»The very fact that you're thinking differently, is already an action«

Martin Wolf (MW): In your breakout group yesterday a discussion on the Westphalian state system arose and it touched on questions about the basic structure of the international system. You have published a thorough criticism of the concept. Why do you oppose it?

L.H.M. Ling (LL): For me the Westphalian interstate system creates a lot of problems. If fixes borders so if there is any trespassing, it creates conflict. In Asia, for example, India and China as civilizations did not have conflicts for 2000 years until India and China became Westphalian states with very clear borders. Since then every trespassing of that border can become a dispute which can turn into a war. And it did turn into a war in 1962, which affects India China relations until now. For me, having fixed borders is a self-defeating strategy. It creates insecurity more than security. We have to reformulate inter-state relations and get away from a Westphalian understanding.

MW: So for you the borders are the problem and not the cultures. For Huntington, to mention that example, the cultures themselves were the problem.

Jonathan Joseph (JJ): It can slip into people thinking this is a Huntington type argument, applied to civilizations. Civilization in IR, from Katzenstein, sets out these different zones and spheres and for the careless reader they can think there are similarities with Huntington. Civilizations themselves have cultural borders as opposed to physical borders.

LL: Well, cultural borders were always porous, they were not fixed. That's the difference with the Westphalian borders. Even in civilizational geographical understandings of borders the borders were mobile. They could change, and it was in fact the local community, in South-East Asia for example, local communities decided where the border should be. If the local lord protected them, they shifted to the local lord. But if another lord could protect them better, the community would shift to the other lord. So the local community decided where the border should be. That is quite different from the situation today where capital elites decide where the border should be.

MW: Are our borders really so much fixed today? I mean, if we look at realities?

JJ: If we take one significant Western border, between the US and Canada, when we had the Avian Flu - hysteria  - the White House was telling Canada, we can close the border (unless you do x, y and z), it was an old fashioned exercise of sovereign power in a way. But for that kind of control of borders to work, in a way, the Westphalian discourse is the most effective means of doing that, isn't it? So if we say the cultural element is different from physical sovereignty, the most effective way the powers have for enforcing borders is to reinforce the discourse. We can close the border because Canada is now a security threat, it's amazing. I never could imagine Canada could be a security threat to the USA . . . The discourse is an interesting thing. We need to differentiate between discourse, culture and narrative. That came out in the discussions yesterday. You started to use the word narrative. Somehow this element of manipulation that narrative entails does help us to see the power politics that is going on, in a way that perhaps discourse doesn't.

LL: Well I was saying that the presenter’s shift from discourse to narrative hides the power behind discourse, because discourse is more formal and institutionally produced, whereas narratives can be anecdotes or personal stories. So to say that a particular discourse is a narrative is to hide all the power forces behind the construction of that discourse.

MW: There was also an issue about the bearing of culture on closed vs. open systems . . .

JJ: People said culture is sustaining polycentricity or the security dynamics. That is always, like 'culture' and 'security' are two separate things. And then let's look at the impact culture has on security. But security should be seen as a cultural thing, shouldn't it? It should be embedded within the culture.

LL: They are mutually interactive. I wouldn't say one is embedded within the other.

JJ: If you don't say that you make security something distinct from culture.

LL: The Westphalian insecurity dilemma is distinct from local cultures.

JJ: Right, so that's a particular reading of security. Security equals Westphalian narratives . . .

LL: Well, we're talking about international politics and that's the security you're talking about. I am not talking about personal security.

JJ: Sure, and that means Westphalian security notions, we're talking about dominant power politics. So it is kind of back to realism in a sense . . .

LL: The interstate system is about realism, it was set up in realist terms.

JJ: But realism can re-invent itself. We can incorporate alternative narratives . . .

LL: Like what?

JJ: Like I said yesterday, because the world is too difficult for us to control, you can throw up a lot of post-structuralist, post-humanist, post-colonial theory to say that because we can never control the world, it's a process in motion with lots of fluidity in it and no clear borders and distinctions anymore, it is up to us to govern ourselves. But that is still a form of security governance, while the state is still effectively devolving powers and responsibilities onto its subjects, it is subject formation, subject creation which happens to reinforce bio-politics in order to reinforce geo-politics.

LL: But I don't see that is anything new.

JJ: No, it's something that has always been going on.

LL: That's how realist security has always worked.

JJ: So realism equals power?

LL: Yes, hegemonic power. They appropriate into fixed frameworks. So that the content changes a little bit but the frame remains the same.

JJ: But we are not against power, we are against that type of power . . .

LL: Well, I am against that kind of power. Realism has only one definition of power.

JJ: Ok, then we now know what realism is. But liberalism could be described as . . .

LL: Liberalism is just the other face of realism. Two sides of the same coin.

