Book Review: Tokens of Power

Tokens of Power: Rethinking War, by Ann Hironaka. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

The reasons that states strap on their helmets and sharpen their bayonets to march to war have been subject to centuries of analysis, from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz. In her new book, Tokens of Power, Ann Hironaka takes a fresh look at the reasons that drive great powers to war with one another. To do so, she draws from the wells of constructivist and world society theory, arguing against the hard-nosed perceptions of the value of economic and hard power elements so central to realist thinking.

The primary thesis of Hironaka’s book is that great powers go to war not for carefully thought out or strategic interests, but to maintain their place in the international pecking order; discerning actual differences in the levels of projectable power a state has is incredibly difficult, but the global great power status hierarchy is more or less agreed upon, so states can use it as a shorthand for their place in the world, fighting to improve their status. Instead of fighting over resources or strategically valuable assets, which are hard to accurately evaluate, states fight over tokens of power, struggling to achieve battlefield victories to boost their claim to the top of the ever-jostling hierarchy.

Ann Hironaka, who is now an Associate Professor at the University of California at Irvine, wrote her first book, Neverending Wars, about the civil conflicts that have been so intractable in the modern age. Building on this work, she has shifted her training in political sociology and the study of conflict to address great power conflict and inter-state competition.

One central example Hironaka uses to do this is the time between the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the outbreak of World War I. A whole series of lessons drawn from the Franco-Prussian War were applied at the beginning of the First World War, to disastrous effect. Military planners, seeing the speed at which Prussia deployed their troops to the battlefield, compared to the French forces, surmised that the speed of deployment would be essential in the next war fought between European powers. Another false lesson was that the impact of technological advancements on the outcome of battle would be minor; even though French weaponry was superior, particularly the clear supremacy of the French Chassepot rifle over the Prussian needle gun, Prussia still won the war. From this result, Hironaka argues that European military planners assumed that the speed of deployment and the number of troops would simply be more important than any advances in technology.

Lessons on the value of cavalry during the Franco-Prussian War proved useless in WWI.

This assumption was soon proved disastrously wrong. The speed of deployment, while certainly important in battle, was ultimately thwarted once the war became bogged down into the horrific hellscape of trench warfare. Similarly, any notions that technology would not prove pivotal was quickly and brutally disproved by hundreds of men being mowed down by automatic machine gun fire in the muddy no man’s land between the trenches. Part of these decisions can be forgiven due to the general ambiguity of war, the fog of war, as it is often described. But the other side of the coin is that planners learned the wrong lessons because they assumed that the victor of the war must be the victor of all the ideational battles; Prussia may have won the war in 1871, but they suffered higher rates of casualties in most of the battles they won!

One criticism that could perhaps be leveled at the book is that it fails to sufficiently deal with the modern trend of decline in interstate conflict. Between the tenets of democratic peace theory and economic interdependence theory, the passing mention, mostly in the closing chapter, of these trends is insufficient. The author does present the case that because great power conflict is driven by status and prestige, it is not unthinkable that one day, economic competition could replace military competition, as embodied by the high social status of Japan and Germany, neither of which are military powers today. The book certainly would have benefited from a more thorough evaluation of these great power competition.

In the opening chapter, Hironaka asks, “[i]s this study relevant for the modern day, where Great Power wars seem to be few and far between?” When the book was released in 2017, this query held an almost sheepish quality. For a decade and a half, the United States had been primarily consumed with questions of counter-insurgency, quashing violent extremism, and grappling with the malign impact of sub-state actors. In Europe, the European Union, though troubled by the implications of Brexit, seems a place where interstate war is off the table. In Latin America, countries may grapple with insurgencies and rebels hiding out in the inaccessible jungles, but war between countries is uncommon in the past quarter-century. However, this year’s new National Defense Strategy explicitly says that competition with near-peer state adversaries is the most important element of ensuring American national security. With sustained and growing challenges from China and Russia, perhaps the lessons of Tokens of Power will soon be far more salient than the author anticipated.

Originally posted as a book review for International Affairs Review. Original post can be found here.

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