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date: 23 February 2018

The British Committee on the Theory of International Politics and Central Figures in the English School

Summary and Keywords

Considerations of the English School and of its central concept—international society—have all too often neglected the most logical starting point: the internal history of the British Committee. The British Committee on the Theory of International Politics was a group of scholars created in 1959 under the chairmanship of the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield that met periodically in Cambridge, Oxford, London, and Brighton to discuss the principal problems and a range of aspects of the theory and history of international relations. The British Committee stands out as a remarkable and unusual intellectual project. A product of its place and time and of a particular academic culture, it did not pretend to represent the full range of British thinking. Its membership intentionally omitted such major figures as E.H. Carr and C.A.W. Manning. Whatever direct influence it had on contemporary British scholarship in international relations can be attributed partly to bonds of friendship, across generations, and to the performances of individual members in the lecture hall. Though the Committee incubated a good deal of its members’ work, sometimes published posthumously, its collaborative output was never prolific. Only two collective works can be attributed to it: Diplomatic Investigations (1966) and The Expansion of International Society (1984). However, the Committee developed a thorough study of international society and the nature of world politics, which has had an important impact that continues in the present day.

Keywords: British Committee on the Theory of International Politics, English School, Herbert Butterfield, E.H. Carr, C.A.W. Manning, international relations, Diplomatic Investigations, The Expansion of International Society


Early in 1956 Hans Morgenthau wrote to Martin Wight, complimenting him on his recent BBC Radio lecture on war and inquiring whether the younger English scholar might take his place for one or two quarters at the University of Chicago while he took a visiting appointment elsewhere. At that point in his career Wight had no particular profile in the United States in the field of international relations. Alongside Power Politics (1946), Wight had published three other slim volumes on British colonial affairs, essays on scattered subjects in world affairs, theology, and historiography, a long list of book reviews, and some fascinating commentary in Volume VII of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. He had done some early reportage from the United Nations. Though he had held a readership in international relations at the London School of Economics since 1949, he had not shaken – nor would he – his skepticism about the subject itself.

In any case Wight sent Morgenthau a prompt, positive reply. He arrived in Chicago in September as a visiting professor with a salary and travel allowance subsidized by Kenneth Thompson at the Rockefeller Foundation. He stayed through the following March. It was here, and not at the London School of Economics (LSE), that he gave the first version of the lectures organized around his famous “three traditions” (Wight 1991). Whatever his reservations about the new social science that found some of its foremost adherents at Chicago, resulting in pitched academic battles, he evidently made an impression on his colleagues. In May 1957 Wight declined the repeated offer of an ongoing appointment, despite his “affection and loyalty for Chicago,” since, he explained, he was tentatively committed to a Chair at the Australian National University – the more “rational choice.” By October, the department, having heard reports that he was not going to Canberra after all, offered him a professorship with full tenure. Wight, unfailingly polite, again declined, this time on the grounds that the LSE had reduced his teaching in order to allow him to organize his work to best advantage (MW Papers, 233/103). He would stay until his appointment as Dean of European Studies at the new University of Sussex in 1961.

From the archived exchange of cables and handwritten notes, it is impossible to tell how close Wight came to a career at Chicago. The point in leading with this what-if story is not to link him intellectually to Morgenthau and his circle of postwar realists – his position, if anything, leaned toward a critical coolness (Epp 1996) – but rather to inject a dash of contingency into the standard disciplinary self-narratives about “American” and “British” approaches to international politics. If Wight had gone to the United States, even Australia for that matter, it is hard to imagine, depending on one's account of origins, that there would now be a so-called “English School.” Certainly there would have been no British Committee on the Theory of International Politics. While the Committee was built with modest Rockefeller Foundation funding from the US, on the strength of Thompson's relationship with the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield – who himself was finally persuaded in 1958 that “England needed…some more structural thinking in international politics,” if not a new academic specialization – Wight was its intellectual force. His willingness to participate in the proposed venture was crucial to Butterfield, who recalled later that his “great ambition” as chair was to “meet the ideals and aspirations of Martin Wight in particular” (1975:5–6). He was given a decisive hand in shaping what was an idiosyncratic, decidedly non-specialist Committee: several historians, a Foreign Office diplomat, a theologian-philosopher. He was then instrumental in enlisting Hedley Bull, a young Australian colleague at the LSE, who would throw down the methodological gauntlet with his “Case for a Classical Approach” in the journal World Politics (1966). Wight, not least, co-edited and wrote the two most enduring essays in the volume Diplomatic Investigations (1966), a slow distillation of papers circulated within the Committee since 1959, and was still managing the minutiae of dividing a small but unexpected royalty windfall among its authors on a precise per-page formula near the time of his death in 1972 (MW Papers, 233/43).

