It would be genuinely exciting to say that Raymond Aron’s theory or understanding of international relations exercises—or ever did exercise—a broad, general influence on the field. Malheureusement, this is not, and really never has been, the case, at least in Anglo-American scholarship. Certainly Aron’s Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations is often cited in perfunctory footnotes listing the classic works of realism; but for all intents and purposes, John Hall’s comment concerning this magisterial book remains as true today as it did when he wrote it some quarter century ago: “one suspects that [Peace and War] is more quoted than read.” Although there are likely many reasons that account for this neglect, Stanley Hoffmann captured a large portion of the truth when he compared Peace and War to a book that has, and still does (if only negatively), exercise an enormous influence on the field.
One of the many reasons why Raymond Aron’s monumental Peace and War—a book far more ambitious in its scope and far more sophisticated in its analyses than Politics Among Nations—incited no comparable reaction from scholarly readers may well have been the greater judiciousness and modesty of Aron’s normative conclusions. Humane skeptics invite nods and sighs, not sound and fury; and sound and fury are good for creative scholarship. Moreover, Aron’s own scholarship was overwhelming enough to be discouraging; Morgenthau’s was just shaky enough to inspire improvements.
One could add to Hoffmann’s incisive assessment by noting that Aron never started what might be called an “Aronian” school of thought. Aron assiduously avoided predetermined and prepackaged conclusions: each situation had to be examined on its own terms, and from the perspective of those in power, before any concrete evaluation or decision could be made. The same can be said of his theory or understanding of international relations. Aron did not set out to explain the totality of international politics through a single concept such as “power” or the “configuration of forces,” and he was never persuaded by the behaviorist or positivistic revolution in the social sciences that became so fashionable in the 1950s. Instead of a doctrine, Aron offers his readers a way of thinking about, or a general approach to, political phenomena, the hallmarks of which are modest expectations, tentative conclusions, and (at best) probabilistic causal relations. Even if one agrees that Aron’s sober procedure remains closer to the actual texture of international politics than more grandiose theorizing, it is by that same token easy to see how the latter could capture and excite the imagination of future social scientists.
Although students of Aron might rightly bemoan the fact that he has had relatively little impact on international relations theory as a whole, one can certainly wonder whether Aron has anything significant to contribute to the field today. After all, Aron is often seen as first and foremost a Cold War theoretician: is he really the best person to turn toward in order to make sense of events like Islamic fundamentalism, global terrorism, and the apparent importance of transnational organizations and treaties, to name just a few pertinent issues? Indeed, one prominent Aron scholar may have unwittingly lent support to the foregoing appraisal when he stated that the one event Aron might have ignored in his long career was “the Iranian revolution of 1979, which with the benefit of hindsight was the point of departure for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.” It would seem that the post-September 11th world differs in too many fundamental ways for Aron to offer us any constructive, concrete guidance today.
This is not the first time such sentiments have been expressed; it is doubtful they will be the last. In their “Introduction” to Aron’s Peace and War, Daniel J. Mahoney and Brian C. Anderson rightly remind us about the plethora of prognostications that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and how many a scholar was heralding the emergence of a world order of such a vastly different character that old ways of thinking about international politics would be rendered obsolete. But they continue:
The atrocities of September 11, the U.S. defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, imminent conflict in Iraq, internal national conflicts within NATO, nuclear brinkmanship between India and Pakistan, the collapse of the dot-com boom, and rising economic protectionism—how different the world appears today. Politics has returned vengefully, making the liberal optimism of the 1990s appear naïve.
The great French liberal Raymond Aron would not have been surprised at the stubborn persistence of politics.
If Aron would likely have doubted that the end of the Cold War signified the end of power politics, then why should we doubt that he might not have something vital to say about international politics post-September 11th? Is global terrorism a phenomenon so wholly unprecedented that we need an entirely new theory of international relations to comprehend it; or is it the case that Aron’s conceptual framework might not offer us the best tools to isolate its character and pinpoint its uniqueness? Indeed, I would contend that if scholars had paid more attention to Aron’s understanding of international relations, far fewer scholars would have been surprised by such events as George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemption, the utter impotence of the U.N. in respect to the invasion of Iraq, and the vehement condemnation of both by “old” Europe, in general, and Jacques Chirac’s France, in particular. It is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate that Aron is a theorist from whom we can learn a great deal—indeed, a great deal more than many contemporary scholars—and that far from being deficient, Aron’s theoretical framework serves as perhaps the best starting point in conceptualizing international politics—including current politics—in the most comprehensive fashion possible. In arguing these points, I will sketch out some of Aron’s distinctive contributions to international relations theory as well as suggest some fruitful ways scholars can pursue and contribute to his legacy.
What Aron Stood Against
In discussing Aron’s contribution to international relations theory, it is perhaps best to begin by briefly articulating what Aron stood against: what does he caution the prospective theorist against expecting or hoping from theory?
Aron sounds one of his massive warnings about international relations theory from the opening pages of Peace and War: “the limits of our knowledge” (4/16). The “limits” to which Aron is referring are not so much a lack of historical evidence or information (although he certainly means this as well) but rather the inherent limits of theoretical knowledge itself. Aron argues that there is no single goal or objective which all states pursue, and attempts to argue that there is some such overarching end (e.g., “national interest” or “power and security”) are either hopelessly vague or distorting simplifications (16/28). This is not to say that efforts at conceptualizing international relations are fruitless—on the contrary, Aron is at pains to point out that all political units must be mindful of the alternatives of war and peace, and that “the risk of war obliges [states] to calculate forces or means” (16/29). But the alternatives of war and peace do not and cannot tell the theorist what specific goals political units will pursue, and absent this, the theorist is relatively constrained in what he can say or predict: “lacking a single goal of diplomatic behavior, the rational analysis of international relations cannot be developed into an inclusive theory” (17/29). These early cautionary remarks reach a crescendo at the end of chapter three. Here Aron most fully develops the difference between economic behavior and diplomatic-strategic behavior, and in so doing he clarifies why the former has had (and will continue to have) far more “success” when it comes to theory.
