Theories of politics are never good enough

I’ve recently been reading Restless Empire, concerning China’s foreign relations since 1750.  I’m not done, but it’s excellent.  It’s also a type of history I have generally not been exposed to in social science graduate school, in which historical case studies are generally fairly reduced-form and are aimed more narrowly at proving or disproving arguments about the nature of politics.  One of the things about reading richly textured history is that it can make arguments like, say, realism vs. idealism in geopolitics seem not just wrong, but beside the point.

The book does not easily lend itself to a school of thought on whether geopolitics are primarily driven by realism, idealism, or domestic politics.  I just finished the section on the 19th century, and one thing that is striking is the range of motivations for the major actors.  In starting the First Opium War, Britain was motivated by classic realist considerations in expanding their control of China.  China’s militant opposition to opium, however, which provided the pretext for the British response, was primarily driven by idealistic concerns about the corrosive impact of opium on the populace.

Later on, during the Chinese Civil War, China’s foreign relations were truly inseparable from domestic politics.  The main foreign patron of the Republic of China’s government in the 1920s and 1930s was the Soviet Union, and this relationship warmed and cooled based on the machinations for control of China between the Guomindang, the Communists, and the Soviets.  Eventually the Guomindang sought new foreign patrons in the United States – not due to changes in global geopolitics, but because the Soviets had taken the side of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War fomented by the GMD/Communist struggle for domestic control.

I’m grossly oversimplifying the history here, but that’s sort of my point.  Classifying the complex and ambiguous events of Chinese foreign policy as supporting any sort of Grand Theory of Geopolitics is obviously a silly exercise.  A given theory may explain the behavior of some or many actors but certainly not all actors at all times.  I think reading more history, particularly covering an extended period of time, is helpful for making social scientists better consider the scoping conditions over which social science theories are valid.


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