The Historical Context Of Contemporary International Relations
• The purpose of this historical overview is to trace important trends over time—the emergence of the
state and the notion of sovereignty, the development of the international state system, and the
changes in the distribution of power among states
• Contemporary international relations, in both theory and practice, is rooted in the European
experience, for better or worse.
II. THE PREWESTPHALIAN WORLD
• Many international relations theorists date the contemporary system from 1648, the year of the
Treaty of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War. This treaty marks the end of rule by religious
authority in Europe. The Greek citystate system, the Roman Empire, and the Middle Ages are each
key developments leading to the Westphalian order
• The Middle Ages: Centralization and Decentralization
o When the Roman empire disintegrated in the fifth century A.D., power and authority
became decentralized in Europe.
o By 1000 A.D. three civilizations had emerged from the rubble of Rome:
1. Arabic civilization: under the religious and political domination of the Islamic
caliphate, advanced mathematical and technical accomplishments made it a potent
2. Byzantine Empire: located near the core of the old Roman Empire in
Constantinople and united by Christianity.
3. The rest of Europe, where languages and cultures proliferated, and the networks of
communication developed by the Romans were beginning to disintegrate.
• Much of Western Europe reverted to feudal principalities, controlled by lords and tied to fiefdoms
that had the authority to raise taxes and exert legal authority. Feudalism was the response to the
• The preeminent institution in the medieval period was the church; virtually all other institutions
were local in origin and practice.
• Carolus Magnus, or Charlemagne, the leader of the Franks (in what is today France), challenged the
church’s monopoly on power in the late eighth century.
• Similar trends of centralization and decentralization, political integration and disintegration, were
also occurring in Ghana, Mali, Latin America, and Japan.
• The Late Middle Ages: Developing Transnational Networks in Europe and Beyond
o After 1000 A.D. secular trends began to undermine both the decentralization of feudalism
and the universalization of Christianity in Europe. Commercial activity expanded into larger
geographic areas. All forms of communication improved and new technologies made daily
o Economic and technological changes led to fundamental changes in social relations.
1. A transnational business community emerged, whose interests and livelihoods
extended beyond its immediate locale
2. Writers and other individuals rediscovered classical literature and history, finding
intellectual sustenance in Greek and Roman thought 3. Niccolò Machiavelli, in The Prince, elucidated the qualities that a leader needs to
maintain the strength and security of the state. Realizing that the dream of unity in
Christianity was unattainable, Machiavelli called on leaders to articulate their own
political interests. Leaders must act in the state’s interest, answerable to no moral
4. In the 1500s and 1600s, as European explorers and even settlers moved into the
New World, the old Europe remained in flux. Feudalism was being replaced by an
increasingly centralized monarchy.
5. The masses, angered by taxes imposed by the newly emerging states, rebelled and
III. THE EMERGENCE OF THE WESTPHALIAN SYSTEM
• The formulation of sovereignty was one of the most important intellectual developments leading to
the Westphalian revolution.
• Much of the development of sovereignty is found in the writings of French philosopher Jean Bodin.
To Bodin, sovereignty was the “absolute and perpetual power vested in a commonwealth.” Absolute
sovereignty, according to Bodin, is not without limits. Leaders are limited by natural law, laws of
God, the type of regime, and by covenants and treaties.
• The Thirty Years War (161848) devastated Europe. But the treaty that ended the conflict, the
Treaty of Westphalia, had a profound impact on the practice of international relations in three
o It embraced the notion of sovereignty—that the sovereign enjoyed exclusive rights within a
given territory. It also established that states could determine their own domestic policies in
their own geographic space.
o Leaders sought to establish their own permanent national militaries. The state thus became
more powerful since the state had to collect taxes to pay for these militaries and the leaders
assumed absolute control over the troops.
o It established a core group of states that dominated the world until the beginning of the
nineteenth century: Austria, Russia, England, France, and the United Provinces of the
Netherlands and Belgium.
• The most important theorist at the time was Scottish economist Adam Smith. In An Inquiry into the
Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that the notion of a market should apply
to all social orders
o Individuals should be permitted to pursue their own interests and will act rationally to
maximize his or her own interests
o With groups of individuals pursuing selfinterests, economic efficiency is enhanced as well
as the wealth of the state and that of the international system. This theory has had a
profound effect on states’ economic policies.
IV. EUROPE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
• The American Revolution (1776) and the French Revolution (1789) were the products of
Enlightenment thinking as well as social contract theorists.
• The Aftermath of Revolution: Core Principles
o Legitimacy: absolutist rule is subject to limits and imposed by man. In Two Treatises on
Government, John Locke attacked absolute power and the divine right of kings. Locke’s
main argument is that political power ultimately rests with the people rather than with the
leader or the monarch.
o Nationalism: the masses identify with their common past, their language, customs, and practices. Individuals who share such characteristics are motivated to participate actively in
the political process as a group.
