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The Role of the University In International Relations

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980

It is a truism that the successful operation of a liberal democracy depends on the general level of education. But a level of education sufficient for the conduct of domestic affairs may not suffice for the conduct of foreign affairs. The classic example is in the account Thucydides gave of how the procedures whereby foreign-policy decisions were made by the Athenian citizenry as a whole brought about the downfall of what had been the most advanced society of its day. Until the present century it had been generally assumed that the conduct of foreign relations, in addition to requiring such secrecy as limits public debate, calls for a special sophistication beyond what even the best general education can normally be expected to provide.

The problem this poses arose so poignantly for President Washington during the first generation of American independence that it provided one of the principal themes of his Farewell Address. It troubled Alexis de Tocqueville when he reported on his visit to a United States that, under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, was transforming itself from an oligarchic republic into an egalitarian democracy. But all this was back in the days when the American society was still able, for the most part, to stand aloof from the great world of international politics.

In those days the worldwide reponsibilities that have since been thrust upon the American democracy were borne principally by Great Britain. But there was no thought in Britain of discharging them through the developing procedures of democratic decision that were being applied to domestic affairs. Until World War I, the conduct of foreign relations was normally reserved to the cabinet, conferring in secrecy. The Parliament, and beyond it the electorate, took it for granted that foreign relations, because of their special and even abstruse nature, must remain, for the most part, the province of a specially qualified elite that, in a dangerous world, had to operate behind a screen of confidentiality. (A vestige of this remains in France, where decisions in the field of foreign affairs tend to be reserved to the president, dealing directly with the foreign minister, while the premier, the cabinet, and the Parliament concentrate on domestic affairs.)

One could plausibly maintain that foreign relations were never so well conducted as among the European powers during the generation after the Napoleonic wars. Granted that their conduct entailed intrigue and all the other evils associated with politics—still, it had been worse before and would be much worse after. Talleyrand, Metternich, Castlereagh, and the others were wise old foxes who shared a common culture, who acted on sophisticated concepts that they held in common, and who consequently gave the world in which they played their parts a century of relative peace and prosperity.

The difference between that day and our own is the difference between Athens under the rule of Themistocles and Athens under the rule of the Demos which led it over the brink of diasaster. For us, however, there can be no thought of returning to the post-Napoleonic days, and while the history of Athens could repeat itself in us we must assume that this need not be the case. What follows, then, is based on an acceptance of the fact that American foreign policy, and all the major issues that arise in the foreign relations of the United States, will continue to be decided by a fluctuating national consensus associated with debates that are continuously reported to the world by press, radio, and television.


I have said that in a democracy everything depends on “the general level of education,” but this needs elaboration. Every society or association of any kind, in the measure in which it is coherent, has a common mind, represented by “what we all say,” or by what goes without saying because it is assumed. For example, in the United States during World War I we all “knew” that the Kaiser’s purpose was to conquer the world, a belief that any historian of today would regard as false. In 1945 we all “knew” that the Japanese nation was so fanatical that it would never surrender, and this was one factor in what must now be recognized as an unnecessary use of the atom bomb on Japanese cities. From the beginning of the present century, and indeed before, the common American mind cherished a sentimental view of the Chinese nation as a young ward of the United States eager to be instructed in the ways of the American democracy that it took as its model; but this was a view that had no correspondence to the common mind of the Chinese society as it really was.

We may be sure that a Talleyrand among us would not have believed in the false conceptions I have just cited, but we may be equally sure that he could not have prevailed against them. Witness, here, the fate of the “old China hands” in the American Foreign Service who were dismissed and disgraced for representing a different understanding of China—as Socrates had been disgraced by the assembled citizens of Athens for views contrary to those of the common mind.

The tyranny of the common mind becomes especially severe in times of international tension when nonconformity is equated with disloyalty, creating an atmosphere in which independent reasoning becomes as dangerous as it is difficult. This was something that Washington, who was of Talleyrand’s stamp as a strategic thinker, knew from such bitter experience as that of the popular reaction against his insistence on neutrality when war broke out between Great Britain and a France considered to be deserving of American support on ideological grounds that made Washington’s strategic realism appear ignoble.

The distinction I have now made between the concepts of an elite, represented by Talleyrand and Washington, and those of the mass mind, whether of intellectuals or of a national society, generally corresponds to the distinction between strategic and ideological thinking, if only because the former requires special sophistication together with a capacity for close and careful reasoning. While ideological thinking has the more popular appeal—associated as it is with manicheism and the sense of one’s own righteousness—in a world of nuclear armaments the rejection of strategic thinking as ignoble would open a way to the greatest disaster in the history of mankind.

