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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Over the last few decades one of the hottest subjects of debate in the social sciences has been the emergence of ‘cyber’ and its effects on all manner of social relationships and human communities.[1] The term itself is chronically contested and the understanding of the nature of cyberspace in the literature (i.e., its delimitation, composition, and relations with other sorts of space) has a certain buffet quality to it, meaning one thing to some scholars and something else to others.[2] The most influential literature on the subject largely steers clear of the term in the search for the essence of the problem at hand. The sociologist Manuel Castells, for instance, has described the arrival of what he calls the “network society.” The basic idea, in a nutshell, is that the recent (or, perhaps better, ongoing) putative ‘revolution’ in information technology has, in turn, given rise to a paradigmatically new form of organization of human activities—political, economic, and cultural—that is structured around network flows of information, wealth, and, ultimately, power.[3]

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Beyond the Balance of Power coverThe past decade has seen a renewal of interest in the international history of the 1920s. This interest is apparent in what might be called traditional state-centred studies of international politics.[1] But it is also evident in the burgeoning scholarship on international and transnational movements and organizations, many of which were not (or not simply) state actors.[2]   The recent surge of work on the League of Nations offers a prominent example: once viewed as a failed inter-state security institution, the League is now portrayed as a dynamic, innovative, and multi-faceted experiment in international governance that drew into its orbit both state and non-state actors.[3]

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Counterinsurgency coverPerhaps only Douglas Porch, with his encyclopedic knowledge of insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) and his broader military expertise, could have written this book. Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War is a magisterial examination across time and space of the history of COIN. It is intended to dispel the myths propagated around it as a kinder, gentler form of warfare waged for the benefit of all involved. An eminent military historian, Porch is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. He has been writing about revolution, insurgency, expeditionary warfare, military empire building, the role of the military in domestic politics, great power war, and related issues for more than 40 years.

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International Security coverIn 2010 U.S. President Barack Obama stated that nuclear terrorism was “the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term”.[1] The events of September 11, 2001 demonstrated the real risk of catastrophic terrorism. It also exacerbated existing fears that groups such as Al-Qaeda would be willing to detonate a nuclear device either on U.S. territory or American valuables abroad. It is one thing to hijack a plane and crash it into a building. It is quite another challenge to obtain a nuclear weapon or the materials needed to assemble a nuclear bomb. Unlike ‘conventional’ arms which proliferate much more easily in the international system, nuclear weapons are much harder to assemble or obtain; a terrorist group would need a state’s assistance to do this. This has raised the issue of terrorism as a technique – that a state might resort to nuclear attack by proxy against the United States and its allies in order to avoid attribution.[2]

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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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Action and Reaction in the World System coverAs we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, the world has become complex, heterogeneous, and unstable. States do not accept a higher authority above themselves. The United Nations Security Council has hardly ever functioned with one voice and is currently immobile because of the blocking power of Russia and China. Third World countries generally do not accept the recently-promoted ‘responsibility to protect,’ as advocated by the Western powers. The unmanageable conflict in Syria, the nuclear-tinged threats of Kim Jong Un, and the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Patriots’ Day, are testimony to just how unstable and fragile the peace has become.

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The Cold War and After coverThe relations between the disciplines of history and political science have always been both close and, partly for that reason, contested.   Political science grew in part out of history, which led its practitioners to be both deeply imbued with historical knowledge and to need to differentiate themselves from the study of history. Until about fifty years ago, the overlap between the disciplines was especially great in the international area, and the first issues of World Politics, the founding journal of international relations, had numerous articles by historians. For a variety of reasons, the gap widened, but in the sub-field of security studies contact never disappeared, in part because, as Stephen Schuker notes, scholars interested in this subject were marginalized in both disciplines. From my vantage point as a political scientist, it has seemed that the relationship has been less than fully balanced, with our interest in history not being fully reciprocated by our historian colleagues. I remember going to see Raymond Sontag (with whom, Schuker notes, Marc Trachtenberg studied) when I was a graduate student at Berkley to talk to him about my attempt to use history. He was too gracious to visibly wince at the idea of history being used in this way and did make clear that he was glad to see political scientists being interested in history, but it was also clear that he didn’t think we had much to contribute.

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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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