This 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).
Who else but Richard Ned Lebow would, in what is ostensibly a political science book, offer us a dystopian reading of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, complete with the suggestion that a production of the opera should be set in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution? Was he envisioning an actual production, since he goes so far as to include details as to how it should be staged? Even those familiar with the broad range of Lebow’s work might be taken aback by the ruthless eclecticism of this particular volume. The Politics and Ethics of Identity: In Search of Ourselves opens with an attack on the notion that there is such a thing as “identity” in any fixed, essential, or ontologically stable sense. Lebow musters evidence from philosophy, neuroscience, and a wealth of other disciplines to make the case for the non-existence of identity. He then devotes the remainder of the book to writing about identity because, despite its non-existence, human beings are deeply preoccupied with questions of identity, and at times such preoccupation can yield tragic and terrible political consequences. There are repeated insinuations in the book (though no sustained causal argument) that the rise of Hitler’s Germany is one such consequence, brought on by what might be described as a national identity crisis which was for Germany, as for Russia, Poland, and Japan, a consequence of being a “late cultural developer” (171). But the book’s exploration of identity ranges far beyond any kind of culturally-deterministic analysis of the “German question.”
Comparative studies of ancient and modern policy, strategy, diplomacy, and imperialism seem to be all the rage at the moment, with most of the impetus coming from scholars of ancient societies rather than from those concerned with the modern world. The recent edited volume under review by well-known Classicist and conservative political commentator Victor Davis Hanson pays homage to two pathbreaking studies with similar titles, and has a clear and unapologetic presentist editorial agenda: “to consider the relevance of [ancient] strategy to later warfare, and especially to the conflicts of our times” (4).