Samuel Moyn’s study of human rights movements is a path-breaking book.  It moves the study of human rights out of the realm of virtue and into the realm of politics.  By desacralizing the subject, he has historicized it, and thereby has enabled us to measure the claims of human rights against other political claims and projects.   Trained both as a lawyer and as an intellectual historian, Moyn tilts the chronology of human rights history towards a bifurcation, between a period of failed activism prior to 1970 and of successful mobilization in the form of a set of popular trans-national movements after that date.  Why the divide?  Because prior to 1970, other utopias, especially the Marxist one in Europe and elsewhere, as well as its anti-colonial variants in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, still commanded the loyalty and commitment of millions.  After that date anti-colonialism had more or less completed its historical mission, and Marxism, as a theory of action and as a political movement, slowly and then spectacularly collapsed.  Into the vacuum rushed human rights as a political weapon of choice.

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International Security coverBruce Bennett and Jennifer Lind provide what can only be described as a most timely analysis of the challenges facing external actors in the event of a collapse in North Korea following “the most difficult challenge that such regimes face: succession” (84).They correctly identify not only the internal weaknesses of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the daunting prospect of a truncated transition period, but also the difficulties and dangers faced by the international community in addressing a potential collapse. Underlying trends leading to collapse include the destabilizing effects of a chronic lack of food combined with uncertainty about who is in power (91). The authors see Kim Jong-il’s sudden death or incapacitation as the potential trigger for a power struggle and subsequent government collapse, due to the limited time spent grooming his successor, Kim Jong-un, and the candidate’s extreme youth (84). And a “government collapse in North Korea could unleash a series of catastrophes on the peninsula with potentially far-reaching regional and global effects” (84). These effects would include a humanitarian crisis leading to a massive outflow of refugees, North Korean weapons of mass destruction (WMD) finding their way onto the international black market, and, potentially, in the absence of sufficient international coordination, conflict between the countries likely to intervene, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Korea, and the United States (85).

 

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Nicolas Guilhot and Ido Oren both contribute useful insights, in the paper Guilhot published in Behavioral Sciences, and in Oren’s review of it here. I would like to offer a more personal perspective based on my own experience. As a young History student at Columbia College from 1969 to 1973 I did, nevertheless, hover on the edges of the Political Science Department and its Institute of War and Peace Studies, the hotbed of IR at Columbia. From 1973 to 1981 I was a graduate student in IR at the Institute—and a direct observer of all of this. William T. R. Fox was my mentor, seconded by the nuclear weapons theorist Warner R. Schilling. Fox’s impact on the field has been dimmed by time but merits greater attention—it was he, after all, who coined the term “superpower,” and whose participation in a study group with Bernard Brodie led to the first systematic attempt to consider the international implications of the atomic bomb in The Absolute Weapon.[1]

 

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Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences coverNicolas Guilhot has established himself as arguably the leading disciplinary historian of post-World War II international relations (IR). In an earlier, “must-read” essay Guilhot  painstakingly documented how, in the 1950s, the Rockefeller Foundation bankrolled a network of realist scholars and practitioners who set out to build a theory of IR.[1] Although they could not agree on the meaning of “theory,” members of the group, including Hans Morgenthau of the University of Chicago and William Fox of Columbia University, were nearly all opposed to the creed that Morgenthau famously attributed to “scientific man”: the “conception of the social and physical world as being intelligible through the same rational processes” and the attendant view that “the social world is susceptible to rational control conceived after the model of the natural sciences.”[2] Guilhot cogently interpreted the group’s effort to “theorize” IR as a defensive reaction to the surge of the behavioral movement in the social sciences, a movement that appeared to embrace the  creed of “scientific man” and that was generously funded by the Ford Foundation. For Morgenthau and his associates, creating “IR theory” was a way of delineating “an independent disciplinary territory” for the field, rendering it “immune to the cues of behavioralism.” [3]

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International Seurity coverIf successful grand strategy requires balancing a state’s commitments and its resources, a great power in decline might be expected to retrench.  According to Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent, however, the conventional wisdom is that retrenchment rarely occurs and, when it does, rarely succeeds.  “Retrenchment pessimists,” they note, contend either (1) that strategic retrenchment is dangerous because it signals weakness and invites attack, or (2) that retrenchment is desirable, but cannot be achieved because of domestic cultural and/or political constraints (9-10).

