Tag: history

Motherland Calls

Y’all are probably sick and tired of hearing about Russia: hacking, colluding, obstructing, peeing, meddling, trolling, spying… I’m waiting in terror to see what Stephen Colbert has filmed in the Motherland. So far, his mispronouncing of Sergey Kislyak’s name together with fur hat clad ‘Russian hackers’ with vodka and thick accents have not been particularly impressive. To quote Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler, ‘Really?’ Throw in a mail-order bride and we have a full house of Russian stereotypes. Has American TV not been able to come up with anything new since Boris and Natasha?

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Guest Post – Dave Kang: "International Relations Theory and East Asian History"

AHN_HOUSEIt’s always a pleasure to guest-post my good friend Dave Kang. Dave teaches at the University of Southern California and runs their Korean Studies Institute (the pic). Here are some previous guest posts he’s written (one, two, three).

Here is his encouragement to actually apply international relations theory to East Asia. I can’t agree more. There is far too much superficial, think-tank wonkery about East Asia (how many nukes does China have? will Pyongyang test another missile? and so on), and not nearly enough real theory. Dave does that, and you should too. So instead of yet another, I’ve-read-this-all-before policy essay about the South China Sea or China’s aircraft carrier, the essays referenced below should be good encouragement that we write something richer.

“Thanks to Bob and DoM for letting me guest-post yet again. I have an article on “International Relations Theory and East Asian History” that appears in the current issue of the Journal of East Asian Studies, edited by Stephan Haggard. In conjunction with this post, Lynne Rienner will make the article freely available to all for the next 30 days; you can download it here until October 1.

The entire issue is devoted to the international relations of historical East Asia. The special issue features essays by James Anderson, Kirk Larsen, Jiyoung Lee, Seohyun Park, Kenneth Robinson, and Yuan-kang Wang, all exploring different aspects of IR and East Asia in many disparate epochs and areas.

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Abenomics is a Not an Excuse for Comfort-Women Denialism

protesting-comfort-women-by-bloggerswithoutbordersOne of the traditional responsibilities of sane conservative parties is to write-out of respectability and legitimacy the scary, nut-job right-wing fringe. There can’t be a ‘no-enemies-on-the-right’ strategy, or you wind up with anti-Semites, racists, and black-helicopter guys grabbing all the media attention and delegitimizing wider conservative goals. In the US, Bill Buckley explicitly intended the National Review to screen out the John Birch Society and the American Mercury. In Germany, the CDU/CSU keeps the nationalist/neo-Nazi fringe at bay. (I worked for both GOP and CSU legislators in the past, so I’ve actually seen this in action. The late-night/AM newsradio listeners come out of the woodwork to tell you all about Jewish banker conspiracies and stuff like that.) In Japan, that means the LDP has to tamp down the endless Pacific War revisionism that keeps popping up. And for as much as I think Abenomics is an important Keynesian antidote to the right-wing monetarist-austerity hysteria of the last five years, it’s also increasingly clear that Abe’s victory allowed the Japanese version of the Birchers to get all sorts of air time they shouldn’t.

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Repost: a Personal History of 9/11

Image from:

Our memories of “big events” are generally collective in character. Their status as such manifests in a number of ways, but an important one is that their cognitive traces and triggers become intertwined with representations — images, narratives, and so forth — found in local and mass culture.

This applies to macro-collective events, such as election nights, massacres, assassinations, terrorist attacks, and sporting championships. It also operates in the context of localized happenings. Our recall of them — of, for example, the birth of children, the death of loved ones, and marriage proposals — owe a great deal to both the testimonies of others involved and to the accounts of similar events circulating in mass culture. 
In that spirt, I link to my own narrative of September 11, 2001. For one altogether more interesting, see Barry Ritholtz (via). In favor of forgetting, see “El Snarkistani.”

Historical International Relations: A Proposed Section for ISA

 Note: signatures are only valid for those who are members of International Studies Association at the time of review. Please do not sign if you are not, or will not, be an ISA member.

Below is a letter requesting support for a new section of the ISA on “Historical International Relations.” The section would be cognate to BISA’s Historical Sociology working group and APSA’s International History and Politics section. The idea came out of discussions among the co-signers of the letter below.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,
For a few years now, many of you will have heard us mention the need for a new section at the ISA, one in which there would be a room for historical pieces which engage with international issues in a broad sense. We hereby ask for your support for a new section at the ISA entitled Historical International Relations by signing the online petition at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/hir/, and forwarding this email to colleagues you think will have an interest in supporting the section. 

