Monday, February 16, 2009

Fun with international relations

I've just read Christopher Layne's Peace of Illusions and was blown away. It manages to be an invigorating read, while also being theoretically rigorous. If you are looking for a more theoretically grounded version of the recent Bacevich book Limits of Power, this is where you should start. (Please note, this is not mean to disparage the excellent Bacevich book nor to say he has not written more theoretical books.) Before I say what I think of the book, I will provide a bit of information to help you decide if you would enjoy reading a book about international relations theory.

International relations theory attempts to explain why states act the way they do. Some theories also try to help policy makers make better decisions. Many theories, including the one on which Peace of Illusions is principally based, are systemic theories. These theories focus on the system of states, rather than the states themselves. For many systemic theories the type of state, whether democratic or authoritarian is meaningless. What does matter is the absolute or relative power of the states and for some, the perceived threat of the state.

Another set of theories focuses on the nature of state. A relatively well known theory, popularized and adapted by Thomas Friedman as the Golden Arches theory, is the democratic peace theory which holds that democracies do not fight one another. This theory was popular in the Clinton and Bush the Younger administrations and partially explained their interest in democratization.

World War 2 provides a useful means of illustrating how theory makes for a new way of looking at things. Ask most people why World War 2 happened, and people will say a nasty man (Hitler) started it. Many, but not all, theorists would say that the weak, unprotected states between Germany and Russia made war likely, but that the domestic character of Germany made that war much worse than it would have been otherwise. If you are interested in foreign policy and this sort of argument is interesting, you will likely enjoy the Payne book.

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