Men's games about frontiers

Two Worlds of International Relations: - Rethinking International Relations
March 24, 1995

International relations makes play, serious play, with the world - the world as it is and the world as it ought to be; the free world (a ludic paradise); the new world order, once a Big Idea and now a Big Joke; the third world, where third shall be last; the man's world, where men do what men have to do and have done since time immemorial, while women serve and service, biding their gendered time; world war (the serial); the world of contemplation (if you will pardon the expression) and the world of affairs, that is to say theory and practice, philosophy and policy, truth and power.

Two Worlds of International Relations promises to explore the proper relationship between these last familiar antitheses, falsified though they may be. Christopher Hill and Pamela Beshoff take as their text Hans Morgenthau's proposition that "the intellectual lives in a world that is both separate from and intertwined with that of the politician. The two worlds are separate because they are oriented towards different ultimate values . . . Truth threatens power, and power threatens truth''. This formulation neatly encapsulates several characteristic (and confused) intellectual fixations: scholar-practitioner relations conceived as dangerous encounters between shamans of different tribes brandishing different totems; morbid fear of asphyxiation by the overweening state; entrapment fantasies ("the siren song of policy relevance"); and the first, degrading, delirious, delicious bite of the forbidden fruit.

Power corrupts, as we know. Worse still, power corrupts academics absolutely.

The book is the product of a seminar series at the London School of Economics, "for almost a century the principal place in Britain for theorists of society to exchange views with those responsible for public policy'', it says in the preface. The book is subtitled "academics, practitioners and the trade in ideas": but the tenor of the contributions gives the lie to this pleasing metaphor. In Britain there is virtually no trade in ideas. On the evidence of this very work, hardly anyone is interested in promoting it. James Cable and William Wallace are - only recently Wallace rattled the annual conference of the British International Studies Association with a provocative call to arms on precisely this issue, musing on the distinction between scholarship and scholasticism and asking whether the academic has a duty to the state - but these are not as other men. They are hybrids, the one an academic practitioner, the other a would-be practitioner academic. Wallace in particular has done more than most to try to raise the level of debate about foreign policy in this country over the last two decades, as Hill and Beshoff note, and yet a persistent sense of frustration pervades his public utterance.

The merchant of ideas is an object of profound suspicion in Britain, an intellectual sociopath, disruptive of a polite and pragmatic people - or of their self-image. Sociopaths tend to be isolated or incarcerated. So it is with William Wallace, in spite of the centrality of the institutions in which he has been allowed to shelter (latterly Oxford University and Chatham House). So it is with Correlli Barnett, for example, another maverick merchant of ideas about Britain's place in the world, whose caustic treatise on The Audit of War figured briefly on every Conservative cabinet minister's list of recommended reading in the late 1980s. So it is with others.

Thus we arrive at a curious conjuncture. There is at the same time a shortage of ideas - evidently a chronic shortage - and a stubborn resistance to trading them. How are we to make sense of the world? What is to be done about Algeria, Bosnia, Chechenia, and every other benighted letter of the post-Cold War alphabet, and who is to do it? What about us (whoever we are)? What ought we to do? The "ought'' will not go away, as Fred Halliday remarks in the peroration to Rethinking International Relations. Globally we may all want the same thing - call it the good life in good order. Halliday is brave enough to specify what that might mean: independence, secularism, equality, the rule of law, and a range of economic and social privileges. But even if we can agree on those attributes, or merely recognise them if we should happen to make their acquaintance, there remains the hard question of how they are to be secured. Halliday for his part is prepared to speculate on "how far, and in what ways, the international community should seek to enforce these norms"; but enforcing the good life will be for many a troublesome notion.