Diplomatic Investigations, along with Bull's broadside in the same year, did help solidify even within the Committee a self-conscious sense of representing an intellectual approach at odds with what Butterfield (1975) later called the “extravagant scientism” around which a discipline had begun to congeal, especially but not exclusively in the US. In their preface, which Wight essentially wrote, the co-editors signaled a discomfort even with the reference to “international theory” – though accounts differ as to whether the name was chosen or assigned to the Committee by its sponsor. The phrase, they explained, was “without wide currency or clear meaning in this country. The group took it to cover enquiry [my emphasis] into the nature of the international state-system, the assumptions and ideas of diplomacy, the principles of foreign policy, the ethics of international relations and war” (Butterfield and Wight 1966:11–13). The book conceded no separation and relegation to inferior status of “normative” theory. Its enquiries, or “investigations,” ranged from natural law, Western values, and what Bull called the Grotian conception of international society to the cultural emergence of the idea of the balance of power by extension of Newton's physics of equilibrium. The book contained more references respectively to Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Montesquieu than to Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Castro. The editors observed modestly that the “connoisseur of national styles may notice” the contrasts between Diplomatic Investigations and the parallel book generated in the US under Rockefeller sponsorship (Fox 1959), which, they recognized, was itself “traditional compared with the flourishing contemporary school…of systems analysis.” The Committee, they said, had been more concerned in its work with the historical and philosophical than with the scientific, the methodological, and the contemporary. For its members were unable to “forget that foreign affairs and international relations… are in themselves not a closed theoretical system. They are the political region pre-eminently of the contingent and the unforeseen” (Butterfield and Wight 1966:11–13).

Though the editors claimed a divergence of “national styles,” the book generated a divide that was not so much oceanic as it was theoretical and methodological. Diplomatic Investigations, in fact, was rejected by the editors’ preferred British publisher, Cambridge University Press, on the weight of what the principals suspected was a hostile review from John Burton, whose own work was more sympathetic to the new social science (MW Papers, 233/43; Burton 1965; 1977) or else from F.H. Hinsley, a historian who had not been invited to join the Committee (Dunne 1998). The LSE had just hired Michael Banks, who was “impatient” with “classicism” (Northedge 2003:6) and who would become a close collaborator with Burton. Indeed, there would have been more than a little sympathy in the LSE's corridors for Morton Kaplan’s sharply critical review in the Journal of International Affairs. Kaplan, who had been a prime target of Bull's polemic, dismissed Diplomatic Investigations as “nothing more than what many Americans would regard as the ‘don's game’ – polite conversation interspersed with a profusion of pretentious, and often misused, references.” Its authors, he added, “have no comprehension of the obscurity of their offerings” (1967:308–9). At the same time, the book's most spirited defense came from Morgenthau – in an American journal. He urged teachers of international relations to set the insights in Wight's two essays alone “against the theoretical propositions of any number of volumes on behaviourism, systems analysis, game theory, decision-making, and so forth” (1967:462). Meanwhile Bull wrote to Wight: “How very satisfactory that we are selling well in America” (MW Papers, 233/43).

By now, a generation of students has been taught to leave the controversies of that period safely in a box labeled “the second great debate” in international relations theory. My interest here is not in rehearsing or refighting old battles. Rather, it is to temper at the outset the tendency to recollect the work of the British Committee in a way that lapses too comfortably into fixed national caricatures. This is a challenge that, if anything, has grown more difficult because of the recent rise within the discipline of the English School – an imprecise but upscale academic brand label for a heterodox subset of scholars who wish to distinguish their work from the social-scientific, quantitative “American” mainstream and who, in doing so, typically claim some lineage to Wight and/or Bull. The point is that if there was, as Butterfield (1975) later claimed, an “English way,” it did not arise spontaneously in 1959 or exist intact in 1966; it needed to be asserted. Put another way, it was very much historically constructed (Brown 2001; Linklater and Suganami 2006:5).

