The Reluctant Internationalists research project (2013-2017) studied international organisations and movements in twentieth-century Europe through the lens of public health, medicine and medical science. It was funded by Dr Jessica Reinisch’s Wellcome Trust Investigator Award. This report provides an overview of some of the project’s most notable findings and contributions.

Key findings

The group’s key research findings have transformed our understanding of twentieth-century internationalism, by showing that:

  1. There is no single model of international cooperation, but a history of overlapping and competing internationalisms built around an enormous range of political, cultural, religious and economic priorities. Appropriation of the term by Western liberal internationalists has obscured the histories of other versions developed by different political projects.
  2. This diversity of different internationalisms is powerfully brought into focus when attention is shifted away from the United States and Anglophone world, and instead to actors in supposed European borderlands or peripheries. Eastern and Southern Europe, in particular, served as laboratories for various internationalist projects before they were rolled out to other parts of the world.
  3. The two world wars have served as catalysts for international cooperation. Framing military crises as medical or public health emergencies stimulated the creation of international terminologies, procedures and organisations which subsequently stretched far beyond the public health field. Many of these continue to shape the world today.
  4. An actor-centred perspective that explores the history of internationalism from ‘the bottom up’ – through the perspectives of local and national actors, such as patients, children, refugees, soldiers and local officials – lays bare a complex set of motivations and agendas for international collaborations. This stands in stark contrast to the often more monolithic ‘top down’ views of internationalism by scholars of international diplomacy and international organisations that have dominated the scholarship to date.
  5. Failed international projects occupy important places in the history of internationalism and deserve to be studied in much greater depth than they currently are.
  6. Technical experts and expertise are central to the history of internationalism. Their efforts have defined the construction of international organisations, standards and networks, and reveal some of the persistent political, personal and professional tensions integral to all international projects.
Still from The Reluctant Internationalists film by the Wellcome Trust (27 November 2014)

The Team

From the start, a key aim of the project was to assemble a team of exceptional researchers with complementary areas of expertise. The research group was led by Dr Jessica Reinisch, and comprised four full-time researchers (Dr Ana Antic, Dr David Brydan, Dr Johanna Conterio and Dr Dora Vargha), along with seven visiting researchers (Dr Holly Case, Dr Friederike Kind-Kovacs, Dr Elidor Mehilli, Dr Brigid O’Keeffe, Dr Jessica Pearson, Dr Francesca Piana, and Dr Heidi Tworek) and a visiting PhD student (Dr Casey Hurrell). In 2016-2017, the group was completed by two public engagement fellows (the historian Esther Kim and the children’s author-illustrator Francesca Sanna), and a public engagement and events coordinator (Siobhan Morris).

The Reluctant Internationalists core group in June 2016