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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The Ordinary Virtues

Michael Ignatieff’s The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World identifies a moral truth of general relevance, especially in globalizing times. This book argues basic habits of human decency -the ordinary virtues-, are what people use to navigate moral questions in globalized contexts of divided communities, with mixing strangers, different cultural practices, and unpredictable insecurities.

The story of the book is about the discovery of the importance of such ordinary virtues at the limits of universal human rights discourse. It is Ignatieff’s realization that the human rights revolution has only established a language for self-assertion, not real solidarities. It suggests world order needs the support of ordinary virtues to grapple with nationalism and inhumane governance in current affairs.

By ordinary moral virtues, Ignatieff means, ‘commonplace and everyday as opposed to heroic and exceptional’, a mix of, ‘trust, tolerance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and resilience’ (p. 26-27). They are contextual, pragmatic, local, taken-for-granted, gut-feeling ethics, I think 4176dm+tVOL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_best expressed as basic human decencies. As a part of the Carnegie Centennial Project, Ignatieff discovered these virtues in a multi-glocal tour of moral life in globalizing times, from Hispanic neighborhoods in L.A., immigrant communities in Queens, Rio favelas, illegal settlements in Pretoria, and poor villages in Mandalay, Bosnia, and elsewhere, in an exploration how people make sense of their moral lives in complicated globalizing times.

Basic human decencies, Ignatieff observes, are in high demand today, and he is right to explore and defend them. Basic decency to strangers is an ancient moral norm, but in globalizing times it is needed in the normal everyday more than in exceptional circumstance. In the Odyssey, what made the Cyclops a “savage” was more to do with his inhospitality than his monstrous features. When Odysseus and is comrades, starving wayward sailors, found themselves in the homeland of the Cyclops, their host ate them. The Cyclops is a figure of moral vices, greed and cruelty. In Homer’s tale, Penelope, at home in Greece, is the figure of ordinary moral virtues, perhaps even to a fault, nearly allowing her guests to eat her out of house and home. In a globalizing world, these virtues and vices are in contest on a daily basis, and defending the ordinary virtues can contribute to alleviating suffering and misery at an everyday level but also on a global scale.

Part of the importance of The Ordinary Virtues, is its critique of the practical limits of human right universalism, the acknowledgement of their inadequacy, perhaps an admission of their decline. But, Ignatieff also suggests liberal societies are more conducive to ordinary virtues than authoritarian societies. What gestures towards world order this book makes will inevitably be politically contested, but its defence of basic human decencies is always worthwhile, in any context. Surely, any world order built on moral vices, greed, domination, etc., will eventually collapse in war or revolution.

There may or may not be larger forms of belonging beyond the horizons of the liberal world order, but basic human decencies are nonetheless always and increasingly important in the times of globalizing disorder.

A Common World? On Critique of Black Reason

Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason leaves larger questions unanswered, but points 978-1-77614-050-3-critique_1200the way. It examines the changing use of ‘blackness’ as a category in an increasingly post-Western world order, and it raises the concept of ‘black reason’ as the thinking around the category that shapes its use. The book provides a history of the category in practice, its origins in the needs of capital, Atlantic then global diffusion, and moments of its change in practice: abolition, decolonization, and Apartheid. This drives the analysis to the crux of today, where the relation of West and the world is being reworked, enabling both new racism and a search for a ‘common world’ beyond black reason. Mbembe suggests ‘Europe’s twilight has arrived, and the Euro-American world has not yet figured out what it wants to know about, or to do with, the Black Man’ (p.7).

Continue reading “A Common World? On Critique of Black Reason”

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?”

*Reflections on John Gray on Living Together in this World

If the folly of this world is interminable, so too is the search for a better world. A portion of a lecture by English philosopher John Gray recently emerged on the internet. In it, the former LSE professor speaks on the question ‘can we live together in the world’, a question this blog has touched on before. Gray suggests the answer, yes.

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Myopic Global Futures Past at Davos

The question of belonging has emerged as a central concern of our times, but it entails the question of global as well as national belonging. The question of belonging somewhere in the world necessarily raises the question of belonging as a part of the world, not apart from it. The 2017 World Economic Forum fumbled this question. Although it was asked, it went wildly unanswered.

The forum, on the whole, was a wash, adding nothing new, but neither conceding globalist pretences. Over the past few days, Continue reading “Myopic Global Futures Past at Davos”

Why the Holy Roman Empire Did and Does Not Matter

It is too easy and too often thought that because nothing is perfect, humankind will forever be divided, at odds, even doomed. A fitting read for the Christmas holidays, Peter H. Wilson’s 2016 The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History rebels against that dumb-headedness. With impressive scholarship and humane writing, Oxford prof. Wilson overturns prevailing notions of the Holy Roman Empire as a failed state-building project. He argues the Empire, as it was called for much of its history, should be taken seriously as a distinct political form, and not as a confused way station in the rise of modern nation-states. It endured for a thousand years, twice as long as imperial Rome. Wilson arrays the 900 plus pages into four digestible parts: Ideal, Belonging, Governance, and Society. He shows how the Empire had a political order with pragmatic political institutions, distinct ambitions, and an historically distinct form of belonging. This is an important contribution for rethinking European political experience and expands our awareness of possible political forms.

What brings this work into the concerns of the BBP, is how Wilson understands why Continue reading “Why the Holy Roman Empire Did and Does Not Matter”