Must History Repeat the Great Conflicts of This Century?

Course No. 828
Professor Joseph S. Nye Jr., Ph.D.
Harvard University
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Course No. 828
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Course Overview

Will the end of the Cold War bring peace and harmony or war and chaos? Is America going to play a dominant role in international affairs or is the U.S. in decline? Is military power still the key to world leadership or has economic power become more important? Should the U.S. attempt to play the role of global police force or should we withdraw from our overseas military commitments?

Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr., the Dean of The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, addresses these issues in this study of international politics.

This course examines the origins of the great conflicts of our century and asks if history is doomed to repeat them.

Twice in the first half of this century, nearly all the great powers engaged in wars that killed nearly 70 million people. During the past 50 years, the Cold War has dominated our lives and international politics.

The aftermath of each war shook the international political system, changed the maps of the world, and set the scene for the next great conflict.

The series examines how concepts like the balance of power and the international system interweave with history. It asks what actually happened in these great conflicts, so we can better evaluate if we are destined to repeat them.

International Politics: Foundations

The first three lectures give you background and tools for the study of international politics.

Lecture 1 discusses the basic international political systems and their characteristics, from empire to the anarchic state system in which we live today.

Lecture 2 deals with the key problem of defining an international system, and it uses the example of the unification of Germany to demonstrate an international political analysis on the individual, the state, and the systemic level.

Lecture 3 gives an introduction to one of the most frequently used concepts in international politics: the balance of power. You examine changing definitions of power as well as the varying definitions of the balance of power. You explore the period between 1814 and 1914 in Europe in order to see different phases of a balance of powers.

International Politics: The First And Second World Wars

Lectures 4 through 6 examine the origins of the great conflicts of the century and the attempts by world leaders to avoid history's mistakes. You discuss the origins of World War I in the balance of power in Europe and increasingly nationalist politics, as well as the fatalism that led states to believe war could not be averted.

Dr. Nye presents Woodrow Wilson's attempt to eliminate war from the face of the earth, along with the problems in U.S. domestic politics and the treaties themselves that doomed the League before it was begun.

You consider whether World War II was an inevitable continuation of World War I. Professor Nye distinguishes the causes of the war in the Pacific from those of the war in Europe. He assesses Hitler's role in the war along with other causes stemming from the Treaty of Versailles.

International Politics: The Present and Future

Lectures 7 and 8 discuss the origins of the cold war and the possibility for change in the international system in the post-cold war world.

You examine the aftermath of World War II and the confrontations that led to a period of intense U.S.-Soviet hostility, and you discuss changes that have occurred in the international political system to preclude repetition of history. The series concludes with an admonition not to simplify current situations into historical analogies.

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8 lectures
 |  Average 45 minutes each
  • 1
    Continuity and Change in World Politics
    The lecture series opens with a debate on whether international politics has entered a new era. International political systems from the Roman Empire to the modern day are examined. Differences between international and domestic politics are discussed, as is the relevance of the two major schools of analysis of international politics in today's world. Changes in international politics in modern times are evaluated, as well as their significance for future conflict or cooperation. x
  • 2
    What Is an International System?
    In this lecture we examine the definition of an international political system and the patterns of relationships among states. German unification in 1870 redrew the map of Europe and led to World War I; it presents a model for systemic analysis and we assess its advantages and limitations. Analysis of international politics often shows patterns with predictable consequences, and with the recent unification of Germany we ask: How much has changed since 1870 in the international political system? x
  • 3
    The Balance of Power and Its Problems
    Power has been defined and redefined in terms of resources, from gold to industry to information technology. A state's access to resources determines its role in the international balance of power. The balance of power can be used as a policy predictor and tool for analysis, assuming that a state will act to prevent another state from developing a preponderance of power. Nineteenth-century Europe serves as an excellent illustration of power politics as the region moved from a moderate balance, to the tense bipolar situation in which World War I broke out. x
  • 4
    The Origins of the First World War
    Was World War I inevitable? It killed millions, brought down three empires, and changed the face of international politics. It was generated within a woeful confluence of blundering foreign policy, corrupt domestic politics, and unhealed wounds from past crises. The origins of the war are discussed, as well as alternative scenarios that might have played out if things had been different. x
  • 5
    The Problems and Promise of Collective Security
    The horrors of World War I, and the waste of human life which it represented, caused a revolution in Western opinion. A leader in the new school of thought who blamed balance of power politics for World War I was Woodrow Wilson. The League of Nations embodied Wilson's ideal of a system of collective security and enjoyed moderate success between 1924 and 1930. Fatal flaws in the system and Europe's return to balance of power politics are examined here, as well as the lessons that history learned from the League of Nations. x
  • 6
    The Origins of the Second World War
    World War II caused the deaths of more than 35 million people, genocide, and the invention and use of the atomic bomb. It ushered in a bipolar world in which Europe was finally dwarfed on the international scene. Hitler's actions eventually cost him the war when he involved the United States. Similarly, Japan lost its bid to dominate Asia militarily when it declared war on the United States. In seeking lessons to be learned from the tragedy of World War II, one must return to its origins. Blame must be laid not merely on appeasement policies, but on a general failure to assess accurately the motives and options of other nations. x
  • 7
    The Origins of the Cold War
    The cold war spanned more than four decades and encompassed minor confrontations in nations around the world, but never resulted in direct combat between the United States and the Soviet Union. The clashing ideologies of the two countries and the vacuum of power in postwar Europe inexorably led the two great powers into a spiral of hostility which defined international politics for the latter half of the 20th century. x
  • 8
    Alternatives to the Present International System
    The post-cold war world will result in the first time in centuries that the international system does not change due to a great war between world powers. Perhaps we are now entering a new world order. For the United States to remain an international power it must combine a strategy of traditional concerns with respect for new views and new players on the international scene. Because history never repeats itself, we must not forsake the future to avoid the past. x

