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date: 25 June 2017

Historiography of Foreign Policy Analysis

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

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 pursued (and pursue) two goals. The first is to provide comprehensive information, allowing readers to obtain an overview of past decisions and actions in order to better understand their short-, medium-, and long-term consequences. The second is to offer an analysis of the factors that determine foreign policy and its success or failure either generally or in more specific settings, thus offering orientation or even concrete advice based on an authority acquired by profound knowledge of the past and the recognition of recurrent patterns or even “laws” that structure it.

The fact that these goals are not entirely compatible contributes to problems that accompany this intellectual pursuit, quite aside from the empirical and conceptual difficulties that reconstructing past foreign policy involves. Any presentation of historical developments contains (debatable) hypotheses on causal relationships, even if they are only expressed via the selection of facts considered relevant and a narrative’s literary structure. There are many and varied interpretations of all major turning points, and it is never easy to choose between them. Furthermore, the identification of patterns 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 also contribute to exacerbating political crises or encouraging abuses.

This problem has created an enduring and perhaps even increasing divide between a persistent demand for large-scale interpretations of the history of foreign policy (or the interaction of “great powers”) that emphasize their insights’ contemporary relevance, 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, such doubts concern the identification of contemporary “states” with their predecessors—which is the precondition for identifying longer-term “national interests”; the focus on a limited number of determinants of foreign policy in the formulation of supposedly general insights valid across time and space; and the existence of foreign policy in pre-modern settings. Though there are approaches that reduce such problems, many practical difficulties are likely to remain.