International Relations and Political Philosophy, by Martin Wight, ed DS Yost, Oxford University Press, xxii+362 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-0198848219
Martin Wight (1913‑1972) is recognised as the leading proponent of the approach that defined the “English School” of international relations theory – a label that made its first appearance in a polemical 1981 essay by Roy E Jones but has since attached itself without polemical connotation to a multigenerational ensemble of historians and political theorists including Herbert Butterfield, Charles Manning, Hedley Bull, Michael Donelan, Robert Purnell, Adam Watson and Barry Buzan. Wight published little in his relatively brief scholarly life. He was known to readers primarily for a small number of influential essays and reviews, and for Power Politics, a short tract published in 1946 for Chatham House and later expanded and published in a popular edition by Pelican.
The standing he secured within the nascent discipline of international relations was the legacy of his lecturing career, particularly at the London School of Economics, where he taught from 1949 to 1961, before becoming founding Dean of European Studies at the University of Sussex, remaining there until his death. The output, against which a contemporary reader might hope to measure the reputation, has remained unfortunately modest. One collection of papers, Systems of States (Leicester University Press, 1977), and two books derived from lecture course notes – International Theory: The Three Traditions (Bloomsbury, 1991) and Four Seminal Thinkers in International Theory: Machiavelli, Grotius, Kant, and Mazzini (Oxford, 2004) – were published posthumously; but we have as yet no reason to hope that Wight will see the sort of flourishing scholarly afterlife that is made possible by the digital era (evidenced for example in the case of Leo Strauss, with a trove of seminar transcripts and recordings that circulated in samizdat among disciples over decades suddenly made available to the world). Many of Wight’s one-off lectures remained unpublished, and enough of his published works appeared in periodicals ephemeral or obscure enough to have escaped digitisation. This volume, containing notes and reviews as well as a mix of the best-known and the unknown from Wight’s essays and addresses, represents the first product of a longer-term programme to remedy this deficiency.
The pieces collected here are arranged thematically, covering: the theory, history and methodology of international relations; the concept of war, its nature, causes or origins and its aims; and the shifting conceptions of political legitimacy and what confers it; these are supplemented by the long essay “Fortune’s Banter” (first published in 2016) and eight short book reviews whose chief value lies (like some of the notes and correspondence) in their brevity’s occasioning firm and fast judgements, passed without scholarly nuance or Wight’s accustomed reserve. The most notable feature of Wight’s analyses is their historical focus, exemplifying indeed the “English School”. Rather than tarrying with attempts to characterise the School’s methods of international relations theory – the School is treated at length in Tim Dunne’s Inventing International Society: A History of the English School (Macmillan, 1998), Andrew Linklater’s and Hidemi Suganami’s The English School of International Relations: A Contemporary Reassessment (Cambridge, 2006) and Barry Buzan’s An Introduction to the English School of International Relations: The Societal Approach (Polity, 2014) – one may simply have recourse to the back matter of this volume, which notes that, while there is “no generally accepted definition”, it “is usually construed as signifying an approach to the study of international relations more rooted in historical and humanistic learning than in the social sciences”. Wight brings the learning of a formidable historian to all of his analyses; and the title of one essay here, “The Causes of War: An Historian’s View”, indicates that he identified himself as belonging to that indispensable tribe.
In surveying the historical strains of thought relevant to international relations, Wight identifies three prevailing traditions: realists, rationalists and revolutionaries, or, as he alternatively names the traditions for the exemplars of each, Machiavellians, Grotians and Kantians. The realist tradition places the emphasis on power as ever the decisive factor and therefore only true guide (and goal) in politics. The rationalist in the tradition of Hugo Grotius places emphasis on laws, prescriptive norms and due procedures, arguing not simply that these are preferable guides for political action but that cooperation and consensus are ultimately required for survival, security and prosperity. The Kantian tradition posits and orients itself by recognition of a common humanity that transcends politics and that ought to be the true standard for political action; it is this universalism that gives it its revolutionary character.
