This was the second piece of literature I ever read by Jurgen Habermas, the first being Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Although I enjoyed that book, I realized that I still didn't quite understand what Habermas' theory of communicative reason really was. I received this book as part of a scholarship, and although I was appreciative, I was a little worried that "The Divided West" was focused on specific issues relating to the post 9-11 world, and therefore wouldn't necessarily be a good introduction to Habermas' political philosophy. Fortunately, I was proven wrong. Here, Habermas delivers on three accounts: His critique of neo-conservatism, his defense of liberal internationalism, and the relationship his own political philosophy has to these issues. In the process, he both clarifies his own personal defense of progressive modernity while helping the reader understand the broad issues that face international law and the prospect of peace between nations.
Habermas covers a wide variety of issues, from intra-European relations after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the challenges of "policing" international law, to cross-Atlantic tensions that have resulted from the upsurge of Hobbesian, or, "might makes right" attitudes in American academia. As an American, the latter issue interested me the most, and I imagine it would be the most engaging subject within the book for most readers. Habermas tells the story of liberal internationalism starting with the philosopher Immanuel Kant's early sketches of a possible liberal international order to the dual roles played by America and Europe in the construction of the United Nations and other international institutions. Habermas takes to task the trendy conservative American perception that Americans are hard-headed warriors while Europeans are soft, coddled lefties, showing how Kant's initial dream of a liberal international order was largely made possible by American leadership, and that the Bush administration's disdain for international law is simply a characteristic of a certain political faction within American conservatism. It's refreshing to see someone set the record straight on these issues, and from a man who has personally witnessed a good portion of the history of global liberalism.
Although the entire book is well-argued, the final section "The Kantian Project and the Divided West" was the most useful to me, and if you're interested in learning more about Habermas' thought, this section is well worth checking out. He compares and contrasts both the Kantian and the Hobbesian understanding of political culture. Habermas identifies Carl Schmidt as the modern representative of the Hobbesian current in Western politics, while implicitly presenting himself as the representative of the Kantian current. Habermas argues that human political culture is constantly undergoing a dialectical evolution that allows it to continually pursue new possibilities for the future. Although both Kantian theory and Hobbesian rationalism agree on the brutish origins of the state and Western politics, Kantian theory (by way of Habermas) argues that political culture is capable of genuine innovation, and isn't constrained by the violent origins of the state. In Habermas' case, and this is where his own philosophy shines through, the possibilities of the Kantian project stem from human language's dexterous abilities. Basically, Habermas argues that the construction of a political dialogue where all classes, ethnicities, and segments of society are allowed to contribute will have a mitigating effect on global society's ills, while also opening up new possibilities for the development of meaningful, well-enforced international law.
I'd like to point out that although I appreciated this book and am giving it 5 stars, I don't actually agree with Habermas' thesis. In terms of his practical politics, I'm aggravated that he sees almost no structural component to social inequality. His over-emphasis on "language" causes him to have a debilitating blind-spot in this area, and as the recent Great Financial Crisis showed all of us, questions of political economy are perhaps more important than ever in order to understand the nature of the international order. On a more theoretical level, he assumes that international bodies can be politically neutral. The exploitative histories of the IMF and the World Bank should make us skeptical of this faith. However, this is a well-argued book that will teach readers lots about the theoretical aspects of international law while simultaneously serving as a good first look at Habermas' own political philosophy.