The global site

Martin Shaw

The historical transition of our times: the question of globality in historical sociology


Paper to a conference on Historical Sociology and International Relations, Aberystwyth, July 1999. Contents:

Our social world is in rapid transformation, and the traditions of the social sciences are struggling to keep pace with the change. International relations, a late arrival, has found itself locked into a particularly narrow definition of its object, as the study of the relations of states in international systems. This intellectual framework owed much of its force, moreover, to the particular historical conjuncture of the Cold War. As the latter has faded, an intellectual ferment developed in international studies, in which international political economy has become an increasingly distinct field, Marxist and critical theory more influential, and feminist approaches have emerged (almost two decades after they had begun to influence other social sciences).

To a visitor (as I was a few years ago) from planet sociology, international relations had some of the charm of a 1950s theme park, where questions long since thrown up – and seemingly answered – in other fields were popping up as novelties. However there was a reason for my visits: the big historical questions – world order, state development, war and peace – did at least have a place in international studies. In sociology, once the excitements of the 1960s had died down, these macro-concerns, although treated by major figures like Theda Skocpol, Anthony Giddens and Michael Mann, became curiously marginal to the vast, fragmented empirical underbelly of the subject.

Moreover, although globalisation began to be discussed at the cultural end of sociological theory – and once again it was Giddens who pushed the question into the heart of the field – there was a curious disconnection between the new ‘global’ discourse and the macro-historical sociologies of power. This disjunction was even manifest between these two phases of Giddens’ own work: the theoretical and historical connections between his mid-1980s theory of the nation-state and his early 1990s work on global change and modernity have not been tightly drawn. Other major historical sociologists gave little attention to globality, or where they did so tended to be sceptical about the significance of contemporary transformations.

My own work in the 1980s had been concerned with a particular subset of historical-sociological concerns, the sociology of war. War was central to the work of the well-known historical sociologists but they often operated, I argued, with inadequate theories of its development. Like many others, I found myself revising my ideas to make sense of the dissolution of the Cold War order in 1989-91. As I attempted to relate the new debate about ‘globalisation’ to the theoretical perspectives of a historical sociology of the state, I found my work entering more and more into international relations. Although at first I tended to emphasise the sociological limitations of international debates, increasingly I saw the problem as double-sided. Sociology had not only failed to develop an adequate theory of the international, but its account of the new globality was also limited by its neglect of the political and military dimensions of contemporary historical change.

In approaching the contribution of historical sociology to contemporary international debates, my starting point is therefore one of dual critique. We cannot take the categories of international relations as givens, searching for instance for more sociological explanations of traditional international realities: I have argued that this is a weakness of John Hobden’s proposal. The rupture of traditional international relations, expressed in James Rosenau’s argument for ‘post-international’ concepts and many others’ embracing of the idea of ‘global’ transformations, is for real. This is not, of course, to deny the importance of grasping the continuities: in accounting for the present, obviously we must not throw out of the window our accumulated historical understanding – indeed specifying contemporary change requires precise models of past developments. It is, however, to argue that we acknowledge the radical disjunctures of the present, that we investigate the nature of contemporary historical change and make the evaluation of its significance a central historical task.

By the same token, we cannot however simply take over the given tradition of historical sociology as a basis for contemporary international or global understanding. Historical sociology has greatly enriched our grasp of international processes, but most important work has been located in the earlier periods of modernity, in which the national-international duality was first entrenched – not the present, in which it is being transformed. There remains a real danger, as international critics first noted more than a decade ago, that a historical-sociological approach will reinforce outdated realist approaches to international relations, just as critical international scholars are moving beyond them. In this sense my approach differs from that of some other sociological scholars in this book, such as Randall Collins, for whom the principal categories of historical sociology are – paradoxically for a ‘historical’ method – relatively timeless.

This understanding of the problems of existing historical sociology, as well as of the contemporary possibilities of the approach, leads me to be cautious about definitions that tend towards closure. As C. Wright Mills argued, the sociological imagination is intrinsically historical. I want to defend this understanding as a common inheritance of sociology, and not allow it to be defined as the prerogative of one particular school. Marxist as well as Weberian, and indeed other, approaches will have contributions to make.

