History of International Relations Textbook

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TED talk: “What is Non-Western IR Theory?”

I recorded this TED talk last Thursday. The manuscript is below. The video will be here too as soon as I get it. Enjoy!

The way we study of international politics at universities has for far too long been dominated by Western theories and concepts. The academic study of international relations — often abbreviated as “IR” — has a pro-Western bias.

Understandably, people elsewhere in the world are not satisfied with this. This is particularly true for quickly developing countries with a lot of self-confidence — such as China, but people in India, Brazil and even Turkey aren’t happy either. They have their own interests and perspectives — and they want the study of international relations to reflect this fact. What they are demanding is a “non-Western IR theory.”

But it is not at all clear what a non-Western IR theory might be. As a result, even critics continue, despite themselves, to rely on the assumptions of the existing discipline. So what indeed is the alternative? This is what I want to talk about. My suggestion is that we have to be far more radical. If we want an IR theory which is truly non-Western, we must reject the basic assumptions of the Western way of thinking about world politics.

So what is Western IR theory?

So, what are these assumptions? Well, international relations, Western IR scholar tell us, is more than anything the study of states and their relationships. A state is a territorial entity, with borders around it that determine who belongs and who doesn’t. The people who are included constitute a political community — often referred to as a “nation” — on whose behalf the state acts.

States, say Western IR scholars, are “sovereign,” meaning that they have a right to self-determination; they alone can determine their laws, policies and actions. Yet since the world consists of many sovereign states, each one must consider what the others are up to. Each state participates in a system of states.

But this is also the problem. Since all states are sovereign, no one can tell them what to do. Every state is in charge of itself, but no one is in charge of the system as a whole. Western IR scholars call this “anarchy.” The international system is “anarchic,” and this is why wars are common and peace is so difficult to achieve.

Before colonialism

Today there is only one international system — the Western system. All countries in the world are members of it, and they all resemble each other — they have the same kinds of foreign ministries, national anthems, flags, seats in the United Nations, and so on.

But the world did not always look like this. There was not always only one international system. Instead there have been many different systems in different parts of the world — and often they have existed side by side. International politics was ruled by a different logic in East Asia at the time of the Chinese Empire; in West Africa at the time of the Yoruba city-states; in Central America at the time of the Mayas, and so on. These non-Western alternatives had different conceptions of sovereignty, of territory, borders and political community. That is, they worked in quite non-Western ways.

How the Western system spread

So how did the Western international system come to replace all the others? Basically, it was a result of European colonialism in the nineteenth-century. But that can’t be right because colonialism is the very opposite of sovereignty. A colonized people has no self-determination.

Rather, the logic of the Western system spread to the rest of the world as a result of the process of decolonization. This happened above all in the decades after World War Two. Everywhere native politicians appeared who insisted that their particular colony should become a state just like the European states, and that they were the ones to lead them.

At the time, many Europeans worried about the prospect of a world filled with a lot of independent, perhaps unruly, non-Western entities. Yet what the native politicians told them was reassuring. The native leaders had often gone to school in Europe, they spoke European languages, and they could be trusted as “one of us.” True, their rhetoric often sounded anti-Western, but in practice they were in cahoots with their former colonial masters. They grabbed power for themselves while promising to perpetuate the Western model of the state — and thereby the Western international system.

State- and nation-building

As soon as the native politicians were in control there was no going back. From now on the political struggles concerned who should control the sovereign state, but the notion of sovereign statehood itself was no longer possible to question.

The only problem was that the nation-states which the native leaders were supposed to lead in most cases did not exist. There were “tribes” and “clans” and “nomadic peoples,” but they never lived neatly within the borders of the European maps which the independent states had inherited. Instead, what did not exist should now be constructed. Everywhere states and nations were going to be “built.” Exactly how this was to be be done was never quite clear, but international agencies and their experts were ready to help out. For well over fifty years now, the non-Western world has been engaged in desperate attempts at “state- and nation-building.”

