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Commentary on Books and Other Works Useful in the Study of International Relations

International relations is an arena where politics is exercised by nations and other entities to accomplish goals and secure interests. The study of politics in that arena is a study of history: what has happened, how it came to happen with its consequences and therefore a guide to what can happen. The twentieth century so recently passed, provides vivid illustrations and experience of the exercise of politics whose consequences were monumental and painful and sometimes so decisive as to seem irreversible, or nearly so. Yet the great clashes of will that characterized the twentieth century did not originate the day before the century began but years and centuries before. What happened yesterday, is happening now and is about to happen can be better understood through the study of history.

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Learning International Relations from Harold W. Rood

Dr. Rood’s special interest, within the rubrics of history and military history, was the growth of empires. He had intimate knowledge of the wars of German unification, and the two world wars, and Berlin’s parts in them. The expansion of Russia, succeeded by the expansion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Warsaw Pact and its overseas alliances, absorbed him emotionally and intellectually. 

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Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822 (1957)

A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problem of Peace, 1812-1822, Kissinger's first book, was written in the early 1950s while Kissinger was a young doctoral student at Harvard. The book was initially not as famous or as influential as his later books. Its focus on diplomatic negotiations following the fall of Napoleon was seen by his peers as esoteric and out of tune with the times. In a world featuring nuclear weapons, why dissect the diplomatic wrangling of the 19th century? This view may have characterized the dissertation turned book at the time of its writing, but today Restored is widely regarded as essential reading for the student of strategy and diplomacy.

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The Thucydides Trap: Does it Exist?

In 2012, Harvard’s Graham Allison posed this question: Can China and the US escape Thucydides’s trap?  According to Allison: “The historian’s metaphor reminds us of the dangers two parties face when a rising power rivals a ruling power – as Athens did in 5th century BC and Germany did at the end of the 19th century. Most such challenges have ended in war. Peaceful cases required huge adjustments in the attitudes and actions of the governments and the societies of both countries involved.”  Athens’ dramatic rise in the Greek work shocked the then-leading power, Sparta.  Fear compelled its leaders to respond. Threat and counter-threat produced competition, then confrontation and finally conflict. At the end of 30 years of war, both states had been destroyed. Thucydides wrote of these events: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

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Bridging the “George Gap:” Recalling reflections by Peter Feaver and John Gaddis on Grand Strategy

For those of us with an interest in the classics of strategy and diplomacy, we face a particular challenge: how can historical documents, speeches and memoirs – many of them considered musty, some long forgotten – contribute, directly or indirectly, to intelligent discourse about policy, much less to policy-making itself?  Compared, for instance, to wisdom purveyed by the latest trendy theory; or to the frequent insistence that in the real world, the best we can do is pragmatically muddle through.  As Harold W. Rood once wrote: "International relations is an arena where politics is exercised by nations and other entities to accomplish goals and secure interests. The study of politics in that arena is a study of history: what has happened, how it came to happen with its consequences and therefore a guide to what can happen."

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Rudyard Kipling, Kim (1901)

Rudyard Kipling is known today as the poet laureate of British imperialism and of the "White Man's Burden" – titles that are no longer much in fashion, although Kipling’s literary reputation has recovered in recent decades. His body of work includes the great novel, Kim, the story of an orphaned Anglo-Indian boy who is drawn into the Great Game – the geopolitical contest in the 19th century between Britain and Russia for the domination of Asia. For the British at least, this contest ultimately meant the control of India. Kim is a classic of the espionage genre – former CIA Director Allen Dulles had a well-read copy on his bedside table at the time of his death – but it is also a chronicle in miniature of the Great Game and the ethnography of the Indian subcontinent.

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