Reflections on International Relations

Sometimes my reading list matches up with current events. In this case, unfortunately, with the escalating U.S. / Iran conflict.

Books read over past two months:

  1. Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity 
  2. 1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
  3. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century 
  4. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
  5. Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times
  6. World Order

All of the below is a layperson’s reflections. I’m clearly not an expert on international relations or the history of civilizations.

Taken as a whole, the books were very good, even if I disagreed with major parts of them (particularly Huntington’s lack of nuance in writing on American multiculturalism and Kissinger’s analysis of Vietnam). They were also a little more conservative leaning. I was pretty steeped in liberal human rights perspective from working at the international court in Sierra Leone and conducting on the ground research of Tibetan government-in-exile in India. These books broadened my perspective.

Picking up frameworks 

These books deepened my understanding of some very useful international relations frameworks; such as:

The geography framework

  • Why did Europe, and not other previously more advanced civilizations, take off with the enlightenment and the industrial revolution? One potential cause is Europe’s geography: jagged coast lines, large islands, and mountain ranges made it difficult for empires to consolidate power. Only the Romans conquered the vast majority of Europe. Most often, numerous powers had to compete with each other.  When it came to seeding the modern world, this competitive landscape was an advantage. In Europe, unlike in China and Japan, one authoritarian government couldn’t stifle an entire civilization’s scientific progress.
  • Why did the previous Latin American civilizations (Mayan, Aztecs, Incas) develop extremely sophisticated cultures but not the scientific breakthroughs that could lead to steel, gunpowder, and other powerful technologies? One cause was because they were separated from each other by large mountain ranges and narrow land bridges. This allowed for less trade and stealing of other civilizations innovations and thus less rapid technological progress (compared to Europeans stealing Arabic numerals and Chinese gunpowder, for example).
  • Why were Latin American civilizations so susceptible to European diseases? Potentially because they came from a smaller gene pool: only a couple of waves of people made it across the Bering Strait into the Americas. This led to less genetic diversity. When a disease affected one person, it was more likely to affect most people. Small pox wiped out a higher percentage (50-80%) of the native population than the Bubonic Plague did in Europe (30-50%).

The civilization framework

  • Understanding civilizational philosophies and histories can help you understand international relations. Confucian philosophy is different than Islamic philosophy, for example, and this shapes how their current nation states view the world. Understanding other civilizations can also temper your arrogance about the universality of your own civilization’s values.
  • Major, large civilizations (and their religions) that still exist today in some form include: Sino / China (Confucion), Middle East (Islam); Russia (Orthodox Christian); America / Europe (Judeo-Christian); India (Hindu); Japan (Shinto / Buddhist); Latin America (Christian after Europeans wiped out much of indigenous population); African (very under discussed in books I read; need to read more to understand historical roots).
  • During the cold war period, civilization history played second fiddle to whether a country aligned to America or the Soviet Union. With the end of the cold war, civilization affiliation is playing a stronger role in international relations.

The realism framework:

  • National interest remains a powerful force that can transcend geography and historical affiliations.
  • Why do Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea all have strong ties to the United States despite having more civilization commonality with China? Because of national interest. For now, they perceive the United States to be a check on Chinese power.
  • Numerous other cross-civilization relationships, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, can be explained better through a realism framework rather than a civilizational framework.

A starting point for getting smarter 

To be clear, geography, civilization history, and nation state realism don’t explain all of the world, nor are they full determinants of the future, but all of these frameworks have helped me think through current international affairs.

Understanding both the United States and Iran’s geography, civilizational history, and national interests are a good place to start if you want to be an informed citizen on the issue.






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