“Global Politics” is a study of the political interactions that, by their very nature, stretch from the largest, international actors to the small, interpersonal groups.
This blog takes as its subject “Global Politics” purposefully, to distinguish between other extant academic ways to describe topics of study. Academic disciplines are not especially interesting to people outside of academia, but academic discipline names often convey a more specific meaning than outside observers would assume with important implications. More than one person has shown up to an “Intro to International Relations“ expecting a course covering things like Arabic culture, or Bollywood movies, only to eventually be disappointed when the bulk of the course talks about war, trade and international law. Some of the most salient issues in politics bestride traditional disciplinary boundaries, rendering those boundaries unhelpful in certain circumstances. Consequently, this blog addresses not “International Relations,” “Comparative Politics,” “Sociology,” “Economics,” “Psychology” or “History,” but the many issues within those respective disciplines that affect the global socio-political environment modern technology creates.
The saying goes that “all politics is local” and at least for the word “politics” the saying is accurate. Politics derives from the ancient Greek word polis (πόλις). While the ancient Greeks talked about the political in many of the same ways we would talk about politics today, their concept of politics revolved around the city. Ancient Greek cities were not particularly large, either, usually somewhere between quarter and half million residents including slaves and children.
Throughout most of history, well into the modern era, your city was almost your entire political world. Most people were born, lived and died in the same city or small rural area. While history includes massive migrations, like the Dorians, Vikings and Mongols, most important politics revolved around sedentary cities.
Cities were more central to European political history than nations or states until the modern era. Sparta, Athens and Corinth and other cities were the primary actors in ancient “Ancient Greece” more than Greece or Greeks. Rome was born a city in the Italian Penninsula, and ultimately died a city, perhaps more than once. While dynastic families ruled early-developing European states, politics governing those states happened overwhelmingly in capitols like London, Paris and Vienna. Germany and Italy were almost entirely city-states until the 19th Century.
Cities dominated political life outside Europe, too. Ancient empires were ruled and defined by cities like Ur, Babylon, Nineveh, Memphis, Thebes, and Chang’an. Samarkand and Timbuktu still evoke in popular memory their now lost power. Even in the Americas, cities were the core of the political system, including Machu Pichu, Cuzco, Chichen Itza, Technoctilan, and Cahokia who ruled over their respective region. The major exception to cities’ imperial importance before the modern era were steppe empires, like the Hun or Mongol, but even steppe empires eventually either took cities and adapted to their ways, as the Mongol took Hangzhou and Beijing becoming the Yuan Dynasty of China, or foundered against the walls of cities, like the Hun who never took Constantinople or Rome, and ultimately collapsed after the death of Attila.
The focus on cities as the center of politics lasted until quite late into the modern Era. Even though the French Revolution remade France in 1789, the people in the streets of Paris drove the revolution more than anything else. Napoleon could have pursued many other strategies to bring Russia into his continental system, but he chose to press directly towards Moscow, and ultimately failed. Even in 1848, the revolutionary year that swept western Europe was driven through the streets of capital cities like Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Rome, Hanover, Munich, Prague and Berlin.
Starting in the late-18th Century the world began to change, as transportation and communication improved (sometimes called the “Long 19th Century”). The change was most obvious in the American Civil War. News of the war’s outbreak shot around the country in minutes by telegram, and political backwaters like California and Utah—only a few months before reliant on the Pony Express for news—declared loyalty to the Union immediately. The Union pressed for the Confederate capitalthroughout the Peninsular Campaign, but never took Richmond. Decisive Union victories at Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Selma, and Chattanooga. were more important than the political centers of power. Montgomery’s fall and Richmond’s survival were ultimately incidental to the course of the war.
The 19th Century was truly a transition from politics in the Greek sense, from a system governed mostly by the people who controlled the largest city, to the political system that would predominate the next 150 years. Although cities continued to be important, nations and states became increasingly important, too. London remained the pre-eminent political location in Great Britain, but Bristol, Newcastle, Liverpool and Birmingham rose to greater importance, because of ports, mining and manufacture.
As the political world spread it took the word “politics” with it, even though the appelation was no longer strictly apt. It would not at all be surprising that every member of the Athenian Assembly who condemned Socrates to death had personally interacted with him. By the 20th Century, most heads of state or government would never even visit the majority of their country, let alone interact with the population. Politics had transformed from personal interactions, reliant on judgement and leadership of Aristotle and Alexander to a massive system, reliant on organization, bureaucracy and industry.
It was also around the start of the 20th Century, as globalization was just starting, when academic disciplinary divisions emerged, and those divisions were helpful at the time. Politics and economics diverged into separate studies, as it became increasingly clear that sometimes politics and economics do not align perfectly. Immediately following World War I, International Relations as a sub-field separated from politics when it became obvious that events inside Bismarkian Germany and Victorian England, were analytically distinct from what happened between them.
We now live in yet another further transformation, where a large impersonal world seems increasingly personal and interconnected. Communication and travel improvements allow people to have salient personal experiences with a global community. The internet sits at the head of the ongoing transformation, and the internet in global politics is my specific area of study. Some scholars have seen the death of the nation-state system in these changes, but my assessment is more phlegmatic. Nevertheless, individual interactions can and do profoundly affect interstate interactions, and states can reach into personal lives in heretofore inconceivable yet quotidian ways.
The simultaneous increasing the global economic and social systems’ breadth, and the increasing sense of personal and local importance, makes “global politics” analytically distinct from “international relations” or “comparative politics,” or any other scholarly discipline. Extant disciplinary boundaries remain useful in many circumstances, because without grasping the most important findings from various traditions of socio-political study we would be utterly lost. However, when interstate interactions can reach down into the personal lives of people inside a state, and produce local, regional, national and transnational political outcomes, divisions initially most relevant to scholarship when the Blue Riband was was “a thing,” can sometimes interfere with understanding the modern world.
Political changes caused by industrialization and the internet notwithstanding, a great deal remains unchanged. This blog explores political issues, both changed and unchanged. Understanding the limits of changes in the political system are just as important as understanding new technologies’ specific effects.
Although the world has changed, the basic unit of political interaction has not. Politics is still a human practice; we are still political animals. For all the difference in technology, changes in scale and structure, and improvements in the quality of life, sometimes—perhaps even most of the important times—the distance between Aristotle and Weber and now is not so great after all. All politics may, ultimately, still be local, as the saying goes, but it is at least a little global, too. The key is to know where the line is.