The Dao of World Politics: Towards a Post-Westphalian Worldist International Relations

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The Dao of World Politics: Towards a Post-Westphalian Worldist International Relations by L. H. M. Ling. Routledge, 2014, 240 pp.

Few other international actors had their standing in global life as profoundly altered since the end of the Cold War as China. At the same time, China’s expanding outreach and diversifying roles have provided a novel context for the ongoing reconsiderations of world politics. In this setting, it has been argued that Beijing’s external relations draw attention both because of the novelty of its agency and due to the specificities of its individual engagements. The established purview is that it is the complex interaction between the very turbulence of the post-1989 period and the ability to maintain consistent levels of economic growth that have allowed China to demonstrate an enhanced confidence and ability to fashion international relations. In fact, a number of commentators have interpreted China’s growing prominence as one of the clearest indications of a global power transition in the thinking and practice of world politics. For at least 200 years, the rivalry over structural power in global politics seems to have been “the great game” of Western actors. Thus, agency (especially, global agency) was not a feature of their international identity. Yet, China’s growing external outreach has challenged this perception and has demonstrated that non-Western actors are just as skilled and willing to engage in the global playground as Western ones.

And it is in this setting that the significance of L. H. M. Ling’s book emerges—her exploration makes available a rarely erudite and perceptive account of the dynamics that have animated the so-called power shift to the East. So far, (and perhaps unsurprisingly), Western publics, pundits, and policymakers have tended to perceive both the growth in “indigenous” Chinese international relations scholarship and the significant expansion of Chinese foreign policy interests and capabilities with a mixture of amusement and consternation. Ling eloquently demonstrates that the discipline is founded on the principle that “only the Westphalian Self can theorize about the Rest, not the other way around” (p. 1). It is in this respect that the “Westphalia world” of Western international relations (IR) theory has perpetrated “profound violence” against its non-Western counterparts, not only by abusing their legacy and refusing to offer them a formal recognition “for their critical role in making world politics,” but also—and “most insidiously”—by denying non-Western ways and forms of knowing “epistemically” (p. 88). Therefore, “the politics behind the knowledge production in IR” makes it impossible for the disciplinary purview to come to (let alone imagine) a different scenario but that “twenty-first-century China poses a threat.” It is for this reason that the mainstream of IR (in particular, its North American offshoot) “has to eye with suspicion, if not outright hostility, China’s recent rise into great power status” (p. 92).

Ling’s investigation outlines a qualitatively new way for the explanation and understanding of world politics—one profoundly informed by the historical contextualization of Chinese practices. She labels this emerging dynamic as worldism. “Worldism theorizes about hybridities. . . . [It] does not mean a more cosmopolitan version of Wesphalianism. . . . Rather, worldism investigates the linkages among and within articulations of difference, and how these co-create an entwined complex of relations, socially and structurally, epistemically and normatively, to amount to what we call world politics” (pp. 23–27).

In this respect, the nascent patterns of global politics present an intriguing intersection of the discursive memory of the past with the contexts of the present and the anticipated tasks of the future. Ling demonstrates that while impacted by current contingencies, the future of China’s involvement in international affairs will be framed by attitudes based on interpretations of the past. Ling’s discerning analysis makes it possible to draw an unusually vivid account of the content, practices, and frameworks of China’s external agency that will be welcome by students, scholars, and policymakers alike. At the same time, her study challenges many of IR’s perceived wisdom. Not surprisingly, therefore, Ling’s book would be invaluable for the purposes of teaching and theorizing the ongoing transformations in global life as a result of China’s increasing centrality in the patterns and practices of world affairs.

Emilian Kavalski

Australian Catholic University (Sydney)

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."