Marx’s central contribution to historical-sociological thought is the principle of historical specificity. Its value is enhanced if we understand it in ways more complex than his own – periodising in terms of political as well as production-relations, for example. The emancipatory thrust of Marx’s social theory also remains a powerful impetus, even if we now interpret this in broader terms than those of proletarian revolution. Similarly the idea that social groups may become collective actors in their own emancipation is a fundamental insight, even if the contribution of social movements is now partially de-linked from the role of the working class.

It is true that the most fruitful contributions to historical sociology have come, in recent decades, from writers already mentioned (and others, including contributors to this book) whose main reference point is Weber rather than Marx. These contributions have incorporated, however, some of these insights of Marx, even as they have transcended a Marxist position. The lessons of Marx that I have instanced may be useful correctives to any tendency in Weberian historical sociology towards trans-historical categories or generalisations, towards abstract structuralism, or towards neglect of the emancipatory questions which are central to understanding contemporary world changes.

The approach in this chapter reflects this broader conception of historical sociology. I also start from some of the achievements of recent Weber-inspired writers who have escaped from the constrictions of the Marxist approach. However I propose to develop their insights in the context of a broad understanding of a sociological approach, which also sees in some international relations literature a broadly sociological perspective. In order to develop a historical-sociological international and global understanding in this period of political and intellectual flux, we need an open conception of theoretical tradition and method.

The problem of global transformation

The central historical-sociological problems that this chapter seeks to clarify are the nature of contemporary ‘global’ transformation and its meaning for international relations. My starting-point is that globality is poorly understood in sociology and international relations alike. Most ‘globalisation’ literature fails to define ‘global’. Globalisation is grasped as a spatial, or time-spatial development, in which social relations are simultaneously stretched and intensified. There is a tendency to reduce globality to technical changes, particularly in the character of communications. Its social and political contents are neglected – seen as consequences or implications of the core globalising processes, not as central to the meaning of globality itself.

There is an unhelpful kind of sociologism, and even technological determinism, not only in the sociological but in the international relations literature. According to many accounts, changes in technology, economy and culture are ‘undermining’ the state. This sort of argument invites the necessary, but insufficient, riposte that the nation-state is far from impotent – as Linda Weiss has suggested, its ‘powerlessness’ is a ‘myth’.

A long line of international theorists, criticising the traditional ‘realist’ ideas of the discipline, has developed parallel arguments. According to the pioneering ‘pluralists’, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, the salience of military power decreased with the growth of ‘complex interdependence’ among advanced economies. According to Rosenau and Otto Czempiel, what is developing is ‘governance without government’. According to the radical liberal Richard Falk, we are moving into ‘a post-statist world order’.

This tendency is reinforced by the inevitable economism and sociologism of Marxist-inspired accounts. According to Robert Cox, there is an ‘internationalisation of the state’, but only in the sense that nation-states are adapted to international capital. Stephen Gill interestingly identified an emerging ‘trilateral’ hegemony of North American, Western European and Japanese capital. My Sussex colleague, Kees van der Pijl, has explored the unity of the ‘heartland’ of capital at the level of class relations, in the emergence of a ‘transatlantic ruling class’ and the ‘cadre class’.

I have argued that the common failing of the whole international relations critique of realism is that it bypasses the serious examination of the state and the state system, thus not meeting head-on the realist conception of the state. Their ‘emancipatory’ political perspectives place excessive reliance on the potential of social movements, civil society and class forces, and underestimate the potential of reformist mobilisation of the resources of state power.

Of course, there have been interesting developments from within a broadly realist (or ‘neo-realist’) framework of analysis. The work of Barry Buzan and Richard Little, represented elsewhere in this volume, is a good representative of this strand. Here, however, we have the opposite problem, that although the historical evolution of state-systems is seriously problematised, the sociological contextualisation is thin. State systems do not appear in their character as one kind of network of social power, but as the enduring structural form of power, which may be organised around military or economic foci.