So, is it that ideas of the international kind are not amenable to exchange? This is not a question that the divers hands, academic and practitioner, assembled by Hill and Beshoff attempt explicitly to answer. The former all take the view that academic ideas are distinguished by their longer and wider (and by implication deeper) perspective, an intellectual commonplace deserving of closer examination. Alternatively, is it that the ideas need time to steep - generations, perhaps, as Keynes famously suggested? This is a comforting thought for any academic - nobody pays any attention to my ideas now but they will all be slaves to them in the next millennium - which finds favour with several of the first book's contributors. Or is it that the ideas must be formulated or translated in such a way as to bridge the gap, in Alexander George's parlance, between knowledge and action? George himself has been preoccupied with what he calls "policy-relevant knowledge'' for many years. He has developed three types: "conceptualisation of strategies", "generic knowledge'' and "actor-specific models'' (he eschews the word "theory'' when talking to policy-makers). These ideas - for that is what they are - have been elaborated in a body of work as suggestive as it is substantial. Unaccountably, Two Worlds of International Relations makes no mention of it.

Halliday's book, a product of that same fertile department at the LSE, is presented modestly enough as "elements of a double response - to developments in social and political theory and in the academic study of international relations, and to changes in the international system itself over the past years, most particularly the collapse of the Soviet bloc''. It is intended to address, and redress, what Halliday calls a double crisis, "of international analysis and ethical meandering'', or, elsewhere, "political turmoil and theoretical confusion''. Halliday has a distinctive voice. His work is analytic and programmatic, morally charged and politically engaged, robustly argued and for the most part plainly written (ignoring some quasi-jargon: "hypostatisation", "oneiric", "homology''). He is extraordinarily well-informed. His geopolitical references girdle the earth; a lengthy endnote yokes E. H. Carr's Twenty Years Crisis, Brecht's Mother Courage and Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. He brings formidable strengths to a formidable project - a project to be pursued with two further volumes of the same ilk, one on the role of revolutions in the international system, the other on the ethical tension between nationalism and internationalism.

Halliday, therefore, is ambidextrous. He plays happily with the world of contemplation and the world of affairs. He is especially good at the latter. This book contains a beautifully lucid analysis of the composite phenomenon that was "the end of the Cold War'', including a fine restatement of the phenomenon itself. What requires explanation, he argues, is that an international system of states collapsed in the absence of the most evident forms of threat: it was not defeated in war (not even in Afghanistan); it did not face political challenges from below that it was unable to contain - Poland being the only, partial, exception; it was not, despite its manifold economic and social problems, unable to meet the economic levels that its citizenry had become accustomed to. It did not, therefore "collapse", "fail" or "break down" in any absolute sense.

What occurred, rather, was that the leadership of the most powerful state in the system decided to introduce a radically new set of policies, within the USSR and within the system as a whole: it was not that the ruled could not go on being ruled in the old way. The question is what led these rulers, who cannot be accused of having in the past lacked a desire to retain power or of being initially covert supporters of the West, to introduce the changes they did?

Halliday's own explanation pivots on the Soviet rulers' apprehension of the comparative failure of their system vis-a-vis the West. "It was the T-shirt and the supermarket, not the gunboat or the cheaper manufactures that destroyed the legitimacy and stability of the Soviet system. Bruce Springsteen was the late-20th-century equivalent of the Opium Wars.'' This is Halliday at his pungent, percipient best. Overall, however, Rethinking International Relations fails to cohere. Piecemeal, it is immensely stimulating; taken whole, it is not so much a book as a series of essays with endpapers. Most of these essays have appeared before. There has been some reorganising and rewriting, but not enough. T-shirts and gunboats, for example, make a striking point in chapter five; but they reappear in chapters eight and nine, by which time the trope and the reader are both a little tired.

More fundamentally, Halliday's tone of voice has greater clarity than his world view, or his perspective on the discipline. Emotionally and intellectually he dares more than most. He plays with a passion. But the promise of his title, and his project, remains to be fulfilled.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, University of Keele.

Two Worlds of International Relations:: Academics, Practitioners and the Trade in Ideas

Editor - Christopher Hill and Pamela Beshoff
ISBN - 0 415 06970-X and 11323 7
Publisher - LSE/Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 233pp

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