The focus of this essay is more narrowly the Committee itself, independent of claims about the English School. A half-century after its formation, and a quarter-century after its last iteration was dissolved, the Committee stands out as a remarkable and unusual intellectual project. While it was unmistakably a product of its place and time, of a particular academic culture and of the diminished rewards, next to those in Washington, of offering advice to policy makers, it did not pretend to represent the full range of British thinking. Its membership, quite intentionally, omitted such major figures as E.H. Carr and C.A.W. Manning. Whatever direct influence it had at the time on British scholarship in international relations – since it failed to register on citation indices and reading lists in the US (Finnegan and Giles 1975) – can be attributed partly to the bonds of friendship it helped to nurture across generations of scholars and to the command performances of individuals such as Wight in the lecture hall (Bell 1989; Dunne 1998:6–7; Epp 1998; Hall 2006:13–14; Porter 2007). Though the Committee incubated a good deal of its members’ work, sometimes published posthumously, its collaborative output was never prolific – a matter of periodic hand-wringing as well as apology to the Rockefeller Foundation sponsors in the early years. Its meeting files are filled with unpublished papers and the notes for collective projects, but only one other multi-authored book can be attributed to it: The Expansion of International Society (Bull and Watson 1984). From the vantage point of 1959, or even 1979, the Committee's enduring impact – enough to merit treatment in a major disciplinary compendium – might be regarded with surprise. For that impact was never a sure thing; and any satisfactory account of it cannot rest on the presumed home-side advantage of having somehow stood for Britain in an epic, transatlantic epistemological match.


The story of the British Committee is arguably more familiar than it was a decade ago, thanks to two recent and valuable book-length appraisals (Dunne 1998; Vigezzi 2005), as well as intellectual biographies of its leading figures (e.g., McIntire 2004; Hall 2006; Schweitzer and Sharp 2007). The Committee was convened formally for the first time in April 1959 at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where Butterfield was Master. He became vice-chancellor of the university that same year. For nearly a decade he would preside as both chair and scribe at the Committee's periodic long-weekend meetings, mostly conducted at his dining table, where papers circulated in advance would be discussed. Butterfield, suspicious of LSE influence for reasons that are not entirely clear, had insisted on the Cambridge location even though the university had no equivalent department, just as he had insisted on Wight rather than Manning, Wight's more senior LSE colleague (Dunne 1998; McIntire 2004). The other initial members were Desmond Williams, Butterfield's former student, who worked primarily in modern Irish history (e.g., Williams 1966); and theologian-philosopher Donald MacKinnon, Aberdeen, a long-time acquaintance of Wight's. Within the first year the group had grown to include historian Michael Howard, whose study of the Franco-Prussian conflict (1962) would be followed by broader studies on the place of war – and peace – in European history and in liberal thought (e.g., Howard 1976; 1978); historian Geoffrey Hudson, a specialist in Asia–Western relations; diplomat Adam Watson, soon to be the ambassador to Cuba; civil servant William Armstrong from the Treasury; and Bull. They constituted, in Dunne's words (1998:94) a “close-knit community of scholars who were almost as interested in the occasion as the content of the papers.” The selections appear to have been made on the basis of at least three considerations: first, congeniality; second, a concern to balance particular perspectives and personalities; and third, some clear limits set at the outset by the chair – that is, to exclude “social scientists, purely diplomatic historians, and those having only contemporary politics as their focus” (McIntire 2004:307).

Butterfield was the senior member of a group that was, in general, much younger than its high-profile American counterpart had been. He had made his name as an historian with The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), a polemic against the prevailing progressivist currents in the field. In addition to an ongoing interest in historiography, he had written on subjects that ranged from Machiavelli to the Brontë sisters, from eighteenth-century statecraft to The Origins of Modern Science (1949), before he was drawn reluctantly into the postwar public spotlight with a series of lectures that became Christianity and History (1949). In his case the label of Christian realist was close to the mark, but only so long as the tension between the two descriptors is fully appreciated. The realist in him inveighed, as did Morgenthau, against moralism in foreign policy, especially in the conduct of relations with the Soviet Union. His account of the psychology of “Hobbesian fear” (Butterfield 1949a; 1951) became what is better known as the “security dilemma” in the hands of John Herz (1959). The Christian sometimes spoke in terms of love, not just self-restraint in diplomacy, as a counter to the worst of human nature, and by the late 1950s scandalized many of his erstwhile supporters in the US not just by joining a scholarly delegation to Moscow, but also by advocating what amounted to unilateral nuclear disarmament (e.g., Butterfield 1960: ch. 4; also Epp 1991; cf. Navari 1996; Hall 2002; Sharp 2003; McIntire 2004; Schweitzer and Sharp 2007). The subject of his public lectures and his sometimes conflicting positions may account, in part, for the tendency for Butterfield to be “written out of the story,” wrongly, Sharp (2003) argues, as someone whose intellectual contribution to the Committee and the field in general was modest at best.

