This year at the Cumberland Lodge Conference, students from the Department of International Relations (IR) were joined by scholars from different departments of LSE and abroad in exploring the various historical approaches to the study of IR. This year’s group consisted of predominantly MSc IR students, with less than a dozen MSc IPE and MPhil/PhD students. However, this had not prevented the students from having a good time and engaging in intellectual discussions, as the weekend conference has always promised to provide.
Dreadnaughts and rifles: The history of arms races
After dinner and a brief welcome speech from the Cumberland Lodge, the first session began with David Stevenson presenting ‘Arms Races: History and Theory’. David presented a historical approach to understanding and analysing arms races. Common models used for explaining arms races, such as technological imperative, military-industrial complex, and action-reaction, were unable to account for the Anglo-German naval race and subsequent land arms race between Germany, Russia and France which led to the Great War. Instead, he argued that arms races are the result of, actual or perceived, power transitions. For example, the pre-1914 arms race could be explained by the Triple Entente catching up with the declining central powers. When both sides are confident enough that they may run the course of a war successfully, both sides would behave riskily and create a risk of war. The theory can be generalised and tested against other historical arms races. If one puts the theory into a contemporary context, the rise of China in the face of a declining US has alarming similarities with pre-WWI and pre-WWII situations. Finally, an important lesson can be drawn from the example of arms races history: studying historical cases can give us a great advantage over studying modern cases, as the quality and quantity of data available are often better.
Leveraging historical analysis: US grand strategy in the Cold War
Peter Trubowitz started the second day by giving an analysis of American Cold War strategy. He began with distinguishing three types of historical approaches: using lessons from history to inform policies; identifying underlying causes and patterns to construct generalized theories; and using history as a testing ground for judging the predictive capacity of theories. He went on to ask why different US Presidents during the Cold War shared the same goal of containing Soviet power but had used different means? More precisely, how can we account for the fact that some Presidents increased military spending while others reduced it, despite similar external environment and goals? Peter first categorised different grand strategies into four types, depending on whether the political leaders’ ambitions are revisionist or simply trying to maintain the status quo, and how costly the strategies are to pursue. He then argued that due to the two-faced nature of the political leader, both at the head of state in the international arena and the head of party-coalition in the domestic arena, the leader must consider his ability to turn security issues into electoral gains when choosing strategies. This means grand strategies are the product of both international security and party preferences. He finished with extending the theory’s prediction to other presidencies before and after the Cold War to test the theory.
Intervention: What can history tell us?
‘We are all historians.’ argued George Lawson, as he started his talk on ‘the past, present and future of intervention’. He believed that all social scientists have to deal with history, whether it is for historical case studies or data collection. History is always needed for building convincing theories. Historical approaches can tell us about not just the past but also the contemporary context. George used the history of intervention to illustrate this argument. While intervention has no legal distinction, he described it as an interaction between transnational social forces and sovereign actors with territorial claims. He identified three categories of transnational social forces underlying interventions: political, economic, and cultural. The political aspect of intervention used to centre around great powers, either in the 19th Century or during the Cold War, who can legitimately intervene into other states but cannot be intervened into themselves. Great power statuses helped maintain relative peace, so great powers often needed to practice intervention even when it’s costly, in order to maintain their status. With the decline of the West and the rise of new powers, especially China’s emphasis on ‘non-interventionism’, how will power-based intervention change as a practice in the future? The British Empire and the US used intervention to maintain market control in the past. However, with the relative decline and decentralising of markets in western economies, the future of economic-based intervention is equally uncertain. On the cultural side, ideas of ‘civilisation versus barbarians’ and notions of backwardness still persist, although the way this kind of intervention might have been changing towards multilateral intervention, as evident by examples such as coercive state-building missions by the UN. Although the rise of China and its non-intervention principle appear to have cast uncertainty over the future of interventions, the history of China has shown that it has always intervened when it has the capacity, including during the Cold War. Furthermore, as Chinese economic interest spreads widely across the world, it’s economic interests are soon getting embedded in the transnational circuit making them transnational interests. George argued that this suggests while the rhetoric and practices of intervention might change with the rise of China, intervention itself will remain. The question is, whether the West will try to intervene more in an attempt to maintain their great power position in the face of Chinese challenge.
