NUPI was created by the Norwegian Parliament in 1959. The institute was not a result of a thoughtful plan, but by two independent initiatives fused. One had its roots in the political environment surrounding the Parliament and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while the other came from a young student in the history of ideas, later political science professor Knut Midgaard. The model was derived from abroad – the Royal Institute of International Affairs,Chatham House, which was established in 1920 and became the model for NUPI.
The institute's first director was John Christian Munthe Sanness. He came from a position as foreign editor of Arbeiderbladet and had a PhD degree in history. Sanness’ journalistic skills had developed during the war in London where he was trained by the legendary Anthony J. Martin in BBC English Service. After Sanness, NUPI has held a number of prominent directors, including Johan Jørgen Holst, Sverre Lodgaard and Jan Egeland. Since 2012, NUPI has been led by Professor Ulf Sverdrup, a former professor at BI Norwegian Business School.
Startup appropriation from the Parliament was NOK 100 000.
NUPI started with two employees and was without its own premises. Over time increased headcount and study groups were initiated. This proved to be an effective way to use the expertise. Articles to the country’s newspapers on international issues, was for many years an important task and gave income, while academic research in the strict sense was difficult. Over time, security policy and development research became important pillars in the NUPI research. Eastern Europe research, with emphasis on economics were also important from early years and became the predecessor of the Institute Center for Russian Studies. Also, international economy became a major center of research at NUPI.
Through NUPI’s over 55 year long history, the research activity has covered a wide field, while the institute has adapted to what the Norwegian and the international community have demanded. In Norway, NUPI has also been a center for information on foreign policy issues through seminars, conferences and publications. Many employees have also contributed to a number of public tasks, some of which also have served in various governments. The institute has also trained a large number of Norwegian and foreign students through master's and PhD programs.