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date: 17 August 2017

Historiography of Foreign Policy Analysis

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

A Brief Overview of Historiography’s Development

There are of course many historical traditions globally (for brief surveys see Fuchs & Stuchtey, 2002; Iggers & Wang, 2008), which are all equally relevant to foreign policy analysis (e.g., for China, Xuetong, 2011). Thus, the focus on (a selection) of mainly European historiography is not designed to make a claim for its particular relevance, but to highlight the change in historiography’s preoccupations, methods, and claims over an extended period of time using one example closely linked to the evolution of one set of languages of foreign policy. The aim is to indicate that historiography is as much subject to change over time as is the practice and understanding of foreign policy.

One of the earliest works of foreign policy analysis in the Western historical tradition, Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War (around 400 bce), formulated two aims: to provide an “an exact knowledge,” and to contribute to “the interpretation of the future” (Thucydides, 1910, 1.22.4). The author highlighted the uniqueness of the conflict he recorded, which he viewed as having historical antecedents, but no historical parallels; as a result, the individuals who participated in it could not resort to historical experience. Somewhat paradoxically, Thucydides also claimed that the war’s uniqueness provided its potential for generalization: events to come “must resemble if […] not reflect” the past (Thucydides, 1910). He suggested that the second-hand experience of significant events, derived from reading a factual account, would enable individuals in the future to better understand the diplomacy, war and peace-making they would experience. Foreign policy (as well as other aspects of human behavior) thus apparently conformed to invariable rules. Partly because the work remained incomplete, the precise insights future readers were to derive from this paradigmatic war remained uncertain.

Thucydides’s work set standards that became normative for empirical histories of war and peace, international interaction, and treaties in this tradition for centuries to come. Standard histories consisted of texts composed by (near) contemporaries of events, who had either been involved personally or could claim authentic knowledge based on participants’ recollections or surviving documents. They were frequently preceded by long prehistories to the current events on which they focused: Thucydides looked back as far as the Trojan War, now assumed to have taken place some 800 years previously; Gregory of Tours’s Libri Historiarum, also known as History of the Franks, written in the years before 594, commenced with the creation of Adam and Eve. Some narratives primarily provided a chronological survey of events (e.g., Tacitus’s Annales), while others placed a stronger emphasis on analysis. One analytical option was to highlight typical (or normative) consequences of individuals’ behavior (reward and glory for good and pious deeds, punishment and shame for vicious and sinful acts), another was to provide observations on history’s hidden structures, inspired by theories regarding the rise and fall of powers rooted in mythology or religious texts. With the spread of Christianity, the classification of particular acts as noble or sinful shifted somewhat to conform to the new moral framework, and the prediction of four imperial successions contained in the Book of Daniel acquired an increasing relevance to the interpretation of transitions from one hegemonic power to another, given that the fourth transition was expected to indicate that the end of the world—considered imminent in the early Middle Ages—drew near (Fried, 2015, chap. 5).

Wars, unusual diplomatic contacts, significant treaties, and the interaction between rulers of different territories figured prominently in biographies of important figures as well as in chronicles of territories, peoples, or cities. Examples include works as diverse as Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne Vita Karoli Magni (composed in the early 9th century) and Jean Froissart’s Chroniques (composed at the end of the 14th century). Evidence that could be used for a systematic and comparative analysis of foreign policy was thus a significant part of premodern narrative historiography. The formulation of lessons that could be drawn from this material was the core of works usually addressed and dedicated to rulers and their leading servants, but which were also circulated more widely in print. Covering subjects we would now associate with history, but also law, philosophy, theology, and political science, “mirrors for princes” provided guidelines that would guarantee success in office. One leading example of the genre, Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe (The Prince, written 1513, first published 1532), offered a systematic analysis of factors that provided for the strength and weakness of territories and rulers in general as well as in the current context of late medieval and early modern Italy—and equipped rulers with tools designed to aid them in making better decisions than their predecessors and their rivals.

