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date: 20 October 2020

International Relations and the Study of History

Abstract and Keywords

International relations and history are inextricably linked, and with good reason. This link is centuries old: Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, one of the very earliest and one of the very greatest historical works of all time, is widely regarded as the founding textbook of international relations. Still, those two disciplines are legitimately separate. A somewhat clear boundary between them can probably be drawn around three lines of demarcation: (1) past versus present, (2) idiographic versus nomothetic, and (3) description versus analysis.

The utility of history for the analysis of international affairs has been taken for granted since time immemorial. History is said to offer three things to international relations scholars: (1) a ready source of examples, (2) an opportunity to sharpen their theoretical insights, and (3) historical consciousness, that is, an understanding of the historical context of human existence and a corresponding ability to form intelligent judgment about human affairs. This tradition continued well after international relations firmly established itself as a recognized separate discipline some time after World War II, and would remain virtually unchallenged until the 1960s.

Since the 1960s, attitudes toward history have diverged within the international relations community. Some approaches, most notably the English school and the world system analysis, have almost by definition thriven on history. History plays a fundamental role in the critical-constructivist approach, while realist scholars continue to draw regularly on history. History is far less popular, though not absent from works belonging to the liberal-idealist approach. Postmodernism is the one approach that is almost completely antithetical to the analytical use of history. Postmodernists have characterized history as merely another form of fiction and question the existence of objective truth and transhistorical knowledge. One cannot exclude the possibility that postmodernism is correct in this respect; however, it is highly unlikely that uncountable generations of people have been victims of mass deception or mass psychosis regarding the utility of history, not least in the analysis of international relations.

Keywords: international relations, history, Thucydides, realism, interdisciplinarity, English school, critical-constructivist approach, world system analysis, liberal-idealist approach, postmodernism


This article consists of two parts: one section deals with the relation between history and international relations as approached in the relevant literature; the remaining sections survey the ways in which history (referring both to the historical record and to the insights of historians) has been used in the study of international relations, from Thucydides to contemporary scholarship. Given the sheer magnitude of the international relations literature, a comprehensive presentation of the subject is out of the question. Instead, the focus will be on presenting the main strands of thought and particular salient points.

International Relations and History: The Elusive Boundary

Setting the Boundary

International relations used to be a mere branch of diplomatic history—actually, it was indistinguishable from diplomatic history. International relations began to emerge as a separate discipline in the aftermath of World War I with the creation of the chair of International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth, UK, and firmly secured its independence sometime after the end of World War II (Olson, 1972). It thus stands to reason that at the beginnings of the institutional life of the new discipline its proponents were keen on establishing its self-identity, although they duly recognized its dependence on the older discipline (Marchant, 1961:19; McClelland, 1961). So, somehow there had to be a boundary between international relations and history. But where to set that boundary?

Setting it is not easy, especially when it comes to what Johan Galtung (1969:266–270) has called “nomothetic, diachronic research.” To get an idea of the difficulties involved, one may consider the works of Thucydides (1972), Arnold Toynbee (1934–1961), and Paul Kennedy (1987). Although all three authors are primarily classified as historians, these works constitute borderline cases between history and international relations. It is not always fortunate to be a borderline case. Both historians and international relations scholars are generally happy to consider Thucydides as one of their own; Paul Kennedy is recognized as a leading historian and has also earned an important place in international relations literature; but in contrast to the dual citizenship of Thucydides and Kennedy, Toynbee ended up stranded in no-man’s land, disavowed by historians and not adopted by international relations scholars.

Most of the practitioners of history and international relations believe that the differences between the disciplines are real and important enough (Elman & Elman, 2001; Jervis, 2001; Schroeder, 2001). On the other hand, there is no absolute consensus as to what exactly these differences are. Opinions seem to cluster around three possible lines of demarcation: (1) past versus present, (2) idiographic versus nomothetic, and (3) description versus analysis. These lines are better viewed as continua rather than rigid categories, given that both history and international relations are quite heterogeneous (Levy, 2001:40, 42–45); thus, although some historians have explicitly rejected the aforementioned lines and offered convincing counterexamples (Ingram, 1997:53–54; Schroeder, 1997:65–67, 2001:405–406), it does seem that this demarcation captures the difference between international relations and history.

The past versus present continuum is arguably the most obvious difference between the two disciplines. Strictly speaking, “a non-experimental observational basis for a science is, in a certain sense, always ‘historical’ in character” (Popper, 1986:38; see also Wright, 1965:25). However, if the term “historical” is to have any meaning, it must be somehow synonymous with “past” (say, 20 years back), notwithstanding the existence of “contemporary history.” In this vein, history deals with the past and international relations deals with the present; even in the numerous instances when international relations deals with historical cases, it does so with an eye to the present, whereas history tends to deal with the past for its own sake (Ingram, 1997:54; Elman & Elman, 2001:7–8; Lebow, 2001:111). In the same vein, international relations often aims consciously at policy relevance, a tendency relatively absent from history. It is no accident that the historian John Burrow (2008:79, 271) classified as “political science” the explicitly policy-relevant historical works of Polybius and Machiavelli, while it has been pointed out that “some people undoubtedly choose to become political scientists rather than historians precisely because they want to influence policy” (Levy, 2001:62).

