Summer Reading: David Edelstein's Over the Horizon
June 14, 2018 — Georgetown College government professor and Vice Dean David Edelstein published a book last fall titled Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty and the Rise of Great Powers, a historical analysis of the behavior of great powers in the face of growing competition.
Edelstein took a unique approach to the theory of great power behavior, focusing on the difference between short- and long-term time horizons and decision-making in the face of uncertainty. When do states cooperate with rising powers for short-term gain, and when do they seek to constrain those powers?
As ongoing events call the longstanding international political order into question, we caught up with Prof. Edelstein this week to discuss his research, the inspiration for his book, and how his findings can help us understand the modern era.
What inspired you to write Over the Horizon?
Its origins were in thinking about the relationship between the United States in China, in particular over the last 20 years or so. The prediction that a lot of people had was that the United States might start to act in ways to constrain China’s growth and try and prevent it becoming a threat to the U.S.
I saw that and thought that the U.S. was actually trying to cooperate with China in a lot of ways. The argument in the book has to do with time horizons and how states think about the short term vs. the long term.
What evidence do you draw from?
The empirical material is looking at past cases of rising great powers to see if we find anything in the past relationships between rising and declining powers in those past cases that might validate the theoretical argument that I was making, suggesting that it might apply to the Sino-American case.
What’s the biggest contribution this book makes to international relations literature?
I think the biggest theoretical contribution is an attention to temporal dynamics in international politics. There are various places where there have been implicit claims about how states value the short term vs. the long term, and how that might affect their behavior.
I think my book is the first to really make those claims more explicit and think about the implication for those time horizons for the way that states behave. I like to think that I’ve identified an additional dimension along which states make foreign policy decisions that hadn’t really been given much attention before.
In researching and writing, was there anything that surprised you?
Well, the biggest puzzle was what motivated me to write the book. I started to look at and think harder about different cases, and even looking at the modern literature of the Sino-American relationship, we’ve been conditioned to expect that rising and declining powers will become competitive and conflictual.
What I discovered — and what really motivates the book, in some ways — is that if you go back in history and look especially at the early parts of these relationships, there’s actually a lot of cooperation. We didn’t have a good explanation for that! So what the book tries to do is both identify that cooperation — which some people find surprising — and explain why it happens.
Are there other modern examples of situations where insights from Over the Horizon could be useful?
The book is about great powers, security dynamics, war and peace, all of that. But one of my hopes for the book is that the logic of the argument has implications across a broad set of issues. You could think about environmental policy — are states willing to pay a short-term cost to protect the environment in the long term? Think about arms transfers — states may be willing to sell arms to other states for a short-term benefit, but that has long-term consequences. Think about the financial world — the ways in which states act to constrain the ability of central banks to make decisions might benefit them in the short term but have adverse long-term consequences.
Since I’ve identified time horizons as a critical variable in international politics, I have to plead guilty to seeing them everywhere. Present me with an issue and I can tell you a time-horizons-based story about the decisions that are being made there.
Has anything that’s happened since you finished the book bolstered or called into question your theories?
For myself and pretty much everyone who studies international politics, the Trump administration has been a really interesting case study. Taking an academic point of detachment and leaving personal politics and everything else aside, it’s fascinating to watch a leader who, in my view, has very short-term time horizons and is focused on producing results that will be immediately beneficial for him, and how that affects the type of foreign policy decisions the U.S. makes.
The logic of my argument suggest that the U.S. would have a pretty short time horizon no matter what. It sees threats on the horizon — a rising China, a resurgent Russia — and that suggests the U.S. would be focused on securing itself in the short term more than the long term. My sense is that President Trump has exacerbated that because of his own personal inclinations. One of the great questions in the book — that I don’t have an answer for, but I think Trump has shone a light on — is whether we should talk about a state having certain time horizons or a particular leader having his or her own time horizons. In the case of Trump, we can talk about either.
Interview conducted by Patrick Curran and edited for length and clarity.