Often composed on the occasion of transitions of power or to aid in the instruction of a particular prince, “mirrors for princes” placed considerable emphasis on the use of salient examples chosen for their moral or for their practical relevance and associated with prominent historical figures from classical antiquity. They were less concerned, however, with a detailed reconstruction of past events or their historical contexts. This generic approach to historical evidence could nevertheless be combined with a detailed summary of rulers’ constitutional, traditional, and contractual obligations; insights into the climatic, economic, and cultural resources of their particular territories; or an insistence on a dynasty’s traditions and objective interests. Political testaments of early modern rulers like Louis XIV of France or the kings of Prussia, as well as lengthy memoranda by first ministers addressed to their monarchs (and thus destined to be maintained in their archives for future consultation) are additional instances of this approach (e.g., Dietrich, 1986). The assumption that a foreign policy informed by the totality of available historical experience would be able to avoid the pitfalls of an uninformed or purely normative approach was thus key to the education of rulers in the early modern European “society of princes” (Bély, 1999) and designed to advance their “pursuit of glory” (Blanning, 2008). Though there was rarely a need to make this explicit, this approach assumed that causes and effects operated in similar ways in all historical epochs, with little need to distinguish between different periods.

There were few alternatives to this historically oriented foreign policy analysis, which was based on general knowledge of classical precedents and confidential insights into recent events and decisions restricted to members of a particular dynasty and their advisers. There was no independent access to documentation concerning recent events, as the content and motivation of decisions regarding foreign policy and military affairs were closely guarded “secrets of power” (arcana imperii). “Independent” histories of foreign relations had to rely on published historiography or on printed legal documents, later supplemented by information available through media like newspapers. By the 18th century, such histories—like Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV (1751)—provided more independent narratives of events that were potentially more critical of particular rulers or indeed of the system of monarchical rule as such. Voltaire, for instance, emphasized the potential for improvement through enlightenment, which called into question the assumption of overarching historical continuity. This issue had already been fiercely debated in the so-called querelle des anciens et des modernes (quarrel of the ancients and the moderns) around 1700. “Modernists” argued that the present age had surpassed the capability of the ancients, and could thus—potentially—also dispense with moral or technical lessons derived from their example.

The basis for a historiography that sought to advance beyond contemporaries’ recollections and public information broadened significantly around 1800. Some archives became accessible during the French Revolution, while others provided access to a few researchers in the decades that followed (Müller, 2014). The revolutionary upheaval had also demonstrated that “the people” or “nations” had to be considered as collective foreign policy actors whose aims and actions might, or might not, coincide with those of the monarchs who had hitherto occupied the front of the historiographical stage.

Moreover, one of the indirect consequences of the experience of the revolutionary era was to strengthen and expand the European historical profession. Building on traditions that had developed during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, researching and writing history was now increasingly understood to involve not just the compilation and summary of authentic contemporary accounts (Steiner, 2008), but also the reconstruction of past events based on an independent reading of all available sources, which needed to be ranked according to their inherent plausibility. To aid in this pursuit, major editing projects relevant to the history of states and peoples commenced at institutions like France’s Ecole des Chartes (founded in 1821) and “Germany’s” Monumenta Germaniae Historia (founded in 1826). While such projects initially focused on the (early) Middle Ages, Leopold Ranke’s 1824Geschichten der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1535 (Histories of the Romanic and Germanic Peoples, 1494–1535) was centered on the beginning of the early modern period. Ranke’s quick recognition as an international paragon of painstaking historical research was certainly aided by his claim that his work, which submitted earlier accounts to a rigorous plausibility test, provided the first narrative of “what actually occurred” (“wie es eigentlich gewesen”) (Ranke, 1824, p. vi)—rather than of what had been distorted or imagined by the selective information or personal interest of participants. Ranke focused on the interaction of Europe’s great powers and the constitution of a European state system from the 15th to the 19th centuries. He profited greatly from the gradual opening of royal archives to trusted researchers, which allowed him to supplement his reading of published sources (the material on which the Histories were based) with original documentation of foreign-political interaction, particularly diplomatic correspondence.

