The Blog April 21, 2023

What We're Reading


Daniel R. Quiroga-Villamarín, The Graduate Institute Geneva.

E. Tendayi Achiume and James Thuo Gathii, “Introduction to the Symposium on Race, Racism, and International Law,” AJIL Unbound 117 (2023): 26–30,

As they open a symposium on “race, racism, and international law,” Tenday Achiume and Gathii aptly noted that the last couple of years been marked by “a historic transnational racial justice uprising.” With this in mind, their timely collection of think pieces push the field of international law —and the American Society of International Law in particular— to reckon with the implications of these calls for racial justice for a rather exclusionary discipline. I hope that these reflections are also relevant for global historians, given the similar set of concerns that have also reached our shores.

Sebastian Gehrig, “New Histories of Law and Rights in Twentieth-Century Germany,” Contemporary European History, 2023, 1–12,

In this review essay, Gehrig offers a comprehensive reading of a recent set of interventions that “question the sharp constitutional boundaries between the fall of the Third Reich and the foundation of the two German states.” In this vein, the chorus of reviewed voices (which included both lawyers and historians; both Germans and foreign scholars) highlight the importance of legal and rights-related discourses in the everyday politics of the two Cold War German polities —with relevant consequences for the contemporary unified German state.

Anne Orford, “What Is the History of International Law For?,” Global Intellectual History, March 22, 2023, 1–23,

In her response to four rather critical review essays (including one of my own, for full disclosure), Orford provides a militant restatement of her recent monograph International Law and the Politics of History. Given that this symposium was published in a history journal and that the review essays were perhaps less sanguine than what has been written in the pages of legal periodicals, I hope it might prove relevant for global historians who want to better understand the fears and anxieties of other disciplines in relation to the use of historical methods for interdisciplinary research.


Asensio Robles López, EUI, History Department

Harold James, The War of Words. A Glossary of Globalization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).

Harold James' latest book is unlike any other in his repertoire. Those familiar with his now classics International Monetary Cooperation and The End of Globalization may have expected a monograph on the hegemony of the US dollar, the rise and limits of globalization, or perhaps a historically grounded analysis of today's economic crisis. The War of Words does not fit into any of these categories. It is a book about a set of words that dominate today's public and academic debates: capitalism, socialism, globalism, hegemony, multilateralism, and globalization, to name a few. Yet none of this means that James's mastery of international economic history goes to waste. In fact, one of the virtues of The War of Words is that James uses his historical and economic expertise to cast old questions in fresh light and create novel possibilities for debate. Let's take one example at a time.

James' latest monograph is a critique of the liberal understanding of human communication as a "marketplace of ideas”. Like earlier proponents of this view, Janes understands concepts in much the same way as money. Concepts, like money, are units of meaning whose ultimate value lies in the extent to which they are accepted by society. The more people accept a concept in their communication exchange, the higher the value of that word will be. And vice versa. But that is where James' acceptance of this approach ends. One of the implications of framing human communication as a marketplace of ideas is to believe that the terms that are common currency today have become so because of their intrinsic high value. However, concepts, like money, can fall victim to overvaluation, and thus become buzzwords. In this sense, The War of Words seeks to regulate some of the terms that, despite their prominence, rest on shaky foundations. This is an essential labor, James believes, if we are to bring our increasingly divided communities into more effective dialogue and avoid their slide into radicalism.

James is a historian, too. The second great strength of this monograph is that it does not aim for a simple definition of any of its ideas. The War of Words, as James remarks in his introduction and conclusion, is less a word glossary than a reflective essay on the power of concepts and the uncertainties of today's world. Time, as in the work of any historian, is a key variable here. Rather than offering a succinct definition of, say, "globalism," James provides a profound genealogy of the term. He begins by exploring its origins, identifying the people behind its creation and the historical context that justified its emergence. He then moves on to analyze the circulation of this idea, disentangling the various connotations that it acquired along the way. Finally, he concludes with an overview of how this word fits into today's debates.

James does not always succeed in ending each chapter with a clear definition of what some of these terms should mean. Doing so would imply a further involvement in the transformation of these concepts. This is something that James, a regulator more than a recreator of meaning, actively refuses to do. This makes The War of Words an inappropriate resource for anyone searching for immediate definitions. Purposefully so. There are no easy answers or shortcuts in this book, but that is because concepts, like money, are constantly being redefined. And in the end, it will be up to us and our transfixed societies to decide what to make of them.

Peter A. Hall, “Policy paradigms, social learning, and the state: The case of economic policymaking in Britain”, Comparative Politics, Vol. 25, No. 3 (April., 1993), 275-296.

As someone interested in understanding the crucial evolution of capitalism in the 1970s, I have often struggled to find the right balance between arguments emphasizing structural and individual forces. Each interpretation has its merits. Structural narratives have the potential to offer a bigger picture. As some of the most exciting recent works on global and transnational history have demonstrated, structural narratives also have the power to reveal hidden connections between countries and world regions. In doing so, they help us to provincialize national histories and better critique dangerous jingoistic ideologies. But structuralism also has its downsides. Historians will immediately recognize the difficulties of proving grand narratives while relying on a limited set of primary sources. Crucially, narratives that rely too heavily on exogenous forces can all too easily underplay the role of individual agency and, thus, fall into the trap of inevitability.

For students of the fall and rise of global capitalism, interdisciplinarity offers a promising way out of this conundrum. The work of Peter A. Hall, one of the most authoritative political scientists in the field of comparative political economy, is an excellent case in point. In his 1993 article, Halls embarks on the difficult task of explaining why, and how, Britain moved during this decade from being one of the staunchest defenders of Keynesianism to fully embracing monetarism –a process that he defines as a “paradigm shift”. To explain this, Halls starts off by rejecting some of the most familiar structural and individualist narratives known at the time: Thatcher’s electoral victory in 1979 was not the most important element of all, since it was not the first time that a determined British leader had come to office. Nor were references to Britain’s longstanding economic problems sufficient: like Thatcher’s arrival, they certainly played a role in provoking change. But “to cite them alone does not tell us more about the process of change” (p. 284).

Halls therefore suggests a middle ground. Drawing on Thomas Kuhn's work on scientific paradigms, he suggests that Britain's slow embrace of monetarism during the 1970s should be seen as a complex, multi-phase process in which different factors and actors played different roles at different times. Hall identifies six distinct phases. The first would be the eruption of a series of economic problems –rising inflation rates, stagnant growth and unemployment—that represented an "anomaly" to the established policy paradigm, Keynesianism. A second phase followed, in which a series of forecasting errors and policy failures —i.e., incomes policies— contributed to undermining the coherence of Keynesianism. In a third phase, Keynesianism’s falling reputation opened a new phase of "expansion" in the marketplace of ideas: other ideologies were now able to compete for influence. The rise of monetarism among British conservatives in the second half of the 1970s, Hall's fifth phase, was in this light possible because of its consolidated status among American economists and its internal coherence. Thatcher's victory in 1979 would be the fifth turning point. Luck and circumstance, especially the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent, played a more influential role than the intellectual strengths of monetarism. Then Hall's sixth and final phase began. While not so much for the rise of monetarism, Hall sees political leadership as playing a key role in its consolidation. Without Thatcher's personal convictions, her decision-making style, and above all her policy choices –especially her appointments to key government departments—it would be impossible, Halls argues, to understand how key institutions such as the Treasury or the Bank of England came to fully embrace monetarism as early as 1982. The rest is history.

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