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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchBefore the Nation-State: Civilizations, World Orders, and the Origins of Global International...

Before the Nation-State: Civilizations, World Orders, and the Origins of Global International Relations

Author: Amitav Acharya

Organization/Publisher: The Chinese Journal of International Politics

Date/Place: 2023/UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 26



Keywords:  Civilizations, World Order, Classical Civilizations, Eurocentric Understanding, International Relations, State-Centric



This article explores five world orders that existed prior to the “rise of the West” or European colonialism: Near Eastern, Indian, Chinese, Islamic, and Indian Oceanic. The author thoroughly discusses Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civlizations’ thesis and suggests the use of “civilizations” rather than the “state” or “nation-state” for the study of international relations (IR). However, while Huntington concentrates on conflict, Acharya pushes for a broader approach that considers a wider variety of relationships among civilizations over time.

The author raises the question of where to locate the origins of international relations, challenging the Eurocentric view and exploring global perspectives. The article argues that starting IR studies with the nation-state limits the discipline’s historical scope to less than 400 years, coinciding with the West’s rise. Instead, the author suggests examining IR through the lens of civilizations, providing a wider lens of over 5,000 years of history, and allowing for a broader analysis of ideas, approaches to peace, security, diplomacy, and development in IR.


After this introduction, the author delves into the first of the article’s eight sections, which is a Global IR Perspective. In this section, he attempts to analyze how the study of civilizations can be integrated into the field of International Relations, especially in light of the prevailing dominance of Western narrative in this discipline. The author summarizes the foundations of traditional International Relations in the following points: 

Although the discipline of International Relations originated in the UK, as Stanley Hoffman stated, IR is considered to be an “American social science. The central analytical unit is the Westphalian state, in addition to liberal values and international institutions that have become the foundation of the international system, while the history, culture, ideas, and contributions of non-Western societies played an unimportant or secondary role in the evolution of IR practices and theories.  

The author briefly confirms that traditional IR suffers from Eurocentrism, a lack of attention to history, and a privileging of anarchic systems over hierarchical systems such as empire.

International relations was not a Western invention and did not originate with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which instead marked the onset of Western dominance. Older civilizations like India, China, and Islam led different international systems and global orders, each with its unique worldview. The author emphasizes the role of history in expanding the scope of IR through the study of civilizations, examining past institutions like hierarchical systems, empires, sovereign systems, and the tributary system. History provides a diverse array of possibilities and tests the validity of purportedly universal models.


Moving to the second part of the article, according to the author, world order is a political concept anchored in a particular civilization or group of civilizations. It is distinct from a global order, as it can be regional or even national and may be developed by any civilization that envisions its ideas and institutions as universal and timeless. Moreover, a world order is not solely about ‘power’ and ‘just arrangements,’ but equally, if not more so, about identity and interactions. This pertains to how civilizations perceive themselves as distinctive entities and how they engage with other civilizations. 

The author argues that civilizations, not nation-states, are the foundational units of world order, contrasting with the concept of the “international system.” He emphasizes the differences between “world order” and “international systems.”

Achraya contends that understanding classical civilizations and their relevance to the modern world requires the framework of “world order,” which encompasses hierarchical and anarchic systems. In opposition to the assumption in International Relations, he believes that democracy and anarchic systems are not universally applicable. The essay focuses on five world orders, highlighting variations in power structure, size, coherence, centralization, organizational principles, institutions, and norms.


Starting with the Classical Near East, the Sumerians pioneered the first major world order between the 4th and 3rd millennium BC, which the author classifies as a tightly polycentric World order. The Sumerian order, christened as the “great society, was a decentralized system of independent city-states, under a shifting leadership (or collective hegemony)

In this section, the author compares between Greek, Sumerian, and Egyptian civilizations, particularly in terms of diplomatic political practices and organization. The objective is to argue that the most successful political institution in history was not the Greek polis or “democracy,” but rather the Sumerian and Egyptian institution of divine kingship.

Additionally, the author challenges Western assertions that Greek civilization is exclusively its precursor, highlighting Greece’s connections to Asia and emphasizing that classical Greece should be considered a Mediterranean civilization rather than a Western or European one. The author contends that the majority of cultural influences on classical Greece originated from the Mediterranean and Asiatic regions, and not Western Europe. The transformation of Greece into an integral part of the “West” occurred only after the Renaissance.


The second world order according to Achraya is the Indian World Order in the Indus Valley (now straddling Pakistan and India) between 4000 BC to 1900 BC. The world order of ancient India was both anarchic and hierarchic (as was Greece’s during Athenian hegemony). Power was loosely centered, as it was not vested in all residents but wielded by clans; decisions were made by consensus or voting; and rulers were chosen among clans, rather than by heredity. The thought system of Indian philosophy and statecraft contained elements of both idealism and realism.

Indian civilization introduced key concepts through Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the world’s first treatise to define the components of a state. Kautilya’s Mandala theory outlined policies for conquerors. While Kautilya represented ancient realism, King Ashoka epitomized idealism and moral statecraft with a focus on moral conquest and humanitarianism. The author highlights the peaceful diffusion of ideas in Indian civilization, contrasting it with Hellenization, which imposed Greek culture, whereas Indianization involved selective adaptation rather than wholesale adoption.


