Patrick Finney on International History

While looking for something else in Zotero, I found this short text by Patrick Finney:

International history

The text was used by Finney as the introduction to the wonderful Palgrave volume Advances in International History he edited. It is a synthesis of debates regarding International History today.

The piece’s conclusion deserves to be quoted in full:

Although international historians remain prone to status anxiety, haunted by the spectre of their lost 19th-century pre-eminence, in many respects the place of the study of international relations within the wider discipline and culture is more secure than for some time. The impact of 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ demonstrated that the traditional concerns of the field – how states and societies interact; the nature, rationale and justification for the exercise of military power; when war can be avoided and how it should be fought – were once more of vital political, intellectual and moral relevance. International historians of all complexions can make distinctive contributions to these debates and are finding a ready audience.


Suggested responses to these challenges are starkly contrasting. Some international historians hark for a return to the past, advocating a fully-fledged flight from fashion back to the grand traditions of classical diplomatic history. More sophisticated ‘mainstream’ scholars acknowledge a productive contribution from ‘culturalism’ but urge a stabilisation that leaves the core analysis of states and policy-makers at centre stage. At the other extreme, some ‘culturalists’ advocate the near dissolution of the sub-discipline as they preach the virtues of further interdisciplinary collaboration and the acceleration of the transnational turn. How international history will move forward thus remains an open question.

I am with the “sophisticated mainstream scholars” in this debate.

Finney’s text considers essentially the Anglo-Saxon tradition in this sub-discipline, but a parallel with the French tradition would be interesting. French scholars in the 1950s-1960s instrumental in mapping the way out of “Diplomatic History”, mostly through Pierre Renouvin’s and Jean-Baptiste Duroselle’s seminal Introduction à l’histoire des relations internationales (1964). In his introduction to the book, Renouvin defined “international relations” as everything happening between political communities stabilized on a geographical territory; in short, the modern nation-states. Renouvin suggests that relations between these entities are multi-levelled and complex affairs, but he goes on to specify that, 1. states are the main actors, and 2. official policy-making (decision-making in matters of peace of war) would be on center stage as the objects of study for his “histoire des relations internationales”.

So “HRI” was as much a misnomer as “International History” is; while Renouvin/Duroselle acknowledged the existence of other levels of international relations and transnational phenomena, and emphasized a broad vision of the underlying forces influencing decision-making (actors, culture, economy, geography, etc), their focus remained set on state-level policy-making as the deus ex machina of international relations. In the background to Renouvin’s and Duroselle’s work stood dramatic, “national” questions on the fall of France in 1940, August 1914 and decolonization wars. In this context, it seemed obvious that states mattered most, and that studying national policy-making was the most rewarding level for someone eager to understand international relations.

HRI has gone a long way in France since Renouvin’s introduction, but “International history” à la francaise remains very much a branch of political history. In the last years, however, forays have been made into the History of international cultural relations or transnational studies. But it is interesting to note that Renouvin’s and Duroselle’s methodological frame has remained a strong reference in the French context.

Amongst the disciples of Renouvin and Duroselle, René Girault and Robert Frank have published useful reflections on their discipline. Girault’s book was made mostly of case-studies, but Frank has put out this year a book dealing broadly with the History of international relations. Let’s come back to this in a while.

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