The Research Project Europe 1815-1914

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Ordering the World in the Nineteenth Century: Beyond Realism and Idealism

Organised by Thomas Hopkins, University of Helsinki.

Points of Departure and Outline

By the eve of the First World War, two distinct languages had emerged in Europe to describe, and perhaps to legislate for, relations among states.  One, the language of ‘geopolitics’, had been so named as late as 1900 by the Swedish political scientist, Rudolf Kjellén (Kjellén, 1900, 1916), although the antecedents of the view that states had definite discernible interests linked to their territorial basis reached rather further back (just how far back is an open question: Haslam, 2002; Thucydides, 2000).  The other, international law, had been brought to birth more gradually in the decades after 1870, although again with many an anxious backwards glance (Koskenniemi, 2004).  In the twentieth century these two discursive-analytical traditions were institutionalized in academic settings, professional organisations, think-tanks, a range of international courts and tribunals, and through intergovernmental organisations such as the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations.  The language of geopolitics had its respectability in polite circles rather compromised by association with German imperialism, but by this time the ‘realist’ position, purged of its orientation towards racialism, had found an alternative home in Anglo-American international relations theory, the first chair in this subject having been created in Aberystwyth in 1918.  From its inception, international relations has had the ambition of accounting for both the realist and idealist legacies of nineteenth-century political and legal thought, but has in effect succeeded only in further institutionalizing them as alternative and deeply contested theoretical approaches within the discipline.                     

The impasse this has created within international relations theory, and between the academic theorists of international relations and international law is unlikely to be immediately overcome by any efforts on the part of historians.  But it is possible that in interrogating the nineteenth-century foundations of these discursive traditions it may be possible to get a surer grip on what is at stake in this disagreement.  Doing so requires a more thorough-going attempt to tackle legal history and the history of political thought in a manner both contextually sensitive and analytically deft.  This workshop starts from the proposition that treating international law and power politics as conceptually alien to one another, as conventional wisdom holds, is unlikely to prove particularly illuminating.  Rather, it is in the entanglement of the two, at the level of theory and the level of practice, that we will find the proximate origins of the international orders of our times.                       

Consequently we hope to reach back beyond the formation of discrete disciplinary traditions, and to explore the more fluid landscape of conceptual possibilities that is to be found in the century or so after the publication of Kant’s seminal essay on Perpetual Peace (Kant, 1795).  How should we understand nineteenth-century conceptualizations of such key elements of the international order as states, war, peace, trade, nationality, diplomacy and law; and how should we relate this conceptual realm of the ‘international’ to the politics of domestic social, economic and cultural transformation?  The aim is for a new understanding of the spectrum of debate on these issues – one not bound to looking through the prism of twentieth-century political debate, but grounded firmly on a realistic view of past conflicts and anxieties.                     

The working group will hold two workshops, currently scheduled for January and May 2013.  It is envisaged that they will be structured around the three inter-linked themes of ‘Ordering the State’, ‘Ordering Europe’, and ‘Ordering the World’.


Haslam, Jonathan, No Virtue Like Necessity: Realist Thought in International Relations since Machiavelli, (New Haven, 2002).

Kant, Immanuel, Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf, (Könisberg, 1795)

Kjellén, Rudolf, Inledning till Sveriges geografi (Göteborg, 1900)

- Staten som livsform (Stockholm, 1916)

Koskenniemi, Martti, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law, 1870-1960, (Cambridge, 2004)

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, ed. by M.I. Finley, trans. by Rex Warner, (London, 2000).

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