Ranke’s reputation as a historian of foreign policy rested on his authorship of successive volumes on individual powers (including the Holy Roman Empire, France, Britain, the Papacy, Prussia, and Serbia). Histories of individual countries generally became a favored genre of 19th-century historiography. Within these works, foreign policy—the story of wars, peace negotiations, diplomatic interaction and alliances—was an essential, if not the key, component, along with domestic constitutional and political history. By contrast, there were few explicit histories of international relations as such, even though the more technical aspects of foreign policy were documented in compilations of normative texts that formed the basis of international law. This is hardly surprising, given that the semantic separation of foreign from domestic political affairs and the systemic description of relations between multiple states with terms such as the European “balance of power” or the “concert of Europe” were themselves recent developments at the time. For instance, “diplomacy” began to refer to the professional management of inter-state affairs only in the late 18th century (previously, it had described a profound knowledge of “diplomas,” that is to say, legal documents). Terms like “foreign policy” or “international law” entered common usage only in the 19th century. The language still commonly used to describe and to analyze foreign policy today, which came into use only during the 18th and 19th centuries, also offered a novel descriptive framework for the reinterpretation of the relationship between powers seized upon by the new discipline of “scientific” history.

In addition to the growing number of accounts offering a reconstruction of previous developments in foreign policy within national frameworks, histories and reminiscences of pivotal current events continued to appear—for example of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna, the Crimean War, or World War I. As the 19th century progressed, both types of texts addressed and reached ever broader audiences, culminating in the mobilization of popular movements around foreign-political issues by mass-membership associations and the popular press around 1900; both made use of arguments drawn from historiography. At the same time, the visibility of the conduct of foreign policy increased. An increasing number of state visits and international political conferences provided both a forum for negotiation and a stage on which the strength of international relationships could be displayed. Parliamentary debates on issues of foreign policy reduced the extent of secrecy, as did the publication of many relevant documents in collections of official papers or in newspapers.

In parallel, the historical profession in Europe and North America experienced a numerical expansion and an increasing internal differentiation. The first scientific journal devoted exclusively to the subject, Germany’s Historische Zeitschrift, appeared from 1859, and within a few decades it was supplemented by numerous rivals focused on different political or confessional perspectives as well as by professional journals from France, Britain, the United States, and many other countries. In principle, these journals were dedicated to the results of professional historical research as such, and covered all periods and regions. In practice, they devoted most of their space to the history of the state in which they appeared. Around 1900, new sub-disciplines and disciplines emerged, such as economic history and political science; the latter became the main setting for intellectual debates on the methodology and empirical basis for a systematic analysis of foreign policy. This strand of development along with the emergence of more specific subfields such as foreign policy analysis or theories of international relations is, however, not the focus here.

Given that the history of foreign policy remained a key aspect of general history, and the debate on the origins of and the responsibility for World War I attracted contributions from historians of a wide variety of epochal and thematic specializations, it took longer for the history of foreign policy to establish itself as a distinct sub-discipline in history. The first journal devoted to the field appears to have been the Revue d’histoire diplomatique (from 1887), characteristically published by a society devoted to “general and diplomatic history” (“Société d'histoire générale et d'histoire diplomatique”). The centrality of foreign policy history to general history initially remained unchallenged after World War II—again a major caesura in which, it was assumed, international rivalries, a flawed peace settlement, and geopolitical aspirations had played a major part (Craig, 1961).

However, from the 1960s on there was increasing criticism of the primacy foreign policy had acquired in the historical sciences. Narratives that either assumed a “primacy of domestic policy” (Sheehan, 1961 on the work of Eckhardt Kehr), or concentrated on the explanatory power of economic and social developments as well as on longer-term shifts in mentalities or cultural attitudes became more prominent. In a 1973 book on the 1214 battle of Bouvines, hitherto a classical date for the course of medieval “French,” “German,” and “English” foreign policy, Georges Duby described events as the “froth of history” (“écume d’histoire”), a result of deeper currents relevant only because they left traces, not because they had any inherent significance (Duby, 1985, p. 14). One consequence of this shift in perspectives was a reduction of the foreign policy–related content of general histories; another was the clearer demarcation of a field of foreign policy history with its own journals, introductory surveys, reference works, and experts. This process was aided by the second wave of university expansion in the 1970s. For instance, Diplomatic History and the International History Review were first published in 1977 and 1979, respectively. By the 1990s, yet more specialized journals appeared, such as the Journal of Intelligence History (from 1999) and the Journal of Cold War Studies (from 1999), some of which were linked to associations dedicated to the study of particular fields—and to retaining or expanding these fields’ prominence in a more competitive academic marketplace. This is essentially the status of the field today: The relevance of foreign policy historiography in the historical profession remains a subject of debate, and while it is placed in a different position in each national academic context, there is a perception that its role is not increasing—though the profusion of international crises in the recent past has spurred something of a renaissance.

