History of International Relations Textbook

Introduction

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 Once the class gets going, however, historical references are unlikely to stretch further back than to 1945.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 have 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, and 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 too of course 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.

If you want to understand anything at all about what is going on in today’s world, a historical and non-European perspective is essential. This is particularly the case since the world 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. The world is about to flip. As a result our perspective on the past must be revised. The traditional European version of world history is no longer valid.