Do we need international history?

Defence-in-Depth is pleased to welcome Prof Joe Maiolo – Director of the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, and Professor of International History – to the blog. If you would be interested to contribute a guest post please contact the editors: Dr Amir Kamel and Dr David Morgan-Owen


International history is not in vogue. Ambitious doctoral students gravitate to international relations theory, or, to one of the more fashionable historical research themes such as transnational or global history. While the study of how transnational processes such as migration, the diffusion of ideas or trade shaped contemporary life is important, the neglect of international history is certainly regrettable and perhaps even dangerous.

It is worth reflecting on when and why the field took shape to appreciate its values and purpose. The study of diplomacy dated back to the renaissance and nineteenth century historians such as Leopold von Ranke brought rigor to the study of foreign policy making. But the study of international politics as a whole, or more precisely the inner workings of the system of states, only began with the outbreak of the First World War.

In Britain, a group of liberal intellectuals met regularly to discuss how future great wars could be prevented by establishing a new global order. At a time when the popular press and propaganda blamed Germany and its allies for the war, these progressive thinkers, many of whom became leading lights in the League of Nations movement, took a different tack. They saw the origins of the great war not in the policies or actions of any one state, but in what the philosopher Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson described in the title of his 1917 book as The European Anarchy. For Dickinson and others of his intellectual circle, the unbridled pursuit by the great powers of their selfish policies generated the forces of nationalism, imperialism, and militarism, which conspired in the summer of 1914 to cause a great war.

After the war, liberal internationalist benefactors such as the Welsh industrialist David Davies and the Scottish philanthropists Daniel Stevenson invested in the ‘scientific’ study of international relations to combat the chauvinistic nationalism prevalent in public debates about international affairs, which included professorships in international history. As Stevenson put it, the kind of jingoistic national history that had been typically taught across Europe before the war had created ‘among the peoples from childhood onwards a spirit of antipathy, ill-will and even hatred of other peoples … [he was] convinced that the teaching of history internationally and as far as practicable without bias would tend to substitute for this spirit a spirit of international co-operation, peace and good will …’.

While Stevenson overestimated the capacity of a cosmopolitan education to promote international cooperation, the idea that a dispassionate and systematic analysis of international events from multiple national archives and perspectives could offer fresh insight was vindicated in the debate about German ‘war guilt’.

To counter the claim that Berlin had deliberately launched the war in the summer of 1914, the German foreign ministry began to publish its pre-war diplomatic documents. Other countries followed the German example to absolve themselves from responsibility and to blame on others for the war. For the burgeoning field of international history, this ‘battle of books’ of the 1920s was a tremendous boost. Suddenly historians had access to the secret diplomatic papers of most of the major powers and with them they could piece together how national foreign policies and actions interacted with each other, and appreciate the way in which misperception and miscalculations engendered mutual mistrust and fear in the decade before 1914. The upshot was that revisionist historians in the 1930s concluded that war had come not as the result of a premeditated plan hatched in Berlin, but inadvertently in the midst of a great power crisis that had spun out of control.

The debate about 1914 continues to this day, but the quality of that debate and our understanding of the causes of the other big wars that have blighted Europe and the world since the fifteenth century increased markedly with the multi-archival methods and systemic approach of international history. The field moved from the narrow assigning of blame to answering profound questions about causation and the nature of world politics.

The premise of international history is that states are not autonomous units, but are parts of an interconnected states system. The structure of system shapes state behaviour and the interaction of states can produce forces and outcomes that are beyond anyone’s control or intent. Understanding why the nineteenth century and Cold War were, for example, periods of relative long peace and stability, and why the eighteenth century and first half of the twentieth century were war prone, demands that historians grasp the structure, the sources of power and ideas that prevail in international politics. The documents from multiple national archives about foreign policy making only make sense in that systemic context. This is the approach of the best works in the field, most notably Paul W. Schroeder’s masterpiece The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (Oxford, 1994).

With the end of the Cold War, however, the study of international history fell into decline, and was widely regarded by the profession as a relic of a state-centric historiography that could be safely neglected. The threat great wars appeared to recede as the forces of globalisation fashioned a new borderless world. Historians thus turned their attention to transnational phenomena such as migration, political activism, social and cultural movements, the creation of intellectual networks, cultural clashes and the expansion of world trade and finance, and the proliferation of non-governmental organisations and the development of human rights norms and practices. All of this work is important. In the last two decades we have learned a lot about how non-state interactions and exchanges have shaped the modern world, more so than any analysis of state-to-state relations would have revealed. In fact the founders of international history would have welcomed this effort to transcend the narrow national/state perspective in historical research.

However, the elaboration of transnational and global history did not mean that the states system and the horrific violence that it could produce was in any way less important than we had previously thought. Indeed, the dark side of globalisation – one that global and transnational historians neglect – has been the escalating lethality, speed, and global reach of the nation-state’s means of destruction, a development that has not ceased since the explosion of the first atomic bombs over Japan in 1945. Since the 1990s some historians appear to have forgotten that the great expansion of the transnational sphere from the 1970s onwards occurred in the shadow of a strategic nuclear deadlock between the superpowers.

New areas of research and developing fresh approaches is the lifeblood of academic disciplines, but scholars have an unfortunate tendency to foreclose on the insights, goals and values of previous generations in their rush to stake out claims to originality and importance. International history began a century ago in an effort to understand the cause of war and the conditions of peace. Conflict in the Ukraine, endemic war in the Middle East, maritime disputes in Southeast Asia, the rise of nationalist-authoritarian politics all over the world and global arms rivalry are all ominous reminders that the imperatives and ideals that inspired the foundation of international history a century ago are as pertinent today as they were then.

For a fuller treatment of these issues, see my essay ‘Systems and Boundaries in International History’, The International History Review (2016).

Image: A Kuwaiti oil field set afire by retreating Iraqi troops burns in the distance beyond an abandoned Iraqi T-55A tank following Operation Desert Storm, via wikimedia commons.

One thought on “Do we need international history?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s