Of course, homo economicus exists only in our rationalizing reconstruction, but the relation between homo economicus and the concrete economic subject differs fundamentally from the relation between the ideal-type diplomat (defined by the search for the maximization of resources, of force, or of power), and the historical diplomat. The two “economic men”—one of theory and the other of practice—resemble each other as a retouched photograph resembles a snapshot. The theoretical economicus is more true to himself than the practical one; he has perfect information and makes no errors in calculation. But if either seeks the maximization of the same quantity (monetary income, production, long- or short-term profit), the former’s perfect calculations help us to understand, and sometimes to correct, the latter’s imperfect calculations. The diplomaticus of theory, who would have as his goal the maximization of resources, of actual forces, or of power, would not be an idealized portrait of the diplomats of all ages; he would be the caricatured simplification of certain diplomatic personages at certain periods. (91/100)
He concludes the chapter with the following observation:
If diplomatic behavior is never determined by the relation of forces alone, if power does not serve the same function in diplomacy as utility in economics, then we may legitimately conclude that there is no general theory of international relations comparable to the general theory of economics. The theory we are sketching out here tends to analyze the meaning of diplomatic behavior, to trace its fundamental notions, to specify the variables that must be reviewed in order to understand any one constellation. But it does not suggest an “eternal diplomacy”; it does not claim to be the reconstruction of a closed system. (93; cf. 285/102; cf. 288)
Given these inherent limitations, Aron repeatedly cautions theorists against the attempt of transforming international relations into an operational or predictable science. At the end of Peace and War, he engages in an extended analysis of game theory (767–87/751–70). While not denying its potential usefulness in helping to clarify certain aspects of diplomatic-strategic conduct, Aron emphasizes that it is not possible to quantify mathematically a concrete situation. Moreover, the very attempt at mathematical quantification is likely to lead theorists to ignore or distort a whole range of critical variables that are notoriously impossible or difficult to quantify (e.g., glory, justice, prestige, or religion [48, 91/59, 100–101]), and yet which are so often decisive in understanding a given event. What gives these criticisms their urgency is Aron’s keen awareness that diplomats will inevitably use and be influenced by theoretical knowledge, and that such mathematically inspired or oriented models will likely result in misunderstanding and misguided policies: diplomats may become prisoners of a certain theoretical outlook, unable to comprehend the genuine motivations of allies and enemies, and to propose innovative solutions in times of crisis.
Theory and theoretical models might be useful in helping to clarify or pinpoint the unique character of a particular event or historical epoch, but no theorist should foist upon the diplomat the dangerous illusion that theoretical knowledge and quantification can sharply reduce uncertainty, ambiguity, and risk. One might say that theorists who engage in or encourage such hopes are not only poor theorists but they also fail in their civic duty as political educators. “To approach human affairs in the spirit of geometry is catastrophic.”
In sum, Aron’s oeuvre serves as a steady reminder of the limits of theory in international relations—of the necessity of drawing modest conclusions, and of exercising restraint. Despite the best of intentions, international relations scholars will never discover a “grand theory” that enables them to predict diplomatic-strategic behavior, and the effort to do so is itself potentially irresponsible: it is not a lack of historical knowledge that thwarts scholars but the inherent limitations of theory itself. Aron stood squarely against the dominant trends in international relations, and this, in part, helps to explain why he had such a limited impact on Anglo-American social science.
Aron’s Distinctive Moral Contribution to International Relations Theory
Aron is most often classified as a classical realist—and to a certain extent, this is quite true. One readily finds throughout his writings, in general, and Peace and War, in particular, terminology and concepts most often associated with classical realism, e.g., the anarchical nature of international politics, the state as the principal actor, war as the distinguishing characteristic of interstate relations, and the configuration of the relation of forces. But if Aron can to some extent be described as a realist, one must stress with equal vigor and validity the important differences he has with this school of thought, especially when it comes to the enormous weight he places on moral concerns. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Aron’s theoretical understanding is an attempt (in part) to rescue morality or moral concerns and to return them to the hands of theorists—not in the sense of a doctrine or course of action (as a typical “idealist” might desire) but as a set of vital concepts for correctly comprehending international politics.
Although it is often overlooked, it is initially worth noting how Aron identifies and describes the “proper focus of interest” or specific characteristic of international relations: “they take place within the shadow of war, or, to use a more rigorous expression, relations among states involve, in essence, the alternatives of war and peace” (4–6/16–18). But when he reformulates this definition a few pages later, he stresses the fact that these alternatives often (if not always) involve a claim to justice: international relations deals with “the relations between political units, each of which claims the right to take justice into its own hands and to be the sole arbiter of the decision to fight or not to fight” (8/20). States have always understood that they had the legitimate right to resort to force if they felt compelled or obligated to do so, and classical jurists like Grotius and Vattel concurred in this assessment. Of course, the fact that states claimed they were engaging in a just and proper use of force did not at all guarantee that they were doing so; nevertheless, until perhaps more recent times at least, no state that believed it had been denied justice was required to “endure” that situation “indefinitely,” and no state believed that it needed to receive moral or juridical permission to use force from some sort of third party, whether it be a religious institution or an international tribunal or court (111–24/119–32). In sum, wars between political units cannot be explained by or reduced to mere self-interest or the accumulation of power because the human beings that represent their political units do not always act in this fashion, and a theorist must therefore recognize and weigh the moral arguments the participants put forth to justify their actions.
