Hans Morgenthau, the great American theorist on international relations, wrote that the key to discipline is simple: just assume that "statesmen think and act in an interest defined as power". This would set free timeless and universal laws.
When it came to power in pre-modern Europe, Morgenthau and other IR theorists took a closer look at war and conflict and the resulting distrust. They saw in these patterns of recurring wars a grim warning against any attempt to improve international politics today. Their attempt to draw simple lessons from history is complicated by the fact that the real levers of power in European dynasties were often very different: marriage, gender, and family.
International relations were a far more literal concept when states not only fought but got married and had children. When the state was attached to the ruler's body, the rulers had no private life. Marriages could be strategic weapons. Failure to produce inheritance can lead to disorder or war. A flaccid penis or an infertile womb was a national concern, not an individual one. These questions, often rejected by scholars of international relations theory, changed the fate of nations. A famous text on international relations defines its concerns in the title as "Man, State and War". But the overwhelming concerns were often more women, the dynasty, and marriage.
Europe's dynastic past shows that changes in international systems involve more than just shifts in an eternal power struggle – they also involve a far-reaching transformation to social systems that can change the rules of this competition. The norms that today's theorists take for granted are ephemeral and relatively new. And it shows how women – ignored by the discipline's founding fathers – were key, if not always happy, to those international relationships.
Today you can easily find modern maps of Europe in AD 1000. They show large parts of a continent ruled by countries with an unfamiliar sound, but overall the maps look pretty familiar. These cards are deeply misleading about the past. They assume our understanding of what politics should be in a world that is fundamentally different from ours.
Contemporary states are defined by their borders – what scholars refer to as "territoriality" – but these policies were linked by relationships between rulers and governed by complex and overlapping jurisdictions. And in these vast regions, nominally subject to the jurisdiction of one power or another, there could in fact be dozens or hundreds of functionally independent policies, ranging from sovereign cities to bishoprics to duchies and kingdoms.
The reductionist view of international relations shows how these hundreds of policy areas have come together in the few dozen European countries today. It is a story that privileges war and conquest. It's plausible, but just as misleading as these cards. The conquest, of course, was important to the consolidation of Europe, and the war effort went a long way towards building governments that became more competent to tax and levy armies. But ambitious rulers preferred other strategies to the costly war game or the pacification of conquered provinces.
European "states" were really dynasties that intertwined the personal and political selves of the rulers – and opened new avenues for expansion. There was little concept of the "national" interest to which monarchs should nominally be subordinate – only the interest of rulers, nobles, and other elites (like the church) and the rumblings from below that could overthrow them.
Strategies that later epochs could not envision as part of statecraft could prove crucial. The most important of these was the conception. A child could connect areas; the absence of one could destroy them. At a time when the family was the foundation of politics, the most common crises were not economic or military, but biological – a ruler's failure to produce an heir, or an heir's failure to survive into adulthood. And, as Marxist historian Perry Anderson notes, marriage was the "supreme instrument of diplomacy" because it could achieve the same goals of dynastic expansion as war – and at a much lower cost.
The European states have not only consolidated themselves through a survival process of the strongest, which was determined by the dark war. Dynasties could gain more control and territory through marriage, inheritance, purchase, or even invitation. Depending on how these processes happened by chance and chance, this consolidation pattern did not lead to successive revisions of increasingly rational designs of modern states. Rather, a patchwork of inheritances and additions, as the theoretician for international relations, Daniel Nexon, writes, has created “dynastic agglomerations”.
The Habsburg rule in the middle of the 16th century best illustrates the principle. Around 1550, Emperor Charles V controlled today's Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples, Milan, the Netherlands and much of Austria, Germany and Romania – together with large parts of the former Aztecs, Incas and other countries in the western hemisphere.
Dynastic marriages have promoted dynasty interests in many ways. Most obviously, they gave legitimacy to any children that might result, passing political power on from one generation to the next. The Habsburg Empire reached its greatest expansion in Europe through a patchwork of inheritance, not a militarily optimal strategy – and its expansion may even have been detrimental to the expansion of their interests. For example, it was very exhausting to bring soldiers from Italy to the rebellious Netherlands.
Marriages could also provide valuable information, as the historian Paula Sutter Fichtner writes: "If accurate information from abroad was of paramount importance, a child could keep up to date with events there in a foreign court." Dynastic marriages, organized by women played a decisive role, also served as transmitters for cultural exchange. This was part of the process of creating an elite and creating a sense of "Europe" out of the political divisions in the post-Roman world. The arrival of a new queen could shake up art and manners by bringing in new ideas, creating cultural amalgamation, while at the same time distancing cosmopolitan life at court from the cultures they rule.
Most importantly, inter-dynasty marriages kept the peace. International relations scholar Hiroaki Abe argues that thanks to the power of kinship relationships, dynastic marriages weaken competition between ruling houses.
