More IR theories wanted?

February 7, 2007

History repeats itself. The ancient China is no different from the modern world history explained by our IR theories.

1) In China, during the Warring States Period (403B.C.-221B.C.), hundreds of states arose and tried to assert their power. The relationship between states was one of anarchy. Fitting the realist prediction, each state was in pursuit of their state interests through the use of force and violence. After years of wars, only seven large states left. But the multi-polar system still did not maintain for long. As Qin expanded its power, the other six states formed alliance to counter-balance it. However, some states later decided to join Qin’s bandwagon because of miscalculation of Qin’s aim, inevitably causing the failure of the six-state-alliance. Then Qin took the opportunity to annex other states and built up the later Qin Dynasty.

2) Following the fall of the dynastic power of The Han Empire over “China” around 195 B.C., the country was divided between a number of regional warlords. After a series of diplomatic events and wars, the warlord Cao Cao took control of the Northern part of “China.” Cao Cao then planned to “unify China” by marching to the south with his strong army but was resisted by an allied force between two warlords Sun Quan and Liu Bei, whose armies, if considered seperately, were much weaker comapred to that of Cao Cao. But in the “War at Red Cliffs,” the allied army defeated Cao Cao and ensured the survival of Sun Quan and Liu Bei. Later on, the states / kingdoms of Wei (in the north), Shu (in the southwest) and Wu (in the central) were formed by Cao Cao, Sun Quan and Liu Bei or their successors respectively. After The Three Kingdoms were founded, they showed their interests to be the hegemonic power and to destroy one another. Simultaneosly, balance of power among the three states was found since in order to secure survial, a state had to ally with another one to balance against the remaining and probably stronger one. So, at a time, Wei allied with Wu but at another time, Wu allied with Shu for the purpose of their different interests.

Warring States Period and the Three Kingdoms period seemingly proved that the modern realist IR theories are right. In fact, these chapters of Chinese history echo with the age of ancient Greek city states (500-100B.C.) during which realism took its embryonic form.

But China did not have the term “realism” in its ancient history. Instead, the dynamic political environment during the said periods (especially the Warring States Period) had stimulated hundred schools of thoughts, namely, Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, Mohism. Can’t they be used as philosophical roots of “new” IR theories?

Interesting enough, from The Warring States Period to The Three Kingdoms Period, the primary advisors of the leaders of states and kingdoms could all be called as IR theorists in modern terms. Zhuge Liang, who was the chief advior of Liu Bei, could even command the generals to wars. Some historians considered the regional order in China at that period was actually “designed” and “worked out” by Liang. What’s more, the order of the Three Kingdoms lasted no more than 50 years because of such reasons as the change of pesonal leadership, and internal chaos of individual nations… (Western) IR theories again!!

1) Do you have any similar historical examples in your own country to share?
2) Are Western-centric theories always obsolete in explaning the behavior of states and relations of states in non-Western world?
3) Do China and other non-Western countries already have their own IR theories but we just overlooked in class?

Sorry for talking too much and being China-centric this time.

By Wooiyee and Frankie


7 Responses to “More IR theories wanted?”

  1. O C Lin Says:

    I believe the evolution of IR theories did happen in different cultures and countries because the theory / theories are basically related to the understanding of interaction among government, key actors or leaders. Though different countries may have different culture, we are talking about human being who share simlar nature. Just like psychology, theories of psychology can be applied to people of different countries or cultures. With this in mind, I guess those “western” IR concepts should be applicable to non-western context.

  2. G. Daniel Says:

    To take OC comparison a bit further I would suggest that like psychology, IR theories have to be adapted to their social context. My limited understanding of psychology is that the cultural background of the person or group you look at has a strong influence on the way the various behavioural factors interact. Thus the same event might provoke the same emotions but the subsequent answer / behaviour to those emotions might be quite different from one cultural background to another.

    It is also worth remembering that most “western” IR theories find their roots in, or have been heavily influenced by, the enlightenment movement. The enlightenment itself was heavily influenced by the various political arrangements of the time. German thinkers were influenced by the strong Prussian state and thus focus more on the normative aspects, French thinkers were trying to imagined an alternative political model to the crumbling royal system, while English thinkers were more focused on individual interaction and economic processes. What they all have in common was the strong ongoing competition between the European states and theirs overseas expansions with its enormous economic fall-out. In a way all those theoretical thinking had the same goal, find a political and philosophical model that would be superior to the others and thus secure the power position of their nation-state.

    I suppose that one could argue that Asia offers a contrast of well-established nation-states and emerging ones and thus is still working out a regional consensus on what is a nation-state and what it means in terms of international relations. This is not a Eurocentric comment (at least I hope not) but rather an attempt to point out that the uneven colonial experience, its relative lower position during the cold war and the uneven national political consolidations that followed have slow down the region in reaching a point of imagining its own vision of international relations.

    One think is clear to me, the initial push for modern IR theories responded to a setting of nation-state competition. Today the nation-state legitimacy comes from an increasingly large middle-class (in most countries) that have increasingly high expectations on their government to deliver a good quality of life. What a good quality of life is differs from place to place but in one way or another it involves a healthy economy and a basic level of security. Thus I see an increasing push for a more cooperative model between states. This certainly involves a level of re-imagining the tenets of international relations to formulate another political modus operandi. This might well emerged from the hybridisation of the various political approaches.

  3. anniesmho Says:

    I agree with OC and Daniel that by and large, western IR theories can be applied well to explain the situation in China, after taking into consideration the specific cultural and social settings. However, besides looking at the applicability of “-ism” to China, I would like to add a point on the level of analysis.

