History of International Relations Textbook


International relations as the topic usually is taught at the university has next to no historical depth. In an introductory class your teacher might tell you that the basic rules of international politics were established in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, or you might hear something about European colonialism in the nineteenth century and perhaps a word or two about the First World War. Once the class gets going, however, historical references are unlikely to stretch further back than to 1945. It is as though the world was created less than a hundred years ago.

In addition, international politics as it usually is taught is hopelessly Eurocentric. That is, the discipline takes Europe as the standard by which every other part of the world is measured – although “Europe” here also includes the United States and other places where the Europeans settled. The European model is obviously the most important one, your teacher will imply, since this is the model that came to organize international politics everywhere else. The world in which we live today is the world which the Europeans made in their own image.

One of the most important things you learn at the university is to question authorities, and this includes the authority of your teachers. No matter how smart or well read, your teacher’s perspective will always be only one perspective among many. There is always another story to tell. In this book we will tell other stories. Our historical perspective goes back to the first millennium of the Common Era and our perspective is explicitly non-European. This is a textbook on international politics which takes history seriously and which puts Europe firmly in its place. Europe matters as well of course, but, as it turns out, not all that much – not once we take a historical look at the world as a whole. It is simply not the case that the history of other parts of the world began the day the first European colonizers arrived. The Europeans did not, as a previous generation of scholars used to argue, “awaken” the natives, or “invite them into world history.” Non-Europeans were always plenty awake, thank you very much, and the idea that the history of Europe is equal to the history of the world is just ridiculous. In this book it is these non-European histories we are going to tell, and we will try to tell them on their own terms, not as they were impacted by, or had an impact on, Europe.

And, just to be clear, this alternative perspective is not motivated by an attempt to be “politically correct.” The aim is not to set the record straight out of a concern for balance or respect for people who are marginalized and silenced. These are worthwhile concerns to be sure, but our task is rather more straightforwardly to provide a better account and the kind of knowledge we need in order to understand today’s world. History is constantly making itself present and today people and countries outside of Europe are asserting themselves. The world is once again changing and changes, once under way, can be quick and dramatic. Today Europe and North America play a far less important role in world politics than in the past century, and in the future this role is likely to become less important still. The world is about to flip and our perspective on the past must be revised. The traditional European version of world history is no longer valid.

As you soon will discover, this book is very much an introductory textbook and anyone with a proper background in world history is bound to find the text far too basic. Yet chances are you do not have a proper background in world history, and if that indeed is the case, there is a lot here for you to learn. Think about the text that follows as a form of remedial education. It provides a chance for you to make up for the gaps that exist in your knowledge of things that all educated people should know.

Comparative international systems

A textbook on world history might appear to be a somewhat mad undertaking. A book which discusses “everything that ever happened” would surely have to be just as long as history itself. Yet this is not that book. We are not all that interested in the events, wars, names and dates of the past. Instead the aim is to introduce you to a field which we could call the “comparative study of international systems.” A system, any kind system, is made up of units which are independent of each other. At the same time, the behavior of one unit always depends on the behavior of the others. They are part of the same environment and this influences what they do. There is a systemic effect, we might say, which is exercised not by the units themselves but by the terms of their interaction.

An international system is a system which is made up of political entities – we usually call them “states” – which act independently of each other. Yet as parts of the same system they are at the same time forced to consider the actions of all other political entities. The international system provides an environment which determines, in broad outline, what political entities do. The reason the international system can have this effect is that it has a certain logic. This logic is expressed in institutions, rules and norms. When studying an international system we study the institutions that have been created, the rules by which the interaction takes place and the norms that political entities follow.

A comparative study of international systems then is a study which compares the norms, rules and institutions in different international systems. Yet today there is only one international system. Today international politics is organized in only one way and it follows only one logic. Our present international system originated in Europe in the centuries around the year 1500 and spread to the rest of the world only as a result of European colonialism in the nineteenth century. The rules of international politics are European rules and the norms and institutions are European norms and institutions. There is consequently nothing with which the present international system can be compared.

This is why a comparative study of international systems must be a historical study. There have been many international systems in the past and some of them existed simultaneously and more or less independently of each other. Going back no further than to the middle of the nineteenth century, we find distinctly non-European ways of organizing international politics and the non-European examples multiply the further back we go in time. These systems had other institutions and they followed other rules and norms. As a result, their members acted differently and for different reasons. Reading about them allows us to take leave of our present world and visit some very different, and sometimes quite strange, places. The kind of international politics which your teachers have taught you thus far, it turns out, is only one possible kind of international politics. In this book we will introduce you to others.

