International Order in Diplomacy- Book Review

mughal painting

International Order in Diversity: War, Trade and Rule in the Indian Ocean by Andrew Philips and J.C. Sharman is the kind of book that immediately jumps out to me. As an international relations scholar always interested in elevating overlooked historical experiences that break the absolutism of theoretical schools of understanding diplomacy, it is pretty inevitable that I turn to books like this whenever possible. If I agree with them its more people to cite on ‘my side’, and if I don’t it helps me refine my critiques and be challenged to provide a counter-narrative.

In this case I find myself largely laudatory. The authors are interested in debunking mainstream liberal, constructivist, and realist assumptions about diplomacy being made (be it by culture, competition, or some combination thereof) in a homogenizing manner. Where before the modern era there was divergence and gradually we have come to greater and greater levels of convergence as powers interact more with each other. This narrative has taken on the aura of teleology among some theorists.

This book shows that even with the rise of what is commonly taken to be the modern world (the European overseas expansion, Westphalian diplomacy) there was really no move towards standardization until the 19th Century. In the Indian Ocean in particular, where the book spends almost all of its time, European expansion came across to most involved on all sides of trade as far away foreigners coming to pay homage to vastly economically and militarily superior Asian states and access their markets.

In doing so, there was a diverse arrangement whereas sea-bound Europeans were extremely peripheral (but potentially useful due to this uniqueness) actors in a greater Mughal-dominated regional system of power and commerce. Perhaps most laudably from western academic authors, the book does not present the Mughals as ‘the old ways’ and the Europeans ‘the new’ but rather introduces the Portuguese, Dutch, and Mughals all as early invasive empires on the make. The Mughals had Central Asian origins under a Timurid prince after all, and only broke into the Indian peninsula in the same period Cortez was invading Mexico and after the Portuguese had entered the ports of the Indian Ocean. It was the Mughals who came to control what was then one of the most populous and economically dynamic empires in the world, possibly only tied with early Qing China. They had everything that they wanted and it was on land. The Portuguese and later the Dutch and English could have the sea. Of what use was that to an empire based in Delhi whose primary income came from agriculture? Indeed, it would be two centuries before the balance of power in the Indian Ocean would even flip towards the maritime powers. There is a reason that my own book, which tries to limit its geographic scope to being more immediately adjacent to the Eurasian steppe, includes a section on the early Mughal Empire. It was foreign to South Asia but very different from the Europeans and is an interesting example of pastoralist military integration with a new agrarian base.

The Mughals, like their ‘gunpowder empire’ contemporaries the Ottomans and Safavids, had empires that were changing with technology and bureaucratic capability but still were clearly descended from their nomadic ancestors. This meant that while there were certain core military regions, a diversity of systems and vassals were the majority of ruling tactics rather than direct central control. When Europeans entered this system they largely integrated themselves into this style but with a seaward rather than landward direction. It was only when technological changes made seaborn trade more efficient and warships more potent that the balance of power shifted in favor of Europe. And even then, as the authors point out, attempts to homogenize the styles of imperial rule led directly to major rebellions in India and Indonesia which even at the height of European colonial power and success often caused the colonial powers to backpedal those ‘reformist’ policies.

All of this is to state as a thesis that the systems of geopolitical power are not destined to homogenized, either in the past or today. Countries cave have widely different economic objectives, domestic policies, and systems of alliance building and yet still enter into long term agreements.

My only major disagreement with the authors- and one I know I have mentioned towards other books in past reviews- is the assumption that realism supports homogenization. I have long held the opposite position and that its one truly global thing-the Westphalian diplomatic system-is more an ad-hoc statement of decorum for getting along than a truly unified and standardized system. In fact, its major point was recognizing domestic autonomy of all actors involved to protect negotiations from religious fanaticism and archaic imperial claims. This is why in the present day it is China, and not the Europeans, which seems to be the largest scale and most consistent defender of Westphalian state sovereignty while North American and Northern European (ahem, culturally protestant) actors that constantly advocate for policies that interfere in the domestic affairs of nations they do not like. An ironic turn considering the reasons behind the original 1648 consensus. Much like how Europeans came into a South Asian (and East African, it should be noted) system as foreigners and then eventually became its greatest manipulators after a long time of adaptation, now it is China who, having the Confucian tributary system of being the ‘Middle Kingdom’ stripped of it has adapted itself to being a real Westphalian actor. What goes around comes around.

Be on the lookout for an upcoming opinion piece in the American Conservative by me about the utility of the Westphalian world view and the dangers of rejecting it sometime soon-edit, here you go. Had nothing to do with reading ‘International Order in Diplomacy’, just good timing there.

Considering that the Indian Ocean was the biggest pool of maritime trade anywhere in the world before the late 18th Century North Atlantic, it is imperative that IR scholars look at examples like it to further refine their theories. The authors of this book are doing a similar thing that I and others have done towards the Eurasian steppe (and what I want to expand doing with indigenous America in the future) in bringing sadly neglected regions and eras of history into the discussion of geopolitical strategy. International Relations, despite its name, is still a grotesquely Eurocentric and presentist school of thought in its mainstream currents. And theories divorced from history are nothing but obscure hypotheticals with little evidence to back up longer term trends.

Syrian Foreign Policy: The Alliances of a Regional Power-A Book Review

Zarrhedine Boddhisatva

Sorry to disappoint you, but my illustration of General Issam Zahreddine becoming a wrathful Boddhisatva in Ba’athist-and Allied Heaven is not included in the book. But here it is anyway.