Let’s not forget how preposterous this is! The study of international relations is supposed to be a science, but this is not a science. The world is not studied, but instead rearranged so as to fit with Western preconceptions. If there is a mismatch between the two, it is always reality, not the preconceptions, which is at fault. This is not an attempt to study the world as much as a way to transform it. The world is to be recreated in West’s image.

Failed states, and successful

Today we often hear references to “failed states.” A failed state is a country which never managed to construct a viable state and a unified nation. It is a country, that is, which has failed to live up to Western standards.

But why on earth should a non-Western country be able to successfully emulate a Western one? The task is difficult enough under the best of circumstances, but impossible if the population is destitute, the country is rich in natural resources, and power belongs to the warlords with the biggest guns. Non-Westerners just aren’t very good at being Westerners. Westerners, let’s face it, are so much better at it.

But there were or course some successful cases too — like Israel, Turkey and China. They became powerful, and they created nations for themselves, which were no less viable than their European counterparts. In each case, however, a high price was paid for their success. In the struggle for statehood, other political entities were wiped out, peoples were displaced and genocides committed. Thus there is today a Turkey but no Kurdistan, an Israel but no Palestine, a China but no independent Uighuristan or Tibet.

And yet the losers in these struggles did not just go away. They have continued to insist on their right to self-determination. The conflicts caused in this way have lasted for decades — and it looks like they will continue.

The problem

So this is the problem: as long as you make yourself free on someone else’s terms, you will never truly be free. Dependency will be built into the system from the very start. Under these circumstances you will, if you’re successful, only become a copy of the model which has been given to you — and, if you fail, your society will completely collapse.

In order to be truly independent, in other words, we must start from different assumptions. We must reject the logic of the Western international system. This, I would suggest, is what a non-Western IR theory should be about.

Much needs to be said about this of course, and I can say very little here. But let me provide a few suggestions. For inspiration, we can turn to history, but we can also study the present — and we can look to the future.

Learning from history: the glory of the Ottomans

Compare the disaster which is the contemporary Middle East with the international system which preceded it — the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire consisted of a multitude of very different peoples, each ruled by its own respective civil laws. The Ottoman Empire was both more pluralistic and less repressive than the countries in today’s Middle East.

Imagine a world in which the Ottoman Empire was not abolished in 1923, or a world in which a political structure such as the Ottoman Empire could be recreated. Here people of different ethnicities would be able to share the same political space; and everyone would get to live in the country of their imagination. A Jew could easily imagine herself living in Israel, while her Palestinian neighbor could imagine himself living in Palestine. And some, no doubt, would identify themselves as Ottoman. Jewish culture would still flourish in Cairo and Baghdad; and there would be lots of Greeks in Constantinople and in Smyrna.

Present: Failed states show the way

But the present has much to teach us too. Here we should let the “failed states” show the way. By understanding why states “fail,” we can learn more about alternative ways of organizing a society.

Somalia is everyone’s favorite example of a “failed state,” yet the country has viable nomadic traditions which continue to provide a measure of order, justice and security even in the absence of a state. Rather than fixing Somalia, in other words, perhaps it is these institutions that should be strengthened and improved?

This suggestion goes against the well-established prejudice which says that nomads represent a prior, and thereby inferior, stage in human history, one that inevitably must disappear. But what if this is not the case? After all, the lives of most of us are daily becoming more, not less, nomadic. Pushed and pulled by the forces of global capitalism, we too are increasing required to move around in order to make a living for ourselves.

As a result, new kinds of political institutions are required — political institutions which we can take with us as we move around. By learning more about nomadic societies, the nomads of the past can provide advice to the nomads of the future.

Future: globalization and the failed states of Europe

State failures do not only happen in Africa; they happen in Europe too. Indeed, the European Union is premised on state failure. The aim of the EU, as it originally was conceived, was to deal with the failure of European states to live in peace with each other. State sovereignty, as the world wars had demonstrated, was a disaster, and the EU was designed to limit and control it.

More recently, the challenges posed by globalization have provided an additional rationale. The trans-border flow of ideas, goods, people, money, drugs and pollution means that states no longer can control their borders, run their economies autonomously, or shield their citizens from outside threats. States are not about to disappear to be sure, but sovereignty is in rapid decline.

