History offers a means of explaining and understanding how the world around us has taken shape. However, it also reminds us of how today’s world is defined by a process of constant change. Ultimately, the study of history is essential for understanding the past and the present, but also for envisioning the future.
Dr. Jessica Fowler received her Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Davis. Her research focuses on the Spanish Empire in the Early Modern World. She currently holds a post-doctoral position at the National Research Council of Spain (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) where she works for a project funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant, which studies religious conversion during the Early Modern period.
“Why History Matters to International Relations”
The study of History offers students of International Relations the opportunity to critically analyze and reflect on the immense complexity of the past—including numerous agents, contingencies, and many unexpected consequences—and how all of these created the modern world as we know it today. Understanding that our modern world is the product of historical processes that continue to this day ensures that not only do students gain a better comprehension of how the past has led to the present, but also provides them with the opportunity to consider the possible futures that they are moving towards based on the present.
It is impossible to fully comprehend how states interact with each other today without understanding the histories that have led these particular nation-states to the present. Even the most seemingly fundamental characteristics of states today, their political boundaries, are the products of historical developments that can reach back decades, centuries, or even longer. What today we most often encounter as static and fixed lines on a map are actually only the current state of dynamic historical processes that have included war, peace, negotiation, colonialism, and exchange—all interactions that continue to this day.Furthermore, these seemingly simple lines that mark the frontiers of nation-states today also offer information related to much more complex ideas such as national identity, about who in the past was deemed worthy of inclusion and those who were believed to only warrant exclusion. The confines of nation-states that we see on maps as definitive are actually dynamic and evolving historical entities which, in various moments in the past, were far from foregone conclusions. Maps of political boundaries are often taken for granted as facts when, in reality, they are artifacts that are the result of historical processes. Recognizing this historical evolution reminds us that the lines we find on maps today are far from static and that just as they were constructed during various historical moments in the past, they may yet be reconstructed and redrawn in the future.
Even the nation-state itself, a concept fundamental to the study of International Relations, has a history. The nation-state is actually a very modern way of governing polities and without critically considering the evolution of this form of political administration it is difficult to understand why it has become the de facto means of organization around the world today but also, what challenges it could face in our rapidly changing world. Failing to grapple with the methods of organizing territories before the nation-state means overlooking millennia of other possibilities and limiting our ability to fathom alternative means of governance, or any future, with different political organizations than our present.
The study of History offers students of International Relations a window onto the evolution and development of the modern world that emphasizes agency, contingency, complexity, and often, unintended consequences. As a field of study, History provides a means of explaining and understanding how the world that we see around us taken shape. However, it also reminds us that today’s world is immersed in the process of constant change and that just as the present looks very different from the past, so too may the future look very different from the present. Ultimately, the study of History is critical for understanding the past and the present,but also for envisioning the future.