As you may all have noticed, there seems to be an increasing interest in historical scholarship in the discipline, an interest which is largely reflected in papers and panels presented at the conferences. However, these historical engagements appear in general in a host of different guises, sponsored (sometimes halfheartedly) by different existing sections. Some are sponsored by International Security, others by Diplomatic Studies, while more still have found shelter in the English School Section. While some may not see this as a problem, as it forces historical scholarship to engage with other sections of the discipline, we nevertheless think this situation requires a new section at the ISA. 

The idea of a new section is not for historical scholarship to colonize the ISA. We do not see such a section becoming one of the leading sections of the ISA. Rather, we see it as carving out a modest space for scholars who engage historically to work together, meet, and engage with each other’s work without having to pretend to be talking about something else. This common space would allow for conversations across sub-disciplinary boundaries, conversations which are difficult to carry out within many of the other sections of the ISA, and it should thus also increase the overall cohesiveness of the discipline. Rather than fragmenting the discipline, we think a Historical International Relations Section will contribute to increased intra-disciplinary dialogue. 

It is important for us to emphasize too that this is not meant to be a section for international history. What we think we have identified, is that to the extent that IR scholars engage historically, they do so as “merry amateurs” rather than professional historians. It is this spirit of collegial openness and inclusion as well as intellectual curiosity which we would like to foster by creating a new section. 

In short, we see the founding of a new Historical International Relations section as a way to create a space for this type of scholarship, but also legitimize efforts to address IR historically, as it would make these topics interesting in their own right, and not because of their potential relevance for the other sections.

Thank you for supporting the new section and for forwarding the email.

We look forward to seeing you at the inaugural section meeting in the near future. 

Best wishes,Benjamin de Carvalho, NUPIDaniel Green, University of DelawareHalvard Leira, NUPIDaniel Nexon, Georgetown UniversityAndrea Paras, University of Guelph

What’s So ‘Institutional’ @ Historical Institutionalism?


NOTE: The following was actually written before Dan Nexon posted a good piece on exactly the same essay. I’m not sure if that coincidence means anything, but here’s my take:


So I just read Orfeo Fioretos’ “Historical Institutionalism in International Relations” (IO 65/2, 2011). It’s very good – erudite and sophisticated, the kind of dense, abstract writing that makes me wonder if I can keep up in our uber tech-y scientistic field. In it (fn. 18), he defines ‘institution’ as “rules and norms that guide human action and interaction, whether formalized in organizations, regulations, and law, or more informally in principles of conduct and social conventions.” Wikipedia has the nice, punchy: “An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human community.”

So here is my question: What is really ‘institutional’ about these definitions? Aren’t they staying that pretty much an human behavior that occurs more than once can be an ‘institution’? And isn’t that counter to common-language usage?

I don’t mean to single out Fioretos in this discussion. His essay is excellent, as is Dan Nexon’s response. This definition is widely accepted in IR I think, and the nomenclature has long confused me since graduate school. But when I think of institutions I think of organizations with some kind of charter or formal guidelines, probably with a big building somewhere, where people do their jobs with bosses they don’t like and sit in cubicles all day, with schedules, meetings, deadlines, and cocktail hour. Like a university, or a police department, or the Congress. (The pic above is the Brookings Institute.) Isn’t that more intuitive? Isn’t that what our students and parents think we say ‘institution’ to them?

But in IR/social science, it seems like we can call almost any patterned behavior an institution, which seems pretty definitionally broad. Isn’t patterned human behavior pretty much everything and what all of us in the social sciences study? For example, I think Fioretos’ definition means that we could call the Cold War an institution, or my relations with my nieces, or my unpaid bar tabs. Does this really work? Does it really seem reasonable to call the Cold War, filled with paranoia, suspicion, and proxy wars, an institution? Does it make sense to use the term ‘institution’ in private settings that also have expectations of regularized conduct? I guess you could say the Cold War sorta became a ‘regime’ during détente. But an institution? Would non-IR readers really grasp that?