Under these circumstances, sovereignty must be pooled — shared between states. Such sovereignty-pooling is what the EU is about. It is because European states once again have failed that the EU is needed.

In fact, the EU too can be understood as a return to an earlier form of political organization. The international system of the European Middle Ages was not made up of sovereign states after all, but of political entities of many different kinds united in a continent-wide community. By putting an end to the age of the sovereign state, the EU constitutes a return to the normal, and far more viable, way of organizing international relations.


As should be obvious, a non-Western IR theory is not only a science, but it is a political project too. This may sound alarming if you believe in the objectivity and the neutrality of science. But then again Western IR theory was a political project too — and it was a disaster! A non-Western IR is an attempt to try something different. The day when we think of international relations in these terms, we will be living in a better, more peaceful, world.

My Ramadan

It was always obvious that I was going to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Diane, my wife, felt the same way. I am in Turkey to work, but also to learn things, and Islam is one of the things I want to learn more about. Ramadan provides a unique way to acquire this knowledge — not by reading books or by making observations, but by directly participating in a different way of life. Since you are learning with your body, you do not even have to know the language! After all, the instructions are pretty straight-forward: you eat early in the morning, refrain from food and water all day, and then totally stuff yourself after sundown. All my colleagues at work were doing it, all my students were doing it too, of course I had to join in!

I’m not a religious person and I’m certainly not a “spiritual seeker” (although both of my grandfathers were vicars in the Church of Sweden). However, I am very interested in what people do and why they do it. In particular, I’m interested in behavior that is difficult to explain in rational, means-ends, terms. In the Western tradition, rational thinking has too often been privileged at the expense of bodily practices, and as a result we have become increasingly opaque to ourselves. Moreover, once religion was defined mainly as a matter of beliefs, Christianity became vulnerable to attacks from secular society. Not surprisingly, in today’s Sweden there are very few religious believers. But Islam is different. Islam seems to me to be more about practices than about beliefs. Or rather, practices and beliefs may be the same thing — both founded in a human being not subject to Cartesian divisions between a rational mind and an irrational body.

So what happens when a quarter of the world’s population decide to synchronize their bodies and share the experience of going without food?

Sahur, for me, was right from the beginning a matter of oatmeal porridge. Oatmeal is the food that kept peasants working long hours in the fields back in agricultural Sweden. A gigantic bowl of porridge at 3.30 AM, topped off with a piece of chocolate, almost felt like cheating. No reason to feel hungry. In fact, “fasting” is surely something of a misnomer. It’s really more a matter of deferring one’s meals. I’m not sure I was eating less. I might have eaten more.

Although I never actually felt hungry, fasting gave a particular coloring to the hours after, say, 5 PM. It might best be described as a certain mellow feeling. The world suddenly slows down and you just want to sit still in one place. No reason to really do anything; not even play with your phone; yet you are pretty content. Surely GDP in the Muslim world must drop off during Ramadan. But just as surely, since people who fast are removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, they are returned to their bodies and to their selves. The result is a sense of calm — perhaps it could even be called “serenity.”

But instead of saying that people are returned to themselves, it might be better to say that they are returned to their communities. I noticed something strange during those mellow late-afternoon hours. We always used to watch Deutsche Welle before dinner. DW broadcasts in English and it is a very reasonable alternative to all those blaring Anglo-Saxon news channels. Yet once Ramadan started we stopped watching DW too. Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but it could also have been that fasting had lessened my connection to the German TV station and its non-fasting newsreaders. Their news stories suddenly seemed less relevant to me. I could feel the boundaries of my community being redrawn.

Instead we watched the iftar countdown on TRT. I love the way the fast-breaking schedule rolls by on the TV screen and one city after another suddenly lights up in red. We were counting the minutes, and people all over Turkey, and the entire Muslim world, were counting the minutes too. It was as exciting as New Year’s Eve, but during Ramadan every day is New Year’s Eve! “45 minutes to go now.” “Too long! I’m hungry!” “What are we going to do?” “Let’s talk about something.” Only 22 minutes left. Suddenly only 8. “Where are the dates? Surely we did not forget to buy dates?”

