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Is the Hobbesian worldview of international relations still useful?

Published on 06 August 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

At the outset of his book Walter Russell MEAD[1] contrasts “continental realism – the belief that countries are driven by interests and the quest for power in international relations rather than ideals and benevolence” (pg. 35) with American foreign policy and concludes that “these assumptions simply do not apply to American reality, and attempting to understand American history and policy in their light leads only to one error after another.” (pg. 35). He uses the metaphor of “Continental” (i.e. mainland European) wars as events among “scorpions within a bottle” ruled by a Hobbesian worldview. Is he right? There were few ways for extractive elites to increase the yield from the peasantry in a pre-industrial society[2]. One was conquest, and indeed these elites fought each other with abandon – that was the “warring states” period that characterized much of Europe’s early history. Marriage should not be underestimated – the Swiss family of the Habsburg made a fortune with this approach and at the height of power the Habsburg clan was the preponderant power in Europe. The Catholic Church is the longest-lasting extractive elite based on faith – the Peter’s Pence – though it had to scale down its pretenses dramatically in recent years. The outcome of so many wars and battles was the Peace of Westphalia, which anchored the political system in the territory. Though aiming to resolve the religious issue, it became an overarching principle that included trade and capital flows. Mercantilism became the wisdom of the day. Grand designs are usually monuments to the past, rather than harbingers of future developments. For the discovery of America had changed all. It was not so much the American silver and the gold as the emergence of luxury consumption goods for the masses – sugar, tea, and coffee. To satisfy the swelling demand mere extraction of the raw material from its place of origin (as in the case of spice) no longer sufficed: plantations were needed – it was the beginning of “industrial production”. In the case of sugar manpower was taken from Africa. The Caribbean Islands were the location of the plantations. North America delivered food for slaves (e.g. cod[3]) against molasses for grog, and the sugar was sold through London and on to continental Europe. Networks of transnational contracts and investments were established – flying in the face of the strict Westphalian principle of territoriality. North America was fully embedded in this network. Within the common Anglo-Saxon cultural framework territoriality no longer mattered: contracts were upheld irrespective of sovereignty. Great Britain realized that American independence did not imply loss of investments and trade flows: when put before the hard choice of either holding on to the US or losing Jamaica, it opted to keep Jamaica out of the Spanish cultural sphere and signed on the dotted line of American Independence[4]. America became independent, yet remained fully and willing part of the British world economic system, whose successor it would eventually became.

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To use an analogy from Chinese Mora: with American Independence the stone of territoriality had been successfully wrapped by the paper of trade. The Hobbesian model of international relations sputtered on – a bogey from the autarchic past. It may be trotted out like Jeremy BENTHAM’s auto-icon at UCL[5].

[1] Walter Russell MEAD (2002): Special providence. American foreign policy and how it changed the world. Routledge, New York.
[2] See e.g. Patricia CRONE (2003): Pre-industrial societies. Anatomy of the pre-modern world. OneWorld, Oxford. Also Ernest GELLNER (1983): Nations and nationalism Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
[3] See: Mark KURLANSKI (1998): Cod. Vintage, New York.
[4] See: Thomas E. CHAVEZ (2002): Spain and the independence of the United States – An intrinsic gift. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. Even modern mainstream historiography ignores this crucial fact of the history of American Independence (se e.g. Robert MIDDLEKAUF 2006): The glorious cause.The American revolution, 1763 – 1789. Oxford University Press, Oxford. I suspect this elision is an effort in denial of the fact that for all the bluster about “freedom” the newly emergent US remained fully (and more than willingly) integrated into the British globalised economic system – even more so when cotton became a major export item to the U.K. The originally British House of Morgan acted as “central bank” for the US until the XXth century; see Ron CHERNOW (1990): The House of Morgan: An American dynasty and the rise of modern finance. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press.

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