(2) Martin Wight and the Theory of International Relations: The Second Martin Wight Memorial Lecture

There is no lecture which I could feel more honoured to have been asked to give than one which commemorates the name of Martin Wight. Just twenty years ago I made the same journey I have just made—from Oxford to the London School of Economics—to take up a position as assistant lecturer in the Department of International Relations. I had not done a course of any kind in International Relations, nor made any serious study of it, and as I arrived in Houghton Street I wondered how I was to go about teaching the subject and even whether it existed at all.

It was Professor Manning who urged me to attend the lectures on International Theory being given by Martin Wight, then reader in the Department. These lectures made a profound impression on me, as they did on all who heard them. Ever since that time I have felt in the shadow of Martin Wight’s thought—humbled by it, a constant borrower from it, always hoping to transcend it but never able to escape from it. Until 1961, when he moved to the University of Sussex, I was his junior colleague. After that time I was able to keep in touch with his work through the meetings of the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics, for which many of his best papers were written and about which Sir Herbert Butterfield, who originally convened the Committee, spoke in his lecture inaugurating this series.[12] Since Martin Wight’s death in 1972 I have become more intimately acquainted with his ideas than ever before, through being involved in the editing of his unpublished manuscripts.

Let me say a little about this. Wight was a perfectionist who published very little of his work. His writings on International Relations comprise one sixty-eight page pamphlet, published thirty years ago by Chatham House for one shilling and long out of print, and half a dozen chapters in books and articles, some of the latter placed in obscure journals as if in the hope that no one would notice them. He was one of those scholars—today, alas, so rare—who (to use a phrase of Albert Wohlstetter’s) believe in a high ratio of thought to publication.

It has seemed to me a task of great importance to bring more of his work to the light of day. The task would be impossible but for the encouragement and constant help I have received from two people to whom I should like to pay tribute: Martin’s wife Gabriele and his pupil and friend Harry Pitt of Worcester College, Oxford. That the work he left should be published at all was not self-evident. Some of the work is unfinished. Some may never have been intended for publication. If it was his judgement that the work did not meet the very high standards he set himself for publication, should his judgement not be respected? For myself, what has weighed most is not the desire to add lustre to Martin Wight’s name, but my belief in the importance of the material itself and in the need to make it available to others, so that the lines of inquiry he opened up can be taken further. Especially, perhaps, there is a need to make Martin Wight’s ideas more widely available in their original form, rather than through the second hand accounts of others, such as myself, who have been influenced by him.

It is my hope that two and possibly three publications by Martin Wight will in due course appear. The first is a series of essays on different aspects of the modern states system and of other historical states systems, which he wrote in the last eight years of his life for meetings of the British Committee. The second is a revised and much expanded version of Power Politics, the Chatham House essay of 1946 to which I referred a moment ago, the completion of which—unhappily, he did not complete it—he saw as his principal scholarly task.[13] In preparing this manuscript I have been fortunate in securing the cooperation, as co-editor, of Carsten Holbraad, who was Martin Wight’s student both at the London School of Economics and at Sussex, and in recent years has been a colleague of mine in Canberra. Thirdly, I hope that it will be possible in some form to make available to others the lectures on International Theory which impressed me so deeply when I arrived at the London School of Economics and are at once the least published and the most profound of his contributions to International Relations. Fortunately the notes of these lectures—detailed and immaculate in his beautiful handwriting—have been preserved.

I propose to devote this lecture to a discussion of some of Martin Wight’s own ideas. I shall not attempt to provide a survey of his life and thought as a whole. Such a survey—I have sought to provide the sketch of one in the introduction to one of the forthcoming volumes—would have to deal not only with his ideas about international Relations but also with his ideas about the philosophy of history, about education and about Christian theology. It would have to take account of his close association with Arnold Toynbee, with whom he worked at Chatham House both on A Study of History and on the Survey of International Affairs, and from whom he derived his commitment to universal history and his interest in the relationship between secular history and what he called sacred history or divine providence. Mention would have to be made of the influence upon him as a very young man of Dick Sheppard, the Vicar of St Martin’s-in-the-Field and a founder of the Peace Pledge Union, and of his conversion in the late 1930s to Christian pacifism, a position to which he adhered steadfastly throughout that apparently most just of wars, Britain’s struggle in the Second World War. One would have to consider the books he wrote, while a member of Margery Perham’s team at Oxford during the war, on colonial constitutions and especially his pioneering work The Development of the Legislative Council, his only substantial contribution to technical or professional history.[14] An assessment would have to be made of his impact as a teacher—as a young schoolmaster at Haileybury, as reader at the London School of Economics, as Professor of History and Dean of European Studies in the early, heroic period of the University of Sussex.

