Friday, October 9, 2015

Quote of the day: Hoffmann on Kissinger

From the late Stanley Hoffmann's Primacy or World Order (1978), p.70 (endnote omitted):
...[B]oth [Kissinger's] failures and his successes in the business of preserving American primacy show an obsession with stability, which puts him far closer to Metternich than to his own criticism of the Austrian statesman.... Détente and the new triangular relationship were supposedly to allow the United States to worry more about the designs of its equals than about the tantrums of the pygmies.  And yet, even after Vietnam, the United States, in "destabilizing" Allende's Chile and in trying to help its friends in Angola, in submitting to South Korea's corruption and espionage in the United States and to Marcos's blackmail over our bases in the Philippines, in supporting the colonels in Greece, and in sustaining the Republic of South Africa (indeed in using it as a lever in Rhodesia, while proclaiming that it "cannot be regarded as an illegitimate government"), showed that the old equation of stability, anti-Communism and pro-Americanism had survived intact.  Metternich's excuse was the fragility of his country, its desperate dependence on the status quo outside.  Is the social and political order of the United States equally brittle and tied to conservatism everywhere?
 [Comments as always are welcome, but before commenting please note, for the sake of context, when this passage was published.  And obviously it was written earlier than the publication date, i.e. almost certainly while Kissinger was still in office.]

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


D. Nexon gave a talk yesterday at the U. of Ottawa on "International Hierarchy and Symbolic Capital: The Ming Treasure Fleets and the Apollo Missions." Description here.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What have Russian and U.S. strikes been targeting in Syria?

These maps from NYT (including one showing which forces control which areas in Syria, based on data from the Carter Center) show the difference between Russian and U.S. air strikes in terms of who is being targeted.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A matter of terminology

Discussing the response of "relatively conservative Americans" to the American Revolution, Henry F. May wrote (in The Enlightenment in America [1976], p.96, endnote omitted):
Conservatives had many qualms, but there was no Thermidor, still less an aristocratic and legitimist reaction like that of Europe in 1815.  There had never been a base for real aristocracy.  The colonial bourgeois elite was not destroyed, only divided and weakened.  Moreover, American conservatives were not romantic reactionaries, but Whigs and moderates.
The last sentence of this passage would seem to contradict Corey Robin's argument in The Reactionary Mind (2011, pb. ed. 2013) that conservative and reactionary are basically interchangeable categories.  But perhaps the difference here is less substantive than terminological.  According to Corey R., the "priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power -- even at the cost of the strength and integrity of the state" (p.15; italics added).  It is subordination and hierarchy "in the family, the factory, and the field" (p.15) -- more than in the polity -- that conservatives have been concerned above all to defend.  So if the "conservatives" in America in the 1780s were primarily concerned with 'order' in the public realm, then perhaps, in the framework of The  Reactionary Mind, they were not conservatives at all, but merely traditionalists (see ibid., pp.22-23).

Another point might be that if conservatism in its recognizably modern form(s) arose in response to the French Revolution (ibid., p.43), then, perhaps, no responses to the American Revolution should be classified as conservative.  (And didn't Burke himself favor independence for the American colonies?)

P.s. (added later): May, p.99, discussing the Constitutional Convention: "Most of the opposition to the adoption of the completed plan [i.e. the Constitution] reflected no fundamental difference of ideology.... It seems to me doubtful whether the Constitution could have been either framed or adopted if the Convention [of 1787] had been held only a few years later, when the Moderate Enlightenment had been challenged by a new kind of revolutionary ideology and most moderates had become reactionaries."

Saturday, September 26, 2015


Realpolitik: A History, by John Bew, is due to be published in the U.S. by Oxford U.P. on Dec.1, according to Amazon; presumably the book has already been released in the UK.  It clocks in at roughly 400 pp. (some of the contents are available at Amazon Look Inside); the author's previous book, a biography of Castlereagh, was longer.  Whether Bew has much that is new to say about postwar American realism is perhaps doubtful, given the amount of extant scholarship on that particular subject, but the book claims to be the first comprehensive history to trace Realpolitik from its German roots to its American (or Anglo-American) variations.

