Politics and Culture in International History

The concept of order that has underpinned the modern era is in crisis. The search for world order has long been defined almost exclusively by the concepts of Western societies … But vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order … [The United States must think] on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security.1

Henry Kissinger is not enthused.  The extant world order is fraying, and the United States has neither a coherent strategy for coiling it back together, nor the bearing for promulgating a new one.  This blog’s exploration of entropy as the defining characteristic of international affairs covers some similar territory as Kissinger’s essay, so it shall be shamelessly plugged in this paragraph.

But the richness of Kissinger’s essay lies beyond the exigencies capturing headlines today, for it raises the idea that the cacophony of crises is not amenable to tactical policy prescriptions.  Rather, the perturbations may be symptomatic of a larger, more intractable issue: the imposition of rules and norms on cultures and societies that—by dint of their own historical experience—don’t necessarily share the West’s values.2

[The rise of non-Western civilizations] will also, however, require the West to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests.  It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations.3

For those inclined to peel the onion, there may be no better corrective to the lack of historical perspective and appreciation for culture in international affairs than Adda Bozeman’s Politics and Culture in International History (Princeton University Press: 1960).  I discovered Bozeman last month at the suggestion of a friend, and I will be eternally grateful for his recommendation.  Bozeman thought on a grand scale, and while her historical assessments may guide policymakers toward solutions to the quandaries Kissinger outlines in his essay, the intellectual journey that her book offers to readers is richly rewarding in and of itself.  More practically, the book would certainly help to steel oneself against the scourge of mirror-imaging that plagues much reporting and analysis of foreign affairs.

Bozeman explores the encounters between civilizations over thousands of years to determine the broad principles of agreement that humanity has found to be conducive to peace and unity.  To summarize her book in this blog post would be a cruel injustice to the depth of her thinking and to you as a reader.  As a consolation, I have pulled a selection of quotes, which—though lengthy—should serve as a literary aperitif for more inquisitive souls.  For those seeking an analysis of recent global events through an Adda Bozeman-prism, I would suggest this enlightening 2002 lecture from Yale Law School’s W. Michael Reisman.

The World in 1500. Adda Bozeman, Politics and Culture in International History, pg. 430.

The World in 1500. Adda Bozeman, Politics and Culture in International History, pg. 430.

In public understanding, history has come to mean the sum total of available and readable local chronologies. These chronologies are usually seen as running on separate tracks through time and space. Junctions are not really expected. They can, of course, not be ignored when they are obviously marked by such actual encounters as geographical contiguity, war, trade, or diplomacy. But the countless historical situations in which separate chronologies interlock through the diffusion of ideas become visible only to those who are willing to leave the accustomed local tracks in order to look for new ways of reliving the past. (17-8)

[Zoroastrianism] was the first religion in history that required each mortal to make a personal moral choice between the powers of light and the powers of darkness, and take his stand voluntarily against the whole world of treachery … In prophesying that the kingdom of perfect happiness and immortality would follow the last ordeal and the renovation of the world, [Zoroaster] not only injected the idea of ultimate salvation but anticipated religious monotheism … This doctrine held immediate relevance for the conduct of government and politics. By inviting man to act in behalf of his conviction, Zoroastrianism showed the way to the immediate secular realization of the good life. (46-7; emphasis added in bold)

The [Ancient] Greeks made it possible to think of international affairs as essentially human affairs … Where the Greeks were original was in their association of the polis with new purposes … Their ideal polis was the place in which all men were to develop their potentialities for excellence. In order to permit this use of the state, a principle of order had to be found that would assure an adjustment between individual and collective interests. This led to an elaboration of the idea of justice as the chief bond between men. (70-1)

Alexander was the first agent in history to unite under one administration European, Asian, and African culture areas … [his] design for an international commonwealth was revolutionary in that it suggested new political bonds between men, a new relationship between the individual and the international community, and a new view of the world … With him begins the idea of the inhabited world (the oikoumene) as a brotherhood wherein all men are the sons of one Father. (95)

The concept of unity is perhaps more highly developed in China than in any other country. (135)

The Roman success in maintaining the unity of the Empire both as a conception and as a reality is a remarkable achievement in the comparative history of international societies. It followed from the fact that in a world of conflicting images, conflicting institutions, and conflicting interests, the Romans had found an ultimate coordinating measure. This measure was reason as embodied in law. (184)

Human relations began to move in new directions when religious proselytism became linked to the pursuit of political objectives. This revolution in the relations between nations occurred when Rome, Byzantium, and the Arab caliphates began to propagate one or another of the two revealed religions as the only truth. Their uncompromising statement and defense of Christian and Islamic doctrines influenced the policies and institutions of all the peoples enjoined to choose their various sides … This notion that God ruled the world by delegating important functions to a special people by virtue of a special covenant came to the Christians and the Muslims, who adopted the wisdom of the Holy Book. And each of these three religious groups was convinced, thenceforth, that it, and it alone, had been set apart deliberately from all other groups of human beings and constituted, therefore, the center of the universe. (232-3)

Whereas the Western Europeans were concerned chiefly with creating institutions that should ensure the rights and obligations of all individuals and groups in their society, the Byzantines were absorbed in the task of securing the foundations for one great political organism: the state. Hence, East and West had developed fundamentally different concepts of society. (322)

Contrary to the practice of the intellectual elites of certain other societies known to history, who chose to interpose themselves as mediators between the real and the ideal, the Muslim scholars had committed themselves to the doctrine that the real and the ideal should be identical: any political organization gaining their approval would have to coincide with the ideological concept of the Dar al-Islam that they themselves had formulated. (371)

But in all the realms of thought and experience that were thus opened up in this formative period of modern thought [read: Age of Discovery / Renaissance] none proved as fascinating and rewarding to Muslims, Jews, and Christians as the Hellenic and Hellenistic culture worlds. Here was a common heritage, the scholars realized, that permeated the very ground on which they stood. What Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and Galen had recorded proved meaningful to literate men in Bactria as well as in Spain. (417)

It was in [the domain of politics] that Occidental thought was bound to have its most unsettling effects. For since the non-Western nations had not been able to develop new ideas about the relationship between government and society, or to suggest new images of the world society and new norms for the conduct of international relations, they were constrained, ultimately, to adjust to a political order and to adopt a vocabulary of political ideas that had been devised in the context of Western Europe’s history. (440-1)

Further Reading:

The Enduring Relevance of Thucydides | August 2014

Entropy: The Defining Characteristic of Global Affairs | June 2014

The Reckoning | January 2014

Pope Francis’s Critique of Capitalism and the Quest for the Good Life | December 2013

# # #


1 Henry Kissinger, “Henry Kissinger on the Assembly of a New World Order,” Wall Street Journal, 29 August 2014.

2 For those who question the relevance of culture’s impact on how one views the world, I would recommend this piece in Pacific Standard, which outlines the influence of culture on cognition and notes that 96% of the subjects in psychological studies between 2003 and 2007 were Westerners.  Perhaps what one thinks one knows just ain’t so.  h/t JV.

3 Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.


  1. […] touched upon Kissinger’s thinking in my post on Adda Bozeman’s Politics and Culture in International History, so I won’t retread it; but reading the book prompted me to contemplate once more whether U.S. […]

  2. […] to peruse this blog’s pieces on Entropy: The Defining Characteristic of International Affairs, Politics and Culture in International History, and The […]

  3. […] For all the books on Western civilization in this list, it’s helpful to understand what it is and how it’s distinct from other civilizations. Adda Bozeman’s Politics and Culture in International History is sensational on this front. In fact, I enjoyed this book so much that it inspired a blog post all of its own. […]

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