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European International Relations Theory and Political Power

From founding the French Interdisciplinary Group to his most recent prize in translation awarded by the French-American Foundation, Prof. Michael Loriaux has dedicated more than 30 years in the political science department to his prolific studies of Europe and critical theory with his first book, “France after Hegemony”, surpassing its 30th anniversary. The book examines the monetary and credit policy in postwar France, but Professor Loriaux’s interests have evolved throughout his time at Northwestern. From the psychology of international relations theory to the European Union exceptionalism, Loriaux has established himself as an established scholar in European studies. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Question: You study European unification from the perspective of post-national and post-sovereignty studies. Could you describe these terms and indicate to which timeframes they might be applied?

Michael Loriaux: The prefix “post” is admittedly kind of trendy and you’re right to ask about it. What I don’t mean by this term is that there is some end-point beyond which the words “national” and “sovereignty” don’t apply anymore. It’s not “post” as  in “post-war,” or “post-holiday blues.” What the prefix “post” is inviting us to do is, first, to look back over time and observe that the two words “nation” and “sovereignty” have a history — they showed up at some point and their meaning evolved over time. And second, to look forward and wonder how the two terms might evolve in the future, and whether they might even lose their current status as terms of common sense. The “nation,” for example, in its current connotation, is a very recent invention. The first French army that spoke French up and down the ranks is the one that marched to the trenches of World War I. That’s a hundred years ago. So let’s look a hundred years forward and ask what we might expect to see. Or the word sovereignty — take Carl Schmitt’s famous definition from the 1920s that the sovereign is he who decides the state of exception, and then run it backwards a hundred or so years to a time when that definition would have been utterly mystifying, even to authors that Schmitt cites. Again, it’s a new concept, at least as we use it today. So the prefix invites us to look forward and wonder. The meanings we attach to these words are evolving, sometimes rapidly and radically. This is the sensibility I try to bring to my study of European unification.

Q: In your 2016 book, “Europe Anti-Power,” you analyze the European Union’s struggle to maintain power while rejecting power politics. In this case, how would you define power? And how would you compare it to the “taming” of power politics with the scholars of antiquity and early modernity like Thucydides or Machiavelli? 

ML: How do I define power? Well, that’s not an easy question. I don’t think we have a definition of power that actually works. We don’t have a definition that lets us point at something and say “that’s power.” Take military force. It looks like it should be power and sounds like it should be power but we actually can’t call it power until we see – always after the fact – if it worked or not. Power appears only after the smoke of battle has cleared. The U.S. has more military force than any human society in history. But we learned in Viet Nam and Afghanistan that force isn’t necessarily power. It only becomes power when people are cowed when it produces an affective or emotional response that culminates in acquiescence or even reverence. We only see power when we see that response. For Machiavelli, power “makes heads spin.” For Thucydides, power is revealed, long after the fact, by the adulation and emulation of successor generations. The European Union, since its inception, has turned its back on power, for obvious reasons. It has chosen boredom over-excitement and hours of debate over alarm bells. There are voices in Europe that argue it’s time to bring power back. In my book, I warn against it and explain why. My hope for the EU is to export to the rest of the world a governmental style that is not impressed by the theatricality of power. 

Q: Do you think is it possible for a state or group of states to remain in power while externally advocating for anti-power? Based on this, do you think that the EU will be able to maintain a stance of anti-power while also trying to retain its power after Brexit? 

ML: Brexit is an interesting example. On the British side, you got theatricality and power performance: threats, exaggerations, posturing, drama, accompanied by lots of lying. And on the European side, you got boredom: late nights working through the dossiers, analyzing, debating — not only with the Brits but with one another. The solidarity among the 27 never showed a crack, despite serious ongoing tensions between western EU members and the Visegrad group of eastern European states. As the dust settles we see what a number of observers predicted. Great Britain will for all intents and purposes still be part of the EU economic space but with more rather than less bureaucratic supervision and no political voice. That is, if all goes well. Things haven’t been settled yet regarding the financial services, which are Britain’s strongest economic sector. Britain may not get the same deal it had under the EU.

Q: This year marks the 30-year anniversary of your first book, “France After Hegemony,” which examined how the decline of the hegemon impacts middle-level nations. So, how does the decline of the dominant, rule-making power of international order impact mid-level nations? Thirty years after its initial release, are there current parallels to the empirical example you analyzed in your first book?

ML: The rule-making superpower hasn’t so much declined as given up on the idea of making rules. The United States, economically and militarily, is still eminently capable of shaking up the world and does so on a fairly regular basis. But since the 1970s it has gradually lost interest in the rule-making and rule-enforcing arrangements that it helped set up and bankrolled in the first decades of the Cold War. In the book you mention — it was my doctoral dissertation — I relate a sensational change in French monetary policy from soft and inflationary to hard and counter-inflationary. In the run-up to the euro, France, not Germany, was fielding the strongest currency in Europe. It was a remarkable shift. What prompted it? American policy. More specifically, Nixon’s scuttling of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates. The switch to floating rates forced the French to change orientation or face the prospect of currency collapse. They turned to Germany for help, and the European Monetary System — the precursor of the euro — was born. I like the story because it shows that the roots of neoliberalism, as represented in this case by the hard right turn in monetary policy and the market-friendly reforms that accompanied that turn, are found neither in the alleged wisdom of neoliberal doctrine nor in the enlightened guidance of  American leadership. They are found in America’s efforts to back out of engagements it signed on to. This is still going on today. Since the 1990s, bashing international organizations that the US helped set up has become something of an American pastime. The America of the 2020s is looking more and more like the America of the 1920s – dynamic but provincial and reckless. In 1920 it negotiated the Versailles treaty then decided not to sign it. In 1929 an American real estate crisis brought down the world economy. In 2007 another American real estate crisis came very close to destroying the world economy, and in 2017 the US pulled out of a series of important international agreements that it had just signed. It’s important to remember that in the 1920s this kind of behavior didn’t end well.

Q: You are the co-director of “Living with Plagues,” a collaboration between Northwestern and École Normale Supérieure of Paris, which will culminate in a colloquium in May 2021. How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has been impacting European unification? And what kinds of lasting effects do you predict will impact European politics and beyond?

MC: “Living With Plagues” is a cross-national and cross-generational meditation on the pandemic. Faculty, ex-faculty, ex-grads, and current grads from both schools are trying to figure out what just happened. We have a website on Buffett’s Research page, and we will come together at a conference on campus in February 2022. Our ambition is to write a collective book. Regarding the EU, it totally bombed its response to the pandemic. The EU Commission has an action plan and an alerting system, but so does every member nation-state, so it basically just added a layer of confusion. But the crisis may have a much more profound impact. The pandemic has shaken our idealized image of the rationally autonomous human being who surveys, comprehends, and masters. It has heightened our sense of interdependence, not only among states but among individuals, peoples, species, and the physical environment. The sovereign Cartesian style just seems out of its depth in this new environment, certainly at the governmental level, but at the personal level as well, and even at the level of scientific research. It is pushing us to formulate a new way of being in the world. That’s the challenge the “Living With Plagues” project is trying to address.


 Interview by Yunkyo Kim (WCAS '22)

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