Speaking of books, I currently have a review in the works of this, but the review probably won't be up for a while, for various reasons.  So expect things to be quiet here for the immediate future.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Quote of the day

From S. Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (2013), pp.218-19 (notes omitted; italics added):
On 30 July 1971, a member of the [Bangladesh] Awami League showed up at the US consulate in Calcutta seeking an appointment for Kazi Zahirul Qaiyum, a national assembly member from the Awami League, to meet with the consul-general.  Instead, the consulate arranged for Qaiyum to see a political officer the following day.  Qaiyum said that he had come at the behest of Foreign Minister Khandakar Moshtaque Ahmad, who wished to reestablish the Awami League's contacts with the United States [with a view to the U.S. facilitating negotiations between Gen. Yahya Khan, ruler of Pakistan, and the Awami League].... The US embassy in Islamabad observed that even if Qaiyum's proposals represented those of the Bangladesh government, Yahya was unlikely to accept them.  In serving as a conduit for these messages, the United States risked upsetting its relations with Pakistan.  Nonetheless, in the interest of long-term relations with the Bangladesh leadership, the risk seemed worth running.  The White House had a rather different view.  Kissinger insisted that asking Yahya to parley with the Awami Leaguers in Calcutta was "like asking Abraham Lincoln to deal with Jefferson Davis."  Nixon agreed that "we can't ask Yayha to do that."  Yet, he asked the State Department to sound out Ambassador Farland [the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan] on this issue.     
To say that Kissinger's remark was an inapt analogy would be an understatement.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Just became aware of the publication last May of Stephen Benedict Dyson's Otherworldly Politics: The International Relations of Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica.  I would have expected some of the Duck of Minerva people to have mentioned this book; perhaps they have.  (I've never even seen 'Game of Thrones', so this is not really up my alley.)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Stanley Hoffmann, 1928-2015

-- New York Times obituary here
-- Appreciation (A. Goldhammer) in New Republic here 

-- Harvard Center for European Studies press release here [pdf]
-- Hoffmann festschrift (Ideas and Ideals, Westview Press, 1993) here 

Added later: For previous mentions of Hoffmann on this blog, see, e.g., here (quoting his 1977 essay "An American Social Science: International Relations") and here (quoting a 1995 article of his in Foreign Policy).

Added still later: Peter Gourevitch on Hoffmann at Duck of Minerva (here), which links to other things, including a piece by Gary Bass at Foreign Affairs online that I haven't read yet.    

Self-consciousness and the ethic of responsibility

I heard a snippet of an interview today in which an unidentified politician (i.e., unidentified in the few minutes I listened), perhaps one of the Republican presidential candidates, said he was opposed to the U.S. taking in more (i.e., any significant numbers of) Syrian refugees.  He then said that the U.S. is "the most compassionate country" in the world.  That's when I turned the radio off.  I'm not sure how the interviewee was planning to connect the two statements -- presumably something along the lines of saying that as the supposedly "most compassionate" country, the U.S. need not do anything in this particular instance -- but I couldn't stand to listen further.

What was at work there? Deliberate manipulation of the listening audience? Callousness? Pandering? Ignorance? All politicians have prior inclinations about matters, prejudices if you will, just as all people in general do, but when prejudices are reinforced by ignorance their effects are compounded. Some writers (Gadamer in Truth and Method, for one) see "prejudice" not as a synonym for irrational dislike or hatred but as denoting something inescapable and even positive.  However, in the more common and everyday meaning of "bias" or irrational partiality, prejudices can be kept under control and countered only if one is aware of them.  This requires self-consciousness (in the sense of self-knowledge, not in the sense of shyness) or, to use a fancy word that is basically synonymous, reflexivity.