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Your professor

Joseph S. Nye Jr.

About Your Professor

Joseph S. Nye Jr., Ph.D.
Harvard University
Dr. Joseph S. Nye Jr. is Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard University, as well as Dean Emeritus of the Kennedy School of Government. He is also a member of the board of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School. He previously served as Director of the Center for International Affairs, Dillon Professor of...
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Must History Repeat the Great Conflicts of This Century? is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 35.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A Complex Discussion Without Conclusions Professor Nye brings some interesting, thought-provoking tidbits to the discussion but unfortunately it seems like the more interesting they are the less he teases them out. Instead, when he does choose to spend time on a theory that may be less intriguing he looks at it from so many various angles and viewpoints that your head is left spinning! For example he mentions at the end of World War II the US refusal to allow the Soviet Union to have a zone of influence in Japan led to the Stalin refusing to move his armies from Eastern Europe. I had never heard of this being the reason for Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and would've loved to hear more on this but instead he moved on to the next thought. There's a few of these "interest piques" but alas they go nowhere (like in the first lecture when he mentioned the history of international systems or how Spain dominated the 16th century, France the 17th, England the 18th, and the United States next---let's hear more on these fascinating topics!). Ultimately this lecture series is one long series of hypotheticals and back and forth debates over causes of events such as World War I, World War II, and the Cold War but I never got the sense he provided much of a conclusion not only to the question in the course's title (though the answer one would presume would be "no") but even to the main discussion points in the lectures he would raise. For example he would pose a question like "Was World War I inevitable?" and proceed to provide numerous view points from a number of scholars and critics. He would then dispute some/most of them and it was not uncommon for him to essentially say, "on one hand...but..." and "this is too simple an explanation..." on it on it went without a satisfying conclusion or understanding of where he stands on certain things. I get the sense the professor is a fan of complexity. I prefer simplicity. But it may just be that I am the problem here: these are very intricate and highly complicated historical dynamics to interpret and the professor obviously wants you to think through them on a number of levels. Still I hoped he would've organized things a bit better and would've still left us with some conclusions or at least summaries of the wild journey he has taken us on. But I get the sense this is less a structured course on organized topics intended to teach and more of a highly qualified historian having a personal talk with you about what he likes to do most: talk history wherever it may lead him. If you approach this course from that perspective you may find it worth your time.
Date published: 2020-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Surprisingly rewarding Thought provoking, nuanced, illuminating. Touch of humor.
Date published: 2020-08-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Outdated The course was read some 25 years ago (I should have paid attention to the "Great Conflicts of THIS Century" in the title. Probably was great then, but much of the content is irrelevant today. The GC should take it off the shelf.
Date published: 2018-11-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I Think His Conclusion is "No" audio download version Professor Nye brings to this course as an impressive set of credentials as any in the TC set of courses. His course is structured and his delivery style is in the tradition of academia: rigorous, detailed, somewhat dry and pedantic and taking extreme care provide enough background so that we are able to both follow his reasoning and understand his conclusions (when he has them). To be sure, as an historian and social scientist, Dr. Nye is as careful as a physicist or chemist in stating his conclusions and predictions as reasoned possibilities rather than factual certainties. This for me, is a good thing and I’m sure that Dr. Nye would modify some of his ideas about the future given a chance to add a couple of lectures to the course dealing with the 21st Century, the fall of the Soviet Union, the wars and conflicts in the Middle East and more. But the accuracy of his view into the future really does not obviate his analysis of the past. I’m sure that there is no chance for an update, but even so there is much to be leaned from this course. For me, this course started a bit slowly as the first two lectures seemed to be quite dry and academic and not really seeming to address the topic of the course at all. But I found enough of interest to continue with hope that things would move toward what I was expecting. For example I thought