I want instead to focus your attention on one part of Martin Wight’s legacy, viz. his ideas on the Theory of International Relations. First, I propose briefly to state what some of these ideas were. Secondly, I shall consider some questions that have long puzzled students of his work about the interpretation and assessment of these ideas. And thirdly I shall ask what can be learnt from Martin Wight’s example.

When in the 1950s Wight was developing his lecture course at the London School of Economies the scientific or behaviourist movement towards what was called ‘A Theory of International Relations’ was gathering strength in the United States. This movement had its roots in dissatisfaction with what was taken to be the crude and obsolete methodology of existing general works about International Relations, especially those of Realist writers such as E.H. Carr, George F. Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, which formed the staple academic diet of the time. The hope that inspired the behaviourists was that by developing a more refined and up-to-date methodology it would be possible to arrive at a rigorously scientific body of knowledge that would help explain the past, predict the future and provide a firm basis for political action.

Wight’s interest in the Theory of International Relations may also have owed something to dissatisfaction with the writings of the Realists, with which his own essay on Power Politics had close affinities, although his was a dissatisfaction with their substance rather than with their methodology. But the kind of theory to which he was drawn was utterly different from that which was intended by the behaviourists. He saw the Theory of International Relations—or, as he called it, International Theory—as a study in political philosophy or political speculation pursued by way of an examination of the main traditions of thought about International Relations in the past. Whereas the behaviourist school sought a kind of theory that approximated to science, his was a kind that approximated to philosophy. Whereas they began by rejecting the literature of the past, even the immediate past—and it was the latter they had in mind when they spoke, rather absurdly, of ‘the traditionalists’—he began with the resolve to rediscover, to assemble and to categorise all that had been said and thought on the subject throughout the ages. While the behaviourists sought to exclude moral questions as lying beyond the scope of scientific treatment, Wight placed these questions at the centre of his inquiry. Where they hoped to arrive at ‘A Theory of International Relations’ that would put an end to disagreement and uncertainty Wight saw as the outcome of his studies simply an account of the debate among contending theories and doctrines, of which no resolution could be expected.

Wight’s attitude towards the behaviourists was the source of one of my own disagreements with him. I felt that they represented a significant challenge and that it was important to understand them and engage in debate with them. The correct strategy, it appeared to me, was to sit at their feet, to study their position until one could state their own arguments better than they could and then—when they were least suspecting—to turn on them and slaughter them in an academic Massacre of Glencoe. Wight entertained none of these bloody thoughts. He made no serious effort to study the behaviourists and in effect ignored them. What this reflected, of course, was the much greater sense of confidence and security he had about his own position. The idea that an approach to Theory as unhistorical and unphilosophical as this might provide a serious basis for understanding world politics simply never entered his head.

At the heart of Martin Wight’s Theory course was the debate between three groups of thinkers: the Machiavellians, the Grotians and the Kantians—or, as he sometimes called them (less happily, I think) the Realists, the Rationalists and the Revolutionists. The Machiavellians he thought of crudely as ‘the blood and iron and immorality men’, the Grotians as ‘the law and order and keep your word men’, and the Kantians as ‘the subversion and liberation and missionary men’. Each pattern or tradition of thought embodied a description of the nature of international politics and also a set of prescriptions as to how men should conduct themselves in it.

For the Machiavellians—who included such figures as Hobbes, Hegel, Frederick the Great, Clémenceau, the twentieth century Realists such as Carr and Morgenthau—the true description of international politics was that it was international anarchy, a war of all against all or relationship of pure conflict among sovereign states. To the central question of the Theory of International Relations—‘What is the nature of international society?’—the Machiavellians give the answer: there is no international society; what purports to be international society—the system of international law, the mechanism of diplomacy or today the United Nations—is fictitious. The prescriptions advanced by the Machiavellians were simply such as were advanced by Machiavelli in The Prince: it was for each state or ruler to pursue its own interest: the question of morality in international politics, at least in the sense of moral rules which restrained states in their relations with one another, did not arise.

For the Grotians—among whom Wight included the classical international lawyers, Locke, Burke, Castlereagh, Gladstone, Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill—international politics had to be described not as international anarchy but as international intercourse, a relationship chiefly among states to be sure, but one in which there was not only conflict but also cooperation. To the central question of Theory of International Relations the Grotians returned the answer that states, although not subject to a common superior, nevertheless formed a society—a society that was no fiction, and whose workings could be observed in institutions such as diplomacy, international law, the balance of power and the concert of great powers. States in their dealings with one another were not free of moral and legal restraints: the prescription of the Grotians was that states were bound by the rules of this international society they composed and in whose continuance they had a stake.

