"The Challenge of Tradition"
Vincent Ferraro

A Talk to the Mount Holyoke College European Alumnae Council
Amsterdam, 22 March 1997

As a field of intellectual study and as an arena of human action, international relations is tradition-bound. Very few academic disciplines study simultaneously the Peloponnesian War and today’s issue of the New York Times. Current diplomatic practices, such as diplomatic immunity, were created because of circumstances realized millennia ago. The strategies of Metternich, Bismarck, and Kissinger would have been completely comprehensible to Kautilya who wrote his treatise on the balance of power in India around 300 B.C.

And yet the world is profoundly different now than it was 500 years ago. Henry the Navigator could not even dream of supersonic transport. The condotierri of the Italian Wars would have had a far different impact on human history if they had had access to plastic explosives or nuclear devices. Constant change is an enduring fixture of international relations.

What is the Tradition?

Let us ask first, "What are the traditions in international relations?" For the last five hundred years, the world has been increasingly organized along the principles, ideals, and institutions of the European Enlightenment. Those ideals and values are based on three simple propositions: 1) that the individual is, and ought to be, the center of the political universe; 2) that human rationality is capable of understanding all physical and social activity; and 3) that human activity should be organized within the framework of what we now call the nation-state.

Let me elaborate on the significance of these three propositions because, as children of the Enlightenment, we tend to take them for granted. The first proposition depreciates alternative political agents such as the tribe, or the clan, or race, or ethnicity, or gender, or the royal house. Political systems have been built upon some of these agents, and there is no necessary reason why these systems could not be made to work. But the Enlightenment’s first job was to liberate the individual from the constraints of the monarchy and the church. Thus, one of the most important values of the Enlightenment was personal freedom.

The practical consequence of this choice was to facilitate the construction of the two major institutions of the Enlightenment: representative democracy and market capitalism. Both of these systems emphasize the freedom of individuals, and both facilitated one of the most explosive periods of human history. The spread of representative democracy has been remarkable, albeit choppy, and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has spread to virtually every country of the world. It still remains only an ideal—the practical difficulties of implementing freedom continue to elude the species. But there is little question that the world now accepts the proposition that human beings have the right to be active participants in the process of self-governance. The spread of market capitalism has similarly been astonishing. The growth in economic activity over the last five hundred years is unparalleled and shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down on a global scale. Both of these institutions rely almost exclusively on the ability of the individual to be free to exercise his or her personal judgment.

The second proposition of the Enlightenment was that human rationality was the basis for continued progress. Again, we tend to take this notion for granted, but the elevation of the human intellect, best articulated by Kant, was a decisive step toward separating reason from faith. It also had the effect of separating the Europeans from the rest of the world, as mastery of science and technology became a marker for the term "civilized."

The third aspect of European enlightenment thinking is manifested in the political institution we call the nation-state, although the emergence of the nation-state slightly precedes the flowering of the Enlightenment. The nation-state is an political instrument created by Europeans to solve their unique problems of security and governance. We often date the creation of the nation-state to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Those treaties ended the Thirty Years War, one of the bloodiest and most destructive wars experienced on the European continent.

The treaties resolved one of the basic causes of the war--the extraordinary difficulty in determining political legitimacy if that legitimacy rested upon a religious basis. For the war had been fought between Catholics and Protestants over the political role of the Pope, and the incompatibility of those political visions led to a war which gave no quarter and one in which compromise was impossible.

The Treaties established a very simple proposition: cuius regio, eius religioso. The resolution of the religious wars depended upon territorial demarcations which became internally sacrosanct. Protestant princes ruled Protestant territories; Catholic princes ruled Catholic territories. In theory, what went on within these territories was none of any one else's business. It was a reasonable solution to the alternative of open-ended wars, but it left the minority populations with each territory at the mercy of the majority. Perhaps the most important tradition in international relations is the sovereignty of states and the right of all nations to govern their internal affairs without interference.

The Enlightenment traditions and ethos took root in the political environment of the nation-state. In Leviathan, Hobbes lays the philosophical basis for a secular sovereign, thereby repudiating the divine right of kings. Locke develops the linkage between the idea of rights and the nonmetaphysical reality of property. Kant formulates a conception of peace based upon the free expression of self-interests and the obvious drawbacks of war to those self-interests. Adam Smith codifies the already embodied practices of capitalism into a self-regulating mechanism which transmutes greed into public benefit. Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Isaac Newton demonstrate that understanding the physical universe is an experimental process, whose success depended upon observation and measurement of tangible phenomena and not upon a metaphysical consciousness.

