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A Relational Theory of World Politics



Culture matters in social theory construction because the metaphysical component of the theoretical hard core is primarily shaped by the background knowledge of a cultural community. Individual rationality, a key concept abstracted from Western culture, constitutes the nucleus for much of mainstream Western International Relations Theory. This article proposes a relational theory of world politics with relationality as the metaphysical component of its theoretical hard core. It conceives the International Relations (IR) world as one composed of ongoing relations, assumes international actors as actors-in-relations, and takes processes defined in terms of relations in motion as ontologically significant. It puts forward the logic of relationality, arguing that actors base their actions on relations in the first place. It uses the Chinese zhongyong dialectics as its epistemological schema for understanding relationships in an increasingly complex world. This theoretical framework may enable us to see the IR world from a different perspective, reconceptualize key elements such as power and governance, and make a broader comparison of international systems for the enrichment of the Global IR project.
A Relational Theory of World Politics
China Foreign Affairs University
Culture matters in social theory construction because the metaphysical
component of the theoretical hard core is primarily shaped by the back-
ground knowledge of a cultural community. Individual rationality, a key
concept abstracted from Western culture, constitutes the nucleus for
much of mainstream Western International Relations Theory. This arti-
cle proposes a relational theory of world politics with relationality as the
metaphysical component of its theoretical hard core. It conceives the
International Relations (IR) world as one composed of ongoing rela-
tions, assumes international actors as actors-in-relations, and takes pro-
cesses defined in terms of relations in motion as ontologically significant.
It puts forward the logic of relationality, arguing that actors base their ac-
tions on relations in the first place. It uses the Chinese zhongyong dialec-
tics as its epistemological schema for understanding relationships in an
increasingly complex world. This theoretical framework may enable us to
see the IR world from a different perspective, reconceptualize key ele-
ments such as power and governance, and make a broader comparison
of international systems for the enrichment of the Global IR project.
Keywords: background knowledge, relationality, meta-relationship,
zhongyong dialectics, immanent intersubjectivity
Mainstream Western International Relations Theory (IRT), especially its expres-
sion in America, has largely dominated the disciplinary discourse. Acharya and
Buzan (2007) initiated a project asking the question “Why is there no non-
Western IR theory?” so forcefully that International Relations (IR) as a discipline
must answer in a world of “multiple actors, traditions, and practices” (Katzenstein
2010, 23). More recently, Acharya has put forward the concept of “Global IR,”
stressing the significance of IR’s evolution toward an inclusive discipline and “rec-
ognizing its multiple and diverse foundations” (Acharya 2014). The Global IR
project has necessarily raised the question about the role of culture in IRT, be-
cause a “pluralistic universality” inevitably involves the multiple cultures that coex-
ist in the world. This article argues that culture matters for social theory
construction because it provides the important background knowledge that
shapes the hard core of a social theory. Based upon this argument, I will sketch
what I term a “relational theory of world politics,” centered around the concept
of “relationality,” which is embedded in Confucian cultural communities and at
the same time has intellectual value-added beyond its cultural origin.
Qin, Yaqing. (2016) A Relational Theory of World Politics. International Studies Review, doi: 10.1093/isr/viv031
CThe Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Studies Association.
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International Studies Review (2016) 18, 33–47
Culture and Social Theory Construction
A theory is a system of ideas. Theory construction is, therefore, a process of orga-
nizing ideas and thoughts into a system. As such, theory contains parts, of which
the most important is the theoretical hard core (Lakatos 1978, 6). The hard core
of a social theory, furthermore, consists of two components, one substantive and
the other metaphysical. The former plays the role of perception, taking signals
from the real world and presenting them to the latter, which plays the role of con-
ception, processing signals through the ideational filter, and representing them
as a meaningful construct. It is about understanding and interpretation. These
two components of the theoretical hard core are complementary to and condi-
tioned by each other. What defines a distinct social theory, however, is the meta-
physical component, which is in turn shaped by the background knowledge of a
cultural community. Searle’s “Background” is most illustrative in this respect, for
he defines it as the set of nonintentional or preintentional capacities that enables
intentional states of function, structuring consciousness, enabling human inter-
pretation, and disposing an actor toward certain behavior (Searle 1995, 129, 132–
37). We are able to provide some social event with certain meaning because we
put it, often unconsciously, against our background repertoire, which enables us
to interpret it readily (Adler and Pouliot 2011, 16). It is the background knowl-
edge of a cultural community that nurtures and shapes the metaphysical compo-
nent of a theoretical hard core.
Let us take as an example mainstream IRT, referring primarily to the three
American systemic theories—structural realism, neo-liberal institutionalism, and
structural constructivism. It also includes the English School, which has begun to
aim at a grand theory. They all try to develop paradigmatic theories at the sys-
temic level, focusing on how factors of the international system influence state be-
havior and/or shape state identity. They share a similar metaphysical component
in their theoretical hard core, which, I argue, is individualistic rationality, a defin-
ing element of the background knowledge of Western culture.
It was perhaps
the greatest conceptual innovation of the Enlightenment and has shaped the way
of thinking and doing for generations in the West and beyond. It has become a
widely acceptable concept that nurtures the theoretical hard core even without
being realized by those who follow it.
It is this shared metaphysical hard core that leads to the tendency of theoretical
synthesizing. Wæver (1996) discusses the first convergence between neorealism
and neoliberalism and believes that the neo–neo synthesis was caused by the
shared rationalistic approach, firmly sustained by ontological individualism. For
structural realism, the distribution of material capabilities is the master variable,
and for this variable to work, it is necessary to assume individual actors prior to
the system and individualistic rationality in the first place (Waltz 1979).
Neoliberalism follows the same logic except for the change of the master variable
from power distribution to international institutions, replacing the logic of “struc-
tural selection” with that of “institutional selection” (Keohane 1984). The
neo–neo synthesis indicates that they differ at the substantive level, but share a
fundamental view at the metaphysical level. It is the shared metaphysical compo-
nent that has eventually brought them together.