Fioretos goes on to note there is ‘rational choice institutionalism’ and ‘sociological institutionalism’ too in IR. So I guess my next question is, does that mean pretty much everyone in IR is institutionalist? Now I’m pretty sure I know what rat choice is (cost-benefit analyses, logic of consequences, human robots who would defect on their mother, etc.), and I think get the basic idea of sociology in IR with the logic of appropriateness, culture, constructivism, and hippies. But how does appending ‘institutionalism’ to this help me grasp this better? What exactly is a ‘rat choice institution’ and how is that different from just saying ‘actors using rationalism in making decisions’? When I hear ‘rational choice institutionalism,’ what would easily come to mind are institutions that use rational choice, like maybe the World Bank exporting rationalism to LDCs or something. It takes a conscious effort to force myself to see that ‘rational choice institutionalism’ as something else – and I still don’t really know what that is, or more precisely, how that differs from just plain old rat choice.

So I admit I don’t get it. Is the ‘institutional turn’ in the social sciences just a fancy way of saying we look at patterns over time, and is that just a fancy way of saying ‘history’? I don’t mean to be trite; I know I’m not a good methodologist as my reviewers always tell me. But I don’t really see why we don’t just call ‘historical institutionalism’ ‘history.’ Path dependence, temporality, sequencing – that’s all stuff historians have been doing for awhile, no?

Ok, now that everybody thinks I got my PhD at Walmart, tear me to pieces…

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

Challenges to Qualitative Research in the Age Of Big Data

Technically, “because I didn’t have observational data.”
Working with experimental data requires only
calculating means and reading a table. Also, this
may be the most condescending comic strip
about statistics ever produced.

The excellent Silbey at the Edge of the American West is stunned by the torrents of data that future historians will be able to deal with. He predicts that the petabytes of data being captured by government organizations such as the Air Force will be a major boon for historians of the future —

(and I can’t be the only person who says “Of the future!” in a sort of breathless “better-living-through-chemistry” voice)

 — but also predicts that this torrent of data means that it will take vastly longer for historians to sort through the historical record.

He is wrong. It means precisely the opposite. It means that history is on the verge of becoming a quantified academic discipline. That is due to two reasons. The first is that statistics is, very literally, the art of discerning patterns within data. The second is that the history that academics practice in the coming age of Big Data will not be the same discipline that contemporary historians are creating.

The sensations Silbey is feeling have already been captured by an earlier historian, Henry Adams, who wrote of his visit to the Great Exposition of Paris:

He [Adams] cared little about his experiments and less about his statesmen, who seemed to him quite as ignorant as himself and, as a rule, no more honest; but he insisted on a relation of sequence. And if he could not reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.

Because it is strictly impossible for the human brain to cope with large amounts of data, this implies that in the age of big data we will have to turn to the tools we’ve devised to solve exactly that problem. And those tools are statistics.

It will not be human brains that directly run through each of the petabytes of data the US Air Force collects. It will be statistical software routines. And the historical record that the modal historian of the future confronts will be one that is mediated by statistical distributions, simply because such distributions will allow historians to confront the data that appears in vast torrents with tools that are appropriate to that problem.

Onset of menarche plotted against years for Norway.
In all seriousness, this is the sort of data that should
be analyzed by historians but which many are content
to abandon to the economists by default. Yet learning
how to analyze demographic data is not all that hard,
and the returns are immense. And no amount of
reading documents, without quantifying them,
 could produce this sort of information.

This will, in one sense, be a real gift to scholarship. Although I’m not an expert in Hitler historiography, for instance, I would place a very real bet with the universe that the statistical analysis in King et al. (2008) , “Ordinary Economic Voting Behavior in the Extraordinary Election of Adolf Hitler,” tells us something very real and important about why Hitler came to power that simply cannot be deduced from the documentary record alone. The same could be said for an example closer to (my) home, Chay and Munshi (2011), “Slavery’s Legacy: Black Mobilization in the Antebellum South,” which identifies previously unexplored channels for how variations in slavery affected the post-war ability of blacks to mobilize politically.

In a certain sense, then, what I’m describing is a return of one facet of the Annales school on steroids. You want an exploration of the daily rhythms of life? Then you want quantification. Plain and simple.

By this point, most readers of the Duck have probably reached the limits of their tolerance for such statistical imperialism. And since I am a member in good standing of the qualitative and multi-method research section of APSA (which I know is probably not much better for many Duck readers!), who has, moreover, just returned from spending weeks looking in archives, let me say that I do not think that the elimination of narrativist approaches is desirable or possible. Principally, without qualitative knowledge, quantitative approaches are hopelessly naive. Second, there are some problems that can only practically be investigated with qualitative data.