Aron’s acute appreciation of the moral dimensions of international politics resonates throughout Peace and War, especially in his discussion of the goals or ends states seek. At the most general level of abstraction or conceptualization, he argues that states have sought three historical objectives: security (either by increasing their own force or weakening a rival’s), power (the ability of imposing one’s will on another), and glory (to be recognized by others in a certain way or for a certain quality). Aron nicely distinguishes these three goals from one another (the first of which he calls a “material” objective, the latter two “moral” ones) by contrasting three famous French leaders.
Clemenceau sought the security, Napoleon the power, Louis XIV the glory of France. . . . In 1918 any rational chief of state would have proposed the same goal: to spare France the recurrence of a war as cruel as the one that an immense alliance had just brought to a favorable conclusion. Napoleon, at least after a certain date, dreamed of ruling Europe: he was not content with the honor of being universally celebrated as a great war leader. . . . He was ambitious for reality, not for appearances, and he knew that in the long run no state commands others if it does not possess the means of constraining them. Louis XIV probably loved glory as much as power. He wanted to be recognized as the first among monarchs. . . . He did not conceive of a disproportionately enlarged France, furnished with resources superior to those of her allied rivals. He dreamed that the names of Louis XIV and of France would be transfigured by the admiration of nations. (73–74/84)
As the chapter proceeds, Aron then recategorizes these objectives as he deepens his analysis of them. The ternary series security, power, and glory could also be reformulated as space (to conquer more territory), men (to conquer more subjects), and souls (to convert others to a political, social, or religious idea), or again as body (to accumulate material objectives such as space or resources or force), heart (to satisfy a state’s amour-propre by prevailing over its rivals), and mind (to spread an idea of which the state represents a unique incarnation). Aron poignantly and succinctly encapsulates his appreciation of the diversity of human motivations and objectives much later in the book:
States, like individuals, desire not only life but honor, not only security but dignity. Often they prefer danger in autonomy to peace under the protection of a stronger power. Are they “irrational”? Was the captain who went down with his ship irrational? If so, let us hope that humanity does not cease being irrational! (629/615)
Aron’s recognition of the dynamics of morality enriches his theoretical analysis in several ways. He takes seriously the fact that there have been (and will be) individuals and states which have seriously believed in their religious or ideological or civilizing mission, and which have been willing to go to unparalleled lengths to see their goals realized. In other words, Aron does not fall prey to a ubiquitous cynicism, one which ascribes to all such overt professions of faith or ideology as nothing more than “a camouflage for imperialism.” One must always begin with the viewpoint of the actors involved, even and especially when these individuals are making stringent moral claims and demands. To do otherwise is to misunderstand—perhaps fatally so—the motivations and ultimate purpose of an adversary, dismissing as little more than a hypocritical excuse something the adversary takes as the very core of his being. And this is all the more important for political leaders to avoid doing because Aron sees that wars fought for glory or an idea (whether religious or ideological) are often the most “inhumane” and “pitiless”; theoretical reasoning must not discount or distort the moral element in politics precisely because the cost of miscalculation here can be so great (75–76/85–86). Admittedly, Aron’s rich, detailed discussion here and elsewhere means that he must take into account a wide-ranging number of variables if he hopes to formulate any causal relations; but by the same token, of what use is a theory of international relations if it so abstracts from the complexities of the human soul that it can say nothing genuinely meaningful about politics? Aron might be described as a realist, but he was one whose philosophical education and temperament made him highly cognizant of the significance of the moral dimension of politics.
When Aron states that the alternatives of war and peace also imply a sense of justice, he thereby suggests that it is not possible to theorize about international relations without also examining a particular state’s conception of justice: in other words, one must look at the domestic regimes of the major powers as well as the conception(s) of justice and legitimacy that prevail in the international system. Aron therefore pays great attention to what he describes as “homogenous” and “heterogenous” systems: the former obtains when the major powers share similar regimes and conceptions of policy, the latter when the regimes are “organized according to different principles and appeal to contradictory values” (100/108). Because states in an homogenous international system share the same general principles of legitimacy, such systems tend to display greater stability; to limit violence when it does occur; to be more predictable in their political traditions and diplomatic codes of conduct; and to engage in competitive and even hostile behavior that does not degenerate into hatred of the rival or adversary. “Heterogeneity of the system produces the opposite”: instability, an increase in violence, uncertainty, and hatred between the enemy states (100–101/108–10). The configuration of the relation of forces, while certainly an essential variable in understanding any international system, cannot be divorced from the ends or goals sought by the major powers, and these latter depend decisively on the character of the state’s regime (147–49/154–56). By focusing on the unit level of analysis, Aron is able to avoid three related errors that theorists who focus predominantly on systemic factors tend to commit. First, states are far more influential in affecting the dynamics of the system than the system is in affecting their behavior. As Aron notes (perhaps thinking of Germany in 1933), “In each period the principal actors have determined the system more than they have been determined by it. A change of regime within one of the chief powers suffices to change the style and sometimes the course of international relations” (95; cf. 95–99, 140ff./104; cf. 104–108, 148ff.). Second, maintenance of the system or the systems’s “equilibrium” is not the exclusive or primary goal of the powers within that system. This may be a prudential consideration; but except for perhaps the case of Great Britain, the goal of the “maintenance” or “safeguarding or functioning of the system is to return, by a devious route, to the error of certain theoreticians of power politics: to confuse the calculation of means or the context of the decision with the goal itself” (130–31; cf. 128–36, 146–49/139–40; cf. 137–44, 154–56). And finally, third, regardless of the system—whether bipolar or multipolar—both can lead to hostilities and war, and both are capable of equilibrium. Aron does not deny that each system tends to display specific characteristics, and he discusses them throughout chapter 5; but neither system is inherently more bellicose or peaceful than another, and therefore the dynamics of a particular system cannot be rigidly determined by a theorist in advance (146–49/154–56).
