The Duck of Minerva

The More Things Change…

17 September 2022

Patrick and I have been prepping for a new Whiskey and IR Theory episode inspired, in part, by my short post on G. Loews Dickinson and the fundamental non-realism of prewar theories of international anarchy. We started out with the idea that it would be a quick hit on The European Anarchy. As we’ve read more of Dickinson’s work, though, our scope has expanded.

Dickinson is an incredibly interesting figure, and that’s reflected in his writings (as well as in his biography written by E.M. Forester). I’ve particularly appreciated how Dickinson combines a commitment to democracy—and an antipathy to realpolitik—with arguments that are easy to misread as “realist.”

This combination produces some great passages, including a brief aside (accurate or not) about Kaiser Wilhelm II’s decision-making immediately before the outbreak of World War I.

Why this change in German policy? So far as the Kaiser himself is concerned, there can be little doubt that a main cause was the horror he felt at the assassination of the Archduke. The absurd system of autocracy gives to the emotional reactions of an individual a preposterous weight in deter mining world-policy; and the almost insane feeling of the Kaiser about the sanctity of crowned heads was no doubt a main reason why Germany backed Austria in sending her ultimatum to Serbia.

If this reminds you of what some analysts say about an important contemporary autocrat, then you and me both.

Dickinson is no less sympathetic to grand ideologies of expansion. In his 1926 book—The International Anarchy, 1904-1914—he writes that:

These kinds of reasons for aggressive expansion have a realistic justification. The objects, that is, are intelligible, granted the anarchy of international relations and the desire of States to exploit their neighbors to their own advantage. But behind these. causes of war, which we may call realities, there lies something less amenable to rational discussion. That something is the passion, possessing always some individuals and capable of seizing, at times and in places, whole masses of men, for size and power as the good and desirable thing for its own sake. It is not useful to argue about this passion, for it is independent of reasons; so that, if these are given at all, they are given by way of dialectics, to push the opponent if possible, by hook or by crook, out of the way. The feeling in question may therefore be called mystical, if by that word we describe a position for which no reasoned defense can be made; and it must be admitted that the greater part of human conduct is of that kind. In literature and journalism this blind impulse is often signified by the Greek word “pan.” Men speak of “pan-Slavism,” “pan-Germanism,” “pan-Americanism,” and if we do not use in that sense the word “pan-Anglicanism ,” we have the simpler phrase with the same meaning—”all red.” Red, it may be remarked in passing, is not only the color in which the British Empire is painted; it is also the color of blood. The kind of excitement symbolized by such words as these shows the unreflecting and primitive nature of the mood. It is in fact the lust for power raised to its highest point and unrestrained by any sense either of fact or of value.

Anyway, it should be a good episode. Among other things, I will expand on my growing sense that a lot of what we now call “realism” might be better characterized as “pessimistic liberalism” (or leftism).

We’ve had to push the recording session back multiple times, but I hope it’s done and released in a week or so.