IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Friday, April 4, 2014

Tocqueville: Unlimited Power a Dangerous Thing

In an earlier selection from Benjamin Constant, we encountered Constant denouncing Hobbes and Rousseau for vesting an absolute authority in the state. Constant, reacting to the French Revolution and the sovereignty it vested in the people, denounced the idea that any government, formed of whatever components, could be absolute: “When you establish that the sovereignty of the people is unlimited, you create and toss at random into human society a degree of power which is too large in itself, and which is bound to constitute an evil, in whatever hands it is placed.” Objecting to the monarchs of the old regime, the people had directed their wrath “against the holders of the power rather than against the power itself. Instead of destroying it, they have simply thought of replacing it. It was a curse, yet they have regarded it as a conquest.”

These selections from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America come from his famous fifteenth chapter on “Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States and Its Consequences.” They eloquently restate Constant’s fundamental propositions. Tocqueville does not explore here, in his defense of checks and balances on majoritarian democracy, the need for similar checks and balances at the international level, but his thoughts are perfectly consonant with the defense of the balance of power given by Fenelon.

* * *

I do not think that, for the sake of preserving liberty, it is possible to combine several principles in the same government so as really to oppose them to one another. The form of government that is usually termed mixed has always appeared to me a mere chimera. Accurately speaking, there is no such thing as a mixed government in the sense usually given to that word, because in all communities some one principle of action may be discovered which preponderates over the others. England in the last century, which has been especially cited as an example of this sort of government, was essentially an aristocratic state, although it comprised some great elements of democracy; for the laws and customs of the country were such that the aristocracy could not but preponderate in the long run and direct public affairs according to its own will. The error arose from seeing the interests of the nobles perpetually contending with those of the people, without considering the issue of the contest, which was really the important point. When a community actually has a mixed government--that is to say, when it is equally divided between adverse principles--it must either experience a revolution or fall into anarchy.

I am therefore of the opinion that social power superior to all others must always be placed somewhere; but I think that liberty is endangered when this power finds no obstacle which can retard its course and give it time to moderate its own vehemence.

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion. God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power. There is no power on earth so worthy of honor in itself or clothed with rights so sacred that I would admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny, and I seek to live elsewhere, under other laws.

In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny. an individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority and implicitly obeys it; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority and serves as a passive tool in its hands. The public force consists of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain states even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the measure of which you complain, you must submit to it as well as you can.

If, on the other hand, a legislative power could be so constituted as to represent the majority without necessarily being the slave of its passions, an executive so as to retain a proper share of authority, and a judiciary so as to remain independent of the other two powers, a government would be formed which would still be democratic while incurring scarcely any risk of tyranny.

I do not say that there is a frequent use of tyranny in America at the present day; but I maintain that there is no sure barrier against it, and that the causes which mitigate the government there are to be found in the circumstances and the manners of the country more than in its laws.

* * *

In free countries, where everyone is more or less called upon to give his opinion on affairs of state, in democratic republics, where public life is incessantly mingled with domestic affairs, where the sovereign authority is accessible on every side, and where its attention can always be attracted by vociferation, more persons are to be met with who speculate upon its weaknesses and live upon ministering to its passions than in absolute monarchies. Not because men are naturally worse in these states than elsewhere, but the temptation is stronger and at the same time of easier access. The result is a more extensive debasement of character.

Democratic republics extend the practice of currying favor with the many and introduce it into all classes at once; this is the most serious reproach that can be addressed to them. This is especially true in democratic states organized like the American republics, where the power of the majority is so absolute and irresistible that one must give up one's rights as a citizen and almost abjure one's qualities as a man if one intends to stray from the track which it prescribes.

In that immense crowd which throngs the avenues to power in the United States, I found very few men who displayed that manly candor and masculine independence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times, and which constitutes the leading feature in distinguished characters wherever they may be found. It seems at first sight as if all the minds of the Americans were formed upon one model, so accurately do they follow the same route. A stranger does, indeed, sometimes meet with Americans who dissent from the rigor of these formulas, with men who deplore the defects of the laws, the mutability and the ignorance of democracy, who even go so far as to observe the evil tendencies that impair the national character, and to point out such remedies as it might be possible to apply; but no one is there to hear them except yourself, and you, to whom these secret reflections are confided, are a stranger and a bird of passage. They are very ready to communicate truths which are useless to you, but they hold a different language in public.

If these lines are ever read in America, I am well assured of two things: in the first place, that all who peruse them will raise their voices to condemn me; and, in the second place, that many of them will acquit me at the bottom of their conscience.

I have heard of patriotism in the United States, and I have found true patriotism among the people, but never among the leaders of the people. This may be explained by analogy: despotism debases the oppressed much more than the oppressor: in absolute monarchies the king often has great virtues, but the courtiers are invariably servile. It is true that American courtiers do not say "Sire," or "Your Majesty," a distinction without a difference. They are forever talking of the natural intelligence of the people whom they serve; they do not debate the question which of the virtues of their master is pre-eminently worthy of admiration, for they assure him that he possesses all the virtues without having acquired them, or without caring to acquire them; they do not give him their daughters and their wives to be raised at his pleasure to the rank of his concubines; but by sacrificing their opinions they prostitute themselves. Moralists and philosophers in America are not obliged to conceal their opinions under the veil of allegory; but before they venture upon a harsh truth, they say: "We are aware that the people whom we are addressing are too superior to the weaknesses of human nature to lose the command of their temper for an instant. We should not hold this language if we were not speaking to men whom their virtues and their intelligence render more worthy of freedom than all the rest of the world." The sycophants of Louis XIV could not flatter more dexterously.

