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 Once the class gets going, however, historical references are unlikely to stretch further back than to 1945.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. 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.
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 and respect for people who are marginalized and silenced. These are worthwhile concerns to be sure, but it is the Europeans, not the non-Europeans, who have a problem. If you want to understand what is going in 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 and as a result 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 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. No, you are right, it is not your fault. You went to the wrong schools and there were so many things your teachers never told you. But now, at last, you are in the right place.
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 events, wars, names and dates. Instead the aim is to introduce you to a field which we might call the “comparative study of international systems.” A system, any system, consists of units which are independent of each other but which at the same time interact on a sufficiently regular basis for it to be impossible to explain the behavior of one them without considering the behavior of all others. There is a systemic effect exercised not by the units but by the terms on which they interact. A system has a logic which sets the boundaries for what its members can and cannot do.
An international system is a system made up of political entities that act independently of each other, yet their interaction is at the same time sufficiently regular for each one of them to be dependent on the actions of all the others. The international system provides an environment which determines, in broad outline, how political entities define their goals and the means to attain them, how they act or refrain from acting, and which rationale they give both for their actions and inactions. The reason the international system can have this impact is that it, like all systems, have a certain logic. This logic is expressed in the rules, norms and institutions that the system contains. When studying an international system we study the rules by which the interaction takes place, the norms that obtain and the institutions that have been created.
A comparative study 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 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 eighteenth-century. As a result, 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 followed other rules and they had other norms and institutions. As a result, their members acted differently and for different reasons. Reading about them we take can leave of our world and visit some very different places.
Yet a comparative study of international systems will not only teach us a number of fascinating historical facts but it just might help us understand the present. Stuck inside our own world we will never properly understand its logic. It is only once we take a few steps back and take up an external point of view that we come to properly see, and properly understand, ourselves. A comparative study of international systems can provide such an external point of view. The kind of international politics they have taught us thus far, it turns out, is only one possible kind of international politics. Once we come to see today’s taken-for-granted truths as coincidental, we can start to think more creatively about how international politics can be organized. In this way our study of history provides us with ways to imagine the future.