Impressions from the archive: looking back on 100 years of International Affairs

Editorial Team

International Affairs
Jan 6 · 9 min read
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Photo of Chatham House, 28 November 2016. Photo Credit: US Embassy London via flickr.

In 2020 Chatham House marked its centenary year, against a political context no less tumultuous than that of its founding. In 1920 the world was slowly beginning to rebuild after the devastation of the First World War and ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic. International organizations such as the League of Nations were emerging as ambitious but flawed attempts to strengthen multilateral ties and avert future conflict, and the global economy was yet to begin the fragile recovery which would later facilitate the ‘roaring twenties’. The parallels with today’s global health and economic crises are provocative.

Throughout the past year we have delved into the International Affairs archive to find out what policy issues concerned the decision-makers and academics of the past. You can take a look at our rundown of 100 significant articles here. In this blogpost, we’re going to reflect on what we found in the archive. We will highlight the striking continuities in our subject matter coverage, but also consider the journey taken by both the journal and the institute from their imperial origins to the present day.

The rise and rise of nuclear weapons

Civil defense fallout shelter, USA, c.1950. Photo: Getty Images

A remarkably consistent element of our output throughout the years has been a sustained interest in nuclear weapons, from the decade of their invention right through to our latest volume. Work on armaments of many kinds featured in the journal prior to the Second World War, but from this point onwards work on nuclear weapons became a consistent feature of the journal’s output. Interestingly, the way authors approached the topic changed significantly over the lifespan of the journal, with early accounts characterized by a moral aversion to hydrogen weapons and the idea of a practical nuclear exchange. As the journal continued through the 1960s and 70s however the language in which these weapons of mass destruction were discussed became increasingly sanitized. Whether as a result of the journal’s move away from acting as a record of speeches made to Chatham House members or due to the increasing popularization of strategic studies, language around nuclear weapons within the journal became increasingly calculating.

UK relations with Europe and the US: questions that wouldn’t go away

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An EU flag with one of the stars symbolically cut out in front of the Houses of Parliament in London, UK, 29 March 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Another topic that has been a consistent subject of discussion within the journal is the UK’s position in relationship to Europe. From its founding in the aftermath of the First World War, a significant amount of work published in International Affairs reflects the wider trajectory of the UK’s relationship with Europe. From Irish Independence and humanitarian interventions in the aftermath of the Second World War through to the UK’s role in the gradual establishment of the European Union and contemporary discussions around Brexit, International Affairs has remained a centre for the discussion of the UK’s relationship with its European neighbours. In parallel, the journal has also served as a key diplomatic forum for European leaders with speeches by Konrad Adenauer on the future facing a new West Germany and Wolfgang Schäuble on the possibility of German reunification, sitting alongside Lennart Meri’s Chatham House address on post-Cold War Europe in the aftermath of Estonian independence.

Alongside this, the UK’s position in relation to the US has also been significant. From cooperation on NATO, the future of Europe and intelligence, International Affairs has consistently discussed the role of the US in international politics. In addition to this the journal has also served as an important space for current and former senior US policymakers to comment on international politics, with Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Eugene Rostow and Henry Wriston all writing in the journal.

Gender balance and feminism in IR

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Members of feminist group ‘Non Una di Meno’ take part in a protest march during the World Congress of Families conference in Verona, 2019. Photo: Getty Images

One of the key areas of change within the journal is the issue of gender both as a subject of academic inquiry and in terms of who we have published. In terms of gender balance, while the journal was particularly male dominated during its early years, there was a first wave of progressive change around the Second World War. During the war, in parallel with changes that took place in state-society gender relations in the rest of the UK, the journal saw a drastic increase in work from women who served as intelligence officers, researchers and humanitarian coordinators during the war and who played key roles in the construction of post-war international institutions. In the war’s aftermath, while non-male authors didn’t disappear completely from the journal a reassertion of patriarchy was evident, with numbers of women publishing taking decades to recover. Indeed, it took a long time before a gradual increase led primarily by policymakers and researchers working in international institutions, global finance and the British state allowed the journal even to reach the still highly unbalanced baseline that characterized its output in the 2000s and 2010s.

As an area of academic inquiry gender is conspicuous by its absence throughout the early years of the journal despite publishing peace activist members of the suffragist movement in its early years. In this respect, key articles around the turn of the millennium by Marysia Zalewski, Cynthia Enloe and others have played a vital role in establishing the journal as a space for feminist analyses of international politics with implications to this day for the work of the journal.

Complicity, resistance and the British imperial state

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General Sir William Robertson inspecting British troops in Germany, 1919. Photo: Getty Images.

It would be something of an understatement to say that International Affairs’ relationship with the British state has changed considerably over the years. The troubling reality of Chatham House’s origins, as part of a network of policy institutes preoccupied with maintaining and extending Anglo-American imperial power, meant that the journal published many who actively participated in the administrative processes of empire. Indeed, from Jan Smuts, a man responsible for laying much of the legislative groundwork for apartheid, to Portuguese imperial dictator Antonio de Oliviera Salazar (and many more besides), the journal has published numerous authors directly involved in establishing structurally violent and racist regimes of imperial power with impacts that can still be felt in 2020.