Nevertheless, the past–present distinction is not as neat as one might think. To start with, the present is not so self-intelligible: historical context may matter a lot, and past influences may persist for long (Wright, 1965:18; Bloch, 1992:29–39). Moreover, historians often do have an eye for the present, or even for the future (Gaddis, 2004:10); indeed, they use the pejorative term “antiquarian” for those among them who are considered bound to the past (Fischer, 1970:140–142; Burrow, 2008:468). Finally, salient past events still command widespread interest for their own sake, and international relations scholars who analyze them in the course of their theoretical quests cannot help improving the general understanding of those particular events (King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994:35).

The idiographic versus nomothetic distinction is arguably the most important difference between international relations and history, subsuming most of the other differences (Galtung, 1969:251–253; Levy, 1997; Elman & Elman, 2001:13–16; Levy, 2001). This distinction is spelled out by Aristotle (Poetics, ix, quoted in Finley, 1990:11) in his powerful indictment against history: “Poetry is more philosophical and more weighty than history, for poetry speaks rather of the universal, history of the particular. By the universal I mean that such or such a kind of man will say or do such or such things from probability or necessity; that is the aim of poetry, adding proper names to the characters. By the particular I mean what Alcibiades did and what he suffered.”

Substituting international relations for poetry, this accounts for a fundamental difference between international relations and history. International relations scholars explicitly aim to arrive at general propositions of wider applicability (Hoffmann, 1961:430; Kaplan, 1961:8–10, 14; Wright, 1965:16, 26, 438–439; Waltz, 1979:1–17). On the contrary, although there are a few historians that, after Carl Hempel, search for “covering laws” in history (see Trachtenberg, 2006:1–4), historians can be happy with pure idiography (Samuel Eliot Morison, quoted in McClelland, 1961:34; cf. Lebow, 1981:ix–x) or at least be reluctant to generalize from particular cases, because they place a high value on contingency (Hoffmann, 1961:430–431; Wright, 1965:16, 26, 438–439; Elman & Elman, 2001:16–18; Jervis, 2001:393–399; Gaddis, 2004:12–15, 53–69; Burrow, 2008:47–49, 79, 260, 270–271, 447).

The extreme forms of the idiographic tendency have received sharp criticism; among others it has been pointed out that the pure idiographers, in order to remain true to their convictions, should neither use census data nor even count the members of their own family (Galtung, 1969:252–253; see also Fischer, 1970:94–97). In turn, the historians have staged a two-pronged counterattack. To begin with, they have accused international relations scholars (and political scientists in general) of distorting reality in the process of generalization and of unduly neglecting contingency and path dependency (Schroeder, 1994; Ingram, 1997; Gaddis, 2004:53–69, 71–89; Strachan, 2008:36). This has fatal consequences for theory: “what [political scientists] don’t realize is that if they get the facts a little wrong, they don’t get the results a little wrong, they get them all wrong” (Jon Sumida, quoted in Lynn, 2001:366). The second prong of the historians’ counterattack is of fairly recent vintage: instead of defending idiography, a number of historians have claimed that they, too, engage in generalizations: for instance, E. H. Carr (1990:63, 64) has stated that “the historian is not really interested in the unique, but in what is general in the unique” and that “history thrives on generalizations.” Moreover, even historians who castigate political scientists/international relations scholars for their own brand of generalizations declare that historians “generalize for particular purposes; hence [they] practice particular generalization” (Gaddis, 2004:62, emphasis in text; see also Wright, 1965:26, 438–439).

The first of these points is absolutely valid; international relations scholars have sometimes mentioned the need to take contingency into account (Hoffmann, 1961:431; Wright, 1965:1357–1358), though it is doubtful whether they have heeded this advice very much. Still, theory always involves abstractions from reality (Kaplan, 1961; Waltz, 1979:1–17), and historians themselves admit that they, too, represent/construct reality (Gaddis, 2004:135–145). As to the second point, it must be said that sometimes historians make “insidious generalizations” (Fischer, 1970:124–125): they may openly disavow generalizations, but then proceed to bootleg them into their works without recognizing their existence or controlling their content (see also Wohlforth, 2001:355–356).

Largely due to the idiographic–nomothetic distinction between history and international relations, scholarly works read differently in each of the two disciplines, at least nowadays: normally in works of international relations the theoretical sections are neatly separated from the narrative, and the inclusion of diagrams, figures, etc., is likely, whereas in historical works the theories, if they exist at all, are imbedded in the narrative, and one is unlikely to encounter any sophisticated artwork in the text (Elman & Elman, 2001:27; Levy, 2001:76). In the same vein, scholarly works cater to different expectations within the two scholarly communities: arguably the worst that can be said about an international relations work is that it is “descriptive,” whereas the worst that can be said about a historical work is that it is “incorrect” (Levy, 2001:48–50).

