Before the West by Ayşe Zarakol

“How would the history of international relations in ‘the East’ be written,” asks Ayşe Zarakol, “if we did not always read the ending — the rise of the West and the decline of the East — into the past?” (frontispiece) Before the West: The Rise and Fall of Eastern World Orders is her effort to answer that and related questions. For all that the book is an academic effort firmly situated within the discipline of International Relations (IR), Zarakol aims to both broaden and transcend the discipline. As she summarizes her purposes in writing the book, “First, I wanted to create a non-Eurocentric version of international history and world politics as understood from an Eastern vantage point. … [Second] Given the political and economic resurgence of Asia and the numerous dangerous alleys Asian historiography can travel down in the near future, I wanted to provide an account of Asian history that is not owned by any one ‘nation’, ‘civilisation’, ‘race’ or ‘religion’.” (p. 271)

Before the West by Ayşe Zarakol

International Relations as it is practiced today descends from studies of diplomacy, politics and history that attempted to generalize from the experience of European states, mostly in the 19th century. As the discipline developed, it worked out definitions and analyses of concepts such as statehood and sovereignty, and looked further back in time, and somewhat further afield geographically. As social sciences go, IR is closely tied to practice, with many diplomats and other leaders making scholarly contributions, while many academics have advised or joined governments to put their ideas into action in the real world. Conventionally, IR dates the modern state system to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that largely settled the issues of the Thirty Years War in Central Europe. As the field developed Europe — later the trans-Atlantic community, and later still what is known as the West — was considered self-evidently the measure of all things. In the first decades of the 20th century, when Europe’s technological, intellectual and material dominance was at its apogee, this perspective was understandable. A century later, this just looks out of date. But as Zarakol notes, work to undermine Eurocentrism can, perversely, leave Europe still at the center of the intellectual project, simply inverted.

Zarakol is after something else: “an account of the history of Eastern ‘international relations’ that understands actors of the past in that part of the world primarily through their relations with each other and not with Europe.” (p. 6) Importantly, some of these actors had intentions that went well beyond relations with their immediate neighbors, and of course given the immense size of some Asian land empires, even just the immediate neighbors comprised a significant share of humanity. “Such actors did in fact exist in Asia/Eurasia, and, as we shall see, not only did they aspire to universal sovereignty but they also came close to dominating (and thus ordering) the world — such as it existed — from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries.” (p. 10)

She also sketches an idea of sovereignty that is prior to and separate from the concept as it is discussed in the Westphalian system. Zarakol offers three key elements of state sovereignty — centralization of supreme political authority, territoriality, and external recognition by other sovereigns — and describes how different practices in these areas are known historically, with some nods to differences that continue to exist today. (Think “one country, two systems” as it was conceived for Hong Kong within the People’s Republic of China.)

For her starting point of Eastern world orders, Zarakol takes the empire of Genghis Khan. (In much of the current historical literature, the Great Khan’s name is written as Chinggis; Zarakol reserves that appellation for describing the empire and its successors rather than the man himself.) She describes the unusual aspects of that empire, in addition to its unprecedented geographic reach. Building on those, she develops a Chinggisid model of sovereignty and shows how that led to successive world orders in Asia down through the centuries.

First there was the empire of Genghis himself, followed by its division into four khanates for his heirs. Zarakol identifies conquest as one of the pillars of legitimacy for a Chinggisid ruler, making stable relations with other polities an obvious problem. How the successors — both literal and ideological — of the Great Khan dealt with this problem is a key driver of Asian world orders through the centuries. “[T]he main takeaway is that the Chinggisid sovereignty model (i.e. the deep norms underwriting the Chinggisid world order) survived the decline of the house of Genghis as well as the associated world order. Whatever caused the decline of the Chinggisid world order, neither the Chinggisid pedigree itself nor the type of sovereignty Genghis Khan modelled had lost its appeal in Asia. Their example would continue to motivate other would-be Great Houses for many more centuries.” (p. 88)

Next came Tamburlaine (as I first knew him from Marlowe), Timur (as Zarakol names him) and his successors in West and parts of Central Asia, alongside the Ming in East Asia. In a chapter titled “Dividing the East,” Zarakol shows how these successors continued some of the norms established by Genghis and his heirs — Timur and some of his successors added to their legitimacy by marrying into families descended from Genghis — while adapting the norms to changed conditions, not least their inability to conquer on the scale of their predecessor.

In the following chapter, Zarakol discusses how three post-Timurid empires continued to adapt their legacy — greater legitimation through religion, for example, couple with support for a centralizing sovereign based on local millenarian ideas — while retaining many Chinggisid norms even at the remove of several hundreds of years. The Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals contended with each other in western and southern Asia, with occasional forays into Transoxiana and Central Asia proper. Europe finally shows up in “How the East Made the World: Eurasia and Beyond,” with the Habsburg emperor Charles V showing traits in common with his Ottoman rival Süleyman the Magnificent as they competed, among other things, for the title of Caesar. (The Ottoman emperor claimed it on the basis on conquest of the Roman Empire’s capital, Constantinople; the Habsburg emperor claimed it as Holy Roman Emperor. Interestingly, the Ottomans were sometimes known further east as Rūm, Romans.) Zarakol won particular points from me for a footnote: “The Jagiellonian Dynasty ruling over Poland-Lithuania should also get a mention. … Poland-Lithuania played an important role in the geopolitics of the sixteenth century … They were an ally to Francis and, despite an agreement with Maximilian, a potential rival to the Habsburgs. Their present-day omission from most historical accounts of the European order is another version of reading into the past what we consider important in the present.” (p. 179)

She closes the book with two chapters linking her historical account with present-day IR. The first considers topics such as lessons for international relations and rethinking the “decline of the East.” The second looks at Eurasianism and macro history through the lenses of six writers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who took on these topics from widely varying perspectives. I had only heard of two of them — Alfred J. Toynbee and Owen Lattimore — but all six were fascinating in their different ways.

Before the West is not a perfect book. Zarakol’s writing features a lot of signposting — “as we shall see,” “as discussed in the last chapter” — and sometimes it seemed to me that pointing back and forth substituted for argument. She also uses the unmarked “we” quite a bit. I know it’s both a convention and a convenience in scholarly writing, but I find it almost always annoying because the author is seldom explicit about who is included in the pronoun. Especially for a book that aims to examine assumptions so carefully, the scholarly “we” is a place for unexamined assumptions to lurk. Finally, there are more typos than I would hope to see in a book from a major scholarly press. Mostly they were unnecessary distractions, but in at least one instance (p. 208) “New World” is used twice when I am nearly certain one should have been “Old World.”

On the whole, though Before the West offers extremely interesting ideas on a large scale. There’s much more in the book than I have been able to touch on here — how climate changes may have undermined successive Eastern world orders, how the Golden Horde’s relative separateness from its vassals in northern Europe shaped Russia’s political culture possibly even to the present day, how China’s tributary system looked from an external Asian point of view, and so on — even though its main text clocks in at fewer than 300 pages. Before the West does what I hope for in the best of synthesizing works: offers perspectives that explain, gives points for contention, brings together disparate views, and opens up new vistas to consider. It gives a new way of looking at how the world is won, and how that might affect understanding of the present as well as the past.

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