American foreign policy, on which the future of the world So largely depends, will surely fail if the common mind of the American society excludes strategic realism, as the common mind of the Athenian society excluded it.

The most fundamental concept that the peacemakers of 1815 held in common was that of a balance of power as the indispensable foundation for the stability on which peace depends. It was the careful management of such a balance that kept the peace until Germany embarked, and was allowed to embark, on the course of unlimited national aggrandizement that, by upsetting the balance, produced the widening succession of wars which became the heritage of our present century. Yet the common mind of the American nation continued to base itself on the premise that balance of power constituted no more than a sinister device whereby the rival princes of a wicked Old World pursued a course of empire associated with military oppression. Woodrow Wilson, and after him Franklin D. Roosevelt, presented international organization not as a supplement but as an alternative to a balance of power. The United Nations organization, as conceived by the latter, made such a balance unnecessary. So the United States disarmed itself while Stalin’s Russia expanded across threequarters of Europe. The United Nations, itself, has since proved effective in its contributions to the maintenance of peace only to the extent that its actions have reflected a reestablished balance.

I could go on to discuss the interplay between military potential and diplomacy, the complex and sometimes paradoxical relationship between force and consent in the maintenance of international stability, and the correlative promotion of peace. But this would take me too far from the problem here addressed, that of the limits set by the common mind on the conduct of American foreign relations.

To say that the common mind can hardly be expected to have a fine understanding of foreign affairs no more implies contempt of it than to say it could hardly be expected to understand the problems of quantum mechanics. The requisite experience or training is bound to be lacking even among those who do have a good general education.

While domestic and international problems alike are manifestations of human nature in action, in the domestic politics of the United States it is only American human nature that is involved. This is a variety of human nature with which all Americans are familiar because it represents the common culture to which all alike were brought up. In their foreign policy, however, Americans are dealing with manifestations of human nature that are not familiar because they represent cultural conditioning different from their own. An American who is fully at home in domestic politics because he understands his fellow countrymen may be wholly adrift in such international politics as require him to have an understanding of Chinese attitudes and behavior, of a Russian outlook on the world that is radically different from the American, of the assumptions that underlie Islamic thinking, of African tribal loyalties. Without knowledge of the varied international world (indeed, without a knowledge far beyond what Talleyrand needed in a world dominated by the relatively uniform society of the European upper class), any American is almost bound to take it for granted that Chinese, Hindus, Congolese, and South Sea Islanders think and behave as Americans do—for Americans and those who share their general culture (such as the Canadians) are the only people he knows anything about. But if this assumption is applied to the conduct of the foreign relations of the United States, the result is bound to be disastrous. Indeed, it has been disastrous.

The above paragraph refers to the worldly knowledge needed for the conduct of foreign relations only in its spatial or geographical dimensions: different cultures in different environments on different continents. But the temporal dimension, the historical dimension, is even more basic. We are all the products of our history as influenced by the particulars of geography. One cannot understand the attitudes and the behavior of the Russian nation—attitudes and behavior so different from the American—without knowing something of its millennial history, dating back to the ninth century.

I anticipate my main point when I here note that a knowledge of world history can be engendered only in the universities, in the courses they offer and the books they produce. While the universities cannot put their impress directly on the entire national population, by indirect as well as direct influence they could make the principal contribution to the formation of the common mind. The thinking they produce may at last, by a sort of osmosis, impregnate the entire society in which they play what is potentially such a creative role.


In addition to the worldly and historical knowledge needed for the intelligent conduct of foreign affairs, there is the need for theory, for theoretical understanding of the nature of relations among sovereign societies, and of the way such relations must consequently be managed.

Understanding, in any field, takes the form of generalization—more particularly, of general rules. If what one was undertaking to understand was the social behavior of hamadryad baboons, it would not do to confine oneself to a particular individual at a particular moment under particular circumstances. On the basis of the observation of the generality of individuals within whole societies over the years, one would have to formulate the rules that govern baboon behavior in general—rules to which there might be exceptions, rules that might be broken down into subcategories of generalization. Out of the formulation of the general rules one derives, at last, a body of theory that is essential for the understanding of the way any baboon society may be expected to behave in this contingency or that. Such an understanding would provide the basis for an equally general theory of how to influence the behavior of a baboon society, or how to respond to it, where one’s own interests are involved. In a word, one has got to have a body of theory that is global, applying to the widest variety of situations. One has got to have it for the purpose of understanding, to begin with, and for the purpose of formulating policy on the basis of understanding.

