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date: 19 September 2017

Cumulative Knowledge, Science, and the Emergence of International Relations

Summary and Keywords

Statesmen, salesmen, soldiers, and scholars have discussed international relations for hundreds of years—at least since sovereign states consolidated their presence along the North Atlantic rim. The Renaissance saw the rise of such discussions, triggered by gunpowder-based armies in Europe and discoveries of new lands in extra-European regions. The Reformation added arguments about the role of religion in interstate affairs—arguments echoed in peace treaties like those signed in Augsburg (1555) and Westphalia (1648). The Enlightenment brought more systematic efforts to explain the causes of war and the preconditions of peace. Two different arguments were drawn more sharply after the Wars of the Spanish Succession and the peace conference of Utrecht (1715): one argued that international order could be maintained by an equilibrium of power; another claimed that peace could be created through diplomatic cooperation and international law. Both arguments were elaborated during the Napoleonic Wars and informed the peace treaties signed at the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815).

In the wake of World War I, when the academic discipline of international relations (IR) was established—when scholarly institutions were sponsored for research and education about international issues—there existed a rich literature on the causes of war and the preconditions for international peace. It is argued here that this literature has not been managed particularly well. Few IR scholars have mined this literature systematically. New generations of IR scholars have been more preoccupied with current events than with recurrent patterns. They have been more busy with contemporary theories than with systematically arranging and assessing explanations from the past. If IR wants to become a social science, marked by progress and accumulation of knowledge, it is necessary to catalogue and manage its scholarly heritage in more systematic ways.

Keywords: accumulation, international relations, realism, science, empirical international relations theory, theory, theorizing, public sphere

The History of IR—The “Received Version” and its Critics

Introductory texts usually write that the scholarly origins of international relations (IR) can be traced back to World War I. The texts then often add that its first studies were marked by an idealist effort to build a just peace through diplomacy and law and that this idealism was soon seen as naïve and criticized in a “great debate” which gave rise to the more mature realist approach.

The first claim is unproblematic—if “scholarly origins” refers to the institutions of research and education established to study the origins of war and the preconditions for peace, then IR was established in the wake of World War I. The second claim is more dubious. During the 1990s, sceptics pointed out that realism is obviously much older than both World War I and idealism (Knutsen, 1992). Others questioned whether it is meaningful to talk about the existence of “an Idealist school” at all (Ashworth, 2006; Osiander, 1998; Wilson, 1998). Still others doubted whether a “great debate” ever took place (Ashworth, 2002; Schmidt, 1998).

In spite of such criticism, the old, dubious “received version” has proved robust. Its impact is still felt. For example, it echoes through the diehard idea that IR has evolved through a series of “great debates” (Lapid, 1989). Why has the received version lasted so long? One reason is that it is an account of great didactical value. It provides a simple story to tell in introductory IR courses. It is often quietly assumed that students who pursue more advanced degrees will soon attain a more mature understanding of the history of their chosen field. Another reason for this longevity is that the received version has attained the status of myth. The implication of this second reason belies the quiet assumption of the first: students who pursue more advanced degrees in IR may not necessarily rise above the simplistic tales of the received version; they may retain them. For myth is not history. Myths often account for the origins of a community. They are stories of heroes and founders and are often set in some timeless past. They express the values and norms of a distinct society, are hard to prove wrong, and are not easily dispelled by empirical evidence. To dispel them it is necessary to replace them—and with convincing alternative stories.

In recent years several alternative stories have emerged about the origins of the “science of international politics.”1 Buzan and Lawson (2015), Osterhammel (2015), and others draw its scholarly roots back to the end of the 19th century. Hobson (2012), Vitalis (2015), and Anievas, Manchanda, and Shilliam (2014) observe that these roots are nourished by high modernity, industrialism, and Western expansionism and argue that early IR scholars were Eurocentric in outlook, affected by imperialism, and shaped by the racist attitudes of the times. This article will not dispute this observation, but it will proceed from a more general or macro-historical vantage point. First, it will argue that although the “science of international politics” emerged from World War I, discussions of war and peace occurred much further back—certainly as far back as the Renaissance, if not further (Ashworth, 2014; Knutsen, 2016; Malchow, 2015). Second, it will claim that all international relations scholars are children of their times and that they tend to reflect the issues of their age. Some 500 years ago, for example, early 16th-century scholars were puzzled by the discovery of the Americas and discussed how they should relate to the natives there (Leonard, 1949; Vitoria, 1934/1532). About 50 years ago, IR scholars were deeply affected by the dissolution of overseas empires and discussed questions concerning Third World development, self-determination, and dependency.

This article sketches a few highpoints in a 500-year-long tradition of international relations scholarship. It identifies a few events that sparked discussion, stimulated scholarship, and drove the tradition along. To help break the spell of the founding myth and of the received version that attends it, this article will also take a closer look at World War I and the birth of IR. It will ask three simple questions. First, when and how did the transition to a “science of international politics” take place? Second, if IR originated around World War I, what is its relationship to the evolution of arguments and concepts from Thucydides and onwards? Third, what will the answer to the first two questions tell us about the nature of IR?

The Past as Prologue

How far back should we go? Some authors draw the lineage as far back as Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian Wars (written about 400 bc) (Lebow, 2008; Nye, 2008). They demonstrate that key characteristics of realism—concepts like fear, rivalry, and balance of power—is found as far back as in ancient Greece. Also, they point out that Thucydides did not merely pose questions about the causes of the Peloponnesian War, but that he had bigger ambitions than that: he wanted to produce knowledge about war in general. He wanted to produce insights that could instruct future generations. He is quite explicit about this. Chances are great, he writes, that

events which happened in the past . . . (human nature being what it is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever.

