Progress, history and identity in international relations theory: The case of the idealist-realist debate

Cameron G. Thies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Scopus citations


This article examines the link between disciplinary identity formation, history creation and progress by undertaking an excavation of the idealist-realist debate in International Relations theory. I demonstrate how the debate was framed by the realists, who constructed a unified 'idealism' temporally located in the interwar period to be the straw man for the justification of their theories and the starting point for construction of the realist identity. The unified paradigm of 'idealism' turns out to be a multiplicity of discourses running throughout the first half of the 20th century. As those discourses intersected with 'utopian' realism, two in particular became central to realist identity. The world federalism discourse became the unacknowledged, implicit goal of realism as the realists simultaneously constructed it as the explicit and sole goal of the 'idealists'. The sovereignty/anarchy discourse became the lived ideal made real through power for the realists who suppressed any mention of this discourse during the 'idealist', 'interwar' years. I argue that the appropriation of these two discourses by realism is the reason that the narrative history of the discipline requires us to forever remember realism's progressive victory over 'idealism' in the First Great Debate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)147-185+307
JournalEuropean Journal of International Relations
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Disciplinary history
  • Disciplinary identity
  • Idealism
  • Progress assessment
  • Realism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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