• The Napoleonic Wars
o The political impact of these twin principles was far from benign in Europe. The nineteenth
century opened with war in Europe on an unprecedented scale.
1. Technological change allowed larger armies.
• French weakness and its status as a revolutionary power made it ripe for intervention and the
stamping out of the idea of popular consent
• The same nationalist fervor that brought about the success of Napoleon Bonaparte also led to his
1. In Spain and Russia, nationalist guerillas fought against French invaders.
2. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia ended in disaster, leading to French defeat at Waterloo three
• Peace at the Core of the European System
o Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the establishment of peace by the Congress
of Vienna, the Concert of Europe—Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia—ushered
in a period of relative peace.
o The fact that general peace prevailed during this time is surprising, since major economic,
technological, and political changes were radically altering the landscape.
o At least three factors explain the peace:
1. European elites were united in their fear of revolution from the masses. Elites
envisioned grand alliances that would bring European leaders together to fight
revolution from below. Leaders ensured that mass revolutions did not love from
state to state.
2. Two of the major issues confronting the core European states were internal ones: the
unifications of Germany and Italy. Although the unification of both was finally
solidified, through small local wars, a general war was averted since Germany and
Italy were preoccupied with territorial unification.
3. Imperialism and colonialism
• Imperialism and Colonialism in the European System before 1870
o The discovery of the “New” World by Europeans in 1492 led to rapidly expanding
communication between the Americas and Europe.
1. Explorers sought discovery, riches, and personal glory.
2. Clerics sought to convert the “savages” to Christianity
o European powers sought to annex distant territories. The term imperialism came to mean
the annexation of distant territory, usually by force, and its inhabitants into an empire.
o Colonialism, which often followed imperialism, refers to the settling for people from the
home country among indigenous peoples whose territories have been annexed.
o This process also led to the establishment of a “European” identity.
1. European, Christian, civilized, and white were contrasted with the “other” peoples
of the world.
o The industrial revolution provided the European states with the military and economic
capacity to engage in territorial expansion.
o During the Congress of Berlin (1885), the major powers divided up Africa.
o Only Japan and Siam were not under European control in Asia.
o The struggle for economic power led to the heedless exploitation of the colonial areas,
particularly Africa and Asia. o As the nineteenth century drew to a close the control of the colonial system was being
challenged with increasing frequency.
o During this period, much of the competition, rivalry, and tension traditionally marking
relations among Europe’s states could be acted out far beyond Europe.
o By the end of the nineteenth century, the roll of political rivalry and economic competition
had become destabilizing.
• Balance of Power
o The period of peace in Europe was managed and preserved for so long because of the
concept of balance of power.
o The balance of power emerged because the independent European states feared the
emergence of any predominant state (hegemon) among them. Thus, they formed alliances
to counteract any potentially more powerful faction
• The Breakdown: Solidification of Alliances
o The balanceofpower system weakened during the waning years of the nineteenth century.
Whereas previous alliances had been fluid and flexible, now alliances had solidified.
o Two camps emerged: the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria, and Italy) in 1882 and the Dual
Alliance (France and Russia) in 1893.
o In 1902 Britain broke from the “balancer” role by joining in a naval alliance with Japan to
prevent a RussoJapanese rapprochement in China. For the first time, a European state
turned to an Asian one in order to thwart a European ally.
1. Russian defeat in the RussoJapanese war in 1902 was a sign of the weakening of
the balanceofpower system
o The end of the balanceofpower system came with World War I.
o Germany had not been satisfied with the solutions meted out at the Congress of Berlin.
Being a “latecomer” to the core of European power, Germany did not receive the diplomatic
recognition and status its leaders desired.
o With the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Germany encouraged Austria to crush
Serbia. Under the system of alliances, states honored their commitments to their allies,
sinking the whole continent in warfare.
o Between 1914 and 1918, more than 8.5 million and 1.5 million civilians lost their lives.
V. THE INTERWAR YEARS AND WORLD WAR II
• The end of World War I saw critical changes in international relations:
o First, three European empires (Russia, AustroHungary, and the Ottoman) were strained
and finally broke up during the war. With those empires went the conservative social
order of Europe; in its place emerged a proliferation of nationalisms.
o Second, Germany emerged out of World War I an even more dissatisfied power. The
Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the war, made Germany pay the cost of the
war through reparations. This dissatisfaction provided the climate for the emergence of
Adolf Hitler, who was dedicated to right the “wrongs” imposed by the treaty.
o Third, enforcement of the Versailles Treaty was given to the ultimately unsuccessful
League of Nations, the intergovernmental organization designed to prevent all future
wars. The League did not have the p