The Kantians rejected both the Machiavellian view that international politics was about conflict among states, and the view of the Grotians that it was about a mixture of conflict and cooperation among states. For the Kantians it was only at a superficial and transient level that international politics was about relations among states at all; at a deeper level it was about relations among the human beings of which states were composed. The ultimate reality was the community of mankind, which existed potentially, even if it did not exist actually, and was destined to sweep the system of states into limbo. The Kantians, like the Grotians, appealed to international morality, but what they understood by this was not the rules that required states to behave as good members of the society of states, but the revolutionary imperatives that required all men to work for human brotherhood. In the Kantian doctrine the world was divided between the elect, who were faithful to this vision of the community of mankind or civitas maxima, and the damned, the heretics, who stood in its way.

This Kantian pattern of thought, according to Wight, was embodied in the three successive waves of Revolutionist ideology that had divided modern international society on horizontal rather than vertical lines: that of the Protestant Reformation, that of the French Revolution and that of the Communist Revolution of our own times. But it was also embodied, he thought, in the Counter-Revolutionist ideologies to which each of these affirmations of horizontal solidarity gave rise: that of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, that of International Legitimism and that of Dullesian Anti-Communism.

Having identified these three patterns of thought Wight went on to trace the distinctive doctrines that each of them put forward concerning war, diplomacy, power, national interest, the obligation of treaties, the obligation of an individual to bear arms, the conduct of foreign policy and the relations between civilised states and so-called barbarians. It is impossible to summarise what Martin Wight had to say about the three traditions without in some measure vulgarising it. The impact of his lectures was produced not only by the grandeur of the design but also by the detailed historical embroidery, worked out with great subtlety, humanity and wit and with staggering erudition. In the hands of a lesser scholar the threefold categorisation would have served to simplify and distort the complexity of international thought. But Wight himself was the first to warn against the danger of reifying the concepts he had suggested. He insisted that the Machiavellian, Grotian and Kantian traditions were merely paradigms, to which no actual thinker did more than approximate: not even Machiavelli, for example, was in the strict sense a Machiavellian. Wight recognised that the exercise of classifying international theories requires that we have more pigeon-holes than three and so he suggested various ways in which each of the three traditions could be further subdivided: the Machiavellian tradition into its aggressive and its defensive form, the Grotian tradition into its realist and idealist form, the Kantian tradition into its evolutionary and its revolutionary forms, its imperialist and its cosmopolitanist forms, its historically backward-looking and its forward-looking or progressivist forms. He was always experimenting with new ways of formulating and describing the three traditions and in some versions of his lectures he suggested a fourth category of what he called Inverted Revolutionists, the pacifist stream of thought represented by the early Christians and by Tolstoy and Gandhi. He was aware that particular international thinkers in many cases straddle his categories: thus he explored, for example, the tension in Bismarck’s thought between a Machiavellian perspective and a Grotian one, the tension in Woodrow Wilson between a Grotian perspective and a Kantian one, and the tension in Stalin between a Kantian perspective and a Machiavellian one. He saw the three traditions as forming a spectrum, within which at some points one pattern of thought merged with another, as infra-red becomes ultra-violet.

There are three questions about Wight’s ideas on International Theory that I want to consider. First, as between the Machiavellian, the Grotian and the Kantian perspectives, where did Martin Wight himself stand? This was a question that earnest students would put to him plaintively at the end of a lecture. Wight used to delight in keeping students guessing on this issue and went out of his way to give them as little material as possible for speculating about it. In one of his lectures he quoted the following conversation of the earl of Shaftesbury: ‘People differ in their discourse and profession about these matters, but men of sense are really but of one religion. … “Pray, my lord, what religion is that which men of sense agree in?” “Madam,” says the earl immediately, “men of sense never tell it.”’[15]