This re-historicised realism reproduces the other side of the dilemma of international relations in the era of global transformation: if we are not to remove states and state-systems from the centre of our gaze, we must reassert their continuity into the present. A similar problem presents itself with a ‘geopoliticist’ historical sociology: the reconfigurations of state power in the contemporary period are merely, as Collins suggests in his chapter, new forms of empire. While these kinds of continuity are not unimportant, the interesting question is precisely the novelty of state and state-system formations in the global era. Whether we trace world-systems back a mere five hundred years, or a full five thousand (?) as Barry Gills proposes in his chapter, the one thing that it is not easy to see as unchanging is the form of political power.

The common assumption that globalisation is economically driven has led to a misleading historical debate. One the one hand, those like Kenneth Ohmae who are impressed by the expansion of the world market at the end of the twentieth century, and argue that the state is newly undermined, assert the novelty of contemporary global change. On the other, those like Roland Robertson who recall half a millennium (or more) of world market development see globalisation as a long historical process.

It seems more apposite to contend that, while there has been a long growth of market relations on a world scale, the really significant ruptures in social development – which have determined much of the pace of market expansion – have been the results of political and military upheavals. What happened in Russia after 1917 was not a spontaneous demise of markets, but a political movement, accelerated after Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’ in 1929, towards a command economy. What has happened since 1989 is not a spontaneous surge towards the market resulting from the growth of information technology, but a political upheaval erupting from a major crisis in state power.

My proposal is, therefore, that we take the social relations and forms of state power as the starting-point for understanding global change. In doing so, we need to make a radical break with the dominant ways of thinking in international relations. The more historical approaches in international relations - especially the ‘English School’ from the work of my Sussex predecessor, Martin Wight, to much recent analysis - are certainly far more interesting than their structuralist counterparts.

There is however a common problem which is exacerbated by the tendency to see international systems in terms of norms as well as power. This is the tendency to give excessive weight to the juridical definition of the state. For much of the field, states are defined by a particular legal attribute – sovereignty – and international relations are conducted principally between units that possess it. I do not wish to deny the great significance of these legal relations. However a historical-sociological approach will necessarily, and properly, see them as embedded in messy, complex organizations of power, embroiled in equally complex social struggles.

The characters of these organizations and relations in the present period are highly distinctive, in a way that none of the strands of international relations, nor actually-existing historical sociology, has fully recognised. A principal task of historical sociology today is to explore the uniqueness of these changes, by placing them in the most relevant larger historical narratives. I intend to use the remainder of this chapter to show, in outline, how the interlocking narratives of state, revolution, war and genocide might be transformed to account for contemporary globality.

The global transformation of state relations and forms

States are best defined in Michael Mann’s terms, as organizations of power which radiate from centres, make rules, mobilize legitimacy and project force. They are not necessarily, however, simple territorial monopolists of violence, as Max Weber has generally been understood to mean. States came to approximate this model, to become – as Giddens put it – ‘bordered power containers’, under certain historical conditions, namely the consolidation of the imperial nation-state, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The heyday of this historical form, the period of the world wars with its economic autarchy and total ideological mobilisation, appears in retrospect as the historical exception, not the rule. Societies were not closed entities before the twentieth century, and they are not as we enter the twenty-first. Even the great European empires, which appeared to be self-sufficient world orders (so that earlier globalisation was serial rather than singular), permitted considerable cross-fertilisation especially at the elite level.

The idea of ‘the’ state, with ‘its’ discrete national society, is therefore transient. The normal question is what, in the flux of worldwide social relations, constitute more or less distinct – if always complexly overlapping – societies, cultures and states. Defining distinct ‘states’ is moreover different from defining societies or cultures (which I do not have space to discuss here). What defines a distinct centre of state power, in relation to other centres, is not merely its international legal status or the rule-making aspect considered in isolation, but a more or less autonomous capacity for the organisation and projection of violence.

