The Global Transformation: The Making of the Modern World

This guest post by Barry Buzan and George Lawson marks the beginning of a symposium on their book The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Barry is a Fellow of the British Academy, Emeritus Professor in the LSE Department of International Relations and a Senior Fellow at LSE IDEAS. He was formerly Montague Burton professor in the Department of International Relations, LSE. Among his books are, with Richard Little, International Systems in World History (2000); with Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers (2003); From International to World Society? (2004); with Lene Hansen, The Evolution of International Security Studies (2009); and An Introduction to the English School of International Relations (2014). George Lawson is an Associate Professor of International Relations at LSE. His research focuses on the interface between International Relations and Historical Sociology, and on processes of radical change, most notably revolutions. He is the author of Negotiated Revolutions (2005) and the editor (with Chris Armbruster and Michael Cox) of The Global 1989 (2010).

Team BG

Update: Julian’s response, Jeppe’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now live.

The core argument of The Global Transformation is straightforward: during the 19th century, a ‘global transformation’ remade the basic structure of international order. This transformation involved a complex configuration of industrialization, rational state-building, and ideologies of progress. What do we mean by these terms?

  • By industrialization we mean both the commercialization of agriculture and the two-stage industrial revolution, which together both shrank the planet and generated an intensely connected system of global capitalism. The extension of capitalism brought new opportunities for accumulating power, not least because of the close relationship between industrialization and dispossession. Indeed, industrialization in some places (such as Britain) was deeply interwoven with the forceful de-industrialization of others (such as India).
  • By rational state-building, we mean the process by which administrative and bureaucratic competences were accumulated and ‘caged’ within national territories. This process was not pristine. Rather, as we show in the book, processes of rational state-building and imperialism were co-implicated – most 19th century nation-states in the West were imperial nation-states, and imperialism ‘over there’ fed into rational state-building ‘at home’: the modern, professional civil service was formed in India before being exported to Britain; techniques of surveillance, such as fingerprinting and file cards, were developed in colonies and subsequently imported by the metropoles; cartographic techniques used to map colonial spaces were reimported into Europe to serve as the basis for territorial claims,. Domestically, rational states provided facilitative institutional frameworks for the development of industry, technological innovations, weaponry and science; abroad, they provided sustenance for imperial policies. Both functions were underpinned by ‘ideologies of progress’.
  • By ‘ideologies of progress’, we mean assemblages of beliefs, concepts and values that address how polities, economies and cultural orders relate to each other, how individuals and groups fit into these assemblages, and how human collectivities should be governed. In the book, we highlight the impact of four such ideologies: liberalism, socialism, nationalism and ‘scientific racism’, all of which were rooted in ideas of classification, improvement, control and progress (including ‘scientific racism’, many of whose proponents favoured a ‘forward policy’ in which European imperialism was hardened, both to safeguard white gains and to combat miscegenation with ‘backward’ peoples). Again, there was a dark side to these ideologies (and not just with ‘scientific racism’) – the promise of progress was linked closely to a ‘standard of civilization’ which served as the legitimating currency for coercive practices against ‘barbarians’ (understood as peoples with an urban ‘high culture’ – the ‘Oriental Despotisms’ of the Ottomans, Indians, Chinese, etc.) and ‘savages’ (understood as peoples without an urban ‘high culture’ – virtually everyone else). These ideas ended the long dominance of the dynastic state and defined the social framework of modernity. Nothing of comparable weight has come into being since, so these ideas, and the interplay amongst them, not only defined the dynamics of legitimacy and conflict during the 20th century, but continue to dominate the 21st

The three components of the global transformation were mutually reinforcing. For example, European imperialism was legitimized by one or more of the ideologies of progress, and enabled through military superiority, mechanisms of state control and infrastructural developments that had their roots in industrialization.

To be clear, our argument is not that any one of these dynamics on their own could have constituted the global transformation. Nor is it than any one of them deserves the status of ‘ultimate primacy’. Rather, we see the global transformation as enabled by a specific configuration of all three dynamics: as a set of interlinked processes that concatenated in historically specific form. And this configuration produced a profound transformation, generating a shift from a ‘polycentric world with no dominant centre’ to a ‘core-periphery’ order in which the centre of gravity resided in the West.[i]