The critical importance of the regime (or the unit level of analysis) makes Aron’s theory of international relations much more akin to the classical political thought of someone like Aristotle than it does to many contemporary theorists. As Daniel Mahoney has rightly observed, Aron, like Aristotle and the classical philosophers in general, sees a “necessary connectedness” between the two supposedly distinct political science sub-fields of international relations and comparative politics. “The thought of statesmen about international relations and the forms of each regime affect the way statesmen operate within an albeit anarchic international environment.” This indissoluble link between comparative politics and international relations is further revealed, if not necessitated by, Aron’s methodological approach: historical sociology. According to Aron, the distinguishing characteristic of historical sociology is its emphasis on “comparative study,” by which he means an investigatory method that attempts to isolate and highlight probabilistic causal relations through a rigorous comparison within and across different historical periods. In this respect, the historical sociologist is continuously required to glide back and forth between an analysis of the structural determinants of behavior (i.e., the macro or sociological or systemic causes that exert an influence on international politics) and the concrete study of a given diplomatic constellation (i.e., the micro or historical or unit level causes that influence decision making). Aron notes that theorists who focus primarily on the former factors to the neglect of the latter are likely to commit two related errors: “they tend to establish ‘causes’ where, at most, there are trends, and they do not take account of all the factors involved but exaggerate the influence of those that are considered.” One might say that one of the great virtues of historical sociology is that it compels a theorist to give due consideration and weight to the authentic political perspective of those actors whose decisions are the object of theoretical or scientific investigation. Certainly theorists must avoid privileging the micro level of analysis to the exclusion of everything else, for then they are likely to deny that there are any recurrent, systemic patterns of behavior. Nevertheless, the greater problem or temptation that Aron saw in his day was that theorists tended to ignore or discount what the historical actors themselves said influenced them to act in a certain way; and one of the most important keys to unlocking in their full complexity these influences is often embedded in an understanding of the regime which the actors themselves have self-consciously chosen to serve and defend.
The policy-makers do their thinking with reference to a certain system of values, a conception of their community and of the world which reflects the special individuality of the nation. It is perfectly legitimate—indeed it is necessary—to determine, in each set of circumstances and in each country, the ideological system to which the policy-makers subscribe and the influences, in the form of tradition and public opinion, to which they are subjected.
Much more can and ought to be said about other distinctive contributions Aron made to international relations theory—they are literally bursting forth on every page of Peace and War. Let us, however, briefly conclude with the following. Aron was aware that whether a theorist admitted it or not, every theoretical enterprise carried within it certain normative conclusions (575/563). Aron was honest and diligent enough to declare forthrightly what his were in Part IV of his book, entitled “Praxeology.” Aron’s normative conclusions—or “morality of prudence”—emerge from his attempt to transcend and thereafter to moderate what he sees as the two “praxeological problems” confronting leaders: the “Machiavellian problem” of the legitimate recourse to force (what he later christens a “morality of struggle”) and the “Kantian problem” of collective security and universal peace (or a “morality of law”) (577, 608–9/565, 595–96). Neither a morality of struggle nor a morality of law can, on its own, provide a leader with a consistent and responsible principle of diplomatic-strategic conduct. On the one hand, even though states share certain norms of behavior and principles of legitimacy, they continue to reserve the right to use force as they see fit, and the diplomat who neglects to calculate the balance of power in the hopes of upholding international law fails in his duty; on the other hand, states have rarely considered every recourse to arms legitimate, and they have often sincerely aimed at promoting and defending higher goals and values. The bellicose character of international politics cannot be transcended, only moderated, but such moderation can come neither from opportunism divorced from reflection upon higher principles and goals nor from the single-minded pursuit of heartfelt convictions divorced from considerations of the consequences of those actions. Only a morality of prudence considers and weighs both of these antinomies as it comes to decide the best course of action:
To be prudent is to act in accordance with the particular situation and the concrete data, and not in accordance with some system or out of passive obedience to a norm or pseudo-norm; it is to prefer the limitation of violence to the punishment of the presumably guilty party or to a so-called absolute justice; it is to establish concrete accessible objectives conforming to the secular law of international relations and not to limitless and perhaps meaningless objectives, such as “a world safe for democracy” or “a world from which power politics will have disappeared.” (585/572)
The morality of prudence is therefore a morality of responsibility, and the prudent diplomat is the one who, unlike someone acting from Weberian conviction alone, always takes into consideration the likely consequences of his decisions and acts accordingly (634/620). Certainly Aron’s observations on the morality of prudence or responsibility are formal: no concrete moral evaluation can be made unless one knows the particular event and the objectives pursued by the states involved. Nonetheless, Aron’s many political judgments during the Cold War, and the thoughtful strategy he advocated, give content to that form, and they begin to suggest how he might evaluate those current conflicts where realists and idealists alternately decry and praise policy decisions.
Aron’s Theory in the 21st Century: Conceptualizing, Understanding, and Responding to Terrorism
As was suggested at the beginning of this essay, one can legitimately wonder if Aron’s so-called “Cold War” theory of international relations has anything to offer students who wish to pursue his legacy in the 21st century. And there is no better way to answer this question than to examine whether, or to what extent, Aron’s wide-ranging theoretical conceptualizations offer any guidance in understanding what is undoubtably the most pressing foreign policy issue facing decision makers today: global terrorism and radical Islamic fundamentalism. These comments do not claim to be strikingly original or new; rather, my aim is to demonstrate that Aron’s theoretical framework can fully incorporate Islamic terrorism within it as well as suggest prudent responses to it. Let us begin with the following observations.
