The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Politics Series: International Government and Relations

(Previous: Government)

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

Clausewitz wrote “war is a continuation of policy by other means.”

Foreign affairs are government by other means.

They are attempts to control what people do in other countries: what their policies are, how they govern themselves, and often enough, who is in charge.

In foreign affairs, the government trying to control the actions of another government doesn’t have full direct control, though it can have some control.

Take “free trade” and International Monetary Fund (IMF) “structural agreements.” These deals say what governments can and can’t do, or rather what they must or must not do. The government cannot subsidize certain industries or set tariffs in certain circumstances or in various other ways impede trade or the free flow of capital (two different things.) But they go beyond this.

A feature of many free trade deals are “takings” clauses. Investors can’t have their property damaged or removed by government without compensation.

You’re probably nodding along thinking, this sounds reasonable! And it does. But it’s used to stop things like environmental regulations: if a new regulation would damage a company or investors, they must be made whole. The more money they’ll lose, the more damage they’ve been doing and the more expensive it is to stop, especially since the payment is “forward” the government has to compensate for future losses of profits.

These are called ‘investor to state dispute settlement’ (ISDS). Government made a regulation that will cost you future profits? Sue them in a special court. Want the to stop mining that is poisoning groundwater, lakes and rivers? Compensate them. Want them to remove a cancer causing additive from their products? Compensate them.

This is influence on government from outside governments. The biggest ISDS case, against Russia, has been going back and forth in Netherlands courts for years. Most recently, the $50 billion dollar settlement was put aside, and the case referred back to lower courts by the Netherlands supreme court, “But the court rejected Russia’s other arguments that it was not bound by an international energy treaty on which the original 2014 payout ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration was based.” (Moscow Times, Dec 5, 2021).

The thing about treaties, of which trade agreements are only one type is that they are hard to undo. If you don’t like a law that is domestic only, any government can get rid of it with some possibility of internal judicial review. If you don’t like a particular part of a treaty, you have to throw out the entire thing, and many agreements have clauses which state that notice, sometimes years of notice, must be given.

And notice it is a Netherlands court deciding on whether Russia will pay $50 billion, which even today, is real money. In 2021 the entire Russian federal budget was about 311 billion: so this payment would be one-sixth. Of course, the mass Ukraine war sanctions may have made this moot: the Netherlands can rule what it wants, it’s hard to see Russia paying after the West froze hundreds of billions of reserves, though those reserves might be the source of any payment.

Every invasion or bombing is, of course, government by outside governments. The Iraq war was used to impose a new government and government structure on Iraq. After Germany and Japan lost WWII, new constitutions were written for them by the victors. After Austria-Hungary and Germany lost WWI, their monarchs were forced to abdicate and they were turned into democracies: against their will.

Sanctions are obvious government by outsiders, especially when they involve third parties. It is one thing for the US or the EU to say “we won’t sell or buy some things from you” it is another to say “we won’t let anyone else sell or buy these things to you and will sanction or fine or use military force against them if they do.” The Iraq sanctions of the 90s, which caused millions of deaths, were sanctions enforced by the military, but often the West’s control of the financial system is enough: if you can’t pay and receive, you can’t trade.

All of this is government. Back in the last chapter on government, we said, “Government is the people who make choices about law and policy, plus those who implement the policies and enforce the laws.”

If people in another country are choosing your law and policy and enforcing those policies and law, they are government. Remember, there can be more than one government in an area.

When the IMF imposes a structural agreement, which, say, forbids food subsidies so that people go hungry and starve, the IMF is government. When developing world nations were told to get their subsistence farmers off the land and grow cash crops in plantations to pay off loans and “buy development”, that was government too.

Foreign affairs is how one government governs a place and people who aren’t officially under their control, that’s all. Even in states there are often multiple governments in conflict with each other, not all of which are recognized as government. Is Wall Street government? Given the influence it has over government decisions, especially in the Federal Reserve and Treasury department, it would be jejeune to suggest otherwise.

Let’s turn from “foreign affairs is government by other means” to an examination of the conditions which surround government by foreign governments.

The first is whether a world system is a unipolar or multipolar and whether it is global or local. For most of history there were multiple world systems. To be in the Chinese world system during a dynasty was different from being in the Roman world system, or the Persian one, or the Caliphate one or the Mayan or Aztec one.

