The international system and its transformations (Tang 2013a)

In Social Evolution of International Politics (Tang 2013a), I deploy SEP to examine the grand transformations of international subsystem(s) from ~8,000 BC to today,5

somewhat similarly to the sweeping style of Jared Diamond’s (1997) Gnus, Germs, and Steel.

I first identify the four “worlds” or epochs in human history: the peaceful paradise before the onset of war in different subsystems; the bloody offensive realism world after the onset of war in which states either conquered or were conquered; the defensive realism world after the rise of sovereignty and nationalism circa 1648-1945; and the more rule-based system that is still unfolding today. Yet, identifying different worlds or stages is not the hallmark of evolutionary theorizing; the real hallmark is to explain the transformation of different worlds endogenously (cf. Mann 2016). I contend that only SEP, with the mechanism of artificial VSI/SVI at the center of the theorizing effort, can be up to the task.

In Chapter 2 of Social Evolution of International Politics, I first explain the transformation of the peaceful paradise before the onset of war to the offensive realism world after the onset of war in which states either conquered or were conquered. Placing the mechanism of artificial VSI/SVI at the heart of my theorizing effort, I first argue that our evolutionary past before the origins of war also unintentionally laid the foundation for the origins of war: By learning to kill beasts, human beings also invented most of the weapons and tactics for killing fellow humans, in addition to formatting and solidifying the group identity that is essential for war-making.Yet for much of the time, human groups remained peaceful with each other (despite brawling within groups) because the total population was small, whereas open space and the readily available food supply (e.g., prey, fruit) were plentiful. In short, the selection pressure upon human groups was low, and human groups did not have to fight against each other.

With a growing population, however, the peaceful paradise gradually came to an end. A growing population brought about two interrelated outcomes: increasingly frequent contact between human groups and increasing scarcity of readily available food within a relatively enclosed subsystem. As a result, the selection pressure upon human groups, that is, the competition for scarce resources, began to mount. The coming of settled agriculture, which was a solution to the increasing scarcity of readily available food supply, only exacerbated the situation because settled agriculture makes predation upon other groups’ crops a viable means of obtaining food, at least in the short term. Eventually, at least one group within a sub-system became the first predator, and this was the key ideational mutation or variation that set into motion the coming of warfare and the subsequent transformation of the subsystem into an offensive realism world.

When the first war broke out within a sub-system, its shockwaves transformed the sub-system into a world in which warfare (offensive and defensive) became the foremost means for survival. Put simply, within the new system or the new offensive realism world, a group either has to conquer or be conquered. It was from this dynamic of selection via warfare that chiefdoms and eventually archaic states arose within different ancient sub-systems, from ancient Mesopotamia to ancient Egypt, ancient China, ancient Anatolia, pre-modern Peru (Mocha), and pre-modern central Mexico (Oaxaca Valley). Eventually, warfare would spread to and transform other secondary systems (e.g., ancient Europe and India).This offensive realism world would last for around 4,000 to 6,000 years, depending on the specific sub-systems.

Drawing evidence from several fields such as evolutionary biology, archaeological anthropology', ethnographic anthropology, and the history of warfare, I show that this has indeed been the case. For much of our history before 6000 BC, there was only sporadic evidence of warfare. After the coming of warfare in ancient Anatolia and Mesopotamia around 6000 to 5500 BC, however, warfare gradually came to dominate the different subsystems, testified to by the abundant physical evidence of warfare, including the development of new and more lethal weapons (e.g., the composite bow, chariot), fortification, mass graves, and burials displaying indicators of massive warrior spirit. Eventually, states and standing armies arose; warrior kings came to be worshipped; and words for glorifying valor, self-sacrifice for a group, killing, and conquest pervaded every surviving language.

The operation of the central logic of the offensive realism world, however, would also lay the foundation for its own destruction or self-transformation into a defensive realism world. Chapter 3 of Social Evolution of International Politics documented this transformation and provided a social evolutionary explanation of it. As states waged wars of conquest against each other relentlessly (documented by the extensive records of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China), some states would eventually conquer other states.The result has been a steady decrease in the number of states and the rate of state death within a subsystem. According to one estimate, there were 600,000 independent political entities in 1000 BC (Carneiro 1978,213). Since then, the number had steadily decreased. This selection process via warfare eventually led to a new reality: States became bigger and thus more difficult to conquer than they used to be.

This new reality then laid the ground for the operation of three auxiliary mechanisms: selection against offensive realism states, the selection for and spreading of the idea that conquest is more difficult, and the rise of the notions of sovereignty and nationalism. Together, these three mechanisms paved the way for the coming of the defensive realism system in which states become more content to hold what they have rather than conquering other states. This world began to emerge first in the post-Holy Roman Empire European system and eventually became codified in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. With the colonization of other continents by European powers, the notions of sovereignty and nationalism eventually were eventually imposed upon the whole world. By 1945, this new defensive realism world had firmly settled down. The result was a cessation of major state deaths and major warfare between major powers, a development that had no precedent in human history.

In Chapter 4 of Social Evolution of International Politics, I then go on to explain the coming of the more rule-based system that is still unfolding today. I argue that only from the defensive realism world can a more rule-based world in which peace has been increasingly institutionalized (especially at the regional level) emerge.

Moreover, this institutionalization of regional peace too has been a social evolutionary process because the heart of it is the making of rules that codify the regional peace, and making rules (or institutional change) is a social evolutionary process (Tang 2011a; see also the brief summarization of it immediately following). Throughout the project, my explanation is endogenous and it triumphs over existing anti-evolutionary theories that deny the transformation of the international system or non-evolutionary theories that can only explain the transformation exogenously.

Equally critical, by providing a social evolutionary explanation of the transformations of the international system(s), I have also been able to resolve the seemingly intractable debates among the three grand theories of international politics, that is, offensive realism, defensive realism, and neoliberalism (or neo-institutionalism). Before my book, all these three grand theories sought to explain the entirety of human history. Yet, by seeking to explain the whole history of international politics with a single grand theory, the proponents of these theories have been implicitly assuming that the fundamental nature of international politics has remained roughly the same, or more precisely, that human society has only experienced a single epoch of international politics. As such, all major grand IK theories have been non-evolutionary or even anti-evolutionary theories. Of course, imposing non-evolutionary or even anti-evolutionary theories upon the always evolutionary system called human society has proven to be an impossible task.

In contrast, my SEP-based account of the grand transformations of the international systems shows that the three grand theories of international politics are from and thus for different epochs of international politics. In other words, the three theories really capture or explain only one of the four worlds in our history. More specifically, offensive realism was right, but is wrong and will be wrong: Its policy prescriptions will produce disasters in today’s and tomorrow’s world. In contrast, offensive realism was wrong—its policy prescriptions would be suicidal in an offensive realism world—but it has been right and may remain right for a while. Finally, neoliberalism was wrong—its policy prescription too would be suicidal in an offensive realism world—but it might have become more right after WWII and may become more right in the future. Put differently, whereas offensive realism is a theory for the past, defensive realism is a theory for the present and a limited future, and neoliberalism is a theory for a limited present and more for the future. My SEP-based account of the grand transformations of the international systems thus has neatly dissolved the debates.

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