Main Themes in Historical Foreign Policy Analysis

As indicated, early historical foreign policy analysis concentrated on exemplary constellations considered to be of universal relevance, usually with a strong focus on the character traits of individuals (such as hubris, excessive boldness, cruelty, or ambition—likely to be punished—or decisiveness, restraint, wisdom, or piety—likely to be rewarded). In order to drive these lessons home most effectively, the course of events could be modified to conform to normative moral expectations, but most frequently the goal was achieved by a careful didactic choice of episodes. By the early 16th century, more systematic analyses emerged, which sought to contextualize causes and effects of foreign political decisions with reference to prior historical experiences, or with regard to climate and its effects on the general character of the population. This variable explained constitutional differences between various parts of the world as well as the relative strengths and weaknesses of rulers and territories, which in turn influenced the mechanisms and likely outcomes of their interaction. One major work in this tradition of comparative analysis including foreign political analysis was Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois (1995; originally 1748). Due in part to the work’s focus on the genesis of laws, and in part to the absence of a vocabulary describing foreign policy as a specific field of activity, insights on international relations were distributed among keywords such as droit des gens, war, or commerce (in the broad sense of “intercourse”) in the analytical index added in 1758 (Montesquieu, 1995), though the main points were concentrated in books XVIII to XXI in the text.

Another type of analysis adopted a less global focus. Concentrating on individual countries, such works aimed to deduce future tendencies in foreign policies from national or dynastic history (or “national character”) in combination with an assessment of available resources and other relevant factors. Such predictions could be part of works with a broader theme—for example Edward Gibbon’s prediction that the British Empire would avoid the decline and fall suffered by the Roman Empire in chapter XXXVIII in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788)—or of books dealing only with a national experience, such as J. R. Seeley’s The Expansion of England (1883). Similar works include the literature justifying the foundation of a German nation-state in 1871 with reference to a Prussian “historical mission” or predictions about the political and economic potential of late-19th-century Russia or the United States (Lieven, 2015, chap. 1).

A third type of analysis considered the systemic interaction of powers, often with a view of devising ways of providing recipes for a “balance” or “concert” that would avoid armed conflict. David Hume’s 1742 essay “Of the Balance of Power”, for example, debated whether historical evidence could show that the principle was consciously and successfully applied in ancient Greece—a topical subject, given that the search for a balance of power was crucial to 18th-century British foreign policy, and an indication that historical precedent was considered a source of legitimacy. Other examples include the literature seeking to provide a theoretical background to European peace settlements around 1800 that combined the sum of historical evidence with detailed knowledge of the more recent past (e.g., Haller, 1799 and Haller, 1816–1834). In terms of disciplinary traditions, this type of perspective was to become more closely associated with either philosophy or law than history: with the differentiation of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, history’s key competence appeared to lie in reconstructing and explaining contingency rather than providing a systematic analysis of perennial conditions.

Finally, some works searched for general rules for success or failure on the international scene that could be derived from the interaction of a limited number of factors. The aim was to discover political laws that regulated foreign policy outcomes in ways analogous to the way in which “natural laws” formulated by the natural sciences governed the behavior of objects in space or the interaction of chemical compounds, a goal to which many social sciences aspired around 1900. One key to the fundamental structures of foreign policy appeared to lie in “geopolitics,” that is, the geographical position of countries relative to other great powers, in particular access to the sea (Kjellén, 1916; Mahan, 1890) or a continental location (Mackinder, 1951; originally 1904). This literature shared several traits. It usually focused on the state as the key unit of foreign political activity. In contrast to older accounts, it assigned only a limited role to individual rulers’ character, privileged structural factors, and sought to identify overarching tendencies that determined individual countries’ interests or the conduct of foreign policy. It had a strong preference for linear projections of current tendencies (e.g., of demographic growth, commercial or territorial expansion, and military potential) based on published statistics. Such trends, it was thought, would predict structural conflicts between actors turned rivals by “objective” differences, but also interests that were “objectively” shared in spite of ideological differences or individual rivalries. They thus permitted the identification and justification of political alliances and enmities. In principle, such projections were neutral tools—their conclusions could be used to motivate politics of detente in the face of looming crises as well as military preparation for “inevitable” wars. However, in practice they were more likely to encourage arms races than conference diplomacy, not least because the expectation that national trajectories were quasi-natural processes with a high degree of inertia and could thus not be altered easily made it difficult to imagine actions able to prevent, rather than merely delay, conflicts (for a case study see Kennedy, 1980). Finally, such accounts continued to refer to particular events as salient examples of productive and positive or destructive and negative actions, which served as memorable illustrations of general rules—hence the frequent references to, say, the Congress of Vienna of 1814/15 (alternatively proving the possibility of designing a peaceful world order through negotiation or the futility involved in ignoring national aspirations), or the problems of the 1919 Paris peace conference or of the 1938 Munich settlement.

