The Report of the Death of ‘Polities’ was an Exaggeration: Comments on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History

This is the fourth comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Benjamin de Carvalho. Benjamin  is a senior research fellow at NUPI. His research interests are, broadly speaking, between three fields: He works on issues of broader historical change such as the formation of the nation-state in Europe, sovereignty, and the role played by confessionalization and religion.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


Laust Schouenborg invited me to take part in this symposium on his latest book, a request I was thrilled to accept, given that the book had for some time already been on the list of books I wanted to read. Having now read and engaged with Schouenborg’s work, I am very glad I accepted.

International Institutions in World History (IIWH) is an ambitious and thought-provoking work, which I would recommended to any scholar of IR seeking to understand not only the world beyond the state, but also our current predicament. I found his emphasis on social institutions stimulating and on the whole convincing, and really believe he is onto something. That being said, as he himself concludes, the book marks the beginning of an endeavor rather than its end. And as is the case with any broad claim, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Schouenborg’s three cases, while illustrative of his claim about the “universality” of his institutions, nevertheless leave something to be desired. Granted, nomad Central Asia, Polynesia, and the Central African rainforest are pretty much as remote places as one could have picked to engage on such a trip of discovery from New York and Roskilde. And if his framework of international institutions can be found (or even be useful in analyzing) there, then they must be at least fairly universal, is the thought. But then again, while illustrating their occurrence, their utility to the analyst is to me still a bit unclear. While it does structure his accounts, it seems to me that the analysis could have been brought further. Furthermore, for the whole framework to knock out the state (or polities, for that matter) altogether, the book would also have had to tackle some more common cases and demonstrate its utility by superimposing the findings to those of other works in a more sustained and systematic way. Continue reading

The Whole and Its Parts

This is the third comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Yale Ferguson. Yale is a Professorial Fellow in the Rutgers University-Newark Division of Global Affairs and Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Global and International Affairs.  His publications include 12 books and over 60 book chapters and articles. Among his latest books with Richard W. Mansbach (Iowa State) are Globalization: The Return of Borders to a Borderless World?; A World of Polities: Essays in Global Politics; and Remapping Global Politics: History’s Revenge and Future Shock. He and Mansbach have a new book in progress, War and Political Evolution in the Ancient Mediterranean.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


It is a pleasure for me to take part in this symposium on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History (hereafter IIWH), as it was to read his thoughtful and provocative book. Reviewers are always saying that some study is a must-read or should be on every scholar’s and serious student’s bookshelf. Well, occasionally such accolades are merited, and for those of us interested in IR theory and history, they certainly are in the case of Laust’s book. His is indeed a landmark study, and I not only enjoyed but profited from reading it, not least in considering Laust’s observations about my own work with Richard Mansbach on Polities. Laust has read essentially everything relevant to his concerns, set forth other authors’ positions with care and respect, and then explained how he begs to differ. In this little piece, I hope to do the same for Laust.

There are so many things I like about IIWH that I cannot begin to mention them all, so I will simply list a few specifics and then move on to what I see as central issues in the book as a whole. First, the list:

  1. Laust’s focus is on social institutions seen as “made up of patterned practices, ideas and norms” (emphasis in original). Social institutions are what they do on a regular basis, what ideas sustain them (and they convey), and what they regard (and do not regard) as legitimate behavior.
  2. He looks at social institutions from a multi-disciplinary perspective, including IR, anthropology, archaeology, and historical sociology. He weighs their respective contributions to his subject, mixes and matches what he can from them, and then advances his own distinct theoretical position.
  3. His approach in IIWH is also proudly and even militantly cross-cultural and trans-historical.
  4. The empirical second section of the book is a broad study of “three extreme or marginal historical cases: nomad Central Asia, the Central African rainforest and Polynesia.” Laust has the audacity to suggest that he has gone to those extremes or margins to highlight the “universality” of his four functional categories versus the “limitations” of the “state-based framework” he attributes to almost everyone else, including those advancing “stage” models.
  5. Laust insists, quite rightly, that there is no useful or reasonable basis for labeling the likes of his case-study societies and their institutions as “primitive.”
  6. He boldly maintains that we can and should view “the functional activities relevant to corporate social actors or polities” and their “interactions” as falling into only four basic categories: legitimacy and membership, regulating conflicts, trade, and governance.
  7. Last in this list, I have special reasons for liking Laust’s observations about war in his discussion of “regulating conflict.” He notes that war is often viewed as a “social evil” or at best (like Bull) a “necessary evil” to help maintain order. However, Laust comments: “In many past societies, including the three [that are his cases], war did not always carry a “negative connotation.” “On the contrary, it was often celebrated. Hence, we are “allowed to consider the possibility that war might be the dominant mode of social interaction, so to speak.” In fact, Mansbach and I are currently writing a book focusing on war and polities in the ancient Mediterranean that argues war was the primary driver of political evolution for thousands of years and speculates about how far one can push that connection into the present and future.

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