Comparative international systems

A textbook on world history might appear to be a somewhat mad undertaking. A book that 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 subject that we could call the “comparative study of international systems.” Let’s think a bit about what such a comparative study might be. A system, first of all — any kind system — is made up of units that act independently of each other. At the same time, the behavior of one unit in the system always depends on the behavior of all the others. They are part of the same environment and this influences what they do. There is a systemic effect, we could perhaps say, which is exercised not by the units themselves, but by the terms of their interaction.

So what is an international system? Well, it is a system which is made up of political entities — we usually call them “states” — which act independently of each other at the same time as they are forced to consider the actions of all other entities in the system. They act on their own, but always also together with, and in relation to, all the others. The international system provides an environment, we could say, which determines, in broad outline, what political entities do and what they cannot do. The reason the international system has this effect is that it has a certain logic, and it is more than anything this logic that students of international relations study. The logic of the international system 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.

Yet there are many international systems, and not all of them are organized in the same fashion. That is, different international systems have different institutions, rules, and norms. These differences are the subject matter of a comparative study of international systems. And yet, it is no longer possible to make such comparisons using contemporary data. The reason is that there today only is one international system. This is the system that originated in Europe in the centuries around the year 1500 and spread to the rest of the world as a result of European colonialism in the nineteenth century. As a result, the different international systems that previously existed were destroyed. Today, the rules of international politics are European rules, and the norms and institutions are European norms and institutions. The entire world has been recreated in Europe’s image, and there is consequently nothing with which this 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, we will discover, 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 kinds of institutions, and they often followed other rules and norms. As a result, the political entities we find here acted differently and for different reasons. Reading about them allows us to take leave of our present world and visit some very distant, 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 regions of the world: 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 mainly 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.