Pandemic Rereads is one of my lockdown projects. Over the next few months I have set myself the goal of going through my study bookshelves in search of books that I have not read in a while. These are books I don’t regularly use in my research or teaching, and so they cry out to be reappraised. I do not claim to be an expert on these books, so I am sure that I am missing many of the nuances in the texts that have been picked up by real experts. Hopefully, though, there is value in casting a fresh pair of eyes over a text that we think we know.

Today I post my thoughts on rereading Adda B. Bozeman’s Politics and Culture in International History. I first came across this book after finishing my MA, but before I started my PhD. I was disappointed with the lack of historical depth in International Relations (IR), and I was looking for books that looked at global politics through a more historical lens that took the field back before 1500. I got more than I bargained for, as Bozeman challenged not just the ahistorical nature of IR, but also its West-only bias. While lacking the critical eye of Eric R. Wolf’s later book Europe and the People Without History (another book I read at that time), it was still refreshingly global in its coverage when compared to the rest of the field. While I have occasionally gone back to Wolf’s book, Bozeman’s has remained unread amidst my other books on ancient and medieval history. The pandemic is an opportunity to reread this forgotten work.

A quick aside: when I was co-editor of the International History Review the late Nick Rengger had approached us with the idea of writing an article on Adda Bozeman. Sadly, he never did write the article.

Page numbers in the text refer to the original paperback version: Adda B. Bozeman, Politics and Culture in International History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960)

Adda Bozeman has disappeared from IR’s collective memory, despite her thirty-year career as an IR professor and a long productive post-retirement. A research-active popular professor at Sarah Lawrence College, she was also involved in conservative politics in the United States, and was a member of The Committee on the Present Danger, a conservative group that lobbied against détente and the SALT II arms control treaty.

Her disappearance from IR seems odd. Indeed, this might be a confirmation of a trend in IR for major women thinkers of the past (of whatever political persuasion) to be marginalized and forgotten after their deaths. Bozeman fits into a category that Patricia Owens has called ‘white women’s IR’: a group that was not particularly radical or critical, but often included people like Bozeman who had an interest in the non-western world and the multicultural nature of global politics. Yet, despite her absence from today’s IR canon, the book received high praise at the time from Martin Wight, Harold Lasswell, and Charles A. McClelland.

SALT II signing
Signing SALT II

The Deep Cultural Trends in International Relations
Bozeman’s central idea is that we cannot make sense of international politics without first grasping the long cultural traditions that affect it. Writing at a time when the old European empires were giving way to decolonization, Bozeman is sceptical of the ability of western values to provide the sole basis for a universal international structure.

The seeming universalization of the idea of the western state was, for Bozeman, a naïve idea that had already been challenged by communism’s alternative of a bipolar conflict. Yet, she argued, even the communists were naïve in seeing the world as primarily a two-way conflict. Instead, Bozeman argued that the world was multicultural, and that these cultural traditions had deep roots in the past. Even in colonial territories that had fully westernized institutions, the non-western remained. The result was the creation of hybrid societies were western and non-western traditions formed a ‘substrata dialogue’. (5) This dialogue is responsible for the modern state undergoing a metamorphosis in non-western regions. (6)

Yet, Bozeman also rejected the idea that cultural traditions were self-contained and stable units. Despite the dissonance of multiple and long-lived traditions, she claimed that international history was actually a coherent whole. This coherence came from the many ‘connections, cross references, synchronisms and correlations’ that existed between political units. (18) Thus, even the concept of the state itself, as the institution that was usually seen as containing specific cultures, was a cultural concept expressing an ‘agreement on the outer form of political organization’. (19)

Similarly, the Western conceit that its culture was the sui generis creator of the cosmopolitan ‘one world’ idea was refuted by the existence of earlier non-Western versions of the same idea that often travelled across borders. (133) Despite this view, Bozeman later in the book did argue that the Western form of universalism had developed something the non-Western had not. Yet, by seeing the Western tradition as part of an interconnected whole, while also denying its claim to be uniquely global, Bozeman seemed to challenge the idea of the West as a progressive motor of history. By the end of the book she had backtracked on this, arguing that the West had produced something unique and exportable, (454) but her insistence on international history as a single-but-diverse human endeavour did at least challenge the notion that the non-Western world was somehow ‘without history’.

