The history of so-called “Western” IR has been expounded upon and retold by more knowledgeable experts than myself and for which I recommend the intrepid reader see the 2019 Acharya and Buzan work, The Making of Global International Relations. When looking at the core arguments of Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism, Robert Keohane’s neo-liberal institutionalism, and Alexander Wendt’s structural constructivism, one key takeaway is that over the last several decades these theories have evolved and begun to overlap each other. This evolution and merger may accelerate, as connectivity is moving the world into a period that could allow for a more robust and inclusive schema, beyond the “great debates” and toward a “global IR” that is more inclusive.
Nearly eleven years ago now, the Chinese scholar Qin Yaqing opined that despite the field being called International Relations, dominant Western IR theories lacked any focus on the element of “relations” themselves. In the vernacular of chemistry, mainstream theories all seemingly care about the atoms and not the bonds. The core of this argument being that all major strands of realism, liberalism, and constructivism neglect “social interactive processes” that are intrinsic to humanity. Moreover, IR is not merely a system of “billiard balls” pushing forward with their rational, but single-minded, volition. Instead, Qin’s perspective is that IR is made up of interactive processes of relations between friends, enemies, partners, neighbors, families, etc.
Qin points to culture as the root cause in the differences between rationalist and relationalist scholars, saying that since the 1980s the goal of prominent IR authors has been to “produce a universally applicable theory” and this ultimate theory lacks the cultural grounding that is inherent in all humans. Qin and others have lamented that theorists have discounted “local knowledge production” and that cultural elements are still “unfairly marginalized” in IR. To further this case for increasing the status of culture and social theory as a fundamental component of IR, data from the 2014 Project on Teaching, Research, and International Practice (TRIP) implies that IR education in the United States is still Western-centric, specifically what is known as the American School (positivist quantitative data used to identify truisms), and students have little exposure to much else.
In the remainder of this section I will discuss ontology as it is the key distinction that separates Qin’s Chinese Relationalism from other theories. Then, I will introduce other models of relational theory to provide the reader with additional perspectives. In the following sections of the essay, I will expound on the Zhongyong dialectic as described by Qin. After which, I will build upon the core with a direct example by way of the concept of guanxi — a crucial social component in Chinese culture. The third section ties these concepts together and discusses social theory. Finally, adding together the previous three layers of the Zhongyong dialectic, guanxi, and social theory, I present a picture of Chinese Relationalism as modern IR theory.
1.1 Ontology of Things and Ontology of Relations
Qin Yaqing’s “Relational Theory of World Politics” starts with ontology. Calling on the Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang, Qin argues that the cultural history of the Eurozone has a baked in predilection for “individuality." This disposition reaches back to Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean which envisions a system of rational actors who make decisions based upon norms and values of society. These rules were universal truths, irrespective of participants’ status or position in relation to one another — good is good and bad is bad. This rational actor is an atomic unit, indivisible and independent, following a formula through the maze-like system that is the world. Action is based on “the logic of consequences." It is the outcome, not the relationship which holds value.
In terms of IR, the Westphalian state takes actions toward other Westphalian states unilaterally, not with other states cooperatively — this system is both unpredictable and anarchic and as a result fear drives the need for power, the need for power leads to competition and conflict, and so on. As Kishore Mahbubani often states, “viewed against the backdrop of two thousand years of world history, …the past two hundred years of Western domination have been a major aberration.” And Amitav Acharya reminds us that “Liberal Hegemony” in reality has been less absolute than the myth. In this sense it is clear to see why Qin argues that there is room for more ontologies to be considered.
In the case of China, Qin and Nordin argue that thousands of years of Confucian cultural frameworks, as in some other cultures, have reinforced through society that each person must act according to discrete relationships (“family, friend, country, world”). This system favors the relationship as the unit of measurement instead of the actor, and recognizes that actors are participants along with other actors who also have volition. Therefore the relationship first dictates rationality, and not the reverse. If Rationalist IR theory relies upon an “ontology of things,” then Chinese Relationalism approaches IR theory with an “ontology of relations.”
1.2 Flavors of Relationality
Referring to the seminal work by Jackson and Nexon (1999) “Relations Before States,” Qin highlights that various scholars have previously postulated relations as the base unit of measurement in IR; so while Qin’s theory is Chinese, relationalism does not belong to one culture. Professor Emilian Kavalski adds that Waltz in 1979 eluded to “unobservable relations of things.” Below I introduce the four “models of relationality” identified by Nordin and Smith. They argue that these strands of relationality imply a relationship between the self and the other. Their four relationality models are: aporetic, role, hierarchical, and dialectic. Qin’s theory is dialectic and will be addressed in the next section.
Aporetic Relationality: In this model, the self recognizes the otherness of the other and a self/other dialectic forms the basis of relationships. Much of the discussion offered by Nordin and Graham refers to Dillion and Derrida. Their argument maintains that self is always self and other is always other. The “aporia” paradox “destabilizes or undermines the very terms and context that established it.” In short, attempts at turning the other into the self only reinforce the otherness of the other and self of the self, resulting in failure.
RoIe Relationality: In this model, there is no other, only self. The example referenced by Nordin and Smith is Alexander Wendt’s rendition of the meeting of Cortes and Montezuma. When these two historical figures first met they were both entirely alien to one another. Both sides relied upon their own cultural background to guide the relationship. In this way each was not only “ego” but also “alter” and thus not truly alter, but only alter ego. And ultimately both ego and alter ego are self.
Hierarchical Relationality: Zhao Tingyang sees a system of voluntary hierarchical conformity where there is “no outside (wuwai 无外),” there are only positions within a whole. Other is not other, but a lesser self yet to be rectified. This model presupposes unity cannot last forever, so hierarchy provides stability. While this system provides harmony for Tianxia （天下), or “all under heaven,” Nordin and Smith remind the reader that this smacks of inequality, with William A. Callahan warning it could lead to discrimination.