Fabian Blog
April 7th, 2020

Book Review: Hannah Arendt and International Relations

Edited by Antony F.Lang, Jr. and John Williams
Palgrave Macmillan, New York
2005, pages 236

There are nine papers in all, written by six scholars, two of whom double up as editors. All the writers are university teachers, with four of them teaching International Relations(IR). Hannah Arendt never wrote on IR as such. But, the editors believe that it is possible to gain insights of value in IR from philosophers even if they do not directly theorize on IR. So far no attempt has been made to find out to what extent the ideas of Arendt can be invoked into IR. This book is the first such attempt.

Patricia Owens has given a brief account of the life of Hannah Arendt. She was born in 1906 in Hanover, to a secular, middle class, Jewish family. She lost her father when she was only seven. At the age of 16, by which time she had “read almost everything”, Hannah started studying classics and Christian theology at the University of Berlin. Later, she moved to Marburg University and embarked on her “infamous relationship” with Martin Heidegger, a staunch supporter of Hitler. In 1925, Hannah moved to University of Heidelberg and did her Ph.D. under Karl Jaspers. The thesis was on St. Augustine. While in Heidelberg she met Gunther Stern, her first husband. She was much involved in Zionist activities. The Gestapo arrested her when they found out that she was collecting material on anti-Semitic propaganda from the Prussian State Library. In 1936, she met Heinrich Blucher, a communist, whom she married in 1940.They fled to US in 1941.Her first major work On the Origins of Totalitarianism came out in 1951. That made her an intellectual celebrity. The Human Condition(1958) was her major work of political philosophy. The European title of the book, The Vita Activa , was not considered catchy enough by the US publishers. In 1963, she published Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil, the most controversial of her books. Her argument that Eichmann was not radically evil, but only obeying orders was much resented by Jews and she was accused of not taking the Holocaust seriously. The same year she published On Revolution , differentiating between the American and the French Revolutions. She taught in a number of major universities including Columbia, Chicago, and Berkeley. She died in New York in 1975.

Patricia Owens in her paper on Arendt and Violence argues that the justification for “humanitarian war” in Kosovo, Afghanistan ,and Iraq is wrong basing herself on Arendt’s writings. Arendt makes a crucial distinction between power and violence. “Power springs up when people get together to act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then they may follow. Legitimacy, when challenged, bases itself on an appeal to the past, while justification relates to an end that lies in the future. Violence can be justifiable, but it will never be legitimate.” From an Arendtian perspective deliberative theorists have only justified (to themselves) but not legitimated “humanitarian” war.

Andrew Schaap in his paper on Forgiveness,Reconciliation, and Transitional Justice draws our attention to the relevance of Arendt’s theory on forgiveness and reconciliation to our times. Arendt insists that without forgiveness there will be no politics. For, “without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would ,as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we never recover; we would remain victims of its consequences forever.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC) of South Africa prompted the IR scholars to take interest in Arendt’s book The Human Condition. It might be a good idea for the IR scholars in India to apply Arendt’s theories on forgiveness to Partition , some aspects of the Hindu-Moslem divide and the Dalit search for justice.
Douglas Klusmeyer in his paper Hannah Arendt’s Critical Realism argues that the failure of Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan to take due note of the Holocaust reveals the “blind spots” in their theory of realism. The paper is essentially a comparative study of Arendt, Morgenthau, and Kennan. Kennan believed that “German atrocities” were primarily a product of age-old “customs of war.” Morgenthau in his 1945 essay, The Evil of Politics and the Ethics of Evil, never paused to consider “whether the Nazi phenomena present any new or original perspectives on his theme.” Unlike Arendt, Kennan and Morgenthau viewed IR through a “top-down state-centred lens.” Morgenthau is generally considered the father of IR. Unlike Morgenthau , Kennan, and other IR practioners who wanted a place on the “balcony of statesmen”, Arendt devoted herself to a cosmopolitan search for justice and she was uncomfortable in the public arena. Klausmeyer thoughtfully contrasts the failure of Kennan and Morgenthau to grapple with the significance of “industrial mass murder and genocide” of our times with the approach of Thucydides, often invoked as a key antecedent of twentieth-century’s realist thought. By his emphasis on the interplay between foreign alliances and domestic politics, Thucydides showed a deeper understanding of the political reality. Arendt believes that it is ultimately “moral cowardice” that has come in the way of US’s agreeing to an international criminal court or accepting the Geneva Conventions without serious reservations. Arendt argued that those who search for highly simplified and abstractly ordered models of reality are allergic to facts and she draws attention to the phenomenon of “defactualization”, actively promoted by think tanks and Presidential advisors. “In the realm of politics, where secrecy and deliberate deception have always played a significant role, self-deception is the danger par excellence; the self-deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but also the real world, which will catch up with him.”(Italics added.) Klausmeyer concludes that Arendt saw the ” real nature” of modern politics much better than the other two.

The final paper on International Politics and International Ethics by the editors was not in the original draft. When the original draft was sent to peers, the editors were told that they should add a paper on what Arendt had to say on the linkage between ethics and IR. The editors believe that by raising certain pertinent questions inspired by Arendt they will “help orient the discipline in new directions.” Agency is an important concept in IR. When Alexander Wendt published his 1987 article on agency, IR theorists saw the importance of a debate traditionally confined to sociologists- Is it the individual agency or is it the social structure that shapes the outcome? Wendt, Linklater, and Campbell have opened up an important avenue of investigation for IR theorists. Unlike Wendt, Arendt does not rely on a binary notion of agency and structure. Linklater’s conception of citizenship is more Roman than Greek in that his emphasis is on rights rather than on the Greek idea that the citizen has an obligation to serve. Arendt adduces the agora as the space for true political activity. However, the fact remains that Arendt did not develop her thought in this regard. As regards responsibility, there are two strains of thought in Arendt. In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism she argued that anti-Semitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism are three instances of “radical evil”, institutional structures and ways of thinking that progressively degraded human dignity until they resulted in large scale slaughter in the pursuit of ideological ends. In Eichmann in Israel, Arendt argued her well known case of the banality of evil, meaning that Eichmann was merely implementing orders. Eichmann and many others were unable to think through the implications of what they were doing. The paper does not succeed much in orienting the discipline in new directions.

The book is a valuable contribution on literature on Arendt. It examines themes of interest not only to IR scholars. The general public too will be interested in the themes. However, the style of writing is rather discouraging for the general reader. There is a heading , Amnesty, Amnesia, and Anamnesis(page 80). The last word is rarely used and means recollection or reminiscence. In the text that follows there is no explanation. The authors expect much familiarity on the part of the reader with the literature only the specialist is familiar with.

What Arendt said about “defactualization” and the self-deception of think tanks and governments is, alas, so pertinent to the first decade of the third millennium whether it is the war on Iraq, or a financial crisis which causes an economic crisis as the decision-makers indulge in willful self-deception hoping that the bubble would not burst during their time.

March 5th,2009   category: Book Reviews, Books, Uncategorized   | tags: , |   

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