Longer-term analyses of foreign policy engaged particularly with three problems. One was the identification of the causes for the rise and fall of “great powers.” It was generally agreed that great powers dominate international relations, and concepts like “a balance of power” rest on the assumption that power can be measured (and that it will remain relatively constant in the medium term), allowing it to be counterbalanced by a similar amount of power. However, no “great power” has yet escaped the experience of rising and falling, and this contributes greatly to the instability of any international order. One way of approaching the problem was through anthropomorphic metaphors: powers rose in their relative youth and reached a period of maturity before succumbing to dotage, thus making room for younger rising powers. Other, intellectually rather more satisfying accounts focused either on economic factors (e.g., Playfair, 1807) or the interaction between powers. Initially the emphasis was on destructive wars that could end in the defeat of one and the victory of another empire, though shifts in power potentials linked to new forms of economic production or a relocation of trade routes also attracted attention, as did domestic political developments that could increase or reduce the ability to mobilize economic resources. Alternatively, skill and success in conducting foreign policy, the ability or inability to assess one’s own resources realistically, and factors like the will to expand an empire could be considered most relevant (Kennedy, 1988; Ferguson, 2002; Branda, 2007). More recently, the emphasis has begun to shift to natural resources and climatic or ecological factors (Diamond, 2011).

Second, analyses aim to combine observations of typical behavior by foreign policy actors with explanations of the succession of relatively peaceful periods and epochs shaped by frequent military conflicts in different parts of the world. Because peace is more desirable (and apparently more difficult to attain) than war, the mechanisms that lead to periods of peaceful stability have attracted more normative interest, whereas the origins of major wars have tended to be the focus of studies seeking to understand individual actors’ and international systems’ failures, usually with a view to avoiding such flawed decision-making in the future. Thus, there have been numerous attempts to understand successful balance of power or concert systems from the pax romana to the Vienna system and the relatively stable international order that emerged after 1945 (Schulz, 2009; Schroeder, 1994; Kennedy, 2006), just as there have been numerous attempts to understand the origins of major wars in ways that explain more than a single conflict and the failure of a particular peace settlement but speak to universal or present-day concerns (Clark, 2012; Macmillan, 2001).

The third important focus is on understanding why certain geographical areas appear particularly relevant to a given regional or global order, because the powers that control them are likely to exert influence over a much wider zone—such as strategic routes or areas rich in economic resources. This point has, for example, been made recently to argue for the particular importance of central Europe to any stable European order, given that a number of structural factors appear to put Germany in a very favorable position for potential dominance, on the one hand, and, on the other, to carry particular risks for a region that became a zone of European warfare from the Thirty Years’ War to the Napoleonic Wars (Simms, 2013). A similar approach has been taken to understanding the United States’ status as a post-1945 superpower, with a view to predicting the timing and consequences of decline or cultural preconditions of power (e.g., Lundestad, 2012; de Grazia, 2005).