That structural constructivism joined the mainstream materialized a second
convergence following the neo–neo synthesis. It is also a systemic theory with the
logic of “cultural selection.” When first exploring the agent-structure problem,
Wendt (1987) seemed to have emphasized their mutual construction. Later on, in
order to develop a grand systemic theory, Wendt (1999) turned to the theoretical
Commenting on the earlier version of this article, Barry Buzan kindly reminds me of post-structuralists and
thick constructivists, who do not see actors as autonomous units. It is true. However, what I criticize in this article is
the mainstream IRT, which presumes the autonomy of actors.
34 A Relational Theory of World Politics
path of structural realism and developed his structural constructivism: The idea-
tional structure (systemic culture) becomes the master variable, shaping the iden-
tity of the unit and in turn influencing the pattern of state behavior. Thus,
Wendtian constructivism follows the same way of theorizing: assuming an ontolog-
ical individual unit and a structure wherein it acts and interacts. “These admis-
sions bring him substantially closer than his previous writing to what he calls
‘mainstream’ IR ...” (Keohane 2000, 125). The role of ideational structures has
been further accented through the emphasis on international norms: How inter-
national norms spread and construct state identity has become the major research
agenda of mainstream constructivism today. A constructivist’s world of IR is again
one composed of individual agents and systemic structures, with the latter select-
ing through the former’s rationality.
A transatlantic rapprochement between the American mainstream and the
English School has recently been getting clearer, especially when the latter aspires
to become a grand IR theory via the research agenda of international norms. This
agenda used to be the distinctive feature of the English School differentiating it
from the American mainstream. It is no longer so. The bridge for this synthesis is
Wendtian constructivism and the establishment of international norm research as
a mainstream project. Buzan (2001, 484) argues that the English School should
“make more substantial inroads into the US IR community” especially in terms of
the centrality of norms, rules, and institutions to both approaches. A grand theory
on international norms is already in sight, with the familiar structure of interna-
tional norms that shape and reshape identities, interests, and, therefore, behavior
of the units. I tend to call this “normative rationalism,” stressing that international
norms select through rational individuals. The transatlantic rapprochement is in
sight mainly because of the shared metaphysical component: individualistic ratio-
nality. It is a deeply embedded worldview. Whether instrumental or normative,
they have a common denominator, which is primarily from the historical and cul-
tural sediments of the West in general.
Relationality and a Relational Theory
If rationality nurtures the metaphysical component of mainstream Western IRT,
then relationality may well be its counterpart in Confucian cultural communities.
It is a characteristic element of the background knowledge that has been formed
in practice and history in Confucian societies. I utilize it to constitute the meta-
physical nucleus for a relational theory of world politics because it represents a
worldview, a way of thinking and doing, and a perspective that differ from IR the-
ories with individual rationality as their theoretical core. This section outlines a re-
lational theory of world politics centered on the concept of relationality by
delineating its underlying assumptions, describing the logic of relationality, and
discussing its epistemological foundation.
Underlying Assumptions
The relational theory rests on three important assumptions. First, the IR world is
a universe of interrelatedness. It looks different from the world in mainstream
IRT; for at the metaphysical level, the world is conceived as being composed of
continuous events and ongoing relations rather than substantial objects and dis-
crete entities. The fluid and moving relations provide the dynamics of this cos-
mos, therefore, there is no need for exterior forces to empower it. Fei, a late
Chinese sociologist, holds that the Chinese view a social world as ripples in a lake,
interconnected with one another and forming concentric circles. It is composed
of overlapping relational circles of people linked together through differentially
categorized social relationships. He argues that this view is in contrast to the
Western one that the social world looks like bundles of rice stalks in the fields,
standing on their own and independent of one another (Fei 2005, 29–40). For
the Chinese, “[T]he world is complicated, events are interrelated, and objects
(and people) were connected not as pieces of pie, but as ropes in a net” (Nisbett
2003, 19). It is a world defined by the fundamental relatedness of all to all. A vivid
picture of such a world is perhaps represented by the map of the human body in
traditional Chinese medicine indicating the main and collateral channels: a web
of interrelatedness.
Actors are related to each other and also to the context, or the totality of their
relational circles. It indicates a context-oriented society: Things, persons, and
events coexist in the complex relational context, without which none of them
would exist at all. There is no such a thing as a transcendental being or principle
that is above this interrelated whole and decides for actors entangled in the rela-
tional context therein. Accordingly, there is no such a thing as an absolute ratio-
nal mind that transcends the human relational complexity. This is a Confucian
cosmos, which Hall and Ames (1987, 12–17) defined as an immanent cosmos—
everything is in everything else and all are related to one another as well as to the
context. Ontological substantialism provides a deeply embedded worldview that
has biased Western IRT toward an IR universe composed of discrete and self-sub-
sistent actors. From a relational perspective, however, the world represents itself
always as a complexly related whole.
Second, actors are and can only be “actors-in-relations.” It means that identities
and roles of social actors are shaped by social relations. No absolute, independent
identity of the self exists: It is constructed and reconstructed in relations with
others and with the relational totality as a whole. An analogy is weiqi or go, the
chess game that originated in China. The whole chessboard, once it has pieces on
it, looks like the Confucian cosmos, for every piece is related to other pieces and
together they constitute the weiqi universe. For any single piece, there are no pre-
fixed properties and constitutive attributes. All pieces are alike. It is unlike the
Western chess, for which every piece has a pre-determined identity, a king, a
bishop, or a pawn. But once a piece is placed on the weiqi chessboard, it gains
meaning and performs functions through its relations to other pieces. It is the
same with the Chinese language. Chinese characters have no pre-fixed parts of
speech and gain such roles only after they are put in a linguistic context. The
same character can be a noun, a verb, or an adjective, and may function as sub-
jects, predicates, or objects, all depending on how it is related to other characters
in a sentence.