In a unipolar world system, which may not take up the entire world, but only part of it, there’s one power that matters and everyone else’s primary relationship is with that power. The world from the fall of the USSR is the example we’re most familiar with, but to be near China when it wasn’t divided was similar. Even if you could win a war against China, as its neighbours sometimes did, you’d rather avoid the scenario, because you couldn’t really win, you could only defeat the Chinese invasion. The Japanese came closest to proving this wrong, but even they could only hold parts of China, and that with a massive industrial advantage.

In the same way, to be near Rome during the mid to late Republic and good chunks of the imperial era was to be in the Roman system even if they didn’t rule you. Trade and military and everything focused on them. When Rome fell, and the Church arose, the pagans on the edge of Christianity found the Christian world even worse: determined to change their religion, and if it couldn’t be done peacefully, war was the way. Charlemagne once force-baptized ten thousand Saxons, then killed them all. (Wouldn’t want them to change back, after all.) The Teutonic knights beloved of Germans forced a huge number of pagans to change religion at sword’s point.

Sometimes the world system is multi-polar. Persia and Byzantium, before the rise of Islam. The Caliphates and Byzantium afterwards. Carthage and Rome till Carthage lost the second war against Rome. Greece and Persia before Alexander. The USSR and the US from WWII to the fall of the Soviet Union. And sometimes there are more than two great powers as in the 19th century.

A world system is about how things are done. The structure of what wars are right, what beliefs are right, and so on. The Christian and Muslim worlds wanted you to worship their God, their way and wars were fought to make it happen just as the West has forced democracy and their form of markets on various nations over the last 150 years, sometimes with guns, sometimes with economic coercion.

Vietnam and Korea and even Japan bear huge imprints from China, Korea and Vietnam often by the sword; but Japan thru China’s sheer cultural power and prestige.

All powerful ideologies create ways the world should be, and they rarely stop at national borders. If a way of life is the right way, the legitimate way, then there are always many who believe that all should follow it, and act on that belief.

High prestige and economic power has a weight of its own. The Greek conquests, which were huge and lasted centuries left Greek the educated language of much of Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. As almost everyone now dresses like Europeans and Americans; many people, especially educated classes, dressed like Greeks. Greek was the international tongue of the region.

These patterns “blue jeans and rock and roll and suits and ties everywhere” are not unique to our era and no more eternal than Greek tonsure and robes were.

It should be pointed out that there is often internal support for external interference. Though it will offend many, it’s obvious that there is great support among Americans for Israeli influence and even control over American foreign policy, for example. For every American coup, there are those in the country who worked with the Americans. The British always played different groups off against each other during their conquests and their colonial rule, but so did the Mongols. Genghis Khan was always sure to know which groups internally were unhappy and could be used against the government before he invaded.

Likewise there are factions that want those trade deals we discussed. In Canada the Free Trade deal which was the precursor of NAFTA was passed even though the majority of Canadians opposed it: a powerful minority collaborated with Americans to make it happen.

Ideologies are transnational, and so is legitimacy. For a long time representative democracy has been considered the only really legitimate government, but before that it was monarchy: remember the restoration of the monarchy after France’s defeat in the Napoleonic wars.

Likewise there will always be factions that oppose foreign interference and have ideological ideas that create a legitimacy different from that of the world system’s predominant power. In some ways both the American and French revolutions can be seen thus, and as precursors of a new legitimacy, but so can Switzerland’s long independence and democracy in a world system that was far from democratic.

Britain’s rise arguably starts when England stopped wool exports. They made worse woolens, at first, than the Flemish had, but this created Britain’s first major industry. Genghis Khan created a nation out of the Mongols, in opposition to constant Chinese interference in steppe affairs, among other things, then he and his successors conquered the largest land empire in history and, ironically, were in many ways became similar to those they conquered, the most famous case being how quickly the Mongol rulers of China became Chinese, just as happened to the Manchu (though they were already essentially Confucian even before the conquest, where the Mongols were definitely not.)

In our era, great damage was done to the world system’s legitimacy by the rise of China, because China rose thru policies that did not align with the “Washington Consensus”. They managed their trade, they did not democratize and they kept much of the economy under control of the state. They did not follow the model sold to most developing nations which had failed and by conspicuously succeeding, they made it clear that the Western “development model” did not work. Likewise, constant interference in trade and free money flows by the US government thru various sanctions destroyed the idea that global trade and finance flows were the inevitable future. By acting against their own declared values, the US undermined them.