Thus, Bozeman questioned both the idea of an unchallenged western-inspired global political culture for contemporary international politics, and the idea of separate clearly designated cultures. Neither a unifying diplomatic high culture, nor a nationalist patchwork quilt were accurate understandings of the world for her. Instead she posited a world of many cultures united in the interconnected networks of cultural patterns.

Since international history was an interconnected whole, it followed that the international historian needed to keep ‘a world perspective’ at all times. This meant not getting booged down in ‘local records’, but rather studying the full range of human historical experiences that went beyond the usual history of ‘success stories’. (58-60) International history was about the full human experience in all its interconnected forms.

A global perspective

Underlying Bozeman’s view of the nature and power of culture was a reading of the human condition influenced by Joseph Campbell (Campbell had read a copy of the manuscript before publication, and had been a source for material on India). A fellow professor at Sarah Lawrence College, Campbell’s study of myth was based on the idea that the multiplicity of mythological tales all followed a common pattern. The same unity in diversity appears in Bozeman’s view of culture in international history.

On top of this Bozeman also took from Campbell the idea of myths as ‘major structuring principles of reality”, so that a historian needed to understand the ‘interplay between reality and myth’ in any region’s history. (10) Humans are equipped with both reason and imagination, so the relationship between myth and reality was subjective and defined by time and the environment. (11) From this, she interpreted her tour d’horizon of international history from the Bronze Age to 1500 as reviving collective memories that could then be used to understand the different views of the world that existed today.


An International History… But From a Western Perspective?
The majority of the book is taken up with Bozeman’s account of international history. Put into the context of IR books of its time, the scope of historical detail is breathtaking. Contemporary classical realism and behaviouralism both claimed to be based on ahistorical truths about human nature and behaviour, yet this claim seemed (more often than not) to be an excuse to ignore the full sweep of the historical record.

Yet, there were limits to Bozeman’s historical gaze. Her story is almost exclusively of literate and settled societies. The few nomads who make it in are bit-part players that only earn the right to be taken seriously if, like the Parthians, they settle. Pastoralists and hunter-gatherers are left out of ‘humanity’s joint venture’, while both the Americas before Columbus and sub-Saharan Africa are effectively written out. This is a multicultural history, but it is focused on the strip of land that runs from the Yellow Sea to the North Atlantic. Even Japan shows up only to receive Buddhism.

So, while Bozeman did extend our vision beyond the recent past and the wholly Western gaze of IR in 1960, there is a bias in favour of the literate Eurasian farmers. In this sense she has maintained the old conceit that divides civilizations with history from the uncivilized without history. The later have to be content with being described as ‘vast regions… where innumerable and variously organized political societies’ exist independently. (162) The view of the civilized is now more multicultural, but it is still excluding.

Tului With Queen Sorgaqtani
Mongol Queen Sorghaqhtani… The importance of the steppe in Eurasian history

As a legal scholar Bozeman is at her best in the discussion of the interlinkages between culture, law, and politics. What was missing, except for the occasional mention of trade and merchants, was a discussion of the political economy of the societies that she sets out to understand. This blindness would have major implications for how she extrapolated her ideas into the modern world at the end of the book.

Despite missing an appreciation of political economy, Bozeman does manage to capture the fluidity and cross-border nature of culture at work in pre-1500 international relations. Drawing on her refusal to write a history of successful societies, she plays up often short-lived experiments that nonetheless played important roles in cultural diffusion and exchange. Thus, the section on the Hellenistic world explores both the role that Rhodes played in creating a common Mediterranean law, and the cultural bridge that Greek-led Indo-Bactrian kingdoms provided between India and the West. Medieval religious and scholarly networks are discussed, and the Byzantine inheritance is retrieved from the anti-Byzantine bias of Western historians. Her last chapter makes much of the diplomatic and trading practices of Venice and the Hanseatic League. Culture in Bozeman’s narrative becomes a fluid and malleable force that brings about fundamental change via often short-lived liminal networks and societies.


