenny Edkins, Poststructuralism and International Relations: Bringing the Political Back in (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1999)

According to one of Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s successors, James Schlesinger, “The list of secretarial responsibilities is so imposing that no single individual can totally fulfill them all.”[2] Given the challenges inherent in the role, Laird was remarkably successful at establishing priorities for his tenure, attaining his key goals, and leaving office on his own terms.Continue reading

Hacking the Bomb begins its narrative with WarGames—a 1980s sci-fi movie about a teenager who inadvertently almost starts nuclear war by hacking into a nuclear control program within a U.S. computer. This is a common vignette within the cyber literature (see, for example, the introductions of Fred Kaplan’s Dark Territory[2] as well as “Thermonuclear War”[3]) and it represents what most scholars believe is the most dangerous potential implication of cyber operations—the cyber threat to nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3). As Erik Gartzke and Jon Lindsay conclude, “offensive cyber operations against NC3 raise the risk of nuclear war . . . today the proliferation and modernization of nuclear weapons may raise the risk slightly. Subversion of NC3 raises the danger of nuclear war slightly more. Cyberwar is not war per se, but in rare circumstances it may make escalation to thermonuclear war more likely.”[4]

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