In these terms, we can see the historic transition of the mid-twentieth century – the outcome of the Second World War – as the replacement of rival, autonomous imperial nation-states in western Europe and Japan by powerful post-imperial national entities which were nevertheless deeply dependent on the United States. This was an utterly crucial historical change, and considered in isolation probably a more important one than that of 1989-91. Most of major nation-state-empires of the previous century, the centres between which two world wars had been fought, ceased to be fully autonomous centres of state power.

We should see this dramatic result as confirmed and increased by the process of the Cold War. The apparently lower salience of military issues, which Keohane and Nye noted, was not the result of interdependence; rather dramatically new military conditions, in which a Western bloc confronted its Soviet rival, was the cause of interdependence. These new military relations were also, of course, what produced the lower visibility of military questions in the relations of state entities within the West. A whole academic industry, which considers contemporary states as juridical and economic units and neglects the common military structure of the West, has been built on the failure to grasp this transformation. From this point of view, what matters is the competition within the West – thus according to Philip Cerny, the contemporary state is a ‘competition state’– rather than the larger framework.

From these contingent historical results developed deep structural change. In essentials there emerged a new common centre of state power, through three kinds of major institutional development: pan-Western military, political and economic organisations; the political-economic integration of western Europe; and the embryonically global political organisations of the United Nations system. The latter was, of course, the most problematic, since it embraced other clearly independent centres of state power: not only the Soviet bloc, but the disparate and increasingly numerous states of the Third World. Nevertheless it was important as a legitimation framework, and to the extent that it was able to cohere, reinforced the unification of the West.

For even during the Cold War, despite the appearance – and in military terms, the reality – of competition between two more or less equal blocs, the West was already not only the most powerful but the dominant world bloc. And although Western dominance was always in important senses American dominance, van der Pijl, Gill and others are right to suggest the maturation of a broader, ‘transatlantic’ or ‘trilateral’ Western hegemony. Indeed by focussing on the relations and forms of state power, rather than class or economic relations, we can see that Western world hegemony was based on structural change within the West.

The significance of these Cold War developments has been put into sharp relief since 1989. Contrary to those in the 1970s like Ernest Mandel who saw a contest of ‘Europe versus America’, and Mary Kaldor who wrote of the ‘disintegration of the West’, the West has held together. Fierce economic rivalries are managed within common institutions (like the World Trade Organisation); they do not lead to deep political rifts, let alone anything approaching war. The end of the Cold War has led to war in Europe, but not between the main Western states, as John Meirsheimer appeared to suggest.Not only has the West failed to fall apart: its essential common interests have been confirmed, its common framework enhanced. Both are increasingly globally projected. Everything suggests that here we have here a major structural development.

The contemporary West can be seen therefore as an increasingly integrated, comprehensively institutionalised international ‘conglomerate’ of state power. Even the most powerful national state centres – including the United States – are increasingly constrained by their involvement in this bloc of power. Of course, it is important to emphasise that there are considerable structural tensions within the West. The American, and to some extent the Japanese, model (and ideology) emphasises the supremacy of the national state, whereas internationalisation is integral to contemporary European state development (and ideology). Following this, Europe and America have different relations with the global layer of state. The character of formal pan-Western institutions is still limited. Political legitimacy is still heavily mediated through national democracy, and as yet there are few direct international manifestations of democracy (although the European Parliament is increasingly seen as a model with wider applicability).

These contradictions all contribute to the instability of the Western state. We must not assume that its unity is irreversible: but is unlikely to be reversed in near future. Clearly both the unity and the stability of the West depend on the complex, often unpredictable tests of its global projection of state power. The paradox of the West is that it possesses unparalleled resources, but even so finds even relatively small political conflicts difficult to manage. Although internally very strong in comparison to any of its rivals, its global power projection has weak legitimacy.

The strength of the Western state lies partly in its completely unrivalled economic and military resources. Although in absolute terms, the major non-Western centres of state power, such as Russia, China, India, Brazil and Indonesia, have considerable resources, by comparison with the unified West each is chronically weak. The West’s strength, moreover, does not rest merely on its financial resources or military capabilities. It rests on the development of its authoritative resources. The major non-Western states, and many of the lesser but still powerful centres, such as those of the Middle East, represent still largely unreconstructed concentrations. These powerful states are still essentially ‘quasi-imperial nation-states’ and reproduce albeit in varied forms the nation-state-empires of the West before 1945.

