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Early Modern State-Making & Critiquing Eurocentric Biases

In his 18 years at Northwestern, Prof. Hendrik Spruyt has served as the chair of the political science department, director of the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies, and co-editor of The Review of International Political Economy. In that time span, Spruyt also wrote wide-ranging publications about international sovereignty, peacemaking, and political ideology. Spruyt’s most recent book, “The World Imagined: Collective Beliefs and Political Order in the Sinocentric, Islamic and Southeast Asian International Societies” is a prime example of the intersection of his research interests. The book analyzes multi-ethnic empires, allowing for greater accommodation and research heterogeneity. In this interview, Spruyt discusses the main themes of his new book, his amendment to a prominent political theory, and the Eurocentric study of political science. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Question: In your recently published book “World Imagined: Collective Beliefs and Political Order in the Sinocentric, Islamic, and Southeast Asian International Studies,” you researched three Eurasian societies from early modernity to the 19th century. Could you describe some of the commonalities you’ve observed between early modern polities versus contemporary states? 

Hendrik Spruyt: One of the reasons why I wrote the book was to show that there have been transformations between these modern polities towards what is now a global system: sovereign territorial states. I wanted to highlight the differences between these polities and modern territory states. First, many things we see as ahistorical and always true are, in fact, historically contingent. If you could look at Greek city-states or you could look at the Warring States period of China, the assumption was that these behave exactly as modern territorial states so our theories are meant to be ahistorical in nature — these were eternal truths that were somehow discovered in Western political science scholarship and particularly international scholarship. What I wanted to do was to draw out differences. The relevance of history and the relevance of agency that individuals could actually think about the world differently had implications for how they behave. Once you realize that, it does actually point towards some commonalities. One commonality is that the series we have are also culturally influenced just as those systems were influenced by particular belief systems or those polities.  

Q: Based on your extensive research about how warfare contributes to state formation, including your 2017 article “War and State Formation: Amending the Bellicist Theory of State Making,” what role does war fulfill in the state-making process? 

HS: Charles Tilly suggested that because of competition between European states, war necessitated state-building. He suggested that because you're in competition with other states in order to survive, you would have to have stronger armies, and therefore need more administration. You, therefore, would need more taxation, a bureaucracy, and so on. All European states were heavily involved in the war, and for Tilly, that led to the general conclusion that war-making led to state-making and centralization. There are a few issues with that approach. 

We can question this approach in the following way: it seems to be a very materialist explanation that state-building was really driven by geopolitical concerns and ideology and culture doesn't seem to matter. This is a question of environment driving behavior; it's a Darwinian selection: if you did not fight, if you did not centralize, then you'd fall by the wayside. 

First of all, Tilly is wrong that even if you use an evolutionary metaphor, it rarely yields one solution. Even if you make the assumption that there's no conflict and war-making is very frequent, there will be different responses to that. Some states will centralize and build up grown armies, and others will look for alternatives. Why would you build up your own army if you can have somebody else do the fighting for you, such as having an external sponsor? If you're a small state, you don't want to centralize so perhaps you can get a stronger state to do the fighting on your behalf. 

The evolutionary metaphor that there will only be one solution to an environmental problem is a mistake in parallel with biology. Secondly, it's very much a Eurocentric view. It is based on European evidence, and from that, he distills a general argument that he wants to transpose to other parts of the globe, which turns out to be empirically wrong. It didn't work out that way in many other places — and today actually is a perfect example. We're all talking about COVID-19 and the pandemic — look at the different responses that polities engage in. The whole globe is being affected by COVID, and yet you see across polities widely divergent responses to the same external stimulus. 

Q: How would you characterize the relationships between the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires, the Sinocentric tributary system, and the Southeast Asian empires? And how would you differentiate this system of relationships from those in the European Westphalian system? 

HS: Until about 1750, Europeans were basically acting through private trading companies, and they were minor players in international politics in terms of controlling the trade. So they adjusted and tried to play according to the rules of the polity. In the Chinese tributary system, where the Chinese Emperor claimed to be rooted by the mandate of heaven when the Portuguese and the Chinese show up, they played according to the rules of the tributary system. So they had no problem. The marking of the head on the ground, the bowing and prostration on the floor before the Emperor, that's the way you do business. 

In the beginning, the Europeans have to adjust. Later as Europeans go more powerful, you see various adjustments happening, partially by coercion. The British tried to play hardball with the Chinese; for example, in the Opium Wars. So you see changes in diplomacy. The Ottomans started to establish a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and so they created embassies which they didn't have previously. Same thing with the Chinese Qing empire — they moved from a completely different form of foreign relations where the Ministry of Rights was actually the largest agency. The Ministry of Rights was the one that basically controlled most of Foreign Affairs; it was displaced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a much more Western concept of foreign statehood. 

So you can see these adjustments taking place, and they are caught up in this old system of justification and legitimation of authority and this new Westphalian system. One conclusion I draw in the book is that you did see these adjustments. However, there is an argument —  a European conceit — that these polities were unwilling to adjust, that this was retrograde, close-mindedness. Thus, China fell by the wayside, the Ottoman Empire fell by the wayside, and so on, that it was intransigence. Whereas I would argue that the trouble adjusts; it’s a much more complex story, that to some extent, is dependent on domestic opponents who didn't want to adjust for their own reasons because it would challenge their privileged positions. 

Q: Regarding the perception that Western political organization is the societal norm, what is “popular wisdom of modernity”? How does this Eurocentric vision impact the political science academic field when studying non-Western European states in the present-day? 

I think we get it completely wrong, that the theories themselves are social constructs and there are particular sets of beliefs that we have. So in the West, I think it's quite reasonable to argue that we've been influenced, certainly in international relations, by Newtonian mechanistic views and, in fact, sometimes quite explicitly so. Even those actors who, for example, use the balance of power we talked about, the balance of power in Europe in the 17th century — explicitly we're referring to the ideas that they were getting from Newton. So it takes a certain idea in your mind of how the world works in natural sciences when you transpose that to the social world and say there's got to be an equilibrium. There should be some stability — stability comes from equal weights, equal material forces — but they were clearly influenced by Newtonian mechanistic perspectives of politics, which arguably I think still influences international relations in a Western-centric view. That's one way of thinking about destabilizing our own views. 

The second way I think Eurocentric biases have been seen as a new normal goes back to what we talked about with evolutionary metaphor — the idea that Europe and the West won, therefore, this clearly was the best, the most efficient way of organizing society that we want to transpose out to the rest of the world. I think that bias still exists. We think that other states have to catch up to where we are and will be like us, but they're underdeveloped. And if they don't look like us, they're fragile or failed states — we don't see how you can have different forms of statehood. I think we're still grappling with this notion that we can go elsewhere and impose democracy or impose a modern state system without recognizing the conditions on the ground. Do individuals really want institutions that the West wants to establish?


Interview by Yunkyo Kim WCAS '22