Wight admits unreservedly the preponderance of realism in the theory of international relations, and even more so in the various domains – diplomacy, trade agreements, the making and breaking of alliances, the waging, encouraging or averting of war, directly or via proxy conflicts – that carry such theory into practice. The traditions so defined however represent a rough categorisation – in some ways a protreptic or pedagogical convenience – and are not exclusive of one another; in truth the realist view is seldom without some admixture of one or both of the other traditions. It is even more the case that the revolutionary or rationalist calculus cannot dispense entirely with realist considerations. In part this is because realism is the natural recourse and refuge of the statesman, and a necessary condition of successful diplomacy. “In power all statesmen are realists, governed in fact not by the desirable but by the possible, and the measure of their success is directly proportionate to their grasp of reality. The realist therefore is least exposed to self-contradiction. In or out of office his philosophy remains coherent.” It is also the case that what is broadly called “realism” is often so called to contrast it (usually favourably) with idealism, utopianism or romanticism, or in other cases with nominalism. In this last case, Wight captures the prevalence of realism in claiming it probable that “everybody is a realist about his own schemes, and nominalist about his adversaries”. The almost necessary, certainly the expected, preponderance of realism is explainable by, almost deducible from, the nature of the object of international theory; Wight identifies:
… a kind of recalcitrance of international politics to being theorized about. The reason is that this theorizing has to be done in the language of political theory and law. But this is the language of experience of systems of action within the realm of normal relationships and calculable results. They are the theory of the good life. International theory is the theory of survival. What for political theory is the extreme case (as revolution, or civil war) is for international theory the regular case.
The admitted focus on the question of survival helps to explain the ascendancy of realist theories even today, especially in the United States – a tradition running from Reinhold Niebuhr (whom Wight calls the American realists’ “patriarch”), through Hans Morgenthau, to the structural realism of Kenneth Waltz and its derivative, the “offensive realism” of John Mearsheimer, and hallowed by the adherence in the realm of action of the theory’s most committed practitioners, diplomat writers like George Kennan and Henry Kissinger.
The realist (or Machiavellian) tradition emphasises the defining role of power, and correspondingly tends to downplay the importance of norms or any idea of a common good relevant to humanity or international society, which might be pursued in cooperation and concord. The tradition in fact tends to deny that there is any such thing as international society in a substantial sense, or that there are, for example, such things as common values by which to justify common action (historically perhaps Christian, Western or democratic values). Nor is there an international morality that will ever trump the balance-of-power calculations of realist statesmen or their Machiavellian advisers. Wight seems to have held it the wiser course not to foreclose the possible coherence of the idea of international society, however: if we recall that Grotians and Kantians may promote recourse to violence in the service of accomplishment of international wellbeing or “perpetual peace”, the right confluence of historical circumstances might well carry one or the other to ideological victory, which could at a stroke vindicate the idea of an international society. While it is evident that Wight in no way denied the centrality of power to political theory, statecraft and international legitimacy, he could insist that even the most naked expression of power, the prosecution of war in its pursuit, could not except reductively be posited as refuting that idea: “War does not disprove the existence of international society, because war is followed by peace. Nor even does ideological conflict, because it is followed at a longer interval by ideological accommodation.”
Whatever the exact cast of Wight’s agnosticism or otherwise concerning international society, he did cast doubt on the substance of international relations as a distinct discipline, rather than an evolving subdiscipline of history or political theory (perhaps his most famous essay, reprinted here, is titled “Why is there no international theory?”). This was precisely because it seemed to lack what political philosophy or theory possessed in abundance, classics of the discipline to ground it in a tradition. An historical survey of the discipline seemed to turn up nothing of the stature of Plato, Aristotle, Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, at least in terms of sustained investigation; international theory rather appeared the object of occasional reflection and commentary in tracts of internationalist “irenist” authors like Erasmus, the pioneering formulators of raison d’état that Friedrich Meinecke dismissed as almost wholly a catalogue of mediocrities, the speeches and dispatches of statesmen and diplomats, and “the parerga of political philosophers, philosophers and historians”. Looking to the classics, Thucydides alone seems of surpassing relevance, and his History is not, whatever its depths and its much-celebrated indirection, in any strong or straightforward sense a work of philosophy or international relations. Wight would eventually, and explicitly, repudiate this view in a review of Raymond Aron’s Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (also collected here); but far fewer readers have encountered the review of Aron than the essays in which he questions the substance of the discipline of international relations, and so Wight remains known as a leading light of international relations theory who questioned the coherence of understanding it as a discipline with a developed body of theory.