The third civilization is the Chinese World Order, which was a hierarchical order (tightly centered). The author mentions five major conceptual and institutional foundations of the Chinese World Order.

The Mandate of Heaven (Zhou dynasty, 1026–256 BC): The ruler, known as the Son of Heaven, holds power conditionally based on wisdom and justice.

Tianxia (All under Heaven, from the 11th century BC): it views the highest unit as the “world,” and not the “state,” attributing conflicts and state failure to the latter.

Confucianism and Daoism: These philosophies emphasize the goodness of human nature, the importance of tradition, and mutual respect and obligations between ruler and ruled, with Confucianism based on the Mandate of Heaven.

Legalism: Stresses the need for power and order, rejecting Confucianism’s emphasis on tradition and humanity.

Tributary system: A hierarchical system with China at the center, based on mutual benefit, where tributary states acknowledge China’s superiority and gain trading rights and access to the Chinese market. The author concludes that China had aspects of both idealism and realism.


The fourth world order is The Islamic World Order. The author argues that it is different from contemporary concepts in IR, and some argue that Islam should be treated “as a paradigm of international theory in its own.”  It was a loosely polycentric civilization.

According to Achraya, Islamic IR theory is a “systemic theory, it is a concept of world order that focuses on the relations between the Muslim/Arab and the non-Muslim/Arab sphere and how that realm should be ordered. The Islamic conception of state is very different from the idea of the nation-state and Westphalian sovereignty. There are tensions between the idea of the nation-state and sovereignty and the concept of Umma (the community of believers) and asabiyya (group solidarity centered around a common descent or ethnicity).

Islam has acted as a bridge between the ancient and the modern, and between the East and the West. The author explores the influence and contributions of Islamic scientists and philosophers such as Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, and Ibn al-Shatir.

Transitioning from the discussion about science, thoughts, and religious orientation of Islam, Acharya argues that although the institution of the Westphalian sovereign state is sometimes viewed by some Islamic authorities as a temporary legacy of Western colonialism, it has proven to be resilient. The idea of an Arab nation once pursued with vigor by radical regimes, like Egypt’s Nasser or Libya’s Gaddafi, is now dead.


The last world order before talking about the rise of the West is the Indian Ocean World Order, which was a decentered world order. The author claims that the maritime world order of the Indian Ocean was the most culturally diverse but economically connected of the five world orders discussed in the article. It was a regional empire composed of trading states, independent merchant guilds, monasteries, with no single empire dominating the littoral or maritime space. This trading network stretching from East Africa to the Indonesian archipelago might be seen as one of the most powerful sources for the modern doctrine of freedom of seas.

The maritime world order originating from the Indian Ocean trading network gave rise to a crucial norm supporting contemporary globalization. This norm emphasizes the sea as a common heritage, and the right to trade as not exclusive. While commonly attributed to Western figures and powers, such as Hugo Grotius, Britain, and the USA, the origins of principles like ‘freedom of the seas’ and ‘free trade’ can be traced back to the Indian Ocean network that connected the Middle East, Africa, China, and Japan via India and Southeast Asia before European colonial disruptions.

The Indian Ocean remained an open cross-cultural universe of major global importance. Now we transition to the last civilization: the Rise of the West.


Achraya argues in this part that the West is treated as an exception. It has offered something to the IR field that no one has offered before. However, there are two important ideas: 

The first is the role of prior ideas and innovations from other civilizations, especially Islam, China, and India, that the West borrowed in its rise to global dominance.

Europe, in many aspects, was a latecomer in the progression of civilizations, particularly when considering Greece as a Mediterranean entity rather than a European or ‘Western’ one. The adoption of ideas and innovations from three prominent Eastern civilizations—China, India, and Islam—was a significant factor in the ascent of the West.

The second is the role of imperialism and colonialism in suppressing others, not only the above three, but also the civilizations of Africa and South and North America, to eliminate competition and finance its ascent.

The author emphasizes that he is not arguing that colonialism and racism are the monopoly of Western civilization, though it is worth pointing out that does not mean that the rise of the West was not based in colonialism and enslavement. 


Acharya concludes in this part that while Europe ruled the world through imperialism and colonialism, the USA claims to rule the world indirectly through multilateral institutions. However, these institutions were created and maintained by the USA to serve its own purposes. While America remains the most powerful state in the world today, the author suggests that we are heading towards a new paradigm. The American World Order, the post-war order built by the USA, is in crisis and decline, a process that started before the Trump presidency. Other powers, especially China and India, are rising relative to the USA, although none of them are likely to emerge as a global hegemon. The world order is likely to take a “multiplex” turn, where diversity and unity coexist, as the era of Western dominance ends.

The author closes his essay by emphasizing once again that the study of international relations should reflect its global heritage. By using civilizations – instead of nation-states – as the starting point, we gain a broader understanding of how the contemporary world order emerged. Students of international relations should challenge the traditional view and appreciate the diverse global heritage and the varied world order that lies ahead.


By: Chourouk Mestour, Ph.D. candidate in International Relations



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