This brings us to the description versus analysis distinction between history and international relations (Aron, 1966:2; Levy, 2001:71–78; Wohlforth, 2001:356; Trachtenberg, 2006:37). This is a much more accurate distinction than the supposed distinction of narrative versus theory, because historians do use many a theoretical insight in their works (Levy, 1997:27–29). Analysis and description can be conceived as ends of a continuum ranging from the pure analysis of game theory and formal modeling, through the sketchy and sparse illustrative examples of Kenneth Waltz (1979), all the way to the assertion of David Hackett Fischer (1970:14–15, 131) that history should deal with what happened and how, leaving aside the question of why it happened—be purely descriptive, that is. Overall, historians have a greater taste for detail than IR scholars; in fact, the very use of the word detail is problematic, given that historians may argue that the so-called details are actually essential for highlighting the unique aspects of the case under examination. In the end, it all comes down to a different mix of what, how (what often subsumes how), and why.

As was pointed out, historians do use theories; in fact, some of them have protested their depiction as mere fact-mongers by political scientists/international relations scholars (Ingram, 1997:53–54; Schroeder, 1997:65–67, 2001:405–406; Trachtenberg, 2006:37). However, the problem is that more often than not their theories are unarticulated (Kaplan, 1961:6; Elman & Elman, 2001:7; Lebow, 2001:112–113; Wohlforth, 2001:355–356), hence difficult to put to test and check for internal consistency.

Two related issues are those of parsimony (Elman & Elman, 2001:7–8; Jervis, 2001:390–393; Lebow, 2001:123–126; Levy, 2001:54–59; Schroeder, 2001:405–408) and morality (Elman & Elman, 2001:25–27; Jervis, 2001:399–400; Schroeder, 2001:409–416). Parsimony is essential in theoretical analysis, but not necessarily so in description. Consequently, historians are relatively more tolerant than social scientists to over-determination. As to morality, although classical international relations scholars did devote attention to it (Carr, 1981:135–155; Morgenthau, 2006:235–269), the discipline (at least its realist paradigm) progressively distanced itself from questions of international morality. On the contrary, historians still struggle with the issue, taking various positions (Carr, 1990:75–84; Bloch, 1992:114–119; Gaddis, 2004:122–128).

Bridging the Gap

Why bridge the gap between international relations and history? After all, the affinity between the two disciplines may be nothing more than an accident of birth; for instance, although Vitoria and Suárez, the founders of modern international law, were clergymen, bridging the gap between international law and theology is hardly a central issue nowadays. Is history useful to international relations (and vice versa), and if yes, what to do about it?

Much has been written about the general utility of history (see among others Thucydides, 1972:I 22; Polybius, 1922–1927:I 1, I 35; Ibn Khaldûn, 1967:5, 11; Fischer, 1970:314–318; Neustadt & May, 1986; Gaddis, 2004:8–11; Guldi & Armitage, 2014) and about its specific utility to international relations scholars (Hoffmann, 1961:430–431; Marchant, 1961; Hill, 1985; Trachtenberg, 2006:39–50, 134–139). According to this literature, history offers three things to international relations scholars: first, a ready source of examples; second, an opportunity to sharpen their theoretical insights; after all, broadening one’s database is hopefully bound to broaden one’s vision as well; third, historical consciousness, that is, an understanding of the historical context of human existence and a corresponding ability to form intelligent judgment about human affairs.

This learning by vicarious experience that history offers is often put to use by explicit or implicit historical analogies (Polybius, 1922–1927:III 32, XII 25b). In order to acknowledge the utility of historical analogies, one need not resort to platitudes about history repeating itself or people doomed to relive their past. As the historian John Lewis Gaddis (2004:2) has put it, “science, history, and art [. . .] all depend on metaphor, on the recognition of patterns, on the realization that something is ‘like’ something else.” At the same time, the relevant literature does contain its fair share of warnings and suggestions regarding the use of historical analogies (Fischer, 1970:243–259; Neustadt & May, 1986; Carr, 1990:62). Of course, reliance on historical analogies presupposes at least some elements of continuity through history. Thucydides (1972:I 22) believed he had found the perennial element of continuity in the unchangeable human nature (but see Fischer, 1970:203–207); modern realists (Waltz, 1979; Gilpin, 1981:211–230; Mearsheimer, 2001) and English school theorists (Bull, 1977; Wight, 1978) point out the durable macro-influence of international anarchy. Although the historically minded international relations scholars ought to keep their eyes wide open to changes and breaks with the past, it is equally true to say that rumors about the end of history were greatly exaggerated and that contemporary international relations does retain manifold and important elements of continuity from earlier historical periods.

