Concepts exist to organise and explain the world, but they often disintegrate in the face of reality. Take the bombings in Boston: we’ve talked abstractly about “globalisation” for 30 years, but events like this show just how viciously complicated a globalised world can be. Tracing Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s toxic resentments sends us careening from Chechnya’s conflicts with Russia, to the opaque interplay between fundamentalism and a liberal society, and then abruptly off the grid into radicalised digital media. What concept could possibly help us follow this dizzying path? Certainly, ideas like Tom Friedman’s “flat earth” and “super-empowered individual” appear less than satisfying explanations of the world we now inhabit.
David Armitage’s Foundations of Modern International Thought might not seem, at first glance, to have much to say about these problems: it’s an academic book about a developing field and it makes no immediate claims for its own relevance. But Armitage’s approach is both groundbreaking as history and relevant to our collective situation, because what he’s engaged in is the historian’s project at its most ambitious and rewarding. He is trying to change the way we think about our world by going backwards—to the origins of globalisation—and showing how much we’ve forgotten since.
Armitage’s focus is the period 1650 to 1800, when the modern world was beginning to take shape. Early capitalism and primitive technology were just taking off: in 1650, war was the means to continental dominance, whereas by 1800 every smart observer knew that only states with powerful international economies could generate the public confidence, and thus the necessary loans, to fund powerful armies in the first place. It was also the period in which North and South America were discovered, depopulated and then repopulated, and parts of Asia colonised: in 1650, only Spain could be called a world empire, while a century and a half later Britain and France had fought three transcontinental wars over their colonial possessions and were in the midst of a fourth. Most importantly for Armitage’s purposes, sovereign states of the kind most of us live in today stabilised and democratised: in 1650, France and England were consolidating under absolute monarchs or dictators, whereas by 1800 England and America enjoyed representative government and the republican ideal was spreading to South and Central America.
Armitage analyses this period in 12 essays loosely grouped around four topics: the historiography of globalisation; 17th-century international thought; 18th-century British theories of sovereignty and international law; and the Declaration of Independence and its later influence (Armitage is the author of the 2008 book on the subject, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History). All of these pieces seek to reframe perennial topics—Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, the formation of the United Kingdom, the American Revolution—outside of the national historical context through which they’ve mostly been studied.
To fully grasp Armitage’s project, it’s worth looking at his scholarly influences. Armitage studied at the University of Cambridge in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where he became interested in what’s loosely called the “Cambridge School” of intellectual history. This approach had developed two decades earlier through the work of Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, Peter Laslett and JGA Pocock. This band of thinkers challenged the dominant academic tradition, which tended to interpret political texts as timeless reflections on universal topics like justice or rights. Instead, said Skinner and co., political texts should be understood empirically, as documents written under specific historical conditions. This argument turned on the commonsensical assertion that the meaning of language is historically contingent. Someone writing about “democracy” or “justice” in the 15th century, when feudalism was still the dominant mode of existence, must have understood those words differently than someone in the 20th.
Seen through this lens, the idea of political theorists across different centuries and countries partaking in one grand conversation about stably defined topics begins to look absurd. Appreciating a text’s meaning requires something more demanding: reconstructing the intellectual world in which it was written. Armitage combines a historian’s focus on facts with a theorist’s ability to discern their broader implications: in the course of a single essay, he can move from recounting Locke’s close engagement with South Carolina’s development to assessing its implications for his complicity with slavery.
But what Armitage is doing that his Cambridge predecessors did not is shifting focus away from the classic subject of historians of political thought, the state, and taking as his starting point the more amorphous international realm. Armitage depicts familiar thinkers grappling with what we’d call “global” issues: the complexities of an international market, inter-state relations, overseas commitments, and relationships with less powerful societies. These were people wrestling with the contradiction between respect for the native intelligence of African Americans and a theory of property that provided for slavery (Locke); worrying about what kind of legal norms might prevent nations from waging wars fuelled by commercial competition (Bentham); and balancing an attempt to unite a fledgling political society with a bid to gain legitimacy on the international stage (the drafters of the Declaration of Independence.) Their problems were, in other words, recognisably our own, and their modes of approaching them set many of the terms we use, or misuse, in the present.
One key essay, “The elephant and the whale: empires and oceans in world history” discusses how people thought about territorial and oceanic empires in the early modern period. Land empires like that of France were associated with the Roman imperial model of war—armies and conquest—while oceanic empires like Britain’s were associated with commerce and trade. This separation gave rise to two narratives which form, in Armitage’s view, “the most profound division in contemporary conceptions of global history”: between land empires as sites of armed conflict over territory and oceanic empires as fluid areas of free trade. This dichotomy, of course, simplifies reality, since Atlantic commerce was just as much a catalyst for 18th century wars as territorial disputes, and often the two issues intersected in one conflict, like the Seven Years’ War. This land-sea divide would also almost certainly ring false to people with memories of British imperialism, and Armitage wants to weaken its hold on our collective worldviews.
Another similarly deconstructive chapter focuses on international law in the thought of Edmund Burke. Here Armitage shows how Burke argued for intervention in the French Revolution through a combination of what we would call realism and morality. In Burke’s view, the Revolutionaries were gripped by a messianic ideology that was leading them to attempt to conquer Europe in the name of universal rights. Were they to succeed, the lives of British subjects would be put at risk, so intervening in the Revolution was both necessary and just. To reach this conclusion, Burke built upon the work of earlier natural law theorists like Vattel and Grotius, who prohibited interference in another state’s affairs except in extreme circumstances. Regrettably, in Armitage’s view, this intellectual synthesis was later dismantled, leaving us with the familiar division between “realism” and “morality”—hard eyed calculation of interest versus appeals to abstract rights. To read “rights-based” critiques and “pragmatic” defences of western governments’ non-intervention in Libya and Syria is to be reminded of the current ramifications of this stark, and probably false, divide.
In the final two chapters of the book Armitage examines the Declaration of Independence in a global context, wrenching it from the realm of domestic ideology (“we hold these truths to be self evident”) into the international sphere as a declaration of sovereignty (“when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”) In the final essay, “Declarations of Independence, 1776-2012,” he shows how republican, sovereign entities came to be conceived of not as cities or empires but solely as states. These were fitful and contingent developments, and it’s easy to see the detritus they generated in the displaced individuals and explicitly non-state based ideologies coexisting with our relatively young state system today.
To give just one example that’s uncomfortably close to home: to really understand Islamic fundamentalism, we must note that its followers embrace loyalties explicitly opposed to modern states’ modus operandi. After all, states function based on rational calculations of utility (put simply, protection for citizens in exchange for adherence to laws) and religion operates on custom and faith. These were the imperatives that the Tsarnaev Brothers were caught between, and their strange path to radicalization becomes clearer when we view it through this lens.
But that’s only one example of a plausible application of Armitage’s work, because Foundations of Modern International Thought is above all an exercise in how to think rather than what to think, constructed by a historian whose clarity, scholarly diligence and conceptual range emerge slowly and unmistakably through the 12 essays. Armitage describes his approach, of replacing familiar old narratives with more flexible ones, as “a standing reproach to procrustean taxonomies and overhasty appropriations.” The first step for understanding globalisation, in other words, is to loosen inherited categories for thinking about it. This is, of course, harder to achieve in the havoc of the moment, so it’s unlikely that reporters writing about the Tsarnaev brothers will turn to Armitage for pointers. But the fact that they won’t represents a loss for our collective understanding of a complicated world.