Methodological and Conceptual Problems

One problem all variants of a historical analysis of foreign policy share is that they are unlikely to lead to reliable predictions. As advertisements for financial products are required to state, “past performance is no guide to future performance.” For instance, Paul Kennedy’s widely acclaimed book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (Kennedy, 1988) could be read as predicting a much more rapid relative decline of the United States than it in fact experienced. This was true even though Kennedy did everything right: the work was based on a clear research design, a plausible model, and a comprehensive and balanced review of the existing literature. This was confirmed by praise from academic peers. It clearly represented the state of the historical art in the field. It turned out, however, that the model of the relationship between economic standing and military potential Kennedy used to diagnose cases of imperial overstretch in great powers was—of necessity—not sufficiently complex. In particular, it failed to take account of unanticipated events (like the September 11 terrorist attacks, which took place shortly after the year 2000, the stated limit of his projection) as well as of peaks and troughs of economic development that could influence economic assessments or alter the numbers on which the projections had been based retrospectively. The same is true for other models: all require a reduction in complexity that is likely to go too far. Works that aim for a long historical perspective will of necessity rely on a very limited number of indicators. If they aim for quantitative data, they will be restricted to areas where numbers can be reconstructed at all—which may or may not be areas that are particularly relevant to the problem at hand. Moreover, the degree of certainty of quantitative data varies widely over time.

At least one review of Paul Kennedy’s book suggested that turning to individual diplomatic events or military conflicts in more detail could have sidestepped this problem (Luttwak, 2001). This is doubtful. For the recent past, foreign policy is the result of the interaction of many individuals, and causal mechanisms or general lessons are therefore unlikely to be immediately obvious. Salient questions are unlikely to be settled definitively by more detailed research. This is clear, for instance, from the discussion on the causes or origins of World War I, which has been in progress since 1914. A degree of consensus has emerged that the diplomatic prehistory of the conflict can be reconstructed by focusing on fewer than a hundred individuals (foreign ministers, ambassadors in major capitals, heads of government and their key political staff, military commanders, and monarchs, and perhaps also newspaper editors and important economic figures). Their decisions in the crucial weeks or months are documented by a paper trail that permits a minute-by-minute reconstruction of events and interactions (Steiner, 2003; Clark, 2012). However, there is no consensus on the methodological approach to this documentation, on its relevance to related problems—such as the lack of popular resistance to the war, the rapid escalation of the war, and actors’ inability to attain a compromise peace sooner. As a result, the conclusions drawn on the basis of the same material continue to vary widely (see, e.g., Mulligan, 2010). The relative “guilt” of individual states, the relevance of political terrorism, the impact of narrative structures or gender stereotypes, the role of political projections of the future trajectories of other powers, the importance of arms races and imperial rivalries, as well as the choice of the chronological frame of reference remain in dispute. The same is true, for example, of the evaluation of the Vienna settlement (Schulz, 2009 vs. Zamoyski, 2007), the treaty of Versailles, the work of the United Nations, the justification of British appeasement policies in the interwar period, or indeed almost any historical episode of foreign-political significance, such as the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the prehistory of the Vietnam War or the Gulf wars. While the facts can often be established with relative ease for comparatively recent times (even though this is less true of chronologically remote events), the possibilities of combining them into plausible interpretations are endless, not least because concerns and experiences current at the time narratives and interpretations were produced are likely to lead to different questions as well as variations in emphasis. For example, while an appeal to the experience of “Munich” in 1938 was a plausible justification narrative in the confrontation between the United States and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, the fact that a reference to “Munich” is now associated with a war that led to the destabilization of an entire region, contributed to mass killings, and placed a return to a stable order out of reach for the foreseeable future, turned “appeasement” from a teachable moment into a more ambivalent lesson regarding the risks of trust in the validity of historical analogies (Connolly-Smith, 2009). More generally, the existence of a plurality of widely known analyses of foreign policy situations raises the question of how the repetition of a potential constellation can be recognized with any degree of certainty; the fact that patterns considered typical are generally known allows actors not just to rely on the repetition of patterns in making decisions, but also to attempt to disrupt scripts historical experience is generally thought to provide. This makes it less rather than more likely that the present will resemble the past and that the past can provide insights relevant to the present. For this reason, the Journal of Cold War Studies’s assumption that “declassified materials and new memoirs [can be used] to illuminate and raise questions about numerous historical and theoretical concerns” (Kramer, n.d.) is apposite: the question of how the gap between the plurality of legitimate interpretations of past events and the desire for insights of practical relevance to present-day decisions can be bridged is debated intensively, but it is unlikely to be resolved (e.g., Neustadt & May, 1986; Khong, 1992).