Several analysts have taken this strand of the literature to its logical conclusion; they regard the academic distinction between history and the social sciences as accidental, artificial, and detrimental (Toynbee, 1956:5; Wright, 1965:1363–1364), and hail the supposed emergence of a “super social science” (Galtung, 1969:280–285). These are probably extreme views; as the subsection “Setting the Boundary” demonstrated, the boundary between international relations and history exists not only due to institutional caprice, but due to good substantive reasons as well. Robert Jervis (2001:387) soberly concluded that although a redrawing or even an abolition of disciplinary lines might perhaps look attractive, of course it cannot be done and the respective disciplines are bound to retain their specific mores and incentives. So, bridging the gap is just about the best that can be expected.

Various ways have been suggested for doing this (Elman & Elman, 2001:28–35). Well-meaning historians (Renouvin & Duroselle, 1967) have argued in favor of pursuing international relations analysis through a purely inductive approach to the historical record, but this is nowadays regarded as unfeasible or even unnecessary (Fischer, 1970:4–8). More to the point seems the call of Quincy Wright (1965:701–715, 1355–1364) and E. H. Carr (1990:66) for an interdisciplinary approach between history and the social sciences. The practitioners of the latter ought to develop greater historical understanding and, in the particular case of international relations scholars, they may need to delve deeper into historiography in the course of their research (Schroeder, 1997:71; Larson, 2001). On the other hand, historians may have much to gain by incorporating the theoretical insights of the social sciences—indeed, if historians intend to write analytical history, as opposed to purely descriptive history, it is reasonable to ask how they purport to analyze past political events, domestic and international, without recourse to the findings of political science. Quite a few scholars have explicitly heeded this call to interdisciplinarity (e.g., Trachtenberg, 2006), although it seems to have been easier for international relations scholars to accept historians in their midst and accord them leading-scholar status than the other way around. In this interdisciplinary vein, Alexander George’s advocacy of collaborative teaching by historians and international relations scholars merits serious attention (George, 1997:46).

However, the story does not necessarily have an interdisciplinary happy end. To start with, it has been pointed out (Fischer, 1970:37) that an interdisciplinary approach must be handled with care lest it ends up combining the worst vices of historians (“stupidity”) and social scientists (“ignorance”). Furthermore, interdisciplinarity may well prove impractical or unfeasible: scholars, even if they have the inclination, may not have the time or the necessary background for drawing appropriately from another discipline (Lawson, 2008:25–26). Interdisciplinarity may even be insidious, that is, aiming at the colonization of the turf of one discipline by another (Lawson, 2008:26). Finally, it has been argued (Wohlforth, 2001:352–353) that, in the final analysis, international relations and history are competitive ventures: both try to explain the same phenomena, each in its own way, which is considered better than the other’s.

Before the Discipline: From Thucydides to World War I

As mentioned, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is both a seminal historical work and the founding text of international relations. Thucydides’ celebrated explanation of the cause of the Peloponnesian War is that “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta” (1972:I 23). This emphasis on power distribution and uneven development was a quantum leap in the study of international relations. A mere generation earlier Herodotus had been content to explain the Greek–Persian conflict solely on the basis of mythical incidents and human passions, but Thucydides marks the transition from mythology and crude psychology to international relations theory.

Stanley Hoffmann (quoted in Levy, 1997:30) has claimed that Thucydides’ text contains neither explicit generalizations of an “if [. . .] then” nature, nor analytic categories. This is only partly true: although Thucydides did not use clearly defined analytic categories, he did offer quite a few general propositions; one need not go further than Book I of the History in order to encounter an explicit proposition on the dangers of appeasement: “If you give in, you will immediately be confronted with some greater demand, since they will think that you only gave way on this point through fear. But if you take a firm stand you will make it clear to them that they have to treat you properly as equals” (Thucydides, 1972:I 140; see also I 76, IV 59, V 89). This combination of narrative and generalization accounts for the dual citizenship of Thucydides in the realms of history and international relations.

Polybius, who lived two-and-a-half centuries after Thucydides, operated on similar premises but on a far larger scale. The theme of Polybius’s History (1922–1927) is the rise of Rome to “universal” dominance within little more than a century (264–146 bce). The chief contribution of Polybius to international relations was his “world systemic” approach. Echoing modern calls for systemic as opposed to “reductionist” approaches to international relations, he insisted that only universal history was meaningful history; local histories were bound to distort the picture by unduly magnifying relatively minor factors and events. To be sure, the Roman state did not cover the whole known world or even the whole civilized known world (to the east of the Roman domains the Parthians remained independent), but in Polybius’s time the Mediterranean basin was basically a self-contained international system. Polybius consciously aimed at providing political guidance to his readership. Among others, he set out to demonstrate the dynamics of security dilemma and imperialism, that is, how the Romans’ quest for security insensibly led them on the path to empire. In addition, Polybius (1922–1927:VI) delved into the domestic structures of Rome and pointed out their profound impact on its international relations. Anyone interested in the subject of imperialism and empire-building may fruitfully read Polybius (admittedly a difficult work to read in its entirety), especially because facile analogies with the Roman Empire are much in vogue nowadays.