MacKinnon was the only other member, alongside Hudson, who might be said to have been well established in his career in 1959, though his place in international relations theory is even more tenuous. MacKinnon held the Regius Chair of Moral Philosophy at Aberdeen, which he left in 1960 for a chair of divinity at Cambridge, where he wrote a series of books on metaphysics, ethics, and theology, very much in sophisticated conversation with contemporary philosophical currents (e.g., MacKinnon 1957; 1963; 1968). He developed a particular ethical interest in the ancient Greek sense of the tragic. He is considered in some circles as one of the leading British theologians of the past century (e.g., Surin 2004). He was also a prominent public critic of nuclear weapons during the 1950s. While he presented a large number of papers to the Committee in its early years, on topics such as natural law, free will and determinism, and the philosophy of history, there is a sense in which his preoccupations did not ever fully engage other members. The possible exception was Wight, his old Oxford friend, who acknowledged after one meeting that MacKinnon's “tutorial” on Plato did not receive “the usual respect” and complained that Butterfield “abdicated the chairmanship, as he too frequently does, I fear, and was reading the New Statesman and Nation” (MW Papers, 233/59).

The most notable omission from the Committee was that of Carr. He apparently had turned down his own offer from Thompson – his Twenty Years’ Crisis being the one British book on international relations that was widely read by US scholars, at least until the mathematician Lewis Richardson’s Statistics of Deadly Quarrels. The prospect of his membership, however, was raised by MacKinnon among others within the Committee. Butterfield had professional and personal reservations about Carr, which seem to have been mutual, though early on he referred the question to Wight in a confidential note. As a book reviewer, Wight had been sharply critical of Carr in the early 1950s, claiming he had “no views on the irreducible values of our civilization” and that his work was bereft of the moral resources required to resist evil (Wight 1951; also Wight 1946b). On this occasion he gave a more measured reply. While he personally would welcome Carr's inclusion, he wrote, “he is himself so much a Great Power that…he might deflect our discussions into channels opened up by his own work…before we have established our own line of inquiry” (quoted in Vigezzi 2005:356). It is not clear, of course, whether Carr, whose interests had also evolved away from academic international relations, would have accepted an invitation from such a club even if it had been ready to accept him as a member.

The Committee leadership's cautious approach to membership, however, should not be mistaken for internal uniformity of intellectual-political positions. When Butterfield in a September 1959 discussion, as his notes record, reiterated the view that the Committee “should try to go deeper in its analysis and move in the direction of fundamental principles” – including, Wight added, ethical principles and a sense of historical perspective (BCTIP Papers, Box 5) – he was not simply helping to initiate new members. The discussion appears to have been prompted at least partly by the question of whether something so bracingly topical as the hydrogen bomb should be on the Committee's agenda. Not only did the ethics of nuclear weaponry effectively become the main subject of the next meeting, provoked by MacKinnon's allusions to Hiroshima in a paper on natural law; the preponderant view within the Committee was critical. The defense was left largely to Michael Howard, since Bull had not yet joined with his interest in strategic studies and the “control” of the arms race (Bull 1961). Howard appealed to common sense about “the world in which we have to live.” He later developed this argument in an essay in Diplomatic Investigations on the “problems of a disarmed world” – the proof of serious discussion inside the Committee and in the public square of the unilateralist option. In response, MacKinnon stressed that the development of nuclear weapons was a matter of human choice, not necessity, and that “we have to decide that there is a point beyond which man shall not pass.” He proposed further work both on the “idea of a limit” and on freedom and necessity in statecraft. Butterfield, meanwhile, expressed his doubts that even the deterrent use of nuclear weapons in a way that targeted populations could be reconciled “with anything I see in the New Testament” (BCTIP Papers, Box 5). The record shows that Wight, the wartime conscientious objector who had endorsed critical church positions on the bomb in the early 1950s, was more circumspect. He was less certain that the world had changed so fundamentally. And, in a paper he presented to the group in 1961, he sought out a middle-ground position that upheld “the validity of the ethical in the realm of politics” – a prudent, restrained, imaginative statecraft that diminished the need for people to exercise the kind of “dramatic moral veto” that was always held in reserve (Wight 1966b:128), and toward which Butterfield and MacKinnon were inclined under the darkening nuclear shadow.

