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date: 04 August 2020

Summary and Keywords

Narratives of interesting, remarkable, or exemplary diplomatic and military events have traditionally occupied a prominent place in historiography. Addressed to actors shaping foreign policy, educated elites, or a more broadly conceived public, and varying widely in geographical and chronological coverage, histories of foreign policy pursue two goals. One is to provide comprehensive information, allowing readers to obtain an overview of past decisions and actions in the expectation that this will enhance the understanding of their short-, medium-, and long-term consequences. The second goal is to offer an analysis of factors determining foreign policy and its success or failure either generally or in more specific settings. In doing so, they offer orientation or concrete advice based on an authority acquired by profound knowledge of the past and the recognition of recurrent patterns (or “laws”).

The fact that these goals are not entirely compatible contributes to problems that accompany this intellectual pursuit, and which are distinct from empirical and conceptual difficulties involved in reconstructing past foreign policy. Any presentation of historical developments contains (debatable) hypotheses on causal relationships, even if they are only expressed via the selection of facts and the literary structure of a historical narrative. There are various interpretations of any major turning point, and it is never easy to choose between them. Furthermore, the identification of patterns in the past has rarely resulted in the accurate prediction of future events; in fact, misconceived historical analogies or trust in supposed perennial rules governing foreign policy can contribute to exacerbating political crises.

This problem has created an enduring and perhaps increasing divide between a persistent demand for large-scale interpretations of the history of foreign policy (or the interaction of “great powers”), which make their contemporary relevance explicit on the one hand, and skepticism from parts of the historical discipline toward any form of applied foreign policy history on the other. In particular, it is called into question whether contemporary “states” can be identified with their predecessors—which is a precondition for identifying longer-term “national interests”; whether the focus on a limited number of determinants of foreign policy permits the formulation of general insights valid across time and space; and whether foreign policy can be said to exist in premodern settings at all. Though there are approaches that can reduce such problems, many practical difficulties are likely to remain.

Keywords: historiography, rise and fall of great powers, historicizing foreign policyh histories of foreign policy (concept), models of foreign policy

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