The origins of International Relations

Origins matter. The stories we tell about when something began are used to define it. When it comes to societies this statement would be seen by many as redundant. The United States’ use of the ‘Spirit of 1776’ to define its politics, of both the right and the left, is a good example of this. Yet, this is not unique to nations, as the deployment of ‘founding principles’ in political parties demonstrates. Despite this, it is harder to sell the idea that academic disciplines work under the same logic. After all, logical and rational thought should not be defined by emotive appeals to an origin moment or to founding principles. Yet, as human societies in the stream of time, disciplines are no more immune from the appeal of origin narratives as any other society. These stories have their uses: they pull together an otherwise disparate community spread over both space and time, and help give structure and definition to the topic in need of explanation. Origin narratives play an important role in helping us understand our world, but they are also gatekeeping devices that can unnecessarily exclude.
 
International Relations (IR) has several origin stories, some of which are stronger than others. Each can be linked to a particular way of framing the discipline. Yet, there is one origin story that is missing, and our failure to tell that story is currently hampering our ability to think outside of our particular theoretical box. To a certain degree origin stories are essential to our definition of what it is that we should be doing. In this sense they are a necessary precondition for doing IR. Yet, with a few exceptions, what has been lacking in IR is a critical self-awareness of these stories. From our first textbooks we are told a story of how IR became what it is, and few in the field choose to check to see if the stories have any validity. Yes, we need origin stories, but we also need to maintain a scepticism lest a good servant becomes a bad master.
 
International thought in the last hundred years has toggled through quite a number of origin stories. Perhaps the earliest – emerging in the late nineteenth century, but not gathering a full head of steam until the 1930s and 1940s – was the notion of the study of international affairs as a product of late nineteenth century industrialization and imperialism. Now, out of fashion in IR, this notion of the origin of IR in nineteenth century industrialization has been given a fresh boost by the work of Barry Buzan and George Lawson. It has also remained a common trope in International Political Economy. In this origin story the matter of IR revolved around the growth of interdependence, technological change and the communications revolution. In its later stages it influenced the idea that the technology of weapons of mass destruction had fundamentally altered the nature of IR. It was in this form that this origin story became part of Morgenthau’s view of the obsolescence of the system of states.
 
The idea of 1919 as a watershed seems to emerge before the peace treaties were even signed. This ‘Spirit of 1919’ is present in the work of Halford Mackinder, and still had resonance in works written just before and during the Second World War. Sometimes appeasement and the crisis that led up to the Second World war were incorporated into this narrative as the final unravelling of the 1919 peace. The idea of 1919 as the origin date was associated with the view that IR was designed to understand the nature and causes of war. 
 
Following the 1948 tercentenary of the Peace of Westphalia it became common to also talk about 1648 as an origin date.  Here the emphasis was on the idea of the state system as the primary subject matter for IR. Like the idea of a 1919 watershed, the 1648 one concentrated on the idea of the causes of war as the central issue, but here the emphasis shifted to understanding war as part of the workings of a system of sovereign states. The long continuity of the Westphalian system could be praised by conservatives, who mourned its passing, or condemned by radicals as the source of the ills of the last three centuries.
 
Finally, in the 1980s the origin story for IR took a further twist when it was worked into the story of the three great debates. Although the idea of a realist-idealist confrontation had been part of the 1919 origin narrative after the Second World War (taking its cue from Carr’s brilliant, yet flawed, 1939 polemic), the concept of a formal and sustained realist-idealist intellectual debate did not really appear until the mid-1980s. In attempting to understand what seemed to be an increasingly eclectic and ‘dividing discipline’ (to use Kal Holsti’s phrase), two new debates were added. The second, occurring in the 1960s, was a methodological one that explained the growth of behavioural approaches to IR. The third – the ‘interparadigm debate’ was meant to be occurring right now in the 1980s, and explained IR theory as a clash of three different paradigms: (neo-)realism, liberalism and structuralism. As time went on the great debates model expanded to include new paradigms. 
The great debates origins story re-envisioned IR as composed of clearly separate paradigms, and despite minor changes over the years (textbooks now tend to either include a long list of separate paradigms, or order them under the three major headings of realism, liberalism and constructivism), it is the orthodox view of the origins of IR. The First World War leads to the ascendency of liberalism, which is challenged by realism in the 1930s and 1940s in the first great debate. Realism then goes through a second methodological debate, before dividing in the third inter-paradigm debate from the 1980s onwards.
 
Origin stories tell us more about the time in which they are told, and frequently are just plain wrong about the past they use. So it is with the great debates myth. It is already pretty common knowledge that there was no realist-idealist ‘great debate’, but then again it was never the intention of the great debate story to understand the past. The idea was to explain what was happening to IR in the 1980s. The great debate story, along with the Westphalia origin story, became the standard story told in IR textbooks, fusing into the standard IR origin narrative of an emerging system of states after 1648, and then a series of debates in the twentieth century that gave us the discipline of IR. This, in turn, allowed IR courses to lay out IR theory as a series of competing paradigms.
 
Yet, there was a cost to this coherence. The paradigmised IR of the Great Debates story was one where the complexities of the past were sacrificed, and several approaches found themselves simply written out of the story. Amongst these victims of exclusion was the classical realism of Morgenthau, Herz, and Niebuhr. Instead, these major figures in mid-twentieth century IR were reclassified as forebears of a neorealist paradigm that bore little relation to classical realism. Paradigmised IR, by setting up clear distinctions between paradigms, often over-emphasises the similarities of authors classified as part of the same paradigm (the differences between Morgenthau and Carr for example), while at the same time playing up the differences between authors in competing paradigms (the common ground between Morgenthau and Mitrany is often completely ignored). At one level there is certainly nothing wrong with simplification for the sake of coherence and understanding, as long as we treat the simplification as merely a tool, and not allow it to master us.  To do this it helps to understand the origin of these origin narratives that discipline the discipline, and to constantly question them.
 
And it is here that the last of our origin stories comes in: the one that we do not see. In its short history IR has looked to origin stories that root the field in 1648, the later nineteenth century, 1919, 1939, and the late 1940s. If, though, we take IR to consist of the paradigmised field based around the great debate myths then really IR is far younger than that. IR dates from the 1980s. Once we recognise that IR as we currently construct it in textbooks is only thirty-odd years old, and that the categories and stories we tell first year students were created recently, it becomes possible to see what has been excluded.
 
Lucian M. Ashworth Memorial University of Newfoundland

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BISA@ 40 and beyond

A series of commentaries on the state of the

discipline to mark the 40th anniversary of

BISA's founding

 

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