It is nice to share this experience with people you know, but it is somehow even better to share it with strangers. All religions know that eating together is a powerful way to build a sense of community. Christians have their “last supper” after all, and not even Swedish Lutherans, in their excessive rationalism, have managed to abolish “the communion.” Yet it is a special experience to eat together with strangers after a day of fasting. You look at the people seated at the other tables in the restaurant, and although you know nothing whatsoever about them, you share an intimate sensation in your stomach. That is, the sense of community does not have to be visualized or imagined; it is founded on sheer physiology. Then, after the müezzin‘s call, and for about 15 minutes, everyone falls silent and focuses on eating. And when we are done, we look at each other again, and again we know exactly what the others are feeling. We are satisfied now. Happy and content. Today too we got to eat our fill.

Rima, my daughter, put it best. “It is all about gratitude,” she said. “When you finally get to eat, you feel grateful. You are grateful to the person who cooked the food, and grateful to the world that provided you with it.” In modern society it is rare to be grateful for food. We always eat enough — in fact we often eat too much. In modern society we take everything for granted and gratefulness is an uncommon emotion. Yet during Ramadan we are taught to be grateful every evening for a whole month. And perhaps, when our stomachs finally are full, we can spare a thought for people who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Fasting also taught me much about the political divisions, and the culture wars, of today’s Turkey. A week into Ramadan, I attended a workshop organized by my department and the IR department at Bilkent University. Since Bilkent was footing much of the bill, they were in charge of the schedule. Consequently the sessions started at 9 AM, which is way too early for someone who likes to sleep after sahur, and there were “lunch-breaks” in the middle of the day. But OK, there were many international visitors invited, and the Bilkent people may have been reluctant to appear as too “ethnic” in front of the foreigners. In any case, us in the Ibn Haldun contingent were just sort of standing around in the court yard of our madrasa while the others were eating. But it felt great. Very visibly, I found myself on one of the sides — on the right side — of the political and cultural gap which divides Turkey. That in a sense was when I finally joined the faculty of Ibn Haldun University.

I was on the right side again when I was showing my sister — visiting Turkey for a few days  — the sights in the center of Istanbul. Around Taksim Square in particular there are always bouncers who come up to you with a menu and questions of “Where are you from, sir?” “What would you like to eat, sir?” But the assaults always stopped when I informed the assailants that “Ben orucum.” Instead of pestering us, many started congratulating me, shaking my hand. “Maşallah! Maşallah!

Yes, I do realize that I have a very romantic — possibly an “Orientalist” — understanding of Muslim society. I always wanted to be someone different than myself, someone different than a Swede.

And yet, the whole Ramadan project came apart both suddenly and prematurely. We made the great mistake of going on a mini-vacation to the Aegean coast. That part of Turkey is not like Başakşehir. It is not like Başakşehir at all. In fact, it might as well be a different country. Where we were staying, people were wearing swim suits not only on the beach, but in the streets, and they were not only eating lunch, but they had beers to go with it. And even more surprisingly, our hotel did not even bother with sahur. We complained at the front-desk, but when asked, we had to admit that we were not Muslim. “So why are you fasting?” Yes indeed, why were we fasting? Once again I could feel the boundaries of my community being redrawn. Being a secular European comes easily to me, but that’s not why I am in Turkey.

At the same time, I feel sorry for people in secular society. They are missing out on something.All they have are their private lives and their first obligation is always to service their individual desires. That kind of a life is not good enough for a human being. If nothing else, it is really quite boring — our individual lives are rarely as exciting as we pretend. But now of course the fasting has ended for all of us, and we have all rather brutally been returned to our private lives. I miss Ramadan already. And I’m very much looking forward to next year.

The book is finished!

Yes, indeed. I finished the book in the end! Or rather, I stopped writing it. A book like this can easily be revised and improved for another 10 years, but I’ve been at it for 5 years already and perhaps now is a good time to stop. I’m actually pretty happy with it. All material, as you know, is available on this web page, but you can also buy it as a regular book when it appears sometime next year.