But if narrativist approaches will not be eliminated they may nevertheless lose large swathes of their habitat as the invasive species of Big Data historians emerges. Social history should be fundamentally transformed; so too should mass-level political history, or what’s left of it, since the availability of public opinion data, convincing theories of voter choice, and cheap analysis means that investigating the courses of campaigns using documents alone is pretty much professional malpractice.

The dilemma for historians is no different from the challenge that qualitative researchers in other fields have faced for some time. The first symptom, I predict, will be the retronym-ing of “qualitative” historians, in much the same way that the emergence of mobile phones created the retroynm “landline.” The next symptom will be that academic conferences will in fact be dominated by the pedantic jerks who only want to talk about the benefits of different approaches to handling heteroscedasticity. But the wrong reaction to these and other pains would be kneejerk refusal to consider the benefits of quantitative methods.

Part II on the AIDS Crisis and Learning from History: Lessons from South Africa

In my last post, I profiled the Origins of AIDS, Jacques Pépin’s masterful study of how the virus that causes AIDS in humans originated in chimps and then jumped to humans and later took off as a result of a complex series of events involving local populations uprooted from traditional practices, the spread of prostitution, and widespread use of injections to fight infectious diseases, among other factors (see Donald McNeil’s compact summary review in the Times).
If Pépin’s book is of a scholar/detective sifting and sorting evidence to advance an argument, Geffen’s book represents the history if somewhat impersonal memoir of the experienced social pugilist. His efforts remind the world of the achievements of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the South African AIDS advocacy campaign that challenged the government of Thabo Mbeki to provide antiretroviral  (ARV) therapy to those suffering from AIDS.

Geffen is one of TAC’s longtime leaders, and this book chronicles TAC’s clashes with both the South African government and a series of quacks and denialists who sought to promote anti-scientific remedies that likely contributed to the deaths of thousands of those suffering from HIV.

Geffen casts Mbeki (and his health minister) as villains in the struggle to extend treatment to those with HIV. For those familiar with the work of Nicoli Nattrass, William Forbath, the political cartoons of Zapiro, and others, Mbeki’s indulgence of AIDS denialism rings both true and familiar. 
Alongside retellings of the legal wrangling by TAC with the Mbeki government and the quacks and hucksters, Geffen peppers the narrative with stories of people who took the their advice rather than the guidance of the medical community. The examples of failed and ultimately fatal vitamin and garlic treatments are sober reminders of the price paid by so many. 
Geffen’s last chapter seeks to understand how it was possible that the African National Congress government, the movement of liberation from apartheid, could sully its legacy by embracing AIDS denialism. Here, Geffen engages a debate taken up in Evan Lieberman’s important book Boundaries of Contagion: “Why have some governments responded to AIDS more quickly and more broadly than others?” Geffen’s asks a slightly different question: “Why did Mbeki’s views on AIDS prevail for a while?”
Geffen writes: 

As president of the ANC and by far its most powerful member, Mbeki was able to impress his personal positions on the organisation. Despite an essentially democratic structure – branches and sectors elect their leaders, who in turn elect the organisation’s leadership at provincial and national level – the ANC has much within its culture that is anti-democratic and renders it vulnerable to and easily manipulated by the personal views of its strongest leaders (p. 193).

This argument, essentially about Mbeki’s leadership, is contingent upon the ANC exercising significant, largely unchecked, power over the country’s direction. As Geffen describes, the ANC possessed such status:

 The ANC together with its allies liberated South Africa from apartheid. It is recognized and admired as the liberator by about two-thirds of the voting population. This enables it to exert a powerful hegemony over South African society (p. 194). 

