What my teenage self taught me about international relations

I was invited to contribute to How do you write about the fields of existentialism and international relations? special issues I was interested in this topic and jumped at the chance because it was a question that had been in the back of my mind since I was an undergraduate. Although I didn’t have a clear idea about it at the time, I combined what I was learning while completing my BA in International Relations (IR) with other intellectual interests that I inherited from before I went to university. I often had trouble connecting it to my experiences. To university. One of those experiences was my encounter with existentialist literature.

But maybe we need to take a step back here. There was a special background in him reading existentialists when I was a teenager, and that’s something I developed further in his teenage years. article It was eventually published in a special issue (Ashworth 2023). My parents moved to the Netherlands, but I continued to attend my last two years of high school in Portsmouth. This required many trips by train and ferry throughout the year. Also, it was the early ’80s, so the entertainment had to be low-tech. As an avid reader, I needed lots of books to keep me from getting bored during hours of travel. Early on in the process, I discovered the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. road to freedom Trilogy. Its themes of impending war, personal anxiety, and ultimately the experience of war coincided with the deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations in the early 1980s, when civilization was threatened with the destruction of thermonuclear war. Even before I got my IR degree, I was reading books. road to freedom As an IR text.

This led me to write a contribution to the special issue. I explore existentialism in IR by looking at Sartre’s trilogy as an IR text. At the same time, I was aware of Sartre’s own views on literature. For Sartre, all prose is political, and the reader’s active engagement with it completes the text. With this in mind, I didn’t just want to write his IR theory analysis of the trilogy. I wanted to write in a prose style that would draw me as a reader into the discussion, while copying much of the work’s approach. . As a result, I planned this article as a tripartite relationship between the text, when I first read the trilogy 40 years ago, and me as the author now. Interestingly, there was some temporal symmetry here. The events described by Sartre were set 40 years ago when I read the book, and the time between my first reading and re-reading was the same. road to freedom. So this was also a personal journey that took me back to my first serious engagement with the world of international affairs. But underlying it all was the first question I thought about during my degree: Why isn’t there an existential IR theory?

Of course, that question is wrong. As the other contributions to the special issue demonstrate, there is existentialism in IR theory, but a more accurate statement would be: Why is existentialism so less prominent in IR? I asked this question, “If existentialism is so important to my understanding of IR when I got interested in it and got my degree, why haven’t I cited any existentialist writers until now?” I asked the question. By the end of the article I found the answer to this. For dramatic effect, I’ll leave this discussion until the end.

of road to freedom There are many parts to the trilogy, one of which is an analysis of foreign policy crises. In the first book, era of reason, this theme is in the background. The main story begins with Mathieu trying to raise money for his girlfriend’s abortion. The ongoing crisis, which we know will end in war, remains in the background, only occasionally appearing in Mathieu’s consciousness. On the other hand, the second book The Reprivtakes us to the Munich Crisis, where the threat of war is central to the story. Sartre expanded the characters beyond those who appeared in the first book, but all of the characters still exist. The new fictional characters are joined by fictional representations of real-life political figures involved in diplomacy. The Repriv It is also written in a different style, with scenes switching between the main characters mid-paragraph, giving the impression of a jumble of different stories linked by a common threat. The last book published in English was iron in the soul, jump to the collapse of France in 1940. The number of characters is reduced, and the figures from the first book take center stage again. The long first part depicts the various ways in which the protagonists face the collapse of France, while the short second part (without paragraph breaks) recounts Brunet’s experiences as a prisoner of war.

What is striking about Sartre’s crisis analysis is its lack of concern with causes and its concentration on the resulting consequences. As a discipline, IR typically focuses on causes. As this article argues, for Sartre the pursuit of causes is problematic. Rather, he is interested in the multiple consequences of a crisis. At the heart of Sartre’s exploration of crisis is luck, something that was also a concern during the balance of nuclear terror in the 1980s. Interestingly, consistent with this tendency to downplay causes in favor of effects, the trilogy skips over his 1939 and the beginning of the war. Instead, we go from his 1938 in the second book to his 1940 in his third. This makes sense because the focus has switched from cause to effect. It also ties in with the writings of historian David Reynolds, who wrote about his year 1940 as the fulcrum of the 20th century (Reynolds 2003, ch. 2). IR, especially the various histories found in textbooks, tend to present the past as a structured narrative in which events have clear causes. Indeed, there are many attempts to make the collapse of France understandable from a structural perspective, as I consider in this article. But Sartre and Reynolds challenge us to think of 1940 as a product of good fortune, and that that good fortune will have profound consequences for the future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this rang a lot of bells for me in his early 1980s when I first read the trilogy.