Wight’s sensitivity to the absence of acknowledged classics within a discipline and his caution that this brought its coherence as an independent discipline into question had another source, in his distrust of any putative discipline that felt it could dispense with attention to history. Wight held in low esteem what might broadly be called the “systems approach” to international relations – game-theoretic, systems-analytic or structural analyses of the fundamental questions of war and peace that were ahistorical at their core, and were so quite by conviction, believing the advent of the nuclear age to have rendered obsolete the repository of political and philosophical thought that preceded it. In the first place Wight found this approach objectionable because he felt unrealisable its latent aspiration to a measure of scientific accuracy that was the preserve of the physical and mathematical sciences. In the second place, he felt these approaches simply offered inferior and narrower analyses tricked out in scientific language most notable, and far the poorer, for its studied avoidance of the language of morality. He insisted that good works of history, whether wide-ranging or concentrated in their scope, including the memoirs of advisers and diplomats, “convey the nature of foreign policy and the working of the states-system far better than much recent writing based on the new methodologies”. This was not just because “historical literature is doing a different job from systems analysis”; rather: “Historical literature at the same time does the same job ‑ the job of offering a coherent structure of hypotheses that will provide a common explanation of phenomena; but it does this job with more judiciousness and modesty …” The conviction as to the superiority of historical analyses to ahistorical systems analysis is exemplified in a previously unpublished note on Morton Kaplan’s System and Process in International Politics (1957), which is severe in its assessment of the work. Kaplan’s self-proclaimed ambition to capture and analyse the dilemmas of international politics in “the universal language of science” produces only “new edifices of tautology and platitude”; the striving for objectivity accomplishes only a false moral neutrality; everywhere there is trivialisation, which “seems … the unintentional effect of games theory when applied to the awful issues of peace and war, survival and destruction”; the final result is a kind of scholasticism, in “the elaboration of intellectual systems for their own sake beyond the necessary control of the reality they began by trying to explain or describe”, and “hypostatisation of the system”, which is said for example to seek or to search for stable patterns. The prominence and influence of the realist school, given its broad preference for ahistorical systems analysis, influenced Wight’s scepticism concerning the coherence of international theory as a discipline.
One might, accepting Wight’s original thesis, propose a concrete reason for the apparent absence of a distinct tradition of international theory or interstate relations with its own classics (the latter phrase to remind that one cannot rest content with the observation that “international” theory had to await the rise of nation states containing nationalities that identified themselves as such, a phenomenon mainly of the nineteenth century). The reason is that the place that might have been taken by concrete theorising of interstate relations in the classical tradition tended to be reduced to or taken as exhausted by the theory of or reflection on war, the most momentous relation between individual states or alliances of states. Whether or not it is true that the ancients took war as a natural fact of life never fully to be averted (as proposed by Arnaldo Momigliano in a published address to which Wight once alludes, and which the scene of war on the shield of Achilles in Homer might suggest), the view that war was the defining phenomenon of interstate relations, the object of the statesman’s most serious study and the most essential component of the political art, prevailed, and arguably held through the medieval and into the modern period. Plato’s dialogue Timaeus begins with his Socrates recounting to three interlocutors a discussion of the evening before, which seems very much to resemble the conversation on the ideal city that takes place in Republic, up to and just before the notorious “third wave” of Socrates’ argument that introduces the notion of philosopher-rulers. Socrates now expresses his wishes to see the city they have outlined the day before, thus far seen like a static picture, “in motion”, either in competition of some sort with another city or at war. This “motion”, which shows the living city and allows one to gauge its worth and resilience, and the definitive form of which seems to be war, echoes the term (kinesis) by which Thucydides characterises the war between Athens and Sparta: it is worthy of record and study as it represented the “greatest motion” (though one might there render it “mobilisation”) hitherto seen. The view is put with unmatched frankness by the Middle Platonist commentator Alcinous in his Didaskalikos (or Handbook of Platonism): “Politics then, is a virtue which is both theoretical and practical, the aim of which is to render a state good, happy, harmonious, and concordant. It exercises a directive role, and has as subordinate to it the sciences of war and generalship and the administration of justice. Politics concerns itself with a vast array of subjects, but above all the question of whether or not one should make war.”