Sikh workers on the Uganda Railway

Sikh workers on the Uganda Railway, built 1896-1931

Let us briefly illustrate this point. Until the late 18th century, the principal points of wealth differentiation were within rather than between societies. There were no major differences in living standards amongst the most developed parts of world: in the late 18th century, GDP per capita levels in the Yangtze River Delta of China were around 10% lower than the wealthiest parts of Europe, less than the differences in the contemporary world between most of the EU and the US.[ii] In 1750, the Yangtze region produced as much cloth per capita as Britain did in 1800.[iii] Overall, a range of quality of life indicators, from levels of life expectancy to calorie intakes, indicates a basic equivalence between China and Europe up to the start of the 19th century.[iv]

During the 19th century, this changed dramatically. By 1900, the most advanced areas of Europe and the United States held between a tenfold and twelvefold advantage in levels of GDP per capita over their Chinese equivalents.[v] Whereas in 1820, Asian powers produced just over 60% (60.7%) of the world’s GDP, and Europe and its offshoots (mainly the United States, but also including the other white settler colonies) around a third (34.2%); by 1913, Europe and its offshoots held over two-thirds (68.3%) of global GDP and Asia just under a quarter (24.5%).[vi] Between 1800 and 1900, China’s share of global production dropped from 33% to 6%, India’s from 20% to 2%, and today’s ‘Third World’ from 75% to 7%.[vii] Between 1870 and 1939, levels of life expectancy rose from 45 to 65 in north-western Europe and the United States; yet, there was no increase in life expectancy in Africa, Latin America or Asia, with the exception of Japan.[viii] The rapid turnaround during the 19th century represents a major shift in global power.

The extent of this volte face is captured in the table below, which uses modern notions of ‘developed’ and ‘Third World’ to gauge the gap in production and wealth generated by the global transformation. As the table shows, from a position of slight difference between polities in 1750 in terms of GDP per capita, ‘developed’ states opened up a gap over ‘Third World’ states of nearly 350% by 1913. And from holding less than a third of the total GNP of today’s ‘Third World’ countries in 1750, by 1913, ‘developed’ countries held almost double the GDP of the ‘Third World’.

GDP/GDP per capita 1750-1913

Total GNP (billions)

GNP per capita (dollars)

Developed countries Third World World Developed countries Third World World
1750 35 112 147 182 188 187
1800 47 137 184 198 188 191
1830 67 150 217 237 183 197
1860 118 159 277 324 174 220
1880 180 164 344 406 176 250
1900 297 184 481 540 175 301
1913 430 217 647 662 192 364

Source: Paul Bairoch (1981) ‘The Main Trends in National Economic Disparities Since the Industrial Revolution’, in: Paul Bairoch and Maurice Lévy-Leboyer (eds.), Disparities in Economic Development Since the Industrial Revolution (London: Macmillan) pp. 7-8, 12.

So what happened? And why does this matter?

Acquiring the configuration of industrialization, rational state building, and ideologies of progress meant undergoing wide-ranging political, economic and cultural transformations, and polities that underwent those transformations held enormous advantages over those that did not. Although oscillations of power are nothing new in human history, the global transformation opened up a vastly expanded pool of resources, making the power gap both much bigger and much more difficult to close. In this sense, as well as marking a shift in the distribution of power, the global transformation also changed the basic sources, or mode of power. By ‘mode of power’, we mean the material and ideational relations that are generative of both actors and the ways in which power is exercised. During the global transformation, the three dynamics we have highlighted (industrialization, rational statehood and ‘ideologies of progress’) combined to generate a new basis for how power was constituted, organized and expressed. We characterize this transformation as a shift in the ‘mode of power’. Contra most IR approaches, changes in the mode of power are more significant than changes in the distribution of power, effecting not just outcomes, but the basis for how interactions take place and are understood. This 19th century shift in the mode of power constituted a new era in world history – that of global modernity. That’s the first reason why the global transformation matters.

The second reason why the global transformation matters is that this is the first time that the world becomes a full international system. The world had been an economic international system since the European voyages of discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries opened up sea-lanes around Africa, and across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Eurasia had been an economic system for two millennia. But the ties binding such systems were thin, slow and limited in scope. Not until the 19th century did the industrial technologies of steamships, railways and the telegraph shrink both distance and time so massively as to power the creation of a tightly integrated global system in which core states could quickly and decisively project their new mode of power around the world. In this way, multiple regional international systems were engulfed in a full international system in which all parts of the world were closely and intensely connected economically, culturally, politically, and militarily.


The Islander leaving Vancouver for California in the Gold Rush, late 19th century

Finally, the emergence of a full international system generated a host of new actors: rational nation-states, transnational corporations, and standing intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations became leading participants in international affairs. Taken together, these changes in global structure and international actors meant that ‘the nineteenth century saw the birth of international relations as we know it today’.[ix] Yet the discipline of IR pays surprisingly little attention to such changes. Our book examines the reasons for IR’s failure to grasp the full significance of the global transformation and argues that this shortcoming creates major problems for how the discipline understands itself and its subject matter.