For my part, I am persuaded that in all governments, whatever their nature may be, servility will cower to force, and adulation will follow power. The only means of preventing men from degrading themselves is to invest no one with that unlimited authority which is the sure method of debasing them.

* * *

If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the omnipotence of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism.

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Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, etext at University of Virginia.  From the Henry Reeve translation, revised and corrected, 1899. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Isaac Newton and the South Sea Bubble

This story and chart from Jeremy Grantham's January 2011 Investment Letter, adapted from Marc Faber, is a classic. The tale of really smart people doing really stupid things is somehow very gratifying.
Newton had the great good luck to get into the South Sea Bubble early. He made a really decent investment and a very quick killing, which mattered to him. It was enough to count. He then got out, and suffered the most painful experience that can happen in investing: he watched all of his friends getting disgustingly rich. He lost his cool and got back in, but to make up for lost time, he got back in with a whole lot more (some of it borrowed), nicely caught the decline, and was totally wiped out. And he is reported to have said something like, “I can calculate the movement of heavenly bodies but not the madness of men.”


Hume: The Three Fundamental Rules of Justice

The following passages by David Hume, from his Treatise on Human Nature, address the origins of the rules of justice that underlie the laws of nations. He finds those origins in a mutual interest in peace and safety. The rules that justice enjoins—the stability of possession, its transference by consent, and the performance of promises—are the foundation of peace, commerce, and mutual succor, both within and among nations. The obligation to obey them, Hume says, arises from interest (or from reflection on the awful consequences incident to their violation), an account of morality very nearly the opposite of that set forth by Kant. [Article length: 2300 words]

Hume argues that these rules of justice have the same extent for individuals and nations, but that they lack the same force. States may violate them for a more trivial motive. Though he bends thus far in the direction of realism or reason of state, he also insists that no political writer or statesman would deny the binding character of treaties in normal circumstances. Interestingly, he is skeptical of the value of what we today might term academic philosophy. In the ways of sovereigns, “The practice of the world goes further in teaching us the degrees of our duty, than the most subtle philosophy which was ever yet invented.”

* * *

When civil government has been established over the greatest part of mankind, and different societies have been formed contiguous to each other, there arises a new set of duties among the neighbouring states, suitable to the nature of that commerce, which they carry on with each other. Political writers tell us, that in every kind of intercourse, a body politic is to be considered as one person; and indeed this assertion is so far just, that different nations, as well as private persons, require mutual assistance; at the same time that their selfishness and ambition are perpetual sources of war and discord. But though nations in this particular resemble individuals, yet as they are very different in other respects, no wonder they regulate themselves by different maxims, and give rise to a new set of rules, which we call the laws of nations. Under this head we may comprise the sacredness of the persons of ambassadors, the declaration of war, the abstaining from poisoned arms, with other duties of that kind, which are evidently calculated for the commerce that is peculiar to different societies.

But though these rules be superadded to the laws of nature, the former do not entirely abolish the latter; and one may safely affirm, that the three fundamental rules of justice, the stability of possession, its transference by consent, and the performance of promises, are duties of princes as well as of subjects. The same interest produces the same effect in both cases. Where possession has no stability, there must be perpetual war. Where property is not transferred by consent, there can be no commerce. Where promises are not observed, there can be no leagues nor alliances. The advantages, therefore, of peace, commerce, and mutual succour, make us extend to different kingdoms the same notions of justice, which take place among individuals.

There is a maxim very current in the world, which few politicians are willing to avow, but which has been authorized by the practice of all ages, that there is a system of morals calculated for princes, much more free than that which ought to govern private persons. It is evident this is not to be understood of the lesser extent of public duties and obligations; nor will anyone be so extravagant as to assert, that the most solemn treaties ought to have no force among princes. For as princes do actually form treaties among themselves, they must propose some advantage from the execution of them; and the prospect of such advantage must engage them to perform their part, and must establish that law of nature. The meaning, therefore, of this political maxim is, that though the morality of princes has the same extent, yet it has not the same force as that of private persons, and may lawfully be transgressed from a more trivial motive. However shocking such a proposition may appear to certain philosophers, it will be easy to defend it upon those principles, by which we have accounted for the origin of justice and equity.

When men have found by experience, that it is impossible to subsist without society, and that it is impossible to maintain society, while they give free course to their appetites; so urgent an interest quickly restrains their actions, and imposes an obligation to observe those rules which we call the laws of justice. This obligation of interest rests not here; but by the necessary course of the passions and sentiments, gives rise to the moral obligation of duty; while we approve of such actions as tend to the peace of society, and disapprove of such as tend to its disturbance. The same natural obligation of interest takes place among independent kingdoms, and gives rise to the same morality; so that no one of ever so corrupt morals will approve of a prince, who voluntarily, and of his own accord, breaks his word, or violates any treaty. But here we may observe, that though the intercourse of different states be advantageous, and even sometimes necessary, yet it is not so necessary nor advantageous as that among individuals, without which it is utterly impossible for human nature ever to subsist. Since, therefore, the natural obligation to justice, among different states, is not so strong as among individuals, the moral obligation, which arises from it, must partake of its weakness; and we must necessarily give a greater indulgence to a prince or minister, who deceives another; than to a private gentleman, who breaks his word of honour.

