Strobe Talbott on Totalitarianism


The word has been tossed around during recent elections, but it means something real. History helps most to get a sense of what totalitarianism really means.

From a notable issue of the NYTBR, former Deputy Secretary of State and Russia observer Strobe Talbott writes this short summary of Russian history–where the first two-thirds captures the connection between Stalin and Hitler and adds context to a well-known historical epoch.

A hundred years ago, a malignant form of governance, both modern and barbaric, slouched towards St. Petersburg to be born. As it grew, it swept across Eurasia, enveloping the largest territorial state on the planet and cloning itself elsewhere. As the decades passed, the monstrosity was given a name: totalitarianism.

via Stalin, Hitler and the Temptations of Totalitarianism – The New York Times

How The Middle East Got That Way: Fromkin Used History to Explain Politics

If you haven’t read A Peace to End All Peace, add it to your summer reading list immediately. David Fromkin, a professor of International Relations at Boston University is a prolific author and scholar whose book provides a historical look at the creation of the modern Middle East–with an eye toward geography, conflict, and the decisions taken post-WWI the shaped the regions storied history.

In a Foreign Affairs review of the book, John C. Campbell writes that “Fromkin’s history is made by men rather than impersonal forces.”


Fromkin wrote about other seminal issues in 20th century international relations, such as the origins of the Great War, post-war relations and reconstruction, and the fate of key theoretical constructs such as idealism and realism, as embodied in institutions and programs:

In 1995, he wrote “In the Time of the Americans: F.D.R., Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur — the Generation That Changed America’s Role in the World,” in which he argued that after World War II Americans were given a rare second chance to correct the shortcomings of Woodrow Wilson’s one-world idealism.

As Richard Reeves wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “The United Nations is Wilsonian; NATO represents the kind of big-power peace enforcement envisioned by T.R.”Among Professor Fromkin’s other books were “Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?” (2004), which the journalist Avedis Hadjian, writing for, called “a fast-paced, gripping guide through the complex set of reasons and emotions that led to the 20th century’s seminal conflict”; and “The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners” (2008).

Long Live the State / The State is Dead

Two books from late 2014 make the case for why the State is in its final throes–but what a good ride it had. In a structural take on international relations, as compared to the theoretical view of power espoused by Moses Naim, Charles Maier looks backward in Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood and John Mickelthwait and Adrian Woodridge wonder about the future in The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State.

As Maier chronicles in his gripping account, the modern state wrapped itself in legal authority, harnessed technology, established markets, acquired wealth, and launched violent campaigns of territorial expansion. By the 1970s, the modern state had vanquished all the major alternative forms of political organization: a remarkable world-historical moment.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge cover some of the same ground. But the two editors of The Economist are more interested in the state’s future than in its past — and they are worried. In this clever and sharply argued book, they warn that the liberal democracies of the West have grown too big, a development they describe in evocative terms: “bloat,” “elephantiasis,” “omnipresent nanny,” the “supersizing” of the state. The unchecked growth of government, they claim, contributes to all the ills of today’s Western democracies: frayed social safety nets, demographic imbalances, fiscal crises, legislative gridlock, influence peddling, toxic partisanship. Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue that to fix those problems and fend off the challenge posed by the updated models of authoritarianism put in practice by the Chinese and others, Western democracy must be reinvented.

via Leviathan 2.0; The Fourth Revolution | Foreign Affairs.

Maier draws on history to show how how what we consider modern aspects of the state, “territorial integrity, highly developed governing structures, and technological prowess” are “historical anomalies–as Ethan Epstein writes in National Journal.

Not that this is new. Parag Khanna has been making this case in the literate press for some time, with the rise of NGOs coming to the scene most forcefully in the 1990s–now non-state actors in the media (bloggers), intelligence (Snowden), even terrorism (Bin Laden) are top of the list material for concern.

Henry A. Kissinger as Negotiator

The myth of Kissinger is as great as the historical reality, if not larger. Whether you find him to be a scion of diplomacy or a scoundrel, or a little bit of both, how does he stack up as a negotiator? A recent paper by James K. Sebenius and Laurence A. Green do a little work by exploring three key negotiations, with a useful list of other activities in the appendix:

Following a brief summary of Henry A. Kissinger’s career, this paper describes three of his most pivotal negotiations: the historic establishment of U.S. diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the easing of geopolitical tension with the Soviet Union, symbolized by the signing of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (“SALT I”), and the mediation of the agreement on Sinai disengagement between Egypt and Israel. An appendix lists other important negotiations in which Kissinger played key roles. In a subsequent paper (forthcoming), the authors will examine these and other major events in which Henry Kissinger played leading roles in order to extract their most important insights into the principles and practice of effective negotiation.

via Henry A. Kissinger as Negotiator: Background and Key Accomplishments :: SSRN.

