Making sense of the present is a difficult undertaking at the best of times. It seems more especially so at the current moment. The tumult of 2016 was of a kind not seen since the ‘spring of the peoples’ in 1848. Power no longer seems to be what it was and where it was thought to be. In the West, a wave of anti-establishment populism threatens to bring down the given order, and, in part, has succeeded in upending established verities. Elsewhere, the world seems in turmoil, too. Migratory movements along Europe’s soft Mediterranean underbelly are placing unprecedented strains on European societies and the continent’s political structures; a restless Russia is intent on a policy of imperial reconstitution, however partial; in East Asia, the rising power of China and a defensive United States are eying each other warily; and Islamist terrorism continues to widen the internal and geopolitical fault lines of the Middle East and to export violence abroad. The speed and spread of change has left commentators perplexed at how what, until very recently, appeared firm and unshakeable has proved brittle and shallow-rooted. Some see Western democracy imperilled and point to parallels with the 1930s. Others draw analogies with the inquietude of Europe on the eve of the First World War. Whether any such parallels exist today, we shall know for certain in a hundred years’ time. Perceived analogies are never exact. Often, indeed, they are misleading, and reveal more about contemporary sensibilities than about ‘objective’ realities. But rather than look back wistfully at the simpler times of the post-1945 world, it is worth remembering that instability and impermanence are the hallmark of international affairs. They are, as German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once observed, “a fluid element, which will coagulate temporarily under certain circumstances but which, at a change in the atmosphere, will revert to its original aggregate condition.”[2]

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Cover of The Great Powers and the International SystemIt is difficult for me to imagine an international relations (IR) scholar not being interested enough in Bear Braumoeller’s The Great Powers and the International System to read this review symposium. I’ll warrant that I’m biased on the matter, having been nurtured on systemic IR theory as an undergraduate and graduate student, liking books that combine rigorous theory and international history, and being interested in the substantive questions and specific historical periods discussed in the book. But those of you who may not share this background and disposition please consider these points: The Great Powers and the International System was selected as the best book of the year by the International Studies Association; it advances huge arguments with major implications for big swaths of international history; it grapples with questions that have exercised the minds of thinkers for centuries, primarily whether leaders shape or are shaped by grand historical forces; it generates non-obvious and counterintuitive arguments about questions long at the center of the field; unlike most ‘big swing’ theory books, it features a major effort to subject arguments to empirical account; if you like math, it’s got it—both for working out the theory and testing it; if you like to see abstract arguments that are expressed and tested with symbols and numbers forced to confront the real stuff of international politics in real case studies, it’s got that too; it is highly likely to become a central book in the field, informing a lot of subsequent scholarship; and, finally, to assess the book critically, H-Diplo’s ISSF editors have assembled here an academic dream team (more on that below).

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Congress of Vienna RT coversThis year marks the bicentennial anniversary of the Congress of Vienna. From September of 1814 to June of 1815, over 200 representatives met in the Austrian capital to rebuild the foundations of European diplomacy, which lay in shambles after over twenty years of war. It was the great powers, the “Pentarchy” of Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia, who dictated the territorial and political agreements that formed the core of a European grand settlement. And more importantly, at Vienna these powers laid the groundwork for what Mark Jarrett calls “an audacious experiment in international cooperation” (205): a congress system, in which powers would engage in “habitual confidential and free intercourse between the Ministers of the Great Powers as a body” in hope that “many pretensions might be modified, asperities removed, and causes of irritation anticipated and met” (205).

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International Security coverWill the international community be able to build consolidated democratic regimes in Afghanistan or Iraq in the context of decade-long military interventions in those nations? In “Forced to be Free?” Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten argue persuasively that if foreign nations intervene in a state simply to impose a new leader on that state, democracy is unlikely to flourish regardless of whether the intervening state is democratic or autocratic. Active efforts to impose democracy by force are unlikely to succeed unless they take place in the context of domestic conditions that facilitate democratization. Many scholars have made similar arguments in the past, but this effort stands out because it presents a novel data set of cases of foreign-imposed regime change that goes back to 1816. It also is one of the first studies of this issue that takes into account the problem of selection effects and which can offer an informed answer to the question of whether democracy promotion by force fails because of the intent and/or actions of the intervener or because interveners choose tough cases in which to try to build democratic regimes. While the article represents an excellent contribution to this important debate, a broader conception of foreign-imposed regime change might lead to somewhat different interpretations than those presented in this work.

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Reconstructing the Cold War coverH-Diplo has assembled a very impressive interdisciplinary (and international) lineup for this roundtable; all four reviewers provide, in my opinion, excellent analysis. Each of them finds much to praise about the book under review, in particular Ted Hopf’s fascinating historical account of Soviet political culture during the first thirteen years of the Cold War and how it shaped, and was shaped by, elite conceptions of Cold War foreign policy.   All of them have some criticisms, primarily methodological ones about Hopf’s employment of International Relations (IR) positivist theorising in the book. In this introduction I will briefly summarise the four reviews and then offer a couple of concluding points.

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Governing the World coverMark Mazower’s Governing the World surveys the evolution of internationalism over the last two centuries. Mazower’s history provides a rich description of how the concept of internationalism has been contested, altered, and manipulated since the early nineteenth century. After reviewing some of the key points in Mazower’s historical narrative, my review makes two points. First, Governing the World could have benefited from a deeper engagement with theories in the field of international relations that seek to explain the rise and fall of institutionalized international cooperation. Second, Mazower’s arguments about the ways in which contemporary internationalism is eroding state sovereignty are underdeveloped, and, ultimately, unpersuasive.

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