From centred to decentred globalism

The book is organised in three parts: in the first part, we establish the central components and importance of the global transformation, and examine the relative lack of attention paid by IR scholarship to the it; in the second part, we track many of the most important themes and concerns of contemporary IR from their origins in the 19th century to the present day: globalization and the shrinking of the planet; the pervasive impact of ideologies of progress; the transformation of political units through imperialism, revolution and capitalism; the construction of a Western-colonial international society and its development into a Western-global international society (more on this below); and the impact of the global transformation on great power competition and war. The final part of the book uses the framing of the global transformation to rethink core aspects of contemporary world politics.

One of the key arguments we make in the book concerns the structural character of international order. We argue that the early part of the 19th century saw the emergence of ‘centred globalism’ with ‘centred’ meaning that development was highly uneven, with a mainly Western core dominant, and ‘globalism’ meaning that international order was combined on a planetary scale. As noted above, we divide ‘centred globalism’ into two stages – the first, which lasted roughly until the end of World War Two, we label Western-colonial. This international society was global in scale, but extremely unequal. Its core comprised mostly European states and the independent, former settler colonies of the Americas. Its periphery was a mixture of colonial possessions, largely absorbed into the sovereignty of their metropoles (most of Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia), and a handful of classical powers still strong enough to avoid colonization, but weak enough to be treated unequally (China, Iran, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, Japan).

Although there was some erosion of the inequality between core and periphery before 1945, Western-colonial international society broadly endured until the end of the Second World War. At that point, the delegitimation of imperialism and widespread decolonization offered a more concerted assault on the structural bases of international inequality. Yet in many respects, international society after 1945 remained significantly hierarchical. What had been a Western-colonial order became a Western-global order. This order was global in that it was realized by the expansion of the modern mode of power (industrialization, rational statehood and ideologies of progress) to planetary scale, with decolonization producing states that were homogenous, if only in the sense of being formal sovereign equals (in de jure if not de facto terms). Yet the price of independence, or for those not colonized the price of being accepted as equals by the West, was the adoption of Western political forms and the acceptance of the primary institutions of Western international society: the market, the legalized hegemony of great power management, positive international law, and suchlike. ‘Modernization theory’ held out the prospect of the ‘Third World’ becoming more like the ‘First World’, fostering new classifications of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’, ‘advanced’ and ‘emerging’, etc. But in each of these classifications, the Western mode of economic, political and cultural organization was taken to be both natural and pre-eminent.

In significant respects, therefore, the post-1945 era saw the maintenance of a hegemonic, core-periphery structure in which a Western core was surrounded by regional international orders that existed in varying degrees of differentiation from, and subordination to, that core. Although the term ‘standard of civilization’ fell out of use after 1945, the practice continued, morphing into the politer terminology of development, human rights and conditionality, albeit now within a global international society rather than constituted through relations between insiders and outsiders.

USAID officials and Kamuli District (Uganda) develop the District Operational Plan

USAID officials and Kamuli District (Uganda) develop the District Operational Plan

In the book, we argue that we are currently moving into a third stage of global modernity, which we call decentred globalism. Decentred refers to the ways in which the configuration that marks the global transformation is no longer concentrated in a small group of polities, but is increasingly dispersed. The term globalism marks both a basic continuity with earlier phases of the global transformation and an intensification of them as the configuration that underpinned the global transformation both spreads and deepens. In the contemporary world, the mode of power that underpinned global modernity is both less unevenly concentrated and more combined than in previous stages of global modernity.

What will be the main characteristics of a world of decentred globalism?

First and foremost, a world of decentred globalism will be one in which more states and peoples acquire the configuration of power associated with global modernity. The core will become both bigger (absolutely and relatively) and less Western. The link between race and development first broken by Japan in the late 19th/early 20th century will increasingly fall away. At the same time, the configuration of power that sustains global modernity is a destabilizing force that sets considerable challenges to states everywhere. The book details this through examination of revolutions, authoritarian ‘modernizing missions’, and other such transformative dynamics. The tensions between these dynamics is illuminated in the 2011 Arab uprisings, in which most elites in North Africa and the Middle East found a means through which to contain the challenges posed by their publics, often through violent repression. The turbulence that marked these uprisings illustrates the disruptive pressures that the configuration of global modernity continues to place on social orders around the world.

