In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History and International Relations

  • Introduction

International Relations History and International Relations
Andrew Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0198


The academic disciplines of history and international relations (IR) have had an often-stormy relationship since the early 20th century, but are essential partners in understanding the “international.” Before 1940, or even before the 1960s, most key thinkers of IR on both sides of the Atlantic, whatever their theoretical bias, would have considered themselves “historians,” or at least greatly influenced by historical study. This was certainly the case with the usually quoted canon of the major so-called “realist” and other thinkers of the post-1945 era—Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Nicholas Spykman (d. 1943) from the United States; and Herbert Butterfield, E. H. Carr, Arnold Toynbee, and Martin Wight in Britain. In a necessarily restricted overview of what are in effect two huge fields of human knowledge and learning, some corners have to be cut. In this article, I have mainly mentioned publications from the two overlapping subject areas that come within the usually designated lifetime of IR as a subject, so 1920 or so to the early 21st century. I have mostly selected both history and IR texts published since the late 20th century. In terms of linguistic diversity, I have chosen to limit myself to mainly English and (some) French-language books, because they are the two languages that are probably most accessible to Oxford University Press readers. IR is now beginning to open itself up more to non-“Anglo-Saxon” traditions of international history and thinking, but this is a process that has much further to run. Last but not least, I have had to limit myself to a series of titles that I consider might best act as “tasters” for the smorgasbords of texts in both history and IR, ones that I think help bridge the gap between them, and quite a few titles that I just think everyone should read. The text and adjoining bibliographies mainly concentrate on examining, in a very selective fashion, whether there is an unbridgeable gap between history and IR; what links can be said to exist between history and IR and what do not; what areas of common concern have been addressed by historians that could be used more fruitfully by scholars of IR; a number of key categorical areas of common concern, such as war, peace, the state, empires, and international organization; and a few (but by no means all) studies of areas, especially cultural, where history and IR texts can fruitfully be read in tandem.

History in the Field of IR

Complaints about the absence of coherent research and teaching links between the study of history and that of international relations (IR) are commonplace. Historians have long denounced IR as indulging in ahistorical generalization, while IR scholars denounce historians for relying on obscure micro research, or what the French call the fond de tiroir (“scraping the barrel” is one possible translation). Anecdotal evidence about the two groups of scholars deriding each others’ methods and concerns abounds. Some IR scholars have pointed out that for (some of) their colleagues, history is seen as a foreign land: Lawson 2012 even claims that they do not know “what it is we mean when we talk about history” (p. 203). In a collection of essays edited by Schmidt 2012 which addresses the alleged theoretical divide between “idealism” and “realism” in the study and practice of IR since 1918 Michael Cox complains that “the large majority of IR professionals today know little history, even less about the history of ideas, and almost nothing about the genesis of the subject they now purport to be teaching.” Among other distinguished voices, American scholar Donald Puchala has claimed that IR has increasingly lost its way through a reliance on “scientific” approaches that in his view use historical “data” to “prove” dubious theories of how the world works (see Puchala 2003). This cri de coeur has been echoed through both the British and American IR establishments, and the dominance of “Anglo-Saxon” thinkers in the subject area makes this significant for both policy and intellectual debates. Stanley Hoffmann’s celebrated article of 1977 accused IR of being an “American social science,” so exclusionary of many other intellectual traditions (see Hoffmann 1977). Bringing the history “back in” can help to alleviate the problem of increasing intellectual dissonance about phenomena that we loosely call “the international” from the ordering of which most of the planet’s population is currently excluded. It is also certainly the case that the key “classical” concerns of IR—war, peace, balance of power, order, and stability in the international system—are all also the central concerns of a historian. Ikenberry 2000, Osiander 1994, and Williams 2007 address global order making in the 20th century. There are also many writers of what could be termed a positivist IR tradition who use historical insights to great effect in the development of ideas such as “offensive realism,” such as in Mearsheimer 2001. There are also historians who use IR theories to shed light on history, such as in Eckstein 2012 on ancient Greece and Rome.

  • Eckstein, Arthur M. Rome Enters the Greek East: From Anarchy to Hierarchy in the Hellenistic Mediterranean, 230–170 BC. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2012.

    In this and other volumes, Eckstein brings many of the insights of classical IR theory to bear on the rise of ancient Rome in particular. His analysis studies Roman success as one that concentrated on alliance building, the system of Roman citizenship, and other innovations. Rome did not solely rule by massacre and fear, it coopted its enemies, like the ancient Greeks. Maybe the United States can be said to have been successful in the same way?

  • Hoffmann, Stanley. “An American Social Science: International Relations.” Daedelus: American Academy of Arts and Sciences 106.3 (1977): 41–60.

    A much-quoted classic of its type by a great scholar who was able to bridge the Atlantic divide with ease. I once saw him switch from fluent French to fluent Texan without missing a beat. He particularly regretted the ignorance among many scholars of IR of the French contribution to the social sciences and humanities.

  • Ikenberry, John. After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

    A “political science” text that takes history very seriously and uses it to create a fascinating survey of how order is institutionalized after major conflicts. Might be used in conjunction with Williams 2007.

  • Lawson, George. “The Eternal Divide? History and International Relations.” European Journal of International Relations 18.2 (2012).

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066110373561

    A very good statement of the gulf that seems to exist between history and IR academic departments in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Lawson proposes areas where they can meet—“context and narrative” from history and “eventfulness and ideal-typification” from the social sciences.

  • Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: Norton, 2001.

    Mearsheimer has played an important role as a public intellectual, critic of American foreign policy, and trenchant observer of post–Cold War developments, latterly in Ukraine. He is a fan of Carr’s disdain for “idealism” and an uncompromising believer in what can only be described as the Machiavellian global politics of power. It is fair to say that he profoundly divides academic (and wider) opinion with his views on a number of issues, but he is always readable and quotable.

  • Osiander, Andreas. The States System of Europe, 1640–1990: Peacemaking and the Conditions of International Stability. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198278870.001.0001

    A good narrative history of the decision making that led to the peace treaties of Westphalia (1648), Utrecht (1713–1714), Vienna (1815), and Versailles (1919–1920). Osiander concentrates more on the building of “stability” and “consensus” than “order.” He wears his great historical understanding lightly. See also his (2007) Before the State: Systemic Political Change in the West from the Greeks to the French Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press).

  • Puchala, Donald. Theory and History in International Relations. London: Routledge, 2003.

    A candid critique of how far American IR has come to ignore the promptings of history. It is also a comprehensive analysis of the links between theorizing and history. It was very well received by “classical IR” scholars such as Yale Ferguson and James Rosenau as well as Constructivist theorists such as Nicholas Onuf.

  • Schmidt, Brian C., ed. International Relations and the First Great Debate. London: Routledge, 2012.

    A series of essays that discuss the so-called inter-paradigm debate in IR to show that the debate is in itself an ex post facto construct and that historical understanding has always been a stated or unstated necessity in IR.

  • Williams, Andrew. Failed Imagination? Anglo-American New World Order from Wilson to Bush. 2d ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.

    A study of both the narrative and context of world order making in 1919, 1945, and 1990 and the themes that were developed in all three attempts, using IR theory as both inspiration and source. Has many of the same aims as Ikenberry 2000, though with a different methodology.

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