Conference Reports August 30, 2023

Discussing the History of International Orders: A Workshop Report



This workshop took place on May 11-12, 2023. It was hosted and organized by the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

This workshop on the history of international order was organized in response to on-going academic, public, and policy discussions about the state of the current international order, often described as an American, liberal, or rules-based order. These discussions became more active in the post-Cold War and more urgent in response to perceived challenges, such as the cybersphere, climate change, and growing inequality that create ‘disorder’, as well as to developments like the rise of China and American disengagement that threaten the existing order. Using historical evidence, pundits, officials, and scholars offer insights, develop plans, and make predictions to support a world that is stable, peaceful, equitable and prosperous. And yet historians themselves are rarely involved in these discussions. This is puzzling as historians have been writing about international order for a long time. Dan Gorman and Francine McKenzie organized the workshop to take stock of this historical research and to consider how to inject historical perspective and information into discussions about international order. 

Below is a summary of our discussions at the workshop held at the University of Waterloo. We used the international ordering conferences that took place in Vienna in 1814-1815, Paris in 1919 and San Francisco in 1945 as points of departure. We discussed fundamental questions about the creation, workings, and purpose of international orders and we tried to integrate our different areas of expertise to develop a long durée perspective and global framing of the history of international order. The discussions were open-ended, messy, and productive, confirming that this history remains rich in interpretive possibilities, especially when we interrogate existing narratives, read other disciplines, and work collaboratively.

Written by Francine McKenzie (Western University) and Justin Dell (Balsillie School of International Affairs), edited by Cindy Ewing (University of Toronto)

Ely Culbertson. "Summary of a World Federation Plan: An Outline of a Practical and Detailed Plan for World Settlement, 1943". Pg. 48

Participant Bios:

Serena Acerbi, Graduate in International Relations, Western University, is studying Indigenous approaches to education.

Justin Dell, Rapporteur and Doctoral candidate, Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo, works on global governance and human security.

Caroline Dunton, Research Associate, Centre for International Policy Studies, University of Ottawa, works on Canadian foreign policy and international organizations.

Andrew Ehrhardt, Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, works on British diplomatic and intellectual history in the first half of the 20th century.

Cindy Ewing, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Toronto, works on histories of rights, decolonization, and the Cold War in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Dan Gorman, Professor of History, University of Waterloo, works on the British Empire and global governance.

Samuel Helfont, Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy in the Naval War College Program at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey California, works on international and Middle Eastern history.

Eric Helleiner, Professor, University of Waterloo, works on the history of political economy and international political economy.

Talbot Imlay, Professor, Laval University, works on the interwar origins of post-1945 U.S. thinking about international politics.

Peter Jackson, Professor and Chair in Global Security, University of Glasgow, works on French history, intelligence and security studies.

Sakiko Kaiga, Associate Professor, Hiroshima University, works on the League of Nations, international law, and democracy.

Jamie Martin, Assistant Professor, Harvard University, works on international political economy and empire.

Francine McKenzie, Professor, Western University, works on international institutions, international trade, the (British) Commonwealth and Canada in the world.

Alanna O’Malley, Associate Professor, Leiden University, works on invisible histories of the United Nations, African history, and decolonization.

Megan Saito, Graduate in International Relations, Western University, is studying international security.

Glenda Sluga, Professor, European University Institute, works on capitalism, 20th century international economic thought, and global history.

Tiziana Stella, Executive Director, The Streit Council, works on international order and organization, world federalism, and US foreign policy.

Lydia Walker,  Assistant Professor and Myers Chair in Global Military History, The Ohio State University, works on postwar decolonization, insurgency, and international intervention.

David Webster, Associate Professor, Bishop’s University, works on trans-Pacific relations between Canada and Asia, independence movements in Indonesia and Timor-Leste, and international technical cooperation.

Thinking Historically about Ordering Moments  

The Congress of Vienna 1814-1815, the Paris Peace Conference 1919, and the San Francisco Conference 1945 were deliberate ordering moments that can be re-imagined as spaces in which international orders were negotiated and produced. The workshop participants agreed on the importance of asking of these moments who was ordering and who benefitted from the order. The discussion affirmed that orders are hierarchical and many believed that the participation of powerful actors was necessary to make orders, but this is not the end point of our historical analyses. Instead, there was a shared view that historicizing these moments should make room for a full consideration of the gender implications involved in these historically-situated ordering processes. Understanding the institutions, bureaucracies and issues populating the “international” is essential to understanding the workings and purpose of orders.

