The following is an all too common path through graduate school:
- spend 3-9 months wondering what the heck you signed up for and why
- realize that every topic you’re interested in has been written on and assume there’s nothing left to say
- gain a little confidence and criticize everything you read for leaving something (inconsequential) out
- begin doing your own research and realize it’s not so easy
- write a dissertation about a very small, very timely, very answerable question
- convince your committee that your answer is profound, timeless, and required extraordinary insight
- 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 question 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.