Herodotus, The Histories (5th Century BCE)

Herodotus, who wrote a generation after the Persian Wars, puts these battles in the context of a great clash of civilizations, between Greek freedom and Asian despotism. He seeks to explain why and how a relatively poor, small, and divided collection of Greek-speakers were able to defeat a much larger, wealthier, and centralized empire. On the battlefield itself, on land and at sea, the Greeks were better disciplined and employed superior close-order tactics, such as staying in ranks rather than attempting to kill the greatest number of enemy soldiers in open combat. But Herodotus' generic answer reflected the views of his contemporaries and greatly influenced the West's understanding of itself: "As long as the Athenians were ruled by a despotic government, they had no better success in war than any of their neighbors. Once the yoke was flung off, they proved the finest fighters in the world."

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Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625)

Writing in the early 17th century, when much of Europe was in turmoil, Grotius sought to identify principles of law that might offer a peaceful basis for resolving and preventing wars. His three-volume book, first published in 1625 and dedicated to Grotius' patron at the time, Louis XIII, is regarded as the foundation of modern international law. In The Law of War and Peace, Grotius developed a system of principles of natural law, which are held to be binding on all people and nations regardless of local customs.

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Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophic Sketch (1795)

The classic source of modern idealism in international relations theory is Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophic Sketch.” There, the German philosopher (1724-1804) takes up the question of whether perpetual peace is the preserve of men in their graves. Answering in the negative, Kant delineates the conditions necessary for the establishment of perpetual peace among nations, argues that statesmen are morally obligated to seek those conditions, and assures us that those conditions will eventually obtain. He envisions the world slowly progressing toward a federation of independent republics at peace with one another.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Abstract” and “Judgment” of Saint-Pierre’s Project for Perpetual Peace in Europe (1761, 1782)

A word should be said about Rousseau’s place among the various schools of international relations theory. Because he wrote so little about international relations directly and because his one published work on the subject is so ambiguous, his views defy simple categorization. His approval of the goal of perpetual peace and dissatisfaction with the continuation of the state of nature among nations would suggest that he belongs among the modern idealists. Yet he evinces none of the modern idealists’ confidence that this goal would be achieved or dissatisfaction remedied. Here, as in other areas of his thought, Rousseau offers much more of a diagnosis of the modern condition than a cure for it.

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Jeremy Bentham, Principles of International Law (1786-1789/1843)

The older phrase law of nations, according to Bentham, refers to a certain discursive space only through the force of custom, or convention. However, he believed that a more appropriate designation should go beyond mere convention. According to Bentham, the phrase law of nations is a sign relying on the mediation of convention. Without the convention, "the force of custom," the phrase law of nations might be understood as one designating the domestic, municipal law of diverse nations. On the other hand, Bentham explains, that international is a term that stands in no need of the mediation of custom and convention.  To put it more simply, Bentham proposed to replace the concept of the law of nations with that of the law between nations.

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John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919)

In 2014, a slew of new books examining the “war to end all wars” appeared on the shelves of libraries and booksellers around the world. The centennial of that bloody conflict seemed an appropriate time to revisit its causes and consequences. While some of these efforts offered genuinely new insights, most did not. Beyond these freshly bound attempts to encapsulate one of the most destructive events of human history, there is a rich, much older set of works that any serious student of strategy and diplomacy should consider. Among these, The Economic Consequences of the Peace holds a special place.

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Julius Caesar, Commentarii de bello Gallico (mid-1st Century BC)

There is some disagreement as to the character of De bello Gallico. Consisting of seven books by Caesar himself, it is completed in an eighth book by one of his generals, Aulus Hirtius. It has been suggested that they are something like battle-reports given to the Senate. Others have claimed that the books are nothing other than Caesar’s attempt to increase his popularity with the people.

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Machiavelli, The Art of War (1521)

In The Art of War, the only one of his major writings published during his lifetime, Machiavelli sets out to consider that topic from the standpoint of the superintending military commander. The Art of War is divided into a preface and seven books (chapters), presented as a series of dialogues that take place in the garden of Cosimo Rucellai, a friend of Machiavelli, who had died two years before the book was published. Cosimo and his guests, including a silent Machiavelli, respectfully question a visitor, Fabrizio Colonna, who is treated as a military authority. Fabrizio discusses how an army should be raised, trained, organized, deployed and employed. His model is the Roman Legion of the Republic, which he argues should be adapted to the contemporary situation of Renaissance Florence.

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Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (1748)

In addition to elucidating Montesquieu’s account of the liberalizing and pacifying effects of commerce, this essay will examine Montesquieu’s reflections on the practical foreign policy implications of the right of national self-preservation. Of particular importance in this connection are his accounts of the variation in foreign policy according to regime type, the value of confederation, and the role and limits of conquest. Examining these reflections, along with Montesquieu’s praise of England as the best regime, will help us to determine the character of a Montesquieuian foreign policy.

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Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1532)

Few, if any, works of political philosophy have been more important for grand strategy and diplomacy than The Prince. Written by the Florentine philosopher and statesman, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), The Prince, along with Machiavelli’s other major work, Discourses on Livy, brought about a transformation in political theory and political practice.

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