Shaped by the history and culture of its nations, the world will remain a heterogeneous place

The virus is the same, but national reactions to the plague that is spreading across the world and threatening lives, health, and prosperity differ dramatically from each other. “What is taken as truth in Berlin and Jena is just a bad joke in Heidelberg.” The insouciance in Brazil, where President Bolsonaro talks about the pandemic as a “common cold”; the alarmism in Lithuania, in total lockdown despite few cases; and the power grab in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán is exploiting the situation to implement what one can only hope will be a temporary dictatorship, as opposed to Sweden, where “ministerial rule” remains unconstitutional. The insight must, now or never, hit anyone with eyes to read with and ears to listen with: discrete experiences, traditions, and mentalities, the things that shape a country over time into what it is and what it becomes, its political and social culture, are the key to understanding the disparate reactions on display around the world. It is not whether a right-wing or left-wing government is in power, or what election system is in place, but rather the self-image, the identity one has donned and polished, what the people expect, and the social norms that constrain or facilitate the scope for action, that determine the outcome. Why did Boris Johnson lead the government, in spite of lying in bed, feverish and coughing? A “stiff upper lip”—the refusal to show weakness—is the answer, not that he is a Tory. 

Peter J. Katzenstein is someone who has, throughout his research career, been driven to draw attention to how history, culture, and identity shape the fundamental policies of nations. If many are surprised by the breadth of reactions around the world to the current pandemic, Katzenstein surely cannot be among that number.

Peter Katzenstein, who has taught at Cornell University since 1973 and is the Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor of International Studies, is the recipient of the 2020 Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, honored for “furthering the understanding of how history, culture, and norms shape economies, as well as national and global security policy.” The Skytte Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of political science, is being awarded for the 26th time by the Johan Skytte Foundation. When the decision was made, Covid-19 had not yet paralyzed the world, but it has now put into glaring relief the relevance of Katzenstein’s research, which he has devoted to both Europe and Asia, as well as the North American continent, always proceeding from his conviction that knowledge of the historical and cultural “journeys” of countries and regions and the baggage of experiences, traumas, values, and expectations they collectively carry is crucial to understanding where they are today—and where they might be heading

Ever since Peter J. Katzenstein, born and reared in Hamburg, Germany, began his research career as a Europe expert, he has maintained his strong interest in how the history of a country matters to the choice of political course and policy formation. Early on, in 1985, he came out with Small States in World Markets: Industrial Policy in Europe, where he argued that historical experiences determined how various small states—such as Sweden—adapted to the global economy. Instead of fixing his gaze on the big economies like those of the UK, the US, or Germany, which have attracted many other observers, Katzenstein drilled down into how small, open economies, like those of Sweden or the Netherlands, took on the capitalist system. The interdependence of the state and the market in these economies is one of the main conclusions of the book. In that respect, they are similar. But how relations between the state and the market are shaped, the “systems” or the “industrial relations,” varied, and these were strongly influenced by national norms and cultural traditions. Thirty-five years after it was published, this book is a standard reference and one of the classics of political science in its field.

With this book, and through Between Power and Plenty, published a few years earlier in 1978, Katzenstein laid the foundations of “political economy,” which is now a flourishing area of research in the borderland of political science and economics, brought together by the key concept of “variations of capitalism.” There is not only one functioning market economy; there are several systems, coordinated and liberal, that work very differently in terms of labor market relations, wage setting, and income policy. This knowledge, for which Katzenstein thus laid one of the first foundation stones, has, for example, helped political science interpret the myriad national reactions to the global liberalization that began in the 1990s and is still in progress. Where Sweden has responded to the challenge through dualism, a situation in which we have powerful insiders in the labor market and correspondingly weak outsiders due to the dominant role of labor unions, Denmark has managed, assisted by a more active government, to maintain a more inclusive, cohesive labor market.

