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The ten worst books in international relations

It's "top ten" week here at Foreign Policy, and the powers that be have asked me to chip in with a list of my own. 

The thing is, Steve Walt poached a lot of the books I would have named on my own list of top ten international relations books (if there's real demand for a "top 10" books in international political economy specifically, let me know in the comments and I'll put one up next week).   

So, rather than replicate Steve, let's have some fun -- what are the ten worst books in international relations?

In one sense, this question is difficult to answer, in that truly bad books are never read.  Smply putting down books by bad people -- Mein Kampf, etc. -- is kind of superfluous.  The books matter less than the person.

So, let's be clear on the criteria:  to earn a place on this list, we're talking about: 

  • Books by prominent international policymakers that put you to sleep;
  • Books that were influential in some way but also spectacularly wrong, leading to malign consequences.

In chronological order:

1. Norman Angell, The Great Illusion.  This book has been widely misinterpreted, so let's be clear about what Angell got right and got wrong.  He argued that the benefits from international trade vastly exceeded the economic benefits of empire, and therefore the economic motive for empire no longer existed.  He was mostly right about that.  He then argued that an enlightened citizenry would glom onto this fact and render war obsolete.  Writing this in 1908, he was historically, spectacularly wrong.

2.  E.H. Carr, Nationalism and After.  Carr's Twenty Years' Crisis is one of the best books about international relations ever written.  This is not that book.  Here, Carr argues that nationalism is a passing fad and that eventually the number of nation-states in the world will be reduced to less than twenty.  Since this book was published, U.N. membership has at least tripled. 

3.  Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb.  The first of many, many, many books in which Ehrlich argued that the world's population was growing at an unsustainable rate, outstripping global resources and leading to inevitable mass starvation.  Ehrlich's book committed a triple sin.  First, he was wrong on the specifics.  Second, by garnering so much attention by being wrong, he contributed to the belief that alarmism was the best way to get people to pay attention to the environment.  Third, by crying wolf so many times, Ehrlich numbed many into not buying actual, real environmental threats. 

4.  Shintaro Ishihara, The Japan That Can Say No:  Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals  Written at the peak of Japan's property bubble, Shintaro argued that Japan was destined to become the next great superpower.  Whoops. 

5.  Kenichi Ohmae, The End of the Nation State: The Rise of Regional Economies.  Plenty of management consultants have tried to write the Very Big Book.  And plenty of authors have predicted the demise of the nation-state in their books.  Ohmae encapsulates both of these trends. Still, there's something extra that puts him on this list -- over 90% of the footnotes in this book are to... other works by Kenichi Ohmae.  It's the most blatant use of the footnote as a marketing strategy that I have ever seen.   

6.  Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan GhostsKaplan argued that "ancient hatreds" guaranteed perpetual conflict in the Balkans.  According to his aides, this book heavily influenced Bill Clinton's reluctance to intervene in the Balkans for the first two years of his presidency. 

7.  Caspar Weinberger, Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon.  Back when I was a grad student, I needed to check out the memoirs of Reagan cabinet officials to see if there was anything that could e gleaned about a particular case.  George Shultz's memoirs were chock-full of useful bits of information.  This book, on the other hand, was a vast wasteland of barren prose. 

8.  Warren Christopher, In the Stream of History: Shaping Foreign Policy for a New Era. Makes Weinberger's memoirs seem exciting by comparison.  ZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

9.  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire.  Ordinarily, this massive exercise in generating non-falsifiable arguments about an actorless empire would have slipped into obscurity a few months after publication.  In this case, however, Emily Eakin claimed in the New York Times that it was the "next big thing" in international relations.  Which meant this book was inflicted on a whole generation of poor, unsuspecting IR grad students. 

10.  Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm:  The Case For Invading Iraq.  In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Pollack's book became the intellectual justification for Democrats to support the invasion.  And we now know that result.

Daniel W. Drezner

Trying for the full Huntington

As I've said before, I've greatly admired Samuel Huntington's career. Huntington's gift as an academic is that he has been unafraid to make the politically incorrect argument, regardless of the consequences. This doesn't always mean he is right -- but it does mean he's usually interesting. I suspect that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are trying to copy the Huntington template in their essay, "The Israel Lobby" for the London Review of Books: Here's how it starts:

For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of U.S. Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only U.S. security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the U.S. been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the U.S. provides.

Instead, the thrust of U.S. policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the Israel Lobby. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. interests and those of the other country  in this case, Israel are essentially identical.

