The Department was established in 1949 with two goals: first, to provide Australia with an academically rigorous investigation of the leading events and issues in world politics, and second, to communicate that academic understanding to government to improve how Australia engages with the world. As such we have always faced outward towards the world whilst remembering our unique position in Canberra and the opportunities and obligations that flow from that position.
As it has evolved, the Department has been home to some of the leading thinkers of the discipline ‒ Hedley Bull, Coral Bell, JDB Miller, TB Millar, John Vincent, George Modelski, James L. Richardson, Geoffrey Jukes, Arthur Lee Burns, Carsten Holbraad, John Ravenhill, Christian Reus-Smit. This heritage, unparalleled in Australia, has infused the Department with a keen sense of purpose to advance not only the appreciation of events, but also to use those stories to advance discipline-leading theoretical debate.
Today’s Department and its staff are animated by five key, overlapping, concerns that shape our research, activities and education programs: Theory, History, Ethics, Practice and Region.
- We seek to advance the theoretical debate about world politics, what it consists of, how it works and how we should understand its constitution. We work across various theoretical traditions, including grand theories of International Relations,
- We think about the history of world politics, and the multiple traditions from across the world that come together to shape the actors, institutions and processes of the 21st century
- We try and think ethically about the world, what it means to be a responsible and values-led agent
- We consider the role of diplomats and diplomacy, and the role that practitioners play in conducting world politics whether they work for states, international bureaucracies, private entities or in civil society
- Whilst maintaining global horizons, we have a particular focus on the Asia-Pacific, ensuring we bring the stories of the region to global and disciplinary attention.
Some of the key questions that our staff are currently researching include: How can we reappraise the historical evolution of the key concepts of world affairs? What does the rise of Asia mean for our understanding of the key concepts and practices of international relations? What will the future of existing military alliances be? What roles will the countries and regions of the Asia-Pacific play in the future and how can we understand these stories? What is Australia’s role regionally and globally not only in the politics of international affairs but as a joint architect of the regional and international order? How do diplomats engage in their tasks, and how do they innovatively respond to the challenges of conducting world politics?
The quality of the Department’s response to these concerns and questions is evidenced through a record of academic excellence in book publishing (university/leading commercial press, single-authored monographs), academic articles (highly ranked discipline and area focused journals), grant success (from both the Australian Research Council and external funding bodies within and beyond Australia), and a full schedule of public events, seminars, and workshops.
Today the Department executes its functions not only in research and outreach but, equally importantly, in the education of the next generation of scholars, policymakers and informed citizens in Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Whether it is at the undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral level, the Department’s education offerings equip those students with the skills necessary to make a lasting positive contribution. We are also proud of our record of engaging in executive training especially in the field of diplomacy as we equip practitioners with the knowledge and skills necessary to excel.
You can learn more about the history of the IR Department by reading James L. Richardson’s short memoir, James Cotton’s Working Paper and George Modelski’s article.
Heads of Department
1950‒1952 - Sir Walter Crocker
1952‒1958 - Sir Michael Lindsay
1958‒1960 - Leicester Webb
1959‒1961 - Arthur Lee Burns
1961‒1962 - George Modelski
1962‒1987 - JDB Miller
1967‒1977 - Hedley Bull
1988‒1991 - James L. Richardson
1991‒1998 - Andrew Mack
1998‒2000 - John Ravenhill
2000‒2001 - Greg Noble
2001‒2010 - Chris Reus-Smit
2010‒2015 - William T. Tow
2016‒2020 - Mathew Davies
2020‒2022 Wesley W. Widmaier
2022- George Lawson
The Department currently has sixteen academic staff, with expertise covering international theory, international security, and international political economy, as well as a broad range of other issue areas, including diplomacy and diplomatic practice, human rights, environmental politics, international institutions and organisations, regionalism, human security, alliance politics, and Australian foreign policy. In all of our research we bring a regional focus to the study of global politics.
The Department’s research expertise is recognised internationally, and our staff serve on the editorial boards of many of the world’s leading journals and book series. Our staff have also enjoyed considerable success in winning competitive national and international grants.
Consistent with the mission of The Australian National University, the Department has long played a national role in advancing the study and practice of international relations in Australia.
We have helped to establish international relations as a discipline in this country by educating a significant number of Australian academics in the field. We have also consolidated our international connections by welcoming visiting fellows and graduate students from around the world.
The Department runs a busy program of conferences and research workshops, providing the basis for a vigorous publishing program. Australia’s leading journal in the field of international relations, the Australian Journal of International Affairs, has also been edited for several periods within the Department.
The Department has a strong commitment to public engagement on issues of national importance. Our staff are frequently invited by government agencies to give lectures and contribute to policy-making as subject-matter experts.