(Thucydides, 1972, book I, p. 22)

Thucydides’s text has been read for centuries. One of its most influential propositions is that the causes of war are found in change and fear—in “the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta” (Thucydides, 1972, book I, p. 23). Another famous claim, which concludes the negotiations between the conquering Athenians and the conquered Melians, is that if a just order is to occur in international politics, it must be built by equipollent states—“that, right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (Thucydides, 1972, book V, p. 89).

The Peloponnesian Wars explicitly presents insecurity as a cause of war and balance of power as a prerequisite for order and peace. More implicitly it acknowledges that wars create discussions: it refers to ancient discussions about how wars begin, how they proceed, when settlement may come, and whether a peace is just. Some 2,000 years ago, then, a great war caused macro-political debates to flare up in ancient Greece. And from these debates came arguments and theories. This article assumes that other wars, too, trigger discussions, most particularly discussions about the causes of war and the preconditions for peace.

The Italian Wars and the Balance of Power

Thucydides is a classic vantage point for a discussion about the origins of international analyses. Critical voices find it hard to accept that Thucydides can provide a reasonable origin of a tradition of international relations analysis. They point out that the era of the rivalrous Greek city-states was followed, first, by 500 years of empire and then by a medieval millennium of chaos, change, and feudalism. No sustained tradition could survive the historical gap between the city-states of ancient Greece and those of Renaissance Italy, they argue.

They forget, however, that Thucydides’s book was rediscovered during the Renaissance—that it was translated from the Greek during the 1480s and studied by scholars who recognized in Thucydides’s descriptions of ancient Greece political relations in their own Italian city-states. In the 1490s, wars broke out and intensified political debates—as indicated by texts written by contemporary chroniclers. Some of them invoked Thucydides to understand these wars better. Francesco Guicciardini, for example, noted that the outbreak of the Italian Wars followed the death of Lorenzo “the Magnificent” de Medici, whose shrewd diplomacy had maintained a balance of power among Italian states. Lorenzo’s skillful equilibrium had maintained order among the city-states, Guicciardini (1969, p. 4) explained. The equilibrium was upset when Lorenzo died. Order was lost. Wars engulfed the Italian peninsula, wasted its wealth, and destroyed its splendor.

Machiavelli, too, mentioned the Italian balance. However, he did not draw on Greeks like Thucydides but on Roman historians like Livius and Polybius. Also, he emphasized a different, more international factor: he argued that Italy’s city-states were challenged by outside powers—by larger, more potent and populous social formations that had emerged to the west and northwest of Italy. He mentioned in particular the territorial monarchies of Spain, France, and the German empire. To restore order in Italy, and to rescue its splendor and high culture, Machiavelli argued, it was necessary to emulate those western monarchies: it was necessary to integrate Italy’s several states into a single, larger unit (Machiavelli, 1961).

The Thirty Years’ War and the Natural State of Sovereigns

Machiavelli’s was an astute analysis. For as time passed, the great monarchies of the west expanded and came to dominate Europe. Spain and France played important roles in the wave of religious wars that swept the Continent during the first half of the 17th century and laid waste to large regions. Contemporary observers discussed the causes of this wave of wars. Grotius and Crucé wondered how these wars could be terminated and how a robust peace could be established. They disagreed with the balance-of-power arguments of Thucydides and Guicciardini. Instead, they advocated a peaceful order based on reason and Christian values.

Authors from England struck different notes. Thomas Hobbes, for example, scoffed at the idea that human reason was natural and that human beings were social creatures. He saw reason as instrumental and humans as self-serving egotists. Based on these solipsistic assumptions, he wrote works on social interaction, on the origin of government, and on the nature of social order. In Leviathan, Hobbes argued that in a world of free and sovereign actors, social order must be based on rational calculation and contract. In the absence of social contract, no order can be established, Hobbes maintained. Without contract, humans will exist in a state of lawlessness—or what he termed a “natural state,” a “state of nature,” or a state of war “of all against all” (Hobbes, 1951).

Hobbes was a fiercely independent thinker. Patronized by the powerful Cavendish family, he owed allegiance to neither state nor church. He studied ancient rather than contemporary writers. Among them was Thucydides, whose Peloponnesian Wars Hobbes translated into English. He also studied the sciences of his day—geometry and mechanical engineering—and used them to drive his political points home. His argument met with howls of disapproval. It sparked discussions that often invoked authors from the past to shed light on present events.

Hobbes’s invocations of past writers suggest that a degree of accumulation took place from the Renaissance onwards. This is also suggested by the work of Benedict de Spinoza, one of Hobbes’s few adherents, who pursued the notions of a pre-historical state of nature and an original social contract and applied them to an analysis of interstate relations (Spinoza, 1951).

The Wars of Louis XIV

In 1672 France tried to conquer the Low Countries. The ambitions French King Louis XIV unleashed a wave of wars that shook the stability and order of Europe. It reached a climax in the Wars of Spanish Succession (1701–1815), during which Great Britain, led by the Dutch-born King William III, organized several anti-French coalitions to contain France. These coalitions were early examples of a British policy of containment and balance.

It was a successful policy. It exhausted France and produced a conference in Utrecht where an encompassing peace treaty was signed in 1715. The Treaty of Utrecht reallocated parts of Europe’s territory, partly to reward the coalition partners and partly to restore a new system of order to Europe. It is an early example of how diplomats used balance-of-power theory in an effort to establish an international equilibrium as the foundation for a lasting peace.

In subsequent years the balance-of-power principle gained many advocates among statesmen, soldiers, and scholars. But it also had its critics. They claimed that the balance of power was a fraud and presented alternative schemes for political order. One of the earliest critics was the Abbé de St. Pierre, who proposed a European order based on Christian values, law, and a tight integration of Europe’s territorial states. St. Pierre (1713) was among the first scholars to publish a Plan for Perpetual Peace. He inspired others to write similar plans in the decades that followed. Foremost among them were Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Jeremy Bentham.