One might claim that the distinguishing characteristic of terrorism is that terrorist networks do not belong to any state: in the words of Tzvetan Todorov, “terrorist violence has to be committed not by a state or its government but by individuals or groups who have no legitimate mandate to use violence. . . . Terrorism is an act of war perpetrated by people without a state.” It this were correct, then Aron might have very little to say on the subject of terrorism, for Peace and War takes as its starting point and exclusive focus the alternatives of peace and war between organized, territorial political units (4–18/16–30). But Aron was fully aware that organized, territorial political units described a Weberian “ideal type” and not an entire class of phenomenon, and that there were many situations of armed conflict in which one or both combatants were not states.
[T]he marginal cases which may or may not involve independent political units or organized military forces do not invalidate the definition quoted, but are simply fresh evidence of the gradation always found in social phenomenon. On the borderline, civil war and international war merge together, as do the clash of armies and guerilla warfare. We must not overlook this area of doubt on the borderline—we shall take account of it in the course of the explanations that follow—but it does not make it impossible for us to begin by considering the phenomenon in the “perfect” state.
Aron’s conceptual framework does not deny the existence of conflict between less organized and/or non-territorial entities; instead, he constructs a theoretical edifice in the only way that one can, namely by focusing on the most “typical” or “perfect” sorts of armed conflict.
Notwithstanding these initial remarks, the larger question still remains: does statelessness constitute the distinguishing characteristic of terrorism? I believe that Aron would have denied this, or at least have severely qualified it. When discussing the various meanings of the word “terror,” Aron argues that both states and non-state actors could be terrorists or use terrorist tactics. “An action of violence is labeled terrorist when its psychological effects are out of proportion to its purely physical result. In this sense, the so-called indiscriminate acts of revolutionaries are terrorist, as were the Anglo-American zone bombings. The lack of discrimination helps spread fear, for if no one in particular is a target, no one can be safe” (170/176). According to this definition, the fact that a group is stateless does not mean that it is necessarily terrorist—the group could employ non-violent resistence to achieve its goal and the state could ruthlessly suppress anyone it thought sympathized with them, guilty and innocent alike. Nor does it mean that any and all use of violence is necessarily terrorist, even violence that kills innocent civilians. What Aron identifies as the distinguishing characteristic of terrorism is a fundamental disjunction or incongruity between the fearful effects on the psyche of the target population and the actual physical damage the action wrought. Obviously, actions would be labeled terrorist when the victims are individuals who have little or nothing to do with the conflict and whose deaths do not bring the perpetrators of the action significantly closer to what they wish to achieve—but these would not be the only possible cases of terrorism, both theoretically and historically. Before deciding an action is or was terrorist, Aron first requires the analyst to make a concrete determination to see if the action’s “psychological effects are out of proportion to its purely physical result.” Of course, such determinations may differ from analyst to analyst; nevertheless, Aron does help us to see that terrorism (at least for him) is not so much an attribute or property of a particular group but of a particular sort of action groups or states might use.
The preceding remarks suggest that any attempt at determining whether an action or group is a terrorist will require the analyst to concentrate on two key factors: first, what are the actual goals that terrorists seek; and second, what are the means that they have at their disposal. Not surprisingly, these are the very factors Aron uses to understand any and all diplomatic-strategic conduct, and it is here that we can begin to delineate the unique features of radical Islamic terrorism (cf. 21, 30, 47–48, 71–72/33, 42, 58–59, 81–82). In respect to the goals of someone like Osama Bin Laden, Aron’s moral understanding of international relations plays an extremely useful function: it forces the theorist to highlight the genuinely religious dimension of this sort of terrorism. Al Qaeda is animated by a perverse but seemingly genuine form of religious zeal, and their moral principles and religious ideas must be comprehended in order to understand the goals that they seek, whether it be the restoration of the ancient caliphate, the expulsion of the United States from Saudi Arabia, the toppling of corrupt regimes in the Middle East, and/or the destruction of the West and Israel. In respect to the means, Aron would likely focus on what he saw as two of the most important revolutions in the post-Cold War era: the worldwide extension of the diplomatic field and the creation of nuclear weapons (or what he often simply termed as weapons of mass destruction) (371/369). Modern terrorist networks are able to utilize international financial institutions and telecommunications, and this allows them a genuinely global reach when it comes to broadcasting their propaganda, financing their operations, and communicating internally. In addition, the arsenal of weapons at their disposal goes far beyond a machine gun and a grenade: for the first time in history, terrorists have at least the potential to wreak destruction on a truly monstrous scale. In sum, a terrorist group is one whose violent actions have a terrifying psychological effect on an enemy which does not at all correspond to the physical damage inflicted, and what is distinctive about radical Islamic terrorism is the religious goals that they promote and the global infrastructure and weapons they now have at their disposal.