By appeals to African nationalism, Mbeki and his allies were able to stave off vigorous contestation from AIDS advocates for several years. Though TAC was ultimately able through the court system to push the South African government to change direction, the damage was done with at least two studies estimating that 330,000 plus deaths could have been averted with different policy.
This explanation – emphasizing the leadership role of Mbeki himself and the dominance of the ANC – fits my own understanding of the South African case as well as the Ugandan case where President Museveni took a much more aggressive stance in addressing the AIDS crisis.
Here, Geffen’s book intersects with the Lieberman book mentioned above. The recent issue of Perspectives on Politics features three (!) reviews on Lieberman’s book by Macartan Humphries, Eduardo Gomez, and Daniel Posner. While Geffen’s book is obviously limited to a single case and represents the work of an activist rather than academic, I found his answer more persuasive than the account, at least of the South African case, featured in Lieberman’s book. 
Through mixed methods including sophisticated econometric analysis, Lieberman attempts to show that the fluidity of ethnic boundaries explains the reason why some countries addressed AIDS more than others. Where boundaries are rigid, groups less affected fail to support policies to help out others, as they see themselves less at risk and those communities disproportionately affected by the AIDS crisis fail to mobilize, given their marginalized status. Where ethnic boundaries are weaker, there is a greater sense of shared fates.
Here, I share with Humphries and Gomez some of the concerns about Lieberman’s treatment of key cases and rival explanations. Humphries writes:

But South Africa remains puzzling. One would expect that if there were any place where the effects Lieberman describes would not be determinative, it would be in a case in which the affected group was both a large majority and in control of policymaking (pp. 875-876).

Gomez echoes this view: 

While he provides evidence showing that state capacity and the presence of NGOs is insufficient for predicting policy responses, it is hard to say the same for political leadership. The dismissal of AIDS leadership fell on President Nelson Mandela’s avoidance of the issue in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki’s interest in AIDS prior to election, and then his avoidance of it once in office, notwithstanding ongoing political support. In Brazil, Lieberman claims that aggressive policies predated Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s political leadership. Yet this is factually incorrect. Prior to Cardoso’s and the World Bank’s loans in 1993, there was no aggressive AIDS program. Thus, leadership under Cardoso, at the presidential and bureaucratic level, was important for reform (p. 878). 

In Lieberman’s view, leadership is unsatisfying because: “The relationship between cause and effect is so close that they are almost indistinguishable” (p. 19). However, one can identify differences in state structures where personal rule is possible. As Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg argued in their classic article “Personal Rule: Theory and Practice in Africa,” many newly independent African states lacked institutionalized checks on individual leaders. While that portrait has started to change, it is still a recognizable feature in many African countries. Though South Africa possesses more of the societal and institutional checks than the rest of the continent – an independent judiciary, a free press, and a vigorous civil society – the ANC’s legacy as liberator and Mbeki’s privileged position within the party gave him significant scope to pursue an idiosyncratic agenda for several years.
While social scientists tend to dislike individual level explanations in favor of more domestic structural and international systems level explanations, one cannot understand critical cases like South Africa without bringing in agency and leadership. For that matter, we can’t understand PEPFAR without acknowledging the role of President Bush and his personal interest in the problem. Here, I’m reminded of the piece by Dan Byman and Ken Pollack in a 2001 issue of International Security, “‘Let us now praise great men: bringing the statesmen back in.” The challenge is to recognize the conditions under which leaders may exercise agency. The structural impediments  to action vary by country and circumstance. Sadly, in these tough economic times, the scope for more aggressive efforts to address the AIDS crisis appears much more circumscribed than it was just a few years ago.
Leaving this more theoretical social science question aside, Geffen’s book supports the notion that the Mbeki government did the wrong thing when it could and should have done something different. It is heartening that the Jacob Zuma government did an about-face on AIDS and has dramatically changed course to extend ARV therapy, support male circumcision, and enacted a host of other measures to treat and contain the epidemic.

Learning from Histories of the AIDS Crisis

What can we learn from histories of the AIDS crisis? Jacques Pépin’s The Origins of AIDS and Nathan Geffen’s Debunking Delusions: The Inside Story of the Treatment Action Campaign are two important contributions to our understanding of a disease that has now claimed nearly thirty million lives.

In different ways, both books raise interesting questions about what we can learn from history about causal mechanisms and wider sets of issues. In this two-part blog post, I’ll talk about each book and a recent set of review essays in Perspectives on Politics on Evan Lieberman’s important 2009 book Boundaries of Contagion: How Ethnic Politics Have Shaped Government Responses to AIDS.

Pépin, a Canadian medical doctor with a specialty in African sleeping sickness, has written a compact yet magisterial book that traces how the virus that causes AIDS leapt from chimpanzees to humans and then became a generalized epidemic in Africa that radiated around the world.