More concretely, we will discuss six different world regions: China and East Asia, India, the Muslim caliphates, the Mongol khanates, India, Africa and the Americas. There is no separate chapter on Persia, although the Persian influences on India and on the Muslim world will be discussed; there is nothing on Australia, and apart from a brief discussion of Hawaiʻi we will not deal with the Pacific islands; Southeast Asia will be mentioned but only in the context of Indian cultural influences. The final chapter deals with European expansion and colonialism, but there is no separate chapter on Europe as such.

Institutions, rules and norms

An international system consists of political entities, we said, or what the Europeans from the sixteenth century onward have called “states.” From about the same time states have been thought of as “sovereign.” A sovereign state is a state which exercises supreme authority within a given territory. A sovereign state determines its own affairs in accordance with its own interests and aspirations, or rather, in the sixteenth century, in accordance with the interests and aspirations of its ruler.

Sovereignty is a basic institution of the European international system and as such it implies a number of social practices and administrative arrangements. There are borders to be identified and protected, border crossings to be guarded, passports to be issued, flags to be flown and national anthems to be sung. These practices and arrangements are, in turn, associated with various rules and norms. One rule says that all states are equal to each other. All states are the same kinds of entities, doing the same kinds of things, and they all have the same status as members of the same system. They are functionally equal, that is, despite the fact that some obviously are far larger, richer and more powerful than others. As far as the norms of the system are concerned, one example is the norm which says that sovereignty must be respected. States should not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs. All states have a right to self-determination.

In an international system like the European which is made up of sovereign states there is no common authority. Each state looks after itself and no one takes any responsibility for the system as a whole. The term which scholars of international relations use for this condition is “anarchy.” In an anarchical international system, states are permanently insecure and war is a constant threat. Since they cannot trust their neighbors to behave peacefully towards them, each state must be prepared to defend itself, with weapons if need be. Yet this, in turn, makes the neighbors feel more insecure and they must arm themselves as well. States that fail to respond to this logic – states that trust in the good will of their neighbors – are punished for their naivety. In the end the search for security makes everyone more insecure. And every so often the threat of war is replaced by actual cases of warfare. Since its inception the European international system has been extraordinarily violent. In the twentieth century alone next to 100 million people died in European wars.

This is where a comparative study of international systems can make a contribution. Other, non-European international systems, it turns out, have other institutions, other rules and norms. They are all different from each other to be sure, but also different from the European system. For one thing, non-European international systems have often contained other political actors than states and in many of them empires have played a prominent role. Moreover, territory has often been understood quite differently. Where land is endlessly abundant, such as on the steppes of Central Asia or in much of Africa, possessing a particular piece of it has not been a crucial concern. As a result, borders have a different meaning. Where the borders should be drawn between two countries may matter far less than the relationship which both of them have toward a powerful state in the center of the system. The maps of some international systems look like a subway map – it tells you how to get from one place to the other but it does not tell you much about the features of the land you are passing through.

In such an international system, sovereignty is not going to be a commonly invoked notion. Or rather, sovereignty is not an absolute value as much as a variable. Some political entities are fully independent while others are far less so. Here different political entities are not functionally equal to each other and there is no absolute norm of non-interference and self-determination. The system is not anarchical in the same way as the European system. In fact, many non-European international systems have been quite hierarchical and held together by means of a common culture and a shared set of values, often under the auspices of a state with imperial ambitions. As a result, it has often been possible to assure a measure of prosperity and peace. Yet one should not romanticize. Wars have been common, and horrendously destructive, outside of Europe too.

If we return to Europe with these lessons in mind, we will discover that the European international system suddenly looks quite different. From our new, non-European point of view, we are able to see a number of things that we previously failed to notice. Also in the European system, it turns out, there are not only states but a large number of other political entities, and here too empires have often played a prominent role. In general, sovereignty is not the absolute principle which it has been taken to be and the functional equality of states is not always respected. The European international system, when we look at it carefully, is actually quite hierarchical. Indeed, also Europe is united around a common culture and a set of shared values, and despite the wars, there have been times of prosperity and peace. By looking at it from a non-European point of view – by relativizing it – we can learn more about Europe too.

Non-state societies

Even from an alternative perspective, however, there will be many things that we still cannot see. Every perspective allows us to notice some things while making us blind to others. For example, we still take it for granted that states are the proper subject of history. We assume that world history is equal to the history of the state. There are good reasons to question this conclusion.