The Wars of Louis XIV, then, sparked debates on the nature of the international order. From these debates emerged two broad approaches. On the one hand was an approach that portrayed order as an outcome of a balance among Europe’s major powers. On the other hand were the several Plans for Perpetual Peace, where order was seen as an outcome of institutional arrangements and diplomatic coordination.

The first approach may appear old and the second new—after all, the balance-of-power approach elaborated on existing arguments about relations among sovereign states, while the peace plans represented an innovation. It is more reasonable to argue that they were both new, because both reflected the larger academic preoccupations of the day with holistic harmony and equilibrium. The balance-of-power approach envisioned the harmony of a mechanical clock, whereas the various Peace Plans envisioned harmony as the outcome of rational human interaction. Montesquieu in France and David Hume in Britain both applied the principle of balance to international trade and to international politics alike.

Rebellions, Revolutions, and the Napoleonic Wars

During the final decades of the 18th century, the international scene was shaken by rebellions within states and increasing rivalries among them—notably rivalries between Britain and France. These rivalries became acute in the wake of fiscal reforms the British government imposed upon its American possessions after the costly Seven Years’ War. The reforms fueled resentment and anti-monarchic protests in English North America. These sentiments were expressed by publicists who invoked ideals of sovereignty and self-determination to argue the case for American secession (Paine, 1986/1776)—arguments that were encouraged by France.

These ideals also washed across Europe. But when Immanuel Kant invoked them in 1795, in his famous essay on perpetual peace, he toned them down. He was less concerned with the sovereignty of states than with that of individual citizens. He argued that international peace would be best preserved if all states first adopted a republican form of government that would respect and reflect the will of the people and then transferred some of their sovereignty to a supranational federation.

In 1776 the American protests flared up in open rebellion. The struggle against England forged the 13 American colonies together in a common effort of liberation. The colonies met with success after six years of war. They broke with the British Empire and became 13 sovereign American states. Some observers feared that if each of these new states was left to celebrate its own sovereignty, they would begin to compete for territory. Competition might escalate into rivalries until the newly sovereign states had recreated Europe’s old balance-of-power system on American soil. This chain of events could be avoided only by removing some of the cherished sovereignty from each of the new states and investing it in a common federal body, they argued (Deudney, 2007; Madison, Hamilton, & Jay, 1987).

A long constitutional convention succeeded in drawing up the framework for a federation of states. It proceeded from liberal contract theory and achieved a complex synthesis between the two major macro-political approaches of the century—that of the sovereignty-focused balance-of-power approach, on the one hand, and the perpetual-peace argument of institutionalization and rational cooperation, on the other.

The American Revolution inspired an anti-monarchist rebellion in crisis-ridden France a few years later. The rebels replaced the French monarchy with a revolutionary republic. But its constitution was contentious and its institutions unstable. The republic soon slid into chaos. Internal order was reestablished by a military takeover. The new regime, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, soon displayed imperial ambitions, which frightened the monarchies in Europe. Great Britain, still acting on the balance-of-power logic, organized a succession of anti-French coalitions once more. The British-led coalitions waged war against Napoleon until France was exhausted.

Rebellions, revolutions, and Napoleon’s wars wreaked havoc on Europe for over a generation. When a peace conference was arranged in Vienna in 1815, its participants condemned revolutionary, republican ideas for destabilizing both individual states and the entire state system. They repeated some of the basic arguments from Utrecht and argued that a stable world order must be based on a balance among Europe’s sovereign states. But they also refined the old argument by adding diplomatic mechanisms of summit meetings and consultations. Thus, the Congress of Vienna developed the balance-of-power system into a Great Power “concert” (Gentz, 1806; Sherwig, 1962).

The “European Concert” brought some degree of institutionalization to interstate relations and successfully kept a stable order on the Continent during times of great change. The Great Powers of Europe weathered the advent of industrialism, the rise of nationalism, and the evolution of political ideologies—forces that fueled large-scale social change. Peace was kept for well over a generation. Conservative statesmen on the Continent argued that peace had been kept by the workings of “the Vienna system” (Kissinger, 2014, p. 59). Liberal political economists in Britain begged to differ; Richard Cobden (1973), for example, argued that the reason for peace—and for the increase in wealth and prosperity—was unencumbered international trade. Such British theories of free-market liberalism were in turn criticized by Continental authors who developed alternative theories of political economy (List, 1930/1841; Marx, 1972/1853).

Regardless of the reason, tensions increased and a small cluster of wars broke out during the third quarter of the century. When the last of them—the Franco-Prussian War (1871)—ended, the consultative system of the European Concert was no more. European state relations deteriorated into a classic balance-of-power system. It was masterfully worked by the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, for nearly 20 years. In 1890 Bismarck was dismissed by Germany’s young and impulsive emperor, Wilhelm II, and the European balance quickly began to unravel. New tensions and rivalries changed the international climate and stirred reactions. Academics and public intellectuals tried to identify the forces that fueled the tensions and frictions that increasingly marked the age. Some argued that the conflicts were due to expansionist tendencies inherent in the new industrial economy (Leroy-Beaulieu, 1874); others argued that the driving forces were political—that they expressed the high civilization and the efficient organization of Western nations (Seeley, 1922/1883). Still others developed an organic argument; they argued that expansionist forces were inherent in the nature of territorial states—that states were organisms driven into competition for space (Kjellén, 1916; Ratzel, 1901).

Tensions and debates also motivated activists to establish new, secular anti-war groups and peace associations. By the beginning of the 20th century, such groups and associations existed in many countries, were coordinated across boundaries, and constituted a veritable international peace movement. Some observers commented on the increasing colonial conflicts (Hobson, 1902), others on the rising crises in the east (Fullerton, 1913). A third group warned against the continued belief in old remedies in a rapidly changing world. Norman Angell (1910), for example, argued that the old balance-of-power argument was ill-suited for an age marked by increasing interdependence. If war were to break out among industrial powers, Europe would not only suffer the destruction of warfare, it would also suffer the additional catastrophe of economic collapse.