These historical moments of order-making also need to be contextualized in a longer process of incremental change and evolution. We might be putting too much stock in debates about the agency of national and international actors and not paying enough attention to the animating influences of decentralized forces like capitalism, imperialism, and technological development, which do not fit the mold of agents of international ordering as they are usually conceived. It is also important to look beyond powerful states and adopt a bottom-up perspective which allows us to trace the process of “worldmaking”. Furthermore, the orders that emerged from Vienna, Paris and San Francisco had limits and existed among other geopolitical orders. For example, people in Asia, by and large, were not aware of, or at least not meaningfully affected by, European developments at the Congress of Vienna. There have been regional orders and issue-specific orders. Multiple orders have existed concurrently all over the world and many had universal aspirations. Finally, ordering moments do not account for developments moving forward: orders move, evolve, are contested, and, within limits, change. Ordering is dynamic and on-going; in other words, it is always historical.

Participants discussed whether 1814-1815, 1919 and 1945 were linked, continuous or discrete moments. Imperialism seems to have been one of the pivotal mechanisms that transformed the European continental order into a global regime. Few historical actors participated in more than one of these three processes of negotiation (although there were some like Jan Smuts and W. E. B. Du Bois), but there were common interests and concerns that carried across time and space. Consider, as an example, the different envoys of the anti-colonial cause who appeared in 1919 and 1945. Moreover, the designers of these systems seemed to grasp that they were taking part in moments of creation, and they often thought historically – they looked to the past for guidance about what they had got right and wrong. Glenda Sluga’s work on the Congress of Vienna explained some of the ways in which the later practice of international diplomacy and ordering were evident in 1814-15.[1] For instance, non-state actors played a critical role in those negotiations, just as they did in the twentieth century, although with varying levels of legitimacy and capacity. These three ordering moments also seemed connected by the logics of colonialism, racism, and capitalism. 

Wars, and peacemaking, have been essential in the creation of orders as well as the transition from one order to the next; it is not coincidental that the negotiations of 1814-1815, 1919, and 1945 all took place in the immediate aftermath of wars of world-historical significance which goes far in explaining why states opted into international orders. We discussed, without agreement, whether these orders were fundamentally about security.

Is a longue durée framing of the history of international order productive? The seminal moments that have defined the periodization of the history of international orders are, in fact, arguments, not givens. As a thought experiment, we considered other relevant dates in the history of international order and how these complicate, extend or limit arguments and beliefs about international order. Take 1885: in that year Indochina was incorporated into the French Empire, the Congress of Berlin laid out rules that enabled European colonial powers to stake claims across Africa, the Indian Congress party was established, and the Northwest resistance (Second Riel Rebellion) was waged. 1885 could stand in company with 1815, 1919 and 1945. And so could many other dates. While moments marking the start of a new international order are normally used as historical landmarks, one could just as easily appeal to the unraveling of an established order to deepen our understanding of the history of orders. Do international orders die? If so, how? There are other ways to conceive of time, including thinking in terms of cycles. Even in the West, it was pointed out, there is a historiographical tradition inherited from classical antiquity of seeing political order not as the inexorable march of progress but as the repeated saga of the rise, decline, and fall of an established order.

Although our purpose was to discuss international orders, we considered how the process of nation-building took place in tandem with international organization and defined developments in political culture at the international level. Participants flagged the work of Charles Maier and Arno Mayer on the association between international policymaking and the domestic needs of states.[2] The co-existence and intersection of the international and the national does not just reflect the agency of state governments in the development of international organizations, but also the power of sub-national groups, such as unions and political parties, to make their influence felt transnationally.

The spirit of Paul Schroeder was evident when we discussed the legitimacy of orders.[3] Scholars like John Ikenberry have asked why states, including the dominant actors in international orders, submitted to the rules of those orders. A benign hegemon figures centrally in his work on the post-1945 international order.[4] Our discussions explored different possibilities. Some of the buy-in into international order was the product of violence or colonial coercion. At the same time, colonial subjects cannot be reduced to passive victims of this process; they sometimes reformed and subverted these rules to their own advantage. Hannah Arendt’s concept of promise-making which shaped expectations seemed to be a promising way to explain consent.

The discussion circled back to the basic, but confounding, question of defining order. One participant advised historians not to get bogged down in definitional debates, agree to disagree, and enrich the field with deep and detailed historical insights and information. Thinking historically about international order and injecting historical information into broader discussions about international order is important, but there was widespread agreement that historians should explain what they mean by order even if we do not use a common definition.

Post-1945 International Order

In our discussion of the San Francisco conference and the post-1945 international order, no one questioned the importance of the United States in the creation of this order, but the degree to which it has remained invested in that system since its inception suggests that hegemons do not sustain orders. Some participants urged the necessity of an historical perspective that de-centres the United States. For example, global advances in human rights marched ahead without American leadership or support. Moving away from a focus on the United States as the principal player in the history of the postwar international order creates space for other actors and nations to be included meaningfully in the creation, maintenance, and reform of international order. 