Internal changes in individual countries or areas can thus drive changes to the world system. Peripheral nations (and even China was peripheral very recently) which create something new can gain an advantage and change the world. The unified Mongols with Genghis’s new tactics and strategies and organization burst upon the world. Britain’s industrial revolution allowed it to create the greatest Empire the world has ever known. Greek  and Macedonian phalanxes, combined with cavalry, created a Greek world thru conquest.

Christian and Arab religious fervor likewise changed huge chunks of the world, some by conversion, much by the sword. The potential for the Arab expansion had already existed but it took and ideology and idea of a legitimate order to make it happen. No Islam,  no Arab conquests.

As with internal political change, externally driven change which goes badly can damage or destroy legitimacy. If a US coup installs a dictator like Iran’s Shah who turns out badly, the legitimacy of the American system can be badly damaged. If war is made to create democracy and it is a disaster, as in Iraq, then legitimacy is damaged.

If it goes well, however, as with the post-war prosperity of Japan and West Germany, and the restoration of Europe, then massive legitimacy is gained.

At the end of the day all ideologies create a legitimacy whose promise is just “this is a good way to live.” If it isn’t, compared to other alternatives, well, that ideology loses legitimacy.

Every time foreign affairs, thru economic pressure, persuasion or force change a country, legitimacy is on the line. It makes things better or worse. If better, then increase legitimacy. If worse, less legitimacy. Better or worse are slippery terms, of course, but an ideology and world system can be judged on its own claims. When policies said to create development and prosperity didn’t, the legitimacy of the post-war and neoliberal orders were damaged. When the USSR couldn’t feed itself or make sufficient consumer goods, their legitimacy was damaged because Communism was supposed to make the proleteriat better off and be superior in doing to so to capitalism.

Rome lost legitimacy when it could not protect the Empire from barbarians. The classic promise was stability, essentially. Jupiter defeats the Titans and rules forever and so does Rome. The long peace in the core of the Empire was the primary promise of Roman Imperial legitimacy (the Republic was quite different) and when it was broken, it broke not just Rome, but Roman Imperial paganism. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and his reforms set the stage forfeudalism. This staved off the collapse

When a world system falls, legitimacy changes with it. The end of WWII saw the end of colonialism, and the division of Europe between the winners. The decline of Rome made Christianity legitimate then its its fall led to feudalism; a very different polity than the urban centered classical world.

Foreign affairs, then, are not just government by other means, but ideology and legitimacy and identity by other means. They are, again, about how the world should be, and persuasion, economic power and violent force are used when necessary to create that world.

As with internal affairs, everything flows from legitimacy, because legitimacy controls what humans do. Without it the police and soldiers won’t shoot, so it is primary even to violence.

Let us move now to some concluding remarks on the entire “Politics”.


Next: Concluding Remarks




Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – November 20, 2022


Why Twitter Has Been Marvelous


  1. Ian Welsh

    Illness has made this year less productive than I hoped, but this series will be done soon (only the conclusion remains) and while I still have some fatigue, I do seem to be getting better.

    My apology and excuse aside, let’s keep the comments primarily on-topic. If you haven’t read any of the series, I’d suggest going to the table of contents and starting at the beginning.

  2. Soredemos

    I’m sorry, but I have a problem with grand, sweeping ‘arc of history’ narratives that fudge details to make their point. At some point, the cummulative effect of getting lots of little details wrong is that your big narrative is held together with string.

    A couple examples here would be that no, the Mongols did not become Chinese. They cynically larped as being Chinese, while privately not being that at all, and their Han citizens didn’t buy into the charade for a second. That’s a big part of why the Yuan dynasty was incredibly short lived; they were always viewed as illegitimate outsiders and even some random peasant was able to rally a successful revolt and thrown them out. At which point a bunch of Mongols just shrugged and went back to the steppe to resume being what they’d always been.

    Another point is that Rome was already thoroughly Christian when it ‘fell’. The collapse of the Empire didn’t discredit paganism; paganism was already well on its way out while the Empire was still quite strong. To the point that Gibbon could make the argument that it was the rise of Christianity that weakened and killed the Empire. Which was basically a nonsense argument that no modern historian accepts, but the point is Christianity was so firmly in power that you could make a stab at that argument.

  3. Ian Welsh

    The Mongols who lived in China definitely did become Sinicized. Looking at how Kublai Khan lived makes that clear.

