Classic Works

Francisco de Vitoria, Relectiones (1538-1539)

War is essential in Vitoria’s work because Vitoria’s concept of sovereignty is elaborated mainly in terms of the sovereign’s right to wage war. As Vitoria constructs a law of nations, administered by the sovereign, he reintroduces Christian norms as universal rules endorsed by jus gentium. Evangelizing is authorized not by divine law but by the law of nations, and may be likened now to travelling and trading. Vitoria argues that “…ambassadors are inviolable in the law of nations (jus gentium). The Spanish are the ambassadors of Christendom, and hence the barbarians are obliged at least a fair hearing and not expel them.” Thus, acceptance of the Christian faith could not be forced and should not serve as an excuse for conquest.

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Classic Works

Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen (1642)

Hobbes’s contribution to international relations theory is, for all its significance, rather indirect. Hobbes sets out to give an account of the origin and preservation of internal political order. His practical intention is to foster peace, primarily within and only secondarily among nations. Yet Hobbes invites us to draw lessons about international relations from his political theory when he identifies the state that countries find themselves in as the state of nature. The way to Hobbes’s theory of international relations is therefore largely inferential in character.

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American Classics

Polk, War Message to Congress (1846)

Although he was not the first to put his eyes on the territory west of the Louisiana Purchase, it was the presidency of James K. Polk (1845-1849) that put the finishing touches on the last major acquisition of new territory before the Civil War. A member of the Jacksonian-nationalist wing of the Democratic Party, Polk’s intentions were clear from the start—his famous campaign slogan, “54-40 or Fight!” indicated his intention to settle the status of the Oregon Territory with Great Britain on American terms. But even more famously associated with Polk is the Mexican-American War, and with it the acquisition of New Mexico and Upper California.

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Classic Works

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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Classic Works

Xenophon, The Education of Cyrus (ca. 370 BCE)

The Education of Cyrus is no simple paean to Cyrus, nor a handbook showing how to rule the world. Xenophon meditates on the conditions of uniting independent nations under unified political leadership, and the costs of so doing. The possession of empire can be as detrimental to the rulers as it is to the ruled. The Persians were once much like the Spartans, but they were changed by the rule of Cyrus. Xenophon thus shows that little is “natural” in the superior qualities of Greek soldiers when compared against the Persians. Keeping independent and separate political communities, with the attendant possibility of war and instability, seems very much wrapped up with the virtues necessary for successful warfare. The choice between empire and independence is one of the most fundamental political choices, and Xenophon deftly shows the Greeks and the later world the costs, limits, and possibilities of becoming an imperial power.

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American Classics

Madison’s Examination of the British Doctrine

We cite Madison’s Examination as a classic of American strategy and diplomacy because it set the stage for one of the last, and in the end unsuccessful, efforts of the Jeffersonian Republicans to realize one of the principal goals of the Revolution in international affairs.  The Founders – including Adams’ father – had hoped that entrance of the United States into the Euro-Atlantic state system would bring about a new configuration of international power, one favorable to liberty and reformist domestic politics.  This more peaceful and republican world would be underwritten by norms of international behavior that followed an increasingly liberal law of nations. 

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Essays & Reviews

Colin S. Gray on Thucydides and the Definition of Future Threats

Thucydides leaves us no doubt that the principal threat to the security of Athenians flowed more from the distinctly flawed working of the empire’s democratic politics, especially its procliv­ity to promote crowd pleasing demagogues who were short of competence, high ethical standards, or both, than from vengeful Persians or strategically pedestrian Spartans. Political ruin tends to begin and end at home. Students of international relations need to remember this plain warning from the historical record.

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Essays & Reviews

Are We all Clausewitians Now? Reflections on the Work of John Keegan

“I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath.”  Thus John Keegan, later Sir John, began his landmark book, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, published in 1976.  Despite this bit of caution, Keegan’s book was immediately hailed as a classic; one that conveyed what the experiences of combat was like for the participants, above all the common soldier. 

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Essays & Reviews

On Sophocles’ Antigone and Modern Tyrants

Tyrants are prone to seek domination of ever-larger possessions, and the only constraint on their expansion, aside from internal strife, is effective opposition by external powers. If they are not combated, tyrants can indeed be highly disruptive of international stability.

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