JJ:  . . . and the English school, and constructivism and IR . . .

LL: . . . certain kinds of constructivism . . .

JJ: I share your concern that these are not helpful categories but I use them because that's what is out there in the discourse.

MW: If you look at history or the present. Would you have examples for less hierarchical or different concepts of international relations, trade relations, cultural relations or a combination of those?

LL: Lots of stuff actually. ASEAN for example is famous as a regional organization that operates according to ASEAN rules. There are different norms that are [created] within ASEAN about consulting with other member states. They don't operate in a hierarchical manner as states. But I think we need to shift our sights from the state or from the political bureaucracy to other locations where power and politics operate in different ways.

MW: The other model that you refer to and that is widely discussed today is the concept of the Silk Road Initiative. It has an element of post-Westphalian . . .

LL: . . . pre-Westphalian . . .

MW: . . . pre-Westphalian, yes, and meant to be post-Westphalian. We're talking about something that is organized along lines, or corridors, of trade or culture, whatever. Thinking about the concept, historically it is pre-national, but today in your talk you framed it as an early global thing. The concept of the initiative has a global dimension and structure, but how elitist was the historic silk road?

LL: The people who populated the Silk Roads where merchants. If they were elite merchants they would not be on the road. They would be at home, being comfortable. The monks on the Silk Roads, again, were not heads of monasteries. There were also warriors, soldiers, not the generals, scribes, people who carried goods, camel drivers. They were hardly the elites. Because the elites did not travel. Elites were in the oases or the gateway cities. The Silk-Road people were looked down upon actually. At the same time, a lot of medical knowledge was transferred on the Silk Roads. The monasteries were the most advanced clinics of their time. They had surgeries to remove cataracts in the 6th century, for example . . .

MW: . . . which shows that these trade routes were, at least to some extent, early incubators of sophistication and knowledge exchange, between and among cultures. Looking at the present initiative: Do we have an alternative vision or model here of how to construct global relations?

LL: I cannot foretell in which direction this will go. I can only ascertain why I do this work and where I hope to influence people.  My orientation is towards young people. First in the academy, we have to change our way of thinking. I call this the Silk Road Ethos. It offers a different moral imagination of what the world can be – and was for a long time – before we can be very concrete and practical about what kind of institutions we can set up. In the last session, someone summarized that a new moral imagination is not enough. You have to identify who's going to do what. But you can't identify who's going to do what, before you get the moral imagination down! I find that is a tendency of a lot of groups I talk to. They want to know 'What can you do with this?' The very fact that you're thinking differently, is already an action.

JJ: If you're thinking what can I do with it, you're already thinking in the wrong way because you've instrumentalized it rather than using it as a way of changing your way of looking at things. So in that sense you argue for a more contemplative, reflexive and self-aware—world-aware approach.

LL: Yes, self- and world-aware! And: Thought is action. There is this presumption that only policy is action, or strategies.

JJ: But the tragedy in academia, at least in the UK is that everything is now policy oriented and the research activity of our departments is diminished further and the impact agenda is a big thing. We're supposed to have already connections with practitioners, policy-makers . . . Why it is actually self-defeating, if we invite someone to speak . . .  we are inviting you on the basis that we wanna hear your world understanding not because you've got fantastic connections in Sacaramento with the California State Assembly. I don't know to what degree it's going on in the United States but in the UK it's gonna eat itself up and there won't be anything left of academic endeavour. But the less we do of that stuff, the more we destroy ourselves as academics, as distinct people, because we're judging ourselves on the basis of any other profession, you know, as instruments and knowledge producers.

LL: The same thing happens in terms of educating undergraduates. Politicians and legislators constantly emphasize the value especially of a bachelors education is to prepare the student for a job. But the presumption here is so wrong. Because they think the same kind of jobs will be out there when students graduate four years from now. Instead their focus should be on what kind of skills are we teaching students so that they can create their own jobs. And if we're educating students for the jobs of yesterday, we are doing them a disservice. But legislators and politicians feel that it's convenient for them to take this line.

JJ: And the first thing that happens if they do get a job is that the employer has to retrain them because they’ve been taught by a bunch of lousy academics about employability skills, and no academic has got employability skills!

LL: The special nature of the university is to train you how to think and to help you to stretch your imagination. But if the university is not doing that, it's not doing its job.

JJ: But the danger is, if the university says, ok we take them on board and we spend more time training people how to think, but they train them in realism and Westphalian mythology may be then they should just teach them skills for work, I don't know which is more dangerous.


L.H.M. Ling is Professor of International Affairs at the New School, New York.
Jonathan Joseph is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, UK, and alumni Senior Fellow of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research.

More information on the Centre's conference 'Futures of Global Cooperation' here