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Historical Approaches to International Relations


By Dr. James R. Sofka
Faculty Member, International Relations at American Public University

When studying international relations, political scientists often rely on theoretical or conceptual models to understand political behavior. For example, realists often interpret politics in terms of a struggle for dominance between states in an anarchic world as well as flawed human nature. Conversely, liberals and constructivists typically view the world through the lens of shared economic and trade relationships. They emphasize institutions and values as a means of cooperation between nations. There are many advantages to using political models. However, history provides yet another prism to view international relations. It provides political scholars with a long view of the nature of conflict and consensus on the global stage.

History offers two principle uses to international relations scholars. First, it serves as a means for contextual understanding, particularly in conflict resolution or area studies analysis. It is also a measure of themes and patterns of state interaction over time. For example, it would be impossible to analyze the political dynamics in Northern Ireland or the former Yugoslavia without first undertaking an intense study of centuries of diplomatic history to grasp the core interests and narratives at play.

Secondly, the long-term analysis of trends and patterns can be equally insightful as scholars develop awareness of the differing regional perceptions of global political issues. Americans are notoriously future-oriented and tend to focus on tomorrow. In other parts of the world, what we see as history can be very much part of the present. While visiting China in 1972, Henry Kissinger engaged his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Zhou En-Lai, about what he saw as the lessons of the French Revolution of 1789. “Oh, it’s much too early to tell,” Zhou replied. Kissinger, who had himself taught European history at Harvard, noted that this experience told him a great deal about the Chinese view of international politics.

Similarly, students of modern European politics have detected great parallels in the policies undertaken by Germany respecting Russia, Eastern Europe, and asserting its fiscal strength on the continent and those pursued by Bismarck in the late 19th century. Bismarck’s “Ostpolitik,” which was predicated upon close ties to Russia, echoes into Germany foreign policy in the 21st century–Germany is Russia’s primary trading partner–but natural gas pipelines and lucrative trade connections have replaced purely military alignments as measures of the balance of power.

While no historical similarity is ever exact, historical analysis does offer insight into understanding deeper motivations of states and how they have defined and pursued interests over time.


About the Author:

Dr. James R. Sofka is an Associate Professor of International Relations at American Public University, where he teaches courses in international relations theory, American foreign policy, and war and conflict resolution. He also serves as Adjunct Faculty at the Federal Executive Institute, where he teaches courses in European politics and the American Founding Period. He received his M.A. in 1991 and Ph.D. in 1995 from the University of Virginia and his A.B. with honors in Government from Franklin and Marshall College in 1989. A Jefferson scholar, Dr. Sofka has published widely on Jefferson’s foreign policy and has presented lectures on the subject at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, where he has held two fellowships, as well as for the Brookings Institution. His most recent book, Metternich, Jefferson, and the Enlightenment: Statecraft and Political Theory in the Early Nineteenth Century (2011) was presented at a public symposium at Monticello in October 2012.



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