My research

My research agenda is quite eclectic and combines international politics, history and social theory. My approach, broadly put, is to use historical examples in order to philosophize regarding international events. Although they deal with quite different empirical material, my research projects have all in one way or another been examples of this method. In terms of theory, I have a particular interest in international politics understood as performance, focusing on issues of identity, self-presentation and recognition. My empirical focus has often been on wars — the Thirty Years War, colonial wars, the First World War, the Iraq War.

I have written four academic books and some 50 academic articles, published with the most prestigious publishers and journals in the field, including Cambridge University Press, Routledge, International Organization, European Journal of International Relations and International Theory. My work has been translated into German, Chinese and Korean.

I currently have 1,650 citations on Google Scholar. The number of citations has increased steadily over the years, and 2017 was the best year ever with 200 plus citations. I expect this trend to continue. I have published a lot in the past year, and several articles are scheduled for the coming year. At the moment I am finishing work on three books under contract with publishers.

I am a strong advocate of open source publishing.

Previous research

My PhD dealt with the connection between warfare and state-building in early modern Europe. A crucial mechanisms here, I argued, is recognition. States, and other international actors, act not only in order to achieve certain goals but also because they want to be actors of a certain kind. Actions are undertaken in order to achieve interests but also in order to secure identities. States who fail to be recognized may resort to war. Discussions of recognition were rare in international politics when I first wrote about it, but I’m excited to see that the topic now is mainstream. My PhD was published as a book, Identity, Interests and Action, CUP, 1996, which until now has been cited over 500 times by others. This research project is still active and I return to it from time to time.

The next research project after my PhD concerned international political economy and the famous “Needham question” of how to explain the differences in economic development between Europe and East Asia. My answer focused on the role of institutions. Or to be more precise, what made the difference was the institutionalization of processes of reflection, entrepreneurship and pluralism. While countries in East Asia may have been more reflective, entrepreneurial and pluralistic, I argued, they lacked the requisite institutions. This study was published by Routledge as The Mechanics of Modernity, and in paperback as Why Europe Was First. It has been cited mainly by economic historians, including repeatedly by Deirdre McCloskey.

Following on from this study was a book, Surviving Capitalism, which picked up themes first introduced by Karl Polanyi. The topic was once again political economy. Capitalism is necessary, I argue, in order to produce economic prosperity, but it is also destructive of social relationship. This is why all societies need a way of surviving capitalism. The book surveys some of these ways and compares Europe with East Asia. Surviving Capitalism has been used as a textbook in economic sociology on reading lists around the world and has been translated into Korean.

The next project dealt with colonial warfare in the 19th century, and more specifically with the Second Opium War in China. The event which I sought to explain was the European destruction of Yuanmingyuan, the palace compound of the Chinese emperor. This act of barbarism, I argue, was undertaken in order to “civilize” the Chinese. Similar acts of barbarism undertaken for civilizational aims have been conducted by Western powers ever since — including recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. My book, Liberal Barbarism, was published with Palgrave and an article spun off from the project was published in International Organization.

Current research

I am currently working on three separate projects, all under contract with book publishers. The projects have so far resulted in a number of published articles.

The first project is a textbook on the history of international politics which develops ideas first introduced in my IO article. The idea is to describe international relations as they were organized in different parts of the world before the Europeans arrived, that is, before European colonialism. By comparing these international systems we can obtain a non-European perspective on international relations which allows us to think more creatively about alternatives to the Westphalian system. The book will be published by Open Book Publishers in Cambridge, as an open source textbook. A first draft is available here.

The second project takes off from my interest in Chinese history, or, to be more precise, from my interest in the life of the nomads living on China’s borders. In today’s world we are all becoming increasingly nomadic, is the argument, and under the impact of processes of globalization borders come to mean less and less. At the same time, nationalism is a growing force and many want to reassert the power of borders. The aim of this project is to investigate what, if anything, the life of traditional nomadic peoples can tell us about how to organize life in an increasingly nomadic world. What we seem to need are political systems which are as mobile as we are ourselves. This project has so far resulted in a number of separate articles, but I have put the book project aside for a while in order to focus on my third project.

The third project, under contract with Cambridge University Press, returns to my long-standing interest in international politics understood as performance. My aim here is to investigate the notion of a “world stage,” a metaphor first introduced in early modern Europe. Apart from the historical investigation, the project has philosophical aims. I want to investigate the role of embodied knowledge — precognitive, non-rational, knowledge — in our understanding of international politics. This project is roughly half-finished and it too has so far resulted in a number of research articles.

Talks and lectures

I continuously give talks and lectures on all of the themes of my research. During the past five years I have been invited to give lectures at Yale University, New York University, University of Michigan, SOAS, LSE, University of Warwick, the Goethe University in Frankfurt, and many others.