War, commerce and ethics in British international political thought

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This inter-disciplinary project will bring together historians, political theorists, philosophers, and international relations specialists to present and discuss a series of papers on British thinkers from Thomas Hobbes to Lewis Namier, each of whom has reflected upon the problems and possibilities of international politics, at a two-day workshop to be held in July 2008.

This project involves high-profile senior figures and early career researchers from Australia, Britain, Denmark, Singapore, and the United States who are all working on the history of political and international thought.

The objectives of the workshop are:

  • To further interdisciplinary perspectives in the history of international thought and international theory, drawing upon expertise in history, politics, and international relations;
  • To further collaborative initiatives between Australian-based and international scholars in the important fields of international politics and ethics;
  • To examine a range of thinkers and texts that have hitherto be neglected or (arguably) misinterpreted in the discipline of International Relations;
  • To produce an edited volume of essays on British international thought.

Workshop Rationale:

In the past twenty years, the study and the practice of international politics has been transformed by re-engagements with the history of political and international thought. Reconsiderations of the work of Immanuel Kant, for instance, stimulated the development of the ‘democratic peace theories’ that have informed, in various ways, during the post Cold War period, the foreign policies of the United States and European Union states. Recent work on classical “realism”, from the history of Thucydides to Machiavelli to Carl Schmitt, have provided grounds from which to criticise both liberal and neoconservative theory and practice in international affairs. The growing interest in classical and Renaissance republicanism – exemplified by Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire (2002) or Daniel Deudney’s Bounding Power (2007) – is set to have an equally significant effect. The study of the history of ideas has, in other words, had a profound and lasting impact on research in international politics.

British thinkers have made a significant, indeed perhaps even disproportionate, contribution to the study of International Relations. They have set out some of the most fundamental concepts in the field, developed central arguments, and even lent their names to whole schools of thought. The notion, for instance, that the relations between sovereign states resembles that of the anarchical ‘state of nature’ is derived from the work of Thomas Hobbes. Likewise, the idea that states might, nevertheless, form an international society amidst international anarchy has been attributed, by twentieth century ‘English school’ theorists, to another Briton, John Locke. In the writings of David Hume we may find some of the first and best explorations of the ‘balance of power’; in that of John Stuart Mill, a seminal study of the principle of non-intervention. British international lawyers were at the forefront of that field’s development in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, while British historians (and diplomats) played critical roles in the drafting of both the Covenant of the League of Nations and the United Nations Charter.

The organizers of this workshop argue, however, that there the significance of these thinkers and of British international thought in particular has not been accorded due attention by historians of ideas and contemporary international theorists. This workshop will re-examine the work of a number of other significant British writers on major issues in international politics, from war and conflict, to commerce and trade, and to law and ethics. Its objectives are to bring to bear the inter-disciplinary perspectives of the participants to reconsider and reinterpret their thought on the major questions of international politics: war, commerce and ethical conduct.

The Workshop’s core themes will be:

  • The various contexts – intellectual, political, material and national – in which British thinkers’ work should best be interpreted;
  • The insights – theoretical, ethical and methodological – that can be brought to the study of international theory by inter-disciplinary engagement with political theorists and the history of political thought.
  • The problem posed by issues of identity and national character in interpreting the work of past writers in international politics;
  • The possibilities for contemporary international theory and practice presented by past British thought and thinkers.

The workshop’s participants will be asked to reflect on these general themes during the course of their presentations on their chosen thinkers.

The workshop is intended to showcase the considerable expertise in the fields of the history of political thought and international relations than exists in Australia and to further international collaboration with high-profile scholars working overseas. Although the papers to be presented at this workshop are not intended to have direct policy relevance, research in this field helps to the further the stated goals of the Australian Research Council’s research priority of ‘safeguarding Australia’ by better ‘understanding out region and the world’. Research in this field plays a crucial role in enhancing Australia’s ability to articulate and promote its values and principles in its foreign policy. We are currently seeking an interested serving practitioner to add to our participants.

Event Schedule

Supporting Documents

Contact Information

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

    ABN: 59 957 839 703
  • Location: 26 Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601
  • Postal: GPO Box 1956, Canberra, ACT 2601
  • +61 .2 62491788
  • +61 .2 62474335
  • secretariat@assa.edu.au

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