Foreign relations from the egg: Nomads, Empires, States

Published online 20 May 2009.

This diary is a book review of Kees van der Pijl’s (2007) work on “foreign relations,” Nomads, Empires, States.  Van der Pijl argues that the field of “foreign relations” must be rethought, and doing this will allow us to see why relations between nation-states are only one mode of foreign relations, and not necessarily the most important one in this era.  Rethinking foreign relations, then, we should be able to understand why the regime of “global governance” has failed to triumph in a world without endemic warfare between nation-states.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

One recent book release of note in the field of “International Relations” has been Steven R. David’s (2009) Catastrophic Consequences.  Catastrophic Consequences is a book written from the perspective of “American national interest”; in it, David argues that:

Though largely ignored by scholars and policymakers, who remain fixated on the idea of interstate conflict, civil wars and other forms of domestic violence in other countries have emerged as one of the principal perils to American vital interests.  (2)

David’s array of examples bears this out.  Saudi Arabia is said to be “bursting with groups furious with the royal family” (21), thus imperiling oil supplies around the world, Pakistan “verges on collapse, a collapse that would facilitate the transfer or seizure of nuclear weapons to terrorists” (50), Mexico could plunge into “prolonged and widespread disorder” (82), thus impacting the US economy, China is likely to experience “violent instability” (82), thus causing an outcome David does not name precisely.

Now, the term “American vital interests” is of course loaded.  Whose “vital interests” are “American vital interests”?  Do all Americans count as benefiting from the maintenance of “American vital interests,” or just those whom any particular user of the term “American vital interests” happens to favor?  Is it an “American vital interest” to support neoliberal capitalism, if neoliberal capitalism means the perpetuation of economic habits which will lead to climate disasters in the future via abrupt climate change?  Do Palestinian-Americans benefit from US support for Israel?

Of course, the US has been meddling in the internal affairs of other nations for the sake of “American vital interests” at least since William Walker commandeered Nicaragua in 1856.  So David discovers nothing essentially new.  However, the idea that this activity, and not the mere set of formal relations between nation-states, is now the centerpiece of interest in “international relations,” is doubtless news to many of the academic practitioners in the field.  Steven R. David, despite his quotidian biases, is nevertheless one of the more enlightened of this bunch.

The theory for this new era (new, at least, for the academy in the social sciences, which are typically caught “proving” things we already know) can be found in Kees van der Pijl’s (2007) Nomads, Empires, States.  It is this book, and not David’s volume, that is the subject of this review.


Van der Pijl’s antidote to the (Eurocentric) fixation of “international relations” upon nation-states is to suggest four distinct “modes of foreign relations,” corresponding in a sense with Marx’s notion of “relations of production.”  This version of the history of “foreign relations” offers us a prehistory of nation-states, bringing the nation-state into the world of ordinary affairs between people, and approximating an anthropology of ingroup-outgroup relations.  The outlay of these modes, and by consequence of van der Pijl’s book, is on p. 24: the four modes are:

  1. Tribal relations, dating back to pre-agricultural society
  1. Empire/ nomad relations, following the invention of settled agricultural society and agricultural empires: think, for instance, of relations between the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes to its north (not to mention the Berbers to the south), or of relations between the Chinese and the Mongols
  1. relations of “sovereign equality,” which served the nascent capitalist world well — this is the normal subject matter of “international relations”
  1. relations of “global governance,” emerging with globalization. (24)

As van der Pijl recounts the history of each of these modes of foreign relations, we can see that no mode of foreign relations becomes obsolete at any point: rather, in the triumph of “global governance” over state power in the current era, tribal modes of foreign relations re-emerge in proliferation.  Thus the politically-unstable world (as it receives the motivated complaint of the likes of Steven R. David) comes into being.  The new world of “global governance” is an overlay, another way of pushing tribes together without really shifting the patterns of allegiance a whole lot.  The various overlays which constitute the newer modes of foreign relations, from empire to nation-state to global organization, transform the old relations without removing them.

The various modes of foreign relations, then, recur — not because they are “eternal verities,” but rather because the conditions for their recurrence show up time and again.  Modes of foreign relations, then, are rooted in everyday life: “tribes” are something we form from our circles of friends.  Tribal differences, moreover, show up in phenomena such as with race relations in the United States, as van der Pijl points out in detail.  The citizens of “empire” are our domesticated selves, and, as van der Pijl suggests at the end, “the barbarian… is already among us and even inside ourselves” (274).

The bulk of this book is an interesting history of each mode of foreign relations in which van der Pijl explains world history in terms of the development of these modes of foreign relations.  The second chapter is about tribal prehistory and history, the third chapter is about the history of empires (which for the most part extends to the end of the Middle Ages), the fourth chapter is about the “ethnogenesis of the West” through the early modern era, and the last chapter tries to sort out recent history and the world of the present day.

The first discussion, of the genesis of the world’s tribal relations, shows how tribal relations emerged from the pre-industrial stratum of the world of the Ice Ages.  From the genesis of the tribes themselves began the elaboration of sets of rules for interaction between “outsiders,” those belonging to different tribes.

