New Voices

Daniel H. Nexon

Daniel H. Nexon was recently promoted to associate professor in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, having received his PhD from Columbia University in 2004. His book The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change (Princeton University Press, 2009), which won the 2010 Best Book Award of the International Security Studies Section of the International Studies Association, is an exemplary study of a historical international system. It combines sophisticated theory with deep historical knowledge to illuminate not only sixteenth- and seventeenth-century international society but also contemporary processes of globalization. When I was asked to contribute to the SSRC’s New Voices series, Professor Nexon—whom I know only through his work—immediately came to mind. And on further reflection, I could think of no more interesting and exciting creative new voice in the discipline of international relations.

Nexon employs a “relational” approach to the study of international systems, drawing creatively on the work of his dissertation supervisor Charles Tilly and network sociologists, such as Harrison White. He argues that ideal-type models of the formal properties of relations between polities provide powerful insights into the structural dynamics of social systems. Early modern polities, Nexon argues, were “composite states,” dynastic/imperial agglomerations that lacked both the extensive internal integration and the strong external boundaries characteristic of twentieth-century states. This created distinctive patterns of domestic mobilization, resistance, and rule and of international conflict and cooperation. Both the spread of the (Protestant and Catholic) Reformations and the rise of internal and international religious warfare were strongly shaped by the internal heterogeneity and external penetrability of dynastic composite states.

In the academic study of international relations, the structures of international systems are typically presented as largely constant, defined by international “anarchy” (that is, the absence of hierarchical international government) and differing only in terms of the number of great powers. Nexon’s creative combination of theoretical and historical arguments shows that, quite the contrary, there are fundamental qualitative differences in international systems, even in the modern era. And in “What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate?,” Nexon and his co-author Thomas Wright use relational analysis to draw illuminating distinctions between unipolar, hegemonic, and imperial systems, which they show are very different kinds of structures, with fundamentally dissimilar structural dynamics.

Yet Nexon does not oversell the contribution of relational analysis. For example, he takes seriously the roles of ideas in general and religion in particular, both of which are central to Daniel Philpott’s well-known account of early modern international relations in Revolutions in Sovereignty. Nexon, however, argues persuasively against giving religious ideas too much weight. Neither does Nexon overestimate the impact of structural forces. In fact, he is deeply attuned to historical contingency (especially in explaining the demise of Spanish Habsburg power). Nexon argues only that the way early modern states and international relations in fact developed depended centrally on the predominance of composite dynastic polities—not that modern states could only have been created in this way.

Nexon, however, does rightly insist that this particular path had important implications. In particular, the standard story of “the modern international system” arising with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 does not hold up to scrutiny. The territorialization of the state, for example, is not even on the horizon at the time of Westphalia. States remained dynastic (as illustrated by the fact that the two principal wars of the first half of the eighteenth century were wars of the Spanish and Austrian successions). The break came much later, in the late-eighteenth or even early-nineteenth century. This makes “late modern” states and international relations—which our discipline typically takes (implicitly) as its model of “international relations” in general—a relatively short-lived (and historically exceptional) phenomenon.

This reading also casts a new light on globalization. What is often described as the demise of the state is recast here as a return to more composite polities, with the associated growing importance of transnational relations (that is, relations of non-state actors across international borders). Nexon also suggests interesting analogies between the contemporary role of religion in transnationally transmitted conflict and the confessional politics of the early modern era. The result is a radically different historical heuristics than that of the more familiar “neo-medieval” reading of globalization.

On top of all this, The Struggle of Power in Early Modern Europe is just a plain good read. Nexon writes with clarity, power, and elegance. And, although his academic writing does not often provide space for it, he can also write with considerable wit, which is often on display in his blog The Duck of Minerva.

Jack Donnelly is the Andrew Mellon Professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.


Image courtesy Daniel H. Nexon.

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Published on: Monday, March 19, 2012