Should it be asked, what proportion these two species of morality bear to each other? I would answer, that this is a question, to which we can never have any precise answer; nor is it possible to reduce to numbers the proportion, which we ought to fix betwixt them. One may safely affirm, that this proportion finds itself, without any art or study of men; as we may observe on many other occasions. The practice of the world goes further in teaching us the degrees of our duty, than the most subtle philosophy which was ever yet invented. And this may serve as a convincing proof, that all men have an implicit notion of the foundation of those moral rules concerning natural and civil justice, and are sensible, that they arise merely from human conventions, and from the interest, which we have in the preservation of peace and order.

* * *

Hume’s conception of the society of states is further developed in his essay “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and  Sciences.” Hume insists that it is impossible for the arts and sciences to arise unless a people enjoys the blessings of free government. That the arts and sciences should “take their first rise in a monarchy, is to expect a contradiction.” He also insists that “nothing is more favourable to the rise of politeness and learning, than a number of neighbouring and independent states, connected together by commerce and policy.” His defense of plurality and particularly as a barrier to the progress of power and authority emphasizes that the mutual jealousy of neighboring states keeps them from “receiving too lightly the law from each other.”

* * *

The emulation, which naturally arises among . . . neighbouring states, is an obvious source of improvement: But what I would chiefly insist on is the stop, which such limited territories give both to power and to authority.

Extended governments, where a single person has great influence, soon become absolute; but small ones change naturally into commonwealths. A large government is accustomed by degrees to tyranny; because each act of violence is at first performed upon a part, which, being distant from the majority, is not taken notice of, nor excites any violent ferment. Besides, a large government, though the whole be discontented, may, by a little art, be kept in obedience; while each part, ignorant of the resolutions of the rest, is afraid to begin any commotion or insurrection. Not to mention, that there is a superstitious reverence for princes, which mankind naturally contract when they do not often see the sovereign, and when many of them become not acquainted with him so as to perceive his weaknesses. And as large states can afford a great expence, in order to support the pomp of majesty; this is a kind of fascination on men, and naturally contributes to the enslaving of them. . . .

But the divisions into small states are favourable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power. Reputation is often as great a fascination upon men as sovereignty, and is equally destructive to the freedom of thought and examination. But where a number of neighbouring states have a great intercourse of arts and commerce, their mutual jealousy keeps them from receiving too lightly the law from each other, in matters of taste and of reasoning, and makes them examine every work of art with the greatest care and accuracy. The contagion of popular opinion spreads not so easily from one place to another. It readily receives a check in some state or other, where it concurs not with the prevailing prejudices. And nothing but nature and reason, or, at least, what bears them a strong resemblance, can force its way through all obstacles, and unite the most rival nations into an esteem and admiration of it.

GREECE was a cluster of little principalities, which soon became republics; and being united both by their near neighbourhood, and by the ties of the same language and interest, they entered into the closest intercourse of commerce and learning. There concurred a happy climate, a soil not unfertile, and a most harmonious and comprehensive language; so that every circumstance among that people seemed to favour the rise of the arts and sciences. Each city produced its several artists and philosophers, who refused to yield the preference to those of the neighbouring republics: Their contention and debates sharpened the wits of men: A variety of objects was presented to the judgment, while each challenged the preference to the rest: and the sciences, not being dwarfed by the restraint of authority, were enabled to make such considerable shoots, as are, even at this time, the objects of our admiration. After the ROMAN christian, or catholic church had spread itself over the civilized world, and had engrossed all the learning of the times; being really one large state within itself, and united under one head; this variety of sects immediately disappeared, and the PERIPATETIC philosophy was alone admitted into all the schools, to the utter depravation of every kind of learning. But mankind, having at length thrown off this yoke, affairs are now returned nearly to the same situation as before, and EUROPE is at present a copy at large, of what GREECE was formerly a pattern in miniature. We have seen the advantage of this situation in several instances. What checked the progress of the CARTESIAN philosophy, to which the FRENCH nation shewed such a strong propensity towards the end of the last century, but the opposition made to it by the other nations of EUROPE, who soon discovered the weak sides of that philosophy? The severest scrutiny, which NEWTON’S theory has undergone, proceeded not from his own countrymen, but from foreigners; and if it can overcome the obstacles, which it meets with at present in all parts of EUROPE, it will probably go down triumphant to the latest posterity. The ENGLISH are become sensible of the scandalous licentiousness of their stage, from the example of the FRENCH decency and morals. The FRENCH are convinced, that their theatre has become somewhat effeminate, by too much love and gallantry; and begin to approve of the more masculine taste of some neighbouring nations.

In CHINA, there seems to be a pretty considerable stock of politeness and science, which, in the course of so many centuries, might naturally he expected to ripen into something more perfect and finished, than what has yet arisen from them. But CHINA is one vast empire, speaking one language, governed by one law, and sympathizing in the same manners. The authority of any teacher, such as CONFUCIUS, was propagated easily from one corner of the empire to the other. None had courage to resist the torrent of popular opinion. And posterity was not bold enough to dispute what had been universally received by their ancestors. This seems to be one natural reason, why the sciences have made so slow a progress in that mighty empire.

If we consider the face of the globe, EUROPE, of all the four parts of the world, is the most broken by seas, rivers, and mountains; and GREECE of all countries of EUROPE. Hence these regions were naturally divided into several distinct governments. And hence the sciences arose in GREECE; and EUROPE has been hitherto the most constant habitation of them.

