Spoiler Alerts is pretty fond of classic works of international relations. Over the past half-year, it’s been interesting how certain classic works come to mind in trying to think about where we are today.
Trying to get a grip on the current moment is difficult. It seems as though we are poised uneasily between the existing liberal international order and whatever Team Trump and the Populist Legion of Doom manages to
stumble into create while in office. The stock market seems perfectly unruffled about this; I am not so sanguine.
As I try to figure what’s going on, there are three quotes from three classic works that I cannot shake. The problem is that I’m not sure which one is correct.
The first comes from Kenneth Waltz’s 1979 realist bible, “Theory of International Politics”:
The texture of international politics remains highly constant, patterns recur, and events repeat themselves endlessly. The relations that prevail internationally seldom shift rapidly in type or in quality. They are marked instead by a dismaying persistence.
It is easy to say that nothing that is happening right now is normal, that the world has changed. It is harder but no less important to think about whether what seems strange right now does not amount to significant change in the future. President Trump vowed that he would get along well with Russia, but it’s funny how forces beyond Trump’s control have made that much less likely. Maybe, for all of the current craziness, the status quo will endure.
The second quote comes from John Maynard Keynes’s tell-all about the Versailles treaty, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace.” Keynes was convinced — correctly, as it turned out — that the treaty was too harsh toward Germany and would depress economic growth going forward. He also had lots of dishy things to say about the leaders at Versailles. But what makes this book stand out now is Keynes’s ode to what life was like in 1914, before the war started and economies closed up. His first chapter highlights what the war and its aftermath cost Europeans:
What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914! The greater part of the population, it is true, worked hard and lived at a low standard of comfort, yet were, to all appearances, reasonably contented with this lot. But escape was possible, for any man of capacity or character at all exceeding the average, into the middle and upper classes, for whom life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages. The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.
What is particularly sobering is what Keynes said regarding how geopolitical animosities affected people’s confidence that the status quo would persist.
Most important of all, [the inhabitant of London] regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.
This passage might resonate more if the Trump administration’s more insane trade ideas come to fruition.
Finally, there is Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War.” I’ve long been a fan of this history, but with each passing year the passage that stands out more and more is his description of how war and revolution affected daily life in Greek city-states. See if this sounds familiar:
Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation.
The next time someone tells me that Thucydides is not relevant to the problems of the 21st-century world, I think I’ll just read that passage aloud until they cry uncle.
So, talk amongst yourselves: Which of the passages quoted above speaks the clearest to you, and why?