After Polybius, modern international relations scholars have to make a great time leap in order to find anything comparably useful among historical works; but when they find it, they will be amply rewarded with the work of the 14th-century Arab historian and statesman Ibn Khaldûn (1967). Ibn Khaldûn wrote a history centered on the Arab and Berber dynasties, mentioning also the non-Arab states of the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East. This was the laboratory that enabled him to work out a pattern of what many centuries later would be called “power transition” (Organski, 1968:338–376). According to this pattern, a powerful state emerges when group solidarity is strong and the arts, crafts, and industries of civilization are well cultivated. However, the resultant wealth and the ruling dynasty’s striving after it weaken group solidarity and enervate both rulers and ruled, eventually leaving them prey to outsider groups with greater solidarity. This account of the rise and decline of states under the influence of their domestic structures still retains its intellectual power.

Machiavelli is of course the founder of modern political science. As a result, the best-known books of Machiavelli (2003, 2008) read differently from the works of the earlier authors considered so far: instead of being historical works sprinkled with political maxims, they are political science works full of historical illustrations—the preferred structure of historically minded political science texts ever since. His historical examples come overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, from ancient Roman history. The focus in the Discourses is understandably different from that of The Prince: in the former, Machiavelli draws from republican Rome in an attempt to cultivate the civic spirit in his native Florence, whereas in the latter he draws from imperial Rome with a view to providing the Medici ruler of Florence with suitable rules of conduct.

Machiavelli’s younger contemporary Francesco Guicciardini demonstrates the difference between diplomatic history and international relations. The focus of his History of Italy (Guicciardini, 1984) is on international politics, its central theme being the subordination of Italy to powerful foreign states. Moreover, Guicciardini explicitly uses the concept of the balance of power in his work. Still, Guicciardini’s History has a rather strong idiographic bent, in clear contrast to Machiavelli’s attempt to formulate propositions of general applicability.

The concepts of the European state system and the balance of power played a prominent role in the works of several 19th-century political historians. Among them, Arnold Heeren (1834) elaborated on the idea that the European states constituted an international system; however, he insisted on excluding the Ottoman Empire from that system. The works of Leopold von Ranke, the exemplar of the 19th-century political historian, are also permeated by the concepts of great powers and the balance of power (Von Laue, 1950; Gilbert, 1990:26, 29–30). Ranke found it natural to focus on the great powers, because great powers are the most influential international actors; in this focus, Ranke echoes many a present-day political realist (e.g., Waltz, 1979; Mearsheimer, 2001).

During the very long period that was briefly surveyed in this section, insights on international relations were, with the notable exception of Machiavelli, embedded in historical texts. Still, even within this older historical literature one may find variations along the lines depicted in the section “International Relations and History: The Elusive Boundary”—some of the works are closer to modern international relations than others. The soon-to-emerge discipline of international relations inherited the bulk of its intellectual baggage from this early historical literature.

The New Discipline and History: From the Interwar Years to the Late 1960s

The debt of the fledgling discipline of international relations to history was manifest from the very beginning and was reflected in the works of two of the founding fathers of modern international relations, namely E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau.

Carr was an accomplished historian in his own right. However, because in The Twenty Years’ Crisis (Carr, 1981) his chief aim was to attack the idealism that had dominated international relations after World War I, he concentrated on events of the period 1919–1939 and seldom ventured further back to the past. Be that as it may, Carr is the man who wrote What Is History? (Carr, 1990)—another demonstration of the close relation between the two disciplines.

Morgenthau put his historical erudition on ample display in Politics Among Nations (Morgenthau, 2006). There were no detailed historical case studies in that book. However, to cite a few examples among very many, Morgenthau came up with a section on the Holy Alliance (an example of world government), a story about a sentry in the Russian imperial palace (demonstrating the Russian national character), and an account of a Spanish protest to the U.S. government for Spain’s not being treated as a great power after its defeat in the Spanish–American War of 1898 (highlighting the concept of prestige).

One of the true landmarks in the study of international relations is A Study of War by Quincy Wright (1965); the discipline was never the same after its publication. Wright was the quintessential interdisciplinarian; although he used insights from a variety of disciplines (international relations, history, psychology, economics, political science, anthropology, law, sociology), he stated very clearly that none of them could on its own deal satisfactorily with the phenomenon of war, hence the need for an interdisciplinary approach to the subject. History was the cornerstone of Wright’s monument, due to his belief that an understanding of the past forms and historical evolution of war was essential for its present understanding. The result was a 1,600-page behemoth that contained, among others, substantial sections on animal warfare and primitive warfare—because animal warfare was the predecessor of primitive warfare, which was the predecessor of historic warfare. The same method was applied to virtually every aspect of war (military strategy and tactics, war economics, war propaganda, legal treatment of war, etc.). Not least due to its solid historical foundations, A Study of War is still a very useful starting point for research on war and on many other aspects of international relations (e.g., international organization, state sovereignty, etc.).