For a Chinese, therefore, “[T]here is no me in isolation, to be considered ab-
stractly: I am the totality of roles I live in relation to specific others ...Taken col-
lectively, they weave, for each of us, a unique pattern of personal identity, ...
(Nisbett 2003, 5). It is actor’s relationships with members of her family and social
group that shape her identities and roles accordingly. Multiple identities are nor-
mal because she is embedded in overlapping relational circles of various types
and with different natures. Whether her action is rational or appropriate depends
on the nature of her relations to others. The US nuclear policy toward Britain dif-
fers fundamentally from that toward North Korea, as Wendt’s classical example in-
dicates, because the special relationship defines the identity of the United States
as an ally to the former and an enemy to the latter.
The “actors-in-relations” concept means that for social studies, the primary unit
of analysis should be relations rather than actors per se. An actor, at the moment
of her existence, is simultaneously relational and the actor’s meaningful action
can only occur in the relational web. Thus, as King cited Liang, a leading
Confucian scholar, “[T]he focus is not fixed on any particular individual, but on
the particular nature of relations between individuals who interact with each
other. The focus is on relationship” (King 1985, 16; Liang 1949/2011). States are
36 A Relational Theory of World Politics
such actors, therefore, analysis of world politics should start from a study of rela-
tions rather than taking nation-states as independent entities interacting in an
egoistically rational way. Mainstream Western IRT has to date focused mainly on
the individual actor, and in its repertoire, there is no such choice by which “rela-
tions among actors” or “relations between actors and their context” can be a
meaningful unit of analysis to start from. Because of this bias, a major problem of
IR as a discipline is that it has little well-developed theory of relations and has not
seriously theorized on relations, even though the discipline is so-called.
Third, “process,” a key concept in the relational theory, is defined in terms of
relations in motion. It resembles Emirbayer’s understanding of processes
(Emirbayer 1997, 289, see also Jackson and Nexon 1999) when he argues that the
transactional or relational approach “sees relations between terms of units as pre-
eminently dynamic in nature, as unfolding, ongoing processes rather than static
ties among inert substances.” Processes are ontologically significant, gaining dy-
namics from the ever-unfolding and ramifying relations, for an actor-in-relations
cannot “be an enclosed world of private thoughts and feelings. [It] needs to reach
out, to be in touch with other selves and to communicate through an ever-ex-
panding network of human-relatedness” (Tu 1981, 114, cited in Gold et al. 2002,
10). An actor-in-relations is thus by definition an actor in processes, which may
produce and reproduce her identities and define and redefine her roles. It is not
a mere empty milieu for a structure to form or for actors to achieve intended re-
sults. It is of itself, by itself, and for itself, playing a crucial role in IR as well as in
social life. An actor may start a process and design for such a process to achieve a
certain result, but the process, once started, gains its own life through the unfold-
ing and dynamic relations among actors. Quite often, a process leads to a modi-
fied or even completely different result from what one has planned. Globalization
is perhaps a most recent example.
Moreover, a process is an open becoming, contrasting with “being” or “entity.”
An entity is a static being with fixed properties while a process, with ever changing
relations, is an ongoing becoming with unlimited possibilities. International soci-
ety is a process rather than an entity and a becoming rather than a being, for it is
open by definition and becoming in nature. Global governance is also a process
in which rules and norms are created to govern and manage ongoing relations.
Similarly, cooperation is a process, a process of co-changing and co-evolution
through maintaining, managing, and harmonizing relations among actors. From
a relational perspective, to maintain a process of cooperation is often more im-
portant than to achieve immediate and tangible results. A revealing example is
the “comfort-level” norm among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
in regional cooperation, which keeps the process from breaking up even at the
moment when serious differences occur.
Logic of Relationality
Relationality is a key concept abstracted from the interrelated world. It means
that a social actor bases her action on relations. In other words, the logic of rela-
tionality is that an actor tends to make decisions according to the degrees of inti-
macy and/or importance of her relationships to specific others, with the totality
of her relational circles as the background. As the ripple analogy indicates, the ac-
tor is at the center of concentric and overlapping relational circles, each ripple
signifying a degree of intimacy and no clear boundaries existing between the rip-
ples. Berenskoetter (2007) argues correctly that intimate relationship, such as
friendship, is a much neglected concept and should be inserted into the reading
of IR. Psychologists have identified three types of relationships to indicate the de-
grees of closeness: the expressive tie, indicating relations among family members;
the instrumental tie, referring to relations usually among strangers; and the
mixed tie, combining the previous two and occurring mainly among nonstrangers
(Hwang 1987; see also Zhai 2005). In IR, for the self, there can be friends, rivals,
and enemies, indicating the degrees of intimacy of their respective relationships
to the self, and each of the categories can be further divided into subcategories
such as allies, close friends, and average friends within the category of friends. An
actor tends to take different actions for different relationships. She treats her
friend differently from the way she may do a stranger, and similarly, a country
provides special policy toward its allies, which it would not offer to other
The relational totality constitutes a social context, which shapes and is shaped
by, enables and is enabled by, and constrains and is constrained by actors therein.
The logic of relationality has, therefore, two directions. First, relations select. It is
the relational circles in which an actor is embedded that enable and constrain
her behavior. An actor-in-relations takes action with the relational context as the
background in the first place. In this sense, the logic of relationality has priority
over both the logic of instrumental rationality (consequences) and the logic of
normative rationality (appropriateness). For an actor to take a rational action, she
needs to consider the relational context wherein the action is going to take place.
