Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs

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Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs

By William R. Polk
University of Chicago Press, 1997
350 pp. $24.95
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A wise, learned, and graceful work that constitutes a superb introduction to the origin and logic of the principal areas of transaction among political collectives -- defense, trade, espionage, and diplomacy. Over three-quarters of the book is lived, as it were, in a time that is premodern or a space that is non-western, but it manages, withal, to speak in relevant tones to the contemporary period. The author, best known for his studies of the Arab world, is often brutal in his depiction of primitive man and his not-so-civilized successors, but he also shows many different civilizations inventing similar means of accommodating strangers and discovering means of gaining mutual benefits. The major question raised by this book is whether the political arrangements broadly associated with modernity -- erected on a bleak view of human nature not too dissimilar from that of Polk -- are capable of turning human beings in a more civilized direction, in which they respond more to their interests than to their passions. That is the bet on which our political and economic institutions are based, and it is not clear, after all, that it is a losing one.

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