Women, the Dynasty, and Marriage
How classic international relations scholarship misunderstood history
This is one of those weeks where I’ve been writing bylined pieces for money. Instead of original content, loyal subscribers get a little bit of the backstory.
First, the new piece, out today in Foreign Policy, entitled “The Founding Fathers of International Relations Theory Loved War but Overlooked Sex”:
When it came to power in pre-modern Europe, Morgenthau and other IR theorists zoomed in on war and conflict, and the mistrust that resulted. They saw in these patterns of recurrent war a grim warning for any sort of attempts to improve international politics today. But their attempt to find simple lessons of history is complicated by the fact that the actual levers of power amid Europe’s dynasties were often very different: marriage, sex, and family.
International relations were a far more literal concept when states not only fought but also married and had children. When the state hung on the body of the ruler, rulers had no private lives. Marriages could be strategic weapons. Failure to produce an heir could result in disorder or war. A flaccid penis or a barren womb was a national concern, not an individual one. These issues, often dismissed by scholars of international relations theory, changed the fate of nations. One famous international relations text defines its concerns in the title as “Man, the State, and War.” But the overwhelming concerns were often more women, the dynasty, and marriage.
The piece talks about both some longstanding critiques that folks, from Marxists to feminists, have made of this assumption, as well as more recent theoretical and quantitative studies that have shown that dynastic interests drove much of “international” relations in Europe before the contemporary period.
It’s a piece that brings together a lot, from state formation literatures I encountered as a graduate student to my armchair interest in broadening Eurocentric accounts of international relations theory (the Chinese empires didn’t have these problems as frequently!) to my abiding interest in getting more specific about what systemic change really means.
And it’s also a slow-burn response to another classic Foreign Policy article, this one by Stephen Walt back in 2009. In it, Walt tongue-in-cheek applied IR theory to romantic relationships:
To begin with, any romantic partnership is essentially an alliance, and alliances are a core concept on international relations. Alliances bring many benefits to the members (or else why would we form them?) but as we also know, they sometimes reflect irrational passions and inevitably limit each member’s autonomy. Many IR theorists believe that institutionalizing an alliance makes it more effective and enduring, but that’s also why making a relationship more formal is a significant step that needs to be carefully considered.
It was funny enough that it got passed around the seminar table, and did well enough that Walt did a sequel the following year. But the crux of the joke is, more or less, that normal human relationships don’t work anything like international relations theory, at least the kind Walt had in mind. That put a burr under my saddle, though, because it left the idea that maybe the problem wasn’t that IR theory and people were distinct but that theory (again, the kind of theory Walt had in mind) was skipping over the fact that people and their actual marriage and childrearing responsibilities were implicated in IR. And it turns out that the past century of European politics has a lot to say about international relations when families, not raison d’etat, were at the center of the story.
The piece also addresses a pretty common strain of resistance I get when I talk about anything other than Morgenthau-style boring realism in class: why does any of this “identity” stuff matter? Well, as legions of feminist and critical scholars have pointed out, the identity stuff isn’t secondary to but constitutive of the social world. And if you really take that on board, the “parsimonious” theories earlier generations of scholars prized themselves on begin to look not like simplified versions of reality but just distortions of it. As folks like Hiroaki Abe, a scholar quoted in my article, demonstrate, one can still do rationalist work within a more informed paradigm, but you have to actually do the homework about what earlier ages were, rather than just assuming they were like today but with funny hats.
One more thing! This was my second piece published with FP in this week—the earlier one was a look at why America’s currency is so bland and uninteresting. And it turns out that social science has a lot to say about it:
What does U.S. currency say about the American political project? Economics graduate student Kerianne Lawson analyzed the design of 198 countries’ currency to create indices of the symbolic contents of those notes in categories including gender, science, religion, art and culture, and politics. She found that countries with higher political content on their banknotes—more portraits of former heads of state, activists, and so on—scored worse on Freedom House’s political freedom rankings and the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index.
The United States scored a zero for representation of religion (top scores: Macedonia, Egypt, and Iran), representation of women (top scores: Australia, England, and Anguilla), arts and culture (top scores: Switzerland, Uruguay, and Romania), and science and agriculture (top scores: Somalia, Cameroon, and Central African Republic). The United States did, however, score second overall by how much political imagery its currency contained, behind only Thailand.
Correlation isn’t causation, but Lawson’s cross-national findings hardly contradict the idea that the stodginess of U.S. currency design reflects an ossified political structure that promotes, rather than ameliorates, inequality. Sometimes that promotion of inequality is brutally literal. The dollar is the only major currency without different sizes and tactile markings to allow those who cannot see to distinguish bills of different denominations (and reportedly will not have such markings before 2026).