Without this context, she simply does not know whether the action is rational or
not. The United States would be irrational if it would require its allies to destroy
their nuclear weapons as it has required of its enemy. Again, without the rela-
tional context, the actor does not know what, which, and whose norm should be
followed. In Confucianism, for instance, the father–son relationship determines
that the norm to be followed by the son is filial piety and the friend–friend rela-
tionship stipulates that the norm to be followed by friends is sincerity. Keene’s
study (2007) of the British treaty making against the slave trade in the early nine-
teenth century also points to the fact that the British followed different norms
when signing treaties with actors Britain had different relationships with.
Reciprocity was followed in signing treaties with countries within the “family of
civilized nations,” and little reciprocity was considered in dealing with “barbarous
peoples” who were outsiders. There are no norms for discrete actors. It is the so-
cial relationships that define what is rational and appropriate. Thus, the logic of
relationality precludes abstract individual rationality and self-sustained agency,
which assumes the ability of the discrete individual to make decisions on the basis
of self-interest. In an interrelated world, the totality of relations is very much like
an intangible hand that orients an actor toward a certain action.
Second, actors-in-relations actively make use of the relational circles for instru-
mental purposes. “The Chinese tend to see the manipulation of human relation-
ships as the natural and normal approach for accomplishing most things in life,”
for they see “society as a web of human relations and associations” (Pye 1968,
173–74, cited in Gold et al. 2002, 11). Practices of relationality seek tangible and
material gains through the relational circles by asking for favors. Actors act to
achieve self-interest, utilizing relational circles to facilitate the achievements of in-
strumental objectives. China decided to improve its relations with the United
States in the early 1970s because of its position in the relational matrices where
the Soviet Union was a key player, and so did the United States. This showed a
strong instrumental consideration by China for national security and by the
United States for rivalry against the Soviet Union. Intangible and nonmaterial
gains are also an important aspect of the instrumental dimension of relationality.
An actor may not seek immediate payoffs in maintaining and manipulating rela-
tions with others. Instead, she thinks about returns in longer terms and even
merely does it for such social capital as reputation and prestige.
In addition, actors in relations may utilize relations for achieving and maintain-
ing social order. For a member of a cultural community who sees the world as
composed of complex and ongoing relations rather than individual entities, what
38 A Relational Theory of World Politics
is important is not the individual agency that enables and controls her indepen-
dent ego, but the collective agency whose members live in harmony. A relational
perspective, therefore, holds that harmony is the ultimate and ideal order of soci-
ety. A world of interrelatedness is by definition composed of complex relations
among individuals who differ in many respects. Harmony does not mean to con-
verge all members of a society into a homogeneous one, but to manage relations
among these members in such a way that their differences will not lead to conflict
and disorder, but on the contrary, can add up to stability. Like in music, different
notes are composed into beautiful melodies, and like in cooking, different ingre-
dients and flavors are combined to make delicious food. In this way, politics is
more about the management of relations so that harmony in diversity can be cre-
ated and sustained.
Zhongyong Dialectics: The Epistemological Foundation
If we conceive the IR world as composed of dynamic relations, then how do we
understand the multiple relations that connect international actors? Or, in a
Confucian cosmos of relations, what is considered the simplest nature of such re-
lations? Without answering this question, all complex and fluid relations and all
the overlapping relational circles would appear a complete mess. To provide an
answer, we need to discuss two concepts at the epistemological level: the meta-re-
lationship and the zhongyong dialectics (Qin 2010). The former is the simplest
form representing all relationships and the latter is the way to understand and in-
terpret the nature of this meta-relationship.
Chinese philosophy holds that the most significant relationship, or the relation-
ship of relationships, is that of yin and yang, the meta-relationship. It is the
prototype.Yin and yang are the two halves that constitute an organic whole and
the diagram indicating their relationship is called the cosmological diagram, for
it demonstrates the basic conceptualization of the universe by the Chinese. Any
other relationship can be seen as being derived from this meta-relationship. A
possible pair, such as male and female, strength and weakness, nature and cul-
ture, continuity and change, or East and West, consists of such parts in a whole.
Like their Western counterparts, the Chinese conceptualize the universe in a po-
lar way, believing that progress and evolution take place by interaction of the two
opposite poles. However, as for the nature of this meta-relationship, Chinese and
Westerners part company. Western philosophical traditions see them as indepen-
dent categories structured in a dichotomous way, using “thesis” and “antithesis” to
signify them and following the Kant-Hegel construct of the conflictual self-other bi-
nary in which the other is the negative and hostile stereotype (Lebow 2008; Brincat
and Ling 2014). Rudyard Kipling, an English writer who lived long in India, once
said, “East is the east, and West is west, and never the twain shall meet,” reflecting a
deeply embedded dualistic way of thinking. On the contrary, the Confucian tradi-
tion understands them in an immanent way. They interact not as the thesis and an-
tithesis, but as co-theses. The polar opposites represented by yin and yang are not
two discrete entities standing as the independent self and other and interacting
with anterior properties. Rather they are two correlated parts of an organic whole
in the first place, or, in Ling’s terms (Ling 2013), the self-in-other and the other-in-
self. Neither is independent of the other, and both depend upon each other for
life and for adequate articulation (Hall and Ames 1987, 17). It denies Western du-
alism that separates the two poles and establishes a worldview grounded on the con-
cept of correlativity for any pair of opposites. Inference about the nature of other
relationships starts from this basic understanding of the meta-relationship.
The appropriate way to understand the nature of this correlated yin–yang rela-
tionship is the Chinese dialectics, zhongyong, which constitutes the primary episte-
mological schema for the Chinese to understand the relational universe in
general through its interpretation of the yin–yang relationship. Briefly, the zhon-
gyong dialectics has three important elements: inclusivity, complementarity, and
The zhongyong dialectics takes inclusivity as the key to understanding the yin–
yang relationship. It assumes that each of a pair is inclusive of the other, despite
and because of the fact that they are different. It goes against the noncontradic-
tion theorem, which stipulates that A can never become non-A, and vice versa, be-
cause their essential properties remain the same during the course of interaction.