World Wars I and II

Angell was right. When war broke out in 1914, it was an unprecedented catastrophe—some 11 million young men lost their lives on the battlefields, 7 million civilians died as a consequence of the fighting; economic collapse, revolutions, and epidemics killed many millions more.2 The cataclysmic nature of the Great War provided the context in which IR was born. It drove statesmen and scholars into agreement: a man-made catastrophe of such magnitude must never be allowed to repeat itself! This deep-felt consensus lifted the study of international politics into a professional field and gave it a mission: to help establish a stable international order and a robust peace.

The Great War was a clash between two alliance systems—the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance. The main fronts were drawn between the Central Powers with Germany at its core, on the one hand, and Russia, Great Britain, and France (and, later, the United States as well), on the other. The North Atlantic region had pioneered the sovereign territorial state and, later, the nation state. They had formed a unique macro-political system, based on sovereign states in equilibrium. These states now pioneered the science of international politics.

University courses in world affairs or world politics had appeared in American universities already around the turn of the century (Reinsch, 1900). In Great Britain members of special groups and associations—such as the peace movement and the neo-imperial Round Table group—had championed the idea of international politics as an academic subject. But it was the war that afforded the opportunity to implement this idea. In 1916 the British Foreign Office invited academic members of these groups to help plan the peace conference that would follow the Great War and establish a lasting peace. The Foreign Office agreed with their argument that a stable peace was best secured by a League of Nations, assisted by an international court and by institutions for research and higher education.

After World War I, foreign policy institutes and schools of international relations were established in several countries. Their outlook was liberal and focused on the preconditions for peace. The theory of free-trade liberalism, which had dominated the decades that led up the Great War, was toned significantly down; it was replaced by institutional arguments that emphasized the League of Nations and processes of law and arbitration. The great variety of approaches and theories that had marked international debates in the late 19th century was lost—overwhelmed by the institutional ideals of Woodrow Wilson (Mackinder, 1919).

World War II boosted the interest in IR even more. Liberal theories still provided important arguments to the political discussion—as illustrated by the American insistence of rebuilding a set of international political organizations on the League model (the United Nations) and of adding a new set of economic institutions (among them the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund). However, the dominant approach in academia was now realism. It was convincingly presented and backed up by the Western failure to contain Hitler’s ambitions before the war, by Soviet conquests during the endgame of the war, and by Stalin’s imposition of communist rule in Eastern and Central Europe immediately after the war. A new generation of scholars, some of them refugees from Nazi Germany, criticized the old institutional approaches as naïve (Morgenthau, 1948) and introduced a revived, Continental Realpolitik to British and American universities.

Realism also drew strength from the subsequent superpower rivalry. New realist approaches emerged under the impact of the nuclear arms race. During the 1950s, the superpower rivalry was studied in the light of economic rational-actor models and game theory and gave rise to the new subfield of security studies. The arms race also inspired a new anti-nuclear peace movement. Some its academic members adopted quantitative methods and rational-actor models and launched the subfield of peace research. Neither liberal nor realist approaches could satisfactorily explain the conflicts that swept Asia and Africa during the 1950s and 1960s. New theories were developed to deal with them—theories that drew heavily from classical political economy.

Concluding Observations

The core claims of the received version are not wrong: the “science of international politics” was born in the wake of World War I and it did direct its analytic attention toward the preconditions of peace. Yet the details of this version of IR history are suspicious and the inferences are dubious. The omission of IR’s long pre-history creates the false impression that IR suddenly leapt upon the academic scene after World War I.

Some of the blame for this must be given to British historian Edward H. Carr, whose influential Twenty-Years Crisis (1939) portrayed interwar IR as a tension between an idealist thesis and a realist antithesis. He must share the blame with a new generation of post-war American scholars who, unused to Carr’s dialectical form, tended to interpret his argument literally and in absolute terms—not as dynamic tension but as a realist Cain slaying an idealist Abel.

This article sketches IR history in simpler, historical terms. It tells a different story. And it draws different inferences from it—about the origins of IR and about the very nature of the science of international politics. It argues, first, that the history of IR is marked by accumulation of knowledge over the long haul—not just since World War I, but over the last handful of centuries. A prime example is found in the history of balance-of-power theory. Renaissance authors used the term “balance,” but their view was restricted; they largely used it as a foreign policy concept and associated it with a policy of containment (Bacon, 1852/1624). The Treaty of Utrecht (1715) marked a change: a balance was now portrayed as a principle that served to stabilize a system of states as a whole. At the Congress of Vienna (1815), the concept changed again; a distinction was now drawn between the old notion of a natural, self-equilibrium, on the one hand, and a new notion of conscious diplomatic institution-building, on the other.

The history of balance-of-power theory suggests a simple development in which knowledge of a phenomenon has steadily improved over time. But closer scrutiny of this long history also indicates a different kind of accumulation—one that is not simple or linear. For although new theories come, old ones do not necessarily leave. The result is that theories will accumulate in the sense that they will exist side by side in a steadily increasing number.

The long pre-history of IR also indicates that although some old theories do in fact drop out, they do not always do so because the old ones are inferior and the new ones are better. In some cases, older theories may appear superior to the ones that replace them. One example occurs in balance-of-power theory around the middle of the 19th century, when the rather complex balance-of-power view expressed at the Congress of Vienna was overtaken by a simpler, more mechanistic notion of self-equilibrium—more akin to that introduced a century before.

The traditional approach to IR history relies on internal factors: i.e., it holds that theoretical evolution occurs through great debates internal to the academic community. The most obvious alternative to this is to view IR history as moved by external factors—i.e., that IR theories reflect real events, and that changes in theory are reflection of changes in world affairs. Which of these explanations is best? The next section will argue that both are useful but that in the final account the money is on the external, events-based approach.

