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This chapter defines international societies as a set of polities that share foundational collective beliefs—a collective imagination regarding the nature and purposes of political and social organization. It discusses two challenges to ahistorical, positivist social science and international relations scholarship. Constructivist theory has convincingly demonstrated how international systems are social systems and that ideas and interests are inextricably linked. Similarly, the English School has championed the need for historical analyses and contextual nuance. This chapter acknowledges the affinity as well as differences between these approaches and my analysis. Furthermore, it articulates a methodology to conduct contextual, interpretative, and empirical analysis. Such an analysis demonstrates that political communities and international order do not depend solely or even primarily on material capabilities. In order to understand how political communities and order are constituted, one must acknowledge the importance of the ceremonial and the symbolic.
Early modern international societies beyond Europe were based on shared sets of beliefs that differed dramatically from Western views regarding the nature of the material and social world. However, the encounter of the West with non-European international societies was not an encounter between two rigidly defined static systems. Instead, both Western and non-Western polities redefined their identities as well as the political-social expression of those identities in the dyadic encounter.
Collective beliefs and the corresponding political organization influenced features of interstate relations such as the nature of warfare, alliance structure, and the absence of a hegemonic power. Except for Siam, the European colonial powers controlled every polity in Southeast Asia by the late nineteenth century. Siam adjusted to Western principles of political organization but did so against the backdrop of its existing belief system. Positivist international law nevertheless continued to exclude it from the Law of Nations, in a case similar to how the West treated the Islamic and East Asian polities.
Contrary to views that these non-Westphalian polities could not adjust to material and conceptual changes, fundamental transformations occurred throughout the non-European international societies.The encounter between the universalist empires and the Western polities introduced new perspectives of inclusion and exclusion and influenced both parties. Studying collective beliefs not only provides a means to examine different patterns of international order but also serves as a mirror to contemporary preconceptions of international relations. Imputing the Western nation-state as the normal pattern of political organization leads to a process of normation---the attempt to impose that form of political community on others. Historical reflection reveals that international relations hardly consist of immutable patterns of behavior. While material conditions play an important role, the modalities through which individuals and social groups understand these phenomena occur against the template of a shared collective consciousness. Collective beliefs form a critical component for explaining state policies and are themselves independent sources of power.
Chapter 4 discusses the logic of order of the Chinese tributary system. It demonstrates that a shared set of collective beliefs, revolving around Confucian principles, and other norms, played an integral role in this political system. Understood as a complex of shared understanding and meaning, tributary relations acted as a lingua franca by creating a shared script, a common knowledge, that facilitated mutual understanding, which could entail benign or less benign relations but overall provided actors with a common frame of reference. The tributary system is an analytical framework for the historical study of Asian international relations, a concept that should be understood as a script that allowed for multiple and diverse interpretations by the participants themselves. The chapter further demonstrates how the Sinocentric system could accommodate great heterogeneity and multiple ethnicities and religions.
In the Islamic Ecumene shared religious principles intertwined with other foundational beliefs, which harkened back to the Turkic-Mongol tradition of the Islamic empires, providing cultural unity. The Islamic World constituted an international society despite the absence of a clear hegemonic power. Institutions, laws, and collective beliefs embodied in everyday practices, rituals, and even the design of buildings and cities provided unity in a heterogeneous and diverse Islamic ecumene.
This chapter exposes the weaknesses and empirical fallacies of positivist and ahistorical accounts of international order. It shows that sociological and historical scholarship provides a more satisfactory approach to understanding political order and interstate relations. Interpretivist historical reflection on non-European systems consequently sheds light on the interactions between European and other international systems that did not consist of sovereign, territorial polities.
This chapter clarifies the nature of interstate relations and challenges the claims that the Chinese tributary system could not adjust to the Westphalian system. The alleged incompatibility between East Asian conceptions of international order and the Westphalian system is overstated. This chapter surveys arguments that intellectual stagnation and a myopic worldview caused Chinese decline and eventual collapse. Instead, it is argued that China engaged in intellectual adjustment to meet the global pressures caused by the imperial colonial powers. This adjustment and change in the collective imagination also carried over into the political realm.
The Islamic empires, and specifically the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, were not antithetical to the Westphalian principles of international order. The claim of Islamic and Ottoman incompatibility had more to do with European colonial ambitions. Altering their universalist claims, Ottoman rulers engaged in significant adjustments to Western principles of international diplomacy and international relations. Studying the Islamic world provides insights into how a regional order might be based on a shared collective identity rather than on material dominance by a hegemonic power. The Ottoman Empire provides a perfect case to examine adjustment at the peak of Western imperial expansion and confrontation with the West.
The “galactic empires” were never dominated by a single polity, nor was this region united by any monotheistic religion. Nevertheless, collective beliefs created a shared political and social order throughout Southeast Asia. This regional international society was based on the view that the social and political world should be constructed so as to mirror the religious and cosmological realm. Political authority radiated from a sacred political and geographic center, with authority dissipating concentrically from the center outward.