What is the international system? (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 2)

So, I’m back to blogging my undergrad class this semester. (Let’s hope I can keep it going this time.) Today is the second session of “War and Peace in East Asia,” which is basically a semester long exercise of using the history of a specific region to sneak in discussions of the modern theory of war and international politics. Tuesday, I compared colloquial understandings of war and its causes to pre-germ theory understandings of disease—basically superstitious and callously self-serving—and promised to overturn how the class thinks about war with a barrage of theories rooted in war as a political phenomenon. Today is a bit more table setting, but we get down to our first bit of substantive international relations theory.

Today’s goal is to lay some groundwork for the course by placing the region in the context of the broader international system. That means that we have to start big—identifying the relevant actors, ordering principles, and modes of change to the big, nasty network of bargains that defines international politics. That’s important, I think, not just because this is an IR class, but because it can be too tempting to dive into the region in isolation, which creates a kind of geo-historical small-sample problem: if we isolate the set of countries whose interactions we’re studying from the rest of the system, then we run the risk of over-attributing the effects of the local, or the idiosyncratic, at the expense of the global, or the structural. (King, Keohane, and Verba (1994) have something on this, talking about small-sample attenuations of regression lines, right?) As we’ll see later in the semester, viewing the current incarnation of the Sino-Japanese rivalry or Cross-Strait relations without the context of the broader world of great power politics would lead to some profoundly biased inferences about what makes these rivalries look the way they do.

So, before we get to the regional, we’ve got to start with the global—and in today’s reading (Chapter 1 of this) Paine even argues that the existence of this global system came into existence in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War (which we’ll talk about a few lectures hence). That might be a bit late, given the fact that British intervention in the Taiping Civil War was touched off by opening of American Civil War (how cool is that? – the interconnection, of course, not the fact that some Americans tried to fight a war for the right to own other people), but it’s undeniable that two new non-European great powers emerged on the world stage, and in the Pacific, in the last years of the 19th Century. By 1894, the international politics of East Asia aren’t just regional; they’re global. What, then, is this international system of which all the protagonists in our semester-long story—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, American—are a part?

For the purposes of the course, I decided to focus on three things: the political units making up the system, its ordering principles, and the agents of change in units and ordering principles. For the most part, we’re talking about territorial states with at least nominal sovereignty, but there’s obviously a lot of variation in what those states look like, from ideal-typical national states to age-old empires masquerading as states to this day. But, generally, territorial states are the dominant actors in the stories we’ll be telling. Next, there are two, not always consistent, ordering principles: formal, legal anarchy but informal, de facto hierarchy. All states have a similar legal existence and set of rights and privileges, but hierarchies of wealth, power, and influence lead to a lot of variation in the extent states can (and choose to) act on their own. Finally, what drives change in either the units or the principles by which they’re ordered? The answer is simple: war…or its threat when states manage to accept the likely outcome of a war without having to fight it. Mao wasn’t wrong when he said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, and nowhere is this more often acknowledged than in international relations: rights, privileges, even the location of borders and the autonomy of ruling elites are the results of bargains that generally fall along lines of the likely outcome of wars that could be fought to determine them. War destroys and creates states, hierarchies, borders, elites—it periodically recreates the international system along new lines, and we’ll be tracing these effects in East Asia throughout the semester.

A system organized in this way—territorial states in a decentralized legal environment—is also going to be prone to specific types of disagreements and conflicts. States will tend to dispute the placement of borders and who governs particular territories, and the latter—since controlling the state is inherently valuable—will also provoke wars within the states themselves. States will also fight in order to reorder their places in the hierarchy, to gain control over the behavior of other states or to prevent or reverse the rise of some others to great power status. So this isn’t just an exercise in definition and semantics, because a decentralized territorial order based on legally sovereign states will be prone to certain types of disagreements and certain types of wars as a consequence. As we’ll note next week, however, wars aren’t the inevitable consequence of demands for change to the terms of the global settlement: more often than not, states find diplomatic solutions to their problems without having to fight a war first…and figuring out why war sometimes precedes diplomacy and why states sometimes get straight to the diplomacy will be one of the dominant puzzles that we address in this course.

Further, changes in the number and identity of great powers—those states that sit collectively at the top of the power hierarchy, basically acknowledge each other as such, and muck around in the affairs of other states the most often—tends to be fairly dangerous, and the historical period we’ll cover (from 1894 to the present) is rife with such changes: we’ll begin with a region dominated by Imperial China, then by a Japan that vaults into the rank of great powers in the historical blink of an eye, then one in which numerous great powers—including a post-Civil War China, Soviet Russia, and the United States—interact, all in the shadow of a united China recovering its wealth and military power in more recent decades. Viewed in that light, any course about war and peace in East Asia has to begin with an appreciation of the broader system in which it exists and whose ebbs and flows buffet the powerful and weak alike in East Asia.

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One thought on “What is the international system? (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 2)

  1. Pingback: Exam Day in War and Peace in East Asia | The Wolf Den

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