Realism, Liberal Internationalism, History: Conceiving a New Research Agenda

February 9, 2019 - 9:00 am to 4:00 pm
Multiple speakers

Since World War II, realism and liberal internationalism have been the dominant political categories by which Americans have understood their global role and debated their rights and “responsibilities“ to the world. Nevertheless, recent events—particularly the election of Donald J. Trump and the Brexit vote—have suggested that there is a break in the postwar consensus regarding the United States’ international position. This, we believe, provides an opportunity to rethink the legacies of realism and liberal internationalism for U.S. and European foreign policy. Are there resources within these tradition that can serve to develop a foreign policy that is neither imperial nor militarist?

Both for political and historiographical reasons, a skeptical look at old categories seems necessary. Today, realism, liberalism, and internationalism are viewed within IR theory and internalist histories of IR as traditions of Western political thought stretching back to Rousseau, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Augustine, and Thucydides. Only recently have contextual intellectual historians challenged the validity of this narrative and have started to argue that it distorts the meaning of the canonized authors’ work. Simply put, historians have begun to assert that the distance between the concerns of Kant or Rousseau and the liberal or realists of the post-1945 era cannot be so easily bridged. We have also learned much in recent years about the political contexts in which contemporary traditions were constructed, and are gaining perspective on the ways in which realism and liberalism are less opposed than constituted in dialogue with the other, dependent on its “other” at different historical moments in different ways. Some historians have even concluded that realism and liberal internationalism are merely two faces of an interventionist globalism that is neo-imperial in its origins and functions.

The goal of the workshop is to bring together a small group of leading scholars from Europe and the United States to, first, help take stock of recent developments in historiography, and, second, conceive a new research agenda for the study of “realism” and “liberal internationalism” in the theory and practice of international relations. The workshop is intended as an exploratory exercise aimed at the eventual publication of an edited volume of essays.

The three two-hour panels will consist of brief presentations (10 minutes) of precirculated papers followed by discussion without official commentators. Participants were asked to write short concept-notes or working papers (2000-4000 words) that respond to one of the following prompts:

  • How did realism come to dominate 20th century Western discourse on international relations? Is it primarily constituted by European and American exchanges?
  • Is realism necessarily an elitist discourse, aimed in part to insulate “national interests” from the uneducated demos? Is a progressive/left-liberal realism possible? What elements of realism or geopolitics are most valuable to creating a liberal or progressive internationalism worthy of the name?
  • How and why have alternatives to realism arisen? To what extent do liberal internationalism, constructivism, and Marxism diverge or converge with these traditions?
  • Can realism transcend its historical imbrication with imperial and colonial histories? To what extent does realism construct the international canon without women? 


Cemil Aydin, Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Mark Bassin, Baltic Sea Professor of the History of Ideas,  Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden

Michael Behrent, Associate Professor, Department of History, Appalachian State University

Daniel Bessner, Kenneth Pyle Assistant Professor of U.S. Foreign Relations, Jackson School of International Affairs, University of Washington

Giuliana Chamedes, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Wisconsin

Nicolas Guilhot, Researcher, Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, New York University

Alexandra Kemmerer, Senior Research Fellow and Head of Berlin Office, Max Planck Institute for Public International Law

William Scheuerman, Professor, Political Science, Indiana University

Stuart SchraderLecturer / Assistant Research Scientist in Sociology, Johns Hopkins University

Matthew SpecterVisiting Research Scholar, Center for International and Global Studies, Duke University/ Lecturer, Department of History and Program in International Studies, UC Berkeley

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer, Jackson School of International Studies, Yale University

Katharina Rietzler, Lecturer, Department of History and Center for American Studies, University of Sussex

Adam Tooze, Professor, Department of History, Columbia University

Contact name

More event info


  • Duke University Center for International and Global Studies
  • Observatory on Europe

Event type

  • Conference