The Committee's intellectual agenda was established largely in papers presented between 1959 and 1961. Wight led off in April 1959 with the intentionally provocative paper: “Why is there no international theory?” By that, he meant there was no “tradition of speculation,” no great canon, only scattered, unsystematic writings about the relations between states that was the equivalent of political theory's account of the state and the obligations of individuals to it (Wight 1966a). The reasons for this, he proposed, were at least twofold. One was the “intellectual prejudice” – that is, the limited moral and political horizon – “imposed by the sovereign state.” This, it bears mention, is the point that registered most with members of the Committee. The second reason was the prevailing belief in progress, which was confounded regularly by the problematic character of international relations – the realm of “repetition and recurrence” more than linear improvement, and the theory of which, as a result, was more likely to concern “survival” than the “good life.”

For some time, Wight's essay has generated what one imaginative reader (Weber 1998) has called a “cottage industry” of interpretation, most of it critical, since it seemed either to undermine the author's own skepticism about scientific generalization, or to reinforce a conservative inside-outside ontology within the discipline, or else to confirm that its author was a closet realist. I have offered my own reading elsewhere that locates the essay within Wight's historicist understanding of the modern state-system (Epp 1996). The theory it required, he wrote, was something closer to the philosophy of history – elsewhere he proposed literary criticism (Wight 1991:258) – since it raised the most fundamental questions of “human destiny” and involved the “ultimate experience of life and death,” and since, far from being orderly or predictable, “it is constantly bursting the bounds of the language in which we try to handle it” (Wight 1966a:33). History not only provided a sense of perspective on the crises of the day; it also showed human freedom at work.

In its formative period Wight helped to imprint on the Committee's work a clear sense of the historicity of international relations – though, as Vigezzi (2005) notes, he did not deal so directly and successfully with the question of whether morality, too, was located merely inside of history or whether it could be anchored somehow outside of it. Wight's essay on Western values is a case in point. That essay's significance lies in its identifying for the Committee what has become arguably the English School's signature concept: international society. The idea was not original to Wight. Manning and Georg Schwartzenberger, for example, had already put it into circulation. In answer to the question he posed for himself – What is international society? – Wight distilled the historical emergence of an “international social consciousness,” a thin but shared diplomatic-legal culture, first in Western Europe but extended globally in more recent times. This society was more than a fiction, yet short of a fully realized “community of mankind”; it was made real in practices that had shaped international relations (1966b). Wight would continue that exploration in the papers presented to the Committee toward the end of the decade on the geographical and chronological limits of the society of states as a self-conscious construction, and on the shifting standards of international legitimacy within it. Many of those papers were published posthumously in what is arguably his most imaginative work, Systems of States (1977).

Bull gave a rather different answer to the same question in papers presented to the Committee at roughly the same time, one on “anarchy and society,” the other on the “Grotian conception of international society” (1966b). These papers signaled the interests that Bull would develop in his major work, The Anarchical Society (1977a). As commentators – and even Butterfield's notes – have pointed out, his working definition of international society was more stylized, less dependent on participation in a common culture than that described by Wight who, indeed, commented within the Committee on Bull's “cavalier use of evidence” (BCTIP Papers, Box 4). Put another way, Bull arrived at international society almost by logical deduction from the fundamentals of anarchy and coexistence, and, for good measure, from the abstract moral antinomies of order and justice. Across this scaffolding he then stretched a thin layer of the historical detail, sense of shared meaning, and underlying philosophic ideas that so fascinated Wight. Though Bull and Wight were tightly aligned on the working of the Committee, the differences in the approaches they presented and refined within that setting were real enough. Arguably, the two trajectories in the contemporary English School – one more structural, the other cultural, anthropological, linguistic – are rooted in their respective approaches. What has proven most enduring in Bull's early work is the core distinction it drew between “pluralist” and “solidarist” conceptions of international society. It has inspired and framed the subsequent treatment of subjects such as human rights and humanitarian intervention (e.g., Wheeler 1992; 2000; Buzan 2004; Hurrell 2007a).