Of course, if we had to put Martin Wight into one or another of his own three pigeon-holes there is no doubt that we should have to consider him a Grotian. Indeed, in one of the early versions of his lecture course he did actually say that he regarded the Grotians or Rationalists as ‘the great central stream of European thought’, and that he would regard it as the ideal to be a Grotian, while partaking of the realism of the Machiavellians, without their cynicism, and of the idealism of the Kantians, without their fanaticism. He displayed his leaning toward the Grotians when, in one of the chapters he wrote in Diplomatic Investigations, he gave an account of the Grotian tradition under the heading ‘Western Values in International Relations’, claiming that this tradition was especially representative of the values of Western civilisation because of its explicit connection with the political philosophy of constitutional government, and also because of its quality as a via media between extremes.[16] He was attracted towards the Grotian pattern of thought, I think, because he saw it as more faithful than either of the others to the complexity of international politics. He saw the Grotian approach to international morality, for example, as founded upon the recognition that the moral problems of foreign policy are complex, as against the view of the Kantians that these problems are simple, and the view of the Machiavellians that they are non-existent. The Grotian tradition, he thought, was better able to accommodate complexity because it was itself a compromise that made concessions to both the Machiavellian and the Kantian points of view. The Grotian idea of the just war, for example, was a compromise between the Kantian idea of the holy war or crusade and the Machiavellian idea of war as the ultima ratio regum. The Grotian idea that power in international society should be balanced and contained was a compromise between the Kantian demand that it should be abolished and the view of the Machiavellians that it was the object of the struggle. The view of the Grotians that the relations of the advanced countries with so-called barbarians should be based on the principle of trusteeship was a compromise between the Kantian notion that they should be based on liberation and assimilation, and the Machiavellian contention that they should be based on exploitation.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to force Martin Wight into the Grotian pigeon-hole. It is a truer view of him to regard him as standing outside the three traditions, feeling the attraction of each of them but unable to come to rest within any one of them, and embodying in his own life and thought the tension among them. I have mentioned that as a young man Wight took up the position of an Inverted Revolutionist or pacifist. Power Politics, which he published at the age of thirty-three, is generally thought to embody a Machiavellian or Realist point of view and can certainly be linked more readily to the Machiavellian tradition than to the Grotian. As he grew older, it appears to me, the Grotian elements in his thinking became stronger: they are much more prominent in his contributions to Diplomatic Investigations, published in 1967, than in his earlier writings and reach their highest point in the essays on states systems which he wrote in the last years of his life. As one of the factors causing him to move closer to the Grotian perspective after he came to the London School of Economics, I should not myself discount the influence upon him of Professor Manning, despite the great contrasts in their respective approaches to the subject. I should not myself dare to speculate as to whether or not Professor Manning would classify himself as a Grotian. But certainly in his thinking the idea of international society occupies a central place and it emerges, I think, from the volume of essays presented to Professor Manning, to which Martin Wight contributed along with others among Manning’s former colleagues and students, that there are certain common elements in the outlook of all those who worked in the Department at that time, no less noticeable in Wight’s contribution than in the others.[17]

But Wight was too well aware of the vulnerability of the Grotian position ever to commit himself to it fully. He understood that it is the perspective of the international establishment. The speeches of Gladstone in the last century and of Franklin Roosevelt in this century proclaimed that their respective countries should seek in their foreign policies to conform to the common moral standards and sense of common interest of international society as a whole and in so doing they provided us with some of the most memorable statements of the Grotian idea. But what Wight asks us to notice about these two statesmen is that each of them, at the time he spoke, was the leader of the most powerful country in the world. The comfortable Grotian phrases do not come so readily to the lips of the oppressed, the desperate or the dissatisfied. In his lectures, as in his contribution to The World in March 1939, Wight expounds with remarkable detachment the critique put forward of Anglo–French Grotian legalism by Hitler in Mein Kampf: that Britain and France, the sated imperial powers, were like successful burglars now trying to settle down as country gentlemen, making intermittent appearances on the magistrate’s bench.[18] Wight asks us to reflect on the fundamental truth lying behind Hitler’s tedious phrases: that Britain and France had got where they were by struggle, that they could not contract out of the struggle at a moment that happened to suit them, still less could they justify themselves in attempting to contract out of it by appealing to moral principles which they had ignored when they were committed to the struggle.

If Wight could recognise the force of the Machiavellian critique of Grotian doctrines he is at first sight less capable of regarding sympathetically the Kantian critique of them. There was much about the Kantians—‘The Political Missionaries or Fanatics’, as he called them in early drafts of his lectures—that repelled him. He notes how the Kantians begin by repudiating all intellectual authorities, and any methodology save the principles of pure thought, but then become enslaved to sacred books; the Jacobins to Rousseau, the Communists to Marx. He saw it as the central paradox of the successive waves of revolutionist and counter-revolutionist doctrine that they aim at uniting and integrating the family of nations but in practice divide it more deeply than it was divided before. He held that these internal schisms of Western international society reflected the importation of attitudes which had previously prevailed in the external schism of Western international society and Islam. Just as in the Peloponnesian War the conflict between democratic and oligarchical factions imported into relations among Greeks the attitudes that previously had characterised the struggle between Hellenism and Medism, so in modern international history the various horizontal conflicts we have witnessed between the faithful and the heretical reproduce and reflect the earlier struggle between the Christian and the Infidel. The view that the Turk is Antichrist gives place to the view that the Pope—or some secular equivalent of him—is Antichrist; the epitaph of this historical connection between the internal and the external schisms of international society being the strange doctrine of Luther that Antichrist is the Pope and the Turk combined: the Pope his spirit and soul and the Turk his flesh and body.