Table 1, below, contrasts the main characteristics of state power in the West and in the major non-Western centres. Of course there is great variation among those states that more or less fit the latter type, but the contrast between major non-Western states and the West is sufficiently stark to make it a useful contrast. It would obviously be possible to expand this table, to include the new small, centres of state power produced by state fragmentation, weaker ‘quasi-states’, etc., or to distinguish within the non-Western category. Partly for reasons of space, I shall not expand on these sorts of refinements to my categories.

However, there are also analytical reasons for this focus. The new polarity between an expanded, internationalised, democratised, wealthy West and the major non-Western centres, which while populous are often fragmenting, nationalistic, authoritarian and relatively poor, constitutes more than the new version of the old geopolitical international system that we might conclude from Collins’ hints. It also places inter-state relations in the fulcrum of explosive socio-political conflicts, as we have seen over the last decade. To try to understand ‘international’ relations in exclusively, or principally, geopolitical terms goes against much that has been gained in the ‘new’ international theorising of the last decade, and much of what historical sociology is placed to offer. We now understand fairly well that inter-state relations do not exist in a world apart from the rest of world politics.

Much of what is conventionally understood as inter-state or international in fact constitutes the internal politics of the Western state-conglomerate. The old division between domestic and international has manifestly been transformed. This is nowhere truer than in the European Union, when all kinds of economic, social and legal questions are now subject to Union-level processes. However, on the geopolitical model itself, it is also true of relations between America and Europe (not to mention Japan and Australasia): as the wars of the 1990s – from the Gulf to Kosova – have shown, the West functions as a single military actor. The West can be regarded as a single state conglomerate because its component national legal entities have pooled their ‘monopolies of violence’. They are no longer seriously capable of producing war among themselves, and have institutionalised their common military (as well as economic and political) interests in manifold, mutually reinforcing ways - which partly emphasise the division between them and the rest of the world.

There is a more fundamental reason, though, for insisting that inter-state relations should not be understood apart from other aspects of world politics. This is that precisely those ‘international’ relations between separate ‘centres’ of state power (as I have defined these) are completely implicated in important relations of state and society. Of course this is not, in itself, a new discovery. Sociologically-minded international scholars like Fred Halliday have long insisted on this, and notably on a dialectic of domestic revolt and international conflict. Hobson sees the exploration of this process as a major contribution of historical sociology to international relations. My own studies have emphasised these relations in the context of total war.

What seems to me to be new are the particular kind of linkages between national and international, social movements and war, that are now developing. The ‘global’ character of world politics is determined not merely by the impact of technological, economic and cultural globalisation, but by the way in which common global issues, centred on the same problems of state power, are coming to be the substance of both international and societal politics. I intend, therefore, to explore the nature of globality further in the context of the contemporary characters of revolution and war.

Global revolution and genocidal war

It was Marx who perceptively remarked that ‘hitherto, every revolution has only succeeded in building up the state machine’. Although he implied that the proletarian revolution would be different, his axiom has never applied more completely than to the revolutions made in the name of Marx’s own doctrine. The proletarian revolution in Russia led – through civil-war militarist centralisation and the subsequent consolidation of the Stalinist elite – to the totalitarian state. The militarised national-liberationist revolution led, especially in China, to a similar end.

Fifty years after the victory of the latter – and ten years after the fall of Soviet Communism – we can see that their legacies of authoritarian state power are among the most serious problems of world order. Of course, varieties of authoritarianism are much more widespread, among post-colonial elites in Western-inclined as well as Communist or ex-Communist states. Even in major post-imperial states like India, where the state was built up through much more peaceful mass politics, and with democratic electoral forms, elites still wield arbitrary power against the rural poor and minorities.