This objection applies more to a study and prediction of events than to an examination of structural determinants of foreign policy. If the rule identified by Paul Kennedy that economic power peaks before great power status does is held to be true, for instance, actors can try to delay or prevent a decline in their countries’ economic potential. But if they fail and decline does set in, loss of great power status will inevitably follow (even though the range of reactions could still extend from preventive wars to a recalibration of alliances or quiet acceptance of decline). However, in order to be relevant to practical decision-making, such models would have to provide for a high degree of chronological precision—the insight that structural conditions will have specific effects give or take a few decades or even centuries is not particularly helpful to policymakers, and most, if not all, models have failed to demonstrate the required degree of specificity.

Finally, there is the issue of changes in historical actors over longer periods of time. The study of foreign policy over longer periods involves not just the interaction of states, but of princes, peoples, alliances, or empires through diplomacy, war, and espionage. The tendency of much of 19th- and 20th-century historiography on foreign policy has been to conflate all foreign-political actors into “states” and to identify these “states” with their current incarnations (for a differentiated view of the 19th century, see Osterhammel, 2015). This had the advantage of expanding the period of observation, but it decreased the likelihood of the accurate detection of patterns and precise predictions of present-day and future constellations. In addition, it has reduced the prospect of an accurate picture of such interactions in the past.

These methodological and conceptual problems have contributed to the dubious record of foreign policy historiography in influencing foreign policy. By deducing historical laws with a high degree of self-assurance, by turning complex historical constellations into fairly linear narratives of the interaction of states, by contributing to allocations of guilt or innocence that were sometimes simplistic, and by proposing macro-models of historical development that rely on the observation of a small number of indicators, historical accounts—though their influence should never be overrated—have frequently contributed to the exacerbation of political conflicts. For example, a tendency toward a linear extrapolation of current developments, combined with a belief in the inevitability of conflicts driven by “geopolitics” lowered barriers toward a preventive war in pre-1914 Europe (Afflerbach, 2015). There was surely some connection between Henry Kissinger’s admiration for the 1815 Vienna settlement (Kissinger, 1957) and his sympathy for a type of great-power interaction that valued stability over participation and considered regional repression a price to be paid for stability (Hanhimaki, 2004); the recourse to the lessons learned at Munich in 1938 in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War was already mentioned. It is also easy to think of historical claims to regional dominance, “national missions,” or predictions about the future place of states in a global order determined by access to particular resources or comparative military, political, or economic advantages, sometimes with explicit reference to older theories (with reference to geopolitics cf. Kearns, 2009; Megoran & Sharapova, 2014) that can exercise a destabilizing effect on international orders. Even the introduction of competing narratives from non-Western traditions may have ambivalent effects. For example, the introduction of the tradition of Chinese historical and political thought into debates on the rise and fall of great powers in itself challenges exclusive and dominant narratives by presenting a philosophical alternative to intellectual traditions shaped, as previously set out, by classical political philosophy and historical experiences, by Christianity, and by European languages of politics (e.g., Xuetong, 2011). It will thus—hopefully—provide a methodological and evidential challenge to dominant “Western” or “Atlantic” interpretations. It can only do so, however, if it does not seek to replace them with a different narrative suffering from analogous methodological limitations.

Though more recent surveys of foreign policy history have attempted to avoid such problems—sometimes with, sometimes without paying a price in terms of readability and popularity (Duchhardt & Knipping, 1999–; Mougel & Pacteau, 2016)—there is always the risk that historiography on foreign policy will achieve the opposite of what Thucydides hoped: it may cloud rather than illuminate the understanding of the present by imposing past patterns on the understanding of current events.