Wight’s in some respects negative attitude towards the Kantian tradition reflected his religious views. He saw the revolutionist and counter-revolutionist doctrines of modern times as perversions of the New Testament, secularised debasements of the story of the Messiah—just as he saw Hitler’s National Socialism as a perversion of the Old Testament, the self-appointment of a new Chosen People. Wight was also repelled by progressivist doctrines of International Relations, which are found principally, although not I think exclusively, within the Kantian tradition and above all in Kant himself. One of Wight’s most persistent themes is that in international politics by contrast with domestic politics progress has not taken place in modern times; that international politics is incompatible with progressivist theory; that in progressivist theories the conviction precedes the evidence; that ‘it is not a good argument for a theory of international politics that we shall be driven to despair if we do not accept it’.

Wight’s rejection of the belief in progress reflects, once again, not only his study of the evidence but his religious views. For him secular pessimism was the counterpart of theological optimism. ‘Hope’, as he once wrote, ‘is not a political virtue; it is a theological virtue’.[19] Wight’s lack of hope about the future of the secular world was, I think, so total, so crushing that only a deeply religious person could have sustained it. This lack of hope is most dramatically expressed in his invocation of de Maistre’s ‘occult and terrible law of the violent destruction of the human species’.[20] It is expressed also in his thesis that war is inevitable, even though particular wars are avoidable: a view he had the fortitude to contemplate because he was able to persuade himself that at the theological level this did not matter.[21] “For what matters,” he said in a broadcast in 1948, “is not whether there is going to be another war or not, but that it should be recognised, if it comes, as an act of God’s Justice, and if it is averted, as an act of God’s Mercy.”[22]

Yet there are moments when Wight seems as much drawn towards the Kantian tradition as towards the Machiavellian or the Grotian. He argues, in a long discussion of Kant’s Perpetual Peace, that the progressivist argument from despair, while not intellectually speaking a ‘good’ argument, is nevertheless not a contemptible or dishonourable one: the optimism of a man who, like Kant, has looked into the abyss, but who says, ‘No, looking down makes me giddy: I can only go on climbing if I look upward’—such an optimism grounded in utter despair merits respect. Wight also sees that the belief in progress is not the deepest element in the Kantian tradition. The deepest element—the element that must draw us to it—is the moral passion to abolish suffering and sin: the moral passion of Kant’s hymn to duty, of Ivan Karamazov’s cry that eternal harmony is not worth the tears of one tortured child, of Lenin’s burning faith that suffering is not an essential part of life. Wight traces with care the distinction between the evolutionary Kantians, who believe that suffering is the cause of sin, and that if suffering can be abolished, sin can be abolished—and the revolutionary Kantians, such as Marx and Lenin, who believe that sin is the cause of suffering, and that suffering can be eradicated only if sin is first eradicated.

While Wight in his maturity was personally more drawn to the Grotian tradition than to either the Machiavellian or the Kantian, the essence of his teaching was that the truth about international politics had to be sought not in any one of these patterns of thought but in the debate among them. The three elements in international politics which they emphasised—the element of international anarchy stressed by the Machiavellians, the element of international intercourse, stressed by the Grotians and the element of the community of mankind, stressed by the Kantians—are all present. Wight’s argument was that any attempt to describe the subject in terms of one of the cardinal elements to the exclusion of the others, was bound to break down.

There is a second question about what Martin Wight had to say that I wish to consider. Is it true? Can one really categorise the history of thought about international politics in this way? And if one can, does an account of the debate among the three traditions really advance our understanding of international politics in the twentieth century?

I believe myself that Wight tried to make too much of the debate among the three traditions Much that has been said about International Relations in the past cannot be related significantly to these traditions at all. Wight was, I believe, too ambitious in attributing to the Machiavellians, the Grotians and the Kantians distinctive views not only about war, peace, diplomacy, intervention and other matters of International Relations but about human psychology, about irony and tragedy, about methodology and epistemology. There is a point at which the debate Wight is describing ceases to be one that has actually taken place, and becomes one that he has invented; at this point his work is not an exercise in the history of ideas, so much as the exposition of an imaginary philosophical conversation, in the manner of Plato’s dialogues.

