School of Global Studies

Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy

Kees van der Pijl

International relations have traditionally been understood as the diplomatic engagement of states with each other, whether directly or via international organisations. This project takes a broader view by identifying and studying ‘modes of foreign relations’ – that is, all interactions between communities occupying separate spaces and considering each other as outsiders.


A specific ‘mode of foreign relations’ is defined by the way in which a community occupies a space, how it protects it, and by the broader nature of its exchanges with ‘others’. A new taxonomy of modes has thus been elaborated through the historical study of past systems of foreign relations. For example, the 1000-year long history of China’s dealings with nomads on the Inner Asian frontier might constitute an ‘imperial mode‘. By applying this typology to the contemporary world, analysts are, for example, better able to understand the complex relations in which the West finds itself entangled when it intervenes, peacefully or militarily, in non-Western societies.

Key finding

The project has broadened the scope of historical materialism to include foreign relations. The Marxist legacy has focused on the notion of modes of production, revealing how capitalism is only one, historically transient form of economy, preceded and, at some point, to be superseded, by other modes. By applying the concept of ‘modes’ - historical, consistent patterns – to the sphere of foreign relations, this project demonstrates that inter-state relations are not the natural, but rather one historical and transient form of ‘foreign relations’.

The research

The project was supported by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship 2006-2009. It has benefited from doctoral research undertaken in Global Studies. Amongst others, Renk Özdemir has researched the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923, and Todd Scarth, supported by a Commonwealth Scholarship, has studied relations with Canadian ‘first nations’.

Key publications

Nomads, Empires, States (vol. I of Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy) London: Pluto 2007 (Deutscher Memorial Prize 2008)

The Foreign Encounter in Myth and Religion (vol. II of Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy) London: Pluto 2010

Panoramic image courtesy of WorldofGood