Writing a New History with Questions No One Dares to Ask

Science Fields

With the goal of fostering scientific development, Koç University has initiated the “Koç University Rahmi M. Koç Medal of Science” program, designed to recognise accomplished and pioneering scientists who have emerged from Türkiye and have made significant contributions to the accumulation of universal knowledge, whether within the country or abroad. The eighth edition of these awards took place this year, with the distinguished recipient being Prof. Ayşe Zarakol, a renowned figure in international relations at Cambridge University and a political science researcher at Emmanuel College. Prof. Zarakol was honoured for her globally acclaimed studies in the fields of “Administrative Sciences, Social Sciences, Humanities, and Law.”

In an exclusive interview, we spoke with Prof. Ayşe Zarakol, delving into her research that played a pivotal role in securing this prestigious award, exploring her ongoing work, and gaining insights into her plans for the future.

KURIOUS: Your books and research offer a unique historical perspective that illuminates the landscape of international relations in a distinctive manner. What do you aim with this novel approach? How do you anticipate its potential influence on the narrative of international relations history?

Ayşe Zarakol: The study of international relations traditionally concentrates on the current state of the world, seeking to comprehend contemporary global dynamics. Yet, to truly grasp and forecast present events, you have to look at history. This field of study essentially analyses the past behaviours of major powers, examines the motives of nations, and applies the implications of this knowledge to the present. However, the historical framework commonly utilized in the discipline of international relations is predominantly Western-centric. What I am trying to do, instead, is to extend the understanding of international relations history beyond this confined Western perspective, and thus contribute to the creation of more robust theories.

KURIOUS: In your first book titled After Defeat How the East Learned to Live with the West, you make a comparative analysis of Türkiye, Japan, and Russia’s relationships with the West, exploring their integration into the international system. Why did you select these three countries?

Ayşe Zarakol: My starting point was Türkiye because of my familiarity with the country, aiming to challenge prevailing theories of international relations. I sought to emphasize that factors beyond material conditions or military prowess, such as questions of identity. These also play a crucial role in shaping foreign and domestic politics, and I intended to provide a historical framework to explain this perspective. This is not unique to Turkey, and I wanted to demonstrate that it has a broader applicability. Consequently, I selected Japan and Russia, as I perceived similarities with Türkiye in certain aspects. The commonality among these three nations lay in their initial positioning outside the Western-centric order that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. While they aspired to join this order, they harboured reservations and occasionally contested it. Each country experienced significant defeats: the Ottoman in World War I, Japan in World War II, and Russia’s Cold War setback. Comparing how the three countries responded to these defeats allowed me to identify shared dynamics in international relations.

In framing this exploration, I employed Erving Goffman’s sociological theory of “stigmatisation.” When discussing a Western-cantered order, we refer to a system wherein Europe sets the rules and norms. Consequently, even if you possess material strength, there is a sense of incompleteness due to not being “exactly like them,” a concept termed stigmatisation in sociology. This sociological dynamic, evident in these three countries and others, influences political preferences. Efforts to be respected and treated equally within the Eurocentric international order lead to domestic and foreign policy actions aimed at eradicating this perceived stain. Examples include Türkiye’s modernisation in the early Republican era, Japan’s post-World War II efforts to become an economic “miracle,” and Russia’s post-Cold War endeavours to gain acceptance are all driven by the desire to eliminate this stigma.

KURIOUS: In your second book, Before the West: The Rise and Fall of Eastern World Orders, you explore the origins of modern international relations. Could you elaborate on the concept of modern international relations, and why the narrative typically begins with the Peace of Westphalia, with no acknowledgment of international relations before this point?

Ayşe Zarakol: The conventional narrative of global international relations adheres to a classical perspective, often characterized by a reductionist viewpoint that traces the commencement of the modern international order to the Peace of Westphalia following the 30 Years’ War. This narrative suggests that this order was initially embraced among European states before extending its influence worldwide. However, this approach tends to overlook both non-Western perspectives and earlier historical periods, fostering the misconception that international relations did not exist before this specific timeframe. I did not want to tell this story. This is why I sought to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the evolution of the world order by examining the history of international relations before that period.

KURIOUS: So, you’re asserting that this represents just one phase of modern international relations, and that international relations did exist in earlier historical periods.

Ayşe Zarakol: Yes, precisely. I think that the modern international relation had similar dynamics in earlier historical periods, and the interactions before this period significantly contributed to shaping the foundations of the modern world order.

KURIOUS: Is it not possible to write an Asia-centred history of international relations? This is what you explore in your book, is that correct?