Indeed, global South actors played an important part in order-making in 1945. Some participants noted that their roles are sometimes invisible because they have been obscured in historical accounts, but they were consequential and influential in San Francisco. Global South actors contributed to the articulation of norms and goals which supported the independence of colonies. However, decolonization also elicited tension between the putative universalism of the postwar order and the norm of national sovereignty reserved for each state in the new global community. The universal ideals promulgated in 1945 supported continued infringements on the sovereignty of postcolonial states. Even the championing of individual rights in the postwar human rights regime, in a conscious turn away from group rights that characterized the interwar period, were interpreted by some participants as a surreptitious means by which former colonial powers neutralized their culpability and evaded responsibility for crimes they had committed against entire groups of people in the name of imperialism.  

Participants were wary of assuming too much intentional design in 1945 (and in the other ordering moments) or of accepting the declared purpose of the order. The commitment to the lofty propositions in the Atlantic Charter arose over the course of the war to justify the war and motivate belligerent nations to keep fighting. War aims served a political purpose and their realization was aspirational. The disjuncture between American postwar planning and subsequent global developments in the second half of the twentieth century might explain why there was often a seeming disconnect between the United States and the international system. Despite the existence of conscious and deliberate order-making, moving forward there have been unintended and profound consequences that could be destabilizing or evolutionary and that challenged the configuration, logic, and use of the international order.

History and Public Policy

This workshop was prompted by a perceived deficit in histories about international order and public policy. Historians have contributed to arenas of policymaking in the past: for example, Chatham House’s Working Group on Global Order in the 1930s was dominated by historians, including Arnold Toynbee. These scholars generated ideas for the British Foreign Office. Bureaucrats were often skeptical of, or indifferent to, their input, but over time they appreciated seeing historical patterns which helped them to anticipate future developments (or so they thought).

Today, British foreign policy officials are preoccupied by the possibility that the world is in the midst of another moment of transition – or “strategic reset” – and have commissioned historians to examine case studies of similar strategic resets in the past in order to draw generally applicable conclusions from them. Having the ear of policymakers gave these historians the opportunity to direct their thinking to the questions of what international orders are and what they should be, assisting them in their visualization of the future.

Participants with firsthand experience in public policy discussed their experiences and offered some reflections. There was general agreement that historians do not find it easy to relate their research findings to public policy, certainly it seems to be more difficult than for other social scientists. Political scientists, for example, work with models, and the predictive promise appeals to policymakers. Participants did not believe this explanation let them off the hook; they argued that historians need to be willing and available to engage with public policy in various forms, such as offering expert testimony.

Participants also noted that the problem isn’t exactly a history deficit. People and policymakers invoke history all the time. History is regularly instrumentalized in the service to a predetermined outcome. However, some participants noted that this might not constitute the abuse of history. One participant referred to the concept of the “horizon of expectations” to suggest that the resonance or relevance of the past is determined by one’s experience and personal frame of reference.[5] The meaning of history is refracted through contemporary hopes and fears. For example, the Brexit campaign marshaled history in a manner that had little relevance to the way the world worked in 2016, but that nonetheless resonated with many Britons.

Although historians might not have the actionable answers policymakers are looking for, it was agreed that they can usefully inject doubt into policy deliberations. Historians are comfortable with messiness, and their knowledge of life’s complexity puts them in a position to challenge the models in which policymakers might place wishful or misguided faith. Historians can reconstruct paths not taken at historical junctures and help policymakers avoid path dependency. The historian Johan Huizinga’s concept of the aesthetic of history captures the capacity of historians to use imagination to conceptualize the path not taken, what might have been, and to suggest possible alternatives to what transpired.[6] Storytelling provides the historian with a tool to cultivate understanding that is lost in the dependent and independent variables of a scientific model.  

Concluding Thoughts

The discussion was productive and open-ended. It confirmed that established explanations of international order are not definitive and are, in fact, exclusionary; the complexity or “messiness” of historical research and thinking is enriching, destabilizing and productive; the spatial and temporal markers of international orders can usefully be reimagined; historically-informed public policy will be better public policy; historical experts do not monopolize how people and policymakers make sense of the past; finally, our individual subjectivity and formative personal experiences, affected how we think about international order and what we believe are watershed moments in the history of the postwar international order. 



[1] Glenda Sluga, The invention of international order: remaking Europe after Napoleon (2021)

[2] Charles Maier, Recasting Bourgeois Europe: stabilization in France, Germany and Italy in the decade after World War I (1975) and Arno Mayer, Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918-1919 (1967)

[3] See, for example, Paul W. Schroeder, The transformation of European politics, 1763-1848 (1994) and Paul W. Schroeder, David Wetzel, Robert Jervis and Jack S. Levy, Systems, stability and statecraft: essays on the international history of modern Europe (2004).

[4] G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (2009)

[5] See Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (2004).

[6] For example, see Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1919).

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