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The thesis of a strong linkage between real-world (international) political relations and the systematic theoretical reflection on interstate relations will be at the heart of the specific account of the history of IR theory.
It is derived from a central argument in the writings of Andreas Osiander (1994, 1996, 2008), a German political scientist and historian. He provides a “needsoriented” view of International Relations theory that is worth discussing in more detail for the purpose of our first learning unit. At the core of Osiander’s writing about the history of thought in International Relations lies the basic argument that political thought is always “needsoriented”.
It is the concerns that are of primary importance to society that cause a “need” for theoretical reflection (Osiander 1996: 43). Interstate relations (that is, relations between states, hence inter-state) became such a primary concern to society and therefore only “caused” a need for theoretical reflection as a result of the advent of two conditions in history. The first condition consists of the existence of a more or less stable system of states in which states interact.
Without states and a state system there would be no reflection about interstate relations. Second, the system of states has to be “integrated”. The more a system of states becomes “integrated”, the more likely it is that theoretical reflection takes place (Osiander 1996: 43). This is basically a statement about the social and political relevance of interstate relations: once inter-state relations become highly relevant for societies, systematic theoretical reflection about those interstate relations will occur. The social and political relevance is the defining feature of what Osiander calls “interstate interdependence”.
Only when the mutual economic and military dependency of states becomes socially and politically relevant, or in other words, when it affects the functioning or even the survival of the societies, will those interstate relations become the object of theoretical inquiry on a larger scale. The higher the level of interdependence and the more a state system is “integrated”, the more theoretical reflection there will be on interstate relations. Theoretical reflection on interstate relations therefore took place historically on a larger scale once such an “integrated” system of states with the defining feature of interstate interdependence came into being.
This change did not occur before the industrial revolution, and Osiander convincingly develops a line of argument that traces the development of political thought on interstate relations back in history up to that “threshold”, beyond which theory formation occurred on a larger scale. With the advent of industrialization, the mutual dependence of states became so significant to the state and to society as a whole that a real “need” developed for a theory of interstate relations. More precisely, the history of the European states system can be discussed as a history of rising levels of interdependence, with interstate relations becoming more and more relevant to societies. It is this history that brought about theories of international relations.
It is worthwhile to take the argument further by briefly discussing the historical developments behind it in more detail, starting with antiquity (the states system of city-states in ancient Greece and of the large-scale Roman empire), and moving through the European Middle Ages with the feudal state, the Italian states system, eighteenth century Europe and the nineteenth century with its industrialization, nationalism and increasingly integrated world economy. The next sections will draw on Osiander 1996. Please note that the text written by Osiander will be part of the required reading. It will give you the chance to explore the line of argument in depth after reading the introductory text contained in this unit. 17
In antiquity, states were integrated into federations of city states or into large scale empires. The Greek states system of ancient Greece (500-100 BC) was a system of city states (such as Athens or Sparta; the city-state was also referred to as polis). According to Osiander, this system was not stable enough, economic exchange between the states was not relevant enough, and wars – despite their destruction of city-states – did not threaten the existence of Greek society as a whole. Osiander argues that there was thus no need for a theory of interstate relations. For this reason, and in contrast to many textbooks, he denies that Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, written around 431 BC) is the “father” of a theory of interstate relations (Osiander 1996: 46, on Thucydides and IR theory see Doyle 1990). Osiander reasons that he does not see any large scale theoretical writing on interstate relations of the Greek city states in that time and thus considers the single text to be a pragmatic text in the context of a particular historical moment (a similar argument is developed by Czempiel 1965). With regard to the Roman Empire (200 BC- AD 500), the large-scale empire is seen as the dominant form of social organization of the states system at this time. In the context of imperial expansion in particular, no stable interstate relations existed. Here again, cross-border relations held only a limited significance for the Roman Empire. There was therefore no need to reflect upon interstate relations on a large scale.
The European Middle Ages:
The empire remained the dominant pattern of political organization in Christian Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, with the successor of the Roman Empire in Europe being the Medieval (Roman Catholic) empire, known as Christendom, based at Rome in Western Europe and, in Eastern Europe and the near East, the Byzantine (Orthodox) empire with Constantinople at the center. These empires composed the two parts of the European medieval Christian world (500-1500). Within the empires, the medieval European state existed with its central feature, the feudal tenure system.
This decentralized system had a high regard for power, was economically particular and locally organized, and had no central control of large territories. The emperor and the monarchs were political decision makers who entrusted power to vassals. Power and authority were organized on both a religious and a political basis by the Pope and the Emperor respectively. The medieval state was organized through personal 18 ties. Through the medieval tenure system, power was distributed to a number of hierarchically organized actors. The authority and capacity to engage in wars was not monopolized by the state. Consequently, there could be no thoughts of autonomous independent politic units in the European Middle Ages, a prerequisite for a theory of interstate relations. With regard to external relations, the Middle Ages were an era of empire with relations between those empires only at the margins (Osiander 1996: 47).
The Modern Age:
In the early modern age came the first attempts to formulate a theory of interstate relations, based on the experience of the Italian system of states. The writings of Niccolò Machiavelli (Il Principe, 1513 and the Discorsi, about 1518) discussed the internal and external dimension of the state’s ability to cope with threats, indicating a strong awareness of the importance of foreign relations of states for society. However, according to Osiander (1996: 48), this was still a theory of the state which only featured some reflections on foreign relations.
Please note that you will read a short text, the “Recommendations for the Prince” by Machiavelli, as part of the required reading at the end of this introductory unit. It will give you an impression of the quality and style of this early writing on interstate relations. The historical development in the modern age can be summarized as a general process towards the formation of the centralist territorial sovereign state.