In recent decades, the idea of proletarian revolution has declined once again after its brief revival in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More importantly, we have seen the growing political bankruptcy of the national- liberationist revolutionary tradition, and shifts from armed struggle to mass politics, and a new trend towards negotiated settlements, most successfully in the case of the African National Congress in South Africa. The other major case of this kind, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s détente with Israel, has been more problematic, and even the minor examples, such as the Irish Republican Army and the Basque separatist movement, ETA, have been inconclusive. Nevertheless, the trend is clear, at least within the West and states like Israel and South Africa that are closely linked to it.

These transformations within the national-liberationist revolutionary tradition are symptomatic of a larger transformation in the pattern of revolution. The main ‘revolutionary’ tradition of our times, challenging especially the authoritarian non-Western states of all kinds, is the democratic revolution. From the uprisings against Soviet rule in East Germany, Hungary and Poland in the 1950s, through the 1968 movement that challenged state power in all three sectors of the Cold War world, to Polish Solidarity and the successful 1989 revolutions, there is a clear thread. These movements that played a major part in the decline of the Soviet state-bloc were always linked to democratic social movements in the West. The final decade of the Cold War began with mass protests on the streets of Western European capitals, and ended with those on the streets of Eastern European cities.

The real ‘revolution in the revolution’ was not Che Guevara’s updating of Maoist guerrilla tactics, but the transformation of democracy into a popular cause which threatens to sweep away the Cuban and Chinese Communist states together with their Soviet counterparts. The significance of this revolution, however, is that its appeal extends across the non-Western world, with powerful ramifications within the West as well. Since 1989, major national upheavals have taken place from the Philippines to South Africa, South Korea to Indonesia, not to mention the defeated movement in China itself.

The democratic revolution involves a triple transformation of the character of revolution. First, it abandons the link of revolution with the centralised revolutionary party or grouping aiming to use the popular process to seize power for itself. Because democracy is by definition a plural project, democratic revolution does not put the revolutionaries into power in a simple manner. Of course, in a case like South Africa, the party of change may succeed in hegemonising subsequent politics, but this seems to be the exception – where a national-liberation party has successfully transformed itself into a democratic majority. Elsewhere, however, popular democratic movements have paved the way for new or regrouped elites to compete for popular support.

Second, since the democratic revolution played a crucial part in the demise of the Cold War system, it has increasingly become a globalist movement. Everywhere, democratic change appeals not merely to national ideals but to universal standards of democracy and human rights. For the subjects of the more extreme authoritarian regimes, and for national minorities everywhere, the appeal to universal values – and to legitimate global institutions – is an unavoidable strategic as well as ideological choice.

Third, in this sense the democratic revolution, too, is linked to state-building. It is linked, first, to the creation of new mini-nation states of oppressed minorities. However, these states are rarely viable without international support. The democratic revolution is therefore intimately connected to two wider processes of state-building. On the one hand, it leads to the strengthening of the global layer of state, the international bureaucracies of the United Nations system. (One of the weaknesses of Michael Barnett’s interesting semi-‘constructivist’ chapter on international bureaucracies is that he does not define clearly enough the situation in which these organisations are being developed.) On the other, it leads to the practical expansion of the Western state, either directly (as in the NATO occupation of Kosovo) or indirectly (when the West provides the core of a UN force as in East Timor).

The processes through which this occurs are connected to two further transformations, of counter-revolution and of war. State elites in authoritarian states, threatened by combinations of democratic reform and national minority movements, are increasingly tempted towards violent coercion as means of refashioning their rule. What are all too often still described in both sociology and international relations, naively if not culpably, as ‘ethnic conflicts’ are actually counter-revolutionary wars. The post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s can be traced to Slobodan Milosevic’s coup in 1989, which abolished legitimate institutions in the Serbian province of Kosovo. The Timor crisis of 1999 can be traced to the Indonesian army’s invasion to suppress local autonomy in the wake of Portuguese withdrawal in 1974.

The transformations of war can be connected, therefore, to these changes in political conflict worldwide. One of the most important contributions of historical sociology is that it shows that warfare should not be understood as a socially neutral means of resolving issues between states – as international relations has generally assumed. On the contrary, warfare is a central process and a complex structural force of modern society - entrenched in, transforming and transformed with the social relations and forms of state power.

