History of International Relations Textbook

Research blog

Nomadic political theory

When this book is finished, I’m going to write a book for CUP about “nomadic political theory.” Now what is that?

Reading about how the Mongols and the Arabs conquered the rest of the known world, it’s so obvious that they thought about most political concepts in an entirely different way than the Europeans. They were nomads, and nomads have their own view on borders.

Nomads need pasture where their animals can graze and they continuously move to places where they can find it. Grass grows naturally, it does not have to be planted, only carefully managed, and land has no meaning apart from what it can yield. Farmers, on the other hand, invest labor in their land, together with seeds and fertilizer, and they put up fences which limit access by outsiders in order to protect what they own. Fences, to nomads, is an abomination since they block their ability to move and thereby to feed their animals and themselves.

This understanding of, and relationship to, the land had implications for both warfare and trade. As nomads, the Mongols were interested in booty but not really in territorial acquisition. They would consequently take what they could get their hands on and move on. As a result they often had to reinvade land which they had invaded earlier. This is also why their empire left no monuments in the form of buildings. The Mongols did not build things since buildings cannot move.

This applies even to their own capitals. In fact, during Genghis Khan the Mongols did not have a proper capital. Instead Genghis would take his court and his advisers with him in a ger mounted on a cart which was pulled by a set of particularly strong horses. They toured the country, and the world, accompanied by their capital.

The only thing the Mongols built were bridges — to take their armies across rivers and to help merchants conduct their trade.  They were also experts at breaching walls. Indeed, siege warfare was the only field apart from horsemanship in which they made substantial technical innovations.

Bridge-building and wall-breaching are activities in which barbarians engage.  Barbarians want to break down barriers and force cultures to open themselves up to the rest of the world.  This is how — brace yourself for the contradiction! — barbarians help spread civilization.  Civilization, as opposed to culture, is not a feature of a particular society but of relations between societies.  This is what both Arabs and Mongols did.  The Arabs preserved the knowledge of the ancients and passed it on to the moderns; the Mongols supercharged the Silk Roads and facilitated trade.  In this way both Arabs and Mongols civilized the Europeans!

All of this becomes very interesting indeed once you realize that 21st century capitalism is a barbarian, but civilizing, force which operates in much the same manner.  Capitalism doesn’t have any respect for barriers either.  Capitalism breaks down walls and builds bridges.  Capitalism too conquers the world but doesn’t occupy anything.  Capitalism is destroying our cultures while making it ever easier for us to interact.

I can’t make up my mind about nomads.  Are they cool or just cruel?

Who are the Yazidis?

News and TV footage reaches us from the town of Sinjar, northern Iraq. A community of people known as the Yazidis, or Yezidis, are under heavy bombardment by ISIL, or ISIS, the fundamentalist Sunni fighters who now are taking over much of Syria and Iraq.  The rest of the world is aghast but it is far from clear what to do. The United States seems prepared to start bombing but bombing hasn’t helped much in the past.

The Yazidis are not Muslim, Christians or Jews, but neither are they mixes of these religions. Not surprisingly most journalists struggle to define them. The Yazidis are mountain people who valley-dwellers can’t categorize.  The Yazidi language is a version of Kurdish, and the Yazidis are usually classified as Kurds, but relations with the mainstream Kurdish community seem strained.  This explains something I’ve been puzzled by: the Kurdish peshmerga soldiers are usually very good at protecting their own and they are also the only ones, it seems, who ISIL doesn’t dare to attack. Why have they left the Yazidis to fend for themselves?

What more than anything bothers the rest of the world is the Yasidi worship of Melek Taus, which both Christians and Muslims have identified as Satan. Yes, Satan.  Yazidis refuse to pronounce words with a “sh” in them, as in “Shaitan.”  The Yazidis, goes the argument, refuse to pronounce the name of their lord. Yet Melek Taus is like no Satan I know or have ever heard of. He came to earth as a spirit but, say the Yazidis, he refused to submit to Adam and his lord.  Instead he presented mankind with a choice between good and evil.  Melek Taus himself represented the good but he wanted human beings to make up their own minds.  This is the whole point of their religion. This is a smart way around the theodicy problem faced by all monotheistic religions — how to explain the existence of evil in a world with a benevolent, and all-powerful, god.  Besides, the Yazidis are mountain people — they have to learn how to think for themselves.

