Hubris and Nemesis

In his timeless classic, AJP Taylor charted the noble though failed reforms in the late Habsburg monarchy alongside the structural changes happening in Europe around them. Structural reordering of a system is arguably the most important topic to study in history because it is inherently multivariate, uncertain, and more often than not, tragic. Great powers dissolve and disappear due to ideological hubris, miscalculation, failed pivots, overstretch, and catastrophic wars with entire ways of life lost.

Longing for a world that was lost in the cataclysmic restructuring of the early twentieth century, at a time when expressing such sentiments was increasingly a social taboo, Taylor, a master of subtle and inexplicit throwaway wisdom, argued that “it would not do to find here the sole explanation of Habsburg failure.” “As in France, lack of coal and lack of a landless proletariat combined to produce a single result,” Taylor wrote, “and in the nineteenth century, France and the Habsburg Monarchy, the two traditional Great Powers of Europe, were both dwarfed by the chimneys of the Ruhr.”

Similar themes of reordering, hubris, and an uncertain tragedy are present in an important new book by Jonathan Kirshner. In An Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics, Kirshner aims to rehabilitate classical realism in International Relations. In that cause, he explores a few selective cases to consider whether classical realism is a more rigorous approach than its alternatives, and he attempts to grapple with the most potent question of our times, the chances of catastrophe from a systemic reordering, due to the rise of China.

Kirshner reprimands the tedious tendency of scholars to ignore the differences between classical and structural (or neo-) realism. The former, put simply, is a theoretical framework that took shape during the interwar periods and consolidated immediately after the Second World War as a mix of history and philosophy to train young diplomats in statecraft. The latter is an offshoot of the former that attempted to make it more scientific by making the theory structural and ridding it off domestic and ideological variables. Realism, Kirshner argues, is “overwhelmingly dominated by the influence of structuralism, that is, by an approach that models states as identical units,” but that only results in policy failure, as “structural realism and hyper-rationalism, grasping for an illusion of scientific precision evident in style but empty in substance, have failed.”

Classical Realism, however, rids itself of faux-scientific pretense and includes domestic variables, such as culture, history, and regime types. “Thucydides reminds his readers of the stark consequences of anarchy,” Kirshner writes, pointing out that the Athenian general was skeptical of public passions, channeled by mass democracy and demagogues. Thucydides, Kirshner argues “expected democracies to behave differently than nondemocracies, and not necessarily in a good way,” offering his insight and warning about the danger of hubris and the fragility of civilization. As Kirshner concludes, “The gravest threat to the security, integrity, and civilization of a great power lies not with the designs of its adversaries, nor the tragic implications of anarchy, but from the arrogance of power.”

These themes of hubris, anarchy, and fragility are explored further. Kirshner rightly points out that all classical realists—including the modern grandees of the discipline including Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Henry Kissinger—were all interested in equilibrium and worried about unleashed public passions, because they were especially cognizant of how fragile external peace and internal stability are. “Kennan was particularly wary of the ability of democracies to deftly navigate the dangerous currents of world politics,” Kirshner writes. Who can disagree after the last few years of both consensus and anti-consensus politics? Democracy is inherently predicated on rational minds able to judge propaganda from all sides. It inevitably fails often, as humans are not all rational. And modern politics is complicated without delegated hierarchy and expertise, which, in turn, are always prone to ideological corruption or demagoguery.

Britain’s Decision to Go to War

It is difficult to critique a book one mostly agrees with, but in the spirit of fair play, one must. Kirshner explores two cases to show that classical realism is a superior theory compared to structural realism. His first case is about British dithering in the face of a rising Nazi Germany. “There are two major realist/rationalist explanations for Britain’s catastrophic failure in the 1930s,” Kirshner writes, “buck-passing and buying time.” The first is the realist thesis that Britain and France were passing the buck of balancing Germany. Kirshner rejects this argument because France was in no position to pass the buck to Britain, given that Nazis were just next-door. That may be so.

But nowhere in the realist literature is it said that buck-passing requires someone to be ready and willing in a position to catch the buck first. States miscalculate. Both Britain and France were stuck in the previous era, oblivious of newer tactics and technology, trying to avoid war, while preparing for trench warfare which was already obsolete. Britain was in no position to conduct a land war in Europe in the mid to late ‘30s, due to both lack of public support for another great power war (a point Kirshner concedes), and the fact that Germany was rearming faster than everyone else. In fact, it turned out Britain was in no position for a sustained land war even after launching the war. All she could do was endure starvation, use her mighty navy to deter a German sea-borne invasion, and buy time for the US to join and Germany to overstretch.