It is a process of centralizing and consolidating power within the state. This development makes the distinction between the domestic and the interstate sphere increasingly clear: there is “inside” and “outside” the state. A general agreement exists that this modern state is a “product” of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) and the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the war and established the principle of the sovereign state.
From the middle of the 17th century onwards, the modern state was considered the only legitimate political system in Europe, composed of a separate (state) territory, (state) governments and (state) citizens. The centralist state’s monopoly on legitimate violence is thus the outcome of a historical process in early modern Europe, a process of the consolidation of sovereign territorial states with a monopoly on the means of warfare. From a theoretical perspective, this process has been reflected in attempts in political theory to politically legitimize the new central powers.
Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) provided the starting point. In his writing, he drew an analogy of relations among “sovereigns” to relations among individuals prior to the establishment of society. He called this condition a “state of war” 19 and considered it to be the core problem of politics. The idea that the basic condition of the interstate system is a “state of war” became influential for International Relations theory at a later stage (Realism). Please note that a short text fragment of Hobbes’ Leviathan is part of the required reading, allowing you to form an impression of those early thoughts on the nature of the interstate system.
However, in addition to political theory, there have been other important contributions which have helped develop the idea of “sovereignty” as a concept of international law. Examples include Hugo Grotius’ Mare Liberum (1609), discussing the sea as “international waters”. From the mid-17th century through the 18th and 19th centuries, the history of the European states system is not only a history of the central sovereign state (inside) but also a history of intensifying interstate relations (outside the state).
An increasing exchange of ideas and diplomatic contacts between the European states were preconditions for establishing the post-Napoleonic European balance of power system at the Congress of Vienna (1815), agreed upon by the great powers (the Concert of Europe). The balance of power system lasted more or less for most of the period 1815-1914. “Inside” the modern state, relationships between state and society obtained a new quality in the 19th century with the advent of nationalism and the nation state.
The rise of nationalism was part of the process of centralizing and consolidating the power of the state. Economic relations within societies became increasingly integrated (national economies), as did the external economic relations. Economic theory of the 18th and 19th century, such as Adam Smith’s An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) and David Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), reflected theoretically on the gains in welfare through an international division of labor and the integration of national markets. Increasing integration of the national economies through an intensification of trade, transport and communication, along with interdependence in the sphere of national security, became central features of the European states system.
A mutual dependence in issues of economic and security meant that external relations of the state also became increasingly relevant for societies. The danger of interstate war was perceived as a threat to the existence and well-being of national societies and thus became a central concern for those societies.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the international peace movement is a product of the 19th century and emerged along with industrialization. Peace Societies appeared immediately after the Napoleonic Wars in England and the US (1815-1816). Members called themselves “friends of peace” (Cooper 1984: 76). These early peace societies are the first examples of private citizen 20 groups formed in order to lobby and influence foreign policy.
The American and the British Peace Societies were soon followed by the Parisian and the Genevan Peace Societies. The 1860s saw a significant increase in new peace societies in Europe (Cooper 1984: 91). Together these societies formed an international peace movement, setting up a headquarters in Berne after 1891 (the Bureau International de la Paix) to coordinate the movements in more than 20 nations until 1914. Peace movements are “associations of private citizens, usually drawn from several social classes, who form societies that work to influence or protect against expansionist foreign and military policies” (Cooper 1984: 75). They proved to be influential not least through their support of the The Hague Peace Conferences 1899 and 1907, which produced the important Hague Conventions and the Geneva Protocol.
Foundations such as the US’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the World Peace Foundation, both founded in 1910, were powerful actors that contributed to the establishment of International Relations as an academic discipline after World War I (this will be discussed in the next part of this unit). In regard to theory, the concerns of society have been reflected in books such as Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion (1910). The core thesis of his writing is about the “illusion” of what can be reached by war. The integration of the European states’ economies instead increased to a level that made war between them entirely futile. In 1914 came the end of a century of “organized peace societies” with their hopes for rational European leaders who would recognize the need to regulate international anarchy through the creation of international institutions for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
The experience of World War I demonstrated the extreme significance of interstate relations for societies. The conclusion was reached that, from then on, war and peace should not be left to politicians and diplomats; rather, a systematic study of the causes of war and the conditions for peace was seen as a real “necessity” for helping politics to build peace.
The history of International Relations theory is part of a double process: (1) A historical process of centralization and consolidation of power. The transformation of political organization from the medieval to the modern state is based on centralization, the construction of the independent territorial state (inside the state) and an international states system of consolidated, unified and centralized sovereign territorial states (outside the state). The core function of the central, sovereign state is the provision of core values such as 21 security, welfare, freedom. In this historical process, the significance of external relations to society is growing.
This gain in significance occurs because of increasingly integrated national economies and the resulting rise in mutual dependence between national economies. (2) The development of the states system in Europe, the process of intensifying interstate relations, and the growth of worldwide communication, trade, and transportation go hand in hand with a systematic reflection in the fields of philosophy, political theory and international law.
In terms of the history of thought, the historical process is at the same time a history of state theory (or Political theory) and interstate theory (later International Relations theory). In this process, state theory (or political theory) increasingly starts to reflect on interstate relations, theoretically “mirroring” the historical process of a rising significance of interstate relations. In fact, theoretical reflection – the historical evolution of inter-state, later inter-national theory – is part of these historical processes of the formation and development of the European state system.
We will come back to this argument and discuss it in more detail later. Before we do so, however, let us first take a look at the discipline’s formation.
Text courtesy: A Study of International Relations.
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