MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: The Middle East in International Relations

By Nonneman, Gerd | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: The Middle East in International Relations


Nonneman, Gerd, The Middle East Journal


The Middle East in International Relations, by Fred Halliday. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xii + 324 pages. Appends, to p. 355. Sel. bibl. to p. 366. Index to p. 374. $65 cloth; $21.99 paper.

This book is a rich feast, in its language, opinion, conceptual analysis, and overarching vision - and indeed in the wealth of personal anecdotes and observations drawn from a several decades of onthe-ground engagement with the politics and people of the Middle East. The book could be seen as Prof. Halliday's summing up of a career's worth of insights into his central interest: the historical and international sociology of this region. It is also in many ways idiosyncratic in its style and asides, as well as in some of the particular targets of his irony - including recent and superficial varieties of postmodernist analysis, the "Orientalist" critique, or culturalist interpretations of the region. While the overall effect may grate on some, and while this made the volume larger than it strictly needed to have been, for most I suspect it will add to the enjoyment.

The book is not, it should be said, particularly suitable for complete novices in Middle Eastern affairs, as the work does not provide a narrative history of the developments in Middle Eastern political history: for that purpose (and more!) William Cleveland's A History of the Modern Middle East (Westview, 2004) remains the best work. But Halliday's book does talk both to advanced undergraduate students and to more specialist readerships. (For the latter, it will not bring new facts but a useful conceptual interpretative framework.) For those more generally interested in International Relations (IR) it offers a very worthwhile case study explicitly engaging with the discipline. This is, in other words, an interpretive/analytical commentary.

The author contests the uniqueness of the Middle East in social science terms and pays close attention to what can be termed substantive features and dynamics (i.e., contrary to the focus on discourse, and to a number of postmodern approaches) through the use of "historical and international sociology" - for which the book is in effect a plea. Whether this approach absolutely needs to be labelled thus is a moot point ("political economy with an historical grounding" might be an alternative label), but in essence the book makes a cogent case for it. Halliday argues, implicitly, that in order to understand the dynamics of the region and its international relations, insights drawn from realism must be combined with others including constructivism, seeing the factors these approaches focus on as working in interaction (as most recently explicitly argued by Raymond Hinnebusch1). The approach means also that a central focus must be on the state, although this by no means excludes attention to local, transnational, and global non-state actors and factors. The book therefore is not simply about the "international" relations of and within the region, but inevitably is just as much about the politics and political economies of these states.

Chapter 2 discusses the making of foreign policy in the region: the interplay between states and societies set in an external context that constrains and shapes domestic political economies. But, as Halliday demonstrates throughout the book, the state remains an autonomous actor. While the present reviewer is wholly at one with such an approach,2 it is somewhat odd to find this discussion under the section labelled "state capacity" (p. 59).

Chapter 3 turns to the specific case of the Middle East by giving an interpretive commentary on the nature and features of state formation in the region (rather than setting out the basic facts in the sort of easily accessible way that the uninitiated reader might need). Following this discussion is a chapter on the Cold War era in the Middle East, again less a historical survey than an excellent interpretation that looks beyond events to the complex linkages at work. …

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