Within the Committee, it was not only the idea of international society – or the nuclear arms race – around which differences were exposed. The group was also more divided about the scientific study of international politics than either the preface to Diplomatic Investigations or Butterfield's retrospective reflections on the Committee would suggest. Wight was the most resistant or, better, indifferent. While he did not set out his position systematically, his focus on language, on meanings mediated across time and culture, bears a resemblance to philosophical hermeneutics and phenomenology. In a very real sense, Wight's modern state-system comes into being when participants begin to call it that (1977). Butterfield, meanwhile, oscillated between two very different positions. On one hand, he remained sympathetic to the quest for generalization (e.g., 1960). Not only was he a historian of science, his working method predisposed him to imagine, following von Ranke, that it was possible to understand the past as it really was and that detachment – in scholarship as in diplomacy – was the preferable temperament. Wight (1950), in fact, had once chided him for refusing as a historian to pass judgment. But Butterfield was also suspicious of the new social science, increasingly so, on grounds that it promised too much and left out the human dimension (1960: ch. 2). Moreover, the Committee notes attribute to him a comment that could stand as a motto for interpretive rather than positivist inquiry: “You help to create the world by the way you think about it” (BCTIP Papers, Box 4).

The third tendency in the group can be identified with Bull, whose preference was for critical engagement with the new social science. His own early work was the least interpretive (Dunne 1998:123–5; Souza 2008). In one of the two papers he presented in 1965 on the subject of “recent American contributions” to the theory of international relations – Bull had spent a year at Princeton, and the Committee needed a primer in advance of a visit from US scholar Thomas Schelling – he turned his criticism inward. It was remarkable, he observed, that the Committee's deliberations were “almost entirely unaffected” by the “vast” social-scientific literature that had been generated in recent years. The Committee's position was not a “considered rejection”; it owed more to “feelings of aesthetic revulsion against its language and methods, a priori confidence that as an intellectual enterprise it is bound to fail, and professional insecurity induced by the awful thought that it might succeed.” Without any evident success, Bull urged the Committee to take seriously the new social science, appreciate its rigor, and serve as its most effective and much-needed critics (BCTIP Papers, Box 5).

There is one other characteristic – and point of tension – that is worth noting with respect to the Committee in its foundational first decade: namely, the prominence of Christianity. In the US, the project of establishing international relations as a legitimate, scientific field of expertise meant that the broader postwar public conversation about the state of the world – in which a theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr was prominent – had to be “disciplined” and theology in particular excised from it (Epp 2003:201–7). The rival journals World Politics and Review of Politics, based at Notre Dame, championed the narrower disciplinary position and the more inclusive philosophical-theological position respectively through the 1950s; the latter journal, for example, published the first of Butterfield's commentaries on world affairs to appear in the US (1950). It is not a stretch to see the work of the Rockefeller Committee in the US as part of the project of building a delimited academic discipline on the scientific model of economics. Though Niebuhr participated, his chapter is described in patronizing terms in William Fox’s introduction to the 1959 volume as the only one in which “the preferences of the author…are implicitly suggested” (p. xi).

Paradoxically, then, given the vastly different levels of religious belief and practice between the two countries at present, it was the British Committee that helped sustain elements of the postwar conversation. Its composition was crucial in that respect. While the differences between Butterfield, Wight, MacKinnon, and Williams were considerable, they each thought about the world, to greater or lesser degrees, in theological categories and vocabularies that informed the Committee's discussion of ethics and history in international politics (Epp 1991; Hall 2002; 2006; Sharp 2003). Bull, on the other hand, decidedly did not. He plainly was puzzled by Wight's religious commitments and by the “unfashionable” interest in the theological questions that followed from them (Bull 1977b:14). He was not the last to describe Wight as a “pessimist” – the discipline's unsatisfactory short-hand for what has made it uncomfortable about his religious commitments (e.g., Nicholson 1981; Molloy 2003; Hurrell 2007b). If anything, the opposite was true. Wight's appeal to providence at the end of his essay on Western values, as a backstop for moral standards, was not a counsel of despair. But such language doubtless seems obscure, at best, to contemporary readers – even to otherwise sympathetic English School theorists. It may help account for the fact that while Wight may be revered as an impressively erudite scholarly trailblazer, Bull's writing has been much more likely to serve as a foundation on which to build in international politics. The risk in representing the Committee, or Wight and Butterfield in particular, in a way that does justice to their theological orientation is that it will push their work back to the margins in an impatiently secular age (Thomas 2001; Hall 2002; 2006). On the other hand, two recent essays by scholars based in the US have retrieved from Wight and recommended to others an ethical politics of limits – partly on the terrain of theology (Elshtain 2008; Jackson 2008).