Kirshner rightly notes that Neville Chamberlain “did not invent the policy of appeasement, which had broad support across the Conservative party,” and that few in Britain wanted another great power war. “’Never again’” was the mindset (especially regarding European entanglements), and pacifism the order of the times.” Kirshner however argues that Chamberlain and the Tories were more skeptical of communist Russia (understandably, one might add) and that “buying time” for a future war against Germany was not the prime intention of the British elite. Chamberlain, as Kirshner notes, was “preoccupied by the economic constraints on British rearmament.”

The true classical realist position is, as always, multi-causal. Britain was bankrupt after the First World War. German hegemonic ambition was about an expansion in the east, and the British treaty guarantee to Belgium was far weaker than the British treaty guarantee to Denmark which Lord Palmerston rightly discarded to avoid a continental war. This was in line with Lord Canning’s imperial policy of non-interference in Europe. Nevertheless, decades of safety, Edwardian idealism, and French “chain-ganging” led Britain to war and debt and paved the way for a continental balance that led to the rise of those specific social conditions responsible for the Second World War.

The Empire Needs Men World War I recruitment poster for Great Britain. Wardle, Arthur, artist, Straker Brothers, printer. Great Britain. Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, publisher. 1915.

A key historical question one grapples with is why Britain chose war and why Poland was the redline. Czechoslovakia was socially liberal, advanced, a remnant of old Austria, while Poland was arch-conservative, geographically positioned to invite predators, harder to defend, and borderline antisemitic at a time when the sentiment was tragically all too common in central and eastern Europe. The answer is a mix of structural and classical realism. The British elite couldn’t have justified a continental threat to their electorate in the former case. In the latter case, they could point out that after Poland, there was only France as the last balancer to prevent Nazi hegemony over all of Europe. Hard though it is to “process trace,” the narrow logic of balance of power dictated the time and decision to go to war.

In fact, a case in favor of Kirshner, which is somewhat alluded to later, is that the British decision in both cases, the reckless hysteria prior to the First World War, and the wary dithering prior to the Second, were products of democratic politics. In Hans Morgenthau’s phrasing, passions of public opinion were incompatible with the rational grand strategy of a great power. Kirshner notes, correctly, that Realism “can also find expression in a certain type of conservatism—which is not necessarily an attractive characteristic, but nevertheless as always let us stare such unpleasant things in the face—one that places a value on order for order’s sake, even at the expense of justice.” One is not sure why reactionary conservatism is unattractive in the greater scheme of things. A reactionary Britain of Castlereagh, Canning, or Salisbury perhaps would have avoided joining the First World War while funding the bloodletting of both sides, and if the situation so demanded, prepared for the Second World War earlier, public opinion be damned. But alas, that wasn’t meant to be.

The Tragedy of Great Powers

Kirshner avoids the trap of monocausality in his second case, in pointing out how hubris can lead to catastrophic misadventures. Kirshner charts the realist opposition to the Vietnam war, from Reinhold Niebuhr’s worry that America has found itself “drawn into a civil war in an obscure nation of Southeast Asia” to Hans Morgenthau’s lament about how Bismarck “would not have allowed themselves to get committed in a civil war which cannot be won short of a political miracle” to George Kennan’s bewilderment about “what that commitment really consists of, and how and when it was incurred.” Even Henry Kissinger noted that “no one could really explain to me how even on the most favourable assumptions about the war in Vietnam the war was going to end.”

The same dynamic repeatedly played out in the realist opposition prior to the Iraq war, and the recent Libyan misadventure, the second one hugely underrated, that led to a catastrophic collapse of order in the entire Mediterranean coastline, mass-migration, slave trade hubs, civil wars, and rise of the far right in Europe. One can also sense similar shades of foreboding in nuclear brinkmanship near a certain strategically irrelevant backwater in eastern Europe. Morgenthau would have been horrified, just as Kennan and Samuel Huntington were, with an increasingly activist foreign policy. Structuralists blame it on American unipolarity, but that is not the whole story. Unipolarity helped, as the reigning hegemon of our times could commit blunder after blunder in the great Middle East without any punitive consequence. But it was also aided by a bloated, mediocre, and imperial bureaucracy, activist instincts of promoting “rights,” and a theological sense of crusade and justice. In short, culture, history, and regime type were variables that determined a country’s foreign policy actions.