The fundamental assumption of the noncontradiction theorem typifies the
“ether-or” logic, either an A or a non-A. The zhongyong dialectics, on the other
hand, present a “both-and” logic and provide a radically different approach: A
and non-A are immanently inclusive of each other. Good luck, for example, may
contain misfortune, and strength is at the same time weakness. Diametrically op-
posed to Huntington’s “unassimilatable” civilizational other (Huntington 1996),
it holds that any two interacting cultures and civilizations are taken as mutually in-
clusive, each containing elements of the other though they differ or even though
they seem as opposite to each other in their attributes. Inclusive regionalism, as
proposed by ASEAN, is perhaps a contemporary case in point.
It is this immanent inclusivity that offers a different understanding of change:
It takes place through inclusive intersubjectivity. Take identity change as an exam-
ple. It is not the interaction discussed by mainstream constructivists, which re-
quires the two poles with anterior properties and focuses on the change of their
variable attributes through interaction (Emirbayer 1997, 285–86). It is at most
change at the superficial level, by which changes are some of their variable attrib-
utes rather than the entities themselves whose constitutive properties and requi-
site attributes remain unchanged (Jackson and Nexon 1999, 293). By the
zhongyong dialectics, the interactive relationship between the two poles, yin and
yang, is genuinely immanent, because they are changing in an ever becoming pro-
cess. In other words, A is becoming non-A, and vice versa. “Yin is always ‘becom-
ing yang’ and yang is always ‘becoming yin,’ as the natural world day is always
becoming night ...” (Hall and Ames 1987, 17). Similarly, East and West are mutu-
ally becoming, and there are no fixed and eternal identities that are not trans-
formable in the becoming process. This process of becoming is, therefore, more
important than any being with distinct properties of its own because it explains
the dynamics of continuity and change, of continuity through change and change
through continuity. Life itself is such an endless process of becoming with the
constant co-creation and co-evolution of yin and yang. It denies the dichotomously
structured concept of “thesis vs. anti-thesis” or “us vs. them.”
The zhongyong dialectics also see the interaction between the two as a process of
mutual complementation rather than elimination. In other words, the zhongyong
dialectics assume the relationship between the two poles is nonconflictual and
complementary in nature. Again, it constitutes a sharp contrast here with the
Hegelian dialectics, which see conflict as a necessary condition for progress and
evolution and a normal way for the formation of a new synthesis (Cheng 1991,
184–86). Othering in a negative way is a must for establishing the “self” identity.
Humans and nature, for example, are conceived as conflictual opposites, with
one conquering the other as the sign of human progress. Socioeconomic classes
are structured as two opposite poles and struggle against each other in a zero-sum
game until one eliminates the other to usher in a new synthesis in the form of a
new society. The assumption of essential conflict is also embedded in mainstream
IRT: Conflict of interests is unavoidable among nations, clash of values is inevita-
ble among civilizations, and divergence of norms leads to differentiated regional
international societies, standing independent of one another. In the final analysis,
the identity of the self is constructed by and through a negative and antagonist
40 A Relational Theory of World Politics
The zhongyong dialectics, on the contrary, see the opposites constitute life for
each other and tend to co-evolve into a new, harmonious synthesis, a new form of
life containing elements of both the poles and unable to be reduced to either,
just as a happy couple give birth to a new baby. It does not presume the nonexis-
tence of conflict, but denies the notion that conflict is normal in human life, ar-
guing instead that conflict is a necessary deviation from the state of nature.
Differences of the two opposites may produce conflict, but differences first of all
are preconditions for harmony, which, originally as a musical term, means an ap-
propriate combination of different musical notes so that a beautiful melody is
made. Differences, being related in a cordial way, make beauty and harmony, and
the key is how they are related. Co-evolution develops without mutual negation
and elimination between the opposites. The zhongyong dialectics are epistemologi-
cally significant, for it is a worldview different from the Hegelian binary and pro-
vides an alternative to understanding relations in a plural and pluralistic world.
Since it believes in the nonconflictual nature of the meta-relationship, harmony
is then the state of nature and the universal principle of order. Its significance is
contained in the concept of zhonghe, or “centrality and harmony,” as a correlated
pair representing the foundation and the path of the human world. The key con-
cepts included in the zhongyong dialectics are zhong (centrality) and he (harmony)
which, put together, mean “the practical application of the principle of central
harmony” (Tu 2008, 16). As the first chapter of the classic book of Zhongyong (The
Doctrine of the Mean) reads,
Before the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy are aroused, it is called cen-
trality. When the feelings are aroused and each and all attain due measure and de-
gree, it is called harmony. Centrality is the great foundation of the world, and har-
mony is its universal path. To cultivate centrality and harmony with thoroughness is
the way to bring heaven and earth to their proper place and all things their proper
nourishment (Cited in Tu 2008, 2).
It is a world that differs from the hard realists’ interpretation of the Hobbesian
jungle, where everyone fights again everyone else for survival. It is a world where
differences make harmony. The zhongyong dialectics see two opposites interacting
in an immanently inclusive way, depending and complementing each other for
full expression and for life, and co-evolving into a new synthesis through dynamic
processes which keep on maintaining, adjusting, and managing complex and
fluid human relations so as to reach the ideal state of harmony. It is for this rea-
son that the zhongyong dialectics is also called the harmonizing dialectics (Cheng
1991, 182–84).
Research Orientations
Since the relational theory depicts a different IR world, a world composed not of
self-subsistent and pre-constituted actors, but of interwoven and dynamic rela-
tions, it provides new possibilities for research, for revisiting key IR concepts, and
for a broader comparison of international systems.
