Book Review: Tempi decisivi

Alessandro Colombo, Tempi decisivi: Natura e retorica delle crisi internazionali (Milan, Italy: Feltrinelli, 2014). 272 pp., €24,00 (paperback), ISBN: 9788807105081.

International relations have studied in depth how and why international crises affect international politics and actors’ foreign policy. Much of this literature flourished during the 1960s and 1970s as a scientific reaction to some of the most disruptive and tense Cold War dynamics, such as the Suez crisis, the Berlin crisis, and the Cuban crisis. To explain the causes and possible consequences of those situations and the like, crises have been theorized as interactions between two or more states that are likely to trigger military hostilities and wars; and, in turn, possibly challenge the structure of the international system. During such crises, actors’ dramatically change their decision-making procedures, which come to be pressured by the perception of new threats and the urgency under which the latter have to be tackled.

Tempi decisivi: Natura e retorica delle crisi internazionali touches on all of these issues. It deals with the occurrence, nature, and possible outcomes of contemporary crises such as the attack on the Twin Towers or the global economic recession. It also deals with the effects that contemporary crises have on actors’ foreign policy and, in particular, on the policies of the US—the most influential state at the global level. However, Alessandro Colombo’s concern is not limited to these issues: the book thoroughly focuses on the rhetorical dimension of the phenomenon, thereby casting light on the keywords, ideas, norms, and principles that crises call into play; crises are looked at inasmuch as they reveal what is usually taken for granted—the distinctive features of the political order that they put at risk or tear into pieces. Alessandro Colombo’s book is about international crises as much as it is about the international order. In this regard, the book aims at drawing conclusions that go well beyond the standard International Relations’ explanation of conflict escalation and stability. The core concern of the book is not only about the effects that crises have in changing the disputed patterns and rules according to which power and scarce resources are distributed in the international system. It is also—and above all—about a deeper and longer-term object of analysis: the effects that crises have on what structures political relations and the actors themselves.

To understand how the relationship between international crises and the international order features in the contemporary system, Alessandro Colombo needs to first study and debate the various ways in which the two are interrelated and also the changes in the nature of the former that affects the changes in the latter. At the end of the day, these topics deserve the greatest attention in the book.

The first chapter debates the time dimension of the crises. First, it comments on the disrupting consequences that crises have on the political order, by threatening the regular patterns of political interactions but, above all, the usual expectations and rules of behavior that conflict management practices are based on. Second, it comments on the state of emergency that decision-making procedures take because of the urgency of the new threats to be answered. Third, it emphasizes that these features take different forms depending on the crises’ time span: if and how crises are long-term processes of change, they are not resolved through urgent decisions; while the state of emergency turns out to be a rule rather than an exception to the rules of the political order.

The second chapter debates the space dimension of crises. In fact, crises can erase and change the boundary between the political order within the space of sovereign actors and the political order outside them; moreover, crises’ consequences can have varying geographical extensions. However, in Alessandro Colombo’s view, what is more relevant is that crises magnify the nature of the relationship between the internal and external orders, which greatly influences the impact of the crises. The book analytically distinguishes and comments on the several ways by which crisis at the domestic level can move to the international level and vice versa. In this regard, the book strongly emphasizes that international orders built on power asymmetries are particularly sensitive to crises because the possible crisis of the leading state is very likely to trigger both the crisis of the international order it has built and the internal crises in the secondary states that take part in it.

The third and fourth chapters focus on the features of political structures that crises veil and unveil. Crises are unforeseeable threatening situations that differently affect actors’ vulnerability and reveal how actors’ identities are fragmented by different fundamental interests and what kind of fundamental power and decision-making asymmetries the political order is based on. Thus, on the one hand, crises unveil the political core of a society: they cast light on who is to decide (in time of crisis). However, on the other hand, crises veil the political dimension of public choices. The rhetoric of crises either tends to downplay or neutralize the situation: it either tends to deny the necessity for fundamental political changes or to turn the crisis into a technical issue that cannot be effectively managed through political competition and choice.

The last chapter uses the above points to analyze crises in the contemporary international system. It emphasizes how and why the contemporary strategic setting makes it very difficult to control crises; and, the failures that the US strategy faced to build a post-bipolar international order. However, Alessandro Colombo’s main point is not that post-89 crises have been more frequent and/or more disruptive than pre-89 crises. It is that contemporary crises as specific events relate to a fundamental and long-term process of change: the features of contemporary crises are revealing the overall crisis of the modern international order. Thus, the many historical instances of crises that greatly enrich the book are not only cases in a comparative analysis but fragments of the same long-term process: the evolution of the Eurocentric and state-centric international political order.

Marco Clementi, University of Pavia

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