Today the world is completely divided up between political entities. All territory belongs to one state or another and no land belongs to more than one state. States are mutually exclusive and together exhaustive of political space. Yet this has not always been the case. It was only as a result of the introduction of farming some 12,000 years ago that the first states appeared. Before that, during some 95 percent of human history, we were hunters and gatherers who moved around in response to the seasonal variations in the availability of food. Since they are on the move, hunters and gatherers are difficult for political authorities to control. As a result, they live in “stateless” societies. Moreover, since they constructed only temporary buildings, there are few ruins for archaeologists to investigate. As a result, a history of a society of hunters and gatherers is difficult to write. Hunters and gatherers “have no history.”

Farmers are far easier to subdue and exploit. They live in a particular place and cultivate a given piece of land. After the harvest the tax collectors dispatched by the king show up and demand their due. This was how the first states were established in the valleys of great rivers – Euphrates and Tigris, the Nile and a few others – around three thousand years BCE. The transition to agriculture and the rise of the state, we have often been told, constituted a great improvement on the nomadic state of statelessness. It was only now that human beings could acquire a culture and that human history, properly speaking, began. However, whether the shift to agriculture really constituted an improvement can be questioned. Hunters and gatherers seem to have enjoyed a more varied diet than farmers and they were less exposed to contagious diseases. In addition, stateless societies were far more egalitarian than state-dominated societies. There are still hunters and gatherers in the world today but they are not many. [Read more: “People of the forest”]

There are other kinds of nomadic people who make a living by moving around. Pastoralists are one example and they have been at least as difficult for states to control. Pastoralists are people who keep animals such as sheep, cows, horses and reindeer. Their animals graze the land and when they run out of food in one place their owners move in order to find new pastures for them. As a result, pastoralists are difficult to tax and they have little respect for borders. The interior of the Eurasian continent and the savannas of Africa have been good places for pastoralists. Here farming has been impossible to pursue since there is little rain and not many rivers. What there is, however, is an abundance of grassland.Relying on their fast horses, the pastoralists have raided the sedentary communities of farmers and laid their hands on all kinds of things that life on the steppe cannot provide. Such “barbarian invasions” is a theme in both Chinese and Indian history. Indeed, invasions by peoples of the steppes have been important in European history as well. [Read more:The Mongol invasion of Europe”]

The point, for our present purposes, is that a study of comparative international systems will misrepresent the past by telling the history of the state, not the history of stateless people. Or rather, when stateless people show up, they will do so only to the extent that they have an impact on states and their sedentary subjects. How incomplete this account is becomes obvious when we remember that much of the world until recently was populated by nomads. It was only in the 1890s, when the first railways were built, that the interior of the great continents came under the effective control of states. It was only now that the government of the United States finally subdued societies of native Americans and that the Chinese government was able to properly police its borders with Mongolia. States, until recently, were like little islands in a large stateless sea. A comparative study of international systems is a study of these islands.

Walls and bridges

There is probably no prejudice which is as widely shared as the prejudices which sedentary people express towards people who are on the move. And, one might add, for good reason. The nomadic peoples that periodically swept into China, India and Europe, looted, killed and destroyed. One thing they destroyed were the fences that farmers had built around their plots. Fences, to pastoralists, are offensive since they prevent grazing animals from moving around. The nomads besieged cities too and destroyed city walls. Moreover, they were notorious destroyers of culture. When Genghis Khan entered Bukhara in 1220, he rounded up all the inhabitants in the city’s main mosque, informed them that he was a punishment sent by God, and proceeded to kill them all. [Read more:A nomadic state”] Likewise when they sacked Baghdad in 1258, the Mongols destroyed libraries, killed scholars, poets and artists, and put an end to the Arab “golden age.”

Yet to call Mongols and other nomadic tribes “barbarian” might be unfair. Better perhaps to say that they have a different outlook on life. Compare the close connection between culture and agriculture. “Culture” refers to cultivation, to the “tilling of the land.” To cultivate a plant is to care for it and to make it grow. In order to protect what we grow, we drive stakes into the ground and build fences which separate what is ours from that which belongs to others. Private property requires walls and good walls make for good neighbors. Walls are also needed if we are to create a home for ourselves. On this side of the wall, we are safe and we are together with people like ourselves; on the other side of the wall, we are away from home and we interact mainly with strangers. Cultures, we believe, must be nurtured and protected in the same fashion. A culture is always our culture, it belongs to people like us and to the place where we live. The walls that surround us protect our way of life and allow us to continue to be who we are.