The Birth of IR

Before World War I, international relations were discussed by statesmen, salesmen, soldiers, and scholars. The scholars were dominated by lawyers, historians, and journalists. After World War I, when a “science of international politics” was established, a sizable literature already existed on the subject. International relations issues had been discussed for centuries and left texts that together may be seen as the pre-history of IR. One of the first tasks that a steadily expanding community of early IR scholars set for themselves was to collect and systematize this body of written work (Grant, Hughes, Greenwood, Kerr, & Urquehart, 1916; Scott, 1902; York, 1919).

The extent of this pre-historical literature is indicated in Table 1. It shows that new, secular perspectives on macro-politics evolved during the Renaissance—in particular during the destructive Italian Wars, when the term “balance” is used by authors like Machiavelli and Guicciardini. The 17th century added a fertile discussion on the nature of interstate relations: Was it governed by some principle of natural law (Grotius, 1853/1625) or was it not (Hobbes, 1951/1651; Spinoza, 1951/1677)? Enlightenment thinkers resolved that interstate relations were governed by some principles of order, but they disagreed about their extent and their nature. Some held that order was a product of human reason—in which case it should be possible to engineer a peaceful world order (St. Pierre, 1713). Others argued that sovereign states constituted a self-equilibrating system (Hume, 1985/1742). The Napoleonic Wars triggered debates that refined both arguments and gave rise to the idea of an international “concert” system, where order was maintained by regular summit meetings and diplomatic consultations.

Table 1: Modern Wars, Political Thinkers, and Some Main Ideas in the Evolution of IR




Peace Treaty

The Italian Wars


Machiavelli, Guicciardini/balance, containment


The Thirty Years’ War


Grotius, Crucé, Hobbes, Spinoza/natural law vs state of nature


The Wars of Louis XIV


Fénéleon, St. Pierre, Rousseau, Hume/systemic balance vs. perpetual peace plans


Napoleonic Wars


Kant, Hegel, Bentham, Gentz/balance as outcome of “concert”


World Wars I and II


Dickinson, Woolf, Wilson, Morgenthau/a science of international politics


The science of international politics emerged from World War I. Revulsion against the catastrophic war provided the new science with a special mission: to design a robust order and maintain peace among states. This section will abandon the long-term history indicated in Table 1. It will fine-tune the analytic focus, hone in on the final wave of war and ask: Why did the “science of international politics” emerge around World War I? Why was it not triggered by any of the earlier waves of war? After all, much of its theoretical framework was already in place in the 1870s—as will be discussed immediately below.

In the Wake of the Franco-Prussian War

Hobbes and Spinoza provided a basic vision and vantage point for international analysis when they argued that in a world where actors cherished sovereignty over all else, it would be impossible to establish a universal legislature. In the absence of a common source of law, relations among sovereign states would remain lawless—or “an-archical.” In 1877, Scottish lawyer James Lorimer qualified this argument by pointing out that lawlessness does not necessarily mean chaos. Lawlessness in world affairs would not necessarily constitute a Hobbesian state of war of all against all. Rather, it would constitute an “anarchic” society. And in such a society mechanisms would evolve to maintain some measure of order.

One such mechanism evolved early, Lorimer argued: namely, the balance of power. The ordering effects of this balance-of-power mechanism had been known for centuries and long used by rulers, Lorimer (1877) explained.

In more recent times another mechanism of order emerged, Lorimer continued: increase in trade and evolution of international finance produced commercial ties, relations of exchange, and mutual dependencies. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution in particular, commercial transactions expanded and produced a second mechanism of international order: a growing web of “interdependence.”

At the end of the 19th century, a third mechanism would be added to the other two, Lorimer maintained: namely, a new and effective brand of positive, international law. It would be up to legal scholars to define its precise content and up to statesmen to implement it. A new regime of international law would, by Lorimer’s reasoning, not only establish rules of international conduct, it would also sustain institutions of cooperation and coordination, which in themselves would provide for a more peaceful world.

Lorimer’s 1877 article is rarely read today. But it should be. When read as an early IR source, it reveals much of the theoretical framework of the later “science of international politics.” When it is also examined as an artefact, it can be mined for contextual information, which yields some telling suggestions about the nature of early IR. One such suggestion flows from the fact that Lorimer wrote to summarize a debate on international order that had been triggered by the cluster of wars that shook the third quarter of the 19th century. The debate had run through several issues of Revue de droit international et de legislation comparée. This was the journal of the Institut de droit international (IDI)—a think tank for legal research, established in Belgium in 1873 in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. The IDI was not the only important institution to be established at this time: in Paris, the École libre des sciences politiques also saw the light of day after the Franco-Prussian War. Furthermore, peace associations emerged all over Western Europe on the heels of the Franco-Prussian War—the Workmen’s Peace Association and the International Arbitration and Peace Association in Britain, the Societé française des amis de paix and others in France. A few years later, by the end of the century, there existed hundreds of such associations. And they were increasingly coordinated and amounted to a veritable international peace movement (Beales, 1931).

This reading of Lorimer’s article in context suggests that a series of institutions evolved in the West during the final quarter of the 19th century—journals, schools, think tanks, and associations. It also indicates that an interest in international affairs was no longer limited to a narrow social elite, but that questions of war and peace attained a broader appeal and mobilized the popular masses.3 The questions engaged people in many countries and indicate that the roots of IR are not limited to a single country but that they are spread among many. That IR is international in origin.4

These developments occurred in the final quarter of the 19th century. Some of them—international peace activism, international journalism, an interest in foreign adventures—were connected to the cluster of wars that began with the war in Crimea (1853) and ended with the Franco-Prussian War (1871). Institutions for research and education, modern peace associations, political parties and unions, magazines, journals, and newspapers had a limited existence before the Crimean War but emerged quickly in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War.

