The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics

June 7, 2012

Marc Trachtenberg, of the University of California, Los Angeles, is unusual among US international relations specialists in being deeply committed to historical approaches and methods, and in meticulously combining these with the kind of conceptual apparatus more characteristic of the international relations trade. His footnotes refer copiously to the trade's leading exponents, including Kenneth Waltz, Robert Jervis, John Mearsheimer, and representatives of the "English School", including Martin Wight and Hedley Bull. However, they refer even more copiously to diplomatic memoirs and biographies, and to the nitty-gritty of published and unpublished documentary sources, American, French, German and British.

The result is a stimulating reconsideration of some of the central and already much-studied issues of the Cold War: how the US tacitly accepted the East-West partition of Europe after 1945, despite some belligerent sloganising about "rolling back" Soviet power; how exactly Washington decided in the early 1950s to press for the rearmament of West Germany, as part of a package including the commitment of US troops to European defence; and the tortuous course of the US' relations with France in the 1960s and 1970s, from Washington's unexpected offer of help in the development of France's nuclear deterrent to the resounding misunderstandings and recriminations surrounding Henry Kissinger's "Year of Europe" initiative of 1973.

In each of these cases, Trachtenberg demonstrates the value of examining the detailed documentary evidence in the light of a clear-cut theory of how the "international system" works (its "logic", so to speak), and of the fundamental forces influencing the way states behave. In his own view, as he trenchantly states in an opening chapter, the "realist" school in international relations is guilty of gross exaggeration when it goes so far as to say that states are always and exclusively concerned with the ruthless maximisation of their own power at the expense of others. The historical record also confirms, he argues, that an "anarchical society" composed of sovereign units not subject to any strongly binding rule of international law by no means always leads to tension, conflict and war: even though states think first and foremost of promoting their national interests, most of them usually do this in ways far removed from exerting their national power to the full, and the "anarchical society" of states has often fostered periods of stability and international cooperation, as well as conflict.

There is one important issue on which Trachtenberg's view of the international system - a system in which sovereign states are the ultimate judges of the necessity and legitimacy of their own actions, and in which a general state of formal anarchy frequently produces beneficial outcomes - leads to controversial outcomes. The book's last two chapters deal with the legitimacy of the US-led war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2003. Considering the issue in historical perspective, Trachtenberg argues that the notion of "preventive war" is not alien to US traditions of foreign policy: on the contrary, such a policy was actively contemplated by the Kennedy administration during the Cuban missile crisis, by Bill Clinton as a counter to North Korea's nuclear development in the 1990s, and by Franklin D. Roosevelt against Japan and/or Germany before Pearl Harbor. Examining the issue in terms of international law, Trachtenberg insists that the invasion of Iraq was by no means illegal, since the broad principles of international law allow states to resort to any means they consider necessary to counter a serious threat to their national interests.

This is, of course, controversial, but Trachtenberg argues his case thoughtfully and interestingly. Contentious in parts, stimulating throughout, this is a book for historians and international relations scholars, especially those interested in each other's endeavours, and for a wider academic readership, too.

The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics

By Marc Trachtenberg. Princeton University Press. 332pp, £32.00 and £19.95. ISBN 9780691152028 and 2035. Published 5 April 2012

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