In the first of a regular series inviting prominent members of academia to address key questions of global governance, international politics and the evolution of the international system, David Armitage – one of the world’s leading historians of political thought – traces the genesis of the ‘international turn’ in intellectual history. Closely linked to parallel processes of empire and globalization, Armitage reflects upon how crucial developments during the last three centuries have shaped how we envision the ‘international sphere’ today.

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” These words, taken from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto, that prescient analysis of proto globalization, prophesied an end to boundaries that was driven to its extreme a century and a half later by Francis Fukuyama’s vision of markets and free-trade zones ending national and local identities for good. Capitalism, liberal democracy and globalization had won, once and for all. Or so it seemed in 1992.

No more. The dissolving boundaries of the Eurozone Crisis have called into question the promises of unlimited assimilation by capitalism. Around the world, a plague of economic fracturing has split globalized capital. The smoothly integrated globe predicted by Fukuyama has broken apart into Eurozone South and North, the Asian trading enclaves and the socialist states of Latin America: what was supposed to be solid has dissolved into air.

A new age of geopolitical exclusion and boundary-making as rampant as the 19th century spread of national governments is upon us. Fractures between Europe’s old economic powerhouses and its new pauper states have compounded Turkey and Iceland’s exclusion from the European Union (EU). Fears about terrorism and the loss of traditional values fan old prejudices into fresh anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States (US), France and the Nordic countries. Unapologetic semi-fascists are gaining political ground in Greece and Hungary. A new age of nationalisms threatens billions with exclusion from democracy, capitalism, credit, the Internet and human rights law. Can this age of proliferating boundaries be reversed?

One hopeful story might be told about the fate of another set of boundaries – those associated with nationalism – during the course of the 20th century. By the 1950s, Western intellectuals were confronted with growing evidence about the negative role of nationalism in generating the massacres of the World Wars. Boundaries were amassing a nasty record of genocide, and someone had to reckon with facts.

That reckoning amounted, for many learned people, to an overturning of cherished commitments. For much of the modern era, in most parts of the world, historians have been committed to nationalism. Like the majority of social scientists, they have assumed that history revolves around nations – large groups living in the same location who share a common ancestry, language, history or culture, and who organize themselves politically into states. Accordingly, historians’ main tasks have been to narrate how nation-states emerged, how they developed, and how they interacted with one another.

Even those historians whose work deliberately crossed the borders of national histories operated along similar lines. For example, diplomatic historians used national archives to reconstruct relations among states. Historians of immigration tracked the arrival and assimilation of new peoples into existing states. And imperial historians studied empires as the extensions of national histories, even though they generally maintained a strict separation between the histories of metropolitan states (mostly in Europe) and their colonies (mostly outside Europe). In all these fields, the matter of history concerned stability, not mobility – what was fixed, not what was mixed. 

Scholars in many fields have more recently been moving towards studies they describe variously as international, transnational, comparative and global. The scope, subject matter and motivation of their efforts has not been identical – nor is there any consensus on how these non-national approaches to history should be distinguished from each other.

"The first historians who argued for transnational spaces were deeply invested in the Enlightenment conception of a mind free from its body."

They were historians of ideas. Early forms of the history of ideas were characteristic of the Republic of Letters, a 17th and 18th century intellectual community in Europe and the US that was self-consciously transnational. As one of its citizens, the French scholar and litterateur Bonaventure d’Argonne, wrote in 1699, the Respublica Literarum “embraces the whole world and is composed of all nationalities, all social classes, all ages, and both sexes. All languages, ancient as well as modern, are spoken.” Within a global community that extended from China to Peru, “ideas were colorless, ageless, raceless, genderless.” They were placeless and stateless, too.

Just like those global scholars and intellectuals who made up the Republic of Letters, we must think of categories beyond the national boundary. Most of the world’s population, for most of recorded history, lived not in nation-states but in empires – those far-flung, stratified polities that projected various kinds of universalism in order to suspend differences among populations without striving for uniformity between them. For a relatively brief period, between the early 16th and early 20th centuries, some of those empires were the outgrowths of confidently national cultures, particularly in Europe and Asia. But most were pre-national or supranational in composition. Oceanic spaces connected elements of these empires in the modern period, but maritime arenas such as the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic and the Pacific also segmented sovereignties and became cockpits of inter-imperial rivalry.

"In light of the long history of empire, the eternal world of states posited by modern ideas about international relations seems fleeting, even marginal."

Indeed, if by some estimates a world of true nation-states, detached from empire, emerged only with the zenith of decolonization, soon to be swept away by the wave of transnationalism that erupted after the end of the Cold War, then the heyday of the state lasted less than a generation, from about 1975-1989. All history, before and after, was either pre-national or post-national history. By simultaneously uniting and dividing, empires spurred a contest between ideas and facilitated their circulation amongst diasporic peoples and across commercial routes. From such collisions and transmissions emerged universalizing forces that were in competition – empire, religion and political economy, for instance – as well as the expansive ideologies that countered or subsumed them: pan- Islamism, pan-Africanism, nationalism, anti-colonialism, and other forms of ‘colored cosmopolitanism’. Most of these movements were invisible as long as history was viewed through nation-shaped spectacles. They returned to view only when older experiences of space – more extensive, more fluid and less confined by territorial boundaries – again framed questions about the past.

