Over the last few years, I’ve spent an ever larger portion of my internet time hanging around different sorts of academic politics and social science blogs: partly because my Thucydides research has led me in this direction and it’s a handy way of maintaining some fuzzy sense of what’s going on in neighbouring disciplines without having to spend an inordinate amount of time skim-reading the relevant journals, and partly because the standard of debate and engagement with the world is simply rather good. The one major issue I’ve encountered is my own tendency to lapse into an instinctive discipline-bound mindset when one or other commentator engages with some sort of historical question – the historian’s reflex, inculcated through years of education and imitation, of drawing oneself up when confronted with any sort of generalisation and saying haughtily something to the effect of “I think you’ll find it’s rather more complicated than that, and CONTEXT” – to the extent that now, whenever I feel inspired to start commenting myself, I immediately ask: Are you sure this is really you? And if it is, are you sure you want to broadcast that in this forum?
This week’s case in point: a very interesting post by Eric Grynaviski on The Real Reasons We Need Declarations of War, offering a summary of his recently-published article in International Theory – not a journal I regularly consult, so this emphasises why PolSci blogs are really good things to read even if you’re a conventional ancient historian. The argument, in brief (worth reading the whole thing), is that declarations of war are important not only as a statement that a state of war now exists, but also as a means of offering arguments about the justification for war. States are expected to explain to their citizens why war is being declared, and also (at least in more recent centuries) to attempt to justify themselves to neutral powers, Discussion, debate and deliberation, and acceptance of the possibility of opposition and disagreement, are hallmarks of civilized international behaviour. Of course the reasons offered may be spurious, or at best partial, or directed towards an internal audience rather than towards the international community, or directed towards a key ally or protector rather than to the world at large (it’s easy enough to think of different examples of all of these cases), but in all events it makes a difference whether or not war is actually declared, or whether – as has occurred often enough in recent decades – a country simply launches military action without any formal declaration.
As part of this argument, with the aim both of highlighting the historical importance of declarations of war (questioning contemporary assumptions that they are mere formalities) and showing variation across time (questioning simplistic, reductionist interpretations), Grynaviski turns to the ancient world: the custom of the Romans of issuing demands, giving the other party a month to respond and then declaring war by chucking a bloody spear into the neighbour’s territory if the response is felt to be inadequate, and also the thoughts of Cicero on dispute settlement. Now, as an ancient historian there are two obvious ways to respond to these sorts of claims. One is the “yes, but…” approach: yes, they did this (sometimes), but it wasn’t an attempt at genuine negotiation but a sop to the gods so that they could claim always to be fighting defensive wars, perhaps also with the secondary aim that belligerent proconsuls had to be forced to justify their actions to their fellow citizens as a check on rampant ambition; yes, Cicero says that, but can we ever take anything he says at face value? And so forth.
The alternative would be to say something like “that’s really interesting, looking at Roman declarations of war in this wider context and interpreting them through the lens of a theory of their different functions; that could offer us a new perspective, even if things are inevitably a bit more complicated at the very detailed level of specific historical context”. In other words, at the very least accept the offer of a theoretical framework that might turn out to be useful, and perhaps even start thinking about how a more detailed knowledge of the ancient material might be able to help refine the broader theory, rather than just playing the superior subject specialist card at the drop of a hat.
You can probably guess, from the tone of this post, which one I started with; my contextualist reflexes are clearly very deeply engrained… Thankfully the author then contacted me and we’ve been able to embark on a productive conversation about how his ideas might relate to Thucydides – where the first book and a half offer loads of great material for thinking about how negotiations over war, ultimata and declarations are framed for different audiences and evaluated in different ways. Still, it’s a salutary reminder of an ongoing question about my own work; do I, so to speak, want to remain secure in the space of disciplinarity and confident claims of expertise, or venture into much more uncertain territory where my arguments might start to engage with issues of contemporary significance? If the latter, I really do need to keep a tighter rein on the pedantry…