By distinguishing Islamic terrorism according to the goals they seek and the means they use, Aron helps us to draw some important but rather grisly initial conclusions. Consider the following remarks Aron makes in discussing how political considerations limited France’s military options against the FLN in Algeria:
Rare in the modern history of Europe are the circumstances in which the leaders have been free to do everything they regarded as effective and useful on the strictly military level. That generals must renounce certain actions out of respect for international legality, for allies or neutrals, is the rule rather than the exception. (38/50)
These remarks would certainly apply to the United States and its allies; they would not apply to this specific brand of terrorism: whereas the U.S. is clearly constrained in the weapons it can use and those whom it targets, these same restrictions do not apply to Al Qaeda. To begin to understand and take seriously Al Qaeda’s religious and moral ideas is to confront a profound disregard for any distinction between combatants and non-combatants, soldier and civilian, guilty and innocent, legitimate and illegitimate targets: all are equally condemned, and all are potential victims, wherever they may be. Therefore, the means this terrorist group is willing to use includes any and all means that are currently available to them. In other words, one of the unique characteristics of Al Qaeda is not only that they have the potential to acquire weapons of mass destruction (this remark would apply to almost every terrorist network in the world today) but that they would actively seek to do so (which does not apply to any and all terrorist groups). To put it bluntly, what was once called the “nuclear taboo” is no longer considered so by one of the combatants. During the Cold War, the common interest in preventing nuclear annihilation moderated (to some extent) the strident ideological battle between the United States and the former Soviet Union, and this is why Aron called the two antagonists the “enemy brothers”: enemies to the extent they were arming for war, brothers to the extent that neither wanted to wage that war (407, 428, 536ff., 569–70, 637, 648–49/403, 424, 527ff., 557–58, 623, 633–34). Today, the existence of nuclear weapons has exactly the opposite effect, as all sense of “fraternity” has been cast aside: one side possess these weapons but is ultimately unable to use them, and the other side is willing to use them but unable (as yet) to acquire them. In short, the specific goals of this particular terrorist network allows it to enjoy an enormous flexibility when it comes to the targets and means at its disposal, targets and means which will not be at ours. Finding the proper political and military response is all the more essential and difficult (cf. 282–84/285–87).
With these thoughts in mind, we are now in a better position to evaluate to what extent “statelessness” is a distinctive characteristic of terrorism. Rather than claiming that statelessness is the distinguishing characteristic of terrorism, I believe that Aron would argue that it is statelessness that gives terrorists unique tactical advantages over organized, territorial political units—and particularly gruesome ones at that. In the first place, it may be next to impossible to completely destroy a terrorist group, at least in the short run. If France was unable to stop the activities of the FLN in Algeria, then in what sense is it realistic to expect that a group which has terrorist cells everywhere from Germany to Indonesia to Africa can be eradicated in a matter of months and years, let alone decades? Second, groups like Al Qaeda have significant advantages when it comes to the “public relations war.” Each time that terrorists succeed in carrying out an attack, they can legitimately claim “victory” by showing the impotence of those states aligned against them. As Aron argued in respect to Algeria, all that the FLN had to do in order “to win” that conflict was “not to lose it.” As the FLN had absolutely no chance of destroying France, their strategy consisted, in part, in preventing themselves from being annihilated; over time, they rightly saw that France would simply grow weary and exhausted of a protracted conflict which they (the French) could never hope to win (30–36/42–48). Similarly, as long as Al Qaeda can continue to launch successful attacks against any of its enemies, they can plausibly claim some measure of victory, at least in the sense of demonstrating that those states cannot guarantee the security of their citizens—and this is made all the easier for them to do precisely because they are a “moving” target (a stateless group) which is capably of striking against any number of “fixed” targets (territorial states). And finally, third, to the extent that Al Qaeda is able or content to achieve at least some of their goals while remaining stateless, then it is not clear when or if there will be an end to this sort of terrorism. Aron notes that terrorism ended in Algeria the moment the FLN had achieved their objective of an independent state; to the extent that Al Qaeda’s goals are not simply nationalistic but are far more comprehensive, destructive, and religiously inspired, then it is unclear whether terrorism would end unless one of the combatants in this war capitulates or is destroyed.
Thus far, we have focused on how Aron might begin to conceptualize Islamic terrorism; but it is also possible to use his theory—and especially his normative conclusions—to discern some of the unique challenges facing the United States and its allies when it comes to devising an appropriate political response. Without question, the first task Aron would stress accomplishing would be the very one which he himself undertook whenever he faced a new and unfamiliar problem: one must become informed about its true character and complexities. In this respect, Aron would likely suggest using historical sociology to unearth the unique moral and religious character of this species of terrorism. Such an analysis would include, but certainly not be limited to, understanding the philosophical underpinnings of Al Qaeda’s writings, beliefs, and pronouncements; the religious and political leaders whom they admire and after whom they model themselves; the political and religious history of Islam and the ancient caliphate, as well as the rise and fall of the former Taliban regime; and finally, the Koran itself. This is not some mere academic exercise; rather, Aron was acutely aware of the import of being fully cognizant of the way in which one’s adversary sees the world. In commenting on America’s actions after the conclusion of the First and Second World War, Aron warned:
It is not enough to determine the objective, the ally, the enemy, in order to profit from the victory. If the intelligence of the state has not clearly determined its goals, and discerned the true nature of enemy and ally alike, the triumph of weapons will only by accident be an authentic victory, that is, a political one. (30/42)
Once the true character of this terrorist group is comprehended, Aron would likely emphasize employing a prudent, judicious rhetoric to combat it. As an editorialist who over the course of thirty years wrote some 4,000 articles on contemporary politics, Aron was fully aware of the necessity and power of rhetoric, and he used his prodigious talents to promote civic harmony by showing France what was in its genuine self-interest, however unpleasant that might be. In the case of Algeria, for example, Aron argued repeatedly that independence was inevitable, and that France needed to quit the war as soon as it was feasible. Algeria was no longer a colonial asset but a burdensome liability, and he called upon political leaders and the public to recognize this fact and adopt what he called a “heroism of abandonment.” Although one cannot be sure what Aron would advise in respect to terrorism, it does appear as though the opposite situation obtains today: the necessity of adopting a “heroism of commitment.” Precisely because terrorists are to some extent able to “win” this war simply by “not losing” it, political leaders have the difficult task of employing a rhetoric that combines encouragement and hope with a clear understanding of the unique and protracted character of this conflict. The public must be made aware that this struggle could likely continue for many years, if not decades, and those politicians who make sweeping promises of a swift and decisive victory are being both unrealistic and deeply irresponsible: as Al Qaeda has already demonstrated, they are more than willing to go into hiding and wait patiently for the enemy to let down its guard before they renew their attacks. Steadfastness, ardor, resilience: these are some of the qualities of character that need to be inculcated and practiced today, qualities that are difficult enough to cultivate let alone to sustain over many years.