The field is rife with spatial metaphors – of ideas as “migratory” and of books escaping the bounds of nations; of “horizons” of understanding and the public sphere; of “localism” and “provincialism” as adjectives for ideas; and of conceptions of “containment” and critical “movement” in the reading and interpretation of texts. Yet such figures of speech do not necessarily indicate any substantive engagement with questions of space and place. Instead, they are a shorthand indication that ideas lack material locations – that they need to be placed into contexts construed almost entirely as temporal and linguistic, not physical or spatial. Michel Foucault might have been speaking for intellectual historians specifically (rather than all historians more broadly) when he declared, “space was that which was dead, fixed, non dialectical, immobile. On the other hand, time was rich, fertile, vibrant, dialectical.”

Space can be understood intensively as well as extensively. In this regard, historians of science may have much to teach both international relations scholars and intellectual historians. A ‘spatial turn’ in the history of science put in doubt the universality of truth and insisted upon local knowledge: there could be no view from nowhere when every view sprang from somewhere. Ideas emerged from tightly defined spaces – from picturesque beaches as well as laboratory benches, and from public drinking-houses as well as royal academies. When viewed microscopically in this way, the seamless web of abstract knowledge turned out to be a brittle mosaic of contingent concerns. If one aim of this literature was to debunk the presumed universality of scientific reason, another was to show just how fragments of knowledge were accumulated and collected, and how their credibility was secured.

"We need to understand how ideas travel, who transports them, what baggage they carry on their journeys, and how they become domesticated and naturalized on arrival."

This approach revealed the intricate mechanisms of information gathering that made scientific knowledge both possible and plausible. Even the most physically isolated of thinkers – like the land-locked Isaac Newton, who never saw the sea in his life – could become a global center of calculation by commanding a worldwide web of correspondents from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Strait of Magellan. Corporate bodies such as the Society of Jesus and the English and Dutch East India Companies facilitated big science, in the sense of the long-distance production of knowledge. And later ‘webs of empire’ dissolved distinctions between centers and peripheries as each alleged periphery earned a central place in accumulating imperial archives, testing hypotheses, and generating ideologies through inter-colonial exchanges.

As a result, extensively elaborated connections linked intensively cultivated locations to create new maps of knowledge and transnational canons through the transmission of ideas and information across continents and oceans.

These studies in what Pierre Bourdieu calls the “science of international relations with regard to culture” offer models for intellectual history that are more generally replicable. When conceptions of space expand, webs of significance ramify and networks of exchange proliferate to create novel contexts and unanticipated connections among them. Shifting patterns of sociability and correspondence, of the distribution of books and the spatial organization of knowledge – in rooms and buildings, streets and squares, cities and regions, countries and continents, empires and oceans – forced thinkers to rethink the nature of their audiences, the potential impact of their arguments, and the extent of their spheres of action.

In light of such considerations, the questions posed by intellectual historians have shifted. They once asked what Enlightenment was. To answer that query, intellectual historians attuned to space must now ask where Enlightenment was. This is only fully answerable in a global context across what historians call the longue durée – a view of history that focuses on unchanging or very slow-changing phenomena over the gradual march of centuries, rather than years or decades.

"Changing conceptions of space expanded the contexts for ideas and, with them, the very possibilities for thought."

The most familiar example for European intellectual historians might be the broader contexts that transoceanic exploration and colonization generated for thinkers in early modern Europe. Intercultural encounters and the proliferation of empires around the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic world, and, later, the Pacific, tested conceptions of nature, civilization, political community, property, religious diversity and toleration. John Locke – a voracious reader of travel literature – confronted instances of diversity in belief and practice drawn from accounts of five continents; Thomas Hobbes, a more modest consumer of Americana, shaped his understanding of international relations by reference to ethnographic descriptions of the state of nature; and David Hume’s political economy owed much to his Atlantic connections.

As the “Great Map of Mankind” was unrolled, in Edmund Burke’s resonant phrase, truly global possibilities for thought opened up for the generations of thinkers writing after the mid-18th century – among them Denis Diderot, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottfried Herder, Jeremy Bentham and Burke himself. This had consequences for their constructions of universalism and cosmopolitanism, as well as for their conceptions of culture and difference.

Moving into the later 19th century, the compression of space by technology – above all the steamship, the railway and the telegraph – made new forms of political community imaginable over the expanses of empire and across the world. With due respect to Foucault, space was dynamic, not static. The contexts for thinking expanded to encompass the entire globe. Accordingly, modern intellectual historians have to track ideas on ever-larger scales: continental, inter-regional, transoceanic, and ultimately, planetary. As Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and Hannah Arendt were among the first to note in the mid-20th century, outer space may truly be the final frontier for intellectual history.