Pépin asks and answers a number of important questions in the book to weave a complex narrative of the worst health crisis since the Black Death. Could animals other than chimpanzees been the cause of transmission of HIV? (No. A hunter likely came in contact with chimp blood and picked up the disease and passed it on.) When and where, to the best of our knowledge did HIV originate? (Much earlier than we thought, perhaps as early as the 1920s and probably in central Africa in or near present day DRC). What role did colonial governments play in dislocating rural African societies and fostering the growth of male-dominated urban centers susceptible to prostitution? (By creating towns where only African men could legally live or by uprooting men to work on the railroads or the mines, the colonial powers disrupted rural populations and left large numbers of men without families and more likely to procure the services of the “oldest trade”). How did colonial era medical interventions to protect against other diseases like yaws and syphilis likely engender the spread of HIV? (Injectable drugs helped reduce the burden of infectious disease but poorly cleaned equipment likely helped spread HIV more widely). How did AIDS likely spread from Africa to and throughout the Americas? (One of 4,500 Haitian teachers in the Congo likely acquired the virus and brought it home where it became amplified through sexual tourism from the United States and the trade in blood which both spread the virus to hemophiliacs but also back to blood donors through efforts to separate out plasma).

As a political scientist, I found it fascinating how Pépin explicitly addressed alternative explanations for different facets of the argument. Even as Pépin sought to answer questions about AIDS, I learned a great deal about colonial era health practices, key protagonists in the fights against yaws and sleeping sickness, among other diseases. At each step, Pépin sought to engage rival explanations, “Could it have been this?”

At the same time, he consistently assembled a variety of evidence including colonial era statistics on trends in treatment of infectious diseases to sophisticated genetic evidence dating the origins of particular varieties of HIV with a margin of error.

In terms of policy and the present day, I was especially troubled how even well intended interventions to deal with other public health problems likely helped set the stage for the spread of HIV. This observation made me wonder how modern practices intended to enhance health and save lives (like the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed) may create unanticipated consequences of grave proportions later on (such as drug resistance).

Even as AIDS continues to cast a large shadow over global health efforts, I wonder about our readiness for the next crisis and the leap of infection from animals to humans that proves both especially transmissible and deadly (or in light of the reports of manmade bird flu, from the lab to humans). Just this week, the Washington Post ran a story on the CDC’s efforts to test confiscated African bush meat for potentially lethal pathogens. The budget of this program: $59,740.

While I can’t say whether or not this amount of money is enough, I am worried that health agencies are being called upon to do more with less, in some cases much less. With the WHO having experienced unprecedented budget cuts in 2011 (nearly $1bn or almost 20% of its biennial budget) and the CDC having significant cuts of its own ($740mn or nearly 11% of its budget was cut between FY2010 and FY2011, are we becoming less capable in this time of economic crisis, even as our global health needs have grown?

In the next post, I’ll focus more on Geffen’s book and understanding the role of leadership in national efforts to address HIV/AIDS.

Addendum: The Use of History in IR and the Causes of World War II

So, in my last post, I critiqued Rosasto and Schuessler’s realist take on the causes of World War II, repeating the IR conventional wisdom of liberal internationalism (that it was reparations and beggar-thy-neighbor policies that worsened the Depression and created the conditions for the rise of Hitler). I ran that interpretation by one of my colleagues at the LBJ School, Frank Gavin, a historian who knows this literature much better than me but also one who has engaged the IR literature quite extensively.

I wanted to quote his email to me at length about how historians now understand WWII, which may be conventional wisdom in  IR among those who follow the issue closely, but I’m not sure. It certainly hadn’t permeated the readings I was assigned in grad school a decade ago.

Frank’s intent was not so much picking one or another historical interpretation, as suggesting a greater, mutually beneficial dialogue between historians and IR specialists. I think what emerges from this discussion is that any particular -isms centric perspective on the causes of World War II may do violence to the complexity of the historical record. It raises questions about how to do theoretically informed work that necessarily simplifies a complex reality without reifying erroneous tropes about the past that then get locked in and passed down to IR scholars in ever simpler form as conventional wisdom.

Here is what Frank wrote:

The LI interpretation of WWII is no longer conventional wisdom among historians. This is an interesting area where archives are important. Take Germany in the 1920s — it used to be thought that Gustav Stresseman was the “Monet” of the interwar period, reflecting the more peaceful side of politics in Germany, and that they economic decline turned the populace against those types. Well, when his papers were opened, it turned out he strongly supported Germany acquiring all nearby German speaking territories — which had been allocated by Versailles to Poland, France, and Czechoslovakia — once German strength returned. In fact, great historical work by Schukur, McDougall, Maier, and Trachtenberg demonstrated that the reparations/Ruhr crisis was the German challenge to Versailles, that the US and UK failed to full back the Frenc, the Germans “won,” and Versailles was more or less dead by 1924. 