Relational Power
Power is the most important IR concept. A relational theory, while recognizing
the importance of both hard and soft power, provides another understanding,
that is, “relational power.” It means that power comes from relations, or simply,
relations are power. Western IRT usually takes power as being possessed by the ac-
tor. For hard power believers, it is the material capabilities enabling an actor to
make others do what they otherwise would not do. For soft power theorists, it is
“the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or
payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals,
and policies” (Nye 2004, 10). They are possessed by the actor and utilized to exert
influence on others.
Relational power is similar to both hard and soft power in that it is the ability to
change the attitude, motivation, or behavior of others and thus make them con-
form to one’s will during the process of social interaction (Hwang 1987, 947).
However, it differs from those types of power because it is not a possession of a
particular actor. Rather, it is a process of constantly manipulating and managing
one’s relational circles to one’s advantage. An actor is more powerful because she
has larger relational circles, more intimate and important others in these circles,
and more social prestige because of these circles. It is not the relational circles
themselves but the manipulation of such circles that makes her more able to in-
fluence others. It is reflected in Chinese society particularly by the term of mianzi
(face or reputation), which itself is called “the power game” (Hwang 2004).
Looking into international society from a relational perspective, therefore, power
can be derived from a nation’s relational circles: The size of the circles and the
importance of actors inside are all related to the mainzi or prestige of the nation.
An international actor, for example, has mianzi and is powerful if her initiative is
well received by others. Otherwise, she loses face and is not considered influen-
tial. Since power is so important and since relations are power, it is natural for an
international actor to seek, maintain, and expand her relational circles to increase
her power.
It is noteworthy that relational power, though not exclusive of material capabili-
ties, places more emphasis on nonmaterial and intangible elements. Actors may
utilize the relational matrices to increase their social capital such as face and pres-
tige, which may not involve tangible gains, or may even entail immediate losses,
but is itself an important element of power. Lin (2001) argued, for example, that
in a dyadic interaction, the favor giver does not expect a symmetrical or reciprocal
transaction in terms of material payoffs; rather she seeks social capital such as
face/reputation or merely desires reinforcement of the ties over long terms. For
any relationship, if the giver refuses to provide the favor, it may mean a worsening
of the relationship and make the party that is declined to lose face. Furthermore,
the giver and taker tend to reverse their roles in an iterative power game. In the
1960s, China provided material aid to some African countries despite the fact that
China itself was poor and backward. Clearly, China expected no symmetrical ma-
terial returns, but wanted to gain the reputation as a friend in need through its
solidarity with third world countries. In fact, China’s success in regaining its UN
membership in the 1970s materialized largely because of the support by develop-
ing African countries.
Relational Governance
Relational governance is both an alternative and a complementary governing
model to rule-based governance. Western IRT has so far focused mainly on the
latter. The theoretical basis was laid in the American IR community by regime the-
ory and neo-liberal institutionalism in the 1980s, followed by the studies of inter-
national norms to the present. The tradition, however, can be traced to the
background knowledge based upon Western governing practice over centuries. It
is true that there is no governance without rules, but rule-based governance is nei-
ther the universal nor the only model. Even in Western societies, rules are not
omnipresent and omnipotent.
The limitations of a rule-based model of governance lie in three respects (Qin
2011). First, it has a strong individualistic orientation. The governed are individ-
ual actors and rules are designed to regulate their behavior. Second, it has an ob-
vious rationalistic inclination. Actors are rational, either instrumental or
42 A Relational Theory of World Politics
normative. Rules are designed to exploit the rationality of the actor, thus being
able to provide explicit guidance and orient actors toward certain predictable be-
havior. In other words, rules work if and only if actors are rational. Third, rule-
based governance contains a nontrust presumption. Rules are made to overcome
the egoist human nature and enable the calculating actor to best realize her self-
interests through working for the common. The logic is clear: Because actors are
egoists and, therefore, are not trustworthy, they make and trust rules instead of
trusting one another.
Relational governance, on the other hand, is a process of negotiating sociopo-
litical arrangements that manage complex relationships in a community to pro-
duce order so that members behave in a reciprocal and cooperative manner with
mutual trust evolved over a shared understanding of social norms and human mo-
rality (Qin 2011, 133). It focuses on the governing of relations among actors
rather than of actors per se, for it assumes that the social world is one of relations
and a good and sustainable order thus depends upon the harmonization of rela-
tions among actors who are different and have different interests. To govern is to
govern relations. Also, it places emphasis on processes, taking governance as a
process of making arrangements through communications. Governance, as a pro-
cess, is full of uncertainties and changes, necessitating continuous negotiating
among actors and indicating the need for consultation, coordination, and adjust-
ment. In a transnational issue area, for example, governance requires responsibil-
ity on the part of all participants, but must go through negotiations to decide who
should do what and how much. Furthermore, trust is the key word. Relational gov-
ernance needs trust as a supporting pillar and only cooperation based upon trust
is sustainable. An ideal Confucian society is a fiduciary society, which is not an ad-
versary system consisting of pressure groups, but a fiduciary community based on
mutual trust (Tu 2008, 56).
Relational governance is not meant to replace rule-based governance. It repre-
sents another model that existed in history and continues to exist in contempo-
rary IR as well as in other fields. East Asian regionalism contains practices
based upon relations and the ASEAN way also reflects elements of relational
governance. It is complementary to the rule-based model of governance. How we
synthesize the two models to make regional and global governance more legiti-
mate, effective, and human is perhaps another important direction for IR
Relational International Systems
Different international systems have existed in world history and the Westphalian
system is only one of them. Mainstream Western IR is used to taking the
Westphalian international system as the empirical reference and theoretical foun-
dation. It is so accustomed to this practice that the Westphalian system has be-
come the international system. As Ringmar (2012, 1) commented, “Although
there have been many international systems throughout history, it is the contem-
porary Westphalian system that repeatedly is investigated ... As a result, when
comparisons occasionally are made, the Westphalian system is more often than
not taken as the standard by which other international systems are measured.”