Kirshner is therefore correct in his conclusion that one needs to be careful and understand the realities of power with the rise of China: to acknowledge Chinese interests instead of blundering into a great power war that would almost certainly result in the demise of America as a great power or the end of the world as we know it, or both. He writes that “Thucydides see a great risk that changing power dynamics will lead states to sleepwalk into an unnecessary war.” However, there is a mild selection bias in Kirshner picking the two realists John Mearsheimer and Graham Allison, who are both maximalist and deterministic in their models, while ignoring other realists who oppose such determinism. Others, including structuralists, have argued for offshore balancing, facilitating an alliance structure, and buck-passing.

Classical realism is indeed a far more wholesome way of understanding and analysing history.

The future of the rise of China, or the relative decline of the US, as Kirshner notes correctly, is not etched in stone. With Russia out of the equation in Europe, a reluctant and inward India, and a divided European Union reliant on American power, only China—while being surrounded by rival powers—is the only hegemonic challenge remaining. Unless there is a nuclear war, which every sane statesman should avoid, or the US faces overstretch and insolvency or internal collapse, the future is undetermined. Huntington warned that a great power “is normally able to maintain its dominance over minor states for a long time until it is weakened by internal decay or by forces from outside the system.” It is a warning straight out of George Washington’s Farewell Address, where he warned not just against foreign entanglements, but also against foreign lobbying and influence at home, leading to a reckless and activist foreign policy.

Great powers mostly collapse due to their own folly, whether from hubris, military overstretch, internal decay, or a war resulting in a catastrophic reordering. As Taylor wrote despite the best of wisdom, a country’s resolve or reforms are helpless to stem the tides in a time of collapse. As another classical realist, Henry Kissinger said, “every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed. History is a tale of efforts that failed, or aspirations that weren’t realized. So, as a historian, one has to live with a sense of the inevitability of tragedy.” Austria and France, despite their multi-ethnic and liberal empires, foreign colonies, and superior culture were simply incapable of competing technologically with Germany and its inevitable hegemonic aspirations. Germany, despite being the natural hegemon of Mitteleuropa was a reckless young power that did not have the elite wisdom of balance, which Austria under Metternich possessed.

Britain, worse of all, was cursed to carry the burden of global sea trade and was overstretched to the point where it was unable to pivot in time or stem the rise of rival powers. She was destined to make a choice about which future hegemony and order she would live under. Britain bore the brunt of Edwardian war hysteria, French “chain-ganging,” and decades of great power peace and social security in foolishly taking sides in a continental upheaval, and then suffered from justified public war-weariness in the 1930s. The former was perhaps preventable. The latter, alongside the rise of the Nazis, was beyond the power of an already weakened empire to prevent, regardless of Chamberlain’s great power equilibrium instinct or not.

And there is a lesson for America in that. Civilization, as Kirshner notes, is fragile. There is no coming back from a great power war, especially in a nuclear era. There is no coming back from internal rot, implosion, or insolvency. Preventing implosion at home and promoting a great power equilibrium abroad instead of an ideological and activist foreign policy are paramount. 

This book is a much-needed corrective to the profession. Kirshner rightly notes that International Relations is especially under the “thrall of a similarly abstract bargaining model of politics, a paradigm rooted in the building blocks of individualism, materialism, and exceedingly narrow assumptions regarding the rationality of actors—a perspective so extreme (and ruinously unproductive) that it is best described as hyper-rationality.” What he does not explicitly argue, but what should be the logical conclusion, is that in order to change one needs to transform the discipline of International Relations back to History and Classics to make it far more exclusive, elite, and meritocratic—practically a heretical thought.

The “illusion of a social science imitating a model of the natural sciences” only happened because simplistic models are easier to teach and use in policy. Thousands of students in hundreds of International Relations schools who then go on to fill the faceless ranks of the bureaucracy and the NGOs are not expected to have deep wisdom and the philosophic calibre, temperament, and pedigree of elder statesmen and diplomats who were churned out as the cream of a society. The dilution happened due to bloat. Classical realism is indeed a far more wholesome way of understanding and analyzing history. How viable it is as a research or policy program in our current structure (so to speak) of governance is another question.