* * *

David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature (1739), excerpted in the fine study of Arnold Wolfers and Laurence Martin, The Anglo American Tradition in Foreign Affairs: Readings from Thomas More to Woodrow Wilson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956); Hume, “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” (1742),  Essays Moral Political and Literary, Eugene Miller, ed. (Liberty Fund, 1985)

Much is notable in these passages, but especially Hume's declaration that "EUROPE is at present a copy at large, of what GREECE was formerly a pattern in miniature"--that is, a system of distinct governments. Hume's idea that these independent governments were formed by nature is grist for Daniel Deudney's mill (with Deudney, in his Bounding Power, stressing a similar insight by Rousseau). But however important "natural" or "material" factors are in prompting this fractured union, may we not say that the WORLD is at present a copy at large, of what EUROPE was formerly a pattern in miniature? Of course, there are profound differences in the eighteenth century European system and the twenty-first century global system, but Europe's experience of a plurality of independent units makes it different from the imperial configurations that appeared elsewhere in the world--in Russia, China, India, and the Ottoman Empire--as the European system was developing. The international thought that this system generated has much relevance for the contemporary world, for the 21st century world does indeed stand to eighteenth century Europe, as eighteenth century Europe once stood to Greece. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Africa's True Size

This innovative map at The Economist conveys quite a lot in just a few frames. The article, "The True Size of Africa, November 10, 2010, makes reference to an earlier map produced by "computer graphics guru" Kai Krause. The one above reworks Krause's projections somewhat--I couldn't really tell the difference--but reaffirms Krause's main point: Africa is much bigger than it looks on maps drawn on the Mercator projection. The Economist explains:
A sphere cannot be represented on a flat plane without distortion, which means all map projections distort in one way or another. Some projections show areas accurately but distort distances or scales, for example; others preserve the shapes of countries but misrepresent their areas. You can read all the gory details on Wikipedia
Gerardus Mercator's projection, published in 1569, was immediately useful because it depicts a line of constant bearing as a straight line, which is handy for marine navigation. The drawback is that it distorts the shapes and areas of large land masses, and the distortion gets progressively worse as you get closer to the poles. (Africa looks about the same size as Greenland under the Mercator projection, for example, even though it is in fact 14 times bigger.) This was not a big problem for 16th-century sailors, of course, and the Mercator projection remains popular to this day.
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Thanks to Nick Pinto for sending this along.

Revolution in Corcyra

In countless textbooks realism is described as an amoral doctrine, the rule of the strongest, and the Greek historian Thucydides is usually seen as the first of the great realists in this sense. The speeches of the Athenian generals to the Melians during the great war between Athens and Sparta are Exhibit A in this recounting, but the textbook sketch-artists of realism do not pause to consider that Thucydides presents a detached view of both sides of the argument at Melos and never declares himself in favor of either side. The Melians, of course, dispute every assertion by the Athenians. In fact, as Hobbes noted, Thucydides basically refrains from such open judgments; Hobbes says that in Thucydides “the narration itself doth secretly instruct the reader, and more effectually than can possibly be done by precept.” But there are exceptions to Thucydides’ characteristic reserve, exceptions that help us read his intention when in his mode of detachment. One such is his extended commentary on the revolutions in Corcyrea, as the conflict between the oligarchs and the democrats, abetted by foreign intervention, turned to slaughter. This awful descent is deplored in the strongest terms by Thucydides, who sees an inversion of common laws of humanity—laws that he evidently deems worthy of respect and indeed necessary to civilized life.

Gaining the right understanding of Thucydides is crucial to understanding realism. Even sophisticated students—like Michael Walzer, in his book Just and Unjust Wars (1977)—argue that Mr. T’s message in the Melian Dialogue is sympathetic to the Athenians' declared intention to lay all the talk about justice aside. Thucydides “probably did not mean the harshness of the Athenian generals to be taken as a sign of depravity, but rather as a sign of impatience, toughmindedness, honesty—qualities of mind not inappropriate in military commanders. He is arguing, as Werner Jaeger has said, that ‘the principle of force forms a realm of its own, with laws of its own,’ distinct and separate from the laws of moral life.” [1] 

But the much more persuasive contrary view is that Thucydides’ History is constructed like a tragedy; the Melian Dialogue reflects that moment just before the ill-fated decision to invade Sicily when Athenian hubris knows no bounds. On this view—advanced, for example, by Richard Ned Lebow in The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests, and Orders (2003)—the Melian Dialogue serves to condemn rather than to justify realpolitik, that is, the doctrine that state interest justifies and dictates the aggrandizement of wealth and power, by means however foul. But as Duncan Bell observes (and I think this passage from Thucydides illustrates), "realpolitik does not exhaust ‘realism’; indeed, it has little in common with sophisticated understandings of it.” Perhaps, as Bell argues, realism is best understood negatively—“in terms of what realists fear, what they seek to avoid, and what they criticize as dangerous or misguided. Suspicious of utopianism, and of optimistic visions of self and society, realists of different stripes concentrate on power, violence, and irreducible conflicts over meaning, interests, and value.” [2] As it was elaborated by Thucydides’ successors, and indeed by Mr. T himself, this disposition seeks “ a politics of limits that recognizes the destructive and productive dimensions of politics, and that maximizes its positive possibilities while minimizing its destructive potential,” aiming to “tame and channel positively the inherent conflict that structures the human world." [3]
The revolution in Corcyrea takes place in the fifth year of the war, in 427 B.C.E.
* * *

