Theories of international relations in the grand sense are rare. Hans Morgenthau “purport[ed] to present a theory of international politics” in 1948. Raymond Aron’s Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations appeared in 1962. Kenneth Waltz presented his unmodified Theory of International Politics in 1979. It would be twenty years before Alexander Wendt countered with another article-less book title: Social Theory of International Politics.  A decade later, Richard Ned Lebow presents A Cultural Theory of International Relations, returning an indefinite article to his title along with a page-count rivaling only Aron’s tome. The modesty of the title, however, belies the book’s ambition. The reviewers praise the historic breadth of the book and welcome its focus on honor and social standing as explanatory factors. They differ on the value of grand theory. Richard W. Mansbach embraces Lebow’s project, both in its theoretical ambitions and its empirical insights. Patrick Finney is sympathetic to its culturalist core but more skeptical about the novelty and explanatory power of some of its claims. Geoffrey Roberts commends it as a grand historical narrative, but has doubts about the enterprise of grand theorizing in general. In the end, the merit of grand theory itself more than the specifics of Lebow’s offering divides Mansbach’s more favorable review from the more critical appraisals of Finney and Roberts.
Readers familiar with the work of Frank Ninkovich know to expect big ideas and unexpected juxtapositions. Ninkovich, after all, wrote a history of the domino theory that placed the Cold War concept’s origins in the era of Woodrow Wilson. Ninkovich’s latest book is no less bold. This time around, Ninkovich argues that the notion of “civilization” represented the late-nineteenth century’s equivalent of today’s “globalization.” He also posits that scholars have overestimated the influence of biological racist thinking in the late nineteenth century. Ninkovich instead calls attention to a cohort of liberal elites in the Gilded Age (circa 1865 to 1890) who held a more optimistic and even egalitarian view of non-white peoples. This liberal view, he argues, helped make possible Americans’ more internationalist outlook later in the twentieth century. Not every reviewer in this roundtable fully accepts these claims, but the vitality of the debate underscores how Ninkovich has, once again, assembled creative arguments worth serious attention.