Taken together, an expanding core and a widening diffusion of power suggest that the dominance of the West rests on increasingly thin foundations. The contemporary fascination with the rise of China, India, Brazil and other states spells the end of Western hegemony as the sources of the 19th century power gap are reduced, if not completely eliminated. If the West remains at the heart of international order, retaining significant advantages in terms of power capabilities and institutional positions, the hegemonic status of the West and its habit of claiming rights of global leadership no longer rest on the vast power superiority it enjoyed during the 19th and 20th centuries. The world is returning to a more equal distribution of power akin to that which existed before the 19th century, except that in the 21st century the main centres of power are bound together in a much more intensely integrated international system.


There are a number of consequences that flow from this argument, which we detail in the concluding chapters of the book: how we think about power, how we think about security, globalization, ‘ideational structure’, periodization, IR and history, and more. There are also consequences for IR as a discipline, in particular for how IR understands its origins and history; what attitude it takes towards its theoretical perspectives and divisions of labour; and how it relates to neighbouring disciplines in the social sciences and history.

The first claim is that IR needs to push its origins back into the long 19th century. The idea of pristine creation out of the horrors of the First World War obscures IR’s deeper, and in some cases darker, roots. Seeing IR as founded in 1919 constitutes the discipline as a ‘noble’ cause, with its gaze fixed on how to understand and solve the problem of war. What is forgotten is the strands of thinking – liberal, realist, Marxist, colonial, geopolitical, racist, strategic, legal, historical, normative – about the, as yet, unlabelled ‘international relations’ that emerged in the period preceding the First World War and that fed into the formalisation of the discipline.

Second, taking the global transformation into account offers significant opportunities – and challenges – for IR theories. For example, realists need to think more about the mode of power and not just about its distribution. Doing so will give them a richer and more productive view of the concept they take to be their core concern. For the English School and for constructivists, the main point of interest is the impact of global modernity on the social structure of international society. The English School has not said nearly enough about racism, colonialism and imperialism as primary institutions during the period in which modernity emerged. Constructivists have not said nearly enough about the massive ideational transformation that re-wrote the social structure of both domestic and international politics.

Finally, there is IR’s relationship with cognate disciplines. IR has long been criticized for the narrowness of its intellectual agenda. Yet IR as a discipline is now also visibly subject to the logic of decentred globalism. Although the US (specifically) and the Anglosphere (in general) remain the core of the discipline, and English its dominant tongue, IR is expanding rapidly in many parts of Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and Africa, and taking on more independent forms as it does so. One of the advantages of taking the global transformation more seriously is that it offers the chance to address this decentring of the discipline by acknowledging and embracing the global origins and outcomes of modernity. IR as a discipline is finally catching up with these dynamics by itself becoming both more global and more decentred.

At the same time, our view is that IR should take its place as a ‘historical social science’ that aims to write new narratives of global modernity, whether these narratives concentrate on macro-dynamics or more granular accounts of particular events and processes within global modernity. An IR that understood the extent to which its main concerns were rooted in the global transformation would itself have undergone a transformation. It would have integrated (rather than just tolerated) IPE. It would have rediscovered its links to International Law and Sociology. It would have put Political Science into its place as merely one of its constitutive disciplines, and at the same time given equal weight to its ties to World History, Economic History, and Historical Sociology. By taking these steps, IR would have set itself up to become the intellectual space in which synthesising debates across the social sciences could take place.

[i] Kenneth Pomeranz (2000) The Great Divergence (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p. 4.

[ii] C.A. Bayly (2004) The Birth of the Modern World (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 2.

[iii] Pomeranz, Great Divergence, p. 18.

[iv] John Hobson (2004) The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 76.

[v] Bayly, Modern World, p. 2.

[vi] Angus Maddison (2001) The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (Paris: Development Centre of the OECD), p. 127, 263.

[vii] David Christian (2004) Maps of Time (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 463.

[viii] Steven C. Topik and Allen Wells (2012) ‘Commodity Chains in a Global Economy’ in: Emily S. Rosenberg, A World Connecting, 1870-1945 (Cambridge MA: Belknap),

  1. 602-3; Jürgen Osterhammel (2014) The Transformation of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 170-2.

[ix] Osterhammel, Transformation, p. 393.


3 thoughts on “The Global Transformation: The Making of the Modern World

  1. Pingback: The Global Transformation: The Making of the Modern World | EMr

  2. Pingback: Closet Postcolonialists? On Buzan and Lawson’s Global Transformation | The Disorder Of Things

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