Pushing Restraint

June 1, 2001 Topics: Society Tags: Soft Power

Pushing Restraint

Mini Teaser: A sweeping institutional history of pst-war settlements leaves something to be desired, namely, more history.

by Author(s): J.M. Roberts

G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 203 pp., $55.

TO JUDGE from the accolades of his peers quoted on the cover of his new book, G. John Ikenberry is a distinguished political scientist who has written a distinguished book. In it, he has sought to draw on the resources both of his own discipline and of history--though one hopes it was not his decision to use Delacroix's splendid picture of the entry of the Crusaders to Constantinople in 1204 for its cover, for it has nothing to do with his subject matter, even if someone in the publisher's design department thought it did. That disaster was hardly a sequel to a victory and was institutionally wholly negative. It inflicted a mortal wound on the eastern empire, the shield of Christendom and order in the Middle East, and embodied neither strategic restraint nor strategic common sense. But a blunder by a distinguished press1 would hardly be worth comment did it not awake a vague misgiving about more than thoughtlessness on the production side. It may be, though, that there will be among his readers others who (like this reviewer) know little of the idiom of political science and do not understand easily and clearly just what Ikenberry is trying to combine, and how these elements should be related.

Ikenberry sets out his material clearly. The first three chapters are written in heavily theoretical language, though this hardly seems necessary.2 They address the "Problem of International Order", some of the varieties in which order in that sphere emerges, and, finally, an "Institutional Theory of Order Formation." Four more chapters then consider the reordering of Europe after 1815, the peace settlement of 1919, stabilization after 1945, and, most recently, what has followed the end of the Cold War. These are presented as case studies not of the process of peacemaking but of priorities discerned in them. "The Vienna settlement of 1815 and the world war settlements of 1919 and 1945 are notable for the new use of binding institutions to limit and restrain the exercise of power", says Ikenberry. It is an unexceptionable statement, phrased with admirable caution. But does it say very much?

The central and articulating idea running through these examples takes us back to a political science emphasis and a generalized argument that "leading" states in these settlements--except in 1815, that means the United States-- increasingly showed an awareness that it was beneficial not to throw their weight about even at such seemingly favorable junctures. They even voluntarily submitted to formal constraints by participating in new international institutions. Political primacy could best be sustained, it seems, by a moderate, consciously limited use of power. In particular, institutions, though restricting their power of independent action, actually strengthened the "hegemonic" position of the leading state through the growing stability that they provided. What is more, it is alleged, "democratic" states were especially apt and successful in taking this line.3

Necessary qualifications leap to the eye when the argument is thus boiled down (as Ikenberry himself acknowledges, "democracy" is an odd word to apply to Castlereagh's England), but here are interesting ideas worthy of discussion, even if not very startling ones. More pertinent, though, is whether they provide a horse for a course of this length. What Ikenberry has to say, I think, would better run either to a short essay, or be set out in a major piece of historical analysis that could specify all the doubts, qualifications and queries that it raises. The hundred and seventy or so pages, which is all he can give to discussion of four such major episodes, leaves us with only summary and somewhat conventional assessments of those aspects of them that emphasize their alleged "institutional" characteristics. But those settlements were about much more than any institutional imperative (to coin a somewhat pretentious phrase--perhaps the idiom of political science is infectious). They were notably shaped by more t han just the wishes, institutional or not, of those who negotiated them. A more comprehensive historical focus might leave Ikenberry's thesis still valid with due qualification, but it would look much less portentous.

The impact of context on policy has to be weighed in all four of these examples. In 1919, after all, a huge demobilization dissolved the military power of the United States almost overnight, the discussion of peace treaties having hardly begun; this must shape our understanding of the "leading" state and its actual power. In 1945 the "hegemonic" (to use again that fashionable but vague adjective) position of the United States had no answer to the brute fact of the physical supremacy on the ground that the Red Army's fighting had given it in Eastern Europe. Once more, too, what the county could do had to be interpreted amid demands for demobilization and the scrapping of wartime economic controls. The United States was also deeply committed through wartime actions and attitudes not obviously in the county's interests once fighting ended in Europe. And U.S. policy was still being made by shifting influences in official circles, sometimes to the frustration of allied nations.

Perhaps my unease about context has something to do with a sense of the far from clear intellectual relationship of two ways of academic proceeding. Ever since Aristotle launched the profession of political science, its practitioners have been prone to chase the will-of-the-wisp of generalization. Ikenberry the political scientist seems to be searching in his chosen historical episodes for recurrences that sustained a system more productive of "order"--which seems to mean a greater degree of predictability in international affairs--than earlier efforts had been. If we are seeking to tease out by induction from the facts some sort of general rule, though, then history must be broadly conceived if it is to provide the information required. One does not gather from these pages what the shaping of the UN Charter before 1945 owed to the Soviet Union, or the cramping effect of strategic decisions taken by American soldiers and officials long before 1945 about colonialism or, say, China--a county that, incidentally , hardly figures in this book's account of the world's rearrangements after the Cold War, and is not mentioned in the index.