Some international systems have been surrounded by walls, actual as well as metaphorical. As a result, interaction with the rest of the world has been limited; the international system is isolated from external influences but it is also independent and self-sufficient. Much as a biological species which is confined to a specific ecological niche, the international system evolves in its own fashion. The most striking example is the international systems of the Americas which had some connections with each other but which developed entirely without connections to the rest of the world.[Read more: “The Columbian exchange”] Yet for extensive periods in its history, also the leaders of the Chinese empire sought to isolate themselves from the outside world, foreign trade was limited, and they built walls to keep foreigners out. [Read more:The Great Wall of China does not exist”] Likewise, Japan was officially closed to foreigners from the years 1600 to 1868. [Read more:A Japanese international system?”] In fact, before the year 1500, Europe too showed only limited interest in the world beyond its borders.

But there are also international systems that display the opposite logic. These international systems are outward-looking and expansive and seek to connect different parts of the world with each other. The Mongol khanates in the thirteenth century are a striking example, but there are others. In the seventh century, the Arabs expanded rapidly from the Arabian peninsula, conquering the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and the Iberian peninsula. In 732, a hundred years after the death of Muhammad, the Arab armies had reached as far as central France. But an international system can be outward-looking and expansive without being violent. This is the case with the international systems that have existed around the Indian Ocean. People around the Indian Ocean have interacted with each other from the earliest times. This is why we find shards of Chinese pottery in archaeological sites in southern Africa and why people throughout Southeast Asia to this day are Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims – all three religions originally brought here from India. [Read more:Indianization”]

This is consequently how civilization spreads. If culture finds its metaphorical basis in agriculture, civilization finds it in exchange. When our society is connected to other societies and we are connected to other people, we can suddenly compare things and judge them in relation to each other. As a result, we have a choice between better and cheaper options; we can pick the new and the never-before-tried. Such choices broaden our horizons and improve our lives. This is why civilization depends on the unencumbered circulation of goods, people, ideas, faiths and ways of life. The consequences of such interaction may be unsettling to be sure, but they can also be liberating. We no longer have to be confined to, and carry the burden of, our culture; we no longer have to be who we are. Civilization provides us with a means of escape. Or, differently put, exchange is the enemy of culture. When presented with alternatives, we give up our old ways. We no longer do the things we used to do and we are no longer quite the same people that we used to be. This is how civilization undermines and destroys culture.

Take the example of the Muslims in al-Andalus. [Read more:The Arabs in Spain”] The Arabs civilized Spain in the ninth century by connecting its cities to the great centers of learning in the Middle East. As a result the old Spanish, Visigoth, culture was destroyed. But the people of al-Andalus came to eat lemons, play the lute and compose far better poetry; they used better plows and irrigation techniques too, put on deodorants and brushed their teeth with toothpaste.[Read more:Deodorants and the origin of flamenco”] The great library in Córdoba was far larger than any library in Christian Europe and it contained the entire canon of classical Greek texts, saved for posterity by the caliphs of Baghdad.[Read more:The translation movement”] In the thirteenth century, these books were translated and became available in Latin for the first time. The Europeans were later to refer to this as “the Renaissance.” The Renaissance destroyed the culture of the Middle Ages, but it civilized Europe.

Or, and more controversially, compare the impact which the European expansion has had on the rest of the world. For much of their history the Europeans were not that interested in other continents, but around the year 1500 – at the time of the rise of the sovereign state – this changed. The Europeans began looking for ways to trade, above all with India and China, and little by little they came to acquire colonies overseas. For a while, at the time of the First World War, they controlled much of the rest of the world. The European expansion had a profound, destructive impact on the cultures of the societies with which they came into contact. When all parts of the world suddenly were connected to the same global network of trade, and politically dominated by Europe, it was no longer possible for people in the rest of the world to live as before and to be what they previously had been. And yet, the benefits are undeniable. Today, in the wake of the cultural devastation brought by the European expansion, people around the world are far better educated, in a better state of health and with more opportunities open to them. Cultural devastation is a tragedy, but civilization is a blessing. It is not obvious how to assess these contradictory effects and this is why the history of European expansion still is a controversial topic.

Read more:

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Bentley, Jerry H. Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Bozeman, Adda B. Politics and Culture in International History: From the Ancient Near East to the Opening of the Modern Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960.
  • Bull, Hedley. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
  • Buzan, Barry, and Richard Little. International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Hui, Victoria Tin-bor. War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Quirk, Joel, Yongjin Zhang and Shogo Suzuki, eds. International Orders in the Early Modern World: Before the Rise of the West. London: Routledge, 2014.
  • Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.
  • Siddiqi, Farhan Hanif and Muhammad Nadeem Mirza. Introducing International Relations: Concepts, Theories and Practice. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Watson, Adam. The Evolution of International Society: A Comparative Historical Analysis. London: Routledge, 2009.