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3 - The Uses of History in the Study of International Politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 December 2022

Richard Bourke
University of Cambridge
Quentin Skinner
Queen Mary University of London
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This chapter argues that the study of international politics in the fields of International Relations and International Law was long hampered by these fields’ neglect of historical research and reliance on schematic historical narratives featuring the rise and expansion of the European nation-state system. Beginning around the turn of the twenty-first century both fields have been reanimated by historical scholarship, much of which has attended to the modern history of empires and to patterned and persistent hierarchies. The chapter examines the longer lineage of this recent work, in earlier historical accounts that traced the emergence in the modern world of a hierarchical global order. These include W.E.B Du Bois’s account of the global color line as the product of a modern racial capitalism with roots in slavery and imperial commerce that had taken a distinctive democratic form in the late nineteenth century; and the first generation of “third world approaches to international law” written in the 1950s and 60s during decolonization. The chapter argues for historical work that resists IR’s misleading inclination to conceive of states (implicitly nation-states) as the chief or sole agents of international politics and legal scholarship’s tendency to obscure the role played by international law itself in the enforcement of coercive hierarchies.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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