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World War’s legacy

To fully understand World War I’s legacy we must first paint a picture of IR thought through the ages. Doing so produces a triptych, its three images separated by the first and second world wars. In the first image, all will recognize the classical thinkers on the causes and conduct of war: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Machiavelli, and Clausewitz, among others. Most will also recognize that these thinkers occupy the same role in political science played by Aristotle, da Vinci, and Newton in current science. Perhaps fewer notice that these authors were either practitioners or historians. Our second image captures fewer familiar faces, a smattering of geopoliticians and proto-theorists: A.T. Mahan, Halford Mackinder, Friedrich Meinecke, Otto Hintze, Carl Schmitt, and E.H. Carr. Although many of these authors are still quoted, only Carr and Schmitt remain widely read. The final image marks a return to the recognizable, with the discipline’s leading theorists seated comfortably in their academic chairs: Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arnold Wolfers, Kenneth Waltz, Thomas Schelling, Robert Gilpin, Robert Keohane, John Mearsheimer, and James Fearon.4

The divisions in our painting reflect obvious changes in the division of labor. Even in the marketplace of ideas, the extent of the market determines the degree of specialization. Over time the world grew in population, wealth, and complexity, and the discipline responded in kind. Herodotus’s work had to be nearly all things to all people. This is no longer practical or possible with increased competition and attention. Even Waltz’s magnum opus, Theory of International Politics, restricted itself to an abstract theory of long-term, great power, systemic outcomes.