Kairos, Fortune, and the Four Horsemen: Images of temporality in international politics
Many of the attendees chose to took advantage of the sunny weather, untypical of England, to walk to Windsor Castle after lunch. Some of them would not have embarked on the journey had they known how long it would take them. The perception of time is not only important for those students who had to race back to the Lodge before dark, though. The fourth session led by Kim Hutchings explored the different attitudes and perceptions to time in the discipline of international politics. Just as Kant talked about the orientation in thinking, Kim pointed out that in IR there are also different important temporal orientations. How social scientists think about history is inevitably determined by their perception of time. Realists generally have a cyclical image of time, which focuses on the recurring features of history, such as decline of great powers. On the other hand, Liberalism and Critical Theories have linear images of time, where in Liberalism’s case, history is considered a story of constant progress and enlightenment towards some sort of telos, perhaps perpetual peace; for Critical Theories, the historical realism of classical Marxism also views history as a linear image of progress through stages of economic development, from feudalism to capitalism, and ultimately, to communism. Other Critical Theories take on an apocalyptic view, seeing history as also linear but as one towards decline, since no alternative to liberal capitalism can be found. Poststructuralism contends that the progressive, linear narratives of liberalism and marxism have caused the mistakes and disasters of modernity. To poststructuralists, generalisation of historical experiences and predictions are not possible. Understanding the different images of time can not only greatly inform us on how different theoretical orientations view historical and current events, but also give insights into political decisions like aid or interventions.
Cotton and British intervention: Combining IPE and IR in a historical approach
After dinner, Paul Poast of Rutgers University, the only speaker not from LSE, argued for a narrative in understanding the cause of the American Civil War that combines IR and International Political Economy (IPE). He argued that in order to explain for the intrastate military conflict, one must look at the wider international economy. The bargaining failure between the South and the North, contrary to popular narrative, cannot account for the decision to use military violence. Instead, the determinant factor lies in British economic interests in Southern cotton exports. Despite high public pressure, Paul argued, Lincoln initially planned to use economic sanctions and blockades to allow the pro-union faction in South to take control, solving the crisis peacefully. However, Lincoln was soon convinced that Britain might recognise the South in order to secure its cotton exports, which were vital for British manufacturers, and recognition would give European powers a cause for intervention. In order to prevent the recognition and the possible subsequent shift of power positions between the North and the South, Lincoln changed his mind and attacked the South. This historical event provided the perfect example of IPE informing international security.
From nervous breakdown to gold standard suspension: The contingency of history
In the morning on the last day of the weekend, students were greeted with a fire alarm ‘morning call’. Many, still not recovered from the late night drinking and chatting the night before, joked that the fire alarm triggered by burnt toast was the Cumberland Lodge’s way of getting them out of their rooms. After breakfast, a group left for attending Matins at the Royal Chapel, while the rest had a coffee and brainstorming session. James Morrison gave the final session of the weekend, titled ‘Shocking Intellectual Austerity: The Role of Ideas in the Demise of the Gold Standard in Britain’. James argued for a new, historical approach in explaining the suspension of the gold standard in Britain in 1931. The dominant explanations, both rationalist and constructivist, based on Karl Polanyi’s work assert that Britain was unable and unwilling to defend the system due to the decline of British international position and domestic changes. These explanations assume the British political leaders were against keeping the gold standard and the Band of England had a unified, clear vision of how to act. James challenged these assumptions by tracing back the speeches and actions of key actors at the time, pointing out that not only most of the politicians, including those on the radical left, believed that the suspension of the gold standard would be disastrous for the British economy, but the Bank of England was also severely divided over how to react to the crisis. The breakdown of the Bank’s governor Montagu Norman, a supporter of the gold standard, gave the deputy governor Ernest Harvey the chance to take control. This was the pivotal moment in the history of the gold standard, as Harvey deliberately suspended the system, despite the Bank still had many means that could be used to save it, to keep the Labour Party out of power. The suspension and its aftermath proved the prediction of orthodox economics at the time, that the suspension would lead to hyperinflation, wrong and allowed the new ideas of Keynes to gain acceptance, creating a shift in economic ideas towards supporting a flexible exchange rate system. Apart from providing a new explanation to the suspension, James showed the highly contingent nature of history and how our specific views of history determine the actors we look at.
Report by Wing Eugene Li (MSc IPE)