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This diary is a book review of Kees van der Pijl's (2007) work on "foreign relations," Nomads, Empires, States.  Van der Pijl argues that the field of "foreign relations" must be rethought, and doing this will allow us to see why relations between nation-states are only one mode of foreign relations, and not necessarily the most important one in this era.  Rethinking foreign relations, then, we should be able to understand why the regime of "global governance" has failed to triumph in a world without endemic warfare between nation-states.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

One recent book release of note in the field of "International Relations" has been Steven R. David's (2009) Catastrophic Consequences.  Catastrophic Consequences is a book written from the perspective of "American national interest"; in it, David argues that:

Though largely ignored by scholars and policymakers, who remain fixated on the idea of interstate conflict, civil wars and other forms of domestic violence in other countries have emerged as one of the principal perils to American vital interests.  (2)

David's array of examples bears this out.  Saudi Arabia is said to be "bursting with groups furious with the royal family" (21), thus imperiling oil supplies around the world, Pakistan "verges on collapse, a collapse that would facilitate the transfer or seizure of nuclear weapons to terrorists" (50), Mexico could plunge into "prolonged and widespread disorder" (82), thus impacting the US economy, China is likely to experience "violent instability" (82), thus causing an outcome David does not name precisely.

Now, the term "American vital interests" is of course loaded.  Whose "vital interests" are "American vital interests"?  Do all Americans count as benefiting from the maintenance of "American vital interests," or just those whom any particular user of the term "American vital interests" happens to favor?  Is it an "American vital interest" to support neoliberal capitalism, if neoliberal capitalism means the perpetuation of economic habits which will lead to climate disasters in the future via abrupt climate change?  Do Palestinian-Americans benefit from US support for Israel?

Of course, the US has been meddling in the internal affairs of other nations for the sake of "American vital interests" at least since William Walker commandeered Nicaragua in 1856.  So David discovers nothing essentially new.  However, the idea that this activity, and not the mere set of formal relations between nation-states, is now the centerpiece of interest in "international relations," is doubtless news to many of the academic practitioners in the field.  Steven R. David, despite his quotidian biases, is nevertheless one of the more enlightened of this bunch.

The theory for this new era (new, at least, for the academy in the social sciences, which are typically caught "proving" things we already know) can be found in Kees van der Pijl's (2007) Nomads, Empires, States.  It is this book, and not David's volume, that is the subject of this review.


Van der Pijl's antidote to the (Eurocentric) fixation of "international relations" upon nation-states is to suggest four distinct "modes of foreign relations," corresponding in a sense with Marx's notion of "relations of production."  This version of the history of "foreign relations" offers us a prehistory of nation-states, bringing the nation-state into the world of ordinary affairs between people, and approximating an anthropology of ingroup-outgroup relations.  The outlay of these modes, and by consequence of van der Pijl's book, is on p. 24: the four modes are:

  1. Tribal relations, dating back to pre-agricultural society
  1. Empire/ nomad relations, following the invention of settled agricultural society and agricultural empires: think, for instance, of relations between the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes to its north (not to mention the Berbers to the south), or of relations between the Chinese and the Mongols
  1. relations of "sovereign equality," which served the nascent capitalist world well -- this is the normal subject matter of "international relations"
  1. relations of "global governance," emerging with globalization. (24)

As van der Pijl recounts the history of each of these modes of foreign relations, we can see that no mode of foreign relations becomes obsolete at any point: rather, in the triumph of "global governance" over state power in the current era, tribal modes of foreign relations re-emerge in proliferation.  Thus the politically-unstable world (as it receives the motivated complaint of the likes of Steven R. David) comes into being.  The new world of "global governance" is an overlay, another way of pushing tribes together without really shifting the patterns of allegiance a whole lot.  The various overlays which constitute the newer modes of foreign relations, from empire to nation-state to global organization, transform the old relations without removing them.

The various modes of foreign relations, then, recur -- not because they are "eternal verities," but rather because the conditions for their recurrence show up time and again.  Modes of foreign relations, then, are rooted in everyday life: "tribes" are something we form from our circles of friends.  Tribal differences, moreover, show up in phenomena such as with race relations in the United States, as van der Pijl points out in detail.  The citizens of "empire" are our domesticated selves, and, as van der Pijl suggests at the end, "the barbarian... is already among us and even inside ourselves" (274).

The bulk of this book is an interesting history of each mode of foreign relations in which van der Pijl explains world history in terms of the development of these modes of foreign relations.  The second chapter is about tribal prehistory and history, the third chapter is about the history of empires (which for the most part extends to the end of the Middle Ages), the fourth chapter is about the "ethnogenesis of the West" through the early modern era, and the last chapter tries to sort out recent history and the world of the present day.

The first discussion, of the genesis of the world's tribal relations, shows how tribal relations emerged from the pre-industrial stratum of the world of the Ice Ages.  From the genesis of the tribes themselves began the elaboration of sets of rules for interaction between "outsiders," those belonging to different tribes.