How to pronounce “yogurt”

In English there is considerable confusion regarding the proper pronunciation of the word “yogurt.” Basically, “yog-urt” is the UK pronunciation whereas Americans say “yo-gurt.”

Meanwhile, the French say “yaourt” and this is also how they spell it. That is, the French don’t pronounce the “g.” Weird, right?

Well, as it turns out, the French pronunciation is the most accurate. The word is originally Turkish, yoğurt, from yoğurmak, meaning “to kneed,” “to become curdled or coagulated.” As a people of the Central Asian steppes, the Turks ate a lot of milk products and they do so to this day. In fact, their yoğurt is phenomenally delicious and it contains none of the weird emulsifiers and sickening sweeteners that one finds elsewhere.

So why do the French swallow the “g”? Well, because the Turks do. The letter “ğ” — yumuşak ge, a “g” with a squiggle — is not pronounced in Turkish but it only extends the length of the previous vowel. The French must have met actual Turkish people and learned the pronunciation from them. English, Americans and Swedes must only have seen it written and they consequently mispronounce the word to this day.

This is how to pronounce it correctly —

Turkey, hen from Kalikut

When one comes to live in Turkey, one of the first questions one might ask oneself is what “turkey,” the bird, is called in Turkish. The answer, it turns out, is hindi. Hmmm, interesting. In fact, as a quick internet search will establish, this terminology follows a common European pattern. The birds, native to North America, first turned up in Europe at a time, in the 16th century, when people still believed that it was “India” that the Europeans had discovered. This is why the French called it dinde (“from India”) and the Russians called it indeyka. In some other European languages, however, it is called kalkon (Swedish), kalkoen (Dutch) or kalkun (Estonian). Also here there is an Indian connection. As the popular lore would have it, the birds where shipped from the Indian city of Kalikut — today’s Kozhikode — and hence they were known as “hens from Kalikut.”

So, why are the English and the Americans alone in calling it “turkey”? The reason, it seems, is that the first turkeys that arrived in England originally were shipped via the Levant, or, possibly, that there was a mix-up with another sort of bird that originated here. Turkeys were thought to come from Turkey! Really, Americans should know better — the bird is native only to North and Central America.

Non-European IR history in Turkey

The new semester is upon us and as always I’m teaching my course on “Comparative International Systems.” Only this time I’m doing it at Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s going to be very exciting to see what all my new students will make of the material — next to all of them will, I suspect, be from distinctly non-European kinds of places. I’ll keep you updated.

Btw, the new version of the reading list is here — it works on phones too.


Erik in Berlin, “Dancing with Strangers”

This is a Youtube clip of a presentation I did at conference in Berlin in June — “Dancing wiht Strangers: Bodies in Inter-civilizational Encounters.”

Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute, Berlin, 19 June 2018.  Workshop: ‘From Huntington to Trump: 25 years of the “Civilisations’”. Organized by the very excellent Jeff Haynes.

Atlas of Mauretania

I always thought “atlases” — books of maps, that is — were named after Atlas, the Greek titan who carries the earth on his shoulders (see above). And it is indeed he who appears on an engraving of Tavole Moderne Di Geografia De La Maggior Parte Del Mondo Di Diversi Autori , a collection of maps published by Antonio Lafreri in 1572. However, it was Gerardus Mercator, the legendary map-maker, who invented the term and apparently he did not have the Greek titan in mind at all but rather “Atlas of Mauretania,” a famous philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer, who also was king of Mauretania.  Not very much is known about this man, however. Wikipedia has next to nothing.

“Mauri,” from which “Mauretania” is derived, was the Roman term for the Berber kingdoms of North Africa. But this is also where the Atlas mountains are located. In fact ádrār in Berber means “mountain.”  The Atlantic Ocean was named after Atlas and so was the lost island of Atlantis. Moroccans seem to have been great geographers. Ibn-Batuta was from Morocco too.

