Book review: “International Relations: All That Matters” by Ken Booth

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Book review: International Relations: All That Matters. By Ken Booth. Hodder & Stoughton, 2014. 160 pages. U$ 12.99 (www.amazon.com)

Who gets what, when and how across the world? It is with this broad question that Ken Booth opens his passionate plea of why we should care about international relations. Nobody, he makes clear, can afford not to care about the question above -- no-one can escape the all-encompassing importance of international political trends, and all levels of human existence are affected. We are, the author argues, "all children of international relations."

In that sense, Ken Booth does an excellent job of involving the layman, providing a solid introduction to IR theory while not using too much off-putting jargon. He does so in a rather self-deprecating fashion, repeatedly noting that "life is not easy for IR students", given how little agreement there is even on many basic questions. In addition, his analysis is sprinkled with famous statements by scholars and diplomats, such as "I love Germany so much I want two of them" when explaining balance of power, or "A diplomat is an honest man sent to lie abroad about his own country" in his explanation on statecraft.

Interestingly -- though potentially reducing the book's shelf-life -- Booth's introduction to IR uses a plethora of contemporary challenges, ranging from the conflict in Syria to tensions between the United States and Russia, for example by analyzing Putin's intriguing statement after a conversation with Obama: "We hear each other and understand the arguments. But we simply don't agree. I don't agree with his arguments and he doesn't agree with mine." That stands in contrast to Francis I of France, in the early fifteenth century, when he was asked what differences accounted for the constant wars between himself and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Francis supposedly replied: "None whatever. We agree perfectly. We both want control of Italy."

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As most IR books, this one suffers from a fair share of Western-centrism. Booth calls the BRICS "stubborn champions of sovereignty", overlooking a far more nuanced reality, and underestimating the significant influence non-Western powers have had in the creation of rules and norms -- one may think of India's leadership to denounce apartheid South Africa at the UN, India's decision to intervene in East Pakistan in 1971 (despite Western calls to 'respect' Pakistan's sovereignty) or the African origins of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). In the same way, Booth recommends virtually no non-European or non-US American writers, even though that points to a more systematic bias in the discipline. The author provides a useful series of lists "Ten books for IR cast-aways on a desert island", "Ten books for a comprehensive student starter-pack" and so on, yet they only contain Western thinkers -- the only list where non-Western scholars appear, tellingly, is in the touchy-feely list "Ten reasons to believe a better world is possible", led by Ashoka the Great, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

Despite those shortcomings, those looking for their first short read on international relations could do worse than picking up Booth's book, which provides a useful point of departure.

Read also:

Book review: “A Little History of the World” by E.H. Gombrich

Book review: “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation” by John M. Hobson

Book review: “The End of American World Order” by Amitav Acharya

Photo credit: Reuters