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 Once the class gets going, however, historical references are unlikely to stretch further back than to 1945.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 one 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. Yet there is always another story to tell. In this book we will tell other stories. Our historical perspective goes back to the first millennium CE 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, but as it turns out, not all that much — not once we take at historical look at the world as 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 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.
Indeed, if you want to understand anything at all about what is going on in today’s Middle East, China, Latin America or anywhere else in the world, a historical and non-European perspective is essential. This is particularly the case in a world which once again is changing. Today Europe and North America play a far less dominating role in world politics than in the past century, and in the future this role is likely to become less important still. Changes, once under way, can be quick and dramatic, and suddenly we live in a world which is quite different than it used to be. As a result our perspective on the past must be revised. It is already obvious that the traditional European version of world history no longer is viable.
Admittedly, this is quite a mad undertaking. The book you have before you could be introduced as a “history of everything that ever happened.” Yet obviously such a book could never be written — or it would have to be just as long as history itself. For that reason we have to simplify and make choices regarding what to include and what to exclude. As a result, this book too has a particular story to tell. More specifically, we will focus on describing various “international systems.” An international system is a set of independent political entities which interact closely and frequently with each other. When we study an international system we study the rules by which this interaction takes place, the norms that obtain and the institutions that have been created. As a result, there are few events, names and dates in the text that follows. In fact, the information conveyed is very basic indeed. The aim is to open up new perspectives on the world, not to conclusively describe it. And once your interest has been sufficiently peaked you can go on exploring things on your own. The madness of this undertaking is no more glaring than the madness of teaching international politics as it has been taught up to now.
Today there is only one international system. There is a globe-encompassing world-system characterized by a high degree of interdependence. This system, moreover, is governed by a logic which originated in Europe and which spread to the rest of the world only as a consequence of European imperialism. The rules of international politics are European rules, it is fair to say; its norms and institutions are European norms and institutions. Today there can be no comparative study of international systems since there is nothing with which our current system can be compared.
And yet, going back only to the middle of the nineteenth-century there were viable, non-European, alternatives. Until 1860, the Chinese stubbornly insisted that their country was “the Middle Kingdom,” in comparison to which all other countries, including the Europeans, were vastly inferior. And if we go further back in history we encounter many other alternative systems — distinct, unique, and perfectly non-European ways of organizing international relations. And as we will find, these historical and non-European systems were organized in quite different ways. They contained other kinds of political entities and their interaction followed different rules; there were other norms and institutions. Learning about all these alternatives we will learn not only historical facts, but more too about the various ways in which international politics can be organized. The international politics they have taught you thus far, it turns out, is only one possible kind of international politics.
Or, to be more precise, we will discuss the international systems of six different parts of the world: East Asia, India, the Mongol empire, the Muslim caliphates, Africa and the Americas. We will have nothing to say about Australia and the Pacific islands; South-east Asia will be discussed but only in the context of Indian history, and there is no single chapter dedicated to Persia. There are limits in time too. What we will discuss are historical events that have left a strong imprint on our contemporary world. What we are interested in are cases where history still is making itself present.
This book is thus very much an introductory textbook and anyone with a proper background in world history will 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 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. No, you are right, it is not your fault. You went to bad schools. But now, at least, you are in the right place.
A comparative study of international systems makes this into a book of political science rather than history properly speaking. Political scientists like to summarize and draw conclusions which historians often find far-fetched. As historians see it, every conclusion must have support in the primary sources. Historical accuracy is obviously crucial, a political scientist will retort, but the sources cannot speak for themselves, and when we speak for them we will necessarily add perspectives which the sources themselves do not contain. It is only in this way that the past can come to make sense to us.
In what follows we indeed interpret, simplify and synthesize, but we will at the same time stay away from excessive theorizing. This is not a textbook on international relations theory. To theorize about something can never substitute for actual historical knowledge. Basically the fourteenth-century historian Ibn-Khaldun had it right. [Read more: Ibn Khaldun on assabiya] At first he set out to write a history of the Berber people of North Africa, but before long he realized that he needed to start thinking about what it is in general that makes empires rise and fall. In this way he came to produce one of the first systematic accounts of international history. Ibn-Khaldun theorized, but at the same time he always stayed very close to his historical sources. We will try to do the same.