Rethinking War

The big news in our household is that Ann’s newest book is out!


Tokens of Power: Rethinking War, by Ann Hironaka, (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Amazon link.

This is Ann’s biggest book by far in terms of scope and ambition.  It started as an effort to explore how world society shapes international competition and warmaking, but it evolved over time into a full-fledged critique of the dominant understandings of war in military history and international relations.

The book is too big to easily summarize, but I’ll try to provide a taste of it.  The conventional view in military history and classic international relations sees war as a domain of strategic action, in which states compete in order to survive.  Such analyses tend to focus on leaders and their strategies, the concrete resources they fight over, and the evolving technologies that determine the course and conduct of war.

Ann undercuts these seemingly iron-clad determinisms by focusing on the incredible ambiguity and complexity of warmaking.  In fact, the combatants, goals, and strategies are ever-changing, and in most cases leaders are perpetually caught flat-footed.  The history of war is filled with monumental disasters, of powerful countries making epic misjudgments and bankrupting or destroying themselves in pursuit of technologies and resources (“tokens of power”) that often proved worthless in the end.

Theoretically, the book draws together strands of John Meyer’s world society theory with Jim March’s insights about the challenges of learning and rational action in a complex and ambiguous world.  War may be a miasma of infinite complexity, but states are under pressure to prepare for it anyway.  And, where ambiguity dominates, dynamics of social construction fill in the gaps in military plans.  Military theorists construct arbitrary interpretations of prior wars, which diffuse across world society and inform subsequent generations of military planning.

Ultimately, Ann argues that interstate competition tends to devolve toward “one-upmanship”.  While the actual world is complex, the social hierarchy of Great Powers is crystal clear.  The complex goal of obtaining “security” devolves into efforts to climb above others in the status hierarchy, usually to the detriment of all involved.

Scholars in international relations have been moving in this direction to various degrees for some time.  Fearon pointed out that rational states would avoid (costly) wars, so warmaking must reflect systematic error and misperception.  And, IR theorists are more accepting of the idea that war involves tremendous uncertainty, that states follow “bandwagons”, and that states fight over intangible things like “reputation”.  And, constructivists like Wendt suggest that security, itself, is constructed.

Ann uses insights from sociology to link these emerging themes in IR theory, to create a more coherent overall account of the dynamics of warfare over the past few centuries.  Of course, I’m biased, but I think it is an incredibly important book.  Sociologists have largely given up the study of war, but I think this is unfortunate.  Sociological ideas are more relevant than ever as the field of IR itself seeks to move toward constructivist direction.


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