As teaching at the Joint Services Command and Staff College begins again at the outset of a new academic year, the final post of this series reveals what members of the Defence Studies Department have been reading over the summer.
This summer I have been enjoying John Bew’s book Realpolitik: A History. The book is an ambitious attempt to chart the evolving meaning and usage of the term ‘realpolitik’ in foreign policy discourse in Europe and the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. Bew writes extremely well and has a fantastic eye for an apposite quotation, with which the book is replete. One particularly poignant example is a line he draws from the originator of the term ‘realpolitik’, the German journalist and activist August Ludwig von Rochau. Discussing the importance of ideas in politics, Rochau wrote that the ‘accuracy and rationality’ of an idea was a secondary concern when measuring its potential influence – ‘even if stupid prejudice or blindfold error weigh heavier than truth in the stable of public opinion.’
As is perhaps inevitable in a book of this scope, there are passages with which one can find fault. I was left questioning certain aspects of his depiction of British diplomacy in the decades prior to the First World War – which seem to display a greater deal of ‘realpolitik’ to me than to the author – but disagreements over specifics are difficult to avoid in a work this broad. Moreover, as the book is the history of an idea, a term and its use, (rather than an exhaustive account of international affairs), it would be grossly unfair to discriminate against on these grounds. I found Realpolitik to be a very enjoyable read which posed a number of fundamental questions about how nations approach international affairs. Bew displays considerable intellectual bravery in tackling a vast topic and articulating what he believes to be the implications his work has for the present – a task incumbent upon us all.
Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse
With very thorough research and well crafted prose Cowan makes a convincing case for how and why the coffeehouse emerged in Restoration era Britain and survived to become a fully integrated cultural institution by the beginning of the Hanoverian period. He makes an explicit link between the virtuoso culture of restoration Britain and the acceptance of the coffeehouse as common venue for the exchange of news and ideas. Whilst Cowan’s work treats coffeehouses as a single cultural phenomenon he addresses the varied roles that coffeehouse fulfilled: from a space in which Tory or Whig politics were discussed to a place where trans-oceanic shipping and commerce was the main topic of conversation. Anyone interested in how news, information, and printed works were discussed and disseminated in Britain during the early modern period would do well to indulge in The Social Life of Coffee.
I am currently reading The Silent Deep, Peter Hennessy and James Jinks’ excellent history of the Royal Navy’s submarine arm since 1945. Prof Hennessy has written authoritatively and extensively about British politics and defence in the post-war era, and I expect that Dr Jinks may well become one of our foremost nuclear historians. I am midway through this thoroughly-researched and enthralling book, and would recommend The Silent Deep to all readers interested in British defence policy and the Royal Navy’s institutional history. Given the uncertain international environment, and the re-emergence of the Russian threat to NATO, the history of ‘submarine Britain’ is a timely and thought-provoking text.
This summer I’ve been mostly reading Paul Kennedy’s masterwork, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000. I can happily say that the time invested in reading this tome was well-spent. It is such a seminal work in the fields of grand strategy and international relations that it is odd that I have put off reading it until now. The arguments are large and sweeping, yet still sensitive to singular historical episodes. Kennedy makes the argument that, in 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union were facing challenges as old as the international system itself. Both powers were struggling to strike a balance between economic prosperity and development with meeting perceived security and defence needs. Accusing both countries of imperial overstretch, he warned that great powers rise and fall based on how well they ride the tides of the global economy and exploit their economic potential into hard power. Some predictions from the book are borne out – that of the Chinese economic miracle and continuing European political fragmentation. Others proved to be quite off the mark in the few years following its publication – namely the collapse of the Soviet Union and Japanese economic stagnation.
If there is one theme that I believe Kennedy overlooks in his arguments and history, it is the role of politics and society more broadly, and domestic politics in particular. Understanding the tempestuous economic and military history of the 19th century should not ignore the societal upheavals of the French Revolution and the emergence of the modern class system from industrialisation, for example. In many episodes I felt that the political and societal pressures within various powers were neglected. Certain sections certainly struck a chord as I read it in the Brexit climate of today – how Europe struggles to make its economic power felt because of its political divisions and Britain’s inability since the mid-20th century to compensate for its absolute decline in manufacturing abilities and its demotion to a middle power on the world stage. That said, Kennedy’s Rise and Fall should be a powerful reminder to contemporary readers about the persistent relevance of physical resources, agricultural efficiency, and manufacturing output in grand strategic thinking today to temper the enthusiastic emphasis placed by Western governments and think-tanks on service and knowledge-based economies as the great power currencies of the 21st century.
Image via flickr.