In a 2016 essay for International Studies Review, Prof. Qin Yaqing (秦亚青) of China Foreign Affairs University maps out the cornerstones of relational theory of international politics (国际政治关系理论). Qin, who has recently produced a much more extensive book on the topic is, safe to say, the leading authority on the matter in China. Following up on my last post, I wanted to find out more about the essence of Qin’s theoretical work.
The line of argumentation can be summarized as follows:
- International Relations (IR) remains dominated by theoretical frameworks developed mostly in the West and especially the United States. This current state is being increasingly challenged by non-Western academics;
- “Individualistic rationality” (Qin 34) is the foundational concept of all of the major approaches to the field, those being structural realism, neo-liberal institutionalism, and structural constructivism/English School;
- Almost completely antithetical to that, Confucian tradition emphasizes the centrality of permanent relational interconnectedness, leaving no space for truly independent agency;
- Accordingly, mutual relations in fact determine individual behavior to a large extent. Different actors can have different relations with one another and therefore need to maintain different identities depending on context;
- Relations do change through “process” (Ibid. 37), meaning – according to my reading – that actors can induce change in their relations but lack effective control over the eventual outcome;
- Actors will more likely attend to and try to foster their close and high-priority relations. Autonomous action is practically limited to the manipulation of relations;
- (Political) power is only gained through relations. This should not be equated with the Western understanding of soft and hard power because, as Qin argues, this kind of power cannot be possessed;
- The importance of managing and preserving healthy relations ultimately trumps particularistic, albeit rational, self-interest as well as normative considerations. Norms and rules are seen as a rather inconvenient necessity only for those who would act in bad faith, as mutual trust should ideally guide all interaction between parties.
Qin offers an overview of the theory’s deeper philosophical underpinnings that are rooted in Confucian thought and Chinese culture. It would be presumptuous to say that these ideas can easily be summarized and I recommend you give it a read yourself. In a very small nutshell:
- Zhongyong (中庸) or the Doctrine of the Mean as well as the yin-yang relationship encapsulate a particular view of the world in which essentially everything, be it material or immaterial, is inclusive of its perceived opposite;
- Contrary to Western philosophy (Qin points out Huntington and Hegel here), conflict and antagonistic relationships are de-emphasized and regarded as aberrations from a natural tendency towards harmony – the zhonghe (中和);
- A new, perhaps global, order is possible that could even transcend the hitherto Westphalian system and replace the always unstable balance of power with a “balance of relations” (Ibid. 44) (Qin refers to the East Asian Tribute system in particular).
The relational theory of international politics is obviously a very wide-ranging subject matter and I can see it leading to some very interesting and controversial discussions in both philosophy and political science/IR. It definitely requires a comprehensive evaluation by Western and non-Western scholars that would be far beyond the scope of this review. I would be curious to find out more to what extent it is woven into official Chinese diplomacy.
After having read the text, many thoughts came to my mind that I would love to discuss with Prof. Qin over a nice cup of tea, but I will limit them to the following three:
- I cannot help but wonder to what degree relational theory of international politics is itself more normative than descriptive? Even though Qin picks out two cases of US and British foreign policy (Ibid. 38) that supposedly substantiate the theory, I would assume from the reading that, for the most part, Qin would not consider Western foreign policy decisions as paying due attention to strict interrelatedness. And does Chinese foreign policy really conform to the theory? Moreover, in conclusion, Qin tries to convey in a very prescriptive, if not downright judgmental, manner how IR and foreign policy-making would be much improved if they were to shift to the logic of relationality.
- This leads directly to the next issue – also touched upon by Qin – namely that:
“The relational theory, therefore, has potential for application beyond Confucian communities, although it will bear its cultural birthmark throughout” (Ibid. 45).
Again, leaving much room for discussion and feedback regarding the realistic applicability outside of China.
- It is not yet clear to me how relations influence actors and vice versa and which is the more dominant. This is because Qin acknowledges that actors are indeed self-interested and that they can gain many advantages through the manipulation of others. How can this manipulation be reconciled with trust and harmony in society? At the same time, the relations should have a constraining effect on all actors. This makes the impression of a nature vs. nurture problem to me, with the nature part (or self-interest) portrayed as having been taken to an alleged extreme in the Western context.
I appreciate Qin’s strong focus on the relations part of IR. Qin actually critiques what he regards as the discipline’s overemphasis on studying actors (and perhaps norms) rather than the nature and quality of relations between them. This made me think back to dependency and world-systems theory. Another blog post perhaps?
I would be interested in your comments, experiences, or research on this point and whether you think these aspects are being neglected by mainstream IR.
Qin, Yaqing. “A Relational Theory of World Politics.” International Studies Review 18 (2016): 33-47.