An interesting if somewhat controversial case is that of Arnold Toynbee (1934–1961). His 12-volume magnum opus A Study of History regards the civilizations (e.g., Hindu and Western civilizations) as the only “intelligible fields of study,” far and above the level of “parochial states”; traces the evolution of civilizations throughout history; and comes up with an evolutionary pattern that is likely, though not certain, to be repeated. Toynbee’s main contribution is that he offered a truly universal outlook both in time and in space, covering virtually the whole world in a five-thousand-year time span. Although his proposed system is clearly untenable in its entirety, it may still offer intriguing insights that can be put to good use; he had an influence on both the English school of international relations and the world system approach, and Robert Gilpin (1981:111, 161, 182–185, 203–204) successfully used some of his ideas.

Henry Kissinger (1957) exemplified the model of the historical case study in the analysis of international relations, occupying a middle ground between the old historical works containing political maxims and the new theoretical works using historical illustrations. Kissinger aimed explicitly at generalization from his case study. His analysis of the period 1812–1822 highlights the theme of revolutionary-imperialist policies versus conservative-status quo ones; Kissinger regarded this as a recurrent theme, and it was one that he undoubtedly found useful for explaining international politics after 1945. At any rate, his work broke new methodological ground that would later be further cleared by specialized works on the technique of case studies (Eckstein, 1975; George, 1979; George & Bennett, 2005).

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the increasing impact of the postwar behavioral revolution on international relations. The features of social science became more pronounced in the discipline, and scientific rigor was demanded from international relations scholars. New methods and techniques, such as game theory, formal modeling, and quantitative studies entered the field. Among these, one of the most important was the systemic approach. The analysis at the systemic level raised obvious questions about the evolution of international systems and invited comparisons among them; this was promptly done in the pioneering works of the systemic approach (Kaplan, 1957; Rosecrance, 1963), which tried to define the distinct characteristics and peculiar norms of various historical international systems (or even of hypothetical ones in Kaplan’s case).

The advent of those modern approaches met with a strong reaction (Bull, 1969) and caused the so-called Great Debate between traditionalists, who emphasized the importance of philosophy, history, and law in the study of international relations and argued in favor of a scientifically imperfect process of perception and intuition, in contrast to the modernists’ emphasis on deductive models, precision, and verification (Bull, 1969; Haas, 1969).

The objections of the traditionalists toward the scientific approach to international relations bear a certain resemblance to some objections of historians toward the work of international relations scholars, namely that the latter distort reality in their quest for scientific generalizations (see “International Relations and History: The Elusive Boundary”). For this article, much more important was the traditionalists’ accusation that the modernists were “cutting themselves off from history and philosophy” (Bull, 1969:37). This accusation was not at all unfounded (Singer, 1969:80): modernists were often ahistorical, especially in the rapidly developing subfield of strategic studies. Still, the accusation was only partly true. Many modernists studied history in the course of their works, and sometimes could rightfully claim that their scientific rigor enabled them to treat history better than traditionalists (Kaplan, 1969:52, 56, 61).

Consider the case of quantitative techniques involving the use of historical databases. Many advocates of these techniques use history and care about it: why build and use these huge databases containing data going back to 1815 or earlier (Wright, 1965; Singer, 1979–1980; Correlates of War), if one does not believe that these historical data are still relevant? There is of course a danger of distorting the data when sorting them into databases, but at least these databases are constructed after honest historical research (Singer, 1969:68–71, 78–79; Haber, Kennedy, & Krasner, 1997:36). Incidentally, Quincy Wright (1965:15), the pioneer of quantitative international relations, has suggested that quantitative studies have to be juxtaposed with deep examination of particular cases; the former will come up with general propositions and the latter will check the validity of those propositions. In a similar vein, Nazli Choucri and Robert North (1975) used sophisticated quantitative methods for a systematic treatment of the historical data pertaining to World War I. The analysis pointed to a significant correlation between growth and international violence; this basically confirmed what had been known (or assumed) since Thucydides’ time, but it did lay the ground for further research on similar lines.

The advent of the new approaches and techniques did not bring an end to more traditional-style works. Power and the Pursuit of Peace by F. H. Hinsley (1963) was such a work. It drew heavily from the diplomatic history tradition, although Hinsley (1963:277–279) readily used quantitative data supplied by Wright’s A Study of War. Hinsley argued that the plans for the elimination of war advocated since 1917 were merely reproductions or at best elaborations of earlier such plans. These earlier plans had been discarded in their day and had received devastating critiques during the 18th and 19th centuries. Consequently, Hinsley began with an examination of these early schemes and then made an inductive analysis of the modern international system from its beginnings to 1900 in order to establish the historical context in which these schemes were developed and failed to materialize. Finally, he subjected 20th-century international relations and international organizations to that same kind of analysis. The impact of international anarchy on the problem of war and peace is manifest throughout the book.