I have already mentioned that Wight insisted that the three traditions were only to be taken as paradigms and that he was always urging us not to take what he said about them too seriously. But one has to take it seriously, or not at all. In all of Wight’s work there is an instinct for the dramatic, a searching after superlatives—the classic expression of a point of view, the earliest statement of it, its noblest epitaph—that is the source of tantalising hypotheses and is what made his teaching so exciting. But one has to keep reminding oneself that the truth might be less dramatic, the superlatives not applicable, the hypotheses not fully tested. Again, in all his work there is an instinctive assumption—the legacy of Toynbee’s impact upon him as a young man—that there is some rhythm or pattern in the history of ideas which is there, waiting to be uncovered. But we have to recognise the possibility that in some cases the rhythm or pattern may not be there at all. The defence he was inclined to put up—that he is merely putting forward suggestive paradigms or ideal types—will not do. It makes his position impregnable, but only at the price of making it equivocal.

But if the account of the three traditions will not bear all the weight that Martin Wight sought to place upon it, there is no doubt that it has a firm basis in reality. Anyone who seeks to write the history of thought about International Relations that Martin Wight himself was so superbly equipped to undertake will find it essential to build on the foundations which he laid. His analysis of the three traditions, moreover, was profoundly original. There is one passage in Gierke’s account of the natural law tradition in which the germ of the idea is stated, but I have seen no evidence that Wight was aware of this passage and in any case it does not entail the great structure of ideas which, when fully grown in his mind, it became.[23]

That his account of these past traditions of thought contributes directly to our understanding of contemporary international politics there can be no doubt. In form his course was an exercise in the history of ideas, but in substance it was a statement about the world, including the world today. It presented the issues of contemporary international politics in historical and philosophical depth—requiring us, when confronted with some description of present events or some attitude taken up towards them, to view it as part of a series of recurrent descriptions or attitudes of the same kind, to identify the premises that lay behind it and to seek out the best of the arguments that had been presented, down the ages, for it and against it.

Wight’s approach, it appears to me, provides an antidote to the narrow and introverted character of the professional academic debate about International Relations, the in-breeding and self-absorption of the journals and the textbooks, opening it out to wider intellectual horizons. It is striking that several of the current fashions within that professional debate have as their point of departure the discovery of some aspect of the subject which his own exposition of it has always embraced. The idea, for example, that international politics is not just a matter of relations between states, but also a matter of so-called ‘transnational’ relations among the individuals and groups that states compose, is one to which Martin Wight’s exposition affords a central place; it is the core of the Kantian tradition. The notion which is central to the studies of models of future world order, now rising to a flood in Princeton and elsewhere, that it is necessary to look beyond the framework of the system of sovereign states and to contemplate alternative forms of universal political organisation—is one with which Wight was always concerned; one has only to think of his protest against ‘the intellectual prejudice imposed by the sovereign state’, his doctrine (derived from Toynbee) that the idea of the normalcy of the system of states is an optical illusion, and his attempt—in the essays on states systems—to explore the geographical and chronological boundaries of the modern states system, and to suggest some of the issues with which a general historical account of the main forms of universal political organisation—today, virtually uncharted territory—would have to be concerned. The recent revival of interest, in the Western world, in Marxist or Marxist–Leninist accounts of world politics, and the important neo-Marxist analyses of imperialism and neo-colonialism, fall into place quite naturally in Wight’s presentation of the subject—even though it is true that he was not much interested in the economic dimension of the subject, and that his failure to deal with the history of thought about economic aspects of International Relations is one of the points at which he is vulnerable to criticism. Above all, perhaps, the rediscovery of moral questions by the political science profession, the realisation that International Relations is about ends as well as means—which is the only meaning we can give to what is now so portentously called ‘the post-behavioural revolution’—merely takes us back to the point at which Wight began his inquiry.

Wight’s approach also provided an antidote to the self-importance and self-pity that underlie the belief of each generation that its own problems are unique. ‘One of the main purposes of university education’, he wrote in his lecture notes, ‘is to escape from the Zeitgeist, from the mean, narrow, provincial spirit which is constantly assuring us that we are the summit of human achievement, that we stand on the edge of unprecedented prosperity or unparalleled catastrophe, that the next summit conference is going to be the most fateful in history. ... It is a liberation of the spirit to acquire perspective, to recognise that every generation is confronted by problems of the utmost subjective urgency, but that an objective grading is probably impossible; to learn that the same moral predicaments and the same ideas have been explored before’.