Well, that argument certainly won't rub anyone the wrong way. Interested readers should be sure to check out the longer, footnoted paper which is archived at the Kennedy School of Government. So do Mearsheimer and Walt achieve the full Huntington? No, not really. "The Israel Lobby" is the academic equivalent of waving a big red cape at one's ideological opponents, hoping they'll foam at the mouth and act stark raving mad because the authors cited Chomsky or CommonDreams, or because, "the Fatah office in Washington distributed the article to an extensive mailing list." [Or maybe they're pissed that they didn't crack the 100 Most Dangerous Professors in America!!--ed.] So let's avoid that bait. Reading the essay, I can conclude the following:

1) Mearsheimer and Walt make a decent case of arguing that interest group lobbying is responsible for some aspects of U.S. policy towards the Greater Middle East. Now this asssertion alone is enough to make people very uncomfortable at cocktail parties and other venues. Whenever I bring up ethnic lobbying in my American foreign policy class and mention Israel, everyone in the room tenses up. So kudos to Mearsheimer and Walt for speaking the taboo thought.

2) Shot through these papers are an awful lot of casual assertions that don't hold up to close scrutiny [Which makes it eerily similar to some of your blog posts!!--ed. True that.]. The authors assert that, "If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China or even a nuclear North Korea, it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the Lobby must keep up constant pressure on politicians to confront Tehran." I'm pretty sure that there's more to U.S. opposition to Iran possessing nuclear weapons than the protection of Israel.

From the longer Kennedy paper, Mearsheimer and Walt make a fascinating logical assertion: "[T]he mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about. But because Israel is a strategic and moral liability, it takes relentless political pressure to keep U.S. support intact." What's fascinating about this quote are the implicit assumptions contained within it: i) the only interest group in existence is the Lobby, and; ii) in the absence of the Lobby, a well-defined sense of national interest will always guide American foreign policy. It would be very problematic for good realists like Mearsheimer and Walt to allow for other interest groups -- oil companies, for example -- to exist. This would allow for a much greater role for domestic politics than realists ever care to admit.

Finally, they argue that the U.S. invaded Iraq only primarily because Israel and the Lobby -- in the form of neoconservatives -- wanted it. I wrote my take on this argument three years ago:

The notion that such a conspiracy exists rests on the belief that the administration's foreign policy principals -- Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Bush himself -- have somehow been duped by the neoconservatives into acting in a manner contrary to their beliefs. But while critics have never lacked for accusations against these officials, being weak-willed is not among them. In the end, it's far more likely that Bush is exploiting the neoconservatives' ideological arsenal to advance his preferred set of policies than vice versa.

3) There are sins of omission as well as commission. Walt and Mearsheimer assert that Israel has been a "strategic burden." They do a good job of cataloging why that's the case -- but omit important examples of Israel being useful, such as the 1981 Osirik bombing. They also go into depth on the Bush administration's policy towards the Palestinian Authority, but never mention the arms shipment that Arafat lied to Bush about as a causal factor behind Bush's decision to freeze out Arafat.

4) The evidence is pretty thin in some sections. To demonstrate the current political power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, they cite a 1984 election where AIPAC was allegedly curcial. They argue that the Israeli-Palestine problem is at the root of Al Qaeda's beef with the United States -- which is funny, because I was pretty sure it was the presence of U.S. forces near the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. They claim the Lobby is responsible for U.S. policy towards Syria, but that policy amounts to little more than some empty sabre-rattling.

After finishing the article, I began to wonder whether the paper is simple a massive exercise in explaining away a data point that realism can't cover. Most realists opposed the Iraq War, and Mearsheimer and Walt were no exception. They can and should take some normative satisfaction in being proven right by what happened after the invasion. However, I suspect as positive social scientists they are bothered by the fact that the U.S. invaded Iraq anyway when realism would have predicted otherwise. When realists are confronted with contradictory data, they tend to fall back on auxiliary hypotheses -- the cult of the offensive, the myth of empire -- that have very little to do with realism. Explaining away Iraq on The Lobby might have a whiff of the Paranoid Style, but it's certainly consistent with the literature.

In the end, I think Mearsheimer and Walt get to the full Huntington -- but alas, it's the Huntington of Who We Are? rather than The Soldier and the State. There's more I could write about, but I'm eager to hear what others think.

UPDATE: OK, I should have said, "I'm eager to hear what others think... after they read the article." Two final thoughts. First, I'm surprised and disappointed that the article has gotten zero coverage from the mainstream media in the United States. I completely agree with Walt and Mearsheimer that this is a topic that needs more open debate. Second, there's one non-event that keeps gnawing at me after reading the piece. If "The Lobby" is as powerful as Walt and Mearsheimer claim, why hasn't there been a bigger push in the United States for more fuel-efficient cars, alternative energy sources, and the like? After all, the only strategic resource that Israel's enemies possess is large quantities of oil. If "The Lobby" is so powerful and goal-directed, wouldn't they have an incentive to reduce the strategic value of their advesaries?

ANOTHER UPDATE: See this follow-up post on the Walt/Mearsheimer paper as well.