IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Three Sins of the IR Tribe

In their essay, “The Idea of International System: Theory Meets History,” Barry Buzan and Richard Little identify three weaknesses in the way in which IR scholars have conceptualized “the international system”: ahistoricism, Eurocentrism, and—a new word—“anarchophilia.” All three lines of criticism raise important issues regarding the proper study of International Relations, and suggest serious limitations to the study of IR as currently practiced “in the discipline.” I have some comments on their thesis after the extract:

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Since its emergence after the First World War, the discipline of international relations has been focused on contemporary history and current policy issues. The fast-moving nature of the subject, and the demand for expertise on current events, encourage a forward- rather than a backward-looking perspective. Consequently rather few specialists within the discipline have had either a broad historical knowledge or an interest in acquiring it. Even amongst historians, only a few grand historians such as W.H. McNeill have mastered the vast panoply of knowledge that is necessary to thinking about the development of the international system from the beginning. Only in historical sociology has there been something of a fashion to acquire a wide-ranging historical perspective (Mann, 1986; Anderson, 1974a and b; Tilly, 1990; Wallerstein, 1984, 1991; Gills and Frank, 1992; Frank, 1990), but neither this work nor that of the grand historians fits easily into the framework of international relations. Different disciplines have different concerns, and that makes it hard to transfer knowledge over the already formidable barriers of communication that divide one academic specialism from another.

To the extent that international relations has generated its own historical side, it has done so in very selective ways. History has to some extent been mined for comparative statistics (e.g., the Correlates of War project), and for comparative cases (the Anglo-German naval arms race before the First World War). There is some willingness to investigate modern European history as the precursor and source of the contemporary global system (Holsti, 1991), and Ruggie has used the medieval period in Europe to question Waltz's arguments about what is and what is not relevant to understanding the political structure of the international system (Ruggie, 1983, 1993). But the study of European history does not easily lead to basic questions about the origins of international systems, because such a system is obviously and firmly in existence in Europe throughout the modern period.

Occasionally, authors will raid further back and further afield, but these forays are guided more by the search for particular parallels with the modern European experience than by any interest in capturing the character of the international system in history overall (Holsti, 1967, ch. 2; Watson, 1992; Wight, 1977). As a consequence, the few historical times and places that resemble the international anarchy of modern Europe get a disproportionate amount of attention, most notably classical Greece, Renaissance Italy, the "warring states" period in China during several hundred years of the first millennium BC, and to a lesser extent, "warring state" periods in South Asia. As far as we are aware, nobody has yet attempted to write a global history of the international system in its own right.


The tendency toward ahistoricism in international relations blends subtly into a powerful Eurocentrism in the very conception of the international system. On one level this is an understandable ethnocentrism: the discipline of international relations was founded by, and is still dominated by, Europeans and North Americans, and it is only natural that it therefore reflects their perceptions and concerns. But there is more to this Eurocentrism than the cultural biases of most of its writers. There is also the undeniable fact that the European international system emerged from the obscure and backward corner of its feudal period to conquer or dominate the whole planet. During the several centuries of its imperial ascendancy, Europe forcibly and durably transplanted its own forms and principles of political and economic organization worldwide, in the process overrunning not only a host of barbarian tribal peoples, but also all five ancient centres of civilization. The Europeans unquestionably created the first global international system by bringing all parts of humankind into regular economic and strategic contact with each other for the first time. They occupied whole continents and stamped upon them a system of territorial boundaries, trading economies and colonial administrations. The few places that they did not reduce to colonial status (Japan, Siam, Persia, Turkey, China) were forced to adapt to European models in order to preserve themselves.

When they withdrew, the Europeans left behind them a world remade, often badly, in their own image. The global economy that they had forged, with all of its inequalities and uneven development, remained intact and took on a life of its own. Decolonization made colonies into sovereign states. In the process it sowed universally the dragon's teeth of two contradictory political principles--the territorial state and nationalism--that the Europeans had successfully transferred across almost every cultural boundary. During the two decades that marked the bulk of the decolonization process (1945-65), the world was transformed from a system largely defined or dominated by a handful of mostly European imperial states (plus Japan and the United States), into one divided into more than 150 states, and dominated by the principle of sovereign equality.

