Over breakfast recently, my daughter asked whether things would ever go back to normal. She dropped the question a few days after Donald Trump incited the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol. President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration was still a week or two away. I like to tell myself I’m good in these moments, and I started a story about the star-spangled-banner, thinking she would be comforted by the knowledge that the country’s national anthem was penned after the original Capitol’s destruction. Rough patches come and go, I explained. She stared silently into her cereal as I talked. The pandemic lost its novelty a long time ago, Mom has cancer, and I was obviously missing the point of the question. A few days earlier, somebody tore down the “We Believe” sign in our front lawn. My daughter was asking about normalcy because she feared that some of the people she had seen on television might live in our neighborhood. We pumped the breaks on Francis Scott Key. Instead, we talked about heroes in the books she likes to read. I gave her a hug eventually and then I lied, promising that everything would go back to normal soon.
Trying to make critical sense of the current state of foreign affairs is treacherous business for anyone, but for an historian it comes close to pursuing a death wish. Even with all the advantages of hindsight, the past remains shrouded to varying degrees, while decoding the present is like trying to see through a blinding sandstorm of events. But if there is much that remains unclear, at least the basic frame of mind of Donald Trump’s presidency is known. Recently, Stephen K. Bannon, the President’s Svengali, looked forward to the “deconstruction of the administrative state” in America. Given the tenor of Trump’s comments on international issues over the past year—about foreign trade, NATO, China, nuclear weapons, Russia, the Middle East, etc., etc.—the dismantling of the American-led world order that has been in place since the end of World War II is also a real possibility.
It seems obvious that an understanding of the nature and value of diplomacy should be of central importance to the study of international relations. However, as Brian Rathbun argues in his important new book, the sad reality is that international relations theorists have devoted little time or attention to systematically exploring the value of diplomacy. In his view, the main reason for this lack of emphasis on diplomacy can be explained by the discipline’s traditional focus on structural elements of the international system, such as anarchy and the distribution of power. Drawing on psychological theories of motivation and negotiation, Diplomacy’s Value offers important arguments about why leaders adopt various negotiating styles and how these styles facilitate or impair the negotiation of international agreements. These arguments are then applied to two of the more fascinating examples of twentieth-century international diplomacy: the Locarno era negotiations of the 1920’s and the Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy of the 1990’s.
Barry Buzan and George Lawson have produced a book of grand scope that examines the multiple ways modernity has influenced the world and our theories about it. What they call the ‘global transformation’ brought about a shift from a polycentric world to a core-periphery order centered on the West. In the process, according to the authors, regional systems of international relations were integrated into a global one. In effect, international relations theories and the discipline of international relations are products of the long nineteenth century. They further contend, and more controversially, that these theories, and the discipline more generally, have neglected this ‘global transformation.’
The following piece is a response to part of the Forum on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons.”
In his recent Jack Ruina Nuclear Age lecture at MIT, Robert Jervis – arguably our most important scholar of nuclear dynamics – reminded his audience how little we actually know about the influence of nuclear weapons. “Their impact on world politics is hard to discern.” Everywhere one looks, Jervis pointed out, there are puzzles that remain stubbornly immune to definitive answers. Would the Cold War have happened at all without nuclear weapons, or would it have unfolded in much the same way? Do nuclear weapons stabilize international relations or make the world more dangerous? Why don’t more countries have nuclear weapons? Why did American decision-makers pursue strategies and deployments that seem to have disregarded the fundamental insights scholars had proposed about the meaning of the nuclear revolution? Why is this gap even larger when you look beyond the United States to the eight other nuclear-weapons states? Were scholars prescribing when they thought they were describing? Did the nuclear balance matter, and if so, when and in what ways? Were all conflicts between nuclear states in some sense nuclear wars? What role did credibility play in nuclear politics, given that deterrence is based on a threat to use nuclear weapons few actually believed? Perhaps most importantly, how have our ideas about nuclear weapons changed over time, and how have these changes affected the realities of nuclear weapons? Jervis’s remarkable meditation was a pointed reminder that we lack certainty on these issues, and must be humble in our efforts to understand these terrifying, horrific weapons. The great challenge for scholars is “to recapture the strangeness of the nuclear world.”
Over the past decade, two intellectual renaissances have emerged in the field of nuclear security studies. The first is in political science, where exciting new research has been published about such important subjects as the causes of nuclear weapons proliferation, the linkages between the growth of civilian nuclear power and the spread of nuclear weapons, deterrence and compellence theory and practice, and the consequences of new states acquiring atomic arsenals. A second renaissance is occurring in history, as new archives have opened up and scholars are studying such important subjects as Cold War crises, the evolution of international institutions such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the history of medium powers and smaller states that decided to pursue or decided to stop pursing nuclear weapons.
The 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.
Historians and political scientists alike should appreciate Dan Reiter’s How Wars End. It eschews statistical analysis for comparative case-studies because the answers are “complex and nuanced” (6) and defers formal proofs for plain-language explanations. The six empirical chapters are based on case-specific puzzles rather than theory-driven questions. The three reviewers—Dale Copeland, Hein Goemans, and Zachary Shirkey—find few major flaws with How Wars End, although each has some reservations over aspects of the argument. Because some readers might not be versed in rationalist theories on war that Reiter engages, this introduction will first provide an overview of them and then discuss the reviews in the next section.