Favourite Readings 2021 – Back to the Basics

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Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence (Faber & Faber, 2009)

Jeremy Adelman, Worldy Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman (Princeton University Press, 2013)

Elisabetta Morlino, Procurement by International Organizations: A Global Administrative Law Perspective (CUP, 2019).

Lorenzo Gasbarri, The Concept of an International Organization in International Law (OUP, 2021).

Megan Bradley, The International Organization for Migration: Challenges, Commitments, Complexities (Routledge, 2020).

Hubert Smeets, Een wonderbaarlijk politicus: Hans van Mierlo 1931-2010 (De Bezige Bij, 2021).

As in previous years, EJIL’s Review section, has invited EJIL board members and editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from . You can read all the posts in this series here

The year 2021 managed to bring me two minor reading epiphanies. The first of these came from one of the more pleasing novels I have read in a long time, Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2009). The main character wakes up one morning in his native Istanbul, looks out of the window, notices that yet another coup d’état has taken place, and then wonders what will be for breakfast. The epiphany: despite many academics in the social sciences and humanities being enthralled by politics, thinking all is politics, thinking their identities are somehow political, for many outside the academic bubble, it may matter more what is for breakfast, or how the local football team fared last night. And that is a politically relevant lesson in its own right, which might help explain the dire situation in which many democracies find themselves, with a political class taking itself too seriously and taking others and their everyday lives not seriously enough.

The second revelation came from the marvellous biography of Albert Hirschman, written a few years back by Jeremy Adelman. Hirschman was a fascinating economist, growing up in early twentieth century Germany and eventually ending up at Princeton. He combined first-hand practical experience with an academic mindset, and realized all too well how politics and economics are related (and no, there is no contradiction here with the previous paragraph), as witnessed by such classic works as Exit, Voice and Loyalty[1], The Passions and the Interests[2] and the underrated The Rhetoric of Reaction.[3] If it is true, as someone once quipped, that clarity of writing is a function of clarity of thought, then Hirschman was a very clear thinker indeed, writing elegant, precise and thoughtful prose.

The biography tells of a fascinating life story, with Hirschman moving from Germany via war-time France to Latin America and an academic career in the US. But possibly the most striking moment is Adelman’s discussion of a conference Hirschman helped to organize in the mid-1980s and of which he had high expectations. He and his fellow conference speakers entertained the idea that their combined insights could somehow lead to a better world, and it dawned on me that this feeling was not one I could easily recognize, despite having been an academic for over thirty years. Today’s conferences, workshops and seminars may serve a multitude of goals: they may comply with visibility demands, or serve as networking opportunities, or their main purpose may be to spend leftover funding, and sometimes they may even be organized with a view to achieving a better understanding of a particular topic. But the idea of bringing intelligent and knowledgeable people together in order to do some good in the world is no longer thought very credible. This is so not just because it displays a certain naiveté about the very possibility of doing good in the world, but also because that sort of thinking is no longer compatible with the basic structures of the academic industry. And that is not a very cheerful thought.

Perhaps related to the combined effect of these two revelations, much of my reading during 2021 has been devoted to more technical, less overtly political but highly useful and informative works, in particular on international organizations, and doctrinal as well as conceptual. Quite possibly the most impressive of these is Elisabetta Morlino’s excellent study of procurement by international organizations, a meticulously researched study of the legal frameworks in which procurement by a number of selected international organizations takes place. To be sure, this is not very sexy stuff, but it does cover a gap in our knowledge. Morlino has taken the trouble to gain first-hand experience; she has looked at many procurement contracts and regulations, and she writes with an authoritative voice on this highly esoteric topic. Writing a study such as hers takes stamina and perseverance, and the work does not lend itself for easy tweeting – so it is heartening to see that a study of this kind could nonetheless win a major academic accolade in the form of the book prize of the International Society of Public Law.

Very compelling is Lorenzo Gasbarri’s conceptualizing of the international organization – and transparency demands that I indicate that Gasbarri spent a few months working with me after having completed the doctoral thesis that is the basis for his book. His main insight is that international organizations have a dual nature: they are treaty-based creatures but also autonomous legal systems under international law. As a result, the rules they create are both internal rules, and rules of international law, and can be looked at from both directions. With great authority, Gasbarri sketches the consequences this has for our thinking about and appreciation of international organizations on such topics as the law of treaties, the validity of organizational instruments, and the law of responsibility. While he does not perhaps answer all questions for eternity (and this should not be expected at any rate), Gasbarri has written a very thoughtful and thought-provoking monograph on a hugely neglected topic. And either way: international organizations are rarely the enemies of sovereign states that politicians of varying ilk make them out to be.

Also very useful, and again related to international organizations, is the short overview offered by International Relations scholar Megan Bradley of the International Organization for Migration, an organization with a huge budget about which little has been written until recently. What makes Bradley’s work so good is that it is neither theory-driven nor method-driven. She does not set out to prove that the IOM is a proto-Foucauldian institution of governmentality (although it probably is) nor that it can fruitfully be studied in rationalist terms or realist terms (although perhaps it could). Instead, she simply aims to describe where the IOM came from, why it should be considered important, and what it actually does. This may not look very sexy, but is both difficult to do well, and very labour-intensive. The result is an excellent monograph on one of the more important (but less well-known) institutions of global governance, offering no pretentions but a lot of information and insights. The classic quip about training journalists and reporters is that a good news story should answer a bunch of questions: What happened? When? Where? To Whom? By Whom? And Why? In a world where the politics of everyday life are largely taken care of by a multitude of international organizations, it might not be a bad idea to keep these questions in mind, as Bradley so felicitously reminds her readers.

A final bow goes to the hefty biography of Dutch politician Hans van Mierlo, a former journalist who was briefly Holland’s Foreign Minister but became mostly known as one of the founders and the leader of the liberal democratic political party D66 (Democrats 1966, founded in, well, 1966). The book’s title refers to him as a miraculous or mysterious politician (both translations are more or less apt), and what makes him stand out from many other members of the professional political classes is his capacity for doubt and, more importantly still, self-doubt. He was by no means a flawless person, neither great father nor great husband, but possessed a well-developed political and moral compass, embodying the Aristotelian virtue of practical wisdom. His biographer, former journalist Hubert Smeets, has done a great service to both the memory of van Mierlo and to politics generally – his biography is a timely reminder of the relevance of character in politics, and in life in general.

[1] A. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (1970).

[2] A. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (1977).

[3] A. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (1991).

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