Changes and constants merit equal attention in IR studies

By LU LINGYU and CUI LEI / 09-21-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A Relational Theory of World Politics authored by famed Chinese international relations scholar Qin Yaqing Photo: Chen Mirong/CSST 

Since the dawn of the 21st century, particularly in the last decade, Chinese international relations (IR) theorists’ subject consciousness has been growing, as the call for building a Chinese school of thought for international relations or international relations with Chinese characteristics is getting louder and louder. In recent endeavors, scholars have begun to focus on the construction of the Chinese school and the necessity, possibility, and legitimacy of fostering IR theories with Chinese characteristics, with less touch upon core issues. 

The development of a school of thought and characteristics cannot be divorced from discussions and debates on metatheories, epistemology, and methodologies. However, in their final analysis, these studies must revolve around core issues. Important IR theories, such as neorealism, neoliberal institutionalism, relationalism, the world systems theory, and the dependency theory, are all empirically based on certain core issues. 

At present, theoretical IR research mainly focuses on the two broad categories of “the changed” and “the unchanged,” with more importance attached to the former. To innovate Chinese IR theory, however, it is not an “either-or” situation. The two categories merit equal attention, and scholars must delve deeper into the static and dynamic factors underlying different issues, thereby enhancing the foresight and explanatory power of Chinese IR theories. 

Two broad categories 

Grand theories were created to respond to grand issues, or the fundamental and epoch-making issues which are closely related to human political, economic, and social life. Using the temporal-spatial traits of empirical basis and research objects, we can categorize such issues into the changed and the unchanged. 

The first category studies changes, referring to epochal transformations in politics, the economy, or science and technology. In his 1944 work The Great Transformation, Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi observed society’s transition to the free market economy, a historic change to world politics in the age of industrial civilization. 

In Polanyi’s view, the transition to a free market economy was not “spontaneous,” but an overall institutional arrangement which goes against the very fabric of premodern society.

Polanyi saw that the gold standard was the market economy’s main tool, and trade protection policies were foundational to its existence. He argued that the outbreak of WWI can fundamentally be attributed to the collapse of the gold standard. 

Tang Shiping, a professor from Fudan University, regarded WWII as a landmark turning point in international relations, which evolved steadily from an era of offensive realism to one of defensive realism. Following WWII, the number of countries evidently increased. Even weak countries’ territorial sovereignty was fully respected by the international community. Any attempt to alter the territorial distribution pattern by force was subject to harsh punishment, which contributed to a significant decrease in the number and intensity of international wars. 

The second category of IR issues, about the unchanged, involves constant attributes, phenomena, and mechanisms that sustain human society. Qin Yaqing, a leading IR scholar in China who now serves as a chair professor at Shandong University, noted that relationalism, or “relationality” to use his terminology, was an example of this category. In Qin’s view, relations are essential to human society and international relations, and international relations are formed out of continuously maintained relations. Accordingly, international relations actors are also actors in relations, so processes, which are relations in motion, are noumena of international relations. Therefore, in international relations, the actions of actors first depend on relations. Moreover, relations don’t reject rationality in mainstream Western IR theories, because rationality is a type of relations that can be called “relational rationality.”

Relationalism represents the first subtype of the unchanged, or fundamental social attributes. Prospect theory is another subtype, which reflects human nature. The theory predicts that people tend to be more risk-seeking in the realm of losses and more risk-averse when in a domain of gains. In fact, prospect theory posits that people worry about losses more than thinking about gains in crises, which aligns closely with ancient Chinese wisdom. When considering the same amount of resources or endowments, the pain caused by losses is much greater than happiness from gains. This discovery is rooted in human genes, a result from millions of years of human evolution, and it applies to all individuals. Prospect theory has garnered extensive support and has been frequently applied in foreign policymaking, particularly decision-making for resolving crises. It is not only a useful supplement to mainstream theories on rational choice, but also converges with these theories. 

