Friday, July 2, 2010

Novak, "The Myth of the 'Weak' American State," the focus of an AHR roundtable

From AHA Today:
In the June 2008 issue of the AHR, there appeared an essay by William J. Novak, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” which argued that historians and other scholars had long underestimated the power and intrusiveness of the U.S. state. Because of the provocative nature and wider implications of this piece, the editors invited three scholars to comment on Novak’s article. These essays and his response comprise the AHR Exchange, “On the ‘Myth’ of the ‘Weak’ American State.”

John Fabian Witt’s comment, “Law and War in American History,” begins by joining with Novak in his insistence that law should not be seen as an obstacle to state power but rather as a feature of its authority, facilitating, justifying, and shaping its exercise, both domestically and on the international stage. Witt criticizes Novak, however, for failing to acknowledge a large body of literature that has for long focused precisely on foreign affairs as the arena where American state power is most evident, thus challenging his assumption that the “myth” of a weak U.S. state is so prevalent. In addition, Witt points to other scholarship that offers an analysis of American power which argues that the relationship between American constitutionalism and global power was more complicated than Novak’s critique suggests.

Gary Gerstle, in "A State Both Strong and Weak," offers two criticisms of Novak’s argument. First, he challenges Novak’s claim that America’s current status as world hegemon was already manifest in the American state’s earliest years, arguing instead that America’s global hegemony dates from the 1940s and especially the post-World War II era. Second, he asserts that Novak’s focus on the American state’s inherent strengths causes him to overlook this state’s chronic weakness: an unwillingness or inability to corral the influence of private money and private power on American politics. Many of those who once imagined the American state as weak, Gerstle notes, were trying to make sense of this reluctance to discipline markets and corporations in the public interest. To ignore their insights, Gerstle concludes, is to imperil our ability to understand key aspects of the American state, and many other issues in American history too.

In "The Puzzle of the American State . . . and Its Historians," Julia Adams endorses Novak’s quest to discover why so many American scholars persist in seeing the U.S. state as week, when the contrary is so manifestly the case. And she notes that his effort to explain the specific nature of American state power will be welcome by other scholars of other political cultures who are similarly engaged in examining the nature of state and imperial power from a historical perspective. She argues, however, that while Novak’s question is good and timely one, his answer is in some respects factually inaccurate and also preserves American exceptionalism to an unwarranted extent. Adams suggests that we can best decipher the U.S. state—which develops in tandem with other states and empires-in-formation—by means of a conceptual language rooted in the work of Max Weber but amplified to incorporate both the specifics of American history and the evolving forms of international sovereignty.

In his rejoinder, “Long Live the Myth of the Weak State?” Novak acknowledges many of the criticisms and comments of Witt, Gerstle and Adams, but energetically defends his thesis. He argues, indeed, that each of the commentators acknowledges the “fundamental, unresolved problems of power in modern American life.”