    My impression so far (which may be changed after this semester) is that individual level of analysis, i.e. significance of individual leaders, plays a heavy role in most of the analysis of the Chinese history. Perhaps my impression is partly built up by films featuring Chinese history and political news which always highlight the personality of the individual leaders. I guess this is why I enjoy reading the piece “Let us Praise the Great Men”.

  4. O C Lin Says:

    On Annie’s impression about the influence made by individual leaders, I guess it is because there is a lack of mechanism that holds the leaders under check and balance. Wihtout such a system, who owns the power will be able to make influnce over the whole country.

  5. kennethkfli Says:

    Thanks to Wooiyee & Frankie. I personally think that this is really an interesting subject.

    From this, it attracts some interesting dialogue on this issue. My view is that general IR theories are applicable to explain situations not only in modern China but also in her history.


  6. Ada Says:

    Modern theories in ancient world, ancient theories in modern world

    Using the example of the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, a three-nation balance was maintained from AD 220 to around 280. Most understandings of this part of the Chinese history are based on a historic fiction, “The Three Kingdoms” written by Luo Guanzhong almost a thousand years after the events. His stories are mainly taken from a historic journal “Records of the Three Kingdoms” (by CHEN Shou). In the well-known fiction, Luo included many stories describing how the three nations interacted with each other. Although the historic values can be challenged, the fiction still provides a good window for today’s readers to analyze the inter-kingdom relationships during that time.

    Any IR Theory is a model/framework from which we analyze the current or past situations. The three kingdoms period can be analyzed from different point of views.
    From a realist point of view, as Wooiyee and Frankie mentioned, all three kingdoms struggled for power as well as survival, and they all resorted to force. All nations wanted to rule, obtain more power and control, some of them are skeptical about moral values as we can see from the fact that they could ally with one country and turn to a bloody fight a few days later.

    From a liberal point of view, although this branch of thinking is more absent in the Chinese culture, all three kingdoms’ ultimate goal was to bring peace to “the world”, by which they meant what we call China in today’s context. Shu Kingdom, lead by Liu Bei, especially valued some of the traditions in Chinese culture, such as loyalty, justice, righteousness etc.

    From a Marxist point of view, China has gone through numerous peasant revolutions. As for the Dynasty before the three kingdoms period, Dynasty Han, the first emperor Liu Bang brought an end to the Qin dynasty through such rebellions. A Marxist would undoubtedly interpret this as class conflict. In fact, Mao Zedong made reference to these peasant revolutions quite often. China’s five-thousand-year history has always been filled with clashes between the ruling and the ruled.

    Finally, a constructivist would pay more attention to ideas. Due to lack of individualism and social concept, it might be a little difficult for a constructivist to analyze the three kingdoms period. However, all three nations cherished ideas, such as Confucianism, Taoism etc. Shu Kingdom always viewed themselves as the royal lineage from Han Dynasty, and wanted to emphasize that they are the legal ruler, righteous force.

    As for the four Chinese philosophies Wooiyee and Frankie mentioned, they can also be alternative models from which we analyze the world. Trying not to make this response too long, I will only mention one, Taoism, because this one indeed is strikingly different from all the western-centric theories we have discussed. The founder of Taoism, Laozi, believes that ruling a big country is like cooking a small dish, meaning that in order for a dish to be delicious, all the materials, sauces must be added, with the right amount, at the right time, and ruling a country is similar. Laozi also believes that the highest level of ruling, is not to do anything at all, and the people will benefit the most from such a ruler.

    In today’s world, Laozi’s philosophy can be very useful in analyzing some of passive/neutral nations such as Canada, Norway, Sweden and Holland. They try to make peace with surrounding countries, and the government hardly ever interferes with domestic or international affairs unless necessary. Laozi can also be used to analyze a society with minimal government interventions, as they try to do as little as possible.

    Sorry to make this response even longer, by writing this line.

  7. Monica Says:

    For someone new in the realm of IR, the theories provide me with frameworks to analysis and compare different historical events and political phenomenon.

    It was interesting to note that IR theories seem to shift or, put nicely, evolve as the predominant international situation changed. However, the thinking behind each theory revolves around the questions: Who are the key players? Is Morality on individual level or system level? For example, after WWI, LIBERAL INTERNATIONALISM was hot, and the League of Nations was created as a result. The liberal interantionalist slogan was “law not war” – but it became clear, as the 1930s progressed, that the only way in which law could be maintained was by ‘war’ (p.25, Understanding International Relations, Chris Brown) Niebuhr’s REALIST view orginated in the troubled years of 1930s. After 1945, realism became the dominant theory of IR. Realists said that the liberals wildly exaggerated the capacity of collectivities of humans to behave in ways that were truly moral (Niebuhr 1932). More theories were established subsequently, including Positivism, Behaviouralism, Neorealism and Transnationalism.

    In response to Frankie and Wooyee’s use of Warring States Period and the Three Kingdoms period as example, perhaps we could also use Taiwan and China as example. I think the current relationships can be interpreted by Keohane and Nye’s Transnational Relations model – realtionships which involve transactions across state boundaries in which at least one party is not a state. According to Keohane and Nye, complex interdependence assumes that there are multiple channels of access between societies, including diferent branches of the state apparatus as well as non-state actors, as opposed to the unitary stats assumption characteristic of realism. Many Taiwanese have their manufacturing and production facilities in the mainland, these businessmen collectively become non-state actors, influencing souvereignty issue such as flying right in the sky i.e. direct flight between Taiwan and the Mainland. Althought state remains the final approver of such rights, non-state actors seem to be able to exert more power to push thing forward.

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