This is not to say that International Affairs even in its early years was solely a space for imperialist thought, with Gandhi being a notable exception, but rather that the journal’s output reflected Chatham House’s wider origins as a British imperial project. In the aftermath of the Second World War, during which Chatham House dedicated itself entirely to the UK war effort as part of the Foreign Office, the institute’s relationship to imperialism and the British state underwent a gradual but significant change. By the 1960s Chatham House and International Affairs had become a metropolitan site of moderate anti-colonial public diplomacy, alongside its continuing imperial role. Leaders of independence struggles and newly independent former colonial states used speeches at the institute to make the case for independence at the very centre of the British imperial metropole. In particular Julius Nyerere stands out in this regard as a national independence leader arguing for independence directly against officials who were part of the British colonial architecture.

After decolonization and in tandem with the increasingly academic direction of the journal, International Affairs increasingly pivoted away from being a record of policy formation within the British state and towards acting as a space for academic discussion with a policy focus. This is not to say that decolonization represented the complete end of this relationship, with Geoffrey Howe’s speech on the UK’s relationship with Europe published just months before his resignation brought down Margaret Thatcher’s government being a particular highlight. Rather, the journal became more of a space for occasional public political writing than one of almost intra-state policy generation.

Global south representation: independence, backsliding and work in progress

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Activists from Bangladeshi feminist groups protest against Bosnian Serb aggression in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dhaka, 1995. Photo: Getty Images

Another area of significant change has been in representation of scholars from the global south. As already mentioned, from the journal’s early decades national leaders and moderate anti-colonial activists from the global south were present in the journal, ultimately culminating in debates in the 1950s and 1960s around decolonization. A move towards academia after this period saw a reassertion of exclusionary Eurocentrism, though this was somewhat mitigated by a steady stream of authors writing in their capacity as leaders within international organizations including the Commonwealth, United Nations and World Bank. In terms of academic representation, with the exception of notable work on the imperial politics of western ‘commitments’ to apartheid, the journal remained highly Eurocentric with shifts only beginning to take place from the late 1990s and early 2000s with significant contributions by the likes of Mahmood Mamdani, Nana K. Poku and Jeremiah O. Arowosegbe. Notable though these articles were, improving global south representation remains an area of focus for the journal’s editorial team through the early career diversity initiative.

Transformations behind the scenes

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Display copies of International Affairs at a launch event at GIGA, Hamburg, 2017

One of the most fundamental shifts in the journal’s output has been the basic format of what we publish. For its first few decades International Affairs primarily served as the journal of record for Chatham House as an institution. As a result, almost all of the content from our first three decades consists of transcripts of speeches made by policymakers, politicians and academics at Chatham house. As the think tank environment gradually professionalized the journal itself shifted towards an increasingly rigorous approach to academic research. This is not to say that this heralded a drop off in political relevance, indeed Che Guevara was one of the first wave of authors explicitly writing in International Affairs as opposed to speaking at Chatham House, but over time the bulk of contributors came from the academy rather than government departments.

The next 100 years of International Affairs?

So, having looked back on work published in the journal over the last 100 years, what kind of trends are likely to affect the work of the journal going forward? Beyond continuing attempts to increase diversity in the journal’s output we (tentatively) think three trends in particular are likely to be of increased prominence as International Affairs moves into its second century. First, we are likely to see an increasing focus on the role of the environment in international politics. With the ongoing climate crisis already having pronounced impacts on international politics it is difficult to see our focus on climate politics going way any time soon. Second, technology and its impact on international relations is becoming a bigger part of the journal’s output. In various forms, work on technology in international politics was a key component of our output last year and is likely to become even more prominent. Finally, it is likely that the output of International Affairs will become increasingly transdisciplinary in scope. In the past the journal has acted as a key space for interdisciplinary interactions, with Susan Strange’s ground-breaking arguments for the development of political economy being a prime example. As such International Affairs is likely to mirror IR’s wider move towards interdisciplinary variation in addressing topics both within and beyond conventional conceptions of global politics.

We hope you enjoyed this final post in our series, ‘100 years of Chatham House’. Every month throughout 2020, the editorial team of International Affairs published some of the highlights from each decade since the founding of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Read more from the series here.

International Affairs Blog

The official blog of International Affairs, the…

International Affairs

Written by

A leading journal of international relations, edited at Chatham House. Subscribe at http://cht.hm/2iztRyb. Follow for analysis on the latest global issues.

International Affairs Blog

The official blog of International Affairs, the peer-reviewed journal of Chatham House.

International Affairs

Written by

A leading journal of international relations, edited at Chatham House. Subscribe at http://cht.hm/2iztRyb. Follow for analysis on the latest global issues.

International Affairs Blog

The official blog of International Affairs, the peer-reviewed journal of Chatham House.

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