For the most part international relations specialists have, with some justification, treated this process as the transformation of a European international system into a global one. Riding on the wave of a decisive advantage of power, the Europeans first expanded their own regional system into a global one. When their power waned, the European withdrawal left behind a world remade into a version of the European political order. Its basic units were sovereign states, its overall political structure was anarchic, and the inconveniences of this political fragmentation were moderated (though by no means solved or eliminated) by elements of international society in the form of a body of shared rules, laws, diplomatic practices, norms and organizations. This perspective enables one, again with some justification, to use the European imperial era to fuse modern European history (from circa 1500 onwards) with contemporary global history (from 1945 onwards) and to see the two as a single and continuous historical phenomenon.

But this fusion has two much less justified consequences. First it makes it easy to privilege the position of feudalism, and to a significant extent also the classical Graeco-Roman civilization, in the overall picture of world history. Since Graeco-Roman civilization and feudalism were the antecedents of what became all-conquering European power, they easily slip into the position of seeming also to be the antecedents of the modern international system. Unless one takes pains to acquire the countervailing knowledge, it is easy to assume that classical civilization ended with the fall of Rome, and that the world slipped into the "dark" (albeit eventually fertile) age of feudalism. This bias reinforces the second unjustified consequence, which is the virtual exclusion of non-European history before the expansion of European power. Feudalism was of course a local phenomenon. Only Japan experienced anything similar to it (Anderson, 1974b: 397-431). While Europe was immersed in constructing a slow synthesis between the incoming barbarian peoples and the pervasive remnants of Graeco-Roman culture, the rest of Eurasia, and parts of the Americas, continued with a much older pattern of rising and declining empires, city states, and periodic waves of barbarian invaders. This pattern stretched back for more than 4,000 years before the beginning of the European expansion, and for more than 2,000 years before the emergence of Graeco-Roman civilization. It was eventually crushed out of existence between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries by the rising power of European states.

It is this much wider history, along with European feudalism, that constitutes the real antecedent of the contemporary global international system. Indeed, one can only explore the origins and significance of the idea of international system by comprehending its non-European dimension. Such comprehension requires more than merely selecting the handful of times and locations from the ancient and classical era during which anarchic structures similar to modern Europe's briefly held sway. It means addressing the whole sweep of ancient and classical history in terms of international system, and asking just what kind of system(s), if any, existed before the Europeans subordinated everything to their own anarchic model. Only by following this course can one bring the historical record to bear on the question of what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for an international system to come into being. Without considering that record, one has little incentive to consider basic questions such as the role of changes in interaction capacity in the development of both political units (city states, national states, empires, barbarians) and international systems (interaction capacity = the level of transportation, communication, and organization capability in the system [Buzan, Jones and Little, 1993: ch. 4]). Neglect of such questions defines the current position within the discipline and is one of the costs of its ahistorical and Eurocentric perspective.


The third reason why basic questions about the core concept in the discipline remain not only unaddressed, but almost unasked is anarchophilia, which is very much a consequence of ahistoricism and Eurocentrism. By anarchophilia, we mean the disposition to assume that the structure of the international system has always been anarchic, that this is natural, and (more selectively) that this is a good thing. These assumptions are strong in realism, and very strong in neorealism. Waltz does not attempt to give an account of the origins of the international system, but in his theorizing he talks in timeless terms, saying that: "international-political systems...are formed by the coaction of self-regarding units. International structures are defined in terms of the primary political units of an era, be they city-states, empires or nations" (Waltz, 1979: 91). It is easy to accept this as an account of the whole history of the international system, starting from whenever the first units began to coact. If one's knowledge of history is largely Eurocentric, nothing contradicts it since Europe's international history has been anarchic. Within a Eurocentric perspective, one might be embarrassed by the apparent hierarchical universalism of the Roman Empire, but this subject is rarely addressed (Buzan, Jones and Little, 1993: section II). Supporting episodes of anarchy from Sumeria, China, Greece, India and Italy can be used to bolster the assumption that anarchy has everywhere been the norm of international relations.