While these thinkers explored the changing shapes of empire, nation and people, another, more ancient variety of international utopianism, was being revived. The first practitioners of the history of ideas – from Thomas Stanley in mid-17th century England, to Victor Cousin in post Napoleonic France – produced works that were strikingly cosmopolitan in character and content. Intellectual history was born international, and it remained so long after the rise of nationalism within and beyond the historical profession. The logic of territorial statehood marked intellectual history much less than other areas of historical inquiry, and it became an article of faith amongst historians of ideas that their objects of attention escaped national boundaries. As Frederick Jackson Turner noted in 1891, “ideas, commodities even, refuse the bounds of a nation… this is true especially of our modern world with its complex commerce and means of intellectual connection.”

As international thought reckoned with the shape of empires and nations after the close of the World Wars, historians of ideas like Arthur O Lovejoy were often methodologically cosmopolitan and politically internationalist in outlook, prophesying a moment when the exchange of ideas would meld the peoples of the world into one. Historically-minded students of international relations such as Arendt, Raymond Aron, Herbert Butterfield, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, Schmitt, Kenneth Waltz and Martin Wight dealt openly in ideas rather than abstract models or positivist methods. That blithe optimism about the power of ideas to unify peoples did not last. During the course of the 20th century, intellectual historians and international historians drew further apart. The separation between the domestic and the international sharpened. With the triumph of behavioralist social science in the US, ideas and ethics moved from the center to the margins of the study of politics and international relations. In the era that followed, a war erupted between historians – who were newly convinced of bodiless transnational Enlightenment – and international relations scholars, which was seemingly invented to protect nationalism’s respectable face. Disciplinary boundaries hardened and were more fiercely defended.

"The term ‘international thought’ was originally an invention of British publicists and litterateurs sympathetic to the League of Nations and nascent international institutions in the inter-war period."

Its original purpose had been to denote a usable past rather than to create a critical history. It received support from equally committed internationalists across the Atlantic, notably the American international lawyer James Brown Scott, who created the earliest historical canon of works of international thought – from Balthazar Ayala to Richard Zouche – in the series sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Classics of International Law (1911-50).

Meanwhile, intellectual historians moved further and further away from scholars in the emergent field of international relations, as a resurgent social history pressed both disciplines to the margins of the historical profession, especially in the US. What one clerk said to another clerk was as unfashionable as what one philosopher wrote about another philosopher. As Robert Darnton observed gloomily in a 1980 collection published on behalf of the American Historical Association, “[a] malaise is spreading among intellectual historians… after a realignment of research during the last two decades, she now sits below the salt.” In the same volume, Charles Maier offered a similarly downbeat assessment of international history: “the history of international relations… [has] little sense of collective enterprise, of being at the cutting edge of historical scholarship.” International scholars and historians of ideas had little to say to each other.

The skepticism of the late 20th century produced a climate of pessimism, where historians of ideas regarded international governance and the spread of ideas as feckless utopian visions of a bygone age, while international scholars increasingly ignored history altogether.

"Idealistic international lawyers, wielding the naïve constructs of international studies, conspired with imperial enterprises from the Belgian Congo to the Bay of Pigs."

Buoying their advice were artificial, semihistorical concepts promising “modernization” and “political stability” as timeless truths, easily manufactured by following distilled rules of international engagement. This kind of thinking amounted to poor policy as well as poor history. No date was more foundational for the field of international relations than 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia. The demolition of the ‘myth of 1648’ as the origins of a world of mutually recognizing, non-interfering sovereign states was a relatively straightforward process. It relied on a reading of the treaties of Munster and Westphalia, the recognition that empires, federations and other kinds of layered or divided sovereignty were more characteristic of political authority than any alleged ‘Westphalian’ sovereignty, and attention to the world beyond northern Europe, to see how little respect was paid to the putative sovereignty of many of the world’s peoples under the sway of empire.

But for every intellectual action there is a reaction. Nationalist history has been broken down, and many conceptions linked to international studies have been utterly debunked. As so often, intimations of obsolescence have proven to be spurs to innovation. International relations scholars are becoming more interested in culture, ideology and institutions – “champions of the international turn as well as vigorous proponents of intellectual and cultural history.” At the same time, intellectual historians are beginning to treat norms and interactions between peoples, states and other corporate bodies historically, placing their new studies under the rubric of the history of international thought. The stories created by this fusion are helping us think about the possibilities for internationalism in a new light.

Proponents of the new international history have urged their colleagues to ‘internationalize international history’ – and challenge nationalist histories – by studying non-state actors in the international realm: corporations, non-governmental organizations, transnational social movements, and bodies such as the World Health Organization or the United Nations. If we were to tell a story of the 20th century that emphasized these types of institutions, we would end up with a very different 20th century.

We might, for example, begin to imagine a world in which the road to the EU’s mandate to include Greece was paved by the international precedents of the Institut de Droit International, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the League of Nations. We would also start to tell a new history of human rights – a field now in its second wave, as it has moved from its phase of telling just-so stories into a more critical period alert to context and discontinuity. Such a story would leave us with a very different picture of the world we live in, as well as its opportunities for change.

by David Armitage, Chair, Department of History at Harvard University.

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