No. 14: July-December 2015

Bernd Bucher

Historical International Relations

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of historical International Relations?

History has always played an important part in studying International Relations (IR). A number of central questions underlying IR are indeed historical in nature, especially those concerning the emergence of the modern state and the modern state system. One can even interpret the post-World War 2 debates between so called ‘idealists’ and ‘realists’ as a dispute over the nature of history. Whereas ‘idealists’ articulated teleological accounts of human progress, ‘realists’ presented history as the eternal return of the tragic. But regardless of the specific view of history IR scholars adopt, history provides the empirical baseline for understanding international relations and their development. History can therefore not be entirely disregarded by IR as a discipline, while historians studying politics above and beyond the level of polities continually draw on theoretical concepts that in part have their origin in IR (see Schroeder 1996).

Given this intimate relation between IR and history, it is not surprising that the classical approaches incorporated historical thinking in their accounts of international developments. English School Scholars (like Adam Watson or Hedley Bull) focused on the comparative study of international societies and traced “mutations in international society as a way of understanding” (Nexon 2009: 11) the central practices and conventions underlying state interactions. Realists (like Henry Kissinger or Hans Morgenthau) not only extensively drew on historical accounts, but displayed a truly impressive understanding of historical processes. Scholars inspired by Marxist thinking (like Immanuel Wallerstein), were theoretically disposed to focus on the laws of historical development and have consequently been quite articulate on long term historical processes.

While a link between history and IR was visible in these classical approaches, they were not primarily interested in studying the particularities of historical events. Rather they aimed at formulating trans-historically valid theories. So despite the affinities between the two disciplines, IR can in a sense be characterized as a-historical in aspiration. Notwithstanding therefore that history and IR are intertwined at a theoretical and empirical level, the relationship between these two disciplines has been an ambivalent one.

This split became even deeper as the dominant approaches in the 1970s onward (like Neorealism and Neoliberalism) attempted to make IR more like the natural sciences. While these approaches sometimes make historically informed arguments, they draw on history primarily as a testing ground to falsify theoretical claims. International relations then appear to be characterized by trans-historical constants (like anarchy or balance of power politics) and timeless causal mechanisms and laws (see the peacefulness of democracies). History only figures into these accounts to the degree that it helps to improve theory. This is indeed a recipe to proliferate anachronisms, and it is not surprising that these approaches are rather poor at grasping transformative change over time. ‘To make things worse’, a large share of IR scholars today are not concerned with history at all. As it stands, the discipline (from security studies to global constitutionalism) is characterized by a focus on a post 1945, and increasingly a post 1989 world. So while history and IR are intertwined in a fundamental sense, the long-term relationship between these two disciplines can be characterized as an ‘eternal divide’ (Lawson, 2012).

More recently though, historical inquiries and especially a growing interest in the 19th century has re-emerged (also see Nexon 2009 on the 16th Century) as a number of scholars have begun to seeks ways of moving beyond the disciplinary rift. While this recent shift in perspective has multiple roots, one main cause of this development (if we follow Donald Davidson (2006) and count reasons as causes) has to do with the challenge issued at neo-realism and neo-liberalism by post-structuralist and constructivist scholars. These have (amongst other things) drawn on historical narratives to de-naturalize the knowledge claims underlying the dominant IR discourse and have systematically focused on change rather than continuity over time. As such, the re-emergence of history in IR today can be understood as an outflow of the theoretical innovations of the 1980s and 1990s.

Additionally and at a more practical level, the decline of bi-polarity after 1989 has led to an international setting that more closely resembles the 19th century. This ‘closer fit’ arguably facilitates the turn to history for guidance under conditions of high uncertainty. At the same time, it has become apparent that many features of our contemporary world are strongly linked to the global transformations of the 19th century, and that the concepts that guide our thinking about international relations are also better understood if their historical emergence is taken into consideration (see Buzan and Lawson 2015: 322; also Osterhammel 2014). One might also speculate that the centennial anniversary of 1914 and the bicentennial anniversary of 1815 have captured the scholarly imagination and led to numerous calls for papers and academic conferences. But regardless of the theoretical and practical reasons for the re-emergence of historical inquiry in IR, history in IR is picking-up visibly across a number of diverse perspectives. It is consequently fair to argue that historical IR is more alive and kicking (maybe then) ever before.