Holly Case and the “Age of Questions”

Asking questions is more than a useful pedagogical tool. It used to chart the waves of history in big, seemingly important ways:

The 19th-century drive to settle or solve questions reveals something essential about them: They were construed as problems. The “question” had become an instrument of thought with special potency, structuring ideas about society and politics, and influencing the range of actions considered possible and desirable. This potency is evident in another creation of 19th-century commentators: the “definitive” or “final solution.” …


Today we “address issues” rather than “solve questions.” Perhaps this is why Putin’s reference to the “Ukrainian question” did not arouse much interest: We no longer live in an age of questions. Still, when The New York Times reports on the “French question” as though that country’s decline in prestige makes it the Ottoman Empire of our time, and a Latvian state official speaks of the necessity of facing the “Russian question,” and the Scottish referendum on independence from Britain has reignited both the “English question” and the “Catalonian question,” could it be that we are now on the cusp of a new age of questions? If so, we might do well to consider the first one.

via Interrogative Mode – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This “age of questions” that Holly Case writes about can be seen to shape current transformations “in the form of European Union enlargement, the Arab Spring, and Ukraine’s Maidan.” And in the latter case–the historical underpinnings have been mined by Putin even thought they work against his interests in Ukraine:

In 1915 a French diplomat asked the conservative Russian statesman Ivan Goremykin about the Ukrainian question. “There is no Ukrainian question!” Goremykin snapped. “From the national point of view, the Ukrainians are as Russian as the purest Muscovites. And from the economic point of view, the Ukraine is necessarily tied to Russia.” Russian liberals and leftist revolutionaries—who tended to believe there was such a thing as Ukrainians—were less dismissive. During the early stages of the Russian Revolution, in 1917—just months before Goremykin was killed by a street mob—the liberal novelist and poet Dmitry Merezhkovsky lamented, “We would like very much to say that there is no such thing as the Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, Armenian, Georgian question, that there is only one question—the Russian. Yes, we would like to, but we cannot; the Russian people have yet to earn the right to say that, and therein lies their tragedy.” To Merezhkovsky, national questions were remnants of the old czarist regime, lingering problems that the revolution would address.


Fast-forward nearly a century: It is no longer Russian imperialists but Ukrainian nationalists and patriots who insist that “there is no Ukrainian question, just a free, great Ukrainian nation.” It is safe to say that a question enjoys special longevity when those who deny its existence are as passionate and determined as those who profess its primacy. The struggle is therefore not between groups with opposing views on an issue so much as between groups that cannot agree on the terms of debate, or for which those terms are the debate.

Using SIMS: Stop Blaming Students for Your Listless Classroom

Simulations and gaming approaches to learning can be powerful additions to forlorn general education history of civilization courses–just how IO simulations (MEU, MUN, Model Arab League) work for international relations.  For example, Reaching to the Past (RTTP) is a role-playing simulation where students play assigned roles using classic texts in the history of ideas, such as Darwin and the rise of Naturalism (1861-1864), Athens in 403 BC, or the trial of Galileo (1616-33). The results?

Over and over again he heard stories like the one told by Nate Gibson, an undergraduate who played a Reacting game on the French Revolution in a Western-civilization course at Dordt College in the early 2000s. Gibson said that, as the semester drew to a close, his professor foresaw that he would not have enough time to finish the game, and let students know that it would have to finish early. In response, the students proposed that class start 30 minutes early for the remainder of the semester—at 7:30 a.m. The professor agreed, and the game was allowed to run its course.


Recollecting that experience, Gibson recalled the difference between learning in that course and what his peers in other courses were experiencing. As he described to Carnes: “While my friends trudged off to their engineering, theology, philosophy, or business classes with this sense of apathy and frustration, I was rushing off to Western Civ, eager to see how the day’s session would unfold.”


Comments like that contrast so sharply with the dire picture we read about today’s students in so many articles on higher education. But as many of us who write about teaching and learning on college campuses would argue, sparking that kind of excitement in the classroom requires faculty members to let go of their nostalgic yearning for the idealized students of the past.

via Stop Blaming Students for Your Listless Classroom – Advice – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Booklist | Henry Kissinger, ‘World Order

Kissinger inveighs on statesmanship, ‘the craft of “attending” to [global] problems’ in his forthcoming book.  He has been attacked by liberals such as Christopher Hitchens, Gary J. Bass and Seymour Hersh as well as from conservatives. Even as it sounds a lot like my class lecture last week–I’m still looking forward to the massive tome:

The premise is that we live in a world of disorder: “While ‘the international community’ is invoked perhaps more insistently now than in any other era, it presents no clear or agreed set of goals, methods or limits. . . . Chaos threatens side by side with unprecedented interdependence.” Hence the need to build an order — one able to balance the competing desires of nations, both the established Western powers that wrote the existing international “rules” (principally the United States), and the emerging ones that do not accept them, principally China, but also Russia and the Islamic world.

This will be hard because there never has been a true world order. Instead, different civilizations have come up with their own versions. The Islamic and Chinese ones were almost entirely self-­centered: If you were not within the umma of believers or blessed with the emperor’s masterly rule, you were an infidel or a barbarian. Balance did not come into it. America’s version, though more recent and more nuanced, is also somewhat self-centered — a moral order where everything will be fine once the world comes to its senses and thinks like America (which annoyingly it never quite does). So the best starting point remains Europe’s “Westphalian” balance of power.

via Henry Kissinger’s ‘World Order’ –