The second discussion relates to empires, typically ruled by warrior aristocracies which seize control of "the world" (rather, the geographical area which each empire was able to occupy in its time and space) in order to protect its agricultural base.  Within an empire, foreign relations still continue between the different tribes under its domain; but then there arises a new form of foreign relations, relations between the empire itself and the nomadic tribes outside its domain.  The nomadic tribes were typically impoverished; but their peoples typically retained a hardy warrior spirit which the domesticated inhabitants of empire usually lacked.

The third discussion relates to the beginning of sovereign nation-states, which came out of the dissolution of what van der Pijl calls the "empire of Western Christianity."  The "empire of Western Christianity," the Catholic world of the Middle Ages, was unique because of its religious nature (i.e. the separation of Papal authority from secular kingship), its employment of converted nomads (e.g. the Normans) as frontier warriors, and its creation and employment of migrant populations (e.g. the Crusades).  The "empire of western Christianity" thus combined the most dynamic aspects of both empire and nomad social formations, and was thus a staging point for the "conquest of the oceans" once Europeans discovered the New World.  The collapse of this formation was the point of entry for European global conquest, around which coalesced the European nation-states.

The last discussion in van der Pijl's book relates to institutions of global governance, and the fact that these institutions relate to a scheme to impose a particular capitalist culture (English-speaking, rooted in Wall Street) upon the world.  In such a world, van der Pijl asserts:

There are real regressive tendencies operative in the current period that make tribal forms more ubiquitous, as the way of life of many hundreds of millions is collapsing back into primitive existence. (199)


OK, so global governance has failed to deliver on its promise.  We can see this in the economic regression of much of Africa, in "failed states," in the failure of the system to deal with abrupt climate change, in the current economic collapse, in the destabilized regimes cited in David's book.  What is to be done?  Van der Pijl's suggested solution combines Marx's "recommendation" that the working class take control over the means of production (and financial sphere) with three recommendations as regards the tribalized world into which we are now regressing:

  1.  In terms of occupying space, a multiplication of sovereign spheres, from cultural autonomy of communities claiming a separate existence and granted the minority rights of ethnic law, via subregional, state, and supranational democratic institutions to the UN.
  1.  In terms of protection, a multilateral framework for security, based on the established collective security regime of the UN and police action for protection against violence.
  1.  In terms of exchange, the equitable organisation of the world's productive capacity.  Obviously this can only be meaningful if it coincides with the transformation towards a sustainable, associated mode of production and within the limits of the possible set by the need to preserve the biosphere. (200)

So van der Pijl's suggestion for a "revolutionary transition" would bring us a world administered by the UN, after which we would have to see "the abrogation of the West's superior sovereign claim" (201).  This is not a call to "merely bank on a popular insurrection" (204) -- rather, van der Pijl wishes to persuade what he calls the "cadre class," the empowered intelligentsia, that this is the best of possible options.



Back in the 1990s, the capitalist elites dreamed that they had at last, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, achieved the world order they wanted.  Ethnic differences would dissolve in a globalized Disneyland of international culture, economic questions would dissolve in the universal adherence to the rules of "free market capitalism," and political issues would be tested and succeed (or fail) according to the rules set by representational democracy.  Or so said the likes of Francis Fukuyama.

And the rest of us, hiding from this order in the academies of the world, hoped that some dramatic event would occur on planet Earth which would recover the politicized hope for social renewal.  Remember, this was the era in which the Right took hold of everyday politics through the Contract With America and used it to promote "tribal" concerns (eg Propositions 187 and 227 in California, the Welfare Bill, and so on).  I suppose the "Battle of Seattle" was that event -- and van der Pijl writes praisingly of the "summit-hopping anticapitalist nomads" (209) which contested "empire" for a short time thereafter.

And the capitalist dream did not succeed.  Ethnic differences still abound in local warfare; economic questions today are about whether the capitalist system itself can survive the current crisis; and political issues are about how the oligarchies currently in power will do nothing to stop the scary, dystopian future they refuse to prevent.

Our political discourse, however, seems quite doomed.  The anticapitalist nomads disappeared after 9/11/01, and so we're still left with an "empire without nomads" political formation, in which the objection to Bush did not really contest US empire (see especially the 2004 election) but rather disputed Bush's way of handling it.  Politics today has been domesticated by elites, amidst a world-situation in which, as van der Pijl says:

What we are experiencing today is an exhaustion of the social and natural substratum on which economic reproduction, under the market discipline imposed by globalized capital accumulation, rests. (198)

In short, doomed.

Van der Pijl's suggestions, outlined at the end of his book, might be a major alternative to all this.  The author of Nomads, Empires, States does not merely bank upon some idealized revolution which will bring us his idealized picture of the world; rather, the "cadre classes" of the world, the intelligentsia, will visit the world's frontiers, observe the destruction of what's meaningful and good in the world, and act appropriately to preserve what's left.  Recommended.



His University of Sussex profile

Theory Talks interview with van der Pijl

Kees van der Pijl on Google video

an older piece on the European "Left"

His Global Political Economy book (in PDF format)

The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class (in htm.)

my second diary here on DKos

my review of his book on recent history

Originally posted to Cassiodorus on Wed May 20, 2009 at 08:51 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips for Kees van der Pijl (5+ / 0-)

    Do what you will with this diary -- it's rather lengthy and complex, as is its subject matter.  I don't expect a lot of comments.