Five pieces here, including essays, correspondence and brief commentary, are devoted to the subject of war; Wight recognised it as the core phenomenon of international relations. The longest of those indicates that centrality by its title: “Gain, Fear and Glory: Reflections on the Nature of International Politics”. Here, “the nature of international politics” is illuminated by what are identified by Thucydides’ Athenian spokesmen defending their empire as the greatest human motives: prestige, fear and profit. As Wight acknowledges, these motives were translated into the causes of conflict in Hobbes’ account of the state of nature in Leviathan, being rendered (respectively) as glory, diffidence and gain (as the picture of the state of nature, a “war of all against all”, was influenced by what scholars have called the “pathology” in Thucydides’ account of the Corcyran civil war). Wight’s partial taking over of the Hobbesian terms (Hobbes was a translator of Thucydides) makes more emphatic the indication that “the nature of international society” can be understood by attention to the causes of war.
Fear is the most powerful and most defensible of the three motives for war; even were a majority of them unjust, there is the possibility of a “preventive” war’s serving a just purpose. Indeed, history offers no dearth of examples where a power’s or a concert of powers’ refraining from war was less excusable for its consequences than would have been launching one. It is harder to imagine wars of conquest animated by a desire for gain or glory being wholly condoned either by contemporaries or posterity. This potential defensibility of the war of fear, “as every student of international politics knows, must seriously complicate and even modify the moral judgment we pass on preventive wars”.
Such consideration might seem concession not only to the realist, but to the realist committed to the methods of systems analysis. It is something like an orthodoxy in the structural analysis of power politics – an orthodoxy in support of which Thucydides with his “archaeology” examining the causes of the war is invariably marshalled – that a rising and a reigning power with common spheres of influence can hardly hope to avoid war. In this analysis, likelihood of war is elevated to inevitability where, as with Athens and Sparta in Thucydides’ time, hegemony is at stake: so for example Mearsheimer’s insistence today that China cannot rise peacefully. It is indeed the war of fear or preventive war that tends to make for the most cogent structural analyses: history is informative only insofar as it gives us recurring patterns that generate conflict, allowing us by recognising in retrospect cases of war’s inevitability to predict its future occurrence. Such is simply the sort of rational calculus eminently susceptible of analysis in any “theory of survival”; we need only to recall the arch-realist Machiavelli’s counsel in Il Principe never to temporise out of diffidence when it comes to making war, or never to put off until tomorrow a war that can be won today, particularly where the conflict seems inevitable.
What eludes the structural realist analysis, however, is what is the very stuff of historical enquiry, the life and character of nations or other collectives. It is not possible “to reduce diplomacy to a calculus of rational goals. The aims of States, as of individuals, are various and imponderable, not to be quantified. They desire not only life but honour, and not only security but dignity or glory.” The realist interpretation that seeks for patterns and discounts historical contingencies cannot account well for factors like the force of collective emotion with political consequence, or the vital role which dangerous, and popularly inducible, emotions such as resentment or self-pity can ultimately play in disturbing peace or the balance of power. “It is not armaments that cause war,” Wight in a solicited commentary reproves an advocate of war’s abolition, “but human passions and conflicting interests.” The Axis Powers in World War II were “banded together by dissatisfaction and greed”; and where their alliance might have appeared to some “a fortuitous confederacy of aggressor states”, their partnership was “an expression of historical forces”. Germany and Italy were “the newest and most politically retarded of the European Great Powers”. And the “envy and admiration felt by German and Italy for their more mature, wealthy, successful, and civilized fellow members of Western Civilization was felt by Japan towards Western Civilization as a whole”. Germany and Italy were self-designated “proletarian nations”, a term coined by Mussolini in the context of remarks against the League of Nations in the speech in Milan in March 1919 “which marked the birth of fascism”. What the Axis Powers found most offensive and unendurable was the “conscious assumption of effortless superiority” on the part of Western Powers; Wight quotes a record of a conversation in August 1939 between Hitler and Galeazzo Ciano where Hitler claimed: “The Western Democracies were dominated by the desire to rule the world and would not regard Germany and Italy as in their class. This psychological element of contempt was perhaps the worst thing about the whole business.”
