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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The possibility that terrorists might detonate nuclear fission bombs has seized both the general public and policy communities’ attention since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Experts differ significantly on how likely or even plausible the threat might be, with well-informed, thoughtful analysts adopting views across the spectrum. Even among these diverging views, there is a relative consensus that terrorists are not likely to develop their own fissile material for nuclear weapons, and also that building even a crude nuclear device would require considerable expertise. Those working inside military, government, or commercial establishments may provide crucial materials or skills to terrorist groups who would otherwise be hampered in realizing nuclear attack motivations. More generally, insiders have the potential to pose significant nuclear threats. For example, causing a consequential radiation release from a nuclear reactor via external attack is challenging, but far less so with an insider accomplice.

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The quote from baseball legend (and wordsmith) Yogi Berra throws caution at legendary Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous reminder to all politicians at election time. And for good reason, judging from the titles of the two new headlines above about the 2018 primary and general elections: politics are not local but national, with President Donald Trump front and center; Jonathan Martin can readily make this case. Regarding former President Barack Obama’s endorsements of congressional and state-level candidates, Alexi McCammond then goes on to say Why it matters: Obama is the left’s answer to President Trump’s continued presence in the primaries. Not only will Obama announce another round of endorsements before Nov. 6, but he also plans to campaign in several of these states throughout the fall.”

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Richard Nephew’s The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field offers a refreshing perspective on the study of economic sanctions. It draws on the author’s experience as Director for Iran on the National Security Council and as deputy sanctions coordinator at the State Department in the Obama Administration. Having been involved in developing and managing sanctions during the negotiations with Iran that eventually produced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, Nephew speaks from the point of view of a practitioner who brings a hands-on approach to the topic. The book offers practical insights about what sanctions can and cannot do, rather than ex cathedra statements about their efficacy in general. The most commonly asked question about sanctions—do they work?—is misleading because it is incomplete, since the utility of any tool can only be judged against a specific goal and under a determinate set of conditions. Against this, The Art of Sanctions presents a practice-oriented study of the preconditions for their success.

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Moderation is an elusive but important virtue that is equally valuable in personal and political life. Professor Aurelian Craiutu has previously explored the role moderation–and its absence–played in eighteenth and nineteenth century France.[1] In this volume, he examines the concept itself through close readings of the works of such diverse figures as Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Norberto Bobbio, Michael Oakeshott, and Adam Michnik. He wants to know what it meant to be a moderate in the twentieth century–the age of extreme politics–what ends moderates sought to advance, their view of political life, and the shared characteristics of “moderate minds” in action. Does moderation have a strong normative core? And is there such a thing as a moderate style?

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U.S._Veterans_Bureau_Hospital_No._100_Building_No._2_Battle_Creek_MIJessica L. Adler, who teaches history and health policy at Florida International University, offers us a valuable, well-organized, and carefully researched history of the origin and early development of what is today the mammoth and often troubled Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system. Mammoth it is; the VA treats over 9 million veterans each year in 170 medical centers and over 1000 outpatient clinics staffed by more than 300,000 personnel. It is the largest integrated health system in the nation and costs over $60 billion to operate annually. Although rarely described this way, the VA system is America’s main example of socialized medicine.

 

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Tokens of Power coverThe fog of war plays a prominent role in Carl von Clausewitz’s reflections on armed struggle. In Ann Hironaka’s rethinking of war, that fog becomes all consuming, obscuring the information needed to understand and prepare for battle. Victory in war is unpredictable and tantamount to random in clashes between competitors with roughly comparable power (41). Power being hard to measure, strategists can rarely know how costly a war will be. Predictions of casualties in the 1991 Gulf War, for example, were too low by an order of magnitude (10). Strategists commonly miscalculate the best strategy in a given context, for example, seeing the offense as having the advantage on the eve of World War I while expecting the defense to dominate in World War II. With profound uncertainty encumbering military analysis, defining the national security interest of the state becomes arbitrary, Hironaka argues.

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