With this dominant presupposition, they observe, interpret, and conceptualize.
Correspondingly, the atomistic understanding of the Westphalian system has
been used as the standard for generalization in world politics. Gilpin discusses the
nature and change of the international system, focusing on the individual unit in-
side. As he argues, “In speaking of the character of the system, we refer primarily
to the nature of the principal actors or diverse entities composing the system. The
character of the international system is identified by its most prominent entities:
empires, nation-states, or multinational corporations” (Gilpin 1981, 41). Systems
change only if the nature of the principal actors changes. In other words, interna-
tional systems differ because their constituent units differ in nature. It is logical if
the world of IR is conceived as one of self-subsistent individual actors.
While mainstream IRT conceives the international system as an atomistic one,
the relational approach sees it as a relational system, a system of complex relations
rather than individual actors. International systems differ not because their con-
stituent units differ, but because they have different types of relationships among
actors. Comparative studies of international systems have explored the interna-
tional systems that existed in history and found that there have been both hierar-
chical and anarchical ones. Ringmar (2012, 7) argues that the Westphalian system
is an anarchy, the Sino-centric system a hierarchy, and the Tokugawa system is
something in between: politically anarchical and socially hierarchical. The terms
of anarchy and hierarchy cannot refer to the nature of the individual actor.
Rather, they denote relationships among the actors. In other words, an interna-
tional system itself is defined by relations. The relationship of equality among sov-
ereign states defines the Westphalian system, while the relationship among
unequal, nonfully sovereign actors characterizes the Tribute and the Tokugawa
systems. It is the nature of the predominant relationship rather than the predomi-
nant actors per se that define the system.
A reconceptualization of international systems is necessitated by comparative
studies of different systems. It may provide alternative understandings of the sig-
nificant concepts in Western IRT that would otherwise be too familiar to be ques-
tioned. It also may produce new concepts that are out of the background
repertoire of the Western thinking and thus enrich the Global IR project. For in-
stance, balance of power, a strategy as well as a theory so prominent in Western
IR, did not work both in ancient China and in the East Asian Tribute system,
which seemed to be out of the menu for choice on the part of the actors there
(Hui 2005; Kang 2007). Balance of relations, which “aims to create stable and con-
structive relationships between and among states” (Huang and Shih 2014, 18),
seems more relevant in a relational international system.
The proposed relational theory of world politics rests upon the culturally oriented
view that the world is a universe of interrelatedness. It holds that actors are actors-
in-relations, that relations constitute the most significant component in the social
world, and that the logic of relationality provides explanation to much of socially
meaningful action. It offers alternative understandings of such key IR concepts as
power, governance, and international systems. It also shows that culture matters
in social theory construction by shaping the metaphysical component of the theo-
retical hard core. Mainstream IRT centers on, more or less, the concept of indi-
vidual rationality, a crystal of the cultural sediments especially since the
Enlightenment; while the relational theory is cultivated and sustained by relation-
ality, a key concept embedded in the background knowledge of the culture and
practice of Confucian communities.
Relationality is a neutral concept. Like its counterpart of rationality that has
both positive and negative connotations, it can be something that “adds an ele-
ment of humanity to the otherwise cold transactions, and comes to the rescue in
the absence of consistent regulations or guideline for social conduct” (Gold et al.
2002, 3); it can also be something that leads to abuse of relational power, reduc-
ing the effectiveness of the rule of law and increasing corruption. Anyway, rela-
tionality, like rationality, reflects an important way of thinking and doing and is
observable everywhere in human life. It does not deny rationality, but argues for
rationality conditioned by relationality. Moreover, a balanced and mutual inclu-
siveness of rationality and relationality may well produce a healthy synthesis for
44 A Relational Theory of World Politics
both theoretical and practical purposes. In IR, for example, a synthetic approach
that combines rule-based and relational governance will perhaps prove more prac-
tical and effective.
It is true that relationality is most conspicuous in Confucian cultural communi-
ties. It is not, however, confined to such settings. In this respect, it is also the
counterpart of rationality, which is most explicit in Western culture but gains
wide application beyond the West. Complex relational totality, for example, has
obviously constrained the behavior of both China and the United States. Because
of the complex relations entangling the two countries across various fields and
ramifying into their respective overlapping and interpenetrating relational circles,
maintenance of a relatively stable overall relationship has become the bottom line
for policy makers in both countries so far. Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of
State, definitely envisages at least two relational circles when she explains “the art
of smart power”: historical US allies and emerging powers, affirming that histori-
cal allies in Europe and East Asia remain the bedrock of US global leadership.
“The UK and other allies are our partners of first resort, working side by side on
everything ... .” (Clinton 2012). Nye, in discussing US–China relations, argues
that the United States “is better placed to benefit from such networks and alli-
ances; China has few. The Economist estimates that of the 150 largest countries in
the world, nearly 100 lean toward the United States; 21 lean against” (Nye 2015,
17). Lesser states may smartly manipulate relations between major countries to
their own advantage, as illustrated by the China–Japan competition to win the fa-
vor of ASEAN nations in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Another ex-
ample is global governance. The post-Cold War years have seen little progress in
efforts to solve global issues. One of the important reasons is that the overall rela-
tions among major international players have not been appropriately managed
and geared toward genuine partnership. Rather alienation is getting increasingly
apparent. The world is moving toward a multiplex and multinodal global village
(Womack 2014), where relatedness is both unavoidable and enduring, and where
maintenance and management of relations among international villagers are of
ultimate importance for a stable world.