The question which is raised today is what kind of mode of warfare accompanies the development of the Western and global state, the crisis of the authoritarian, quasi-imperial nation-state – not to mention the ‘failures’ of many state entities and institutions in Africa and elsewhere?

The answer given by Mary Kaldor is that these are ‘new wars’, characterised by state breakdown, a parasitic political economy, ‘ethnic cleansing’, privatised forces and international humanitarian intervention. However, her model understates the continuities in modern warfare. On the one hand, war still involves major centres of state power, such as Iraq, Serbia, Russia and the West itself. Conflicts between such centres and between them and society are inter-linked, as they were in earlier periods. On the other hand, what is distinctive is that genocide has developed from being a secondary form of violence, in the period of classic total war, to the principal mode in many conflicts of the global era.

The concept of genocide is a problematic one. The international convention clearly suggests that it is the intentional destruction, ‘in whole or in part’ of an ‘ethnic, national or religious group’. As a historical-sociological concept, it is not clear that there is any good basis for excluding other kinds of groups, such as political or social groups (which were left out so as not to implicate Stalin’s Russia). Certainly the mass extermination carried out by the Khmer Rouge is widely (and validly) regarded as genocide, not because of the killing of ethnic minorities, but because of the deliberate destruction of an entire population, including specified social as well as national groups.

The question of intentionality or deliberation also raises critical questions. It arises not only where the destruction of a group is an end in itself, as with the Nazis, but also where it is an intended consequence of a larger goal, as in the American use of the atomic bomb to defeat Japan. E.P. Thompson’s use of ‘exterminism’ rather than ‘genocide’ for the consequences of nuclear annihilation is an attempt to distinguish here, but it is not clear that it is useful. Since our ‘genus’ is humankind, not a national or any other group, the use of ‘genocide’ to refer to the intended destruction of any human group seems reasonable. Likewise, that there is a clear spectrum from partial killing to the total extermination of a group means that we should regard genocide as a process that can be more or less complete. It makes sense to see certain practices as ‘genocidal’ where there is clearly the potential for the destruction of a group.

In this sense, ‘new wars’ are (to a large extent) the practice of genocide, re-labelled by the perpetrators as ‘ethnic cleansing’. The new genocidal wars are the work of states like Iraq, Serbia and Indonesia, but also Russia, as well as of smaller state centres, para-statal forces and private armies. The genocidal character of war is critical to its significance for world politics and global state-building. Not only do victims and their political representatives have little choice but to appeal to legitimate global institutions and the de facto power of the West. The Western state no longer has the excuse of the Cold War to ignore inconvenient protests; it is faced with enhanced media capabilities to dramatically project victims’ suffering into the homes of its electoral base.

As I have shown in my detailed study of the Kurdish crisis in 1991, the major precedent for the Western military interventions of the late 1990s, local wars are reproduced as ‘global crises’, which call for global political responses. Such crises are leading to major extensions of the global layer of state power: the prevalence of globally legitimated Western military forces in zones of crisis, the development of international criminal tribunals and the new International Criminal Court, and the UN-brokered humanitarian relief operations on which numerous vulnerable populations depend.


Globality, from a historical-sociological point of view, is therefore the result of a very specific historical transformation. At the beginning of the twenty-first century (which historically we might date from 1989, the end of Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘short twentieth century’), the combination of the socio-political upheavals of the ‘global-democratic revolution’ with the new balance of power between Western and non-Western states is creating a new period of world order. It is these shifts which give political meaning to the more familiar phenomena of globalisation – the communications revolution, etc.

The novelty of global change can be debated, and ultimately the counter-position of continuity and change is a sterile argument in which neither side can claim a conclusive victory. Which side of the case we emphasise depends on our purposes. Clearly, there are echoes of empire in the new Western hegemony. However, if we choose to press this continuity, we shall need to explain the difference between the old and the new ‘imperialisms’. From the point of view of the principal victims of the new wars and other struggles of the global-democratic revolution, Western interventions are repeatedly called for, and when they take place, welcomed. In this context, the critique of the ‘imperialism of human rights’ is just as paradoxical as the phenomenon itself. Where a neo-Weberian geopolitical orthodoxy coincides with this kind of Marxist critique, there is reason to question whether it is sufficiently historically sensitive.

