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David Hume’s Balancing Act: The Political Discourses and the Sinews of War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2020

DANIELLE CHARETTE*
Affiliation:
University of Chicago
*
Danielle Charette, PhD Candidate, Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, dcharette@uchicago.edu.

Abstract

Both champions and critics of “neorealism” in contemporary international relations misinterpret David Hume as an early spokesman for a universal and scientific balance-of-power theory. This article instead treats Hume’s “Of the Balance of Power,” alongside the other essays in his Political Discourses (1752), as conceptual resources for a historically inflected analysis of state balancing. Hume’s defense of the balance of power cannot be divorced from his critique of commercial warfare in “Of the Balance of Trade” and “Of the Jealousy of Trade.” To better appreciate Hume’s historical and economic approach to foreign policy, this article places Hume in conversation with Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Andrew Fletcher, and Montesquieu. International relations scholars suspicious of static paradigms should reconsider Hume’s genealogy of the balance of power, which differs from the standard liberal and neorealist accounts. Well before International Political Economy developed as a formal subdiscipline, Hume was conceptually treating economics and power politics in tandem.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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Footnotes

I owe special thanks to Richard Boyd, Ryan Hanley, Joel Isaac, John McCormick, Thomas Merrill, Sankar Muthu, Jennifer Pitts, Pete Rodrigue, Andrew Sabl, Blake Smith, Nathan Tarcov, Adam Woodhouse, and Samuel Garrett Zeitlin for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article. I am also grateful to this journal’s three anonymous reviewers and to the audiences at the University of Chicago Political Theory Workshop, the 46th International Hume Society Conference, and the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in 2019.

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