Is there not a danger in following these injunctions that when confronted by some genuinely unprecedented situation we may fail to recognise it? Does not world politics in the twentieth century reflect developments—too obvious to enumerate—which it is correct to regard as without precedent, and is it not a delusion to imagine that these developments can be understood by the seeking out of historical parallels rather than by immersing ourselves in the study of what is recent and new, in all its individuality?

There is such a danger as this but it is not inherent in Wight’s position. He did not maintain that every international political situation has an exact historical precedent or that fundamental change does not occur. Indeed, the conception of history as a storehouse of precedents that can be discovered and then applied as practical maxims of statecraft to contemporary political issues is one which he strongly attacked. He regarded this approach to history as the methodological gimmick of the Machiavellians—prominent in the writings of Carr and Morgenthau, as it had been earlier in those of the Social Darwinists, traceable back to the view of Bolingbroke that ‘history is philosophy teaching by examples’, and resting ultimately on Machiavelli’s own assumption that laws of politics could be derived from history because history took the form of mechanically recurring cycles.

There is a third question I want to consider. In what sense did Martin Wight think that theoretical inquiry in International Relations is possible? Wight’s most famous article on International Theory bears the title ‘Why Is There No International Theory?’[24] This leads students to ask: does he believe in International Theory or does he not? How can he deny the existence of the enterprise he is engaged in? Brian Porter has recently suggested that there is no great puzzle about this: what Wight meant was that the student will not find the history of thought about International Relations in ready-made and accessible form: the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have to be disinterred and put together.[25] This is the correct explanation of the title, and it is confirmed by the fact that in an early draft Wight used as his heading ‘Why Is There no Body of International Theory?’

But there is a deeper problem in this article than the one posed by its title. Wight argues that it is no accident that International Relations has never been the subject of any great theoretical work, that there is ‘a kind of disharmony between international theory and diplomatic practice, a kind of recalcitrance of international politics to being theorised about’.[26] He notes that the only acknowledged classic of International Relations—Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War—is a work not of theory but of history. And he goes on to say that ‘the quality of international politics, the preoccupations of diplomacy, are embodied and communicated less in works of political and international theory than in historical writings’.[27]

Is Wight here proclaiming the ultimate heresy that after all, theoretical understanding of international politics is not possible, only historical understanding? Is he, so to speak, throwing in the sponge? No, he is not; this is not what he says and all of his work in this field is a denial of it—for while that work is steeped in history it is not itself history. Wight gives us the clue a little further on when he writes that the only kind of theoretical inquiry that is possible is ‘the kind of rumination about human destiny to which we give the unsatisfactory name philosophy of history’.[28]

Theoretical inquiry into International Relations is therefore philosophical in character. It does not lead to cumulative knowledge after the manner of natural science. Confronted by a controversy, like the great debate which Wight explores among the three traditions, we may identify the assumptions that are made in each camp, probe them, juxtapose them, relate them to circumstances, but we cannot expect to settle the controversy except provisionally, on the basis of assumptions of our own that are themselves open to debate. All of this must follow once we grant Wight’s initial assumption that theoretical inquiry into International Relations is necessarily about moral or prescriptive questions.

I believe myself, however, that an inquiry that is philosophical can be more public, more rational, more disciplined than Wight was willing to allow. In his work we may note a preference for vagueness over precision, for poetic imagery over prosaic statement, for subjective judgement over explicit formulation of a line of argument. I do not think, for example, that ‘rumination’ is an adequate word to describe the activity of theoretical analysis. Wight speaks of the ‘fruitful imprecision’ of Grotius’s language, but it appears to me that this imprecision is in no way fruitful.[29] It is true, as Wight says, that the stuff of international theory is constantly bursting the bounds of the language in which we try to handle it, but this appears to me a reason for trying to find a language that is appropriate. There is a tendency to believe that those who are profound, as Martin Wight undoubtedly was, are thereby licensed to be obscure. This is the point at which I begin to part company with Martin Wight and to wonder whether there was not, after all, some value in the demand of the behaviourists that International Theory be put on a proper methodological footing.

I have tried in this lecture not to lose sight of those aspects of Wight’s work with which it is possible to quarrel. Let me mention some more of them. The term Wight used to describe the enterprise he was engaged in—International Theory—is not a good one; as Professor Manning pointed out long ago it is the Relations that are International not the Theory; the enterprise is better described as Theory of International Relations.