The second discussion relates to empires, typically ruled by warrior aristocracies which seize control of “the world” (rather, the geographical area which each empire was able to occupy in its time and space) in order to protect its agricultural base.  Within an empire, foreign relations still continue between the different tribes under its domain; but then there arises a new form of foreign relations, relations between the empire itself and the nomadic tribes outside its domain.  The nomadic tribes were typically impoverished; but their peoples typically retained a hardy warrior spirit which the domesticated inhabitants of empire usually lacked.

The third discussion relates to the beginning of sovereign nation-states, which came out of the dissolution of what van der Pijl calls the “empire of Western Christianity.”  The “empire of Western Christianity,” the Catholic world of the Middle Ages, was unique because of its religious nature (i.e. the separation of Papal authority from secular kingship), its employment of converted nomads (e.g. the Normans) as frontier warriors, and its creation and employment of migrant populations (e.g. the Crusades).  The “empire of western Christianity” thus combined the most dynamic aspects of both empire and nomad social formations, and was thus a staging point for the “conquest of the oceans” once Europeans discovered the New World.  The collapse of this formation was the point of entry for European global conquest, around which coalesced the European nation-states.

The last discussion in van der Pijl’s book relates to institutions of global governance, and the fact that these institutions relate to a scheme to impose a particular capitalist culture (English-speaking, rooted in Wall Street) upon the world.  In such a world, van der Pijl asserts:

There are real regressive tendencies operative in the current period that make tribal forms more ubiquitous, as the way of life of many hundreds of millions is collapsing back into primitive existence. (199)


OK, so global governance has failed to deliver on its promise.  We can see this in the economic regression of much of Africa, in “failed states,” in the failure of the system to deal with abrupt climate change, in the current economic collapse, in the destabilized regimes cited in David’s book.  What is to be done?  Van der Pijl’s suggested solution combines Marx’s “recommendation” that the working class take control over the means of production (and financial sphere) with three recommendations as regards the tribalized world into which we are now regressing:

  1.  In terms of occupying space, a multiplication of sovereign spheres, from cultural autonomy of communities claiming a separate existence and granted the minority rights of ethnic law, via subregional, state, and supranational democratic institutions to the UN.
  1.  In terms of protection, a multilateral framework for security, based on the established collective security regime of the UN and police action for protection against violence.
  1.  In terms of exchange, the equitable organisation of the world’s productive capacity.  Obviously this can only be meaningful if it coincides with the transformation towards a sustainable, associated mode of production and within the limits of the possible set by the need to preserve the biosphere. (200)

So van der Pijl’s suggestion for a “revolutionary transition” would bring us a world administered by the UN, after which we would have to see “the abrogation of the West’s superior sovereign claim” (201).  This is not a call to “merely bank on a popular insurrection” (204) — rather, van der Pijl wishes to persuade what he calls the “cadre class,” the empowered intelligentsia, that this is the best of possible options.



Back in the 1990s, the capitalist elites dreamed that they had at last, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, achieved the world order they wanted.  Ethnic differences would dissolve in a globalized Disneyland of international culture, economic questions would dissolve in the universal adherence to the rules of “free market capitalism,” and political issues would be tested and succeed (or fail) according to the rules set by representational democracy.  Or so said the likes of Francis Fukuyama.

And the rest of us, hiding from this order in the academies of the world, hoped that some dramatic event would occur on planet Earth which would recover the politicized hope for social renewal.  Remember, this was the era in which the Right took hold of everyday politics through the Contract With America and used it to promote “tribal” concerns (eg Propositions 187 and 227 in California, the Welfare Bill, and so on).  I suppose the “Battle of Seattle” was that event — and van der Pijl writes praisingly of the “summit-hopping anticapitalist nomads” (209) which contested “empire” for a short time thereafter.

And the capitalist dream did not succeed.  Ethnic differences still abound in local warfare; economic questions today are about whether the capitalist system itself can survive the current crisis; and political issues are about how the oligarchies currently in power will do nothing to stop the scary, dystopian future they refuse to prevent.

Our political discourse, however, seems quite doomed.  The anticapitalist nomads disappeared after 9/11/01, and so we’re still left with an “empire without nomads” political formation, in which the objection to Bush did not really contest US empire (see especially the 2004 election) but rather disputed Bush’s way of handling it.  Politics today has been domesticated by elites, amidst a world-situation in which, as van der Pijl says:

What we are experiencing today is an exhaustion of the social and natural substratum on which economic reproduction, under the market discipline imposed by globalized capital accumulation, rests. (198)

In short, doomed.

Van der Pijl’s suggestions, outlined at the end of his book, might be a major alternative to all this.  The author of Nomads, Empires, States does not merely bank upon some idealized revolution which will bring us his idealized picture of the world; rather, the “cadre classes” of the world, the intelligentsia, will visit the world’s frontiers, observe the destruction of what’s meaningful and good in the world, and act appropriately to preserve what’s left.  Recommended.



His University of Sussex profile

Theory Talks interview with van der Pijl

Kees van der Pijl on Google video

an older piece on the European “Left”

His Global Political Economy book (in PDF format)

The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class (in htm.)

my second diary here on DKos

my review of his book on recent history


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