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Speaker Spotlight: Professor Ayse Zarakol

Ayse Zarakol is Professor of International Relations at the University of Cambridge and author of the just published ground-breaking book Before the West: Rise and fall of eastern world orders [5th April, 1-2pm, online]. It is a highly topical exploration of the history of international relations beyond the West and specifically in (Eur)Asia. She will be in conversation about the book in the session Before the West: Rise and fall of eastern world orders with Hans Van de Ven, Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Cambridge. The session will be chaired by Chris Mann from BBC Cambridgeshire, a former Sky News presenter and reporter who was a Moscow correspondent during the Cold War.

Cambridge Festival: What prompted your new book and why now?

AZ: With non-Western powers such China gaining more prominence in recent years, more people want to learn about the history of international relations beyond Europe/the West. But there are not many books that provide an account of Asia/Eurasia as a whole. I wanted to write a book about ‘Eastern’ international relations that did not focus on any one country or region but gave the reader a sense of how this continent has been connected throughout history, with many shared legacies, especially those dating back to the thirteenth centuries when much of Asia was under the control of the same sovereign (the house of Genghis Khan). 

Reconstructing this shared history of Eastern world orders also expands our understanding of the modern international order and brings a new perspective to current debates about international change and decline.

Cambrige Festival: Given current interest in Russia and possible alliances with China, is a greater understanding of Eurasia especially important at this time?

AZ: Yes, definitely. Russia and China have a long shared history. In the thirteenth century both areas came under control of the Chinggisids. When the Mongol Empire broke apart into four khanates, the area that is now Russia was under the control of the Golden Horde (a branch of the Chinggisid family) and remained so until almost the sixteenth century. This period allowed Muscovy to flourish and surpass other Russian cities, and even after Muscovy becomes independent the influences of the Horde period are quite visible. 

Similarly, the area that is now China was under the control of the Yuan dynasty (another branch of the Chinggisid family) until the fourteenth century, but even after the Yuan were replaced by the Ming, we can see the influences of this period on early Ming rulers (and then later in their seventeenth century replacements, the Qing). All of this is to say that whatever we may imagine today about China and Russia being very different countries or civilisations today, there are many historical ties between the two (and even beyond, with the rest of Asia and Eurasia). Neither regime is particularly enthusiastic at the moment about emphasising that shared history, but that could change.

Cambridge Festival: Is the book a reflection of shifting global power and growing confidence?

AZ: In a way, yes. The book reflects the fact that there is more interest in non-Western affairs now, which is a symptom of the fact that the regional powers of Asia are becoming bigger players in international affairs. But I didn’t write it as a triumphalist tract of any sort; in fact in the epilogue I have some self-reflection about what it means to write such a macro-history and the potentially troubling political uses of such macro-histories. 

The point I am trying to make via this account is not a defence of any particular historical empire, but rather for those of us from Asia (very broadly defined, including West Asia [Middle East] and North Asia [Russia]) to remember the ways our histories are intertwined, cutting across national or religious lines.  

Cambridge Festival: What is the main way your book changes how we view international relations?

AZ: International Relations as a discipline has been having a bit of a reckoning in recent years when it comes to Eurocentrism. Some of this is a political debate, but some of it is actually about blindspots of our understanding of the world. The amnesia about Asian/Eurasian history has led many of us to believe that international orders or even empires are European practices. 

My book helps us remember that they are not; some Asian actors also created world orders and empires, they also had universalising visions. I think even that simple reminder is important because it gets us out of the Europeans/Westerners as 'the heroes or villains of every story’ mindset. International politics (good and bad) exists and has existed outside of the West and without Western actors. 

Cambridge Festival: Can you give an example of how our understanding of sovereignty, as well as our theories about the causes of the decline of Great Powers and international orders, might change if we didn't just view world history and international relations from a Western perspective?

AZ: Sovereignty can take many forms. In IR we have focused on one form only: the modern nation-state. But if we want to think about how sovereignty can and will evolve beyond that form in the future, we need to understand the variations among the historical forms of sovereignty. 

In the book I argued that what Genghis Khan practised and diffused across Asia was another type of sovereignty which combined extreme political centralisation with a mode of legitimation via world conquest, and this model of sovereignty really influenced successor states of Genghis Khan’s empire for centuries to come. 

Similarly, if you only study international orders from the seventeenth century onwards, the impression you get is one of Western order building, improving and expanding and there is no reason to consider how international orders fragment or collapse. And this is why IR scholars until recently did not even imagine this possibility. 

But studying Asia and the longue duree of international politics helps us see that orders do not always expand or are not always replaced by similar versions built on similar understandings of sovereignty. My book suggests that order fragmentation happens due to structural pressures beyond our control. If fragmentation lasts for a long period, the next order may not resemble the previous one. 

Cambridge Festival: What can the book bring to our understanding of the Mongol empire and Gengis Khan?

AZ: I am not a historian myself so in the book I relied on the excellent work scholars of the Mongols and Inner Asia have already produced. This is a field that was transformed in recent decades as more primary sources became available. I would just suggest to the general reader to dispel any notions of the barbarian horde that they may have with regards to the Mongols. This is not to downplay the brutality of their conquests, but more to underline the fact that the Mongols were not unsophisticated or simple-minded brutes. Their empire (like all other empires) was brutally created, but also had an impressive governance structure which facilitated a lot of exchange that would not have happened otherwise. It ordered and changed Asia for centuries to come.