The Loss of Two Unsung Heroes of International Relations: A Tale of Two ‘Bobs’
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 22 Oct 2018
21 Oct 2018 – In the recent past two giants of International Relations (IR) scholarship died, leaving behind a corpus of work and a legacy of influence, especially among their talented and devoted followers in the academic world. I was fortunate to have enjoyed the friendship of both Robert Gilpin and Robert W. Cox, learning from both of these masters of the field despite their seemingly divergent worldviews. My connection with the two Bobs’ was quite different, Bob G. being my departmental colleague at Princeton for almost 40 years, while Bob C. more am intellectual and political comrade with whom I only rarely interacted with personally. This greater intimacy with scholarship than the person mainly reflects living and working so distantly from one another.
Why I pair these two academic figures is because for me their similarities, additional to their births and deaths being so close together, outweigh their differences, making the comparison intriguing for me. For many their stark differences in intellectual style, ideological stance, and political lineage would strike the inquiring eye first, and the similarities would be unnoticed.
Gilpin was a self-proclaimed conservative, holding an endowed chair honoring Dwight Eisenhower, and somewhat expressive of his moderate Republican, rural Vermont outlook that valued individual integrity and family closeness above all else. When it came to his scholarly approach Bob self-identified with ‘classical realism’ viewing hard power and economic capabilities as the forces dominating the annals of world history. His mission was to understand how the world order works in relation to its two key dimensions—war and political economy. His books War and Change in World Politics (1981) and The Political Economy of International Relations (1987), along with Global Political Economy (2001) will deservedly be long remembered and actively studied. Their conceptual clarity, lucid prose, and soft erudition make these scholarly contributions enjoyable to read, itself a rarity for such subject-matter.
Gilpin was in many ways an American analogue to Hedley Bull, and not surprisingly they were friends and shared a common frame of reference that went against the pretensions of social scientific approaches to IR. To validate the claim of being ‘classical’ realists Gilpin and Bull both regarded history and philosophy as more instructive than social science when it came to understanding international relations. Later in his career Gilpin became conversant with the work of economists, and even applied rational choice theory to his effort to grasp the essence of war and change in international society.
Gilpin’s central linkage between war-proneness and hegemonic decline could be published today to acclaim as it casts a bright light on the seemingly irrational belligerent behavior of the United States. This hegemonic actor seems to be inviting the outbreak of war with an almost mindless disregard of its catastrophic dangers in the nuclear age. In War and ChangeGilpin develops an illuminating set of explanations for why hegemonic powers almost always decline, and resort to war in a vain effort to halt their slide. Gilpin’s political economy writing delineated a new sub-field for mainstream IR, drawing on contemporary economic thought and an Enlightenment confidence in the rationality of human behavior, while at the same time being informed by the Marxist line of critique of capitalism. It was illuminating without in any way challenging the established world economic order, which he praised as having produced unprecedented prosperity and stability since established after the Second World War.
Cox’s concerns and experience were was different. Working with the International Labor Organization (ILO) as a senior civil servant for 25 years, living in the vicinity of Geneva, and developing a feeling for the formative historical agency of people mobilized for change and behaving in ways that reflect their material conditions. His books, Production Power and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History (1989)and Approaches to World Order (with Timothy J. Sinclair, 1996)contain the essential pillars of his critical theory of international relations and his assessment of the current global situation. While Gilpin devoted his energies to understandingthe way the world of sovereign states and geopolitics works, Cox wanted to devote his understanding to the challenge of transformingthe world. In a rather profound sense, were the legitimate children of revolution: Cox being a child of the French Revolution while Gilpin of the American Revolution. These contrasting influences continue to work their way into practice and expectations of the West two centuries later.
Drawing heavily on the thought of Antonio Gramsci, it was Cox’s mission to demonstrate that the state system was presently entrapped, which presaged regression, and even collapse, unless popular energies could be mobilized around an appropriate transformative vision. While Gilpin observed change, Cox was intent on identifying the social forces that might achieve emancipatory change. Neither was hopeful about the future, Gilpin because of hegemonic decline, Cox because of the absence of a clear alternative to disastrous patterns of hegemonic governance.
Once Cox left the ILO late in life he embarked upon an academic career yet attained almost instant prominence. He became a professor at York University in Toronto, which provided a supportive progressive setting. His work there on international political economy, was definitely in the critical tradition associated with neo-Marxist thought, and was often associated with Susan Strange’s contributions. They were viewed often as co-founders of the British School of Political Economy.
Both Cox and Gilpin deserve our admiration as among the most significant thinkers that international relations has produced in the period since the end of World War II. While many insiders are attuned to the value of their contributions, the wider world has given greater attention to the intellectually flashy, and policy relevant, of such academic writers as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. These ambitious individuals gave the impression of marking time while waiting for a call to Washington. They were well vetted by the Council of Foreign Relation, the informal headhunting undertaking that was effective until recently in staffing the higher echelons of the State Department. Perhaps, making the point too strongly, whereas Cox and Gilpin lasting contributions are located in the sphere of knowledge, Kissinger and Brzezinski will be remembered primarily as controversial academic superstars in the sphere of power.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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