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Reconstructing the Cold War: The Early Years, 1945-1958 by Ted Hopf (review)
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Reviewed by
Ted Hopf, Reconstructing the Cold War: The Early Years, 1945-1958. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 305 pp. $39.95.

Why would the Soviet government consider the Marshall Plan more threatening than the Truman Doctrine? How could Yugoslavia move from being a stalwart of socialism in Europe to a renegade pariah, expelled from the Soviet sphere of influence a few months after states in Western Europe signed the Brussels defense pact? Why would Yugoslavia be welcomed back into the socialist family, with profuse acknowledgments of previous mistakes, when the country's defense contribution was much less needed? Why would the USSR allow its most important alliance with China to falter? Why would Iosif Stalin completely neglect the de-colonizing world as a potential ally in the global power competition? Why did the USSR start an offensive global power strategy in the Third World only after de-Stalinization?

Ted Hopf answers these puzzles by suggesting that instead of realist theories of international relations (IR) or personality-centered diplomatic history, a constructivist take provides a more promising path. Developing his earlier approach to "societal constructivism," Hopf argues that Soviet identity discourses at home explain relations abroad. For each of these puzzles, he shows that Soviet external policy was driven by a particular way the Soviet Union came to understand itself. Once an identity "discourse of difference" was empowered, relations with Yugoslavia, the Eastern bloc, China, and the Third World were redefined. Covering 1945-1958, the book is the first of a planned trilogy that will cover Soviet foreign policy through the end of the Cold War.

In today's environment of overwhelming academic output, Hopf stands out as a scholar whose research one is always inspired to read and reflect upon. This book is no exception. It is a must-read for its combination of IR theory and history, precisely because history is not used simply for quick theoretical points. Instead, Hopf devises a theoretical framework for understanding the history of Soviet foreign policy. In return, his meticulous historical analysis feeds back to IR theory, especially constructivist foreign policy analysis (FPA)—in content and methodology.

His contribution to FPA lies precisely in his careful distinction between his approach and what FPA has come to mean. Whereas FPA has become centered on the analysis of individual decisions, thereby harnessing a multitude of factors from standard [End Page 131] operating procedures to cognitive psychological dispositions, Hopf's approach harks back to a more classical study of national foreign policy traditions, a form of study that was never purely deductive from sheer power positions.

Before we know what the Soviet Union stands for in its international relations, Hopf argues, we need to know what the Soviet Union stands for in its self-understanding. To this end, he charts a medium course of analysis in which foreign policy is driven not mainly by international (systemic) constraints or individual agency but by identity discourses that inform/predispose for decisions, make them possible, but do not determine them.

Hopf's theoretical contribution is the development of a specific "societal" version of constructivism, an approach that builds on work presented in his earlier award-winning book. In this approach, the reference group of recognition (for identity is always relational) is domestic not international society. He therefore carefully tries to identify the sources of the identity discourses he finds in the institutions of civil society that deal with ideas and their expression, that is, the arts (mainly written), the university and scientific system, and the press. In the present book, he explicitly adds an institutional component to his approach, insisting on the ways certain formal and informal institutions can become carriers of ideas—or their temporarily silent depository.

Analyzing identity in such places as novels is necessary because looking for identity discourses is looking for the taken-for-granted, for the things that go without saying. This has methodological implications because it makes a quantitative content analysis (which usually checks for key words and their relations) quite difficult, and it explains Hopf's preference for an interpretive reconstruction of such underlying identities in their overall context. Hence the book is, with the exception of one...