International relations scholars and practitioners have long recognized that status is an important factor in world politics and that state motivations to enhance or maintain status are an important cause of international conflict. Until recently, however, no one had succeeded in defining the amorphous concept of status in a way that could generate a coherent set of theoretical generalizations and guide an empirical research strategy to test those generalizations. In the last decade that has begun to change, as we have seen a wave of theoretical and empirical analyses of the sources and consequences of status motivations. The study of status is now one of the liveliest research programs in the international relations field. In Fighting for Status, Jonathan Renshon has taken another significant step in moving the analysis of status from theoretical intuition to social scientific analysis, and in so doing has re-shaped the study of status in the international relations field.
When the first volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin appeared in 2014, it was clear that the author had undertaken a gigantic intellectual effort to put Joseph Stalin’s personality in the wider context of the Russian and world history of his time and that he would maintain this ambitious perspective in the volumes that followed. The second volume wholly lives up to such a promise, even in the face of the even more serious challenge posed by covering the years between 1929 and 1941. As Kotkin remarks, whereas in the first volume Stalin was often “offstage for long stretches as global developments unfolded around him,” here he is present “on nearly every page” (xii). By no means was Stalin perceived as a crucial personality in global affairs even in the late 1920s, but he achieved world-wide celebrity in the 1930s through the ‘revolution from above,’ program. His fame reached its peak with the fatal choice of the Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. While Leon Trotsky was his antagonist in the struggle to become Vladimir Lenin’s heir, the crossing of paths with Adolf Hitler now occupied center stage for Stalin in the increasingly dangerous context of world politics.
The idea of a liberal rules-based international order has taken a beating lately, not just from the Trump presidency but also in the pages of academic and policy publications. The administration in Washington argues that the liberal order in the post-Cold War world no longer serves U.S. interests. While this argument deserves scrutiny in light of China’s spectacular rise within the order, academic writing has instead focused more on the fact that notions of the liberal order are simply “myth” and “nostalgia.” Critics allege that the liberal international rules-based order was never truly liberal, international, rules-based, or orderly. In this vein, the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections is not a cause but rather a symptom of the longer-term decline in the various pillars of the order: capitalism, multilateralism, and democracy.
The presidency of Donald Trump is the strangest act in American history; unprecedented in form, in style an endless sequence of improvisations and malapropisms. But in substance there is continuity, probably much more than is customarily recognized. It is hard to recognize the continuity, amid the daily meltdowns (and biennial shutdowns), but it exists. In large measure Trump has been a Republican president, carrying out a Republican agenda. His attack on the regulatory agencies follows a Republican script. His call for a prodigious boost to military spending, combined with sharp cuts in taxes, has been the Republican program since the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. His climate skepticism corresponds with that of Republican leaders in Congress. On trade and immigration, Trump has departed most radically from Bush Republicanism, but even in that regard Trump’s policies harken back to older traditions in the Grand Old Party. He is different in character and temperament from every Republican predecessor as president, yet has attached himself to much of the traditional Republican program.
Some policy-relevant books grow less relevant as time passes from the moment they are published, much like the value of a new car once the owner drives it off the lot. Seva Gunitsky’s Great Powers and Domestic Reforms in the Twentieth Century, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press, is a book that has grown significantly more relevant and important since it was written, making the author prescient, lucky, or both. In 2016, for example, few public commentators predicted that the U.S.’s status as a leader of the liberal international order would decline with such rapidity. Similarly, U.S. support for democracy in other countries was not a top foreign policy priority (also true for most of U.S. history), but nor was it being consistently undermined by the U.S. president and his administration, as it is at present.
While campaigning for President in 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump never missed an opportunity to attack the major foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, European Union, China, and Russia in June 2015 that halted Iran’s development of nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Criticizing the deal had been popular among Obama’s detractors, but Trump’s denunciations were particularly vociferous. “My number one priority,” he declared, “is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” He called it a “terrible” deal, one negotiated “in desperation,” which he vowed to rip up as soon as he took office. Iran came up, again and again, as yet another area where the Obama Administration had surrendered U.S. interests and initiative.
The U.S. government’s across-the-board hardening in pushing back against a range of Chinese challenges to American interests emerged erratically after the start of the Trump administration in 2017 but it has demonstrated remarkable momentum over the past year.
This roundtable debates ideas and evidence in Diane Pfundstein Chamberlain’s recent book, Cheap Threats; Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States. Pfundstein Chamberlain’s book considers the important puzzle described in the title, and in doing so puts forth a surprising new theory of coercive diplomacy. The reviewers praise some aspects of the book, but they raise concerns about both theory and evidence. Pfundstein Chamberlain responds comprehensively to the critiques. The debate is particularly interesting because the reviewers, though all experts in coercion and/or deterrence, approach the book from quite different angles.
What explains why some armed organizations engage in high levels of rape during civil war, while others engage in little? Why is gang rape such a high fraction of rape by organizations that do engage in widespread rape during civil war? What accounts for the participation in the rape of girls and women by female combatants in those organizations?
Dara Kay Cohen addresses these questions in her book.
In Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition, David Hendrickson, a prolific and provocative scholar, offers an eloquent root-and-branch critique of American foreign policy, focusing chiefly on the post-Cold War decades. In essence, Hendrickson contends that the precepts and practices of U.S. statecraft have corroded Americans’ liberty at home and increased the threats they face from abroad. Be it the current configuration of U.S. alliances, the worldwide military presence of the United States, American leaders’ attempts to reshape—especially by military means—the internal order of states, or the magnitude of expenditure on the national security apparatus, Hendrickson calls for a break with a status quo to which, he believes, Republicans and Democrats are both committed, though not always to the same degree.