These institutions emerged in the West—in the largely maritime trading states along the North Atlantic rim. The foreign policies of these states were expansionist, even imperialist. Domestic politics was characterized by openness, tolerance, and a vibrant public sphere. Their expansionism involved small wars and foreign adventures and undoubtedly contributed to the increasing interest in international affairs (Verne, 1991/1872). The “science of international politics,” then, emerged in the West and was closely associated with imperialism—as pointed out by recent authors (Anievas et al., 2014; Buzan & Lawson, 2015; Hobson, 2012; Osterhammel, 2015, p. 814). However, the opportunity to satisfy this expanding interest—to discuss events and theorize about their causes—was made possible by public openness, political tolerance, and freedom of expression and organization—in short, by the existence of a public sphere.

These early discussions of war and peace were tolerated by political authorities, but they were not actively encouraged. It is a telling feature of these early studies of world affairs that they largely existed outside of universities. They were no integral part of the social sciences that evolved so rapidly during the late 19th century. Theirs was a parallel existence, largely independent of the universities. The study of war and peace was conducted by peace activists and public intellectuals. Some of them were academics with backgrounds in law and history. But their interest in international affairs was not funded by university budgets. Their activities were largely voluntary. Some might earn small fees from newspapers, magazines, or membership journals of peace organizations. Some of these organizations were sponsored by wealthy businessmen who were interested in the cause of peace—men like Alfred Nobel, Andrew Carnegie, Edwin Ginn, and Richard Garton. These were industrialists who tended to see war as bad for business and who favored a Cobdenite, free-trade theory of order and peace.

During and After World War I

The many institutions that emerged during the final quarter of the 19th century—a few schools and think tanks, peace associations, parties and unions, magazines, journals, and newspapers—did not create IR. But they all contributed to the springboard that gave the academic discipline a flying start during World War I.

When war broke out in 1914, peace groups and scholarly associations discussed the outbreak. They protested the war. They fought against joining it or they studied its causes. Such groups did not exist all over Europe. They existed in countries with an extended public sphere—primarily in the United States and the Atlantic members of the Triple Entente.

In Great Britain, for example, Cambridge historian G. Loewes Dickinson organized a study group as soon as war broke out in 1914. He recruited members from his academic friends and acquaintances. They discussed the causes of the Great War and wrote papers and articles. Dickinson was inspired by these discussions to write a book on the causes of the war. He argued that although German militarism appeared to be an immediate cause of the war, a more fundamental cause was found in the anarchic nature of the international system (Dickinson, 1916). Others drew important implications from his argument. They drew on old theories of contract and on new theories of positive law to argue that the only way to establish a robust and peaceful order after the war was to convince states to yield some of its sovereignty to an international organization, an alliance of states or a league of nations. John Hobson (1915) reasoned that only by limiting the sovereignty of states would it be possible to reduce the anarchy of the system. Leonard Woolf (1916) argued that establishing a league of nations would begin the work to build a legislative assembly for world politics; it would be an early step on a long road toward a world federation of states and an international government.

In 1916 the British Foreign Office called upon academic members of these groups to help prepare for a peace conference. Veteran diplomat James Bryce was asked to organize an advisory committee. Its members met regularly during the fall of 1916. They reviewed old Plans for Perpetual Peace and discussed various designs for robust 20th-century world order. Their discussions produced a memorandum, which recommended a framework for a League of Nations.5

These preparations accorded well with plans presented by peace activists in other countries. The French government began to make plans for a peace conference in 1917, appointing ex–Prime Minister Léon Bourgeois to direct a Comité d’études. Bourgeois had long been a peace activist and advocated a league or a society of nations well before the war (Bourgeois, 1910).

The ideas of Bryce and Bourgeois dovetailed nicely with the ideas of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.6 The president recognized the contract theory that informed the British recommendation. Also, Wilson, who had a doctoral degree in political science, wanted to avoid a “political peace”—by which he meant an arrangement negotiated by diplomats who sought to grind their own national axes. Instead, he wanted a “scientific peace,” which could secure international order through a rational framework of legally devised organizations. The primary body would be a contract-based league of nations anchored in international law. It would be associated with other, more specialized bodies, which would solve old conflicts through arbitration and prevent new ones through campaigns of information and education. In 1917 Wilson, too, established a study group, “The Inquiry,” to help him plan for the peace conference and for a League of Nations.

When the war ended and diplomats gathered in Paris for the big peace conference in 1919, many members of these wartime study groups attended; they were attached to the national delegations as experts and consultants. They often met to talk shop and to gossip about the diplomats—their progress, their setbacks, their compromises, their treaty drafts. These academic consultants tended to agree that scholarly knowledge about history, geography, law, and political institutions provided an important foundation for the peace negotiations.

British and American experts got to know each other well. They agreed that empirical facts and analytic skills would reduce interest-based compromises and politicking, that scientific methods added reason to the negotiations, strength to the treaty, and robustness to the new world order. They also agreed that their scholarly collaboration must not end with the signing of a peace treaty but that it must continue and that institutions of research and education needed to be established to ensure its continuation.

After the peace treaty was signed in Versailles in 1919, Anglo-American experts returned home where some of them worked to establish independent institutions to study international politics. In 1920, the Institute of International Affairs opened in London. In 1921, the Council of Foreign Relations opened in New York. Similar institutes were soon established in other countries as well—in Germany (1923), Poland (1926), the USSR (1927), and Denmark (1927), among others. Also, an increasing number of international relations courses were offered in universities. Faculties of international relations were added to existing departments of political science. New departments were established. Whole schools were founded to teach international politics.

A science of international politics was launched in the academic world. The League of Nations stimulated its development by forming the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC), which sought to coordinate the various curriculums, assess the quality of the education, and organize international conferences for teachers and scholars. Philanthropic organizations, funded by wealthy industrialists, helped sponsor them (Knutsen, 2016, p. 252).