Dynastic deterrence worked, Abe claims, because "dynastic women and families of origin play the hostage roles". A war against a monarch related by marriage to a ruler could damage a dynasty's reputation and reduce the chances of a future beneficial marriage – and why destroy what one might inherit?
The net result, Abe writes, is that the dynasty's ability to marry one another made certain European conflicts less serious than they otherwise would have been. Statistical tests by the scholar Joseph Gardner confirm that European rulers who came from the same patrilineal dynasty were the least likely to fight one another.
The goal of dynastic marriage was not only expansion but also reproduction – in the truest sense of the word. As historian Robert Bartlett writes in Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe, "(i) It was not elections or referendums that shaped political life, but the births, marriages and deaths of the ruling family."
A political world that cared about the interests of a family line was one where the prospect of extinction of the dynasty was the worst possible scenario. Contemporaries feared that dynasties that did not produce clearly recognized heirs could spark wars between rivals in an heirless empire and ambitious external powers seeking to put their dynastic candidate on the throne. Modern science confirms these fears.
Evolution divides species into two types: those that produce many offspring and only a few expect to survive, and those that go to great lengths to raise small numbers of offspring in highly competitive environments. The European royal house was decidedly the latter. Every eldest male child bore the burden of a dynasty. Tremendous efforts, from medical to astrological, have been made to steer the heir in the right direction.
Dynastic reproduction failures were crises of basic government institutions and had incredibly long lasting effects. Political scientists Avidit Acharya and Alexander Lee estimate that regions of Europe with more male heirs hundreds of years ago per capita are significantly richer than regions with bottlenecks. The good fortune of a ruling family to produce an heir during the Galileo era could explain why a region is still richer or poorer than its neighbor today.
There were other ways the replication could fail. For example, research on the Spanish Habsburg dynasty shows that inbreeding likely influenced its decline after nine out of eleven consecutive marriages were consanguineous, with some members of the dynasty being made by matches genetically as close as brother and sister. Even a frail but intelligent heir like the hemophilic Tsarevich Alexei of Russia sparked worries that could lead to bad decisions, like the spiritual healer Rasputin's invitation to court.
All of this made the female body indispensable for European politics. Real women got caught up in these calculations. Girls aged 12 or under could become engaged to future husbands who they had never met and sent to their future family, hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away. Their bodies became little more than political vessels.
The imperative to produce an heir suggests that European politics revolved around sex, especially procreation. But biology alone has not caught on. Behind all of these calculations are strict social rules regarding gender, religion, and inheritance.
Given the high cost of finding an heir, why could European rulers not turn to means other than monogamous, largely unbreakable marriage to produce legitimate heirs? After all, male rulers in most parts of the world used practices such as polygyny (several women) or cohabitation to avoid the political instability that repeatedly bankrupted many European states. For example, Harvard University political scientist Yuhua Wang notes that Chinese emperors of the past millennium, some of whom had hundreds or even thousands of concubines, had little trouble feeding male heirs, reducing a major cause of political instability.
A view of politics that ignores social life cannot explain this inability to adapt as it comes from faith. Christianity prohibited such practices and restricted divorce and incest more than its European predecessors. Christianity also frowned at interfaith marriages and contributed to the endemic war between Muslim and Christian rulers in Europe. After the Reformation, the use of marriage and child-rearing increased when the accession of a ruler with a different faith threatened to anger the entire empire.
Gender roles also collided with rule. Diana Saco, international relations scholar, notes that Queen Elizabeth I's long reign in 16th century England forced (male) political theorists to re-examine which sovereignty itself should justify leadership by a woman – and Saco notes that Elizabeth's own refusal to marry weakened her dynasty responsibility against her own desire to exercise power.
The reductive view of international relations, driven only by lust for power, cannot explain why these types of religious rules or gender norms matter. They did it anyway. International politics cannot be reduced to simple explanations that ignore everything that makes social life meaningful, because it is precisely these conditions that make it possible to take any political action at all.
Eventually, the rise of nationalism, bureaucracy, and forms of rule other than monarchies displaced concerns about dynastic marriages and children. Nobody today expects Canada's holding together to depend on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the eldest son of a former Prime Minister who brings forth a third generation of his dynasty. No analysts fear that the European Union is at risk, because neither French President Emmanuel Macron nor German Chancellor Angela Merkel have children in marriage.
Even so, marriage, gender and gender have shaped the history of the European political system, although they have not been included in some theorists' accounts of the past. Questions whose interests are important in international politics cannot be taken for granted. The identities of those in power and the way their interests are translated into strategies can change radically over time. You can move again for reasons that we can only currently see. But at least we can fix the politics of the past and blame the women whose work spawned them.