This politically explosive resentment, cultivated in the population and marshalled for military ends by charismatic leaders, is a recent phenomenon, and not reducible to incompatibility of values or ideology. Britain and France were threatened by the ascendancy in the nineteenth century of Prussia and Russia, two powers which “lacked or rejected the traditions of Western Civilization”. Russia in fact was “the original proletarian nation”, which emerged to great power status “repudiating all the traditions of West”. But Wight in writing of this “proletarian pose” of the Axis Powers in The Three Traditions insisted: “This particular psychology of resentment in the have-not powers is new to the twentieth century.” Sixteenth century England, Holland and France stood as have-not powers vis-à-vis the then dominant powers of Portugal and Spain, but “the English of the first Elizabethan Age did not have this self-pity, resentment, and proletarian pose”. With the twentieth-century proletarian powers, desire for equality “easily became self-pity at having to demand it, and resentment against those from whom it had to be asked”. It is difficult to see how analyses of the causes of war that restrict focus to structural considerations can accommodate this aspect of the problem.
To illustrate the difficulties, let us consider a scenario: a large power that is of barbarous character, economically and culturally backward and with an abject population governed tyrannically and kept in check by terror, borders an independent nation far more advanced than it, culturally and economically open, politically free, governed democratically and guaranteeing the average citizen a high standard of living. The large power fears what shifts in the economic and technological balance might generate: it fears that the neighbouring nation’s advancement might lead to development of technologies of war that would confer an advantage negating and surpassing those of size and population: that the rising economic power, in seeking to guarantee its security, will become a rival military one. This furnishes the motive for a preventive war. At the same time, those at the top of the tyranny simply covet the products of their superior neighbour’s labour, and so gain is a factor in deciding for war as against entente or diplomacy. Shared by the leadership and by the population at large, however, and decisive in persuading the population into war, is a proletarian resentment, a deep-seated and wounding awareness of inferiority; resentment of the neighbour’s evident superiority in matters of culture, education, economy and so forth, and of the standing to which it has attained in the eyes of other nations. Even as one might strive to disentangle immediate from remote causes of a war, what could be said to be the primary cause of a war in these circumstances? The preventive securing of dominance vies with covetous greed for profit and the desire of the inferior violently to punish his superior for the sharp relief into which the inferior’s shortcomings are thrown. Gain is an essential component, but fear is there also; without the population of the larger country’s felt and resented sense of their neighbour’s superiority, however, which primed the population for persuasion into war, war would not have eventuated. Here, inextricable from the straightforwardly Machiavellian motive of fear are motives of greater import to the Grotian and Kantian vision of politics (and were this hypothetical scenario real, one might further deduce as motive the tyranny’s fear of the example set to its people by the freedoms of their neighbour).
Here the value-free structural analysis runs into a limitation, and we are confronted simultaneously with a problem of the broadness of the application of the “realist” tag. In the most immediate sense, the realist interpretation of this hypothetical war would focus on its pre-emptive nature and the concern for securing survival. As Wight notes, “the politics of survival are, by their nature, realist and empirical”. Wight himself however also identified as a “harsh Realist” tradition beginning with Aristotle the view that “barbarians”, howsoever defined, had no rights, and could be exploited, enslaved or exterminated. In this context he called South African apartheid – a regime that he notes was perceived as illegitimate internationally, and rightly subjected to sanctions – an example of “Realism towards barbarians”. One is inclined to the conclusion that a vision is “realist”, as opposed to rationalist or revolutionist, merely in proportion as it is evacuated of moral considerations. By the lights of a “realism” strictly applied in merely structural assessment of origins or strategy of conflict, any and every war might be a war of annihilation, save where survival of the adversary’s nation and an unequal peace might better serve one’s long-term strategic interests. There is admitted no moral dimension to the calculus. If indeed it were the observable tendency of realist positions to default to mere amorality, the realist approach would surely be inadequate to comprehension and evaluation of matters of war and peace and therefore of international society.
Wight takes over from Clausewitz as part of the definition of war the obvious observation that war requires two sides; conquest of a nation that puts up no resistance or capitulates to avoid a conflict deemed unwinnable and therefore futile is not war. This obvious fact is part of war’s irreducible moral dimension; if a preventive war might potentially be justifiable, it does not follow that there cannot be moral inequivalences between combatants. Particularly in light of the rise of the view (with which he disagreed) that “the state-system regulated by the balance of power has now become obsolete because of nuclear weapons”, Wight is firm that war can serve constructive moral and material purposes. He deplores “the cliché of the politically illiterate and historically ignorant, that ‘war settles nothing’ …” and repudiates any position that “ignores the positive or constructive functions of war in international society”. While cautioning that he is not an advocate of bloodshed, he can insist that “bloodshed is not intrinsically destructive, irrational, and wicked, as the media present the familiar horrors of today. Bloodshed has been in history a creative force.” Against those who rashly judge the greatest shift in war since the revolutionary 1780s to be its increased destructiveness, Wight maintains that war’s relative destructiveness has in fact declined, as industrialisation and technology makes reconstruction faster and more efficient.