Similarly, the dialectic of international war and social revolution remains important – but has more than its form changed? That revolution takes the form of the demand for reform, often leads to local war in the form of genocide and provokes the development of globally legitimate authority is a different kind of process from that previously observed in historical-sociological work. This is true in the important sense that it leads to increasing transcendence of the historical orthodoxies of international practice which have stressed the sovereignty of discrete centres of state power. This is not unimportant to the practice of either states or other social groups.

From this perspective, the contribution of historical sociology to international relations is not to negate the new global agenda, but to provide it with theoretical perspective on state development and socio-political change. This opens up a rich area of research. How far can we regard the unprecedented forms of state development, in the conjunction of the Western state-conglomerate and the global layer of state power, as the basis for a ‘global state’? Will the conflicts and wars produced by the explosive combination of global-democratic revolution and the transformation of quasi-imperial authoritarian states continue to stimulate this development – or will they create such pressures that the global state will fall apart before it is consolidated in any meaningful sense?

These questions can be seen, from some perspectives, as new forms of old dilemmas of world order. In the social practice of international relations they are, however, radical issues that demand new answers. To answer them seems to me an important task of the growing historical-sociological school in the field.



Table 1 Characteristics of the Western and the major non-Western states, end of the 20th century  
  Western state major non-Western states
Military internationalisation a relatively cohesive and enduring bloc of military power, centred on NATO but including other alliances (notably with Japan), which has survived the end of the Cold War and is held together by the challenges to its common interests in the new world situation; has clearly gone beyond simple alliances of national entities survival, or even development, of the historic national monopoly of violence, and the pursuit of state interests including to the point of inter- and intra-state war


an increasingly complex institutionalised framework of pan-Western political-economic organisations through which the West manages its common interests in the world economy weak integration into Western-led world political-economic organisations
internationalisation of law a framework of internationalised law and regulation through which national jurisdictions are harmonised and transnational mobility by corporations and individuals is made possible weak involvement in the internationalisation of law and regulation
Regional internationalisation the highly developed formal internationalisation of the pivotal European region, in which formal and substantive democratisation is increasingly reinforced, and in which significant elements of internationalised citizenship are developing weak, superficial internationalisation at best; persistence of major regional rivalries, including in military and even nuclear forms
Relation to global institutions ambivalent (especially in US), but increasingly utilising UN system to legitimise its worldwide hegemony, and supporting extensions of international law, economic management, political and military intervention ambivalent, but tending to be suspicious of Western-led international innovations; utilising UN system in negative sense, to restrain West and inhibit international authority impinging on national prerogatives
Democratisation political democracy normalised within West, and increasingly deeply rooted, reinforced by internationalisation; also promoted outside West, to a growing extent authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes and weak (or in some cases virtually no) democratisation, in which formal electoral democracy (if it exists) is often crudely manipulated by elites; political and social freedoms are weakly recognised and enforced
Social inequality and welfare despite large socio-economic inequalities, some combination of state and private welfare systems which supports the majority of the population large socio-economic inequalities, with inadequate or no social welfare systems, and coercion of both urban and rural society
National and ethnic conflict increasingly multi-ethnic societies with relatively sophisticated mechanisms for managing national and ethnic conflicts, so that these are contained without the enormous disruptive potential which they have had in the past and continue to have outside the West multi-national societies in which the relations between states and peripheral, minority and indigenous groups are quasi-imperial: these groups have little protection; national or ethnic conflicts are often violent and these are ‘managed’ with fairly crude coercion
Media and propensity to war expanded media spheres which sensitise publics to military violence and make the management of conflict problematic for state power only partially open media in which the abilities of state elites to manage news and opinion and fight wars is greater than in the West, but not unlimited


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