Sam Seitz

It’s been awhile since I last posted, and I think this blog is approaching the end of its life. That being said, I’m not quite done with Politics in Theory and Practice, and I figured now would be an ideal time to put up a few new book reviews given that holiday shopping is currently occurring in earnest.

1. In the Hegemon’s Shadow: Leading States and the Rise of Regional Powers (by Evan Montgomery): This is one of several new books out from Cornell University Press addressing power transitions and great power conflict. But unlike most treatments of the subject, Montgomery’s work focuses specifically on regional power shifts and the manner in which great powers respond to them. The theoretical argument is fairly simple: Great powers fear regional subjugation by rival great powers but also worry about ascendant local powers locking them out. Therefore, the most powerful states will attempt to support regional powers able to ward off encroachment from rival great powers, but they will resist regional powers that seek to dominate their neighborhood. Otherwise, great powers are largely indifferent to regional power dynamics and have no preference between unipolar and multipolar balance of power regional structures – they simply select the structure most likely to promote peace and stability. To support the argument, Montgomery draws on several cases of British and American efforts to shape regional power transitions, including British strategy toward the Confederacy and American relations with India. I have mixed views on the book. It clearly deserves praise for tackling a surprisingly under-researched yet remarkably important question. However, its approach is deeply unsatisfying. The case studies are very short and far from convincing. They also fail to truly capture the great power interactions that ostensibly drive the theory. So, while it is fine to investigate America’s strategic approach toward India, for example, the story cannot be complete unless one also looks at Chinese and Soviet approaches. After all, one of the core variables in the theory relates to great power competition in peripheral regions! Nevertheless, the book is short and accessible, and it is still very much worth reading for those seeking a better (if incomplete) understanding of regional power transitions and great power strategy.

2. Fighting For Status: Hierarchy and Conflict in World Politics (by Jonathan Renshon): In this truly excellent book, Renshon develops an explanation for state aggression rooted in countries’ desire for status and recognition. The basic argument is that successful performance in a military conflict can raise a state’s international status and thus improve its standing relative to its peers. Thus, states seeking to enhance their standing tend to engage in predatory aggression against weaker countries to raise their relative ranking. This is interesting, but it is far from the most novel or captivating part of the book. This is because Renshon also uses experimental methods and sophisticated network analysis to demonstrate two quite interesting phenomena. First, he shows that status becomes more salient when a state is in relative decline. In other words, he demonstrates that there is a sort of “status prospect theory” at work in international politics. This is helpful because it allows us to predict when status will be more or less important in driving state policy. Second, he proves that status is measured in discrete communities: Belize doesn’t measure itself against China, for example, but instead focuses on states that are more geographically proximate or that possess a similar national identity. The result is a sophisticated and highly convincing theoretical explanation of the ways in which status concerns impact a state’s foreign policy and propensity to engage in conflict. But while I loved this book and can confidently say it is one of the best I’ve read this year, it did have two small shortcomings. First, Renshon fails to explain why successful aggression enhances one’s status. While his statistical models clearly show that this is the case, the book never offers a theoretical explanation for this phenomenon. I think this might be a problem, as my somewhat impressionistic assessment of modern conflict is that aggression actually harms a state’s reputation (just look at Russia post-Crimea). Second, I found his case study on German Weltpolitik fairly unhelpful. While it clearly shows how the theory might be applied to historical events, the case study itself is far from conclusive and is, I think, the weakest part of the argument. These minor quibbles aside, I found this book to be exceptionally interesting and well-argued.

3. How to Write a Thesis (by Umberto Eco): This book is utterly mediocre. It seems to have a bit of a cult following (perhaps because Eco is so renowned), but I think the adoration is largely undeserved. The book reads like a basic introduction for undergraduates attempting to write their first research paper, and I found it of absolutely no use. Indeed, it made me very skeptical of the value of an Italian education. Eco is an excellent and witty writer, though, so at least his acerbic and humorous comments kept me entertained.

4. Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Great Powers Exploit Power Shifts (by Joshua Shifrinson): In this well-researched book, Shifrinson argues that ascendant great powers do not universally attempt to undercut declining powers. Instead, they evaluate the degree to which declining states can offer support against other great powers. If a declining state offers value, the ascendant power will attempt to shore up its position and retard its decline. If a declining state is of little value or openly antagonistic, by contrast, the rising power will seek to undercut and weaken it. The degree to which this occurs is largely a function of the declining state’s power. Useless, feeble states will be quickly knocked out while more powerful declining powers will be undercut more subtly because an aggressive approach might precipitate a war that severely weakens the rising power. While Shifrinson’s theory is interesting, the best part of the book is the detailed and deeply-researched case studies. Unlike most political scientists, Shifrinson draws heavily from primary sources and clearly spent many hundreds of hours digging around in the archives. In other words, his case studies look like actual case studies as opposed to the lazy, unrigorous historical summaries that so often appear in works of qualitative political science. The book has its shortcomings, of course: the limited number of cases hinder its external validity, and some of the variables underpinning the theory (especially a declining state’s military posture) often appear as afterthoughts that are poorly supported by Shifrinson’s analysis. It is also unclear why Shifrinson draws such a stark distinction between great power support and predation. While this approach certainly lends itself to a parsimonious 2×2, it seems equally plausible that a rising power would simply ignore declining states and allow them to collapse on their own. But although the theory often seems too simplistic and parsimonious for its own good, I nevertheless enjoyed the book and think its careful methodology and interesting historical cases make it a valuable addition to one’s library.