A limit to this of course is imposed by the advent of nuclear weapons; the fact that Wight is among the first generation to have to reckon with the reality of nuclear war resonates throughout. “What on earth have ancient dug-outs like Kant, Grotius or Machiavelli to tell us about the world of the megaton-bomb?” he asks, voicing the prejudice in favour of systems analysis. But this argument proceeds, for Wight, from a “state of hypnosis by technological development, or the fallacy of dehumanizing. A person in a space rocket is still human …a nd moral faculties are not extinguished by reason of finding oneself in a new mode of transport”; it supposes “that the increase in destructiveness provided by nuclear weapons has brought war to the point of the dialectical leap from quantitative to qualitative difference”. In fact, as long as the actors remain human, it remains certain that “the change in the methods of war has weakened the motives of war” – motives, we may add, generally not well-served by nuclear conflict. Ultimately the centrality of war to international theory teaches that it is inevitable in the abstract, but particular wars are avoidable, and that the balance of power “can never [indefinitely] be stabilized in our favour”. The theory of war must then of necessity be subordinate to a theory of peace, prosperity and security, and must relate to the latter as do means to an end. “The ultimate advantage of extending political studies to include war, the most intractable of public human activities, is in reminding us that political arrangements are not, after all, the most important part of human life, and so establishing the only premises on which political activity itself can be beneficially pursued.”
War is the limit case; but the limit, the exception, is the norm for international theory, which is the theory of survival. Hence the almost necessary centrality of war to the understanding of international society. It is a reminder of the philosophical principle that the extreme case may present a problem in its purest form; that often the exception is more instructive than the norm, because it clarifies the matter at hand, forces one to contemplation of first principles. War legitimises and delegitimises: blood shed for a nation is the warrant of its value for future generations, because people “care about a society that has been born in a heroic war of independence”. By the same token, it is failure of government to serve the people that grants the right of revolution, the government’s lack of legitimacy precipitating its just and forceful overthrow. A state’s naked aggression may similarly disbar it from international society, render it a pariah state subject to economic sanction or collective, interventionist action; war is thus at the core of the question of international legitimacy.
International legitimacy is “a slippery notion, half legal, half moral”, briefly if not entirely satisfactorily definable as “moral acceptability … to the remainder of international society”. Doctrines of legitimacy ultimately “embody international society’s consciousness and assertion of its own nature”. Wight traces the shifting dominant principles of legitimacy in international thought, from the dynasticism that legitimated royal houses and potentates – a principle “extraordinarily tenacious of life” that “reached its zenith as an international system in the first half of the sixteenth century” – through the principle of popular legitimacy and finally that of territorial integrity. The “decisive blow” struck against dynasticism came as early as 1581 with the United Provinces of the Low Countries’ Act of Abjuration, where they abjured Phillip II as their monarch for his failures and asserted their right to choose their own sovereign – an act Wight calls “at the same time the first declaration of national independence”.
The dynastic principle was gradually subordinated to national interests, through its centuries-long decline to unimportance and final eclipse in the nineteenth century. Some oligarchic regimes (some former European communist countries and today, some theocratic dictatorial regimes) resemble dynasties. Today, the authoritarian regime with a quasi-dynastic principle of succession also resembles the older system in the common interest those legitimated by the principle recognised: “Every lawful monarch was in principle interested in the rights and due succession of every other monarch, and might claim the right to intervene to uphold them.” The nineteenth century Holy Alliance between Prussia, Russia and Austria, styled despite the obsolescence of the strict dynastic principle as “a fraternity of paternal Christian monarchs”, in practice “was invoked during the first ten years after the Vienna Congress to justify intervention upholding autocratic regimes against liberal revolt”. We see similar interventions and collaborations, and mutual instruction in the techniques of tyranny, among contemporary autocracies.