    "You must do what you feel is right, of course" -- Obi-Wan Kenobi, in Episode IV

    by Cassiodorus on Wed May 20, 2009 at 08:58:07 AM PDT

  •  Thank you for this diary. (3+ / 0-)

    I have hotlisted it and will read it in depth later.

    Sadly, I think you are correct,  there won't be that many comments.  A diary like this takes time to read and absorb.  

  •  Always a pleasure Cassiodorus (3+ / 0-)

    A banquet for thought.  When we extricate our collective selves from the gloom of desperate late (terminal) capitalism it will be because we take the time and make the effort to reexamine our social structures not in terms of politics, but in terms of epistemology.  Sappy optimist that I am, I believe we are seeing the early signs of this, shallow as yet, but (for the first time in my life) beginning to overcome the fear of looking in a better direction.  Capitalism has begun to lose the loyalty of the middle class, what was once unshakable dogma is now open to critique.  It has taken its best shot and missed the mark.  I suspect nearly everyone knows this now.  The next steps aren't very clear, but that they lead away from the predominant received ideas of the last two centuries is obvious.

  •  Great stuff always. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    borkitekt, Cassiodorus

    Thank you once again.

    "The truth shall set you free - but first it'll piss you off." Gloria Steinem

    Iraq Moratorium

    by One Pissed Off Liberal on Wed May 20, 2009 at 10:03:37 AM PDT

  •  Not the lightest diary of the day (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    A diary like this deserves a reply at book length, but instead I'll just fire off some random thoughts.

    First, some assumptions:

    1. Humans use two main social strategies: cooperate and compete.
    1. Throughout most of our existence as a species, the greatest existential threats have been from other people.
    1. All civilized societies have a class structure, in which a lower class (peasants and workers) is involved in direct production, and an elite class lives off of the production of the lower class.
    1. In the last few centuries, at the level of geopolitics, the greatest perceived threat to any empire or nation state has been from other empires and nation states.
    1. Within empires or nation states, an additional perceived threat (besides that of external rivals) to any ruling faction has been competition from alternative, "pretender" factions.

    These inherited assumptions rule the contemporary political-economic-social dynamic. But in this century, there is a new factor that upsets the cultural applecart. That is the sustainability crisis, of course. The new greatest threat to empires and nation states, ruling factions, elite classes, and all people is not other humans, it is the imminent, global collapse of the ability of the natural world (substratum) to support society in anything like its present form, or humanity itself at anything like its present scale.

    This raises some interesting questions.

    1. Will anyone, beyond a few eccentric intellectuals, notice and attend to the new greatest threat?
    1. If there is a response to the threat, will it be in the cooperate or compete mode?
    1. Is it even possible for a nation, faction, class, or tribe to successfully respond to the sustainability crisis using a strategy based primarily on competition?
    1. Do the elite nations and classes believe that they will somehow be protected by their "eliteness"?
    1. Do we eccentric intellectuals believe that (regardless of whether we approve)?

    My intuition says this:

    1. Competition with other humans is a disastrous strategy for dealing with the sustainability threat. It requires the competitors to do more of the very things that, as a whole population, we must do less of-- namely, consuming resources and generating waste.
    1. "Eliteness" is not a protection, if only because as the non-elites slide or get pushed over the cliff, they will tear up every particle of the natural world on their way down. There will not be a single tree left on the continent of Africa. Because the biosphere is a whole system, we need trees in Africa if we are to grow corn in Iowa.
    1. If we are to survive the sustainability crisis, we'll need the elites to voluntarily surrender some or all of their "eliteness". The prospects of this happening are not especially bright (heh). It would be contrary to the fundamental strategy of the elite classes as evolved over approximately 8000 years of civilization. Nonetheless, it is possible, because it is in their actual best interest.
    1. Unfortunately, some people might rather die as a Lord than live as a peasant. I wouldn't mind that so much, if it didn't mean everyone else has to die too.

    I don't know how to end this comment, so I'll just stop. Thanks for another terrific diary, Cassiodorus!

    •  You are correct to assume that -- (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      the elites/ masses problem is indeed the biggest part of the problem.  Van der Pijl tries to get around this by becoming involved in the affairs of what he calls the "cadre class," the expert managerial class responsible for managing the world of elite rule.  The "cadre class," he suggests, is ideologically committed to the existing order, but (on the bright side) they can see how bad it's gotten, because some of them are actually out there working, whereas the elites can hide behind their gated mansions and continue to pay the cadre class for their ideological duties.

      Thus as for noticing the new threat: well, the people in the world's Arctic regions have pretty securely noticed it, as also (I suppose) the folks in Europe (e.g. the summer of 2003) and Australia (w/ this summer's wildfires)... this is why we have Mark Lynas, to scare the wits out of them... van der Pijl is kind of a super-metathinker, way up in the land of theory...

      "You must do what you feel is right, of course" -- Obi-Wan Kenobi, in Episode IV

      by Cassiodorus on Wed May 20, 2009 at 01:21:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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