The Duck of Minerva

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Review of Braumoeller’s The Great Powers and the International System

October 16, 2013

The following is an all too common path through graduate school:

  1. spend 3-9 months wondering what the heck you signed up for and why
  2. realize that every topic you’re interested in has been written on and assume there’s nothing left to say
  3. gain a little confidence and criticize everything you read for leaving something (inconsequential) out
  4. begin doing your own research and realize it’s not so easy
  5. write a dissertation about a very small, very timely, very answerable question
  6. convince your committee that your answer is profound, timeless, and required extraordinary insight
  7. cry when the first submission gets rejected because you left something (inconsequential) out.

One of the many tragedies of this cycle is that the important questions in international relations get ignored. It’s much easier to hit pitches the greats never even swung at—can you believe how little guidance extant lit offers when it comes to piracy off the coast of Somalia? Or the use of Twitter bots to sway public opinion regarding immigration?—than to score runs off curveballs they were lucky to catch a piece of.

Yet, every once in a while, someone swings for the fences.* A wonderful example of this is Bear Braumoeller’s The Great Powers and the International System, which tackles the old bearquestion of whether the structure of the international system constrains, or is shaped by, state behavior. Unsurprisingly, his answer is “Both.” But more interesting than the answer are its implications—or, put differently, the biggest contribution of the book is not in resolving the agent-structure debate, but in delineating when dramatic changes in the structure of the international system are expected to occur and how (and when) states will react to them.

This is, perhaps, seen most clearly with the case studies. It is rare, given my predilections, that I say that my favorite chapter in a book that included analysis of a sophisticated formal model, careful statistical analysis of fascinating original data, and detailed historical case studies was the latter, but I think that might be the case here. Which is not to say that the other chapters are anything less than impressive. They are, both substantively and as an example of how to make extremely difficult problems more manageable through the judicious use of simplifying assumptions and careful data collection. The theoretical model yields interesting implications and sheds interesting insight on when we might expect balances of power to form and how an offensive realist world differs from a defensive realist one. The statistical analysis provides compelling evidence that the relative importance of the distribution of capabilities and the distribution of ideology varies across historical periods and that the distribution of ideology both drives and depends on the behavior of the great powers. But it was the discussion of the polarization of Europe in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, the end of American isolation in 1940, and the delayed American reaction to Soviet reform that really illustrated the power of the theory for me. The book identifies a common thread linking the various European conflicts from 1815 to 1835, explaining how changes in British attitudes towards liberalism unraveled the Vienna system and divided Europe between a liberal West and a conservative East. Braumoeller is not the first to challenge the notion that the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor put an end to US isolationism. Adam Berinsky’s In Time of War persuasively demonstrated that opinion was trending towards intervention well before that, and that the US public considered Germany far more important than Japan even after that. But while Berinsky focuses on the role of party competition in structuring public opinion, and the impact of Wilkie’s nomination on support for intervention, Braumoeller points to France’s defeat and occupation, which likely paved the way for Wilkie’s nomination. Finally, the discussion of the Cold War’s end highlights both the power and the limitations of the theory. The model has little to say about how Gorbachev rose to power, but it helps us understand why USFP barely reacted to the enormous unilateral reductions in Soviet military expenditures and nuclear arsenals that he engineered; why it took fundamental changes in the structure of the international system, rather than the behavior of one key actor, to convince the US to dial things back. The so-called Lost Year is hard to reconcile with alternative accounts of the Cold War’s end, such the one based on reassurance laid out in Trust and Mistrust in International Relations by Andrew Kydd—which I was quite persuaded by prior to reading The Great Powers and the International System.

As the last case study illustrates, we can always ask “But why did that happen?” At the end of the day, all any of us can hope to produce are partial explanations of the structure of the international system or the behavior of those that occupy it. But Braumoeller’s partial explanation takes us quite a bit further than previous partial explanations. It also pushes us to start thinking about the international system again, which all too many of us haven’t really done since our first year of graduate school.

There are many reasons to recommend this book to anyone interested in international relations, but I especially recommend it to graduate students. Not only does it have a lot of interesting things to say about great power politics and the international system, but it offers a great example of a dissertation (or a project that began its life as one, at any rate) that speaks to questions lying at the center of the field. Yes, you can write Bad Pun: The Thing That’s Happening Now and How None of The Big Names Have Anything to Say About It, 1990–2008. But you could also think a little bigger.


*What’s with this baseball metaphor? I don’t know. I don’t even like sports. But it seemed to fit. [back]

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I am an assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I mostly write here about "rational choice" and IR theory. I also maintain my own blog,