that the discussion of the differing schools of academic analysis of international politics to be dry beyond belief, even though the names of Locke and Hobbs were mentioned frequently. Of course I knew from reading the course scope that Professor Nye was setting the table for further discussion, but I was getting impatient. On the positive side of these first few lectures, I loved the view that Europe had been relatively stable since the Treat of Westphalia (minor exceptions like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 aside) until about 1912 or so. Also his discussion of what balance of power in Lecture Three meant gave me an understanding I had not previously had. I was both relieved when Dr. Nye got around to the background of WWI, WWII and the Cold War and glad that he had prepared me for his analysis of the reasons for those conflicts and his thoughts as to the possibility of their avoidance. I was especially interested in his thoughts on appeasement and that such a policy was often positive. As an aside I wonder what his thoughts would be on Chamberlain given that it now appears that he did not necessarily just misjudge Hitler and the situation, but that he may have been acting from entirely different motivations. For me, much of his view into the future stands up quite well after some 25 years. I’d still like two more lectures: one to address how what happened compares to this theories and another to look once again further into the future. Recommended
Date published: 2017-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from On the measure of time... I have had the distinct pleasure of listening to Professor Nye deliver similar lectures in real time. Thse lectures clearly emerge from a course that Professor Nye regulalry taught at Harvard. The lectures date from the 1990s and as such are in need of an update. For example, you wil not find reference to some of th emore recent work by John Mearsheimer, Niall Ferguson, or Arlene Tickner's work on the present and future of international relations to include perspectives outside those defined by the Anglo-American view of internatioanl relations. That said, this is a solid introduction to thinking about twentieth-century conflict and the the theories that explain those conflicts. I was particularly interested in the last lecture which considers future alternatives. Given that we now know "what happens next" in the nearly 20 years since that lecture was delivered, it allow us to see the fullness and richness of thought behind the lectures.
Date published: 2016-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent The course is dedicated primarily to analyzing the models of international relations power distribution models, and seeing how they are manifested in the major conflicts of the Twentieth century – WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. Professor Liulevicius’ wonderful course “War peace and Power – Diplomatic history of Europe 1500-200” also focuses on some of the same models – with particularly large segments dedicated to understanding the balance of power of the great European powers during the 19th century – leading eventually to WWI. The perspectives of the two courses are somewhat different however: in Professor Liulevicius’ course, the motivation is to understand, using international relations models, the history and dynamics of diplomacy of Europe – a historical perspective. The object of interest in the current course are the international relations models themselves, and the historical conflicts of the 20th century are used to illustrate them. The course was different from other TGC courses that I have heard so far in that it was much more formal and focused on theoretical models - more strictly “academic” than the usual TGC content. I guess that this may have to do with the fact that this course is quite old – certainly produced before 2000. I think that the TGC may have fine-tuned the content, and down toned the formal academic discussions of more recent courses, to make them more palatable to a wider audience. Personally, I enjoyed the formal academic tone of the current course and wish that there was more of this in current TGC material. Another aspect in which the course is definitely showing its age, is with respect to observations that the professor makes about (then) current great powers. He goes on in long, today anachronistic, discussions of whether USA will remain the sole great power or it will eventually decline. Obviously, USA has lost (at least to a significant extent) the huge international leadership and influence that it had when the course was produced. I enjoyed Professor Nye’s presentation of the course, and found it to be well structured, interesting and easy to follow. As I have said, it was quite formal and academic in nature. Some may not like this, and it differs quite strikingly from presentation styles of more current TGC courses.