The import of employing a proper rhetoric might seem a small thing—until we see the relationship between this and Aron’s understanding of how to evaluate a state’s power, both offensively and defensively. At the highest level of generalization, a political unit’s power is determined by its territory, resources, and collective capacity for action (54/65). Aron notes that the first two factors can more-or-less be objectively measured, and it is obvious that the United States far and away exceeds Al Qaeda in economic and military strength. The problem concerns how one can measure the third, especially over the long term (cf. 48/59). It is incontestable that U.S. and coalition soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have displayed remarkable courage and self-sacrifice; the question is how long the U.S. and its allies are willing to prosecute the war on terrorism with an equally tenacious and vigorous commitment. It is here that rhetoric plays a pivotal role: on the one hand, rhetoric can summon forth spiritual resources which had hitherto remained untapped, and it can steel a state’s resolve as it confronts a dangerous and uncertain future; on the other hand, rhetoric can just easily conjure up hopes and expectations that are all but impossible to meet, and which ultimately infect a country with disappointment, defeatism, or complacency. In other words, rhetoric can help to sustain or undermine the necessary element of self-sacrifice that every war entails and which so much determines a state’s collective capacity for action. Indeed, rhetoric might even be more important in determining this capacity the greater a state’s territory and resources: although a more developed country will have greater resources to mobilize, its wealth might be a hidden liability, especially when it comes to a protracted war. Aron observes:
In wartime the degree of mobilization is chiefly a function of administrative capacity, but also, in part, of the people’s acceptance of sacrifice. Beyond a certain point the war effort cannot be increased except by reducing the level of the standard of living of the civilian population. How far can this reduction go without affecting the level of morale? This question cannot be answered in any general way. It would seem, however, that peoples accustomed to a low standard of living accept privations more easily than those accustomed to a higher standard of living, which tends to reverse the purely theoretical proposition: the margin of mobilization is directly proportional to the standard of living. In the abstract, the gap between the actual condition of the people and the incompressible minimum is greater in rich countries than in poor countries, but the former cannot always do without what the latter classify as superfluous. (63/73)
The foregoing remarks have attempted to limn an Aronian-inspired analysis in the post-September 11th world. Obviously, we cannot turn to Aron’s corpus directly for answers to political problems that plague our century. And yet, it is nevertheless the case that Peace and War continues to speak to our times by offering us both the basic parameters and conceptual tools that any rigorous analysis of the twenty-first century would have to include: how the risk of war necessitates the calculation of means and ends; the power of ideas, whether political or religious, in shaping the dialectic of international relations; a regime-based study of the major actors in the international system; historical sociology to identify the distinguishing characteristics and relevant variables of the system under investigation; and lastly, the normative implications of the analysis. Certainly Aron’s magisterial study of international politics did all of this and much more, and it was this theoretical framework that helped to shape his prudent political advice throughout the Cold War. At the end of the day, Aron might also provide us with the pithiest formulation of the political dynamics we will be witnessing in the twenty-first century. In Le Grand Schisme, Aron describing the emerging dialectics of the Cold War world as: paix impossible, guerre improbable. Given the goals and means available to Islamic terrorists, we would be forced to conclude: paix impossible, guerre garantie.
. John Hall, Diagnoses of Our Time: Six Views on Our Social Condition (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1981), 164. Despite the overwhelmingly positive response it received upon publication in France in 1962, it met with decidedly more mixed reviews in North America. For a summary of both the French and American responses, see Robert Colquhoun, Raymond Aron: The Sociologist in Society, 1955–1983, vol. 2 (London: SAGE Publications, 1986), 191–97. For Aron’s own estimation of the merits of the book, see his Mémoires: 50 ans de réflexion politique (Paris: Julliard, 1983), recently reissued with a new preface by Tzvetan Todorov (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2003), 451–59. [CUT: The abridged English translation is Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection, trans. George Holoch (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1990), 301–5.]
. Stanley Hoffmann, “An American Social Science: International Relations,” Daedalus 106, no. 3 (Summer 1977): 45.
. See Raymond Aron, Thinking Politically: A Liberal in the Age of Ideology, trans. James and Marie McIntosh, intro. Daniel J. Mahoney and Brian C. Anderson (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997), 253–54. Perhaps surprisingly, it should be noted that most other parts of Aron’s voluminous corpus continue to enjoy a wide readership, both in North America, England, Western Europe, and most recently in Central and Eastern Europe, where many of his works are being translated.
. Nicolas Baverez and Pierre Manent (interview), “Raymond Aron: Political Liberalism, Civic Passion, and Impartial Judgement,” Society 41, no. 3 (March/April 2004): 17. It must be emphasized that Baverez would not admit that Aron has nothing to teach us today, as the interview amply confirms. [CUT: In the sentence immediately following the one quoted above, Baverez continues: “Otherwise, he comprehended everything: the rise of Nazism and of Stalinism—in short, the rise of totalitarianisms—and he drew on both the personal and intellectual planes all the requisite conclusions.” A bit later in the interview, Baverez adds: “To be sure, today’s world differs from Aron’s. But the fundamental questions that he posed—the contradictions within modern liberty, the fragility of democratic institutions, the regulation of market systems, the combination of war and peace—these are ever present.”]