War was likely just a matter of time at that point, though this is not to deny the particularly virulent, bizarre, racialist war Hitler pursued. The same goes with beggar thy neighbor policies — due to the great work of Barry Eichengreen, no one really believes that story any more. In fact, those economies that devalued quickly did much better, while those who pursued restrictive monetary policies to maintain parity and stay on gold, did much worse. As as Trachtenberg shows, the reparation question was more a political issue — a “willingness” to pay (and a willingness of others to enforce), rather than a “capacity” to pay (it is interesting to compare the huge reparations the French were forced to pay Germany in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussion War). 

Finally, the standard LI interpretation does not explain why the Depression made one authoritarian dictatorship — Germany — aggressive, while another — the Soviet Union — remained passive abroad, at least until attacked. So here again is another area where the traditional IR interpretation may be a few decades behind the historical one, or at least an important interpretive strand. I wonder too whether the LI interpretation has wrestled with Adam Tooze’s “Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy,” one of the most important books of international history produced in years; Tooze argues that Germany was, in many ways, responding to the threat ofAmerica’s geopolitical rise during the interwar years.


During any Presidential Administration, there are heated debates, accusations of horrible mismanagement, and political intrigue, but they are actively papered over and downplayed by a powerful White House communications operation dedicated to protecting the image of the President. Once everyone leaves office, however…..

It seems the floodgates of insider accounts that “make news” and tell heretofore unknown details about the good old days of the Bush Administration are opening, and the stream of details might be more interesting than most.

Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, has a memoir coming out September 1, and the tease of salacious material is the revelation that the Administration did in fact manipulate the color-coded threat level with political considerations in mind.

Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is also working on his memoir, and there are sure to be others (I’m not going to do the exhaustive list, you get the idea…)

The most interesting of course are those from the principles themselves. Former President Bush is working on a memoir where he revisits the 10 most important decisions from his presidency, focusing on terrorism and how it dominated his presidency.

And of course there’s the revelation that former VP Cheney is also at work, penning a memoir (the old fashion way, on legal pads that someone else can type up for him…) where he breaks with Bush on some key issues. Cheney, of course, was famous for deriding those who wrote tell-all books, right up until he started writing one.

With all these memoirs, there will be the obligatory book tour and media appearances on all the major cable TV outlets. These guys need to sell books, so they will lay out some hints of juicy gossip and brilliant insight.

As interesting, I think, is methodological question of how to use these documents as sources for the upcoming article on decision-making in the Bush White House (what–you don’t have that started yet?). On the one hand, these are valuable, primary source documents, the recollections of decision-makers and participants (or at least recollections as told to their ghost-writers/assistants). For scholars writing about the massive shifts in US foreign policy of the first Bush term, it might be useful to include both Bush’s and Cheney’s views on a key decision–information that can easily be gleaned from memoirs.

However, its important to be careful how one uses memoirs. I’m reminded of the exchange between Brooks and Wholforth and English about the end of the Cold War. In arguing over competing arguments over the same events using much of the same evidence, they pick a fight over how to interpret the memoirs of Gorbachev and other high party officials. Each claims that the memoirs support the argument.

Today, memoirs are about selling books and continuing the image-making process. That said, they still reveal interesting details about a situation that won’t appear in any contemporaneous journalism or even archived memos.

What I’d really like to see–once all the “good” memoirs come out–is a discourse analysis of Bush Administration memoirs. Viewing these books as part of the construction of history rather than attempts at more accurate reconstructions of historic events would be quite the interesting project. Something to file away under the to-do list….


The Barnes and Noble website is currently advertising a new and potentially interesting book slated to be issued later this summer: Historical Dictionary of Terrorism by Sean K. Anderson.

Unfortunately, the book pictured is not the one advertised — the second edition of the Historical Dictionary of Islam by Ludwig W. Adamec:

ISLAM is clearly readable in all caps and quite large font.

Anyone can make a mistake, but this one is particularly clumsy.

