> News > IN WORLD

Interpreting int’l politics via relations

By Mao Li | 2016-09-23 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


International relations uses the term “relations” to define the discipline, yet no systematic explanation of the term exists.


International relations uses the term “relations” to define the discipline, yet there is no systematic explanation of the term. Three mainstream theories of the West-structural realism, neoliberalism and constructivism-have all failed to provide an in-depth explanation of the relational dimensions of the discipline.

On Sep. 11, an event titled “Round Table Seminar of Relational Theories of International Politics: Construction and Interpretation” was held by the editorial department of World Politics and Economics and the Institute of Asian Studies at China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU). At the event, Qin Yaqing from the CFAU put forward the three basic assumptions that underpin his relational theory.


Three assumptions
Questioning the assumptions beneath current theories can produce new ideas, which fuels the reconstruction of theories. Qin’s relational theories put forth three fundamental assumptions in contrast to mainstream international relations theories of the West from ontological, epistemological and methodological perspectives.

In terms of ontological theories, Qin’s relations theory argues that the world is composed of relations, and that social actors are first relational actors or actors in relations. Since the establishment of the Westphalian System, state entities have been the basic research units of international relations, while the nature of the state and national interests are the research emphasis. Relational theory does not deny the importance of entities but transfers the research emphasis from independent entities to the relations between them. It views the world as a series of consistent events and flowing relations, rather than isolated and static entities. The theory emphasizes interactive practice between countries and the ontological position of social progress. Qin elaborates upon the assumptions behind this relational world by using interests as an example. He argues that in a relational world, only shared interests exist. In other words, absolute self-interest does not exist.

The strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction used in the nuclear competition between the US and the Soviet Union indicated that even during the Cold War period, the most basic interest of security existed in the two opposing countries at the same time.

As for epistemology, the theory assumes unity of knowledge and action. It points out that knowledge and action are two aspects of one concept. This assumption negated the Western binary opposition theory that separates knowledge and action. Qin said that rationalism led to the theoretical construction of Western social sciences, including that of international relations, having a huge impact on world academia. However, it should be noted that rationalism originates from the background knowledge of the Western practice community, but it could not supercede the figurative knowledge produced by other practice communities.

When it comes to methodology, the theory assumes dialectics to be a doctrine of the mean. Qin said that like Hegelian dialectics, dialectics of the doctrine of the mean sees the two extremes of things, but they also have huge differences.

The former regards the two extremes to be thesis and antithesis, emphasizing opposition and conflicts, while the latter consider the two extremes to be two parts of one united whole, stressing complementarity, and thus the two extremes could form one new entity during cooperation and competition.


New angle
Su Changhe, a professor from the school of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University, said that the relational theory offers new ideas for regional cooperation, while providing speculative resources for connection and communication, which extend and expand relations. In the current knowledge hierarchy, the integration theory is the dominant theory of regional cooperation, but it involves sovereignty issues, and these can easily cause national doubts and fear. Relational governance and connectivity theory emphasizes the core values of common interests, embodying equality and symbiosis. Therefore, more elaboration on the concepts of relational governance and connectivity can better explain the regional cooperation ideas of China.

Chen Dingding, a professor from the School of International Studies at Jinan University, said that relational theory  works well in explaining the construction of new relations between China and the US. Offensive realism is too pessimistic, because it holds that human society is bound to end up in conflict. Whereas institutionalism is way too optimistic, for it thinks that the world, as Kant said, is headed for peace. Both of the ideas are biased and enclosed. But relational theory is an open theory, and it emphasizes the significance of practice and the dynamic role of actors. A phenomenon that is bound to happen does not exist, while everything can transform in practice. This actually offers a prescription to solve the Thucydides’ Trap, Chen said.


Mao Li is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.