Edward H. Carr (2001) glossed over these details when he summarized the history of IR. He wrote that IR was born under an idealist star after the Great War, but he did not mention the long gestation that preceded the birth. Also, he invented an idealist–realist debate. One suspects that the debate was a didactical invention on his part: it allowed him to simplify the issue by presenting the post-war discussion as a dynamic tension between an idealist thesis and a realist anti-thesis within the new discipline. Whatever his intention, it made an enormous impression. In the wake of Hitler’s and Stalin’s conquests, Carr’s dialectical dichotomy became the core of the received version of IR history. For many decades after World War II, IR scholars sought to fit their academic fashions to the Procrustes bed of “Great Debates.”


This article argues that the institutional foundations for a science of international politics emerged on the heels of a cluster of wars during the third quarter of the 19th century. These foundations, which evolved further during the remainder of that century, provided a springboard for the establishment of a science of international politics in the wake of World War I.

A main point of this article is that IR has a long pre-history. This pre-history goes far back and contains ideas and arguments of great value. The work of collecting and systematizing these arguments was underway by the time war broke out in 1914. After the Great War, when IR emerged as a scholarly discipline in its own right, this systematizing work slowed down considerably. For several decades, the rich seams of this conceptual history were no longer systematically mined for insights and ideas—until a new generation of scholars became interested in disciplinary history in the wake of the Cold War and began to re-examine the older texts.

Cumulative Knowledge?

How far back does this disciplinary history go? It certainly goes back to Renaissance Italy—to the time when Thucydides was rediscovered and translated into Latin and when the Italian city-state system was challenged by the emergence of Europe’s new monarchies. It evolved rapidly during the Enlightenment when key ideas about the causes of war and the preconditions of peace were formulated and discussed.

Yet it is inappropriate to speak of an “evolution” of IR because the development that has occurred in the study of international politics over the last few centuries does not describe a neat, linear accumulation of ideas. Rather, the development has been one of leaps and bounds, eclipses and reinventions—as illustrated above by James Lorimer’s article on the three mechanisms of international order. Lorimer’s article was published in 1877 but quickly forgotten. During the 1970s, when IR textbooks began to organize the theoretical approaches in clusters of three (such as “realism,” “liberalism,” and “Marxism”), no text referred to Lorimer’s three mechanisms of interstate order. During the 1980s, when “anarchy” and “interdependence” emerged as key concepts in mainstream IR theory, no one referred to the 18th-century use of these terms. Lorimer’s contributions had faded into oblivion, together with the literature he relied on. His ordering mechanisms, his concepts and arguments, were rediscovered—or, more precisely, they were reinvented—a century later.

Lorimer’s slide into oblivion suggests that although international order is steadily debated and IR theory steadily changes, this change does not necessarily imply progress. The phrase “evolution of IR theory” ought to be used with extreme care.

IR is not a discipline in which knowledge accumulates qualitatively—in the sense that theories improve steadily over time. Rather, knowledge accumulates quantitatively, in the sense that the amount of information grows, the number of theories increases, and the literature expands in volume. New ideas arrive at a faster rate than the old ones leave. Theories check in, but they don’t check out, to paraphrase the message from the old “Roach Motel” ad.

Scholars who deal in IR theory will have a hard time claiming progress. Scholars who do empirical research have an easier task. First, empirical researchers can claim quantitative progress because they collect, store, and systematize more and more information. Second, they can also claim qualitative progress to the degree that they systematically check the information they collect for accuracy and order it in bigger and better data sets. Finally, empirical researchers also apply their data sets to assess general claims and test hypotheses. This means that false or unfounded claims are steadily weakened. This activity, when it is systematically pursued over the long haul, will eliminate bad arguments, retain the good ones, and thus improve the quality of our stock of knowledge. This process of elimination has forced us to doubt old dogmas and has shaken widely held principles largely based on political preference and faith. One case in point is the old, standard liberal argument that democracies are inherently more peaceful than non-democracies. That claim has been demonstrated as empirically untenable. Also, the old, Anglo-American belief that democratic government is natural and that it can be established everywhere has been seriously shaken by debates that followed Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

A Science of IR?

These are unpopular and controversial conclusions. They undermine our faith and threaten our political belief system. But this is the price of science. If the study of politics is going to be “scientific,” it will have to accept this cost; it will have to accept the risk of replacing dogmas and cherished beliefs with new, unpopular knowledge that causes disillusion and protest. The cost may be easier to bear if we can credibly argue that the removal of false gods is ultimately a liberating act. We may have lost faith in democracy as a universal and inherently peaceful principle, but we have gained the more refined proposition—that democratic states tend to be peaceful in their relations with one another (Harrison, 2017; Russett & Oneal, 2001).

Political scientists, then, must protest arguments that are false; they must be free to dispute claims that their governments present as true. But such protests and such disputes can only occur in countries with tolerance and an extensive public sphere. This requirement, in turn, helps explain why IR emerged around the time of the First World War and why it emerged in the West.

IR emerged around World War I, but it did not emerge suddenly. Its advent had been long prepared. Tinder that had been long collected received a spark from the external impulse of the Great War. The vast casualties of that war made scholars and statesmen agree that such a wanton waste of human life must never be allowed to happen again. Since the catastrophe had been made by humans, it could therefore be prevented by humans. A science of international politics was established in the West on the strength of this agreement. The initial purpose of the new science was to identify the causes of war, isolate and strengthen the preconditions for peace, and help prevent the outbreak of another calamitous war.

