The Invention of International Relations Theory: Realism, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the 1954 Conference on Theory, Edited by Nicolas Guilhot

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The Invention of International Relations Theory: Realism, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the 1954 Conference on Theory, Nicolas Guilhot, ed., (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 299 pp., $89.50 cloth, $29.50 paper.

The Conference on International Politics, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and convened in Washington, D.C., in May 1954, brought together many of the leading lights of postwar realism: Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, Paul Nitze, and Arnold Wolfers, among others. A young Kenneth W. Thompson organized the meeting and participated in the discussions; an even younger Kenneth Waltz served as the group’s rapporteur. Rockefeller Foundation president Dean Rusk presided. The meeting was to international relations theory what that summer’s All-Star Game in Cleveland, featuring Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Stan Musial, was to baseball—or it would have been, if its documentary record had not been buried in the Rockefeller Foundation archives for over half a century.

According to the transcript, the group met for five and a half hours in the afternoon and evening of a Friday, and for three more hours the following morning. Their task was to explore “the state of theory in international politics” (p. 240). The conference would have been no more noteworthy than hundreds of other academic gatherings before or since were it not for the stature of the participants and the audacity of their task, which was in some sense the invention of international relations theory.

This collection of eight essays, diverse and insightful, attempts to gauge the true influence of this historic conference and, more important, to challenge the way international relations theorists understand the origins of their discipline. Framing the essays is a wide-ranging (but essential) introduction by Nicolas Guilhot and a series of appendices containing some of the source documents, including Waltz’s notes of the meeting and five brief papers prepared for it by Morgenthau, Niebuhr, Nitze, Wolfers, and William T. R. Fox. These documents, all published for the first time in this volume, offer no great revelations about theory in international politics, nor do they provide clear evidence of progress toward a theoretical breakthrough. As Guilhot notes, we find “unfocused discussion, misunderstandings, equivocal notions, disagreements about fundamental concepts, and much soul searching that remains inconclusive down to the very end” (p. 11). In short, the participants failed to invent international relations theory.

Despite this failure, those analyzing the conference find much to discuss concerning modern realism, its early cold war origins, and its subsequent development. Consequently, The Invention of International Relations Theory sets a very high standard for intellectual history. For Robert Jervis, the attention devoted during the conference to normative theory is important because it refutes the common caricature of realism as fundamentally amoral. Jack Snyder treats the participants in the 1954 conference as part of the founding generation of modern realism (even if the conference itself was not the founding moment), but contends that tensions within realism, which remain unresolved to this day, were evident both in the discussions sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and in Morgenthau’s far more coherent theoretical treatment of realism in Politics Among Nations (1948). These continuing tensions provide Snyder the impetus for his masterly summary of the development of realism from Morgenthau to contemporary neoclassical realism.

Morgenthau’s contributions to the conference and to the wider effort to develop a theory of international politics figure prominently in several of the essays. (The summary of the meetings in the first appendix indicates that Morgenthau in fact played a central role in the discussions.) In two books, Scientific Man Versus Power Politics (1946) and Politics Among Nations, he had come closer than anyone present to producing the kind of theoretical foundation that all were seeking. Morgenthau’s earlier work had also argued against the kind of “scientific rationalism” that, in the form of behavioralism, was gaining influence in political science. Some of the contributors to this volume, in fact, argue that one result, if not actual aim, of the conference was to set international politics on a path apart from political science, one that would eschew faith in the utility of empirical tests as means of establishing the validity of theory.

Did Morgenthau simply outshine Niebuhr, Wolfers, Fox, and the invited but absent George Kennan the way that Duke Snider outhit Williams, Mantle, and Mays at the All-Star Game? Guilhot suggests that Thompson, who earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago under Morgenthau, helped to promote both his mentor and his mentor’s views on international politics. But Guilhot goes further, arguing that Thompson played a key role in the development of international relations as a discipline distinct from the broader and more empiricist field of political science. Thompson, best known among international relations scholars for his work on normative theory, eventually became the Rockefeller Foundation’s Vice President for International Programs and a trustee of the Carnegie Council. At the Rockefeller Foundation, he organized and funded many different efforts to advance the discipline of international politics. Guilhot writes, “One might reasonably ask whether, had he not played a crucial role within the Rockefeller Foundation for several decades, the field of IR would be the same, or whether it would exist at all” (p. 15).

If The Invention of International Relations Theory tells the story suggested by its title, it is not because the 1954 conference achieved its aims as they were understood by most of the participants. The conference may, however, have propelled the assembled realists forward in their efforts to establish a discipline separate from political science and rooted in an understanding of power politics and national interest dictated by the exigencies of the moment. And in this way, it may have invented the international relations theory that guided the thinking of American policy-makers well into the Vietnam era.

Guilhot has assembled an outstanding group of contributors, who prompt us to reconsider what we know about international relations theory and its relationship to “great debates” between realists and idealists and, later, traditionalists and behavioralists. They remind us of the role that organizations—especially those with large endowments—can play in the production and dissemination of ideas. They demonstrate, convincingly, that theory always arises out of a very specific, and often complex, social context. Perhaps most important, they dispel some of the enduring myths about the interwar origins of modern realism—myths that realists themselves have sometimes found useful.


Robert E. Williams, Jr., is Associate Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University. He is the author of Seeking Security in an Insecure World (second ed., 2012, with Dan Caldwell) and the editor of Arms Control: History, Theory, Policy (2012, with Paul R. Viotti). He has published articles and book chapters on human rights, jus post bellum, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s views on nuclear weapons.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 26.2

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