To relate is human. In IR actors are relators, tending to think from and about
relations in their decision-making processes and to consider the totality of their
relational circles as the backdrop for action. The relational theory, therefore, has
potential for application beyond Confucian communities, although it will bear its
cultural birthmark throughout. It emphasizes the significance of culture in social
theory construction, but eschews exceptionalism that tends to “present the char-
acteristics of one’s own group (society, state, or civilization) as homogeneous,
unique, and superior to those of others” (Acharya 2014, 651). It aims to contrib-
ute a genuinely Global IR project by providing thoughts and concepts not quite
in the menu of Western thinkers, adheres to the zhongyong dialectics that deny the
“either-or” dualistic language, and advocate immanently inclusiveness as the way
to progress, co-evolution, and sustainable order.
I am grateful to Amitav Acharya, Barry Buzan, and Brantly Womack, as well as
to the three anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments.
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... In IR, we still need a relational approach that would go beyond the "'humanist limit" to how relations are thought about and what relations "matter'" ( Kurki 2020 , 115). That being said, it is noticeable, first, that there are approaches that explicitly emphasize relationalist ontoepistemology based largely on Dewey and Bentley's work (1949) (e.g., Jackson and Nexon 1999 ;Qin 2016 ) or more general reflections on its potential compared to other approaches in IR ( Jackson and Nexon 2019 ), and more recent approaches that are particularly concerned with more relational knowledge production practices ( Escobar 2020 ;Tickner and Querejazu 2021 ;Trownsell et al. 2021 ). We propose to expand this list with our approach: a critical relationalism that combines deep relationalist approaches with post/decolonial feminism that is particularly interested in focusing on relations that, if not centered, reproduce power inequalities in our world. ...
What relations matter? This question sits at the heart of this article and addresses in a more thoroughgoing way the methodological and ethico-political problems that some relational thinkers have debated. We are interested in deep relationalism and the methodological problem of delineating which relations matter in a reality defined by an ever-unfolding web of relations. By acknowledging the relationality of critical international relations (IR) theories, this methodological puzzle is explored by recognizing the situatedness of relations that are being analyzed. Moreover, this helps us to start a conversation on the ethical and political dimensions of deeply relational approaches. By placing the ontological work of deep relationalism in dialogue with the epistemological and ethico-political aspects of critical theory, we are putting forth an account of critical relationalism. Furthermore, we are not only arguing for a critical approach to relationalism but also adding to one of the main methodological debates in relationalism that asks us to carefully consider which relations matter (for our analysis) and how we should access them? Finally, this piece advocates for more plural grounds for relationalism in IR to critically reflect on which relations our theoretical approaches can take us to and why this matters.
Since the 2010s, infrastructure investment has emerged as a critical field for Japan’s foreign policy and international relations. This article examines major characteristics of the development of Japan’s external engagement in infrastructure investment from a socio-cultural perspective. It argues that key political figures played a pivotal role in paving the way for Japan’s policy shift in infrastructure investment based on social relationality to engage in interactions to build trustworthy relationships. The article also contends that the Japanese government adopted confrontational and accommodating policy options towards China, which reflected inclusivity and complementation in the zhongyong dialectics. Moreover, Japan’s policy developments indicate that the logic of relationality, which is sustained by socio-cultural practices in East Asian societies, could explain crucial characteristics of diplomatic policies and relations among East Asian countries.
This book provides a major review of the state of international theory. It is focused around the issue of whether the positivist phase of international theory is now over, or whether the subject remains mainly positivistic. Leading scholars analyse the traditional theoretical approaches in the discipline, then examine the issues and groups which are marginalised by mainstream theory, before turning to four important new developments in international theory (historical sociology, post-structuralism, feminism, and critical theory). The book concludes with five chapters which look at the future of the subject and the practice of international relations. This survey brings together key figures who have made leading contributions to the development of mainstream and alternative theory, and will be a valuable text for both students and scholars of international relations.
War and Change in World Politics introduces the reader to an important new theory of international political change. Arguing that the fundamental nature of international relations has not changed over the millennia, Professor Gilpin uses history, sociology, and economic theory to identify the forces causing change in the world order. The discussion focuses on the differential growth of power in the international system and the result of this unevenness. A shift in the balance of power - economic or military - weakens the foundations of the existing system, because those gaining power see the increasing benefits and the decreasing cost of changing the system. The result, maintains Gilpin, is that actors seek to alter the system through territorial, political, or economic expansion until the marginal costs of continuing change are greater than the marginal benefits. When states develop the power to change the system according to their interests they will strive to do so- either by increasing economic efficiency and maximizing mutual gain, or by redistributing wealth and power in their own favour.
Guanxi, translated as 'social connections,' or 'social networks,' is among the most important studied phenomena in China today. Guanxi lies at the heart of China's social order, its economic structure, and its changing institutional landscape. It is considered important in every realm of life, from politics to business, and officialdom to street life. This 2002 volume offers scholarly thinking on the subject by top China sociologists whose work on guanxi has been influential and by scholars offering insights on the topic. The authors examine the role of guanxi in: business decisions among managers and entrepreneurs; the decisions and practices of workers; the construction of new legal institutions; the new social order. Scholars and students of China will find this a rich source of detailed information on the workings of Chinese social relationships and a valuable, new interpretation of the meaning and place of guanxi today.
Two major features of international relations at the beginning of the 21st century are global governance and the rise of China. Global governance, advocating global norms, requires intervention into sovereign domains in defiance of those norms. However, an ascendant China adheres to a classic stance on sovereign integrity which prohibits such intervention. Whether or not China will ultimately Sinicize global governance or become assimilated into global norms remains both a theoretical and a practical challenge. Both challenges come from China's alternative style of global governance, which embodies the doctrine of 'balance of relationship,' in contrast with the familiar international relations embedded in 'balance of power' or 'balance of interest.' An understanding of China's intervention policy based upon the logic of balance of relationship is therefore the key to tackling the anxiety precipitated by these theoretical as well as practical challenges. © Chiung-Chiu Huang and Chih-yu Shih 2014. All rights reserved.