Peace and War by Raymond Aron (1966) is quite reminiscent of Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations: lengthy expositions, plentiful insights, and ambitious theoretical aims that were not completely achieved. Aron’s book is steeped in history, although, somewhat curiously, the part of the book titled “History” deals explicitly with contemporary international politics. Peace and War was arguably the last great work in the classical realist tradition of international relations.

Modern Trends in an Old Relationship: Non-Realists, Realists, and History

The late 1960s and the 1970s witnessed the emergence (or reemergence) of a number of approaches that attempted, with varying degrees of success, to challenge the dominant realist paradigm of international relations. The present section will focus on the use of history by some of these novel approaches and by modern realism.

One of the first challenges to realism, namely the English school, initially did not look like a challenge at all—in fact, even today there are those who consider it a branch of realism, but this issue is outside the scope of this article. The British Committee on the Theory of International Politics convened for the first time in 1958, and its focus was decidedly traditional and agreeable to classical realists. Thus, Diplomatic Investigations (Butterfield & Wight, 1966), the first book under the committee’s auspices, received a laudatory review from Hans Morgenthau (1967). Diplomatic Investigations set a pattern that would be followed by many classical English school texts (e.g., Wight, 1978), that is, selecting a number of important international relations concepts (diplomacy, law, collective security, etc.) and examining them from a historical angle.

The English school thrived on history, placing an explicit premium on the historical understanding of international politics and, at least during its first three decades, emphasizing the elements of continuity in international relations. On the other hand, this historical understanding laid bare the path dependency of many international developments and in this way introduced an element of change in the analysis.

Two central concepts in the English school were the international system and the international society (Butterfield & Wight, 1966; Bull, 1977; Wight, 1977; Bull & Watson, 1984; Watson, 1992). In both cases the English school theorists avoided unnecessary jargon and gave a historical (or even macro-historical) treatment to those subjects. Among others, they examined issues like the expansion of international society, the peculiar characteristics of various state systems – with Martin Wight (1977:25) coming up with the highly interesting example of the Near Eastern system of the latter half of the 2nd millennium bce, a system composed of state systems rather than states, given that each of the units of the system headed a suzerain state system—or the oscillation of the international system between anarchy and empire.

Contemporary English school scholars consciously aim at engaging with the whole of human history. Buzan, Jones, and Little (1993) used the example of the expansion and contraction of the Roman Empire as a case study to illustrate system transformation. Apart from the highly important Roman case, their forays into ancient history led them to examine some unduly neglected cases like Carthage or the Hellenistic monarchies. This broad historical sweep coupled with systemic analysis continued into their later work as well (Buzan & Little, 2000). Taking this trend even further, Suzuki, Zhang, and Quirk (2014) examined a number of non-European international systems from the late 15th until the mid-19th century, that is, before the onset of undisputed Western global dominance. In view of the current emergence, or rather reemergence of non-Western powers, their work provides a much-needed corrective to the Eurocentrism prevalent in international relations.

Ever since World War I, the liberal-idealist tradition in international relations has tended to emphasize change rather than continuity. Consequently, whenever its advocates employ historical analysis, they tend not to go too far back in time. For instance, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye (1977), in what was a significant synthesis of liberalism and realism in matters of international political economy and international regimes, did not go further back than the 1920s in their discussion of the international money and ocean regimes, nor further back than 1918 in their discussion of U.S. relations with Canada and Australia. The pattern was repeated by Keohane (1984) in his discussion of the international political economy, where he focused on the post–World War II period and only rarely touched upon the Pax Britannica.

History plays a fundamental role in the critical-constructivist approach. This approach does not accept existing orders and institutions as given, but attempts to find out how they came about and consequently how they might change (Cox, 1986). It goes without saying that this emphasis on path dependency delights historians (Gaddis, 2004:81), irrespective of whether they share the Marxist perspective of early critical theory. Later critical-constructivist works retained a historical focus but quite often leaned toward postmodernism. In this vein, Jens Bartelson (1995) used the Foucauldian concept of genealogy in order to examine the evolution of the concept of sovereignty from the Renaissance to the present. The critical-constructivist approach may offer highly original insights and highlight many situations. However, there is a potential pitfall that its advocates must be aware of. As Marc Bloch (1992:26–29, 129–145, 154–156) has pointed out, the past meaning of words and institutions may well highlight their present meaning, but it may also prove irrelevant to it; and it is their present meaning that we are basically interested in—especially in international relations.