Twitter war about the Barbary Coast

I’m writing about the “Barbary Coast.” I’m interested in the corsairs who were roaming the coast of North Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries since I’m interested in non-territorial ways of organizing politics. The corsairs were nomads of the sea, as it were.

I put a twitter feed on this page and one of the first tweets that popped up was this:

I couldn’t help myself.  I had to point out to Sue that it’s called the “Barbary coast” because it’s the part of North Africa where the Berber people live.  “Barbary,” that is, refers to “Berber” not to “barbarian.” Few people realize this but North Africa is still predominantly Berber, not actually Arab.

My new friend Sue is consequently wrong: there are some 50 million Berbers in the area.

A second question, and this is more interesting, is why the Berbers got their name. The reason it seems is that the Arabs who arrived in North Africa in the 7th century called them bárbaros.  This was the generic label which the Greeks applied to all foreigners.  They were “barbarians” since they stuttered and spoke incomprehensible gibberish — ba, ba, ba, ba.  “Barbarian” to the Greeks was not necessarily a pejorative term, but it was at the same time obvious to them that foreigners were not quite human. For one thing they had no poleis, no city-states.

“Barbarian” as a term applied to people who loot, destroy and in general fail to respect the lives of others caught on in Europe in the 18th century when it came to serve as the antithesis of “civilization.”  Yet the Europeans, as already Michel Montaigne pointed out, were often greater barbarians than the alleged barbarians themselves. I wrote a book about this.

Were the Manchus nomads?


In a seminar last week, Martin Hall, my colleague here at Lund U, presented a paper on state-making among the nomads on the steppes of Central Asia. In the course of the discussion, Martin mentioned that “the Manchu were not nomads.” “What,” I said, “the Manchu were not nomads? Everyone knows the Manchu were nomads!” “No,” Martin insisted, “they were not.”

Why did I think the Manchu were nomads? Two reasons really.  First of all since I took it for granted that all the various peoples living to the north and west of China itself were nomadic. Of course there were some, such as the Xixia, Jin or the Liao, who formed states during the Song period. Since they formed proper states they must have been predominantly sedentary, but I always thought of this as a “sinification” of what originally were nomadic tribes. Secondly, and most importantly, since the Manchu emperors of China always invoked nomadic traditions in their rhetoric — horse-back riding, archery and all that stuff.

So was Martin right? Well, as so often it depends on how we define the terms. The word “Manchu” itself was invented only in 1636 — once the invasion of China already was under way — and it was a political rather than an ethnic identity. More than anything it was used as a way for the leaders to rally various groups of people behind a common cause. Ethnically speaking, the Manchu were predominantly made up of Jürchen. By the Chinese authorities, the Jurchen had always been divided into three separate tribes of which the Yeren Jürchen — known as the “wild Jürchen” — were nomadic and the other two tribes were not. The sedentary Jürchen lived in villages north-east of Ming China, but they seem to have been more occupied with trade — in pearls, fur, and above all in ginseng — than with agriculture. All three Jürchen tribes descended from the Tungus people who were “sedentarized” some time in the 11th century, but hunting and fishing remained important occupations for all of them. I guess there was no other way to survive on the steppe.

China, we should remember, was overrun by an army and not by an ethnic group. The army was referred to as the “Eight Banners.” It was based on cavarly and archers, and was organized — much as the Mongol army of Genghis Khan — with the explicit purpose of uniting previously feuding factions. There were a lot of Mongols in the Eight Banners, together with Koreans and various nomadic peoples of the steppes. In fact, there were Han Chinese deserters and frontiersmen in the army too. The “Manchus” were more than anything the name for this military force, and the new rulers always counted themselves as its descendants. When the Qing dynasty emperors claimed an identity for themselves, they would always refer to this military legacy, including its strong nomadic elements.

There is first-rate scholarship on all of this, including: Mark Elliot, Evelyn Rawski and Pamela Crossley. Btw, the photo above is from an amazing web page on Manchu archery.

Seminars are a great way to learn things. Especially if we make our points clearly and take the opportunity to disagree with each other.