All these thinkers shared one common belief: the universality of their thought. They believed that they had uncovered, and not created, inexorable laws which were universally applicable if only all used their common facility of right reason to comprehend them. Thus, an object dropped from a tower in Pisa would fall at exactly the same rate as an object dropped in Beijing. The greed of an Englishman could be harnessed to benefit the common weal in exactly the same measure as the greed of a Zulu. Cultural differences among people only reflected varying degrees of sophistication in understanding the natural universe, and rationality could wash out these differences until we all understood the world in exactly the same way. In his absolutely wonderful way, Thomas Dickens captures the hypertrophic arrogance of this position in his novel, Hard Times, as the teacher, Thomas Gradgrind, instructs his students the following way:

"’You are to be in all things regulated and governed,' said the gentleman, 'by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use of ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don't walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don't find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,' said the gentleman, 'for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.'"

Politics was no different. The institutions of representative democracy were susceptible to refinement, and the history of the Western state is a marvelous tribute to the conscientiousness of political thinkers in pursuing all avenues to perfecting the system. Nonetheless, the philosophical underpinnings of representative democracy were regarded as universal, and the European states vigorously reproduced that system of government all over the world.

The institution of the nation-state was thus universalized, but the content of the nation-state could not be similarly spread. The contract between state and citizen made sense in demarcated territories in which the idea of both state and citizen had slowly developed in tandem. Such a contract could not simply be replicated in any meaningful way without the long and arduous struggle between kings, nobles, merchants, and peasants. Moreover, the idea of "nation" grew simultaneously with the idea of the "state." As the internal struggles were waged between the various sectors of society, the conflict established a sense of identity among the combatants. And the resolution of those conflicts established the rules by which future disputes could be resolved peacefully.

The Europeans took this process for granted, because it was, in a very real and meaningful sense, a natural process. The error of the Europeans was to believe that, because they had not noticed it, the process of nation-building was less important than the process of state building. Additionally, the idea of regulating colonies was viewed as an administrative and military matter, and not one which required a sensitive understanding of the cultural dimensions of legitimate rule. For the Europeans, their right to rule was based upon what they believed was their superior comprehension of rational behavior and that their governance would bring the less fortunate along in acquiring the necessary rationality.

I will not go into any detail about the numerous ways the Europeans were wrong in their understanding of this process. I am concerned only with one aspect of their error: their belief in the universality of their system, a belief which required them to depreciate the value and significance of culture. The Europeans believed that a universal man existed, and, because of the superior power available to the European states, they were able to persist in this belief for a long period of time.

I dwell on these three characteristics of the Enlightenment because for the last five hundred years, these views have grown into the dominant world view largely because of the material successes of European culture and its willingness to use force to impose it on non-European peoples. The most brilliant success of this perspective is quite clearly the United States, a geographical entity for which freedom was the absolutely perfect value.

In the United States, which is perhaps the supreme example of a rhetorical commitment to Enlightenment values, the idea that all men all created equal is pervasive. Americans disagree strenuously about what it means to be treated equally, but very few in American society make the argument that all men ought not to be treated equally, and those that do are not regarded very seriously. The guarantees of equal treatment are codified in the Bill of Rights, which makes the rules governing behavior explicit even though it is clear that the rules are not always followed. Any individual in American society has the theoretical right to speak, to assemble, to petition the government, to demand protection against unequal treatment, and so forth. These guarantees are made regardless of the sex, ethnic background, race, religion, or status of the individual involved. In other words, the rules of state prohibit the injection of cultural attributes into the political life of the nation.

This is not, however, to say that everyone agrees with these values and ideals. Indeed, there has always been a steady counterpoint to these values both within and outside of the West. More importantly, at this point in history there seems to be a growing sense that the European system is incomplete and we are beginning to hear voices for change. These voices for change are the challenge to tradition.

What are the Challenges to the Tradition?

There are two sources of the challenges to tradition in international relations. The first source are internal changes in the European tradition which have tended to undermine the Enlightenment ethos. These changes start in the late nineteenth century and were well-recognized in Europe at the time, although the United States never really comprehended the nature of the changes, and, in many respects, still does not.

