It is no accident that modern international relations was essentially invented in the United States after World War II. Suddenly, a global power needed a global map to make sense of two revolutionary transformations: nuclear weapons and bipolarity. For students of the discipline, the roster is familiar: Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, Henry Kissinger, Stanley Hoffmann, Thomas Schelling…
They were flanked by Britons, hailing from the former hegemonic power: Hedley Bull, Michael Howard, Herbert Butterfield… Continental Europe, no longer beholden to a strategic vocation, made only a modest contribution. But two figures stand out as towers of the craft: Pierre Hassner, who just died in Paris at the age of 85, and his mentor Raymond Aron, who was also a sociologist, philosopher and intellectual historian.
It may have been no accident that both were Jews (though Hassner’s family had converted to Catholicism in order to escape death at the hands of Hitler’s Romanian henchmen) who had experienced in their own lives the terrible toll of an international order destroyed—what murderous energies are unleashed when the balance of power fails and deterrence collapses. Hassner, born in 1933, survived the war in Bucharest, escaping from Communism by emigrating to Paris in 1948. Both were polyglot and peripatetic, lecturing, writing, and working in the United States, Britain, and Europe, easily moving across national perspectives.
I cannot recall anymore when I first met Pierre. But he was a constant presence in my professional life ever since I came across his legendary Adelphi Paper, “Change and Security in Europe,” Part I, 1968. A mere student then, I fell for the author (intellectually, that is). I had never read anything so perspicacious, indeed, brilliant about the nature of the European international system—certainly not by Continental academics who had been taught to eschew the grand sweep of history and philosophy in favor of footnote-studded policy studies.
In his memoirs, Aron recalls the “charisma” of the young scholar from Romania. After listening to Pierre’s disquisition on Thucydides, he wrote: “I had never heard such a brilliant exposition, whether from a student or a professor.” That’s quite an éloge, as the French say when they mean “maximal praise.”
Apart from lecturing as visiting professor at Harvard, Chicago, and Johns Hopkins, he taught international relations at Sciences Po in Paris for 40 years. Whenever I met Pierre at one of those conferences on the future of East-West relations or great-power arms control, I looked forward to “The Sentence.” Pierre would always begin almost hesitantly. Then he started revving up like an eight-cylinder Testarossa at the starting line, surging forward through the laps at breathtaking speed. Technically speaking, it was only one sentence without commas and breaks. Pierre would shift down only for a fraction of a second to pump up his lungs with oxygen. But that one sentence encompassed the world, dropping unique insights left and right, drawing the subtlest distinctions and alternating between “on the one hand, on the other”—his favorite conceptual tool.
It was dialectics and not dogma. I don’t know anybody in my profession who could range as effortlessly over missile throw-weights and counterforce strategies as over Thucydides, Kant, Hegel, and Marx. A polymath and public intellectual, he could punch elegant holes into the discourse of his contemporaries, even of such giants as Samuel Huntington. He despised intellectual preening and never saw a cliché he didn’t want to puncture, yet he did so always with respect or a chuckle. He might demolish a theory, but never its author. Like most of us, he loved professional gossip, but you would never hear him slight anybody—face to face, let alone behind his back.
He could converse as easily with American neocons as with left-wing Democrats. His brain may have been on the Right, on the side of realism and politics-as-power. But his heart was on the Left, as manifested by his belief in the transcendence of conflict between tribes, nations, and ideologies.
An avid author who could write at the same speed as he talked, Hassner has left dozens of scholarly articles in English, not to speak of the French output. I wish that he had written his books in English, the lingua franca of our craft. But the French titles will give you a feel for the enormous breadth of his mind:
· La Revanche des passions: métamorphoses de la violence et crises du politique, 2015
· Justifier la guerre? De l’humanitaire au contre-terrorisme, 2005.
· La Terreur et l’Empire, 2003.
· Guerre et sociétés. États et violence après la guerre froide, 2003.
· Washington et le Monde. Dilemmes d’une superpuissance 2003.
· La Violence et la Paix: De la bombe atomique au nettoyage ethnique, 2000
It goes without saying that Pierre was a wit in any language. My favorite is this one: “If you agree with me, you are brilliant. If I agree with you, you are a genius.” He died in Paris on May 26, 2018. Obituaries have appeared in all the major papers of France.