[T]he Corcyraeans continued slaughtering those of their fellow-citizens whom they deemed their enemies; they professed to punish them for their designs against the democracy, but in fact some were killed from motives of personal enmity, and some because money was owing to them, by the hands of their debtors. Every form of death was to be seen; and everything, and more than everything, that commonly happens in revolutions, happened then. The father slew the son, and the suppliants were torn from the temples and slain near them; some of them were even walled up in the temple of Dionysus, and there perished. To such extremes of cruelty did revolution go; and this seemed to be the worst of revolutions, because it was the first.
For not long afterwards nearly the whole Hellenic world was in commotion; in every city the chiefs of the democracy and of the oligarchy were struggling, the one to bring in the Athenians, the other the Lacedaemonians. Now in time of peace, men would have had no excuse for introducing either, and no desire to do so; but, when they were at war, the introduction of a foreign alliance on one side or the other to the hurt of their enemies and the advantage of themselves was easily effected by the dissatisfied party. And revolution brought upon the cities of Hellas many terrible calamities, such as have been and always will be while human nature remains the same, but which are more or less aggravated and differ in character with every new combination of circumstances. In peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master and tends to assimilate men's characters to their conditions.
When troubles had once begun in the cities, those who followed carried the revolutionary spirit further and further, and determined to outdo the report of all who had preceded them by the ingenuity of their enterprises and the atrocity of their revenges. The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. A conspirator who wanted to be safe was a recreant in disguise. The lover of violence was always trusted, and his opponent suspected. He who succeeded in a plot was deemed knowing, but a still greater master in craft was he who detected one. On the other hand, he who plotted from the first to have nothing to do with plots was a breaker up of parties and a poltroon who was afraid of the enemy. In a word, he who could outstrip another in a bad action was applauded, and so was he who encouraged to evil one who had no idea of it. The tie of party was stronger than the tie of blood, because a partisan was more ready to dare without asking why. (For party associations are not based upon any established law, nor do they seek the public good; they are formed in defiance of the laws and from self-interest.) The seal of good faith was not divine law, but fellowship in crime. If an enemy when he was in the ascendant offered fair words, the opposite party received them not in a generous spirit, but by a jealous watchfulness of his actions. Revenge was dearer than self-preservation. Any agreements sworn to by either party, when they could do nothing else, were binding as long as both were powerless. But he who on a favourable opportunity first took courage, and struck at his enemy when he saw him off his guard, had greater pleasure in a perfidious than he would have had in an open act of revenge; he congratulated himself that he had taken the safer course, and also that he had overreached his enemy and gained the prize of superior ability. In general the dishonest more easily gain credit for cleverness than the simple for goodness; men take a pride in the one, but are ashamed of the other.
The cause of all these evils was the love of power, originating in avarice and ambition, and the party-spirit which is engendered by them when men are fairly embarked in a contest. For the leaders on either side used specious names, the one party professing to uphold the constitutional equality of the many, the other the wisdom of an aristocracy, while they made the public interests, to which in name they were devoted, in reality their prize. Striving in every way to overcome each other, they committed the most monstrous crimes; yet even these were surpassed by the magnitude of their revenges which they pursued to the very utmost, neither party observing any definite limits either of justice or public expediency, but both alike making the caprice of the moment their law. Either by the help of an unrighteous sentence, or grasping power with the strong hand, they were eager to satiate the impatience of party-spirit. Neither faction cared for religion; but any fair pretence which succeeded in effecting some odious purpose was greatly lauded. And the citizens who were of neither party fell a prey to both; either they were disliked because they held aloof, or men were jealous of their surviving.
Thus revolution gave birth to every form of wickedness in Hellas. The simplicity which is so large an element in a noble nature was laughed to scorn and disappeared. An attitude of perfidious antagonism everywhere prevailed; for there was no word binding enough, nor oath terrible enough to reconcile enemies. Each man was strong only in the conviction that nothing was secure; he must look to his own safety, and could not afford to trust others. Inferior intellects generally succeeded best. For, aware of their own deficiencies, and fearing the capacity of their opponents, for whom they were no match in powers of speech, and whose subtle wits were likely to anticipate them in contriving evil, they struck boldly and at once. But the cleverer sort, presuming in their arrogance that they would be aware in time, and disdaining to act when they could think, were taken off their guard and easily destroyed.
Now in Corcyra most of these deeds were perpetrated, and for the first time. There was every crime which men could commit in revenge who had been governed not wisely, but tyrannically, and now had the oppressor at their mercy. There were the dishonest designs of others who were longing to be relieved from their habitual poverty, and were naturally animated by a passionate desire for their neighbour's goods; and there were crimes of another class which men commit, not from covetousness, but from the enmity which equals foster towards one another until they are carried away by their blind rage into the extremes of pitiless cruelty. At such a time the life of the city was all in disorder, and human nature, which is always ready to transgress the laws, having now trampled them underfoot, delighted to show that her passions were ungovernable, that she was stronger than justice, and the enemy of everything above her. If malignity had not exercised a fatal power, how could any one have preferred revenge to piety, and gain to innocence? But, when men are retaliating upon others, they are reckless of the future, and do not hesitate to annul those common laws of humanity to which every individual trusts for his own hope of deliverance should he ever be overtaken by calamity; they forget that in their own hour of need they will look for them in vain. [4]

1) Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York, 1977), 7.
2) Duncan Bell, “Under an Empty Sky—Realism and Political Theory,” in Bell ed., Political Thought and International Relations: Variations on a Realist Theme (Cambridge, 2009), 2-3
3) Michael Williams, The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations, as summarized in Bell, ibid, 3.
4) I have used the Jowett translation of Thucydides maintained by the University of Adelaide LibraryFor an accessible introduction to Thucydides and an interpretation in keeping with that offered by Lebow, see Daniel Mendelsohn, “Theatres of War: Why the Battles Over Ancient Athens Still Rage,” New Yorker, January 12, 2004.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Lippmann Gap

Walter Lippmann was the most distinguished commentator on foreign affairs—indeed, on public affairs generally—during the rise of “The American Century.” He published his first book in 1914, a precocious study that compared the problem of international order in Lippmann’s day to the struggle among the sections preceding the American Civil War. Lippmann proffered sage advice on many occasions over the next sixty years, as is chronicled in the fine study by Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Lippmann had a knack for being at the center of things, making Steel's work one of the best introductions to the intellectual history of American foreign policy from Wilson to Nixon.