 

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Worse Than a Monolith coverThomas Christensen has written an important book in which he examines several key episodes during the Cold War in Asia, including the Korean War, the Taiwan Strait crises of 1954–55 and 1958, and the Vietnam War. In Worse than a Monolith, Christensen uses these Cold War flashpoints to test and refine existing theories of alliance politics and coercive diplomacy, arguing that a state’s use of coercive forms of diplomacy, including containment and deterrence, is hampered when one’s adversaries are divided. Christensen finds ample fodder for this argument by focusing Worse than a Monolith on looking at America’s efforts to contain the “revisionist” communist alliance during the Cold War in Asia. Disagreements between Moscow and Beijing often caused the two to try to outdo each other in supporting revolutions such as the one in Vietnam, and from the perspective of America’s policy makers, this made the communist alliance “worse than a monolith.”  Christensen’s thesis is intriguing.  I am interested to know whether during the Cold War, leaders on one side or the other expressed the view internally that they were bedeviled by their adversary’s inability to control its “troops.”

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The Diffusion of Military Power coverWhile knowledgeable observers rightly discounted the geopolitical significance of China’s launch of the refurbished Russian aircraft carrier Varyag last August, the event did underscore the salience of the topic of this H-Diplo roundtable. No student of international relations can be indifferent to the questions that Michael Horowitz addresses in Diffusion of Military Power.  Will China ultimately develop true carrier warfare capacity?  Why has U.S. supremacy in this area gone unchallenged for over half a century? How likely is it that China will emulate other aspects of U.S. military power? How many new nuclear powers are we likely to see?  Will Iranian drones soon patrol American skies? Horowitz develops and tests a bold structural- and material interest-based theory to explain the propensity of military innovations to diffuse through the international system.

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Contemporary scholarly examinations of John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress are surprisingly thin on the ground. This is a trend, moreover, that has been as true with respect to broad studies of the entire program as it has for more specific assessments of individual case studies. There is a difference between a field that is only partially developed, of course, and one that is barren: a number of important works relating to the Alliance are already in existence, while the article under review here suggests a number of ways that the extant literature can be further developed in accordance with emerging work on the history of development and on Latin America’s place in the Global Cold War.[1] By providing a detailed examination of the Alliance’s implementation in Bolivia, Thomas Field significantly enriches our understanding of what remains a complex and thorny period in inter-American relations. Constructed upon rhetorical foundations characterised by noble ideals of development, democracy and social progress, the subsequent deterioration of Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress into a morass of missed targets, worsening inter-American relations, and the support of a range of authoritarian regimes, has long puzzled scholars of U.S. policy in the region. Why did the Kennedy administration’s benevolent intentions, scholars have typically asked, go awry as the Alliance failed to meet its grand goals?[2]

 

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How We Fight coverDominic Tierney’s How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Ways of War is an unusual achievement.  It is a provocative scholarly book about the U.S. approach to war that was written for a broad non-academic audience.  For the academic and layperson alike, it succeeds in establishing that the heated controversies of the moment follow a familiar pattern.  Indeed, it is impossible to read Tierney’s book without reflecting upon recent events.  The Obama administration has struggled mightily to define (and redefine) the U.S. mission in Afghanistan; it has announced deep defense cuts though the United States remains at war; and with the shift in defense budgetary priorities, it will trim the very capabilities (for counterinsurgency) that U.S. leaders had once viewed as keys to success in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But what led the administration finally to act?  Was the administration recognizing belatedly that the public would not tolerate nation-building efforts?  Or had the clock simply run out on the U.S. effort?

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Leaders at War coverIn Leaders at War, Elizabeth Saunders examines the use of military force by states to intervene in other nations’ domestic affairs.  Why, she asks, do some military interventions explicitly seek to transform the societies and institutions of the states they target while others do not?  And more basically, “why do great powers like the United States undertake overt intervention in some conflicts or crises but not in others?” (2)  As Saunders rightly notes, it’s not enough to study interventions that occurred; we should also examine those that might have occurred but did not.

 

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