This connects, at least arguably, to what Weber famously called an ethic of responsibility.  To weigh the consequences of acting (or not acting) in a given situation and then to accept responsibility for the consequences brought on by acting (or not acting) is the mark of a conscientious leader.  In Politics as a Vocation, Weber wrote that "the honor of a civil servant" is to carry out a superior's instructions, whereas "[t]he honor of the political leader, of the leading statesman...lies precisely in an exclusive personal responsibility for what he does, a responsibility he cannot and must not reject or transfer."  

One of the criticisms made of Kissinger by Michael J. Smith in his 1986 book Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger is that Kissinger's complete conviction of the correctness of his own decisions and his total "confidence in his ability to judge consequences," as displayed in his memoirs, blurs the line between an ethic of responsibility and an "ethic of intentions":  
To say, "trust my calculation of consequences -- my sense of responsibility is beyond question" differs very little from saying, "trust me -- my intentions are good."... [Kissinger's] untiring efforts to place the blame for the failures of his policy anywhere but on himself do not speak well of his adherence to the Weberian notion of personal acceptance of responsibility. (p.216)  
This was arguably even truer of Nixon.  The most he did retrospectively was to admit certain unspecified "mistakes" with respect to his actions in Watergate.  If he hadn't been, in effect, forced from office, he wouldn't have left.  One should recall that when listening to replays of (or reading) Nixon's remarks on his final departure from the White House in August 1974.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The U.S.-Russia war chatter

The amount of chatter about the possibility of a war between the U.S./NATO and Russia increased over this summer.  For one thing, there was a cover piece in The National Interest on the topic; I bought the issue in hard copy, rather predictably I barely glanced at it, and now (even more predictably) I am not sure where the copy of the issue is (yes, I could find it, assuming I didn't throw it out, but it's apparently not in one of the piles on the floor any more).

Just now I glanced at a piece in Vox (h/t) from this past June by Max Fisher summarizing the alarm bells that various experts have been ringing.  The most telling point, based on my skim, appears to be that Putin has lowered the threshold for nuclear use in Russia's official nuclear doctrine.  The official position now is that Russia will use nuclear weapons if a conventional conflict poses an "existential" threat to it; that's what I took from the Vox piece.  The implication is that certain influential Russian strategists, and maybe Putin himself, now think a "limited" nuclear war is possible and "winnable."  As far as I'm aware, no serious strategist in the West has entertained this ludicrous notion since the mid-1950s.  

One can probably see (or at least this is my view) that maintenance of tactical or 'battlefield' nuclear weapons makes no sense for countries that don't see a limited nuclear war as a realistic possibility, i.e., that think any nuclear exchange will likely escalate.  That's one of the reasons why it's pointless and a waste of money for the U.S. to still have 200 'tactical' nuclear weapons (gravity bombs) deployed in Europe.  These weapons have no purpose, nor much of a deterrent effect, unless one thinks that a limited nuclear exchange will stay limited, which Western strategists, as far as I'm aware, don't.

However, recent official statements emanating from Russia suggest that Putin might have adopted the belief that a limited nuclear exchange could stay limited, or even that use of a 'tactical' nuclear weapon would not draw a nuclear response (or a conventional response of high intensity).  Or maybe Putin just wants people to think he believes this.  Yeah, that Putin.  Crazy like a fox.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Biopolitics, refugees, and other matters

It can only be a matter of time before biopolitical takes on the current European refugee/migrant crisis begin showing up in the IR journals (and other journals).  Since the crisis revolves in large part around bodies and their relation to states, it would seem tailor-made for such treatment.  Although I think I understand at least a few of the basic notions, I can't say biopolitics "does" much for me in an intellectual sense.  Thus when I learned, via a recent comment thread attached to this post at the USIH blog, that there has been a biopolitical appropriation of Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies, I was interested but not bowled over.  As I mentioned on the same thread, I cited The King's Two Bodies in my dissertation, which did not address biopolitics; I also mentioned that I had not actually read the Kantorowicz straight through (or even come anywhere close to doing so), but basically had only pillaged, with appropriate attribution of course, a couple of its footnotes that related to my subject.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Quote of the day: Freud