The Lippmann Gap was a term coined by Samuel P. Huntington in 1987. Lippmann had expressed the ideas behind it in a slender volume he wrote during the Second World War, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943). Lippmann argued that the basic principles of foreign policy had been forgotten during the nineteenth century, when the United States was shielded by British naval power. “In that long period the very nature of foreign policy, of what it consists and how it is formed, was forgotten.” Not knowing what was needed, Americans could not reach a common view:
They have forgotten the compelling and, once seen, the self-evident common principle of all genuine foreign policy — the principle that alone can force decisions, can settle controversy and can induce agreement. This is the principle that in foreign relations, as in all other relations, a policy has been formed only when commitments and power have been brought into balance. This is the forgotten principle which must be recovered and restored to the first place in American thought if the nation is to achieve the foreign policy which it so desperately wants.
Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs. Yet the history of our acts and of our declarations in the past fifty years will show that rarely, and never consistently, have American statesmen and the American people been guided by this elementary principle of practical life.
No one would seriously suppose that he had a fiscal policy if he did not consider together expenditure and revenue, outgo and income, liabilities and assets. But in foreign relations we have habitually in our minds divorced the discussion of our war aims, our peace aims, our ideals, our interests, our commitments, from the discussion of our armaments, our strategic position, our potential allies and our probable enemies. No policy could emerge from such a discussion. For what settles practical controversy is the knowledge that ends and means have to be balanced: an agreement has eventually to be reached when men admit that they must pay for what they want and that they must want only what they are willing to pay for. If they do not have to come to such an agreement, they will never except by accident agree. For they will lack a yardstick by which to measure their ideals and their interests, or their ways and means of protecting and promoting them.
Lippmann’s evocation of a policy that considered expenditure and revenue together seems very quaint these days, but remember that he said it during the largest borrowing spree in American history, the Second World War. Americans were not innocents in such matters, even back then. His interpretation of previous diplomacy from the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 to the Spanish war of 1898 would be defended today by few historians of U.S. foreign relations. Lippmann exaggerated American dependence on British sea power and needlessly belittled a host of American diplomatists, who were not as clueless as he indicated. Whatever the merits of Lippmann’s historical interpretation, however, his dicta stuck. How could they not? They seemed so right and true, so self evident. They always did to me, at least, and I was hardly alone.  Lippmann’s admonitions became the basic framework for a host of writers on American foreign policy in the post-World War II period.
Samuel Huntington’s 1987 essay in Foreign Affairs, “Coping with the Lippmann Gap,” is a notable instance of such usage. Huntington adopted Lippmann’s framework to interrogate the state of American strategy in the last years of the Reagan administration. Huntington was given at this time to some rather dubious strategies—he came up with the idea of perfecting conventional deterrence by gearing up for offensive operations in Eastern Europe—but he also laid out lucidly the logical alternatives that anyone in the midst of a Lippmann Gap should consider. Huntington took unnecessary alarm at the state of America’s defenses in 1987, but he, like Lippmann, had a clarifying mind. In the following he laid out the possible routes leaders might take whenever a Lippmann Gap looms large. Statesmen, he argued, can attack it in a variety of ways. They can attempt:
—to redefine their interests and so reduce their commitments to a level which they can sustain with their existing capabilities;
—to reduce the threats to their interests through diplomacy;
—to enhance the contribution of allies to the protection of their interests;
—to increase their own resources, usually meaning larger military forces and military budgets;
—to substitute cheaper forms of power for more expensive ones, thus using the same resources to produce more power;
—to devise more effective strategies for the use of their capabilities, thereby securing also greater output in terms of power for the same input in terms of resources.
That would seem at first glance to exhaust the options, but Huntington does not consider the possibility that a reduction of capabilities, alongside the redefinition of interests, might also cover the gap. Lippmann, too, gave greater weight to the moral forces than did Huntington, whose approach seems rather spare on that score. In his two little books of the war years, Lippmann called for a system of "organic consultation" with the members of the Atlantic Community. Such a system--more than a formal treaty of alliance but less than a political federation--reflected a community with the deepest values in common but one that could not be held together through compulsion. It was to be not "one military empire ruled from one capital" but rather "a concert of free nations held together by a realization of their common interests and acting together by consent." 
Just a few years after Huntington wrote, the end of the Cold War, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, entirely transformed the American strategic situation. Instead of a gap between power and commitments, there emerged a surfeit of power. The expansion of commitments followed. The experience of the last decade transformed the strategic situation yet again, leading to the emergence of The Engelhardt Gap: American military power remains preeminent in the international system, yet the actual uses of its military power do not achieve stated objectives and in fact produce blowback and other unanticipated consequences.

So does the Lippmann Gap remain an illuminating metric by which to assess US grand strategy? Using his criteria, how would you assess America’s current world role? 

