When I was getting ready to take my Ph.D. exams forty years ago, I had a meeting with my advisor, Raymond Sontag. What, he wondered, should he examine me on? “Why don’t you ask me something about the origins of the First World War?” I said. “I think I understand that now.” His reply was devastating: “Oh really? I’ve been studying it for fifty years and I still don’t understand it.” But over the years I’ve come to feel the same way. The whole question of what caused that war, for me at least, remains deeply puzzling. To be sure, we’re still learning new and important things, even about what happened during the July Crisis in 1914. But with every new insight, new problems come into focus, and ultimate answers remain as elusive as ever. In fact, the deeper you go into the issue, the more puzzling it becomes—or at least that’s been my own experience in grappling with this particular historical problem.
Are democracies more likely to win the wars they fight? This question has been of interest to historians and philosophers since Thucydides. During the Enlightenment, the question was highly relevant to the great issues of the day, as thinkers such as Thomas Paine wondered how emerging republics like the United States and France would fare in war against monarchies. It reemerged in the twentieth century, when some worried whether the Western democracies had the stuff to stand up to Nazi Germany and its fascist allies. After World War II, Westerners fretted that an American Athens would ultimately fall short against a Soviet Sparta.
It may be useful to mark the addition of Security Studies to the H-Diplo list by discussing some of the differences in the way historians and political scientists typically approach our common subject matter. Is it too much to say that our relations are symbiotic or even that we are doomed to a marriage? Although we have significant differences and often squabble, we not only need to stay together for the sake of the kids (i.e., our students), but while we sometimes do not want to acknowledge it, we draw great sustenance and even pleasure from each other. From the political science side, it seems to me that the investment and affections are a bit asymmetric in that most of us see the great importance of international history, while historians draw less from political science and sometimes have the temerity to doubt the value of the discipline. In my last year of graduate studies at Berkeley I took a fine course on European international history by the renowned Raymond Sontag. I very much enjoyed and learned from the course, but when I talked to him about drawing on history for my dissertation, while he treated me with great personal kindness, he made clear that he really didn’t see why political science was needed and hoped that I would not muck up his field. On the other hand, many historians have not only tolerated and even encouraged our intrusions, they have drawn on our theories. For all our differences, we share a fascination with the patterns, idiosyncrasies, and changes in cross-border relations.