Dr. Francesco Belcastro’s recent survey of Cold War era Syrian foreign policy released this year by Routledge is a necessary historical and theoretical tour of a decisive time in Middle Eastern foreign policy history. ‘Syrian Foreign Policy: The Alliances of a Regional Power‘ not only show the extreme utility of Neoclassical Realism as an analytical theory, but also the past events that led to Syria’s extremely dangerous present situation.

Full disclosure: Belcastro is a personal friend of mine and a former academic colleague as well. We once shared a work office right next to the toilets in St Andrew’s oldest still used building and our attempts at work were accompanied by the periodic sounds of flushing broadcast through the paper-thin walls. Despite that, we ended up both successfully completing our dissertations. And now its time to welcome him to the published authors club.

With a special focus on the years of 1963-1989, this book charts the tensions between a popular ideological conception of foreign policy and a stark self-interested realism. The main focus of this is the first incarnation of Ba’athist foreign policy under Salah Jadid in the 1960s. Pan-Arabism had popular support both at home and abroad and until the brutal wake-up call of the Six Day War Syria was clearly committed to leveraging its weak frontline position as the keystone of an anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian alliance. Such a network, it was thought, would give Syria a stronger international position. Such hopes were dashed with massive Israeli victories against Syria and Egypt in 1967.

This would lead to the downfall of Jadid and the rise of Hafez al-Assad, he who founded the present dynasty still in power in Damascus. Assad too was a Ba’athist but of a more cautious nationalist bent. Syria’s position was now weaker than ever before and clearly needed a new path. Prioritizing regime survival over regime legitimacy, Assad’s goal was to reorient the inherited failed strategy.

Though Egypt would make gains in the Yom Kippur War, Syria would not. This coupled with the break of Egypt into the United States’ camp of the Cold War and the continual deterioration of Syria-Iraq relations left a relatively weak country in a dangerous region in need of some bold risky strategic interventions. This was when the relationship between Syria and both Iran and Russia-so relevant today-started to grow. Pan-Arab ideology had given way towards an axis of resistance against the US-Israeli push into the region…and eventually in modern times to the Gulf monarchies as well. The Iranian Revolution heightened and accelerated this already process by making tentative diplomatic feelers turn into an overt alliance against common foes. It would soon meet with measurable successes as Syria alone in the Aran world stood up for Iran against a brutal Iraqi invasion and Iran assisted Syria in checking Israeli attempts at expansion into Lebanon.  As it was, an asymmetric battle in Lebanon would finally give Damascus the victory over Israel it long craved, something impossible in prior pan-Arab coalitions that revolved around taking on massively superior Israeli conventional forces in set-piece battles.

Belcastro uses this and many other case studies to show how while the prior more ideologically driven foreign policy once gave the state a meaning (both internally and internationally) the realities of a divided Arab world and intrusive Cold War politics eventually meant these trends had to be reigned in for the state merely to survive without becoming the puppet of a neighbor or a universal pariah. A succession of chapters shows various bilateral relations between Syria and other countries (Jordan, Iran, Iraq, etc) and how each of these examples supports this evolution. The point is clear: foreign policy may have to tilt towards ideology for a variety of reasons-but the greater the crisis faced the more likely realpolitik is to assert itself over time. All states are implicitly realist in nature when the chips are down, but its the speed of them coming to terms with prioritizing realism over professed international purpose that determines their ability to successfully adapt to dangerous changing circumstances. Idealism may often be a necessary domestic component of policy and regime legitimation, but such is a temporary arrangement that begins to present dangers if rigidly adhered to.

(I immediately thought of a similar example in later Roman Empire, when the adoption of a single monotheistic religion was viewed as a way to bring the decaying state together-but the very universality of any such theological claims led in fact to greater alienation and division than ever before. So too, it seems, was the case with the Pan-Arab nationalism. The fact that Ba’athists were in charge of Syria and Iraq at much of the same time and positively loathed each other for much of that time being the most blatant example).

With the loss of the Soviet patron and Russia’s withdrawal from the region after the collapse of the USSR (if temporarily as Russia would return after the Arab Spring), the Syria-Iran alliance became all the more strong. First against Iraq and then against the United States once Iraq fell to it in 2003. Syria’s position in the 21rst Century was quite different than it was in the Cold War but one decisive factor remained the same: That of a small country with hard to defend borders surrounded by stronger neighbors trying to hold on as a frontline state. But while the primary frontline used to be that with Israel, it now seems to be one of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.  As a country with massive sectarian divides and with Iraq having been opened to this clash of regional powers since the failure of the American occupation, Syria occupied a uniquely vulnerable position between spheres of influence: something than explains the immense amount of foreign interference that flooded the country-particularly the rebels-upon the outbreak of the Civil War. To really understand the context of this going back pre-Arab Spring and pre-Iraq, you cannot do better than Dr. Belcastro’s book.

As a personal observation, it appears that Syria’s realist turn was a success that enabled the state and its regime to survive past many others in the region. However, this has come at a price. Iran has certainly increased its influence over its junior partner and Russia went from helpful pals with a naval base to the de facto dictator of Syrian affairs with other countries (especially Turkey). Considering the weakness of Syria right now and its relative diplomatic isolation, one cannot help but wonder what prospects in diplomacy it actually has anymore. However, having survived attempted sectarian dismemberment by its international foes, one could be excused for allowing themselves some sliver of optimism regarding the internal cohesion of this country. Its cultural diversity was often seen as a liability by others, but having weathered the ultimate storm it has defied the worst-case fate that once seemed likely. Such are the events that build up greater levels of solidarity for the future.