The rise of the principle of popular legitimacy signalled by the Low Countries’ Act of Abjuration, and consolidated over succeeding centuries, usually made one of three appeals: to language, history and choice. Which appeal was made of course tended to depend wholly on the interests of the state making it, especially in the case of disputed territories; even choice, seemingly the least objectionable, was regularly invoked with the design of a dubious plebiscite in the offing, whose result would inevitably be in the interests of the state proposing it. The principle of popular legitimacy did tend to take some account of the rights of minority peoples; this principle was however superseded by a “majoritarian” rule after 1945, which emphasised the importance of territorial integrity even at the expense of self-determination. This rule “formulates the presumption of international society in favour of a state trying to maintain its territorial integrity in the teeth of centrifugal forces, as a presumption against minorities seeking to establish a position which will enable them to claim international legitimacy”.
The ascendancy of this principle in post-World War II international society perhaps as well as any other fact vindicates Wight’s final judgement that: “The influence of principles of legitimacy upon international politics has been generally overestimated”, its rules “always subordinate to the needs of state-building and state-consolidation”, where “force plays a preponderant part”. The “general international rule” has been that elaborated by the sixteenth century French diplomat Cardinal Ossat, that one power in diplomatic intercourse with another ought, without further enquiry as to legitimacy, to “concern themselves only with the power and the possession”.
Such a sentiment concludes the enquiry into legitimacy on a distinctly realist note, inevitable perhaps in the international arena: “… it is the Machiavellian political philosophy which describes, explains and gives guidance in international politics. Thus we get a picture where Kantianism is on the whole relevant to personal relations, Grotianism to politics proper, and Machiavellianism to international relations. Perhaps the three traditions are concentric circles.” One must then work inward from naked realism to the circles more important than political arrangements, and which political arrangements ought to serve; to the peace that comes after and is aimed at by war.
Wight’s focus on history is at bottom the expression of a conviction with both an intellectual and a moral content: that history is the realm of the contingent, and that contingency, the vicissitudes of unbiddable Fortune, is in some way the fundamental experience of the political. The conviction implicitly repudiates another and earlier form of the fallacy of dehumanisation, the hypostatisation of history and the belief in the providential, especially one’s own providential role. The mischiefs wrought by men of politics whose obsession is with their destiny proceed from a misguided conviction, a “belief in one’s historical role, which means a belief that one can mould the future”. A proper “sense of historical responsibility”, somewhat paradoxically, “goes with a belief in one’s political role, which means making the best choices in the present, and implies moderation and a knowledge of the limits of political action”. “The political actor, especially, is on the side of the fortuitous against the necessitous, because he has the experience of being a contingency himself”. (This has a corollary in the theoretical realm; Wight by various comments and quotations from statesmen and others throughout makes clear the view that an historian should appreciate contingencies and entertain counterfactuals in order fully to penetrate and apprehend his object of enquiry, not simply point up patterns which give to events a retrospective impression of inevitability. To take such an example, one might easily in retrospective survey locate the rise of the principle of popular sovereignty a full quarter of a millennium before the Low Countries’ Act of Abdication, in the 1324 publication of Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis, adducing by way of support, according to some interpretations, promulgation in the same decade in Scotland of the Declaration of Arbroath; but such retrospective tracing too much resembles a join-the-dots concept of history, and too little appreciates not only contingency but also nuance.)
The true political instinct is, at bottom, sensitivity to irony and contingency, and to the inscrutability of fortune and uncertainty of action: “The clarification of norms and the judgment of time are the two most difficult tasks in politics. Is time on our side? Is time healing or exacerbating conflict? Is time ripe for change? Every historical situation has to be judged on its merits. Here there is no formula.”
The man whose regard is for imagined honours conferred by posterity, and whose attentions are therefore compelled more by fantasy than by fact, is most exposed to Fortune’s shifts, or to the force of irony. Wight ventures to define irony in politics as “the warping of political intention by the historical context”, and proposes reversals of fortune, which he calls “irony in action”, as “the regular, repeated, one is tempted to say fundamental experience of international politics”. Conscious that Machiavelli’s Fortuna dethroned Providence in the political realm, Wight’s focus on historical learning becomes an expression of conviction with not only methodological but also moral import.
Paul O’Mahoney works in Trinity College Dublin.