Further uneasiness arises from some of the historical terms employed. Though moved about the table with great confidence, they are fragile counters that do not easily survive close scrutiny. They often seem slippery and loose, feeble and sometimes positively misleading representations of reality. The notion of a "leading state" itself always requires particular and changing qualification. Leading when and what? And leading with questioned or unquestioned, challenged or unchallenged, authority? Strangely for someone who was thanked for his help with Robert Skidelsky's masterly study of Keynes' role in AngloAmerican relations during the Second World War, Ikenberry also seems to have a remarkably simple, even innocent, view of what "power" means in practice. The "Power Rankings" he sets out in an appendix only scratch the surface of reality, because they ignore the commitments that give such abstractions meaning. And what happened to "power" with the emergence of the possibility of mutually assured destruction?

Another instance of an unacceptable shorthand can be found in the idea of a "Settlement", a complicated idea of which a simple word conveys very little. The years 1919-20 brought the St. Germain, Neuilly, Trianon and Sevres treaties as well as that of Versailles, but none of them is mentioned here. "Institution" is another key term used very loosely. It blurs out from formal arrangements and bureaucratic regulation into patterns of behavior, conventional judgments and interiorized restraints, undergoing Protean change as agreements reshape their meaning in changing circumstances. Even when we are told--very reasonably--that institutions reduce the "return" on power (however defined), we are back with circumstance: sometimes they do so very effectively, but sometimes they don't. What is it that makes so crucial a difference?

Cross-cutting comparison over a century and a half might have been better avoided. History has moved too much, and with a too rapidly growing scale and speed to make it very revealing. In the world of Moore's law--which says that computer chips roughly double in power every two years--and a half century in which it has been claimed that the United States has created more real wealth than the rest of the world together in the whole of recorded history, historical entities cannot possibly be equated across even short periods except in the most formal sense. The currency of political language is formal, though, and can mislead. A "leading state" may have little in common with something to which we could apply the term at another time, even when we can agree on to what to apply it. One wants to know, too, why particular historical case studies are selected and others are disregarded. For all Gladstone's sentimentality and Bismarck's cynicism, the Concert of Europe managed the Eastern Question for a half century or so without major war; we should surely consider 1856 and 1878 as well as the chosen four case studies. After all, we are still hopelessly grappling with the problem of the Ottoman Succession, which the Congresses of Paris and Berlin contained for a long time.

Few of us can shake off our intellectual formation, and no doubt there are personal and subjective explanations for my reservations about the use of historical material in this book. But I recall a warning by one distinguished American scholar whose name crops up a lot in these pages, George Kennan. Writing nearly fifty years ago; he remarked that "the genuine image of the diplomatic process is hardly to be captured in historical narrative unless the lens through which it is viewed is a sharp one and the human texture of which it consists becomes vivid in considerable detail." [4] It is not one of his most incisive remarks, but he speaks with authority. The context of Ikenberry's emerging generalities remains a highly edited and selective version of historical reality.

After running on about ways in which this book disappointed someone who opened it sympathetically and optimistically, it is only fair to say that it made me think. It is also good to say that the impression it leaves of Ikenberry's aspirations for policy--for this is a prescriptive Book--is thoroughly wholesome and welcome. Essentially, he is for American restraint, even if the basis of his counsel seems strangely abstract at times ("the most enduringly powerful states are those that work with and through institutions"). Whether or not that is true or easy to achieve in present circumstances, restraint must surely be sensible. If it has not avoided ten years of Anglo-American sterility and ineffectiveness in dealing with the problem of Iraq, there is no evidence that its abandonment would have achieved the end sought any better. This may suggest, too, that international relations are more complicated than any high-level, formulaic analysis allows.

1 And not the only one. Though the plentiful misprints that the publisher's editor should have picked up are not likely to mislead, they are unnerving. One is very bad: the footnote on page 26, which not only gives the wrong page reference and misspells the names both of one of the editors of the book and of its publisher, but also, by substituting the word "monetary" for "momentary", makes nonsense of what Eyre Crowe's famous memorandum actually said.

2 At times, it leads to jargon. We read of "institutionalizing . . . voice opportunities", for instance, rather than of giving someone a say in something, and of "epistemic communities", when all that is meant are experts.

3 The summary but general benevolence of this book's judgments on the working of democratic foreign policy warrants more attention than there is space for here. But Tocqueville's reflections on the topic spring to mind, as does the frequent exasperation of nineteenth-century European statesmen at the powerlessness of parliamentary governments in England to commit their successors to binding agreements. Nor was the "policy viscosity" admired by our author much evident in Clinton's obsessive concern with the possibility of American casualties in the Balkans. As for Lloyd George's electoral victory of 1918, which is seen as a source of strength, it can also be seen as a trap or encumbrance-as was Clemenceau's.

J.M. Roberts retired in 1994 from the wardenship of Merton College, Oxford. He is author of Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000 (Viking Press, 1999).

Essay Types: Book Review