To say that IR is born from World War I repeats the main point of the received version. Yet this article has tried to probe deeper. Like Dickinson’s 1916 book—which found the immediate cause of World War I in Prussian militarism but also identified a deeper cause in the anarchic structure of the international system—this article proposes a deeper cause for the emergence of IR. It finds important indications in the economic, social, and political processes that happened in the Western world during the course of the 19th century—among them the advent of industrialism and modern finance, the new systems of mass education, the mobilization of the popular masses as workers, soldiers, and citizens, etc. (Osterhammel, 2015). But the most basic single factor in the development of IR—one of the most basic preconditions for the development of the social and political sciences in general—is the advent of the public sphere. Political theory—including theory of international relations—is inconceivable without it.

The basic notion of a public sphere goes back hundreds of years—it is present in the ancient Greek concept of the Agora. In early modern times, the connection between free expression and the accumulation of knowledge was made by Machiavelli (1961), Henry Oldenburg, and others. The idea gathered serious speed during the Enlightenment, when political philosophers formulated secular ideas about individual human rights—about the right to freedom of expression, organization, and association. These ideas struck deep roots in the nations around the North Atlantic rim. These nations, which pioneered the development of liberal democracy, also pioneered the science of international politics. When Émil Boutmy, on the heels of the Franco-Prussian War, raised funds for a new school to improve the social knowledge and administrative skills of French civil servants, he called it the École libre des sciences politiques. The final two words in the name indicate that political subjects were to be studied in scholarly and scientific ways; the first two words indicate that such studies should be free and unencumbered. The school should govern itself. It should be free of influence from both the dogmas of the Catholic Church and the authority of the French state.

This account of the origins of IR raises new questions in turn. One of them is whether it is possible to have a science of international politics without a public sphere. It is an important question—especially at a time when digital technology has popularized the slogan of the “information society.” But information is not the same as knowledge. And research is not necessarily science. Empirical analysis is a necessary condition for science but not a sufficient one. Empirical research accumulates knowledge but not unassisted, and it is not scientific in and of itself. Science also needs theory—or, more precisely, science needs theorizing. And this, in turn, is an activity that requires the freedom to think. If politics is to be object of scientific investigation, scholars must be granted the liberty to inspect any decision-making process, search freely for sources of information, and follow the strict logic of any argument—wherever it may lead. And this should be possible without running the risk of losing one’s job (or one’s life) if the results should turn out to counter the taste of the political authorities. Freedom to theorize is a necessary condition of a science of international politics.

These two activities—that of empirical investigation and of critical theorizing—are both necessary aspects of science. Also, both are public activities. This is a particularly important requirement in the study of politics. For politics is the study of power and of the decisions and dispositions made by actors who have the power to affect the allocation of values and burdens in society. To the degree that such actors will want to keep their power and to favor themselves and their supporters, they will have an inherent interest in limiting empirical investigation and restricting critique. In many countries they are able to use their power to get rid of critics and opponents.

Can a science of IR exist in such countries? When phrased as bluntly as this, the question is deeply controversial and profoundly troubling. It may also be grievously resented (Nichols, 2017). There are countries in the world that do not possess much of a public sphere, yet do have institutions for research and education in subjects like international affairs. Whether they are allied with the West or resisting Western influence, they claim to have institutions of research and education that are “academic” and “scholarly.” And they are academic and scholarly in a sense—in a superficial, formal, and technical sense. They deal in information in a systematic way. But do they also deal in knowledge? They may emphasize the value of political theory, but are their scholars allowed to theorize freely? They may accentuate the importance of “critique,” but does this mean something more than just criticizing the West? Is “critical theory” freely applied? Or is it reduced to a ritualistic cant and a dogma? Can social science without a public sphere really be fully “scientific”?7


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(1.) The term “science of international politics” is taken from E. H. Carr (2001). By “science” Carr seemed to simply mean a systematic, scholarly, and self-conscious analytical procedure driven by purpose or need (p. 3). At the time he wrote The Twenty-Years’ Crisis, Carr saw the “science of international politics” as a new scholarly field that relied heavily on history and applied political theory critically to international events and relations of power (Haslam, 1999, p. 70). Carr suggests that the purpose of this new field was to find ways to manage international change short of war and identify the basis for a stable world order.

(2.) The post-war influenza pandemic, which swept the world’s malnourished populations, infected some 500 million people and may have caused the death of about 10% of those contaminated. Most of the victims were young adults (Oxford et al., 2002).

(3.) This growing interest is also reflected in other ways and on many levels—in the popular masses, among politicians, industrialists, and academics. The rapid growth of the peace associations is part and parcel of the larger process of mass mobilization that marked the age; this is also the period in which political parties and modern labor unions emerge.

The increase in international interest is apparent in nearly all layers of society. Among the lower classes it is reflected in the popular mass literature that emerged at the time, especially the new genres of espionage and mystery. In the elites of society it is reflected in the changing content of major newspapers. Among politicians it is reflected in the parliamentary debates, where elected representatives become more engaged in foreign affairs—a trend related to the growth of political parties and new parliamentary procedures, according to which government ministers increasingly appear before a national assembly to defend their policies.

(4.) The fact that many of the early institutions of IR emerged in Francophone areas suggests that the Anglo-American dominance of the discipline is a more recent phenomenon. This in turn raises the question of why France and the Francophone community played such an important role during this period of IR’s pre-history, while “the science of international politics” later evolved as an Anglo-American hegemony.

(5.) In early 1917, the British government launched more systematic forms of peace preparations, at the instigation of historian Arnold Toynbee and international lawyer Alfred Zimmern (Goldstein, 1991, pp. 18–19).

(6.) And why shouldn’t they? Hobson’s argument, at least, dovetailed nicely with an American tradition of social contract theory that lay at the very root of the U.S. system of government (Madison et al., 1987).

(7.) A clear and informative case is provided by the Soviet Union, whose leaders followed Western examples and established a think tank for international studies during the interwar years: The Institute of World Economy and World Politics. Its director, Eugene Varga, met with Stalin several times to report on his findings. Varga’s research and his conversations with Stalin would provide a fine case study for discussing the relationship between empirical research, critique, and the role of the public sphere.