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Toward a Dynamic Theory of International Politics: Insights from Comparing Ancient China and Early Modern Europe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 April 2004

Victoria Tin-bor Hui
Victoria Tin-bor Hui is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at
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This article examines why international relations theories presume checks and balances but universal domination triumphed in ancient China. I argue that one should not presume the European experience as the norm and treat ancient China as a deviant case. I propose a dynamic theory of international politics that views international competition as processes of strategic interaction and that allows for alternative trajectories and endogenous transformation. Realist theories of international politics tend to focus on structural mechanisms and overlook agential strategies. At the same time, these theories focus on causal mechanisms that check attempts at domination and overlook mechanisms that facilitate domination. It is true that attempts at domination are checked by the mechanisms of balance of power and rising costs of expansion. But domination-seekers may overcome such obstacles by pursuing divide-and-conquer strategies, ruthless tactics, and self-strengthening reforms. From this strategic-interactive perspective, universal domination is no less possible than the balance of power.I would like to express my gratitude to Jack Snyder, Ira Katznelson, Charles Tilly, Thomas Bernstein, Michael Davis, and David Kang for their extensive comments on multiple drafts. I also want to thank Fiona Adamson, Bear Braumoeller, E. Bruce Brooks, Lars-Erik Cederman, Thomas Christensen, Claudio Cioffi-Revilla, Charles Cogan, Timothy Crawford, Julian Franklin, Taylor Fravel, Robert Goodin, Yoav Gortzak, A. Iain Johnston, Edward Kolodziej, Andrew Kydd, Mark Lewis, Daniel Nexon, Richard Rosecrance, Stephen Rosen, Peter Rutland, Mark Sheetz, Erik Voeten, R. Harrison Wagner, R. Bin Wong, and the editor-in-chief and two anonymous reviewers of International Organization for their thoughtful and critical comments. In addition, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, the Institute for the Study of World Politics, the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, and the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University sponsored various phases of this project.

Research Article
© 2004 The IO Foundation and Cambridge University Press

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