One response of the historical community to these issues has been a more far-reaching historicization of foreign policy. Influenced by impulses from historical anthropology and cultural studies, a number of works have looked more closely at the practices of foreign policy and their contemporary conceptualization (Mößlang & Riotte, 2008; Thiessen & Windler, 2010). While this has enhanced the depth of understanding, identified new sources, and created more differentiated empirical analyses, it can imply a radical restriction of the period that is considered relevant to understanding the interaction of states. The distancing of historiography from the concept of foreign policy thus mirrors the focus of foreign policy analysis inspired by political science approaches on the recent past. State-centered foreign policy was long associated with the “Westphalian system” said to have emerged after the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, but criticism of the “Westphalian myth” has further condensed the period to the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries (Teschke, 2003; Osiander, 2001). Arguments in favor of a short history of foreign policy include the increasing distinction between monarchs and states, the development of a language of foreign policy and international law, the restriction of political posts to citizens, and the intensification of states’ access to domestic resources in this period. This insight raised the follow-up question of how the interaction of political entities that were not “states”—composite monarchies, territories, sovereign municipal corporations, tribes, theocracies, empires, or ancient Greek city-states (poleis)—was to be described. Several histories have decided to adhere as closely as possible to contemporary concepts. Whereas it was possible to speak of Sparta’s “foreign policy” in the 19th century (Herbst, 1851), modern studies prefer to call the relationship between poleis “interpolitical relations” to highlight their distinctiveness. For medieval history, what used to be “foreign policy” can appear as a country “and beyond” (Bartlett, 2000, p. 68) or as “men and events” (Harriss, 2006, p. 405). Premodern foreign policy thus becomes a distinct type of interaction between political entities (see also Burbank & Cooper, 2010). Whereas (only) the more recent past involves the interaction of states, the postmodern period has witnessed the rise of actors such as international, transnational, sub-national, or regional entities that may need to be described in terms that may differ from the language of classical foreign policy. This approach has not entirely replaced, but certainly criticized, supplemented, and complicated, narratives that projected the modern state backward.

A second response involves the search for a terminology (and thus an analytical framework) for foreign policy that evades the problems of anachronism without closing off recourse to premodern experiences—such as the analogies between imperial expansion in the past and neo-colonial practices in the present (Cooper, 2009). A recent suggestion is to look beyond the modern origin of the language and institutions of present-day foreign policy and to search for boundaries that demarcated political entities that interacted with each other in ways that were clearly different from relationships in the domestic sphere instead: entities that were involved in war, diplomacy, and espionage rather than in the repression of revolution or rebellion, administration, or information-gathering (Hellmann, Fahrmeir, & Vec, 2016). Such foreign policy actors can take very different shapes, ranging from individuals to territorial states, but they are likely to exist in any historical period. Their interaction can also provide insights into patterns, and some of these patterns could be of contemporary relevance if, as some observers suggest, states are experiencing a fundamental process of change that will culminate in their partial replacement by different entities—which will then, presumably, function as a type of foreign policy actor closer to early modern, medieval, or classical than to modern models and experiences.

In spite of its theoretical attractions, this approach has not yet been empirically tested in detail, and its application is likely to lead to controversies regarding the identification and stability of boundaries between domestic spheres.


The historiography of foreign policy is an endeavor with a long history. Begun to document and at the same time make sense of political interaction with foreign entities with a particular focus on times of conflict and war, the genre has expanded with the growth of a historical profession in the 19th century, along with contributions from other disciplines, political practitioners, and publicists. While it retains substantial relevance for the formulation of foreign policy—not least as history usually forms part of the training of diplomats and other foreign-policy practitioners—its status within the historical profession has become more problematic in recent decades. As a subfield of history that is particularly interested in providing knowledge that can be transferred into practice, its record in offering useful guidance is decidedly mixed. Moreover, it is a field that—in some of its incarnations—is vulnerable to accusations of applying anachronistic concepts like the “state” to periods in which “states” are difficult to find or even to imagine.

This has led to two alternatives: a radical historicization of approaches that has the effect of radically shortening the period relevant to an understanding of “foreign policy” in a modern sense; or a search for alternative conceptualizations of “foreign policy” more open to a broader historical perspective, which, however, remain largely untested empirically. They are also unlikely to resolve the issues of source selection and analysis that contribute to multiple interpretations of the same event, or the rivalry between different methodological approaches. Thus, the field still engages with problems that have accompanied it from its beginnings in many traditions. Its strongest use may lie in keeping practitioners and students of the present aware of the limits of any narrative and the margins of error of every theoretical model.

Further Reading

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Bély, L. (1999). La société des princes XVIe-XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Fayard.Find this resource:

Blanning, T. (2008). The pursuit of glory: Europe 1648–1815. London: Penguin.Find this resource:

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Connolly-Smith, P. (2009). “Connecting the dots”: Munich, Iraq, and the lessons of history. History Teacher, 43, 31–51.Find this resource:

Cooper, F. (2009). Colonialism in question: Theory, knowledge, history. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

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