While the historical narrative of the book is far-ranging, the story focusses in on the European Middle Ages. It is here that Bozeman begins to lay out a case for Western exceptionalism that appears to backtrack on the multicultural promise found at the start of the book. At the end she would try to reconcile these, but without a full understanding of the unique political economy underpinning relations between Western and non-Western cultures the attempt is not fully successful.

For Bozeman the period between 500 and 1500 marks a major watershed in world history. It is here that she sees Western Christendom developing a set of traditions, including the modern state, that would eventually produce the realities of modern international relations. (219-20) While Bozeman believes it is not until after 1500 that a coherence develops in Western ideas of world order, the various elements emerge in the millennia before. These include the legal commitment to constitutionalism, the peculiar link between the individual and government, and the formation of an international order that saw international affairs as more than just the exercise of raw power.

It is within this context that she subscribes to the myth that the treaties of Westphalia somehow ushered in a state-based order of separate sovereignties. (453) A myth that probably originated in 1948 with Leo Gross, this position has been thoroughly debunked by later scholars.

While not wholly uncritical of the Western tradition – which she accuses of being less than faithful executors of the Christian legacy, who frequently failed to translate moral values into social usefulness (249) – she compares if favourably to what she saw as static societies east of the Mediterranean. (429) Having been critical of the idea of an East-West divide in earlier periods, she now argues that just such a mismatch between Occident and Orient is manifest by 1500, and that these differences would prevent harmonious interactions and adjustments between the two. (391)

The Western tradition, in her narrative, becomes a dynamic tradition that is capable of realizing the common goal of global unity, but through law and constitutional arrangements, rather than conquest. Thus, while the West is not the only tradition to seek peace through unity, she argues that it is the only one that is capable of achieving those goals through a means other than pure power. Bozeman’s position here does not take account of the raw power used in Western imperialism and colonization after 1500.

Her arguments about the success of the West is underscored by comparisons with two other major Medieval traditions: the Byzantine and the Muslim. She sees the Byzantine heritage of fusing state power with religion as a source of the very different tradition found in Russia that accounts for the power-based diplomacy of the Soviet Union. (325)

Islamic scholars
Part of an intercultural network

While showing more respect for Islam – where she describes the Dar al-Islam approvingly as ‘an empire-in-motion’ sweeping others up into a caravan moving to an end (366) – Bozeman argues that it ultimately failed to transform religious unity into an effective empire or harmonious union. (385) While she notes that Islamic states were amongst the most enthusiastic adopters of the Western constitutional state in the twentieth century, she saw the unresolved issues between religion and nationalism (and religion and secularism) as meaning that the ‘Islamic and Western European traditions of government are fundamentally incongruous.’ (377)

Yet was Bozeman’s view of the West accurate?


Nostalgia (for the West) Isn’t What it Used to Be
While Bozeman’s historical chapters are well researched, they do rely on a partial reading of the historical record. In fact, in the sense that she increasingly reads the past back in terms of the concerns of the present, hers is a Whig interpretation of history. Concepts associated with the West by Westerners in the mid-twentieth century are read back onto the messy historical record. Developments of legal practices, of constitutionalism, growing secularism, democracy, and individualism are read into the stories of ages and societies where these were not necessarily how politics was defined.

Similarly, the history of the West is more complex and contradictory than Bozeman’s narrative suggests. Interestingly the index has no reference to the Reformation, a time when doctrinal absolutism led to vicious internecine conflicts, as well as full blown wars of religion. Political authorities during the reformation brutally imposed doctrinal conformity on their populations, and protestant fundamentalist purity was putted against Catholic orthodoxy. Yet Bozeman concludes that Western Europeans raised individual preference above doctrine, and that this was the basis of their conversion of the balance of power system away from anarchy. (489)

callot horrors of war
The Western preference for the individual over doctrine?