Date published: 2016-04-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from In some ways outdated but still excellent While I would agree with the other reviewers that this course may be out of date on the last lecture I would submit that in fact the early lectures are now very current, because of the ongoing problems in the middle east. DH and I were taking a course on how the lead up and WW1 affected the middle east and caused all the problems there that have lead to the anger and resentment that have fostered a lot of what is going on now while listening to this course. It melded beautifully together. I have actually loaned this course to our instructor who is an middle east expert with the military. I believe the first 4 lectures will be of great interest to him.
Date published: 2016-03-30
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Pedantic and Superficial Mark Twain wrote succinctly that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr. takes eight 45-minute lectures to say essentially the same thing. The lectures focus primarily on the "great conflicts" of the twentieth century: World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. In raising the question of whether we may be fated to repeat past political and military mistakes, Professor Nye asserts that war is not inevitable. But the lecturer gets bogged down in intricate and jargon-laden discussions of what he calls "international systems." He skips around to so many different times and events that there is no clearly defined continuity to his discourse. His analysis of the Cold War addresses only the origins; there is not even a discussion of the war in Vietnam. The professor needs more of Mark Twain's straightforward and commonsense approach to the topic of humanity's pattern of repeating its mistakes from the past. One point that is never mentioned in the lectures is the proclivity of nations to manufacture virtually any conceivable pretext in order to start wars . While Professor Nye briefly discusses the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he never mentions that Bismarck baited France into the war through the deceit of the Ems Dispatch. Much of the lecturer's time is spent in theoretical issues, as if he were talking to members of an arcane think tank. What was missing from the lectures was discourse on the practical considerations of war. How many wars have started with a sleight-of-hand on the part of the power elite in order to "sell" the public on a war plan? As early as the fifth century B.C.E., Pericles used his rhetorical abilities to persuade the Athenian Assembly that the Peloponnesian War was in the best interest of Athens. After Pericles' war had dragged on for a generation, the historian Thucydides describes how with the war at a standstill, Alcibiades convinced the Assembly to embark on the Sicilian Expedition. Of course, this became one of the great military catastrophes of the ancient world. Early in this course, Professor Nye mentions the Peloponnesian War, yet fails to draw upon the insights of Thucydides, who was not only a participant in that war, but a sensitive observer of the very topic of this lecture series. Thucydides even dedicated his History of the Peloponnesian War to future ages to learn from the mistakes of Athens. One of the patterns of history that eludes the professor is the uses of propaganda to promote wars. Professor Nye never mentions how President Woodrow Wilson, who ran on the platform "He Kept Us Out Of War" for his second term in office, made a complete reversal in 1917 to commit America to The Great War. The tactics Wilson employed were the propaganda of George Creel and his Committee on Public Information, the indoctrination of Americans by the Four-Minute Men, and the suppression of opposition to the war through the Espionage Act. The professor limits his discussion of Wilson to the Fourteen Points, the League of Nations, and the attempt to redefine global "balance of power." Incredibly, the speaker avoids discussion of the process with which Wilson sold his quasi religious platform of the "Gospel of Americanism" to the American people and to the world. And the first stage of his visionary plan was America's entry into the war. The professor seems to believe in earnest that wars begin with "systems," as opposed to people. In his discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Professor Nye downplays the leadership roles played by John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in avoiding nuclear Armageddon, as he focuses on the "origins" of the conflict in theoretical terms. The lecturer enjoys playing the game of "what if" as he explores circumstances that might have avoided past wars. Well, here's another "what if" for the benefit of Professor Nye: What if the two world leaders in October, 1962 had been George W. Bush and Kim Jong-un instead of President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev? In the final lecture, Professor Nye continues his endless litany of terms ("hard power," "soft power," "diffusion of power") while failing to identify that wars are started by a power elite that may concoct any conceivable rationale to engage in the conflict. He ends with the following bit of wish-fulfillment: "History does not repeat itself--our future is always in our own hands." This lecture series was recorded in 1991 at the end of the Cold War and the close of the Persian Gulf War. Sadly, none of the professor's insights have proven to be of much value in stemming the tide of the "great conflicts" in the past quarter of a century. Course Grade: F
Date published: 2015-07-20
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