Ned Lebow on Drivers of War, Cultural Theory, and IR of Foxes and Hedgehogs

March 20th, 2013

Published on Theory Talks #53, March 12, 2013.

… What is the issue with the discipline today if, as you noted before, we fail to ask the most interesting questions and instead focus on method?

  • Well, it of course depends on which side of the pond you sit. On the American side of the pond, positivist or game-theoretical behaviorist or rationalist modeling approaches dominate the literature; it’s just silly, from my perspective. It’s based on assumptions which bear no relationship to the real world. People like it because it’s intellectually elegant: they don’t have to learn any languages, they don’t have to read any history, and they can pretend they’re scientists discussing universals. Intellectually, it’s ridiculous. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (Theory Talk #31) is a classic case in point. He’s made a huge reputation for himself with The War Trap (1981). That book and the corresponding theory are based on a simple assumption, namely, that there’s a war trap compelling states into war, because initiators win wars. But just look at the empirical record from 1945 to the present—initiators lose between 80-90% of the wars they start. And that really depends on the definition of victory. If you use the real definition, the Clausewitzian one, you have to ask: do they achieve their political goals through violence? Then the answer is, even fewer “victories”. Well, let’s cut them some slack, use a more relaxed definition: did they beat the other side militarily? Initiators still lose 78 or 82%—I forget exactly which percentage of their wars. And the profession right now is so ignorant of history that nobody said ‘Wait a minute!’ the day the book came out. Instead IR scholars all focus on this model and fine-tuning it—it’s ridiculous! And well, I don’t want to go on with a critique, but this is a serious problem, for it concerns a huge misunderstanding regarding one of the most important problems out there.
  • But what happens now is this kind of thinking metastasizes throughout the discipline because what students in International Relations or Political Science more generally are taught are calculus, statistics—and I’m not against this, one should learn them; I use them myself when I wear my psychologist hat and do quantitative research and statistical analysis—but they don’t learn languages, they don’t learn history, they don’t learn philosophy. They are so narrow! Much of this of course has to do with the reward structure in the United States. It’s clear that the statistical scientists are at the top of the hill. So, economists transform themselves into scientists; but the social scientists copy them because there are clear institutional rewards. If you look at our salaries in comparison to the salaries of anthropologists, historians—then if you sit at the edge of your chair and look over the abyss you might see the humanists down there in terms of what they get. So very clearly, there are strong institutional rewards. Once the positivist crowd got a lock on various foundations and journals, if you want a job, if you want to rise up through the profession, students tell me you have to do this stuff. IR graduate students are bricklayers that get turned out of these universities. That’s the tragedy! It’s no longer a serious intellectual enterprise. It’s not connected to anything terribly meaningful.
  • And mind you, I must say, while on the other, European, side of the pond there is more diversity (one of the reasons I feel more comfortable here), at the same time there is a strong tendency to go for a certain heavy-handed brand of post-modernism. If you don’t start an article with a genuflection to Foucault or De Saussure or Derrida, you don’t get published. And by not looking beyond these 20th century thinkers, people in Europe are often given credit for inventing things which were common knowledge for hundreds and hundreds of years. Utterly ridiculous. But in between, there are of course people who are trying to make sense of the world, including many people in the positivist tradition who are doing good quantitative research and trying to address serious problems in the world. The difficulty is that these two extremes are often people who approach IR as a religion and they think that their way of doing research is the only way and they have no respect for others. And that’s a kind of arrogance to which, to me, is a violation of what the university is all about.
  • Ultimately, what is good theory? One approach would be to say that a good theory is one that appears to order a domain in a way that is conceptually rigorous – to the extent that that’s even possible – that is original and that raises a series of interesting questions which haven’t been asked before, but which are amenable to empirical research and finally it should have normative implications. This is what Hans Morgenthau meant when he said that the purpose of IR theory is not to justify what policymakers did, but to educate them to act in ways that would lead to a better and more peaceful world. And that, I think, is the ultimate goal of IR theory that we should not lose sight of.

You indicated that Isaiah Berlin was on your dissertation committee. He famously tries to explain Tolstoy’s philosophy of history (in War and Peace) through the parable of the hedgehog and the fox. If theorists constraining themselves to one drive underpinning policy choices would be hedgehogs, how would you see yourself? A fox or a hedgehog?

  • I am clearly a fox! I do different things. Whether I do them well is debatable. But I certainly think that I’m a man of many tricks. Of course the distinction also implies not believing in an overarching truth, and indeed, I try hard not to think about truth because I don’t think you can get very far when you do. Epistemologically and eclectically, I’m a great believer that we can never really establish a cause, truth, and knowledge. One of the great problems here goes back to Plato who was shocked that craftsmen equated technical ability to produce things with knowledge—Sofia, which is wisdom. And today you have the problem one step up, so another category of knowledge for the Greeks was episteme. Aristotle would describe it as ‘conceptual knowledge’ or that which might even be represented mathematically. And the people who would be ‘expert’ in episteme think they have sofia and their claim to being a hedgehog is the same kind of conceit, a form of hubris. Berlin’s distinction between hedgehogs and foxes is a very useful and nice concept to play around with.
  • Yet it’s a bit much to reduce Tolstoy to that tension. You could do it as a game but it doesn’t do much justice because there is so much else in Tolstoy. He’s tilting against the French historians of the 19th century who have erected Napoleon into this strategic genius. And he does a very convincing job of showing that what goes on on the battlefield has nothing whatsoever to do with what Napoleon or anyone else who is wearing a general’s ebullience or theorists hat says. And also, and in this sense, one could see him as the beginning of subaltern history of social science, he’s telling the story—admittedly about aristocrats, not commoners—but he’s telling the story of ordinary people on the battlefield, not the people making the decisions. So the war is in a way a background to the lives of the people, focusing our attention a very humanist way, on people. This, too, is revolutionary for his time … //

… (full long interview text and related links).


Introduction to Occupy Vision, on ZNet, by Mark Evans and Michael Albert, March 17, 2013;

3 books on Occupy: Fanfare for the future – theory, vision, stategy, on ZNet.

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