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

By Williams, Robert E., Jr. | Ethics & International Affairs, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Williams, Robert E., Jr., Ethics & International Affairs


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.

doi: 10.1017/S0892679412000366

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, lack 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. …

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