    By its final fall, Rome was Christian, yes, but the fall took a century or so, and it didn’t start that way. You can read Saint Augustine, for example, to see someone who started non-Christian and whose writings were very concerned with getting rid of pagan legitimacy. And once Rome had fallen, Christianity’s nature changed, rather a lot.

    This is an odd blog and place for someone who doesn’t believe in historical narratives.

  4. Astrid

    I agree with Soredemos, the narrative here doesn’t fit the history. The Mongols really didn’t Sinicize much of at all. The Chinese never saw them as inheriting the legitimate Mandate of Heaven. It’s possible that this was due to the shortness of the Yuan dynasty. Though one should note that Mongols in Central Asia and Eastern Europe also retained their distinctiveness, despite a far longer period of domination.

    If you want to make this argument, Tang and Qing dynasties are better examples, though neither fully Sinicized even after centuries and even after substantial dilution through taking of ethnic Han wives. It’s only after the founding of the Republic of China that Manchus became largely indistinguishable from the Han majority.

    To a substantial extent, this is an intentional construction. The non-Han rulers were not interested in becoming Chinese and made efforts to retain their distinctiveness and cohesion. Tang, Yuan, and Qing dynasties were also much more outward looking and “imperial” in reach. I believe this type of elite reproduction also occurred in the Muslim world, which made substantial use of slave concubines and slave bureaucrats but didn’t dilute their culture and coherence.

    The transition to Christianity after the collapse of Rome is just not so. There was over a century of state enforces push to Christianity. You simply could not rise in the social order as a pagan. The church may have filled in some of the vacuum left by a vacating central authority, but the church was already strongly established by the 5th Century. Furthermore, the true Roman empire moved to Byzantium where it continued for another 10 centuries. Western Roman empire was seen as a backwater for more than a century before it “fell”.
    Overinterpreting a few church fathers (fanatics, really, the early church was not a pleasant bunch) stranded in the edge of the world will introduce very odd biases.

  5. Ian Welsh

    Arguing over the true Rome is tedious.

    As for the rest, what I wrote was “Rome lost legitimacy when it could not protect the Empire from barbarians.”

    That happened long before the first sack of Rome, in 410.

    Constantine converted to Christianity precisely because of military victories after a period of losses. In fact, before Constantine, it would be quite reasonable to suppose the Empire was about to fall — he reversed the trend (and also feudalized Rome, his reforms were pretty nasty.)

    I disagree with your read on sinicization. The style of rulership of the Manchus and even the Mongols became essentially Chinese. No steppe nomad would rule in such a way.

    From Wikipedia (Kublai Khan): “In 1271, Kublai established the Yuan dynasty and formally claimed orthodox succession from prior Chinese dynasties.[10] The Yuan dynasty came to rule over most of present-day China, Mongolia, Korea, southern Siberia, and other adjacent areas. He also amassed influence in the Middle East and Europe as khagan. By 1279, the Yuan conquest of the Song dynasty was completed and Kublai became the first non-Han emperor to rule all of China proper.

    The imperial portrait of Kublai was part of an album of the portraits of Yuan emperors and empresses, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. White, the color of the imperial costume of Kublai, was the imperial color of the Yuan dynasty based on the Chinese philosophical concept of the Five Elements.[11] ”

    They sincized. Didn’t work as well as they would have wanted, but they were using Chinese styles of legitimacy much more than Mongol ones and legitimacy has been a theme thru the entire series.

    Genghis didn’t bother much with this style of legitimacy, neither did his sons. His grandsons did.

    This is pretty common, actually. Barbarians/steppe nomads conquer a civilized area, then become civilized themselves and lose their martial advantage. Then they lose power. The areas where Mongol descendants held on longest were in the great steppes.

  6. bruce wilder

    I am a bit surprised that Ian did not choose to argue more analytically for the relation between legitimacy and demonstrated state capacity.

    The contests in international relations between states and between systems are often conducted in such a way as to call state capacity into question. The neoliberal economic grand strategy is to re-found the state on economic foundations of sand. The whole “offer that cannot be refused” stance of the IMF in crisis is about holding state capacity hostage. U.S. sanctions are aimed at state capacity.

    There is also the additional point that elite self-interest and predation trades on eroding state capacity thru corruption. Authoritarianism is often a response to shortcomings in state capacity and challenges that arise from them to the legitimacy of authority.

    These are all points Ian has made, of course, in other contexts, but they would add to the substance of this argument I think.

