Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What Historicity tells us about international politics and its imperial underpinnings – and what IR can learn

Klaus Schlichte, Stephan Stetter

What does it mean to say that international politics has a history? To us, this seems to be one of the most fundamental questions that can be asked in the discipline of International Relations (IR). In this book we suggest that drawing from the concept of historicity – and ensuing modes of historicity – can provide fruitful answers to this question, while studying imperial politics and their afterlives provides promising empirical ‘flesh’ for such conceptual debates.

This focus on history – or, more specifically, on the concept of historicity and on imperial formations – is in our view important not least due to the discipline’s widely acknowledged theoretical crisis stemming inter alia from the largely a-historical set-up of its core theories. As the work by historian Herbert Lüthy – who taught at the universities of Zurich and Basel and from whom we have borrowed the notion of the presence of the past – shows: IR is not alone amongst academic disciplines in this ahistoricism. Lüthy forcefully argues that there is an encompassing, yet unfortunate trend in European philosophy since early modernity of ignoring history, amounting to ‘the bankruptcy of ahistorical political philosophy’. This is also the bankruptcy of much IR theorizing, not surprising given its Eurocentric underpinnings. Fortunately, though, the last few years have witnessed a growing interest in history in parts of IR, in particular through a highly dynamic research field coined Historical Sociology of IR, a research field that has overlaps with Global History and Global Historical Sociology.

What all these different perspectives have in common is that they underline that the historical dimension of international politics ought not to be ignored, neither in IR-theorizing, nor in empirically inclined studies of international politics. This book develops a novel conceptual angle that draws extensively from continental European scholarship so-far less familiar to a readership from the Anglosphere: namely, a research angle based on the concept of historicity (or Geschichtlichkeit) – which we develop from the writings of historians and philosophers like Herbert Lüthy, William Sewell, Jürgen Osterhammel, Fernand Braudel and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Historicity allows us to not only trace and theorize the presence of the past in international politics but, generally speaking, enables us taking into account the broader temporal dimension of international politics at large.

The core idea about historicity and the six modes of historicity that we discuss in this book is that the past is not over. Instead, the past is constantly enacted and constructed in the present. As Lüthy explains, the past ought to take centre-stage for two reasons: firstly, because studying social and political relations, at least in global modernity, is about integrating into our conceptual vocabulary the fundamental notion of ‘world history’, i.e. situated positionalities. This is an argument shared by Global IR and post-colonialism. Secondly, and most fundamentally, this is because the past generates the very present and the future(s) we (will) live in. As Lüthy notes succinctly, all the ‘”un-dealt past” is today present as a present-un-dealt’. In other words: the political struggles, cleavages and conflicts of our contemporary era – the present-un-dealt – is a temporal extension of re-enacted and therefore un-dealt pasts. This past is present in languages, in concepts, in mental maps, in practices and materiality, in the social habitus of political and administrative personnel, even in the very logics of what international politics is meant to be. Historicity can, in sum, be defined as the historically formed infrastructures, specific semantics and multi-layered temporalities of social contexts within and between which political action takes place. History, from that perspective, is not something from a by-gone point of time but the ‘function of its respective presence’. As such, the past also extends into the future. To paraphrase Lüthy once more here, it is one the gravest methodological errors to consider the past ‘over-and-out’, and likewise the future as something undetermined and ‘free’. And if there is a need for a handy definition, then we would suggest to view historicity as the unity of past, present and future, mediated and enacted through invocations of specific dimensions of the past, which allow to make sense of the present and conceive of the future.

On that basis the book develops six different modes of historicity, which then also guide the analysis in the various contributions to this volume. These modes of historicity are (1) the role of history in shaping reality, (2) the centrality of complex temporalities, (3) the paramount importance of the temporality of observers, (4) the necessity to interpret contexts, (5) the significance of sedimented forms of power and domination and (6) change through non-linear pathways. Building on this concept of historicity, we aim to show what is in store, theoretically and empirically, when looking at international politics as a social realm with a historical dimension that is not gone by, but constantly present: in sum, the presence of the past.

Our argument about historicity is of course not restricted to present times. In other epochs, politics have had their historical imprint as well. But these days, we see a particular urgency to discuss the history of international relations more thoroughly. One reason is the return to imperial motives and the invocation of former imperial grandeur that many observers ascribe, for example, to Russia’s and Turkey’s foreign policy. The analysis of the historicity of foreign policy is, in our view, all the more needed in order to disentangle legitimization strategies of post-imperial politics. Historicity is thus not a plea for accepting whatever historical arguments, but to understand and explain how historical claims appear in foreign policy discourse and practice, e.g. in Russian president’s Vladimir Putin (2021) imperial-style essay on Ukraine’s historical (and for Putin of course future) relationship with Russia. A second argument of urgency can well be studied when looking at the EU. Thus, some scholars have portrayed its interventionist roles since the early 2000s as those of an ‘empire in denial’, while others, quite to the contrary, miss a more assertive stance of the EU that should live up more to what it allegedly already is: namely an empire, as amongst others political theorist Herfried Münkler claims. In our view, accepting the historicity of international relations will enable us to be much more reflective about the repercussions of such bold statements. And this in a time in which, for example, colonial and imperial atrocities of, say, Germany, Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire, Russia or the US are, from a temporal perspective, all but a distant past.

The chapters in this book, while all engaging with the concept of historicity and while all drawing from research on international politics inspired by the historical sociology of IR, Global History and Historical Sociology, depart from three distinct disciplinary angles: the introduction and part I of the book (chapter 2-7) as well as Ayşe Zarakol’s conclusion (chapter 14) are written mainly from historically-oriented IR perspectives, whereas parts II and III of the book bring in inter-disciplinary perspectives shaped by Historical Sociology (chapters 8-10) and Global History (chapters 11-13).

The Historicity of International Politics by Klaus Schlichte and Stephan Stetter

About The Authors

Klaus Schlichte

Klaus Schlichte is a professor of International Relations and World Society at the University of Bremen. His works, published in English and German leading political science journa...

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Stephan Stetter

Stephan Stetter is a professor of International Politics and Conflict Studies at the University of the Bundeswehr Munich. His research, published in leading journals and with leadi...

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