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The English School of international relations theory has its own particular account of the history of international relations, a key aspect of which is the expansion of a set of norms, practices and institutions—diplomacy, embassies, international law, sovereignty, the modern state—out of their formative cultural heartland of Europe and to the rest of the world over the past few centuries. This is the story of “European international society” spreading out to become a “global international society,” accelerating especially during the 19th century via cultural imperialism and colonial conquest. The writings of the English School on this Expansion Narrative have evolved since the 1960s, going through phases of development that have concretized the details of the Narrative’s history, elaborated on the processes behind the spread, and attempted to inject more scientific rigor into analysis. Over time a more profound challenge has also emerged, in a revisionist shift from a monocentric story of Europe training the rest of the world in the proper ways of domestic and international life, toward a polycentric, globalization model, in which different civilizations have learned from each other to create a synthetic, multicultural international society by the 21st century. These analytic tensions are a source of creativity and innovation for the English School and set it apart from other approaches to international relations.

Article

Considerations of the English School and of its central concept—international society—have all too often neglected the most logical starting point: the internal history of the British Committee. The British Committee on the Theory of International Politics was a group of scholars created in 1959 under the chairmanship of the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield that met periodically in Cambridge, Oxford, London, and Brighton to discuss the principal problems and a range of aspects of the theory and history of international relations. The British Committee stands out as a remarkable and unusual intellectual project. A product of its place and time and of a particular academic culture, it did not pretend to represent the full range of British thinking. Its membership intentionally omitted such major figures as E.H. Carr and C.A.W. Manning. Whatever direct influence it had on contemporary British scholarship in international relations can be attributed partly to bonds of friendship, across generations, and to the performances of individual members in the lecture hall. Though the Committee incubated a good deal of its members’ work, sometimes published posthumously, its collaborative output was never prolific. Only two collective works can be attributed to it: Diplomatic Investigations (1966) and The Expansion of International Society (1984). However, the Committee developed a thorough study of international society and the nature of world politics, which has had an important impact that continues in the present day.