Stephen Holmes

Stephen Holmes is Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law at NYU.

How the World Works: Alan Greenspan

Stephen Holmes, 22 May 2014

Among​ the once celebrated triumphs of Alan Greenspan’s eighteen and a half years as chairman of the Federal Reserve, three stand out. First, he responded nimbly and forcefully to a series of dangerous crashes (from Black Monday in October 1987 to the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000), injecting liquidity to calm the markets and arguably fending off recession. Second, along with...

‘It is not a function of not trying to take people to Guantánamo,’ the US attorney general, Eric Holder, told a Senate subcommittee on 6 June as he struggled to defend President Obama’s targeted killing programme. His ungainly syntax betrayed his acute embarrassment. He is not the only government spokesman who finds it difficult to answer questions about America’s loosing of drones onto the world. A central thesis of Mark Mazzetti’s book is that the CIA and the Pentagon have opted to hunt and kill suspected enemies in order to avoid extra-legal tactics.

How to characterise the Putin regime, a now shaken and besieged ruling group sometimes said to be the richest in the history of the world? ‘Soft authoritarianism’, ‘hybrid regime’, ‘managed democracy’: the labels reveal less about Russia than about the inability of commentators to loosen the Cold War’s lingering hold on their thinking. Luke Harding was the Guardian correspondent in Russia between 2007 and 2011 who last February was turned back at Domodedovo Airport and told that his presence in the country was no longer welcome.

Salute! ‘Bomb Power’

Stephen Holmes, 8 April 2010

President Ahmadinejad may hope that Bomb Power will quell domestic turmoil, establish Iran’s regional pre-eminence and deter US plotting for regime change; Obama, on the other hand, benefits from it not at all and he certainly isn’t being saluted by America’s superpatriots as the nation’s commander in chief. In fact, the authority to launch a nuclear strike has been of little use to American presidents, starting with Truman in Korea. And in the age of counterinsurgency, America’s strategy of nuclear deterrence has never seemed more like a useless relic.

Free-Marketeering: Naomi Klein

Stephen Holmes, 8 May 2008

The anti-globalisation movement suffered a dizzying setback on 9/11. Symbolic gatecrashing into the well-guarded meeting places of the super-rich suddenly seemed a much more sinister activity than before. Busting up branches of Starbucks and other Seattle-style antics became anathema in an atmosphere of injured and vindictive patriotism. But Naomi Klein, the combative theorist and publicist of anti-globalisation, was not about to accept such guilt by association.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Francis Fukuyama signed an open letter arguing that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was essential to ‘the eradication of terrorism’, even if Saddam were revealed to have had no connection to al-Qaida and no hand in the attack. At that time, in other words, and alongside neo-con celebrities such as Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol, Fukuyama was beating the drum for a ‘shift in focus from al-Qaida to Iraq’. He now expresses qualms about the killing of ‘tens of thousands’ of innocent Iraqis who had done nothing to harm America or its inhabitants: ‘These casualties in a country we were seeking to help represent an enormous human cost.’ Such guarded words of regret will strike most readers as welcome and overdue. To unrepentant apologists of the war, by contrast, they have the feel of apostasy and betrayal.

The defining reality of today’s international order is no longer 11 September but America’s increasingly bloody occupation of a turbulent Iraq. So why did the Bush administration shift its attention from tracking down Osama bin Laden and a limited number of al-Qaida fugitives to reordering the Iraqi political system in line with American interests and values? This diversion of...

Looking Away: Questions of Intervention

Stephen Holmes, 14 November 2002

Because there is no unambiguous right without a reliable remedy, it follows that, under traditional international law, citizens had no right not to be brutally murdered by their governments within their state’s sovereign frontiers.

Vladimir Putin may or may not be dismantling Yeltsinism. But he is not dismantling ‘democracy’, for no such system existed in Russia before his accession to power. After a decade of multiparty elections, neither the rich nor the powerful seem to take the slightest interest in the well-being of the electorate, even though a dim regard for public support may have inspired...

Give me the man: The pursuit of Clinton

Stephen Holmes, 18 March 1999

How do millenarians explain themselves when the millennium skips by and the imperfect secular world fails to implode? This seemingly frivolous question is suddenly topical in Washington DC, not because Y2K is fast approaching, but because America’s first sexually titillating Constitutional crisis has ended with an embarrassing whimper. A Republican Congress has just been publicly humiliated for trying unsuccessfully to oust a Democratic President in the middle of his second term. As it turned out, the serious charges were not provable and the provable charges were not serious. In the course of pressing their flimsy legal case, however, Clinton’s Republican tormentors predicted extravagantly that, if the President were not sent packing at once, ‘the beacon of liberty’ would be ‘snuffed out’. Without immediate impeachment and removal, one of their foremost legal minds also pronounced, ‘this country’s entire judicial process will inevitably collapse.’ So what would yesterday’s doomsayers have us expect today? Must we now kiss goodbye to the deterrent value of perjury law? Should we really pack our bags, fold our tents and prepare for American liberty to expire and the American legal system to crumble into dust?‘

If Communism is only sketchily described, then post-Communism is simply unthinkable in Marx’s philosophy of history. So how can we make sense of his remarkable masterpiece in the 150th anniversary year of its original publication? The Communist Manifesto still feels alive to the touch. But what does a ‘modern edition’ of the work have to teach those inhabiting a world which Marx himself could not conceivably have anticipated? Generations of scholars have sifted the archives to unearth ‘Marx before Marxism’. But who is Marx after Marxism?‘

In Search of New Enemies

Stephen Holmes, 24 April 1997

Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor and self-styled defender of Western civilisation, has been a dominant voice in American political science for thirty years. Roughly contemporary, as a Harvard graduate student in security studies, with Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Huntington failed to achieve their spectacular level of success in Washington, although he did rise to a second-tier position in the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter. His intellectual achievements, by way of compensation, have far out-stripped those of his peers. His immensely influential Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), in particular, established his reputation as a leading authority on state-building. While he passes as a conservative of sorts, he is anything but a libertarian, and has been an articulate critic of the tendency of Americans, in particular, to underestimate the contribution of political authority to individual liberty. His 1993 Foreign Affairs article, ‘The Clash of Civilisations?’, was something of a departure. It propelled him into even greater international prominence, not only because it provided a simple picture of the dangers of a post-Cold War world, but because he wrote of ethnic hatred and religious intolerance without the usual liberal discomfort, indeed without appearing to make value-judgments of any sort.

By the Roots

Jeremy Waldron, 9 February 1995

‘The day will come, and perhaps it is not far off, when John Locke will be universally placed among those writers who have perpetrated the most evil among men.’ If Locke has a...

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