The above two categories are not distinct from each other. Instead, they overlap. American scholar Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism theory was criticized as static and rigid, castrating Western political history since the Middle Ages. For example, the assumption that (sovereign) states are the most important actors in international relations doesn’t conform to the political reality of medieval Europe. 

Furthermore, although Waltz acknowledged that the “balance of power” is a law external to international politics in the West, the empirical basis of his theory is exactly peace between the two major blocs, led by the United States and the Soviet Union, in the early and mid-stages of the Cold War. A review of Western-centric IR history suggests that peace was rare in this historical stage, despite the preconditions of structural violence, and thus, peace represented a remarkable change.


Excessive attention to changes

Between the changed and the unchanged, IR scholars overwhelmingly choose to probe into the former category. Changes in world politics are not only favored by applied countermeasure research, but they are also the main empirical source for theoretical innovations in international relations. In addition, changes are powerful forces driving the emergence of new topics in the IR field. 

For example, the end of the Cold War marked a major structural change in international relations. Civil conflict, stifled by confrontations among the two major camps, broke out unstoppably thereafter, superseding international conflict as the focus of international security studies. This type of conflict quickly developed into a prominent sub-discipline within international relations. In another example, early in the 21st century, research on terrorism rapidly gained steam, largely fueled by global shock over the 9/11 incident. 

Whether scholars of international relations zoom in on changes or constants is not only a personal preference, but also mirrors vast differences in world view and epistemology. When responding to criticism, Waltz argued that human political life is constantly changing, but most changes are insignificant. In contrast, permanent political laws should be a greater concern for IR experts. 

On the contrary, some scholars emphasized that vital IR theories are usually grounded in reflections on and inquiries into significant changes in human political life. In history, these changes are often catastrophic, such as the two world wars. Over the past two centuries, some basic facts in world politics have changed, including the nature of power and the structure of economic life. Such changes have accelerated and given rise to a series of new and urgent issues: what impact does power expansion, realized through technological revolutions and diffusions, have on world politics? Has substantive progress been made in international relations since the establishment of the Westphalian system? If so, is the progress owed to the development of human intelligence or the improvement of human morality? How have the diversification and complication of social structure in major countries around the world influenced international relations? How have transnational relationship networks and non-governmental organizations impacted state governance?

Constants also matter

Although many scholars prefer to draw inspiration from changes when making theoretical innovations, Chinese scholars should integrate both static and dynamic categories in order to build an independent knowledge system for international relations. It is necessary to extract and study information about epochal changes over the span of history. These long-term remarkable political and social phenomena are more enlightening than short-term political and social changes. 

Certainly, humans intrinsically prefer and pursue changes. Compared with the constant “hidden rules” in political and social life, dramatic changes are more likely to draw academic attention. International relations is a field abundant in material about changes. Descriptions and explanations of continually emerging changes have indeed amplified knowledge of the discipline and made irreplaceable contributions to foreign policy-making. However, innovations in IR theories necessitate discriminations of true and false changes to identify which transformations are historic and profound. 

In conclusion, to achieve qualitative leaps in theory, Chinese IR scholars must be devoted simultaneously to studying the two categories of the changed and the unchanged, especially exploring the attributes, phenomena, and laws that have existed stably through the history of human politics and international relations. 

China has a long history of civilization and boasts rich political insights, which can be found in historical and cultural classics like Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, and Zhanguo Ce, or Intrigues of the Warring States. These seminal works are key canons for Chinese IR scholars to examine grand theories. 

Likewise, our changing world contains numerous epoch-making issues. Artificial intelligence, the layout of global industrial chains, the Global South, and others are all new variables and topics for world politics. Which issue(s) will have a global, far-reaching impact on international relations tests scholars’ academic acumen. In the face of “momentous changes of a like not seen in a century,” a profound proposition for the 21st century, clarifying the proposition’s concrete implications will hopefully foster IR theories with strong foresight and explanatory power.

Lu Lingyu (professor) and Cui Lei are from the Institute of International Relations at Yunnan University.