Pericles, as Thucydides reports him, did have a sound theoretical understanding of relations among sovereign states, an understanding that he expounded in explaining his policy to the Athenians. He understood, for example, the centrality of the balance of power, which Athens had had the unwisdom to upset, and the relationship between sea power and land power. But, in the vacuum of responsible leadership that followed his death, Athenian policy was determined by the common mind of the mob, acting on whatever impulse was sweeping it at the moment, ungoverned by the intellectual discipline of long-range thinking based on a valid theoretical understanding of reality.

Thucydides laid the conceptual foundations for the theory of international relations that has since been elaborated, in this branch or that, by such theoreticians as Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Mahan, and Hans Morgenthau, as well as implicitly by the strategic concepts on which such statesmen as Talleyrand, Washington, and Bismarck based the policies for which they stood. But this kind of thinking, as opposed to ideological or Utopian thinking, has had no more appeal to the common mind in our modern democracies than it had to the common mind of the Athenians. (This applies almost equally to the populations of practitioners in the bureaucratic foreign offices of our day, who in their mass do not necessarily represent such distinction from the common mind as would impede any of them in their careers.)

I have just referred to ideological or Utopian thinking. The former is represented by Marxism, with its concept of conflict between classes as transcending conflict among nations. The latter is represented by the Wilsonian idealism to which my generation was brought up in the interwar period—a utopianism that, by facilitating the rise of the empires founded by Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese war lords, made its contribution to a world war that might surely have been averted by policies that gave first priority to the maintenance of the despised balance of power.

If aerodynamic theory does not correspond to reality, any airplane one builds on the basis of such theory is bound to crash—if it gets off the ground at all. And if the theory of international relations does not correspond to reality, as the Utopian theory of salvation by international law and organization alone did not, any practice of international relations that is based on it is also bound to lead to disaster.

All of us in the State Department a generation ago, whether we knew it or not, were severely handicapped in conducting the foreign relations of the United States because of the absence of any broad conceptual framework constituting a body of applicable theory. It is unimportant that I, myself, made the first of my several attempts to remedy this, when I escaped from the State Department to the University of Virginia, in a book called Civilization and Foreign Policy. What is more significant is the degree to which that brilliant Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, felt and consciously suffered from the inadequacy of a theoretical foundation in developing a new foreign policy for the United States after 1945. I here quote what this utterly practical man, with his vast and profound experience in the conduct of foreign relations, said in his introduction to my book. After remarking that, as a practical man dealing with practical problems, he had felt keenly the need of “an applicable body of theory,” he added: “everything conspires to press one into the episodic treatment—no beginning, no end; one problem, one subject at a time. One speech on Greece and Turkey; another on reciprocal trade agreements; another on the Far East or an aspect of it; still another on the Marshall Plan or NATO; and so on.” Hence the need for an applicable body of theory that ties all together in one comprehensive foreign policy—”an applicable body of theory which should be the test of action, but which in its development must itself be tested against experience.”


Where must one look for the development of an applicable body of theory?

The harassed men and women in government are too constantly engaged in the frantic business of dealing with the successive emergencies of every successive day to take the long and contemplative view that the development of theory requires. (About all they can contribute, although this should not be minimized, is an understanding of the limits of possibility in acting beyond the national jurisdiction, limits that the American public has always been disposed to overlook. ) Is it not obvious that for the development of theory one must look to the academic world? It is only we professors—happily detached from the daily emergency, from the episodic—who can consequently take the long view, who can adopt a truly historical perspective, who can see things whole.

If the academic world defaulted in this respect during the interwar period, it has in some degree made up for it since 1945. I have already mentioned the late Hans Morgenthau, who represented a reaction against the excessive utopianism of his time, just as Machiavelli represented a reaction against the excessive utopianism of the chivalric age. We may add to this citation the contribution of that brilliant group of academics who, beginning in the mid-1950’s, developed a whole body of theory applicable to the control of international conflict in the nuclear age. Four names are worth mentioning among others: Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohistetter, Thomas Schelling, and Henry Kissinger—all of them professors (for it was only after Kissinger had made his contribution to theory that he became a practitioner). It is to such pure academics as these that we owe the present-day theory of deterrence, which governs policy-making, not only in Washington but, I have no doubt, in Moscow as well. It is to these men, and others of their academic colleagues, that we owe, as well, the modern theory of limited war, which dominates policy-making in NATO and also, I hope, in the Warsaw Pact organization.