I had remembered Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents (orig. pub. 1930; Norton paperback, 1961, trans. and ed. J. Strachey) mainly for its emphasis on humans' (supposedly) innate aggressiveness and for its well-known thesis that 'civilization' is in conflict with 'instinct' and requires significant control of and renunciation of 'instinctual' behavior.  A recent glance at the text, which I hadn't read in decades, suggests that these rather grim themes are occasionally handled with a bit of what at least might pass for humor, as shown by this excerpt from a long footnote in chap. 4, pp.52-3:
Sex is a biological fact which, although it is of extraordinary importance in mental life, is hard to grasp psychologically.... The theory of bisexuality is still surrounded by many obscurities and we cannot but feel it as a serious impediment in psychoanalysis that it has not yet found any link with the theory of the instincts.... Another difficulty arises from the circumstance that there is so often associated with the erotic relationship, over and above its own sadistic components, a quota of plain inclination to aggression.  The love-object will not always view these complications with the degree of understanding and tolerance shown by the peasant woman who complained that her husband did not love her any more, since he had not beaten her for a week.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Orbán's fence

Heard a report on All Things Considered (NPR) today on the Hungarian government's attitude toward the Syrian and other migrants who are transiting -- not intending to stay in, but transiting -- Hungary en route to Germany and other European countries.  The latest move was to close the train station in Budapest to migrants, stranding them there.  The Hungarian government is building a barbed-wire fence on the country's border with Serbia.  Not only is that retrograde policy, it's unlikely to work.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dueling mandarins: Vidal & Buckley in 1968

One of the better moments in The Best of Enemies, the currently playing documentary about the TV encounters between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. in 1968, is a three-minute side-by-side comparison of the two men's origins.  Both came from privileged if not especially 'old money' backgrounds, both went to elite prep schools, both rode horses well as teenagers, or so the photographs on the screen indicate.  Both were intellectuals.  Both spoke with the sort of upper-class accent that has now almost vanished.  Both ran for office (Vidal more than once).  A Marxist -- or anyone else, really -- from another planet might wonder how in the world these two men ended up calling each other names on prime-time TV during the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions in That Year, 1968.

Class is not always destiny, would be a five-word answer to that question.  And yet, as one of the many (too many) interviewees in this movie suggests, it is possible that each man saw a bit of himself in the other, maybe just enough to nudge dislike over the boundary into loathing.  Despite -- or, who knows, perhaps because of? -- his utterly despicable political and ideological stances, it is Buckley whose charm and air of insouciance (for lack of a better phrase) are more evident when the two square off in front of the ABC-TV camera.  Vidal was, as the person with whom I saw the movie remarked, more self-contained, his gestural, non-verbal language a bit less naturally suited to TV.  There was nothing shabby about Vidal's verbal performance, however, even if, as Hendrik Hertzberg points out with reference to the most infamous exchange, it was not actually true that Buckley was a crypto-Nazi, though he was unquestionably a reactionary.  Still, it's not difficult to see why Vidal, responding to a somewhat loaded question from moderator Howard K. Smith and faced with an annoyingly interrupting Buckley, reached for an insult.

The Best of Enemies is a thesis movie, i.e. it has an argument, and that argument is that the Buckley-Vidal encounter was the ur-moment that shaped TV punditry as it came to exist in the U.S. in the ensuing decades.  Maybe, though I think the argument is pressed a bit too hard.  I have no recollection of watching the Buckley-Vidal encounter at the time: my memories of 1968, somewhat sketchy in general given my age then, are not primarily televisual, though I do have a couple of memories of the Democratic convention that I think must derive from having watched some of it.

