Institutions, rules, and norms

Before we proceed to discuss the rest of the world, let’s say a few words about the institutions, rules, and norms which characterize the one international system in which we all now live. This is a system that takes the state as its basic unit. The state is the subject of international politics, as it were; it is states that do things — go to war, conclude peace treaties, engage in foreign trade. From around the seventeenth century onward, 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, we can conclude, 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 of this kind, there is no common authority. And this, it soon becomes clear, is a problem. If each state looks after itself, no one looks after the system as a whole. The term which scholars of international relations use for this condition is “anarchy.” The European international system is an anarchical international system. In an anarchical international system, states are permanently insecure and war is a constant threat. Since they cannot trust their neighbors to behave peacefully, 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 goodwill 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. Not surprisingly, the European international system has since its inception 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, we said, have other institutions, rules, and norms. 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 defined 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 subway maps — they tell you how to get from one place to the other, but they do 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 many 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. In this way, by looking at it from a non-European point of view — by relativizing it — we can learn more about Europe too.