Adam Watson has opened an indirect attack on this assumption. Building on the tradition of Martin Wight (1966, 1977), he uses history to study international society. He concludes that much of the international history of the last 5,000 years has not been anarchic, but has ranged across a spectrum with anarchy at one end, empire at the other and hegemony, suzerainty and dominion in between (Watson, 1992: esp. chs. 1 and 12). Moreover, he argues that both anarchy and empire are extreme conditions, the natural instabilities of which tend to push the norm into the middle ranges of the spectrum. Watson is one of the few writers to bring extensive historical knowledge into the debate about international relations, and his work forces us to reconsider the anarchic assumption. It raises the possibility that even the most abstract and successful theoretical development in the discipline has been profoundly, and probably unwittingly, shaped by an undue reliance on the peculiarities of the European and contemporary experience.

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This powerful argument is very persuasive in most respects, but I balk at accepting fully their critique of “Eurocentrism.” Because of Europe’s plurality and the revival of letters in the fifteenth century, there is a marvelous record of reflection on and exploration of the interactions of states and peoples that no other civilization has produced in such abundance and over such a long period of time—a very rich but now virtually ignored object of study among IR scholars. This literature is important not only because of its considerable philosophical merits but also because it confronts a series of questions—the significance of navigation, printing, gunpowder and the revival of letters in the 1500s; standing armies, public credit, commerce, colonization,and the new philosophy in the 1700s—that helped define modernity and that anticipate many concerns of a postmodern age. The injunction against “Eurocentrism” can have no other effect than to slight what is already a very neglected topic of investigation. When was the last time anyone in IR assigned Guicciardini or Montesquieu?

So, too, I think Buzan and Little exaggerate the extent to which the current international order was simply imposed on others. Other civilizations, such as China and India, have found the concepts of international law to be easily digestible within a framework that allows for the pursuit of their respective interests. China, for instance, has a doctrine of nonintervention and state sovereignty that is perfectly intelligible within the framework of the UN charter and, indeed, of older conceptions of international law, and holds to it more devoutly than the United States. Subscription to such doctrines in China’s case does not represent a form of alien imposition, though such ideas did not originate in the Middle Kingdom. Robert Jackson’s characterization of this relationship is more persuasive. Nationalism in the formerly colonial world did not need special instruction from European ideologies to feel both indignity at alien rule and a consequent sense of common peoplehood; nationalism was less an imposition than an inevitable product of their interaction.

It is odd that the authors should charge ahistoricism on the IR discipline and then complain of its elevation of the feudal period and misguided attention to the Greco Roman heritage, since ex hypothesis (and in fact) the discipline has little interest in the history of state interaction before the nineteenth century. Even ambitious works (like John Mearsheimer’s Tragedy of Great Power Politics or Michael Mandelbaum’s The Ideas That Conquered the World) do not venture past the French Revolution. Rome, whose experience was once so important in the development of international thought and to the whole complexion of modernity, is ignored, as Buzan and Little rightly observe. Buzan and Little’s far greater historical reach is a huge boon to the study of IR and the understanding of international systems, but they plow relatively uncultivated ground.

The book for which the above essay forms something of a précis is Barry Buzan and Richard Little, International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations, published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

From the blurb:

"This text tells the 60,000 year story of how humankind evolved from a scattering of hunter-gatherer bands to highly integrated global international political economy. It traces the evolution of ever-wider economic, societal and military-political international systems, and the interplay between these systems and the tribes, city states, empires, and modern states into which humans have organised themselves. Buzan and Little marry a wide range of mainstream International Relations theories to a world historical perspective. They mount a stinging attack on International Relations as a discipline, arguing that its Eurocentrism, historical narrowness, and theoretical fragmentation have reduced almost to nothing both its cross-disclipinary influence and its ability to think coherently about either the past or the future. Seeking to emulate and challenge the cross-disciplinary influence of the world systems model, the book recasts the study of International Relations into a macro-historical perspective, shows how its core concepts work across time, and sets out a new theoretical agenda and a new intellectual role for the discipline."