Note: This piece was adapted from an article I originally wrote for Lighthouse magazine several months ago. I conceived of it as a form of ‘thought experiment’ rather than a definitive statement on international relations. I hope you find it intriguing.
In the Western world, we generally view time as linear, with a definite beginning and constant progress until we reach a final end. This conception of time, drawn largely from Judeo-Christian sources, is so pervasive in the West that we often find it hard to comprehend any other way of seeing time; and yet, many human cultures do not share this time-view. Cyclical conceptions of time are prominent in Buddhism, Hinduism, the Celtic religions and most famously perhaps in the ancient Maya civilisation. When time is linear, we expect semi-constant progress, irreversible change, a sense of moving towards something greater; time is measured in small units, and there is a tendency to think in the short term. When time is cyclical, we can expect repetition, a lack of overall progress, and a long-term view of history.
So how are these philosophical musings relevant to the hard truths of relations between nation-states? The answer lies, perhaps, in the fact that Judeo-Christian concepts of linear time and progress do not appear to hold true when looking at world politics. The human race has progressed inexorably in the fields of science, of medicine, perhaps even the arts; yet when it comes to the affairs of nation states, we appear to have not moved beyond the world politics of our forebears.
At first glance, this seems to be a preposterous notion. Surely in the field of international relations we have progressed – the USSR collapsed leaving the USA as the only remaining superpower, and now we no longer have the threat of major war between the great powers hovering above our heads. Globalisation has brought together peoples and states on opposite sides of the planet; the world’s nations are overseen by intergovernmental entities such as the UN, the WTO, and the IMF. How could we have not progressed since the start of the 20th century, or the Middle Ages?
This view has been somewhat pervasive, at least in the general perception, since the end of the Cold War. Academics talked of “The End of History” and politicians called for a “New World Order” of liberal capitalist democracies to replace the old order of competing great powers with differing ideologies. And yet, as recent history has shown, the fall of the USSR did not usher in the “End of History”; great changes are sweeping across the Western world, and the overwhelming superiority of the USA is, ever-so-slowly, diminishing in the face of a rising China and more-bellicose Russia. The media talks at various times of our era resembling that of the 1930s, and of tensions between Russia and the West as being worse than at any point since the Cold War, seeing it as something of a ‘step back’ from the implied progress towards peaceful harmony. But is it a ‘step back’, or is it simply the wheel of time making another rotation? Is the West destined to have this sort of relationship with Russia forever, constantly sliding between periods of relative warmth and frigid tension? Looking back at Russian-Western relations over the last few hundred years, you can indeed see this sort of pattern emerging.
Large international organisations such as the United Nations are nothing new, really. The Catholic Church often performed a similar role in Medieval Europe, intervening in wars between states in order to keep the peace in Christendom. It might be controversial to do so, but could you draw parallels between the First Crusade and the 1950 UN intervention in Korea? Perhaps. While it is true that the United Nations is a global organisation, while the Church was a pan-European one only, that does not detract from the inherent similarities in the way they went about their business. The cycles of time are not supposed to be exactly repetitive – they can broaden and contract, but the general patterns remain the same.
Great Powers have often been seen in a cyclical way – Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is a classic example. Yet the United States’ currently-unmatched supremacy is occasionally seen as something unique in history, when it really is not. Hegemony has existed since the dawn of nation-states. The Achaemenid Empire was seen to be as unmatched at its height as the U.S is now; so was the Roman Empire, the Mongol territory and the British Empire. All of these powers eventually declined despite their apparent invincibility.
The difference, one might say, is that now we have nuclear weapons. Some might see this as an absolute game-changer in the way Great Power relations are conducted; no longer will the nuclear powers go to war in the way they did before. But while nuclear weapons have greatly increased the destructive potential of war – to extinction-level capability – I am not convinced that it entirely changed the way Great Powers operate and the struggle to maintain the ‘balance of power’. Arms Races are nothing new – look at the early 20th century, or many early naval wars. Of course, this leads to the unnerving prospect that perhaps nuclear war is not such a remote possibility as we might think – I would direct your attention to the recent movement of the Doomsday Clock.
Looking into the future, it is worth wondering what effect ever-progressing technological innovation will have on the realm of international relations. In truth, I do not think we will see anything fundamentally different from what we have seen before. That does not mean there will be no change – but that change may simply be a return of age-old patterns.
Let me explain. Globalisation and the rise of the internet and connectivity has made international border somewhat porous, breaking down what is sometimes called the “Westphalian System” of nation states. Furthermore, with the rise of megacities, there is talk that the 21st Century might become an “Age of the City”, in which great urban centres become more and more important while the relative power of nation states declines. Is this something entirely new, or is this a return to the pre-modern system of city-states and nations with indeterminate boundaries? Is there another slow cycle of state-forms which is revolving back to a pre-Westphalian model?
Why is time apparently so cyclical when it comes to international affairs? I’m not sure I can rightly answer. Perhaps the key lies in the essential anarchy of international relations. States, unlike people, do not really have to worry about breaking ‘the law’; they are the force behind laws, and intergovernmental organisations have little real independent power to uphold the rules. The laws of the jungle are more applicable to the realm of international relations than those of human civilisation. Perhaps the cyclical model of time is a more naturalistic world-view, appropriate to lawless anarchy; progress only occurs when there is a lawmaker with effective power to direct and enforce, cracking the whip in order to move its charges in the right direction. If so, it seems likely that little will truly progress in the field of international relations, as long as there are states to compete with each other. Humanity may progress; but relations between the polities into which we are divided may not.