Here’s a screen capture:

Hat tip: freelance journalist David Zax. Check out his pieces in The Smithsonian.

History lesson: PA 1980

Pundits have frequently compared the 2008 election to 1980. In both elections, the opposition party fielded strong candidates in the face of an unpopular president brought down by economic insecurity and foreign policy disaster. For his part, Senator Barack Obama has openly compared himself to Ronald Reagan — not in substance, of course, but in transformational style.

Reagan won the 1980 Republican nomination for President, but his main opponent became his Vice President and was later elected for the top job.

I was a freshman in college during spring 1980 and was taking a course on campaigns and elections. Our term paper assignment was interesting. We had to select a presidential primary or caucus and turn in a paper predicting a winner before the votes were counted. We were supposed to analyze demographic information, campaign appeals, resources, and other factors when making our predictions.

I selected the Pennsylvania Republican primary largely because it was very late in the cycle and because the Republican race was still being contested. By April, however, Reagan was comfortably ahead. He had already won most of the contests. Indeed, Reagan ended up winning 29 elections that year — out of 34 contests — and just over 60% of all votes cast in them.

So, what happened in 1980? Which candidate did I pick? Who won — Reagan or Bush?

Well, I picked Reagan to win.

Yet, Bush won just over 50% of the votes and Reagan won under 43%. In my defense, because of his “grassroots work,” Reagan did win most of the delegates.

So, at 18, I was not much of a political analyst.

But that’s not the take-home lesson.

Pennsylvania didn’t stop the inevitability of front-runner Reagan capturing the Republican nomination. Like Reagan, Obama has sometimes won the delegate count even when he lost the popular vote: Nevada and Texas may be joined by PA.

Pennsylvania was an unfortunate speedbump for the frontrunner, but it did not seriously slow the campaign. Will 2008 be like 1980?

Incidentally, Bush’s strong showing made him the Veep, even though he had accused Reagan of advocating “voodoo economics.” In that case, intra-party mud-slinging did not seriously damage the frontrunner.

Reconstructing nationalism

Nicole Itano of the Christian Science Monitor reports on a fascinating project that seeks to change the parameters of national identity in the Balkans:

In this still-fragile region, history is often served up as a nationalistic tale that highlights the wrongs perpetrated by others. Now a group of historians from across the region is trying to change the way the past is taught in southeast Europe – from Croatia to Turkey – in an effort to encourage reconciliation rather than division.

“History plays an important role in shaping national identity,” said Christina Koulouri, the editor of a series of new history textbooks and a professor of history at the University of the Peloponnese in Greece. “We want to change history teaching because we are concerned about the joint future of the Balkans and we think mutual understanding can be promoted through better history teaching.”

More than 60 scholars and teachers from around the Balkans have joined to create a new series of history books that tackle some of the most controversial periods in the region. The books, which are being translated into 10 regional languages, present history from various perspectives and excerpt historical documents to challenge interpretations of key events like the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

Most students, Ms. Koulouri says, know little about their neighbors, despite the region’s intertwined past and the relative youth of most of the countries that exist today. Schools typically use government-issued texts in which wars – and there have been many in the region over the centuries – are portrayed in “us versus them” terms with ancient wrongs visited again and again.

The Joint History Project, run by the Greek-based Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CDRSEE), has translated the books into Greek, Serbian, and Albanian, and has begun training teachers how to use them.

Dubravka Stojanovic, a professor of history at the University of Belgrade, has witnessed first hand how history is used for political means. Under
Slobodan Milosevic, the country’s textbooks were changed in 1993, during the Bosnian war.

“The aim of that change was to show that the peoples in ex-Yugoslavia lived in constant conflict since the 12th century or so,” she says. “The intention was to show that the war was something normal; that it was the normal state of things for Serbians and Croats to hate each other.”

Now, says Dr. Stojanovic, who is editor of the Serbian editions of the series and who helped organize some of the first teacher-training efforts in Serbia, the texts are being changed again, this time to vilify communists.

The project has run into some problems, particularly in Serbia.

I’m reminded, of course, of struggles over history textbooks in Japan and the United States (the fact that groups tried to get the “Out of India” theory into US textbooks is kind of disturbing, but no less so then attempts to exclude mentions of Japanese internment or cast the Civil War as a struggle over “States’ Rights”).

So, dear readers, any thoughts about the Balkan history project? Or what about your own favorite examples of identity construction through textbooks?

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