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Classical Humanist Approach to IR

Robert Jackson’s The Global Covenant is a defense of a pluralist conception of international society, and one of the most important works in IR over the last generation. Jackson styles his own work as an elaboration of the work of Martin Wight and Hedley Bull, two of the seminal figures in the “English School” of IR. Like them, Jackson considers international studies to be a humanistic inquiry whose fundamental questions are normative in character: “Is there an international society? What is the institutional embodiment of that society? What are the core values upheld by a society of states? What is the main justification of state sovereignty? Is there a community of humankind? How can human rights fit into a world of sovereign states? Is there a morality of the global commons?” (61) Such are the questions that preoccupy Jackson and that he seeks to put at the center of the field.  

In the second half of his book, Jackson offers an assessment of the status of various contested norms in contemporary international society, including such questions as whether there exists a right or duty of humanitarian intervention. Jackson’s approach to these questions—and what he means by the term “global covenant”--are surveyed in an earlier entry on IR and All That; here I want to focus on Jackson’s extended discussion of methodological issues in the first part of his work.

His is an old-fashioned approach, one that he identifies with “classical humanism.” Like Bent Flyvbjerg, Jackson argues that approaches to social science knowledge resting on positivist techniques are seriously flawed. Human beings cannot be successfully studied as if they were natural objects; we need, he argues, an “inside-out” approach in which the attempt is made to get inside the heads of those we seek to understand. According to the classical approach, the student of human affairs “is always inside the subject and seeks to understand  it and interpret it by gaining insight into the mentality of the people involved and the circumstances in which they find themselves.” (71)  
[T]he ideas people have about their relations are crucially import­ant to understand. That applies as much to international relations as to any other sphere of human relations. It also means that interests, concerns, intentions, ambi­tions, calculations, miscalculations, desires, beliefs, hopes, fears, confidence, cau­tion, doubt, uncertainty, confusion, and related dispositions and inclinations must be at the centre of normative inquiry into world politics because they are part and parcel of human activity in that sphere. As it happens, these are among the most significant and enduring features of international relations which go a long way toward characterizing the subject. We can fully grasp those features in our accounts of the subject. We can get into the subject via our human understand­ing. But our academic accounts cannot be objectively true in the positivist sci­entific meaning. We cannot pin human activity down to that extent. (72)

Jackson is especially insistent on the importance of norms and values in understanding the social world. 

We could say that norms are the grammar or syntax of human relations. They are the practices and usages, the forms and modalities, according to which human activity in any sphere is assessed as to its correctness: its rightness or wrongness, its goodness or badness. The basic problem with positivism emerges at this point: it fails to discern, or it turns a blind eye to, this social arrange­ment by reference to which human activity is evaluated. In international rela­tions that shortcoming is clearly evident in the positivists' usual neglect of international law and diplomatic practices, which are important elements of the grammar of international discourse. It is also evident in their neglect of the pru­dential ethics of statecraft. Positivists seem to operate with an assumption that international relations can be explained satisfactorily without studying the norms by reference to which the international practitioners assess each other's foreign policies and international activities. (50) 

Sometimes [in political science] norms are handled as economists would handle them: i.e., as pref­erences. But preferences are not the same as norms. What we would prefer to do is not the same as what we ought to do. Preferences indicate latitude and choice; norms indicate restraint and constriction of choice. Preferences disclose a world of wants and desires; norms disclose a world of responsibilities which morally or legally limit what one can justifiably do in the situation. Sometime positivists try to come to grips with norms by reconceptualizing them as some­thing causal: that is, a norm is conceived to be an independent variable that has an impact on a dependent variable. Values and norms are considered to be important because they are seen to trigger or track behaviour. They can thus be employed to explain behaviour in cause and effect terms. . . . [But] norms and values, properly understood, do not lend themselves to any analysis which seeks to employ the philosophy and methodology of natural science. A norm is not an element of the physical or natural world. It is not something 'out there' that can be perceived by our senses. It cannot be unlocked by a study of sense perceptions. It is not a causal force or independent variable. Nor is it merely an effect of human interaction, an outcome. A norm is not an instru­ment. A value is not simply a goal that calls for instrumentally rational (that is, goal-seeking) behaviour. And it is impossible to translate a norm, in the usual moral or legal sense of the term, into a preference, without destroying the orig­inal idea. (49) 

Jackson contrasts positivist approaches in the social sciences with a classical humanist approach, which he defines as follows:   

It is the mode of scholarship that prevailed in political science prior to the behavioural revolution and was largely based on historical analysis, legal-institutional scholarship, and political thought. Traditional political science was part of 'civil science', the core of which was the 'humanist school of jurisprudence' which examined the norms of human societies from a historical and comparative perspective." Civil science was centrally preoccupied with discerning and understanding human conduct, its character, and its modus operandi, in various spheres of political life, especially that of law and the state. (56) 

The humanists were comprehensive or holistic in their approach to the study of human relations. They did not see themselves as narrow specialists. They did not understand the human sciences as technical subjects. They understood them as non-technical subjects. Political science was conceived as based on a combi­nation of classical political theory, history, and law. (56) 