However, in spite of the notable contribution of these professors, there still remains, today, a vast work of theoretical construction to be done. There remains the work of developing a complete and applicable theory of international relations. Yet one has the impression that the remarkable academic creativity of the postwar period, to which I have just referred, has at last exhausted itself. There is so much that remains to be done, and that is not being done. There is a need to define comprehensively, but in the simple terms that are appropriate to its essential simplicity, the basic relationship between balance of power, stability, and peace—just that. And there is a crying need, today, to relate such a body of theory to the vast and frustrating struggle to achieve meaningful arms control.

I suspect that all this is being so widely neglected in the academic world because so many of my colleagues misconceive the role of the academic in the field of international relations. Many of them are excessively preoccupied with international relations as they present themselves close-up, from day to day—as they present themselves in the daily headlines. They are excessively preoccupied with the short view. They cultivate a journalistic rather than an historical perspective, the perspective of a daily columnist rather than that of a Gibbon, or a Thucydides, or a Tocqueville—or, to mention an historian whose recent death we have cause to mourn, of a Herbert Butterfield. Many of them are frustrated practitioners who would rather be advising the president on the crisis of the moment than addressing themselves to what shows up only in the long historical perspective. I think of one who gave a year’s course in “Carter’s Foreign Policy” that began almost immediately after President Carter’s assumption of office. I think of another who gave a course on the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the United States and the Soviet Union (SALT II), while those talks were going on in secret, without even bothering to give an account of SALT I or of the reasons why the SALT talks had been inaugurated at all.

The two professors I have cited were reflecting not only their own exclusive interest in the politics of the day. They were also responding to a like preoccupation of the students that has been especially marked since the student revolt of the late sixties, when so many of them raised the issue of “relevance.” In those days, what they wanted to discuss in class was the Vietnam War, then going on, not such ancient history as that of the Korean or the Peloponnesian War. One recalls how Huckleberry Finn lost interest in Miss Watson’s account of Moses when he discovered that Moses was no longer alive. (“So then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people.”)

In these extreme examples, the study of international relations becomes almost a running commentary on the day’s headlines, hardly to be distinguished from that of the political commentators in the newspapers or on radio and television. But the understanding of contemporary events depends on a perspective that embraces the long historical background, and a knowledge of the facts depends on the documentation that is not yet available. Any of us who had taught the Korean War in 1951 would have taught it quite wrong. On the basis of the common mind at the time, of what was common “knowledge,” we would surely have explained it as indicating, in President Truman’s words, “that communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war”; and we would have assumed that the Government of Mao Tse-tung had joined with Stalin’s Government in planning it. (To have taught anything different would have been to risk, probably to sacrifice, one’s career.)


The government in Washington is limited in its formulation of foreign policy and its conduct of international relations by the common mind, which, for the reasons we have seen, may be so wrong in its understanding of a reality beyond its direct knowledge and often at odds with the basic concepts that it takes for granted. Does not everything depend, in these circumstances, on raising the sophistication of the society as a whole to the highest possible level?

Surely this is the mission of the universities in the field of international relations: to develop realistic theory, and by the educational process to raise the level of understanding of the society as a whole. It is infinitely more important for us professors to fulfill this mission than to attempt to tell the president how he should solve the problem of the displaced Palestinians or whether he should supply arms to Pakistan.

No doubt the kind of thing I am calling for requires a creativity, a capacity for creative and original thinking, with which most of us professors are not endowed. It requires, more specificially, the ability to synthesize in the largest terms, the ability to put together the bits and pieces of experience into large conceptual structures. It requires vision, the ability to see things whole rather than in the episodic or fragmented terms of which Acheson complained. We cannot all of us constitute ourselves latter-day Thucydideses, or Hobbeses, or Tocquevilles. But what we can do is to provide an open intellectual environment that is hospitable to the kind of creativity they represented. We can provide an academic environment that does not insist on conformity to “what we all say.” We can provide an academic environment that does not insist on identifying scholarship exclusively with the process of analysis, the process of taking things apart rather than putting them together. We can provide an academic environment that does not impose a universe of narrow and petty discourse, that does not impose a stultifying technical jargon as a straitjacket on the exercise of the mind. We can provide an environment that does not, in medieval fashion, impose an artificial and sterile scholasticism.

We live, on the whole, more dangerously in our time than ever before in the history of mankind. We are agreed that we must meet these dangers through democratic procedures in the determination of foreign policy, although history has given us at least one classic example of how such procedures can lead to disaster.

We face today, in whatever degree, the same danger that brought about the unnecessary downfall of Athens. If we are to be saved from it, that salvation must come, in the first place, not from foreign offices but from the universities. What greater work is there to be done in the world? What greater mission can there be than this?


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