In the end, despite this movie's best efforts to convince one otherwise, the Vidal-Buckley debates must be considered, I think, basically an interesting footnote to a tumultuous, historic year -- even if it was a footnote that generated subsequent essays and lawsuits by the protagonists -- rather than a central event.  However, as many of us know, footnotes are not necessarily unimportant; and The Best of Enemies, despite its flaws as a movie, will help ensure that this particular footnote will continue to be remembered.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A few insular notes

1) Just heard on the NewsHour that it was nine years ago today that Pluto was demoted to the status of a dwarf planet.  Not something I'd ordinarily take note of, but given this blog's title, why not.  Btw, the title was decided upon on the spur of the moment when I started the  blog; my first couple of choices (I think Cries and Whispers was one of them) were already in use and thus unavailable.

2) It was well more than a year ago (two years? longer? whatever, not bothering to check) that I tried unsuccessfully to move this blog to WordPress.  There was a glitch involving my registration that WordPress, despite my notifying them of the issue on the help forum, never fixed.  Hence there is an inactive, empty WordPress blog of this name just sitting there, gathering dust, because of WordPress's negligence. Hooray for WordPress.

3) Google Analytics does not give a complete picture of this blog's readership but I think it gives a reasonably good indication, and its figures suggest that average daily readership of Howl at Pluto is probably at its lowest point since the blog's launch in May 2008.  Also, this year is on track to feature the fewest number of posts of any year since the blog's launch. Speaking of which, I think this will be my last post in August.

Politics and sex

"If politics is concerned with who gets what, or with the authoritative allocation of values, one may be pardoned for wondering why it need involve so much talk.  An individual or group can most directly get what it wants by taking it or by force and can get nothing directly by talk.  The obvious difficulty is the possibility of resistance, and it is counterforce that talk may circumvent.

"The employment of language to sanctify action is exactly what makes politics different from other methods of allocating values.  Through language a group can not only achieve an immediate result but also win the acquiescence of those whose lasting support is needed.  More than that, it is the talk and the response to it that measures political potency, not the amount of force that is exerted.  Force signals weakness in politics, as rape does in sex."
-- Murray Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1964, paperback 1967), p.114 (footnote omitted)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Quote of the day

"The rhetoric [of the Republican presidential candidates] is really out there. On foreign policy, this is the most-aggressive kind of stuff I've ever seen."
-- Richard Herrmann of Ohio State Univ., as quoted in this Aug. 2 article in The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Human trafficking, Andaman Sea version

I've mentioned the Rohingya and their plight here before.  This NYT piece from last month (h/t HC) gives some interesting background on the human smuggling business that has grown up in recent years focused on, but not restricted to, stateless Rohingyas eager to flee Bangladesh for Malaysia.  Increasingly, the article notes, "ordinary Bangladeshis" are trying to get to Malaysia: "By early this year, Bangladeshis made up 40 to 60 percent of the migrant traffic, according to the United Nations’ refugees agency." 

Friday, August 21, 2015

The most dangerous candidate?

The most dangerous of the current bunch of presidential candidates may be Ted Cruz.  He strikes me as a demagogue par excellence.  Of course I realize he has competition for that title.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Solitary confinement in Mississippi and elsewhere

TBA posts on an NYT piece about a county jail in Mississippi holding a mentally disturbed teenager in solitary confinement (for much of two years).  This inhuman practice has not been confined to Ms., as recent stories about Riker's Island indicate.

ETA: There are also a fair number of prisoners being held in solitary in federal prisons (though I don't have time to look up the numbers right now).