. Daniel J. Mahoney and Brian C. Anderson, “Introduction” to the Transaction edition of Raymond Aron, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations, trans. Richard Howard and Annette Baker Fox (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003), xi. [CUT: The authors refer to such scholars as Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1993), Kenichi Ohmae, The Borderless World: Power and Strategy in the Interlinked Economy (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), and John Rawls, “The Law of Peoples,” in On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures, 1993, eds. Stephen Shute and Susan Hurley (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 41–82. (On this same theme, albeit written some twenty-five years earlier, see Aron’s epilogue, “Goodbye to Arms, or the Great Illusion,” in Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, trans. Christine Booker and Norman Stone [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983], 400–412.)] All page citations to Peace and War in the text of this essay will be to the Transaction edition followed by page citations to the French edition, Paix et Guerre entre les nations, 5th ed. (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1962). [CUT: In general, I have followed the English translation throughout, although I have sometimes altered it to make it more strictly literal.] All emphasized words in quotations are contained in the original.
. See, for example, Peace and War, 83–84, 111–24, 554–72, 703–36, 743–49/92–93, 119–32, 544–59, 691–722, 729–34, as well as [ADD:Mémoires, 298.]
. Raymond Aron, On War, trans. Terence Kilmartin (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), 117–18.
. For a relatively recent appreciation of Aron’s understanding of the limits of theory, see Jean Bethke Elshtain, “International Politics and Political Theory,” in International Relations Theory Today, eds. Ken Booth and Steve Smith (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 274–78.
. He certainly has much more in common with classical realism than he does with so-called neorealism—and the most well-known neorealist would certainly agree. In Theory of International Politics (New York: Random House, 1979), 43–49, as well as in “Realist Thought and Neorealist Theory,” Journal of International Affairs 44, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 21–37, Kenneth Waltz sharply contrasts his understanding of theory with Aron’s. To be sure, both Waltz and Aron see the international system as anarchic and that the distribution of capabilities or forces is an important variable. But after this the similarities end, with Aron focusing on a host of other factors (perhaps most notably, the character of the regimes of the most important powers).
. It should be emphasized, however, that this appreciation of the role morality plays in international relations never leads Aron to become a vapid moralizer, whether it be a Wilsonian internationalist who insists that states act according to international law or an anti-globalization activist who demands the elimination of capitalism and corporatism. There is no doubt that Aron deplored lawlessness and oppression, violence and duplicity; but he also understood that, human beings and states being what they are by nature, violence and duplicity often had to be employed to prevent even greater evils from occurring. In fact, Aron recognized that such moralizing often had the unintended consequence of bringing about the very event the moralizer decries (see 111ff./119ff.). One might say that Aron was enough of a realist not to become a moralizer but enough of a moralist to see the realistic part morality played in international relations.
. [ADD: Daniel J. Mahoney, The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992), 93–96.]
. [ADD: Aron, “Conflict and War from the Viewpoint of Historical Sociology,” in The Nature of Conflict: Studies on the Sociological Aspects of International Relations (Paris: UNESCO, 1957), 185, 192–94.] It should be noted that historical sociology is enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years, at least according to Stephen Hobden and John M. Hobson, eds., Historical Sociology of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), ix, whose volume of essays is an effort to “take stock” of this new development and to offer a sort of historical-sociological “manifesto” for future research. But while this is certainly encouraging news for international relations theory, it is very perplexing to see that one of the most persistent champions of historical sociology is more or less ignored. Although Fred Halliday, “For an International Sociology,” 244–48, is clearly aware of and impressed by Aron’s early contributions in this field, the only other time he is mentioned in the book (I believe) is in a footnote discussing transnational society (Andrew Linklater, “Towards a Critical Historical Sociology of Transnational Harm,” 169n8). If one were to hazard a guess as to why this is so, it might be related to the fact that the editors wish to use historical sociology “as a means to rethink theories and problematise the analysis of the present, and thereby to reconfigure the international relations research agenda” (5). In this sense, the editors seem interested in problematising many of the common assumptions underlying international relations theory as it has been generally understood and taught, and this would seem to mean questioning the key assumptions and beliefs of classical realism, in general, and therefore of Aron, in particular (13–20, 265–71). In other words, the conclusions Aron drew by using historical sociology might be the very ones the editors and others wish to problematise or reinterpret from whatever perspective in historical sociology they happen to come (20–41, 279–85). But again, one can only hazard a guess: in other places, the editors show a discontent with current approaches to international relations theory that is remarkably similar to Aron’s (e.g., 43–45ff., 58, 275–76).
. In what follows, I will focus almost exclusively on Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and the threat they pose to the United States, in particular, and the West, in general. It should go without saying that other terrorist organizations will have very different goals and strategies.
. Although Aron never offered (as far as I am aware) a detailed and schematic conceptualization of terrorism as such, and although he may not have foreseen the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, he was certainly familiar with both terrorism and Islam through his long meditations on the Algerian War and the Front de Libération nationale (FLN) in such books as La Tragédie algérienne (Paris: Plon,1957) and L’Algérie et la République (Paris: Plon, 1958). [CUT: Selections from both of these pamphlets have been translated and published in The Dawn of Universal History: Selected Essays from a Witness to the Twentieth Century, trans. Barbara Bray, ed. Yair Reiner, intro. Tony Judt (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 405–60.]
. Tzvetan Todorov, Hope and Memory: Lessons from the Twentieth Century, trans. David Bellos (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), xvi.
. Aron, “Conflict and War,” 181. The definition referred to in the quote was that war was “Armed conflict between two independent political units, by means of organized military forces, in the pursuit of a tribal or national policy.”
. [ADD: Cf. Aron, “The Anarchical Order of Power,” in History, Truth, Liberty: Selected Writings of Raymond Aron, ed. Franciszek Draus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 257–61.]
. Of course, it should go without saying that if the United States believed its very existence was in jeopardy from terrorism, then leaders and the public would certainly be willing to use much more extreme means to eradicate this threat.