As mentioned above, a growing number of constructivist (and/or post-structuralist) studies have been important in this regard. These studies moved beyond inquiring into the contemporary diffusion of norms or the way identities inform interests in the post-Cold War World and looked at long term historical developments early on (on sovereignty see Bartelson 1995). These studies link to conceptual history, and make long term change graspable. At the intersection of IR, history and sociology, historical sociologists have continually called for a historically informed approach to studying the developments of states and the international realm. These scholars focus on refining “international history by applying the insights of social theory” Reus-Smit, 2002: 139), and are consequently not primarily geared towards studying historical processes per se. But they take historical investigation seriously in order to “shed light on those constitutive features of the present system that are currently obscured by tempocentric international relations theory” (Hobson and Hobden, 2002: 269). At the same intersection, a number of publications can also be found that take a long term perspective on social processes and draw on the figurational sociology of Norbert Elias (Linklater 2010). World Systems theory and more specifically differentiation theory is also finding its way into historical IR, e.g through the analysis of the balance of power in the 19th Century (see Albert forthcoming).

But the turn to history is not limited to constructivist or sociologically inspired approaches (for a broad overview of the implications of turning to history for the main schools of thought in the discipline see Buzan and Lawson 2015: 326-330). Neoclassical realists for instance have moved away from the rampant a-historicism of structural realism, and English School thinking (which has traditionally had affinities to history) has regained some momentum in the last 10 years or so (see Navari and Green 2014). The work of transnational historians (see Irye 2004; Tyrell 2007) has also found its way into the discipline and is primarily used by scholars who are skeptical of placing the state at the center of inquiry by default and who now begin to look at non-state actors in the 19th century.

IR scholars have also recently become increasingly interested in classical texts (note the forthcoming translation of Clausewitz’s’ work on Small War by Christopher Daase and James W. Davis), and the intellectual history of the disciplines protagonists (see Frei 2001). They are also taking notice of disciplinary history itself more thoroughly, as founding myths are increasingly coming under pressure (see Carvalho et al. 2011). In the final analysis, a noteworthy number of IR scholars are not only taking leading historians into account, they have successfully published historical IR scholarship in leading academic journals and University Presses. As such, the present situation of historical IR seems quite bright.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

While looking backwards has its challenges, looking ahead is at least as difficult. But recent developments suggest that history in IR is here to stay. Most importantly, historical inquiries are not simply spread across the different perspectives mentioned above in an uncoordinated fashion. Historical IR is coming together at an organizational level. The most visible development in this regard is the 2013 founding of the Historical International Relations Section (HIST) within the International Studies Association (ISA - which is arguably the leading association of IR scholars world-wide). This section, which was founded by Daniel Green, Halvard Leira, Benjamin de Carvalho, Andrea Paras, and Daniel Nexon and is growing steadily, has moved beyond merely using history as a reservoir of analogies or lessons, or as a testing-ground for theory-building. As such, HIST promotes an increasing awareness that “the concepts and analytical tools we have used to assess global modernity are not easily transported to other times and places” (Buzan and Lawson, 2015: 320), and that history consequently has to be taken seriously on its own terms.

The main structural contributions of this section are twofold. For one, the section helps to promote the global exchange of ideas among scholars, thereby facilitating the existence of a critical mass of scholarship that is always needed to generate sustainable scientific knowledge. It secondly, provides a platform that supports teaching. As students are increasingly made aware of the possibility of studying at the intersection of history and IR, and Graduate Schools emerge at these crossroads, it can be expected that this will lead to a growing number of PhD projects with a strong historical focus that strengthen the development of historical IR in the long run. Especially this later aspect will be. The future of history then will depend on the success of a critical mass of scholar taking a genuine interest in historical modes of reasoning and not least in the ability to secure the necessary funding for research, the ability to sustain a high degree of institutionalization both at a disciplinary level (major associations), and the level of university departments.