While some can agree that the economic policy, the political economy, of a country is not only the effluence of structural factors or political ideology, but also has to do with history, culture, and norms, the resistance to understanding national security policy through such a cultural lens is adamant in some quarters. Two perspectives, realism and liberalism, have dominated knowledge production in international politics for a long time. Realism is hard-boiled, pessimistic, and structural: power in the system is determined by factors like geographical location, resources, and size. The power of the strong ultimately becomes, against our will, a kind of right. Liberalism, on the other hand, is confident and optimistic. It claims that obvious structural advantages and disadvantages can be neutralized through intergovernmental cooperation codified in international institutions that build legal systems, despite the non-existence of a world government. Think: the UN, WTO, WHO, or the League of Nations once upon a time, the various climate and environmental accords, the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the Council of Europe—and the EU.

In the preface to The Culture of National Security (1996), Katzenstein writes: “Science is a social process that develops, refines, and rejects ideas. It is not a football game in which players protect turf—intellectual and otherwise.” He takes his awareness of the importance of national distinctiveness, expressed for the first time in his research on political economy in the 1980s, with him into the 1990s, when his interest is increasingly directed at the international level, at security policy and regional and global relations. Instead of finding himself—as many in international relations still do today—in an endless discussion of which theoretical angle is the right one, Katzenstein argues that what we must understand more about is how the objects of our hopes, international institutions for cooperation and regulation, are shaped by the nations involved and their histories, cultures, and identities. For example, entirely consistent with how Katzenstein understands international relations is the way Hungary’s identity, shaped to this day by its position in the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and Poland’s status as one of the largest countries in Europe and historically a great power in Europe, characterize these countries’ actions within the EU, regardless of our opinions on the matter.

His own German background has set its stamp on him. The chosen courses of Germany and Japan in security policy and international politics after their harrowing defeats in World War II have captured his interest. Both are now great regional powers but were under the control of the victorious powers after the war. In both countries, the victors dictated the rules to prevent military and expansionist ambitions. And in both countries the postwar period entailed economic success and greater prosperity (referring here to West Germany, as the history of East Germany was utterly different). Germany’s cultural shift towards becoming one of the most, in a good sense, progressive and individualistic countries in the world is remarkable. Likewise, for many in East Asia, Japan has represented a successful blending of renewal and retained cultural distinctiveness. In Rethinking Japanese Security: Internal and External Dimensions (2008), Katzenstein displays his vast knowledge of Japanese foreign and security policy, shaped by threats and crafted under an American dominance that was not always easy to accept.

Katzenstein captures the reactions to American hegemony in international politics, something to which he draws even greater attention through his interest in the losers of the war, Germany and Japan, in the book he co-edited with Robert Keohane, Anti-Americanisms in World Politics (2007). In the preface, they write that a book project has rarely made so many eyes gleam with interest, rather than glaze over. Their American colleagues all took a visceral interest in the question, “Why do they dislike us?” The book presaged a development that only accelerated after Donald Trump’s inauguration and the advent of neo-isolationist American policy.

What is anti-Americanism? A distinction must be made, the authors write, between disliking “what America is” and disliking “what America does.” In the past, what America does has clearly been the target of considerable criticism, especially due to its waging wars in Asia, supporting dictatorships in Latin America—its “backyard”—or defending a country like Saudi Arabia. What we are now seeing, which may definitively put an end to American leadership, is that the criticism is increasingly directed at what America is. The vulnerability of the individual, the acceptance of severe inequality, the election of an unworthy president who bullies women, immigrants, and minorities—what does that say about the country?  

Peter J. Katzenstein is a researcher of wide-ranging interests and profound intellectual curiosity who devotes his work not only to both Europe and its small states and East Asia and the great regional power of Japan, but also to American influence—from the perspective of those who have considered it increasingly destructive and illegitimate. His earlier research pollinates the new fields he treads upon and helps him, despite the lack of airs, to see with new eyes and thus problematize and revitalize. Peter Katzenstein has increased our understanding of how economic policy (and by extension welfare policy) and security policy, two of the critical mainstays of the modern state, are produced and reproduced by nationally anchored experiences and norms, and how knowledge about the culture of individual countries, their histories and understandings of who they are, is utterly necessary, not only in history but also in political science.

Li Bennich-Björkman April 2020