Wight’s contribution is vulnerable to the charge of being unduly Eurocentric. It is the glory of his work that it sprang from a mastery of Western culture, ancient and medieval no less than modern. But although he took some account of Islam and of Gandhi and played with the idea that there was a Chinese equivalent of the debate among the three traditions—in the conflict of Confucianism, Taoism and the School of Law—he had no deep understanding of non-Western civilisations. He saw modern international society as the product of Western culture and felt, I think, a basic doubt as to how far the non-Western majority of states today have really been incorporated within it. I should not myself leap to the conclusion that in this he was wrong, but he does sometimes display insensitivity about non-Western peoples and their aspirations today, as in his contemptuous dismissal of Kautilya or his comparison between the Afro–Asian powers and the revisionist powers of the 1930s.

Wright’s immense learning sometimes does more to encumber than to enrich his arguments: his intellectual architecture is not so much classical as baroque. His learning is entirely authentic: Wight was not a cultural showman or pedant, and had a great gift of apt quotation. But in some of his writings the branches of the tree are so weighed down with historical foliage that it is difficult to find the trunk.

I have often felt uneasy about the extent to which Wight’s view of International Relations derives from his religious beliefs. These beliefs are not obtrusive in his writings about secular matters, which apparently employ only the ordinary canons of empirical knowledge of the world. And yet one is conscious of the extent to which his view of the subject is affected by beliefs not derived in this way.

What can one learn from Martin Wight’s example? He was a person of unique gifts and no one else is likely to contribute to the subject in quite the way that he did. But three aspects of his work in this field are worthy of note by others.

The first is his view that theoretical inquiry into International Relations should be focused upon the moral and normative presuppositions that underlie it. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a tendency in the Western world to leave these presuppositions out of account: to inquire into the international system without inquiring into its moral and cultural basis, to discuss policy choices—as in strategic studies or development economics—in terms of means or techniques rather than in terms of ends. More recently, values or ends have made a comeback, but chiefly in the form of the shouting of slogans, the fashion of so-called political commitment, which means that values are asserted and at the same time held to be beyond examination. Wight stood, it appears to me, not simply for having value premises but for inquiring into them.

The second is his attempt to associate theoretical inquiry with historical inquiry. The professional diplomatic historians, on the whole, have not been interested in large questions of theory. The theorists of International Relations have lacked the capacity or the inclination to do the historical work. Or they have approached it in the belief that it consists of “data”, to be fed into the computer, and without any real grasp of historical inquiry itself. Wight is one of the few to have bridged this gap with distinction.

The third and the most important is Wight’s very deep commitment to intellectual values and to the highest academic standards. Especially, perhaps, in a field such as International Relations there is a temptation to study what is ephemeral rather than of enduring importance, to be knowing rather than to say only what one truly knows, to claim results prematurely rather than to persist in the long haul. The most impressive thing about Martin Wight was his intellectual and moral integrity and gravitas. His writings are marked by paucity, but at least we cannot say of them, as he said of theoretical writings about International Relations before him, that they are marked also by intellectual and moral poverty.




[12] Sir Herbert Butterfield, Raison D’Etat. The Inaugural Martin Wight Memorial Lecture, Sussex University, 1975.

[13] Martin Wight, Power Politics, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, 1946.

[14] The Development of the Legislative Council 1601–1946, London, 1946.

[15] Earl of Shaftesbury quoted in The New York Law Journal, 18 November 1963, p. 4, column 4.

[16] See H. Butterfield and M. Wight (eds), Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics, Allen and Unwin, London, 1966, pp. 89–131.

[17] See A.M. James (ed.), The Bases of International Order: Essays in Honour of C.A.W. Manning, Oxford University Press, London, 1973.

[18] See Arnold Toynbee and F.T. Ashton-Gwatkin (eds), The World in March 1939: Survey of International Affairs 1939–1946, Oxford University Press for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, 1952.

[19] ‘Christian Commentary’, talk on the B.B.C. Home Service, 29 October 1948.

[20] Butterfield and Wight (eds), Diplomatic Investigations, pp. 33–34.

[21] For Martin Wight’s discussion of the inevitability of war, see ‘War and International Politics’, The Listener, 13 October 1953.

[22] See ‘Christian Commentary’, talk on the B.B.C. Home Service, 29 October 1948.

[23] See Otto von Gierke, Natural Law and the Theory of Society 1500 to 1860 (trans. Ernest Barker), Beacon Press, Boston, p. 85.

[24] Butterfield and Wight (eds), Diplomatic Investigations, ch. I.

[25] See Brian Porter’s unpublished paper, ‘Martin Wight’s “International Theory”: Some Reflections’.

[26] Butterfield and Wight (eds), Diplomatic Investigations, p. 33.

[27] Butterfield and Wight (eds), Diplomatic Investigations, p. 32.

[28] Butterfield and Wight (eds), Diplomatic Investigations, p. 33.

[29] Butterfield and Wight (eds), Diplomatic Investigations, p. 102.