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Reconceptualizing international relations

Published on 09 December 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

“Reconceptualizing” is a fancy word for describing something quite understandable, if not always simple. The world out there is infinitely complex. Our limited mind can not grasp – let alone behold – it all. The conscious mind[1] interprets it by creating for itself (and others) a story that makes sense of the chaos. This is done by shrinking the “unknown” to something familiar – something we readily understand and can deal with. We make use of a metaphor in order to express it.

Metaphors lead and mislead.[2] Sometimes, we need to change the metaphor in order to “see the world new”, and to find a different way of dealing with the world. This change of story – the replacement of a Weltanschauung (now generically translated as “worldview”) with another one can be either frightening or exhilarating. Vistas or unseen chasms open up as the scales fall from our eyes.

Take the concept of “sovereignty,” roughly made up of territorial integrity and political independence. The term “sovereignty” conjures the image of the king – and his battles. The state (a social construct) is assimilated to the autonomous person (a living being) struggling for survival in a hostile world. Having chosen this metaphor, the state locked in such a struggle for survival is morally justified in repulsing aggression[3] or doing anything untoward.

As a corollary, if war is the continuation of politics by other means (Carl von Clausewitz), diplomacy is war by other means, and the diplomat is an honest man sent to lie abroad for his country (Sir Henry Wotton). Social Darwinism is applied by analogy to the struggle among states.[4] The metaphor’s thrust is one of unending struggle.[5] International relations are a zero-sum game, where the prisoner’s dilemma plays a central role and cooperation is an unstable coalition.


Now, let us change metaphor. I just came across an alternative metaphor in reading on the history of Japan’s modernization.[6] Following International Relations theory the author uses the metaphor of “Japan’s socialization into international society.” As Japan emerges from its isolation, it is confronted with the (then dominant) Western system of international relations. It quickly adapts to it, achieving full status in 1899, when the “unequal treaties” defining Japan’s second-tier status were abrogated.

“Socialization” is non-confrontational. The outcome is integration – of sorts. In the long term peaceful coexistence and cooperation among countries is the most likely outcome. I find the concept intuitively appealing.[7] It is far more fine-grained than the endless process of “struggle,” for it allows for an evolutionary process of silent transformation of the country into an “upright” member of international society (here I go again with reification – the fallacy of misplaced concreteness or hypostatization). This process need not be teleological: it can account, however, for some states to “fail” and then resume convergence toward socialization.

In this metaphor, diplomats no longer unconditionally defend the sovereignty at the border, lest it be violated by an aggressor. The negative prejudice is gone. Rather, they are facilitators in the process of socialization, which places them in perpetual tension between affirmation of the country’s autonomy and need/will for integration. They are mediators – which is what they originally were before they were tasked to defend interests rather than search for solutions.[8]

The metaphor is useful in other ways. It allows for different international systems to coexist. The Westphalian model of warily coexisting warring states is no longer the inevitable paradigm applying indiscriminately, or forever (the realist school of diplomacy). The re-emergent Chinese model of “tributary empire”[9] may be worth looking into. In such a model, a strong and self-assertive center is not necessarily hegemonic.

Changing metaphors allows us a fresh look at social reality and a new start. None is inherently superior, but they differ in usefulness at different times. (Having spent two days listening to deep and deepity analyses of “multi-stakeholderism” in Internet governance, I’m ready to embrace the metaphor of “socialization” as a better way to describe its evolution than the endless (and pointless) conflict between states and non-state actors.)

Beware: if understanding the overt limits of the metaphors is essential, one should also remember covert metaphors riding along. Western cultural pessimism[10] about “human nature” has a way to perfuse into international relations.

[1] Beware! The unconscious mind and its affects probably play a far larger role than we think. We are just beginning to understand the undercurrents of the dark sea on which our rational raft drifts. But this is another story.

[2] “While we cannot dispense with metaphors in thinking [about nature], there is a great risk of confusing the metaphor with the thing of real interest. We cease to see the world as if it were like a machine and take it to be a machine. The result is that the properties we ascribe to our object of interest and the questions we ask about it reinforce the original metaphorical image and we miss the aspects of the system that do not fit the metaphorical approximation. See: Richard LEWONTIN (2000): The triple helix. Gene, organism, and environment. Oxford University Press, Oxford. (Pg. 4)

[3] In Michael WALSER (1977): Just and unjust wars. A moral argument with historixal illustrations. Basic Books, New York, this argument is fully developed. Though he does not go as far as arguing that states are “organic wholes or mystical units” he draws an analogy between the individual and the state. Just as an individual is entitled to fight for survival, so is the state. Except, of course, in the case of Prussia. This state vanished from the map after WWII, while its citizens were reconfigured within other state entities without undue trouble.

[4] Chinese intellectuals used this concept in advocating China’s all-out drive toward “wealth and power.” See e.g.: Orville SCHELL – John DELURY (2013): wealth and power. China’s long march to the twenty-first century. Little Brown, New York.

[5] This worldview is exemplified in A. J. P. TAYLOR (1977): The struggle for mastery in Europe (1848 – 1918). Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[6] Tomoko T. OKAGAKI (2013): The logic of conformity. Japan’s entry into international society. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

[7] I forgot which historian quipped: “We wasted the XXth century teaching Germany manners,” yet it makes intuitive sense. The XXIst century would seem to be on the good track in teaching manners to both “have-been” and “wonna-be”…

[8] See: Garrett MATTINGLY (1973): Renaissance diplomacy. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

[9] See, e.g. : Peter Fibiger BANG – C. A. BAYLY (2011): Tributary empires in global history. Palgrave, New York.

[10] See e.g. Marshall SAHLINS (2002): The Western illusion of human nature. Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago.

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