I will only briefly characterize the internal challenges. All of them occurred within Europe, and collectively they served to undermine the claim of universality of the Enlightenment. The first was Nietzsche, who argued that morality was not transcendent or natural, but rather the product of a struggle for power in the tradition of Thrasymachus. He was followed by Darwin, who knocked the species off the pedestal and argued that it was merely the product of genetic adaptation. Freud erased the sense that rationality was itself explicable and posited the darker motives of the subconscious as primary movers of human behavior. Godel proved that the elegant coherence of arithmetic was not based on its relation to the natural universe but rather on the rules articulated by mathematicians themselves. And Einstein upset the magnificent clock-like universe of Newton, unwilling to accept the randomness of the quantum universe leaving its explanation to his students like Heisenberg.

The arts were perhaps the most visible and obvious challenges to the Enlightenment traditions. Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring smashed the measured rhythms and harmonies of Bach and Mozart. James Joyce replaced the intricate stories of Dickens and Austen with a stream of consciousness and virtual incomprehensibility. And, insult of all insults, poetry no longer rhymed.

But the end of the Enlightenment in Europe occurred on the battlefields of World War I, when all the promises of human rationality, science, and progress rang hollow. What was undoubtedly the stupidest war in human history led to the slaughter of millions, and itself sowed the seeds of yet another war. The world turned away from the visions of the Enlightenment as Stalin, Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler experimented with the totalitarian alternatives to human freedom. The Great Depression suggested to millions that the future was not inevitably rosy.

The Enlightenment tradition was carried on by the only country unscathed by the Second World War—indeed, the one country that emerged from the war even stronger and better off than it had been when the war started. The United States carried on the European tradition and defined its national interest in defending the institutions of representative democracy, market capitalism, and the system of nation-states. During the period of American hegemony, the number of nation-states increased from 45 to about 185 as the Enlightenment promises of national independence were realized through the process of decolonization. Throughout the Cold War, the United States expended trillions of dollars to expand the range of its influence and the influence of Enlightenment values.

By 1991 it appeared as if the challenges to tradition had been met. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were no major contenders to the values of democracy and capitalism. But appearances can be deceiving. There are external challenges to the European tradition in international relations which are gathering strength.

Asian Values

For example, there is growing evidence of what is called an alternative value system, one which is led by some of the East and Southeast Asian countries. This alternative system claims that the emphasis on human rights so characteristic of the Enlightenment tradition is misplaced and that more emphasis must be placed on the rights of the collective. Let me quote to you the worlds of Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore in 1990:

The basic difference in our approach springs from our traditional Asian value system which places the interests of the community over and above that of the individual.

In English doctrine, the rights of the individual must be the paramount consideration. We shook ourselves free from the confines of English norms which did not accord with customs and values of Singapore society.

In criminal law legislation, our priority is the security and well-being of law-abiding citizens rather than the rights of the criminal to be protected from incriminating evidence.

The Prime Minister is echoing what many in the West believe to be true, but the legal apparatus of the state is solidly entrenched against such an interpretation of rights.


Perhaps the most extreme case of disagreement in the world today is in the former Yugoslavia. Let me read to you the rules once enforced by the Serbs in the Bosnian town of Celinac. Non-Serbs are forbidden to:

--meet in cafes, restaurants, or other public places;

--bathe or swim in the rivers;

--hunt or fish

--move to another town without authorization;

--carry a weapon;

--drive or travel by car;

--gather in groups of more than three men;

--contact relatives from outside Celinac

--use means of communication other than the post office phone;

--wear uniforms: military, police, or forest guard;

--sell real estate or exchange homes without approval;

Additionally, all non-Serbs must fulfill the tasks assigned to them by the Serbs, must behave in a disciplined way, and must not show contempt for the struggle of the Serb population for its independence.

These rules are simply fantastic to many of us. They conjure up the horrors of the holocaust and seem too incredible to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, they are taken seriously and thousands and been killed and displaced because of the assertion of collective right by the Serbs, the Croats, and increasingly by the Muslims.

The Pan-Islamic Movement

The final example of the challenge to Western traditions in international relations is that of the Pan-Islamic movement, best characterized by the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The existence of the state itself is a repudiation of one of the most important principles of the Western tradition—the separation of Church and State. The policies of Iran are at considerable variance with the interests of many of the major powers and conflict between the growing pan-Islamic movement and the West seems to be inevitable.


I do not regard the existence of these alternative value systems as a necessary or inherent threat to the traditions of international relations, but they do represent a considerable challenge. The western traditions will not be repudiated, but they will be changed by these challenges.