Ethics & International Affairs Volume 25.2 (Summer 2011): Book Reviews [Full Text]: "Practical Judgement in International Political Theory: Selected Essays" by Chris Brown [Full Text]

Jun 30, 2011

Practical Judgement in International Political Theory: Selected Essays, Chris Brown (London: Routledge, 2010), 320 pp., $135 cloth, $44.95 paper.

Richard Ned Lebow (Reviewer)

Professor Brown has brought together a collection of his previously published essays, the earliest going back to 1987, which represent his contributions to international political theory, with particular reference to the nature of international relations, international relations discourse, and the exercise of judgment in foreign policy. In addition, the volume opens with a thoughtful autobiographical essay that tracks the author's intellectual evolution and his changing intellectual and policy concerns.

The three primary themes of the book, described below, are related, as they all address the purpose and utility of international relations as a field of study. Brown suggests, and I concur, that it is not a discipline but an eclectic field that borrows most of its concepts and methods from elsewhere. It does have a subject, although one with decidedly fuzzy boundaries, as it increasingly includes more than relations among states. Even studying interstate relations, as practitioners of most approaches understand, requires looking at what goes on inside states and inside the minds of their policy-makers and citizens. All of these actors are influenced as much by culture, ideas, and emotions as they are by material capabilities and concerns.

Our field, as Brown recognizes and even celebrates, is messy and plagued by conceptual and methodological controversies, but it is connected to the real world through its involvement in the pressing issues of the day. For many in our profession, theory and method are ends in themselves, and policy and the ethical questions associated with policy are entirely secondary and regarded as less valued concerns. To his credit, the reverse is true for Brown, for whom the purpose of theories and methods, and the logics they embed, is to provide thoughtful ways of making policy and understanding the practical dilemmas and moral choices that policy-making so often involves.

The first theme, communitarianism versus cosmopolitanism, is the least accessible to the lay reader but of great interest to international relations scholars. The eight essays on this theme not only address this controversy but demonstrate, rather than assert, the relevance of political theory to international relations. The canon of Western political thought asks fundamental questions about politics that can and should guide our research, but also offers grounds for approaching ethical questions—especially those dealing with so-called human rights—with recognition of the extent to which our understandings, even when validated by international agreements, represent a particular cultural orientation that can readily lead to condescension in dealings with others. Brown is not making a plea for toleration of "Asian values" or any other justification for repression. The real task, as he sees it, is to develop conceptions that enable us to encourage human rights elsewhere in the world by engaging in a meaningful dialogue with non-Western leaders, intellectuals, and media.

The section on discourse, the second of the three themes, contains five essays that address such issues as normative theory, Hegel, liberalism and ethics, and tragedy and international relations. They represent thoughtful contributions to various debates, and illustrate Brown's ability, as in the piece on tragedy, to bridge different sides or to reflect on their respective claims from a perspective that encourages both sides to develop more sophisticated and nuanced arguments. The chapters in this section also drive home the intellectual benefits of interrogating our field with ideas drawn from political theory. The Hegel essay allows Brown to highlight the dangers of appropriating and misrepresenting theorists to justify one's approach, as is so commonly done.

The concluding section, on the theme of judgment, focuses on cosmopolitanism, global society, and humanitarian intervention. There are two conceptual dangers in making foreign policy, and Brown is sensitive to both of them. The first, most common in the policy community and in the media, is to treat each problem as a novel one, depriving policy of the lessons of the past, or to draw superficial and misleading lessons from the past. The second, endemic to academe, is to label problems as "cases" and subsume them into existing theories or understandings. Brown's essays foreground the latter problem and oppose the mechanical application of theories or ethical principles to policy. Every case is different, and political considerations are relevant, not just a justification for unethical behavior. Choice is always difficult and often tragic in its unanticipated consequences. The most controversial essay in this section concerns preemption in the context of the Iraq War. While I am not sympathetic to the preemption doctrine, the piece does yeoman service through the reaction it has provoked, making it a kind of political Rorschach test. Many of the responses have been more emotional than analytical. Brown's goal was to examine the notion of prudence and challenge the search for total security, an argument that appears to have been lost on many of his critics.

Scholars and practitioners alike have much to learn from this book. Its underlying intellectual message is a timeless one: the need to approach political problems with sophisticated intellectual tools, but to do so with an appreciation of the complexity of the world and the overriding importance of context. Scholars would do well to emulate Brown in regarding international relations as a transformative field; in his view, the purpose of theory is not to justify actors and their policies—or to demonize them—but to help policymakers and educated publics to find ways of more effectively achieving normatively appropriate ends.


The reviewer is the James O. Freedman Presidential Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. His most recent books are Why Nations Fight (2010) and Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations (2010). In Search of Ourselves: The Politics, Psychology and Ethics of Identity is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

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