The human sciences endeavored to interpret the living world of human rela­tions with the aim of giving an academic account of it. Donald Kelley conveys the gist of the approach: 'Central to all these concepts, of course, was the theory of law, including the practice of "interpretation", which transformed law into "civil science.”’ (57)
The classical humanist approach rests on a fundamental conviction: that there is much to be learnt from the long history of observation and reflection on inter­national relations and from the many theorists who have contributed to that tradition. Of course there will always be some theorists but only a select few who stand head and shoulders above the crowd: their theories speak to us from across the centuries. Thus we return time and again to Machiavelli or Grotius or Kant for insights into the problems of international relations not only in their time but also in our time. Yet even the greatest theorists can never have the final word on international relations or, indeed, on any other sphere of human rela­tions. Contemporary theorists working in the classical tradition are not impris­oned by the thought of past thinkers. They are intellectually free to engage in their own independent thinking and to make their own theoretical contributions, drawing where they can on the insights of earlier thinkers. There is always something more to be said about human relations. (75) 

The classical international society approach to normative inquiry is a pluralistic approach. By 'pluralistic' I mean that international human conduct, taken as a whole, discloses divergent and even contradictory ideas, values, and beliefs which must be recognized by our theories, and assimilated by them, if they are to be faithful to reality. If scholars of international society seek to carry out an empirical inquiry they must allow for the tensions and contradictions of human experience in that sphere of human conduct: contingency as well as rationality, intentions but also unintended consequences, ours as well as theirs, right and might, prudence alongside procedure, humanity as well as sovereignty, desire and duty, virtue and expediency, goals and rules, ideals and practices, and the rest. (83) 

Recovering the classical approach is not a return to the outmoded ideas and theories of the past. Rather, it is bringing our knowledge of those ideas and the­ories into contact and communication with our attempt to understand the present and the future. It involves acquainting ourselves with sophisticated and articulate ways of seeing and understanding international relations which have stood the test of time. It is not a current fashion that is in danger of disappear­ing tomorrow. Classical international relations scholars are the custodians of some very important theories of world politics which never become entirely obsolete and remain open to further elaboration and reformulation. Yester­day's normative theories are challenged by today's or tomorrow's experiences and by new theories which attempt to capture those experiences in academic terms. But old theories, certainly the most outstanding, are rarely superseded entirely by new theories. Old theorists still manage to communicate from across the centuries, and we read Thucydides not merely out of antiquarian curiosity. (76) 

One key objection to the consideration of such norms is that they are merely “window dressing.” Jackson puts that critique as follows:
According to that objection, the normative sphere is merely rhetorical camouflage to cover up, or dress up, or render palatable by clever civilized rhetoric, the hard and sometimes brutal realities of power and narrow self-interest in world politics. Thus, when statespeople claim to be acting out of con­cern for international peace or human rights or world prosperity or the global environment or any other important value it is only to mask their real intent and deceive others. In short, norms arc a convenient and commonplace way of obscuring selfish or ulterior motives and actions in international relations. (67-68) 

Jackson points out that the window dressing critique involves a serious anomaly: if states-people “perceived normative claims as merely window-dressing, presumably they would not make them for they would have no reason to do so.” In fact, however, such claims are made all the time and would be important to understand even if they were put forward cynically:  

[T]here is an elaborate normative discourse whose vocabulary is well-entrenched in foreign policy, diplomacy, international law, international organ­ization, trade, finance, aid, and other historical and contemporary activities and practices of international relations. The endeavors by states at moral justification are recurrent, vigorous, and virtually universal. Even war and intervention--which are often portrayed as paradigmatic instrumental activities--are expressed and carried on by means of not only instrumental language but normative lan­guage also. It would be impossible to discuss either war or intervention in purely instrumental terms because profound values are at stake: peace, freedom, secur­ity, survival. And once such values are raised about our activities we have entered into a normative world. (69) 

Jackson does not use Bent Flyvbjerg’s terminology, borrowed from Aristotle, regarding three ways of knowing (techne, phronesis, episteme), but it is clearly the study of phronesis that he seeks and that he commends to students and scholars. Though both observers find the search for episteme, understood as positivist laws of human behavior, of dubious merit, they differ in their understanding of the appropriate role for professors. Flyvgjerg wants to get us involved, bringing phronetic knowledge to bear in addressing the problems of our various communities. Jackson advises detachment. He commends pluralism, but insists that “to engage in classical international society scholarship is . . . not a question of selectively favouring either conservative values or revolutionary values. It is not a question of favouring any value. It is not the role of academics to promote values.” Much as I like Jackson's overall approach, this injunction seems rather severe, like leading a horse to water but forbidding it from drinking. Surely there is room for both engagement and detachment in academia.  
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Robert Jackson, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States, Oxford University Press, 2000. There are cheap copies available on Amazon. A somewhat less formidable introduction to Jackson's thought may be found in his Classical and Modern Thought on International Relations: From Anarchy to Cosmopolis (2005). 

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If you were interested in pursuing an education in graduate school taking the classical humanist approach to international relations, you would definitely be pursuing a worthy intimation, but with two drawbacks. You would probably have to venture abroad to Great Britain or Australia (not so bad) and you probably couldn't find a university job in America on your return (not very good at all, though perhaps you might sneak in under false pretenses at a liberal arts college). Notes one document prepared by British academics, trying to assess the pecking order in the field: "In most universities in the US there is a dominant approach to IR which could broadly be defined as‘neo-positivist’, employing hypothetico-deductive models, formal theory and‘large ‘n’ quantitative studies. Because of the numerical dominance of US political science in the global scene, and the prestige of the leading North American academies, this dominance tends to be reflected in citation indices and the like. . . . In the US IR has generally been seen as a branch of Political Science and is taught in Political Science Departments; graduate students receive training in the methods of Political Science. In the UK the discipline developed in Departments separate from Political Science/Government (most notably at LSE and Aberystwyth, nowadays also St Andrews and Sussex) and with an orientation towards History, Law and Philosophy as well as Political Science."