There is an unfortunately formulaic tendency in the contemporary study of international relations, a tendency illustrated by these two books. Both address big issues of war and peace and claim to have policy relevance. Unfortunately, they also both assume that they can generate timeless propositions by observing how states behaved in an earlier, very different historical period, as if it can serve as an international relations laboratory for all time. Haldi argues that states enter ongoing conflicts in order to acquire strategic assets (predation), which they are apt to do when the political cost is low or when it is necessary to prevent a shift in the balance of power. The independent variable here is political cost, although the real question is how it changes over time. To make her point, Haldi compares pre- and post-Napoleonic warfare, noting that the political costs went from low to high. Although she starts the book quoting President Bill Clinton's 1999 justification for Kosovo as preventing a wider war, she excludes civil wars from her analysis and so cannot offer much on contemporary situations such as the Balkans. Weitsman considers alliance formation and, in a rich analysis of rationales, observes that states have joined alliances to contain fellow members who are potential adversaries, including through a process she calls "tethering." The analysis is sufficiently nuanced to provide a framework for contemporary issues, but the case studies are all taken from the run-up to World War I.
Both of these books are by talented scholars who analyze theoretical issues deftly and know how to use historical evidence. The case studies are interesting enough, but why not consider them in all their historical richness? Why not use history to help explain where the present came from, and what has changed, instead of using the past to test propositions of uncertain contemporary relevance? And if these really are policy concerns, why not put the same effort into making sense of the system as it currently operates?
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