In choosing to focus heavily on the Committee's creative and ambitious founding period, this essay has made an interpretive choice. Most notably, it appreciates but has not followed Vigezzi's emphasis on The Expansion of International Society as the Committee's “most organic and coherent achievement,” the resolution of the problems it had posed around history and ethics, for which its prior activity was merely a “kind of introduction” (2005:86). Certainly the book carried forward the longstanding interests in the historic formation of the modern state-system, cultural commonality and difference, and, in particular, the status of postcolonial polities in a half-century marked by an ambivalent “revolt against the West.” The book was orchestrated mainly by Bull – the leadership of the Committee having passed from Wight to Watson to Bull – who preferred a more disciplined, collaborative project supplemented by specialists of interest (Watson 1998). Without doubt, it stands as a remarkable achievement. There was nothing else remotely like it in the disciplinary literature at the time of its publication, despite its telling omissions – for example, that of indigenous peoples in the Americas – and the unevenness of some of its contributions. Among the strongest and most provocative was that on race and international politics by John Vincent. A first-rate scholar, with books on non-intervention (1974) and human rights (1986), he was part of the Committee in its later years and is, rightly, the subject of a full chapter in Dunne's book (1998).

The Expansion of International Society, however, effectively marked the formal end of the Committee. Since the 1960s its activity had been episodic, its support from the Rockefeller Foundation had been discontinued, its membership had changed and loosened, and its key leaders, Wight and Bull, had each died prematurely. Some of the slack had been taken up by a parallel, if more conservative, International Political Theory group, identifying with the same “British” tradition and producing three edited volumes (Donelan 1978; Mayall 1982; Navari 1991). Watson continued his comparative work on other state-systems in history (1992). But, all said, it is easier to declare when the Committee's work began than when it ended.

On the surface, the Committee would seem an easy target against which to score debating points from the safe distance of a generation. It has an anachronistic air: clubby, Oxbridge, male. One recent critic has proposed – not persuasively, I think – that the English School as a whole represents a highly nationalized, aristocratic form of theorizing that is particularly unreflective not just about the history of the British empire in the story it tells but also about the postcolonial anxiety that is said to be the setting for its work. On this reading it is “not the radical alternative to state-centric positivism as it claims, so much as a conservative confederate: state-centric ‘classicism’” (Callahan 2004:322). Dunne, while conceding the possible perception of the Committee as a genteel, elitist old boys’ club, arrived at a distinctly different set of conclusions in his book Inventing International Society (1998). For if that was all it was, it ought to have faded away. Instead, the Committee's lead thinkers and those most influenced by them have come back into fashion in a discipline that was invested heavily in positivist modes of theorizing as well as Cold War narratives of bipolarity and nuclear stand-off. On each count they represented an alternative: interpretive, normative, attentive to questions of culture and identity. In short, they had seen a somewhat different subject all along. If Dunne's retrieval of the Committee's early history is meant to buttress the contemporary case for constructivist inquiry, his project is a defensible one. Writers of an earlier generation normally only get rediscovered and reinterpreted if they can be linked to the preoccupations of the present. The critical openings in the Committee's work are real enough, too, whether it is Vincent's urging that the study of international society include “the revolutionaries who broke its rules” or Wight's attentiveness to those revolutionaries and his calculation that the history of the modern state-system divides roughly equally into periods of settled consensus and rupture and revolution (see Epp 1998:61).

What is perhaps impossible to imagine now is something like the British Committee – that is, a small, congenial group of individuals, academics, and practitioners, drawn from two generations and diverse fields of inquiry, meeting over a period of years, intensely interested in world affairs but not in building a standalone discipline of international politics, and freed just enough from the publication pressures of the research-intensive university to pursue an idea together to see where it led. The model is still an attractive one, though it is not clear who would fund it. Then again, if the Rockefeller Foundation had got the sort of refined but relevant policy thinking for which it imagined it would pay in pounds sterling in 1959, the study of international politics would be that much more impoverished.


I am grateful to Tim Dunne, Ian Hall, and Sandra Rein for their encouragement and the opportunity to exchange ideas with them about this material.


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