When I was getting ready to take my Ph.D. exams forty years ago, I had a meeting with my advisor, Raymond Sontag. What, he wondered, should he examine me on? “Why don’t you ask me something about the origins of the First World War?” I said. “I think I understand that now.” His reply was devastating: “Oh really? I’ve been studying it for fifty years and I still don’t understand it.” But over the years I’ve come to feel the same way. The whole question of what caused that war, for me at least, remains deeply puzzling. To be sure, we’re still learning new and important things, even about what happened during the July Crisis in 1914. But with every new insight, new problems come into focus, and ultimate answers remain as elusive as ever. In fact, the deeper you go into the issue, the more puzzling it becomes—or at least that’s been my own experience in grappling with this particular historical problem.
Just over a decade ago, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the sudden revelation of new documents from the former communist countries, Cold War scholars were particularly keen to de-center their studies. By this, they meant internationalizing what they did, shifting the focus away from Washington, and not only exploring what went on behind the Iron Curtain in more archival detail but also developing a “pericentric framework” to highlight the importance of smaller powers in the Cold War international system. At the same time, historians working on specifically American topics had already begun to de-center their own work, looking less at the perceptions, motivations, and actions of the leaders in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, and more at issues of race, class, and gender.
Nicholas Thompson has taken an imaginative approach to the Cold War by presenting a comparative study of the public careers of Paul Nitze and George Kennan, two significant U.S. officials who participated in the Cold War from its post-WWII origins to its surprising conclusion. With access to the records of his grandfather, Nitze, and the diaries of Kennan, Thompson is able to develop their evolving relationship and the impact of their respective temperament, experience, and ambition on their policy views and involvement in the Cold War.
Are democracies more likely to win the wars they fight? This question has been of interest to historians and philosophers since Thucydides. During the Enlightenment, the question was highly relevant to the great issues of the day, as thinkers such as Thomas Paine wondered how emerging republics like the United States and France would fare in war against monarchies. It reemerged in the twentieth century, when some worried whether the Western democracies had the stuff to stand up to Nazi Germany and its fascist allies. After World War II, Westerners fretted that an American Athens would ultimately fall short against a Soviet Sparta.
Brian Rathbun asks an arresting question, and a fair one. Several years ago Jeffrey Legro and Andrew Moravcsik hurled down the gauntlet by asking “Is Anybody Still a Realist?” Their answer was: not really. If Legro and Moravcsik are correct that nearly every IR scholar today considers domestic factors causal in some fashion, then we must ask whether that makes everyone a liberal. And if the answer turns out affirmative, is that not a problem for liberalism? If we are all liberals now, then does liberalism have any meaning in IR research?
Kevin Woods and Mark Stout have provided a valuable service to the scholarly community by using the trove of primary source documents captured by American forces in Iraq to try to reconstruct Saddam Hussein’s strategic thinking. Those who follow this case will be familiar with their arguments, which they (and other authors) set out in The Iraqi Perspectives Report (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2006) and The Mother of All Battles (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2008). The former dealt with Iraqi (which is to say, Saddam’s) decisions in the 2003 war and the latter with how Iraq behaved in the Gulf War of 1990-91. Woods and Stout, in footnote 3, assure readers that a “recent decision by the Department of Defense will in the near future make portions of this collection available to non-governmental scholars” on the model of how Washington dealt with documents captured during World War II. I hope that they have read the Pentagon’s thinking on this correctly, and I hope that the “portions” are pretty close to 100%. It is hard to imagine what national security rationale there would be for classifying the internal deliberations of a defunct foreign regime.
Almost without exception, students of security policy are not only analysts and proponents of abstract theories, they are also deeply concerned with issues of contemporary international politics and have strong policy preferences. There are likely to be connections here, and it is by no means obvious that the latter are subservient to the former. With all due respect to Kenneth Waltz, very few of us became drawn to international politics by reading his books. I doubt if I was atypical in becoming interested because of the events that were occurring when I was growing up and in being fairly quick to develop my own opinions, as ill-grounded as they were. By the time I was exposed to serious academic work, let alone starting to publish, my views about American foreign policy and a general political outlook were well established.
In setting up his analysis here, John Schuessler refers to one of the arguments Dan Reiter and Allan Stam make in their book Democracies at War. Democracies, those authors claim, “produce better estimates of the probability of victory than their autocratic counterparts do,” and they do so in large part because in democracies these issues are argued out in public.
This roundtable broadly addresses the application of recent developments in biology, behavior genetics and neuroscience to topics in international relations and security studies. Advances in the life sciences have been applied to topics in political science; most of those applications have been restricted to the realm of voting behavior and public opinion broadly construed. However, several are directly related to topics of greater interest to International Relations scholars, such as strategic decision-making and morality. These contributions have proven enormously provocative and interesting, and have spawned entire new research agendas into the myriad ways in which biology may contribute to human political and social development and behavior. However, up until now, very little of this work has explicitly taken on problems and issues related to the topics that typically preoccupy IR scholars and done so in manner engaging those scholars. Such topics include conflict processes, the formation and maintenance of alliances, the dynamics of intra-group and inter-group aggression, the emergence of status hierarchies, and prospects for trade and cooperation.
Large military institutions are often portrayed as being inherently conservative and having a tendency to cope poorly with innovation. However, since some such challenges have been handled highly effectively, this knee-jerk assumption is clearly inaccurate. Moreover, it leaves open an interesting question: how can we explain the discrepancy between successful and unsuccessful adaptation to change? Why is it that an army or navy that responds extremely effectively to one challenge can fail to cope with another? It is this question that Gautam Mukunda seeks to address using a body of theory borrowed from business studies. The result is an article that is an interesting and rewarding read, which adds to an understanding of both naval warfare in the First World War and also the process of coping with innovation. There are many aspects to commend and also a few areas where the theory might usefully be further developed.