International Relations in Theory and History

A critical look at the history of IR and of IR as a discipline, with a focus on hierarchy & race


What is international relations, and how do we theorize about it? Most introductions to international relations concentrate on relations between states, and motivate our theoretical frameworks by appealing to universal characteristics of people, states and the way they interact.

However, both the notion that international relations is primarily about states and the idea that states have characteristics that are universal (both over time and across space) are simply, undeniably wrong. This course delves into some (but hardly all) of the ways and reasons they are wrong, with the aim of developing a more nuanced and critical understanding of what international relations, past and present, were/are actually like, and of the origins and blind spots of our theories. Towards the end of the course, we apply this improved understanding to an analysis of what international relations is likely to look like in the near future.

How and why are common beliefs about international relations wrong? First, because they derive from a very limited set of historical examples: the post-Westphalian (and especially post- Napoleonic) history of Western Europe looms very large in motivating and grounding our thinking about international relations. In the first part of the course, we will examine the nature and meaning of “international relations” in other parts of the world and at other times in history.

Next, we tend to think of our standard theories about international relations as being abstract, derived from some basic (and, again, universal) principles: anarchy, self-interest, human nature, etc. But no theory is birthed in a vacuum. Much of our theoretical toolkit dates back to the first half of the twentieth century, and the world at that time did not look like a world constructed from those basic principles. Instead, it was a world in which race and hierarchy were central. Unsurprisingly, and problematically, this had important repercussions for our theories.


I most recently offered this course in the Fall of 2021. Syllabus here.