History of International Relations
Erik Ringmar, Ibn Haldun University
Copyright Year: 2019
Publisher: Open Book Publishers
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The book is comprehensive in the extent that it does cover multiple regions across the world. It does have some glaring omissions, not the least are the matter of how these regional systems operated and how they were interpreted locally across... read more
The book is comprehensive in the extent that it does cover multiple regions across the world. It does have some glaring omissions, not the least are the matter of how these regional systems operated and how they were interpreted locally across time. A further curious omission is the impact of trade relations between regions, whether it was simply the exchange of foreign goods or ritualized tribute. For example in the section on the peoples of East Africa and their involvement with Indian Ocean maritime trade, there is no mention that they were involved in the trade of key trade goods desired by the Roman Empire's as well as the Indian kingdoms' markets. In the Middle East section, the part on the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates further fails to the extremely important factors of the caliphates' economic system such as standardized gold dinar and silver dirham based currency system to facilitate trade, not to mention the continuity of some of the Sasanian administrative structures.
The book gives a nice summary of various cultures and regions though it doesn't go into much detail. Although there isn't much that's off in the representations, there isn't much that is particularly insightful either. It reads as a general world history textbook rather than an introduction to international relations, which I would expect as including some discussion on political philosophies and cosmologies regarding rationales for choices and self-perceptions vis-a-vis a particular society's "others." The chapter on China and East Asia was rather disappointing, but this is more or less simply because of my own background as an East Asia specialist. Although it gives a condensed overview, it says extremely little beyond what would appear on a Wikipedia article. The chapter oversimplifies the tributary system, political thought, as well as relations with nomadic peoples as it overly bases the concepts on Ming and Qing Dynasty conceptions when these attributes were time- and context-dependent. The concept of where "China" begins and ends changed frequently across history, yet this chapter sometimes gives a sense of a fictive stability about the tributary system's premises. Very little is discussed about how other states influenced the self-identity and political philosophy of "China" despite the obvious need for ruling houses' pretentiousness as rulers of the "Central State." Identification of the Manchus as nomads from the steppe is also inaccurate and the absence of Korea - often considered the model tributary state - in the equation is further puzzling.
Overall, the textbook gives a nice overview of the history of state formation and political philosophies that developed independently of "the West" prior to the rise of European expansionism. I'm not quite sure what to make of the text itself, however - is it actually about "international relations" or is it yet another "introduction to world history book"? The book does have value as an introduction to world history in condensed form digestible enough for freshmen classes, but it remarkably gives little knowledge about how the "international relations" operated. The author gives some examples of how alliances were made and diplomacy operated between regional states, but not enough information to give a sense of the political philosophy, ritual system, and economic considerations that went into these encounters. This is where the text is severely lacking - the reader gets the sense that different states outside of "Europe" and the modern US engaged in some form of relations, but how these relations are described, which the author notes in the beginning were distinct from current understandings of international relations, are sparse. For example, we are introduced to a brief history of the rise of the Aztec Empire, but while the ritualistic dimension of warfare was mentioned, the practice of the Aztec-led Triple Alliance's Flower Wars (or Garland Wars) is not mentioned, nor is the ritual universe of Aztec era central Mexico discussed as part of the rationale for them. For other examples in other regions, little is also said about the specific kinds of etiquette required in diplomatic engagements such as the use of classical poetic tropes in East Asian exchanges or the impact of religious embellishment in Islamic portrayals of rulers' decisions. Virtually absent in the text is that particular cosmologies were instrumental in developing shared languages of exchange, a factor that defines also the "European" system where our current relations are only possible because we have the perception of a shared single world system with commonly-recognized symbols despite the constant bickering that characterizes the present. In this aspect, the textbook fails to provide a nuanced picture and falls back on West vs. Rest dichotomy.
The text is written in a straightforward manner that is appropriate for an intro-level course.
The book is consistent in terminology (as well as what it leaves out). There's hardly any jargon or specific technology, which could be a good or bad thing depending on the instructor's needs. I'd use it as an intro to world history, but I'm not sure if it makes a good introduction to international relations given that there's so little space given to actual relations.
The organization of the text makes it easy to set up a course with different theme- and region-based sections across a semester.
The book's organization works for an intro-level class in segmenting regions and focusing on their specificities. Where it is problematic is that despite comment in regards to broader regional communications, it leaves the impression that these systems operated almost completely in isolation. Nonetheless, for an introductory class, its setup is amenable to easy modifications.
There's nothing out of the ordinary in the textbook, the images come out nicely, and the presentation is clear and crisp. It's fairly standard as far as intro textbooks go, with some nice blurbs on specific case studies and examples in the green boxes.
I did not encounter grammatical problems.
For a book that attempts to integrate "non-Western" systems to present a nuanced history of international relations, it paradoxically is also remarkably simplistic. The introduction's distinction (or attempt at a distinction) between culture and civilization is also rather puzzling and betrays a rather presentist perspective. This may simply be due to the limitations of attempting to condense extremely complicated topics where linearity is unavoidable, but closing the question of where we go from here is not conducive for students or scholars to think more analytically and creatively about international relations and its indelible connection to and continuous communication.
As it stands, I would not use the book as an introduction to international relations given the peculiarity that it says very little about its own topic. It works more as an introduction to world history.
Table of Contents
- 1. Introduction
- 2. China and East Asia
- 3. India and Indianization
- 4. The Muslim Caliphates
- 5. The Mongol Khanates
- 6. Africa
- 7. The Americas
- 8. European Expansion
About the Book
About the Contributors
Erik Ringmar is professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul, Turkey. He graduated from Yale University in 1993 with a PhD in political science and has subsequently worked at the London School of Economics and as professor of international politics at Shanghai Jiaotong Daxue in Shanghai, China.