Plural International Relations in a Divided World

Stephen Chan’s Plural International Relations in a Divided World offers a thoughtful and enriching meditation on the history of the modern “Westphalian” international system. The main argument of this book is that the Westphalian system is a moving target, and that it is entering an era of plural and pluralizing legitimacy principles. In a context of increasingly articulated non-Western world politics, how can we understand the plurality of “worlds” in international relations today? In a context of contrast between democratic and authoritarian states, and secular and non-secular states, what is the plurality of states that can be considered legitimate today?

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This book is beautifully written, in lucid prose that is nonetheless not dispassionate. It is composed with the benefit of a lifetime of observation and scholarship on international affairs. The book is organized in three parts. Part I explores the history of the moving target of the Westphalian system, from the League onwards, with cases studies in Soviet Union, communist China, Nasser’s Egypt, Israel and Palestine, South Africa, Zambia, Nehru’s India, the Non-Aligned Movement, whilst exploring the theories of the international generated in these contexts, Indian IR, Chinese IR, and African IR. With an interest in post-secular politics, Part II explores the history of Islamic states and non-states in the Westpalian system. Part III reflects on the political tensions and forces explored in Parts I and II, seeking the course to navigate the current ‘end of universalism’ in a plural and pluralizing world politics. A critical engagement of Henry Kissinger’s World Order is made, noting its insight into the plurality of legitimacy principles in contemporary international relations, whilst dissecting Kissinger’s flawed essentialism of civilizational worldviews and his problematic attempt to manage plurality through a balance of power system.

Global IR scholars might quibble the facts of the book’s case studies, which facts are included and which excluded. Yet, it is an immense history that necessarily needs to be selective. Reading this book brings the events and struggles of decades past into the present, giving them an immediacy, with an enriched appreciation of the diachronic sweep of the Westphalian system. This book also articulates the outlines of an important gesture towards navigating our plural and pluralizing world order: the need to articulate a shared but pluralistic principle of legitimacy. Scholars of the international are in this spirit called on to help articulate the theory and principles this emerging plural world order. This book will serve both the new and advanced observer and scholar of international affairs.

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Political Ontology and International Political Thought

Vassilios Paipais’s Political Ontology and International Political Thought: Voiding a Pluralist World is dense and ultimately unsatisfying, but conveys the spirit of an agreeable pluralist outlook. This book is heavy going theological metaphysics and pscychoanalytic philosophy. It revels in paradoxes and is loaded with excessively technical terminology. To over simplify, this book is about reconciling a tension between the plurality of worlds and pluralism in the world. It is about finding an ethics and political theory in a “post-foundational” context, where rival pluralisms attempt to resolve the question of plurality. This is an interesting question in a context with multiple responses to the pluralities of a globalizing world.61z+pdhtE7L._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_

In Part I, Paipais makes a scholarly analysis of the pluralisms debated in political theory and international political theory. Paipais argues liberal pluralism is unsuccessful in establishing neutral principles, and that critical strains of pluralism and agonistic pluralism unduly depoliticize plurality, in various ways.

Part II attempts to overcome the limitations found in Part I. Paipais engages psychoanalytical literatures, Zizek, Badiou, etc., and moves into Christian inspired ethics, as a potential route to resolving the tensions of plurality and pluralism. The argument settles on a ‘participatory understanding of St. Paul’s messianic meontology and incarnational Chistology’… The esoteric language in which this is expressed is impenetrable, unfortunately. If I have read it correctly, Paipais explains that it,

‘authorises a kind of critique that eludes both the reification of oppressive and unjust structures of power as well as that of phenomenally radical forms of critique that idolize fluidity, contingency and mobility without necessarily uncoupling their own complicity in the perpetuation of those structures.’ (p.24).

This conclusion is ultimately unsatisfactory, in its Christian idiosyncrasy, which limits the practical possibility of its widespread use in practice. The audience of the book is perhaps overly scholarly, too caught up in the academic debate. A tell is that the argument lacks any concrete analysis of its implications for practice, even though the literatures its surveys offer variety of world order proposals. The attitude, however, the spirit, of avoiding both being a prop to the powers that be, whilst also avoiding overly radical pluralist politics, seems to get the balance of the pluralism question about right.

Post-Western World?

What does a post-Western world order mean? Oliver Stuenkel’s Post Western World argues it means more continuity than change, and more cooperation than conflict. He argues, alarmism over the “rise of the rest”, and China in particular, is over stated, because the world order as it exists, is not a purely Western construct, although it has been Western-led and enforced. Rising powers, he claims, will behave no differently than their Western counter-parts, and, while projecting their power, will nevertheless support, more or less, the institutional framework of the international order.

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This book is accessibly written, makes an important corrective for problematically Western-centric readings of world order trends, and is worth reading by students and thinkers on international affairs and world order in general. I, and others, broadly agree there is less cause for alarmism than is sometimes thought in the prospect of a multipolar and non-Western led world order. I do not wish to engage in a minute academic review here, but want to raise two connected points. First, Stuenkel’s analysis unduly leans on “realist” assumptions. His analysis, for instance, privileges state power, and argues state powers generate their own soft power, which undercuts the sources from which states gather the Continue reading “Post-Western World?”

Retrotopia, Othering, and Belonging

Zygmunt Bauman finishes his final book, Retrotopia, with a chapter, ‘Looking Forward, For a Change’. He gestures towards a cosmopolitan change, but does not fill in the picture. He leaves us with the question of departure, to where?

Continue reading “Retrotopia, Othering, and Belonging”

Event: The Defeat of Hillary’s Globalist Vision

The defeat of Hillary Clinton brings down many things and people. Amongst them is the neoliberal vision of a global society. Nationalist, racist, and prejudicial politics will square off against alternative and new visions of global solidarity, but the last and greatest defender of the globalist neoliberal brand of cosmopolitanism, HR Clinton, has been defeated.

Trade will continue, on new terms perhaps, but the neoliberal vision of a global village of entrepreneurial individuals has been denied power. The liberal social imaginary of ‘atomistic’ global individuals was always gendered and racialized, but the revival of xenophobic politics has triumphed over the liberal vision of a global society.

With roots reaching to the 19th Century’s Richard Cobden, the vision will likely be reformulated and resuscitated again, sometime in future, but the present force of its neoliberal form is spent. What we are approaching is a post-liberal era of global disorder, a moment perhaps, but a post-liberal shift in world politics overall, where neoliberal internationalism has been knocked-out.

By post-liberal, I mean both an era in world politics where many liberal principles are challenged, overturned, and rejected, as well as an era marked by the trace of the former ascendance of those principles. Liberalism, in a broad sense, has a kind of way of life to be defended in Western democracies, but the US-centric world order hallmarks of democracy, human rights, global trade, and so on are hollowed-out, their neoliberal content is sapped. What will fill them is the contest between the revived illiberal vision of a racially, religiously, nationally divided humankind, and alternative, as yet unclear, unannounced, post-liberal cosmopolitanisms.