One of the most interesting approaches to contemporary international relations is world system analysis. History is a vital ingredient of world system analysis; in fact, it has been said that the very emergence of this kind of analysis during the early 1970s was an intellectual reaction to social science models that were then in vogue and were deemed excessively abstract and ahistorical (Dougherty & Pfaltzgraff, 1990:164). World system analysis began with the pioneering work of Immanuel Wallerstein (2011). Wallerstein argued that from the 16th century onward the globe had been unified into one world system comprising the economically advanced and exploitative states at the systemic core, the economically backward and exploited states at the systemic periphery, and the Janus-looking states of the semi-periphery. Wallerstein demonstrated that the Marxist approach could be successfully transplanted from the domestic sphere of class relations to the global sphere of interstate relations. At the same time, he provided a breadth of historical sweep that had rarely been seen since Toynbee.

Another important practitioner of world system analysis is George Modelski (1986). Modelski takes his cues not from Marx but from Talcott Parsons. He argues that global wars tend to recur at hundred-year intervals (long cycles). As a result of these wars, the last five centuries have seen an equal number of world leaderships: Portuguese, Dutch, British (twice), and American. At a later stage of research, Modelski and William Thompson (1996) juxtaposed long cycles of global war and global leadership with the notorious Kondratieff waves in economy, and moved their analysis further back in time to begin with the Chinese Sung state in the 10th century ce. Actually, later works on world system analysis (Frank & Gills, 1993; Denemark, Friedman, Gills, & Modelski, 2000) featured an even broader historical sweep, namely five thousand years; Toynbee would have approved.

In the meantime, the realists had not been sitting idly by. Kenneth Waltz (1979) provided a powerful structural analysis proving that realism remained as strong as ever. Still, Waltzian neorealism drew increasing fire for being static and ahistorical. However, the resources of realism proved inexhaustible. Robert Gilpin (1981) came up with an analysis of international change at various levels (systems change, systemic change, and interaction change, focusing on the first two), built on the idea that as the relative power of international actors increases, they will seek to change the international environment accordingly. Gilpin’s systemic analysis is historically informed (drawing among others from Ibn Khaldûn and Toynbee) and to a great extent traces the origins of international change at the unit level. Gilpin’s work, coupled with the elaborated power transition theory (Organski & Kugler, 1980) and the argument of Paul Kennedy (1987) that the fall of great powers is often due to strategic overextension, offers a powerful blend of theory and history.

History features prominently in other strands of realism as well. The advocates of so-called neoclassical realism (states care primarily about power, security, etc., but perceptions and domestic structures do play an important role) have dealt extensively with matters such as the structure of the international system and the origins of World War II (Schweller, 1998). Stephen Krasner (1999) came up with a realist examination of the concept of sovereignty, arguing that what he dubbed organized hypocrisy (the presence of longstanding norms that are frequently violated) has been a permanent feature of international relations. John Mearsheimer (2001) demonstrated the applicability of offensive realism (states aim not merely at a balance of power but at power and security maximization) by a series of detailed case studies of great-power behavior during the 19th and 20th centuries. Finally, Henry Kissinger (2011) delved fairly deeply into Chinese history in order to demonstrate the conceptual way in which the Chinese approach international relations, in contrast to an arguably different way in which the Americans do so.

All this emphasis on history would not sit well with postmodernists—with the probable exception of the concept of genealogy. According to leading postmodernists Foucault and Baudrillard (both quoted in Trachtenberg, 2006:12), reality and truth do not exist. Everything is discourse, shaped by perspectives and power relations; in fact, genealogy is a style of historical thought that exposes and registers the significance of these power–knowledge relations (Devetak, 1996:184). In the same vein, history is just another form of fiction (White, 1973). At any rate, postmodernism doubts whether political practices and responses have any transhistorical validity (Devetak, 1996:187).

The postmodernist views on truth and reality have received some powerful blows (Sokal, 2008; see also Fischer, 1970:42–43; Gaddis, 2004:143; Trachtenberg, 2006:7–14, 29). As regards the relative character of all historical judgments, the inseparability of observers from things observed, or even the relation between power and knowledge (in the form of falsification of the historical record), all this has been known all along (Thucydides, 1972:V 11; Ranke, quoted in Gilbert, 1990:17; Carr, 1990:7–55, 170–173; Gaddis, 2004:9–10) without leading to sweeping negations of the existence of reality and of objective truth.

It is fitting for this article to close with tackling the postmodernist notion that no “transhistorical” knowledge exists. This runs counter to millennia of conventional wisdom, according to which historical knowledge can serve as a guide for the present and the future. Of course, postmodernists argue that their task is precisely to warn against and undermine such conventional wisdoms that are supposedly based on the power of dominant groups. However, it does smack of self-importance on the postmodernists’ part to claim that uncountable generations of people have been victims of mass deception or mass psychosis regarding the utility of history, not least in the analysis of international relations.

The Correlates of War Project. The mecca of quantitative data on the study of war.

Buzan, B. (2014). The English School: A Bibliography. An extensive bibliography that is bound to be of use to historically minded international relations scholars.


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