This is the sixth in a seven part series on the Patterson School Summer Reading List.
- In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce
- The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith
- Negotiating Change, Jeremy Jones
- Enemies of Intelligence, Richard Betts
- The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
- A World of Nations, William Keylor
This year at Patterson, we decided to put a book on the list that covered what we felt was a “general knowledge” gap. Patterson accepts folks from a lot of different undergraduate departments, so the knowledge base at the beginning of the program is uneven. The students tend to have a solid grasp on current events, but not so much on history, or on international relations theory (beyond the plurality of political scientists). The summer reading list is normally populated by a combination of “popular” books on international politics and accessible academic works, which gives the students a familiarity with current debates (and “trendy” books) and an in depth knowledge of a couple issue areas, but not a broad understanding of the academic field or of the general history of the international system. So this year we assigned William Keylor’s A World of Nations, in an effort to solve the latter of these problems. We also decided to beef up the theoretical content in our flagship course, which should serve to get the students to more or less the same place.
It’s impossible to write an atheoretical book on international politics, and Keylor is explicit about his Realist sympathies. This is as evident in the choice of unit of analysis as in the analysis itself. Keylor is interested in what nations have done for the past 63 years, and privileges the nation-state over international organizations, social movements, multi-national corporations, and NGOs. However, he doesn’t overly indulge in the notions that all state behavior can be explained through power politics, or that what goes on inside a state matters little for its foreign policy behavior. This leaves an account that is in many ways limited, but that’s more than satisfactory on its own terms.
Keylor lays his account out regionally, rather than chronologically. This is a bit off-putting at times; we get to the collapse of the Soviet Union before the Korean War, for example. Like a good Realist, Keylor begins with the competition between the US and the USSR, and focuses as much on events in Europe (five chapters) as on events in the rest of the world combined (five chapters). There are some good reasons to complain about this focus, but he makes his priors clear; he believes that the superpower competition in Europe mattered more for the rest of the world than the rest of the world mattered for superpower competition. This is a defensible argument, if not one that everyone will agree with.
Nothing that Keylor wrote about particular historical episodes made me scream “Wrong! Wrong! Why are we reading this?”, which, I think, speaks well of what amounts to a history textbook. Nothing really leapt out at me as new, but that’s not surprising either. One intriguing thread in the story of superpower confrontation is how well Keylor makes clear the costs of Soviet competition with the United States. The USSR, eventually, found itself competing all over the world with a nation of vastly superior financial resources. This need to compete wasn’t driven purely by security concerns; there was no reason for the USSR to send a ton of money to Angola, or to spend as much as it did on Cuba, or to engage in a dozen other projects that meant little for its ability to win wars in East Asia and in Central Europe. Nevertheless, the Soviets found themselves bound up in competition in every region of the world, and not just against the United States. France, and the United Kingdom used their own considerable resources to pursue projects that, if they weren’t directly in service of US foreign policy aims, certainly ran counter to Soviet desires. With the reinvigoration of the German and Japanese economies, and the foreign policy shift of China to the West, this eventually meant that the Soviets were competing against just about everyone. This is not to say that the United States pursued a wise policy by pouring money into Africa or Latin America, but rather that the US was much, much more capable of bearing the costs of foreign policy errors than the Soviets were. The outcome, as they say, was predictable.