Ayşe Zarakol: I think that Asia and Eurasia also have a general history, akin to the history of Europe. Although individuals often tend to be familiar only with the part they perceive as the precursor to their nation-state. In fact, just as there is a comprehensive history of Europe, there exists a broader history of Asia and Eurasia, encompassing the relationships between states in the region. Historical interactions were not exclusively routed through Europe; however, following the establishment of the Western-centred order in the 19th century, everyone’s relationship with the international order began to be conducted through the West. That’s why I wanted to see how these states interacted with each other before the Europeans arrived. Starting with the Mongol Empire, I tried to explain the general history of Asia and the relations between the states in this region. After the Mongol invasions, a great empire was created that covered almost all of Asia, spanning from Eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean. Consequently, the entire continent was connected through roads and administrative officials, a lot of people moved from one place to another. For example, the Chinese influence in Islamic art as Chinese artists were brought to Central Asia, or scientific exchanges between these states, or even material effects such as the application of the same laws in many places. The period known as Pax Mongolica, or the Mongol Peace, also provided a secure environment that fostered increased commercial, cultural, and social interactions.

What’s important to me is that there is a commonality in the history of the peoples of Asia and Eurasia, and after the collapse of the Mongol khanates, there are states that continued the same traditions and the same concept of the state. Similarly, just as today the states that were colonies of the British Empire continue some of their practices and behaviours -even though they reject these, in China, for instance, the Ming Dynasty, succeeding the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, which was not Mongolian, behaved like the Mongols, as they had seen and known them before. Starting from the Chinggisid model of sovereignty and its world order, I am not discussing a specific region or period, but rather the entirety of Asia and a shared history.

KURIOUS: What is the 17th century crisis? Is such a crisis likely to happen again? How might it lead to changes in the radical world order? 

Ayşe Zarakol: The crisis of the 17th century denotes a period marked by the repercussions of climate change, resulting in political, economic, and social upheavals worldwide. This era, a climate change known as the Little Ice Age caused adverse effects on agriculture, population, and the economy, creating significant challenges. After nearly a century of this tumultuous period, the global axis of world order shifted from the East to the West. Historians recognise the 17th century as a highly intricate period, characterised by events such as the 30 Years’ War in Europe, the English Civil War, Jalali rebellions in the Ottoman Empire, dynastic changes and major revolts in China, as well as a phase referred to as “times of hardship” in Russia, marked by prolonged leadership vacuums. Historians of the past often pondered “Why did these happen?” and sought various political and economic explanations. Perhaps the sensitivities has heightened toward such factors, given our contemporary experience with an environmental crisis.

Due to climate change during that era, the northern hemisphere experienced a temperature drop of 2-3°C compared to previous times, leading to significant agricultural losses and a major decline in population. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, one in every three villages in Anatolia vanished. The accompanying epidemics, famines sparking revolts… Similarly, the disruption of overland trade routes from Asia tilted the advantage toward Europe in terms of maritime trade, despite its higher risks.

To me, like other historians, this historical period draws parallels with the 21st century. Comparing the 17th-century crisis to today’s climate change and uncertainties reveals potentially similar effects, including the risk of wars, rebellions, economic upheavals, and political changes. Moreover, in the 17th century, particularly with the onset of the Enlightenment Period in Europe, there were notable advancements in modern thought and technology. Presently, we are also faced with technological changes whose outcomes remain unforeseeable. Considering all these factors, the 21st century appears similar to the 17th century. Prolonged periods of disorder tend to produce new beneficiaries; for example, the West benefited from the upheavals of the 17th century, and perhaps the current crisis may favour the East. However, the outcome remains unpredictable since the rules of the game are not evolving gradually. This uncertainty makes it challenging to anticipate which entities will emerge favourably from this turbulent period. Such a scenario could potentially shape a radical world order, profoundly impacting global relations.

KURIOUS: You received the Koç University Rahmi M. Koç Medal of Science. Receiving an award is definitely honouring and prestigious, but does it also contribute to researchers in other ways?

Ayşe Zarakol: Awards undoubtedly bring personal honour, but, more importantly for me, these awards carry the potential to inspire scientific endeavours and budding scientists. Frankly, the early stages of my career were challenging as I delved into unconventional topics, even my initial publications were somewhat delayed. When I sent my first paper –which later received high reference, we could not find a jury to evaluate it. Embarking on a path less travelled poses difficulties. But as my work garners awards, I find solace in persevering through those challenges and tend to think it may be encouraging the next generation of young scientists to venture into unexplored territories. The essence of awards lies in their purpose to recognise and support individuals engaged in distinctive and innovative scientific pursuits. They may serve as examples for emerging scientists, further motivating them. Awards also have the potential to attract additional funding for research and science, fostering the possibility of more significant contributions in the future.

KURIOUS: What do you think are the priority needs of young scientists, and what are the steps that must be taken in this regard?

Ayşe Zarakol: During a workshop I attended at Koç University last September, I had the privilege of witnessing the exceptional brilliance of young scientists in Türkiye. In my observation, the primary requirement for these talented individuals is establishing connections with the global scientific community. Unfortunately, maintaining such connections is challenging due to economic and political conditions both within Türkiye and on a global scale. Nevertheless, academia and scholarly pursuits greatly benefit from these international connections. Therefore, it is crucial to extend financial and moral support to young academics, enabling them to establish and sustain these connections.