While these organizational developments justify an optimistic outlook, there clearly remain a number of rather unnecessary dividing lines between the disciplines. Two such central dividing lines concern (1) the general way history is approached methodologically and (2) the type of knowledge that is aimed at. In terms of method, it is striking, that even the most historically inclined IR scholars have still not yet developed a passion for archives (that hold the potential to thoroughly re-read history). This may have reasons that originate in training, funding and the probability of publishing research results in leading journals. But there is no substantial scientific reason to leave all the primary sources to the historians. Taking history serious on its own terms will require an increasing willingness to study primary sources. Young scholars are indeed moving in this direction (as Thomas Müllers forceful argument for the relevance of primary sources at this year’s International Studies Association Annual Conference indicates).

It seems this reluctance reflects a concern of IR scholars with general rather than specific knowledge (to the degree that this distinction holds at all). There indeed remains a rather deep seated tension between an IR focus on general (although increasingly mid-term) theory and the historical disposition to value detail, situatedness and particularity on its own terms. Overcoming the divide between IR and history will consequently involve moving past unhelpful dichotomies.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

As hinted at before, there are a number of structural reasons that make a positive development of historical IR more likely than not. The international realm, at least in regard to the overarching distribution of power (not the modes of power), now more closely resembles the 19th Century than it did 20 years ago, and there is no reason to assume the immediate return to bi-polarity. To the degree that (especially) the history of the 19th century provides guiding analogies for tomorrow, it would be surprising if scholars would not make good use of these manifold structural similarities. This in turn would lead us to expect more historical IR rather than less. At the level of relevant actors, scholars are e.g. now re-discovering that non-state actors are not an entirely novel phenomenon. Taking the development of NGOs in the 19th Century into consideration promises to tell us much about the way the international realm can be organized and indeed directly speaks to the continuous development of sovereignty. Similarly, the allegedly new phenomenon of private security firms can be situated within the historical development of mercenaries and private actors with considerable military capabilities (like the East Indian Company). Looking backwards also suggests that the globalized world of tomorrow might not be so novel after all. At an interaction level, it is also striking how phenomena like the New Wars (Caldor 1999; Müller 2004) that are driven by economic rather than political ends, more closely resemble the wars of the past than those of the more recent 20th Century. In this sense, the New Wars might turn out to be much older than we thought. Given the rapid transformations of globalization processes it seems attractive to turn to studying the radical transformation processes of the 19th century (Buzan and Lawson 2015). On the level of international organization, the overlapping authority structures that characterized mediaeval Europe have come into focus again (see Bull 1977; Friedrichs 2001), as globalization processes are making ever more clear that diverse types of international actors shape global developments decisively. Tomorrow might more closely resemble the overlapping authority structures of the distant past than the allegedly neat world of sovereign nation states.

It would of course be foolish to suggest that the future is an old hat. But structural similarities offer ample opportunities to learn. Then again, similarities are not simply there. Whether one thinks in terms of similarities will depend on the tertium comparationis (see Weber 2014) one opts for and more broadly on the discursive developments in which one is situated. But as of now, it would seem that historical investigations have much to offer in terms of producing relevant insights for today and tomorrow.

At a practical level the success of historical IR will depend on how a number of challenges are met. It will be interesting to see how historical IR will deal with the question of 'whos history is relevant'. There are reasons to be optimistic that a stark Eurocentrism will not prevail, but only time will tell. Historical IR not only faces the challenge of becoming a truly global approach, it has the potential to articulate novel historical accounts that generate insights beyond the dominant historical narratives that have shaped the discipline so far. In a closely related sense, historical IR also has the potential to move past a still visible ‘history of great men’, and to include traditionally silenced and marginalized groups.

Unfortunately many IR departments are feeling a budget squeeze and incentives to produce immediately policy relevant scholarship are growing. As such, the long-term success of historically minded IR will depend on its ability to successfully make the argument of relevance. While this argument can be made forcefully, it will depend on the agency of historical IR scholars to make this stick academically and institutionally.

As such, it is important to recall that studying history is always as much about the present as it is about the past (see Carr, 1961: 20). At the end of the day, taking history seriously plays a central role in understanding the challenges of tomorrow. Lest we forget, the future looks bright for history.


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Bernd Bucher is Assistant Professor at Franklin University Switzerland (Lugano). His research interests include process sociology, historical IR, norm-diffusion theory and English School thinking. His current research focuses on non-state actors and the development of international society in the 19th century.

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