Recovering the Nation, Part 3: Why Doesn’t International Relations Have a Theory of the National?

September 1, 2014

I want to wind up this series of posts with a few thoughts on why we need to recover the nation at all. If it’s such an important piece of the architecture of the world why doesn’t it get more attention?

There’s an interesting clue in the story of Karl Lamprecht. Lamprecht (died 1915) was a German social historian, nationalist and advocate of Auswärtige Kulturpolitik. In advocating for world power without war (weltmacht ohne krieg) Lamprecht believed that through strategic application of German science, culture and economic resources Germany could achieve its rightful position in the world (Chickering 1993). In 1903 Lamprecht was writing about the ‘tentacle state’ that national influence could no longer be thought of in terms of the narrowly defined territorial nation state but one also had to include overseas political organization, the diaspora, investment and ‘atmospheres of exports and ideas’. In writing a history of foreign public engagement it’s pretty clear that 20th century states have been ‘tentacle states’ (given that the octopus is a staple of propaganda posters maybe network state is better) yet there’s been a gap between the theory and the practice (Conrad 2010: 398-9).

During the 19th century German history had been political history. At the end of the 1880s Lamprecht had started publishing a 12 volume history of Germany that shifted the focus towards ordinary people. This triggered a bitter struggle called the Lamprechtstreit. This was partly about method but it also reflected the tensions within Wilhelmine Germany. Most historians were supporters of the state and they feared that identifying the nation with the social as Lamprecht did under the influence of Herder would undermine the association of state and nation and open the way to socialism. Lamprecht was defeated and social history was to remain a minor part of German history until after 1945 – he was better received in France and can be seen as a forerunner of historians such as Bloch and Braudel (Breisach 2007).

The German effort to maintain the position of state/politics over society/the social echoed through the Weimar period as can be seen in Carl Schmitt’s efforts to define the political as a separate sphere. And from Schmitt we get to Hans Morgenthau and American realism. Realism is a pure theory of the state and states-system that lacks social roots. A central debate in American IR is then that between an apparently fragile political state and a cosmopolitan liberalism represented by transnational actors, non-state organizations, civil society, globalization, the internet etc, etc. The marxists have repeatedly pointed out that the realist state lacks social foundations but all they can offer is cosmopolitan class struggle.

This French Herderian theory is then quite different from realism because it’s based on the idea of national difference from below, the state as an expression of culture nation. It’s also different from the liberal or marxist critiques because nationality resides in the civil society.

The situation in sociology and social theory more broadly is a bit different. Up to around 1970 sociology followed, what was retrospectively labelled, ‘methodological nationalism’ that society defined by the nation state is the basic unit of analysis and that societies were self-contained organisms (Mann 1986, Wallerstein 1991, Robertson 1992). Subsequently the rise of globalization as a central analytical framework has done away with this. The problem is that there seems to have been an element of overkill here: getting rid of the nation-state as rigid analytical framework shouldn’t mean ignoring the way that nationalness is both a key institutional and cognitive and emotive element of the world – instead we tend to get a switch between the global and the local that obscures the national. Questions of nation and nationalism get shunted off into specialist research areas.

Given that one of the basic failings of Anglo-Saxon public diplomacy has been the tendency to underestimate the importance that foreign publics attach to nationalness this is of more than theoretical interest.


Breisach E (2007) Historiography : ancient, medieval, and modern. Third Edition. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Chickering R (1993) Karl Lamprecht: A German Academic Life (1856-1915). Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities

Conrad S (2010) Globalisation and the nation in Imperial Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, pp. 398-9

Mann M (1986) The Sources of Social Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robertson R (1992) Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London: Sage.

Wallerstein I (1991) Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms. Cambridge: Polity.


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