The Yazidis sided with the Americans at the time of the invasion in 2001 and they readily admitted to other Iraqis that they were collaborators.  In fact, Sinjar, once the Americans got to it, looked the way they had hoped all of Iraq would look — with cheerful people lining the streets to celebrate their liberation. The greatest sin of the Yazidis seems consequently to be that they followed “Greater” rather than normal-size Satan. Small minority groups have always looked to empires to protect them from nationalists.  Not surprisingly the large ethnic groups in Iraq were sharpening their knives waiting for the Americans to leave.  When the Americans eventually did, the genocide begun.

Their land is age-old border territory.  The frontier between the Byzantine and the Sasanian empires ran through the main street of Sinjar. There was heavy fighting here some 1,500 years ago too. As American troops entered the town in 2001, Yazidi children were throwing Roman coins at them.

Apparently, the opening sequence of that notorious 1973 movie, The Exorcist, was shot in Sinjar (I have yet to confirm this).  Somehow it would be just typical of the Islamic fundamentalists if they got their notion that the Yazidis are Satan-worshippers from watching this movie. Islamic fundamentalists, like all fundamentalists, know too much about pop culture and not enough about their own religion. Fundamentalists need to return to fundamentals. Meanwhile, leave the Yazidis alone.

A Golden Horde for the 21st century

I watched Close to Eden, or Urga as it also is known, a 1991 movie by the Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov.  The film shows amazingly beautiful images of the steppes, the life of a family of nomads, and it very leisurely walks us through their everyday routines.  A Russian truck driver shows up to provide some drama and much comic relief, and Genghis Khan makes an appearance to warn the family about the dangers of abandoning its traditional ways of life. Roger Ebert concluded that it is the kind of movie

that has no reason for existence, except to keep the viewer bemused. It does that with such sly charm that when it’s over, you don’t even think to ask why it was made. You’re simply pleased that it was.

Much as I respect Roger Ebert, he could not be more wrong. Nikita Michalkov is the most powerful man in the Russian movie industry and a strong supporter of President Putin. Far from being politically innocent, the film has a strong Eurasianist message.  According to Eurasianists like Lev Gumilev, the Russians are more influenced by the Mongols than by the Europeans. In fact, the Mongol invasion of Russia never happened.  Instead the Mongols intervened in order to defend Russia against the incursions by aggressive knight templars working for the Catholic church. It is by identifying with its Mongol past that Russia will become strong again and learn to stand up to the West.  Compare Putin’s project for a Eurasian Economic Community.  This EEC is not a recreation of the Soviet Union as much as a Golden Horde for the 21st century.

Make doors, not wars

Looking at those amazing color photos from Bukhara, I eventually noticed the doors behind the emir — big, slender, doors carved in wood.  Then I suddenly remembered that I had seen those doors before — in an exhibit at the Islamic Art Museum in Doha, Qatar, last year. They were advertised as coming from “Afghanistan” but surely Bukhara is what they refer to.  Or rather, the art of door making must have been spread throughout much of Central Asia.


It’s great to see different images from Afghanistan than the usual images of war.  Skilled craftsmen doing what they do best.  The ordinary as an antidote to the extraordinary.  Make doors, not wars.

The thirteenth-century really isn’t that far away after all

All day today I’ve been reading about, and looking at, these remarkable Russian color photos from before the First World War.  I didn’t even know there were such things. I thought color only came into widespread use after the Second World War.  After all, my father only took black-and-white photos back in the 1960s.  Well I was wrong.  More to the point: the photos completely blow me away, not least the ones taken in the Emirate of Bukhara in 1911.

These are Jewish boys of Samarkand studying with their teachers:

And here is the minister of the interior:

And here is the emir himself (read the full story here):

The world which this man represents, in his outfit and his beard, connects us directly to the thirteenth-century, yet the quality of the photo connects us directly to today. It’s like having Genghis Khan himself on Facebook. The thirteenth-century really isn’t that far away after all.