But perhaps what drew me to this trilogy was the way fiction allows the author to involve people in a crisis. This was a common theme in the science-rich fiction about the possibility of thermonuclear war that hit bookstores and broadcast stations in the early 1980s.From Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel when the wind blows (Briggs 1983) – followed an elderly couple trying to understand what happened after a nuclear attack – two classic films of the time: 1983’s the next dayUntil 1984, which scared President Reagan. thread It incorporated the idea of ​​nuclear winter into the scenario, thereby telling a darker story. Like Sartre, these people were not particularly concerned with causes, but focused on multiple and devastating effects.

But the striking contrast in 1983 was between the way fiction used scientific information to explore nuclear war and the way defense intellectuals presented it. The latter presented an abstract world of data and a structured reality that obeys an impersonal logic. This is a world where nuclear deterrence is reduced to abstractions and acronyms, where we can think dispassionately about the unthinkable, and where Carol Cohen’s 1987 article, “Sex and Sex in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” Death” (Cohen 1987). . From Sartre’s perspective, these defense intellectuals had the malicious intent of using their freedom to deny freedom of action by attempting to make thermonuclear war abstract and clinical. It turns out. Or, to put it another way, act as if there is no freedom of action outside of a structured, abstract logic. In the trilogy, it is the communist brunette who acts like a defense intellectual. Ensure knowledge of the true structure of the world.

Brunettes act as if they have all the knowledge necessary to understand what is happening in the world. Other characters spend their time trying to piece together what’s going on. In her first book, era of reason, Brunet’s answer to Mathieu’s problem of finding funds for his lover’s abortion was to encourage him to join the Communist Party. The book’s narrative itself contradicts Brunet’s facile solution to Mathieu’s ennui. We watch the conversations between the protagonists from a third-person perspective, but the characters have limited knowledge, are often distant from the other person’s perspective, and struggle to understand each other. Masu. When I saw this, I remembered something. In the early 1990s, as part of my doctoral studies, I was completing a reading course on diplomacy sponsored by the late Gilbert R. Winham. The interactions in the trilogy, especially in the first book, reminded me of classic works on diplomacy. Moreover, it was very similar to the interpretation of diplomacy as mediation of defection found in James Der Derian’s 1987 book. About diplomacy. This is not surprising given that Der Derian’s usage of alienation, which formed the basis of his view of diplomacy as mediation of alienation, evolved from sources including Sartre (Der. Derian 1987).

However, what this shows is that there is already, to some extent, an invisible existentialist approach to IR. By interpreting diplomacy as a mediation of alienation, it can be argued that classical diplomatic studies, which have their origins in early modern literature, are existentialist in nature.This is explained in more detail in the article mentioned above article.

Here I wonder. Given the influence of existentialism on my choice to study IR at university, why haven’t I cited any existentialist figures before? Again, I hope you’ll give me a more complete answer. You have to read the article to get it, but my first discovery is that the answer lies within the nature of existentialism itself. For me at least, this influence was more of a spirit than an easily cited source. There is a sense in the back of my mind that we should not confine ourselves to obvious and parsimonious answers, as Brunet and the defense intellectuals of the 1980s did. Rather, there are always more complex and multiple stories behind structural abstractions. This led me to explore the complexities behind IR’s origin story, the lost feminist past of IR, and more recently the racism behind early 20th century international thought ( Ashworth 2014; Ashworth 2011; Ashworth 2022).

It is a sense that IR cannot be reduced to abstract structural arguments based on clear causal relationships, and I suspect that I am not the only one writing IR under the influence of this existentialism.


Ashworth, L. (2023) “IR” road to freedom. Rereading Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy as a text for international relations theory’ International studies review. 49:5, 924-936.

Ashworth, L. (2022) “Warriors, Pacifists, Empire: Race and Racism in Pre-1914 International Thought”, international situation. 98:1, 281-381.

Ashworth, L. (2014) History of international thought. London: Routledge.

Ashworth, L. (2011) “Feminism, War, and the Perspective of International Government: Helena Swanwick (1864-1939) and the Lost Feminists of Interwar International Relations”, International Journal of Feminist Politics. 13:1, 25-43.

R. Briggs (1983) When the wind blows. London: Penguin.

Cohen, C. (1987) Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals, sign. 12:4, 687-718.

Derian, J. (1987) About diplomacy. Oxford Blackwell.

Reynolds, D. (2006) From World War II to the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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