ETA (again): on a different but somewhat related issue, see here (h/t to a commenter at CT).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Roots and implications of the Iran nuclear deal

Peter T., who has guest-posted and commented insightfully at this blog, sent me an analysis (link) of the Iran deal by Sharmine Narwani.  She argues, essentially, that the changed strategic situation in the region represented by the rise of ISIS and its gains in Syria and Iraq (and continued strength of other extremist Sunni groups, e.g. the Nusra Front) drove the U.S. to make an opening to Iran in 2012 in order to take "the old American-Iranian 'baggage' off the table..., allowing [the U.S. administration] the freedom to pursue more pressing shared political objectives with Iran."  Iran stood up to 'the Empire' and its allies, Narwani maintains, rode out UN sanctions, and emerged with an agreement that, in exchange for sanctions relief, blocks it from doing something it never wanted to do in the first place: namely, acquire an operational nuclear weapons capability.

While Narwani's assessment has its strong points, it perhaps goes too far in painting a rosy prospect of Iranian-U.S. strategic cooperation in the region.  The two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations; unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran that are unrelated to its nuclear program but relate to its support for groups such as Hezbollah are, afaik, unaffected by the nuclear deal; and 36 years of 'baggage' cannot be entirely taken off the table, istm, in one fell swoop. The past several decades must have left a substantial residue of psychological scar tissue between Iran and the U.S. that no agreement, no matter how 'win-win' in its basic structure, can remove overnight.

Narwani's piece looks behind certain statements of the principals to get at what she thinks are the real motivations behind the deal.  This mode of proceeding is not without merit, but it risks overlooking some points.  The main U.S. ally in the region, for better or worse, is Israel, to the maintenance of whose military superiority -- its 'qualitative military edge', in the ghastly-sounding bureaucratic phrase -- the U.S. is committed to the tune of several billion dollars a year (a commitment that may go up).  This fact standing alone imposes certain limits on the degree to which Iran and the U.S. can jointly pursue their "shared political objectives".  Iran's human rights record and the fact that it still has several American citizens, one of whom is an American-Iranian reporter for The Washington Post, in custody also tells against an immediate warming of U.S.-Iran relations in the wake of the deal (assuming the deal survives congressional scrutiny and Obama retains enough congressional support to sustain a veto of a disapproval resolution, which I think he will).

Finally, it might be worth scrutinizing the "shared political objectives" of the U.S. and Iran a bit more closely.  Iran is of course a major backer of Assad.  And the fact that the Pentagon, as detailed for example in a front-page NYT article of July 31, is trying (with very limited success to date) to train 'moderate' Syrian fighters primarily to attack ISIS, rather than Assad, might suggest, as some other developments (including arguably the deal itself) do,  a convergence of interests between Iran and the U.S.: ISIS is the main perceived threat by both.  And yet the very same NYT article of July 31 pointed out that the CIA still has a covert program in place to train Syrian fighters to battle Assad, noting that the CIA and Pentagon programs are working somewhat at cross-purposes.

Narwani may be right that the nuclear deal represents a quasi-epochal shift in strategic alignments in the region.  I would be inclined however to a more muted judgment.  The Obama administration was not motivated to reach, along with its allies, a deal with Iran mainly because of the rise of ISIS, contrary to what Narwani suggests. The Obama admin was also facing a situation in which the pressure for a military "solution" to the perceived Iranian nuclear "problem" was rising, both domestically and also from Israel.  What the nuclear deal most obviously and immediately does is remove much of the pressure for a military "solution," pressure to which the Obama admin was unlikely to have succumbed but which might have grown increasingly irksome and irritating. This, it seems to me, is perhaps the deal's most significant implication.

Note: Minor edit after initial posting.

Added later: For another perspective, see this article in Counterpunch (7/15/15), which views the nuclear deal as a move toward U.S./Iran détente and examines the forces impelling it as well as the motives behind the opposition.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sewell on the capitalist epoch (and its possible end)

Following someone's Twitter trail, I came upon an entire issue from 2014 of the journal Social Science History that has been made freely available (link). It contains an address by sociologist William Sewell, as well as a piece by Julian Go on British imperialism 1760-1939, among other things.