  7. Ian Welsh

    One sentence added about Constantine and the sentence on Rome’s decline leading to paganism and its fall leading to feudalism changed “and” to “then”.

  8. Ian Welsh

    An interesting point Bruce, perhaps when I come back to edit this chapter I’ll change it in line with your suggestion. Thanks.

  9. Willy

    I’m curious about what one’s perceived “best possible foreign relations” might be. And of course, they would consider that their one particular size would be able to fit (or adapt to) all conditions.

    Asking for a megalomaniacal friend, possibly so he can fake such a thing on his way up.

  10. Soredemos

    Ian, they didn’t become Chinese in any substantial way. They larped as being Chinese. Everything you’re citing actually shows that. They adopted the forms of being Han to try and validate their conquest and rule as just another, ‘authentic’ dynasty, but none of their subjects bought into the charade and the Dynasty was short-lived. Privately they continued to strive to be Mongol, while publicly they emulated the expected Chinese forms. I mean, for crying out loud, the official Mongol history of their conquests was called the Secret History. ‘Secret’ because it was intentionally written in a script most of their Han subjects wouldn’t be able to read.

    The rule of the Yuan Dynasty basically came down to a few generations of Mongols occasionally coming out and going “ah yes, hello my fellow Chinese kids” before retreating every night back into walled off compounds where they resumed being Mongol.

    As for grand narratives, my specific point here is that if your narrative involves you getting a bunch of minor details wrong, at some point the grand narrative is built on a foundation of sand.

    For the very idea of narratives in general, well, I think I’m more of a Marxist than an Engelist, as it were. Engels took things to the point of slicing up all of history into broad categories (categories that are basically reliant on fudging details. Most conspicuously, a growing consensus of historians is that a singular feudalism never existed and it’s basically a meaningless concept, outside of, perhaps, medieval Japan), and at least implicit in that is a ‘the prophecy shall be fulfilled’ belief in some sort of historical inevitability, at which point I’m not sure what you’re doing, but it isn’t materialist analysis.

    This type of thing is built into claims about late-stage capitalism. Is it actually late-stage? Maybe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it collapses over the coming decades. But it could also contrive to last another three hundred years. Every other attempt at an alternative had either collapsed entirely, or remains an at best interesting regional novelties, like the Mandragon cooperatives (which also have a dirty secret of mostly being run like normal corporations).

    Perhaps history is to a large extent just one dsmn thing after another, and there really is no coherent storyline that ties everything together to be uncovered.

  11. Ian Welsh

    The Mongols in China, the Yuan dynasty, used Chinese forms of legitimacy in order to rule, and increasingly so after time. I’m familiar with the secret history (the history of the Mongols is one of my interests), but what matters, as I’ve been at pains to state over the course of the series, is legitimacy. They increasingly acted, in most respects, as a Chinese dynasty would. There were exceptions, but they were less and less as time goes by. If they personally still thought of themselves as Mongol, that’s all very nice, but again, as time went by, the ruled increasingly in accordance with Chinese forms of legitimacy, even if the senior officials were mostly Mongols and foreigners.

    This is true of the Manchu as well. They didn’t personally adopt all Chinese customs (some to their credit, like foot binding) but they ruled according to Chinese form, and more so over time.

    Even personally they became more Chinese: Genghis died on the Steppes, which he longed for. Kublai died fat and friendless in his capital in China.

    But again, the point is legitimacy. China was won by the sword and bow, but it was ruled as a Chinese-style emperor, with, admittedly, some exceptions. If it had lasted longer, the process would have continued.

  12. Trinity

    “Perhaps history is to a large extent just one damn thing after another, and there really is no coherent storyline that ties everything together to be uncovered.”

    This is very true. History, like weather and climate, is complex because humans (and human behavior) are complex. Therefore they are both conditional (for interpretation purposes) to the perspective taken. The farmer rejoices when it rains, the wedding planner not so much.

    Ian is reporting from the perspective of foreign affairs activities, because that’s what he chose to do. Any other perspective might be (slightly or not-so-slightly) different, and rightly so. AFAIK, there is no other way to evaluate complex systems, but it would be very helpful for us to collectively learn how to do so effectively. I don’t follow history as a discipline, so for all I know they’ve made inroads in these efforts.

    Our ruling parties pretend that complexity isn’t real, so that they can justify their activities and get what they want regardless of the damage it does to others. Hopefully, future histories will not be so kind to them by taking the perspective of the ruled rather than the rulers.

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