While the absence of the Reformation and Wars of Religion leads to an underplaying of the role of doctrinal absolutism in Western history, the lack of discussion of the absolutist tradition in modern European politics allows Bozeman to play up the differences between her interpretations of a monolithic Byzantine/Russian tradition and a more pluralist West. The problem for her argument is that royal absolutism developed after the Renaissance as a thoroughly modern Western tradition in societies as diverse as France, Denmark, Prussia, Spain and Austria. Equally important, absolutism does not really die out until the nineteenth century, and absolutist monarchs were often associated with Enlightenment ideas. So the idea of a clear Western progression to pluralism since 1500 is at best naïve.

Indeed, the undermining of absolutism was not accomplished by legal niceties inherited from a Medieval past, but by a series of often bloody revolutions, of which the Great French Revolution of 1789 and the Europe-wide events of 1848 are but two of the more spectacular examples. Europe’s tradition of absolutist monarchies was, therefore, very much part of its modern history, with Denmark only abolishing it in favour of a liberal constitution in 1849. How much Western constitutionalism is a product of distant Medieval practices, and how much of a more recent liberal rebellion against modern absolutism, is a debate for another day.

What was that about the West and monolithic states?

A particular milestone in the development of an ordered Western diplomatic system mentioned by Bozeman is the post-1815 Congress System, (516) where the predominantly absolutist victors of the Napoleonic Wars managed European affairs for the benefit of the revived ancien regime. A key member of this system, and an important – even central – part of the European diplomatic community during the eighteenth and nineteenth century was Russia. Key to Bozeman’s Whig history is the idea that the Soviet Union of 1960 is an heir to a non-Western Byzantine past, yet here we see Russia as a key player in a European diplomatic system where it is for much of the time one of several absolutist states in the European Concert. Thus, the idea of a clear division between the West and ‘Byzantine’ Russia does not fully hold up.

In this sense, the second part of the book does not live up to the promise of the first. Her initial view of fluid cultural trends leading to the creation of new forms of international politics is replaced in the end with rigid definitions of what is Western and non-Western. The closer the narrative gets to 1500 the more culture ceases to be a liquid, and takes on solid forms with analogues to the late twentieth century Cold War divisions.

Thus Bozeman has constructed a past Western tradition that allows her to create an idea of the West that is, in turn, designed to contrast with both the Soviet Union and the non-Western traditions that appear to be re-emerging after the decline of the Western colonial empires. Despite its claim to explore the past, this is a work that is really trying to make sense of the world in 1960, not the one before 1500.

That said, her view of the relationship between the West and the non-West in the twentieth century is not completely flattering to the West, although she does miss crucial reasons (other than cultural differences) that can account for the non-Western antipathy for the Cold War Western alliance. On the first issue she does acknowledge that Western imperialism was just as bad as any past imperialism, although she hedges this with the claim that decolonization and the West’s willingness to relinquish power makes it different. Again, this is not an accurate view of the decolonization process that also included serious colonial wars and liberation struggles.

The central missed element in her discussion of the modern relationship between the West and the non-West is the lack of a political economy lens. Without an understanding of industrialization, and the economic element behind Western imperialism, both the reasons for colonialism by the global North, and later neo-colonial economic grievances from the Global South, make no sense. Deliberate economic underdevelopment, and the construction of a global economy that favoured Western interests, are issues of conflict that remain hidden if your concern is legal and cultural.

Cargos of Empire uncropt
Also global…

Finally, Bozeman presents the non-Western cultural irruption in post-colonial states as a reaction against one part of Western values. Again, there is much that is glossed over. Indeed, in some states, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, Western policy was to support older monarchies against real and potential democratic or constitutional insurgents. This was a pattern often repeated across the Global South. Western Cold War policy was quite happy for many states to be less Western in their cultures if that meant they were more western in their economic and strategic outlook.


Revising Bozeman… Using Bozeman?
But is there something we can take from the book’s argument? Interestingly, if Bozeman had applied some of her earlier insights about culture in international history to the post-1945 World she might have provided IR with a refreshingly new approach to the international relations of the Cold War. Her concepts of the fluidity of culture and the diverse-yet-unified nature of international history could both have been used to re-read the Cold War years in a new way.

For example, Bozeman misses the importance of the Western roots of communism, emerging as it does from continental philosophy and British political economy. Communism’s diffusion, through the Soviet Union to colonial and semi-colonial territories, saw the merging of different cultural narratives to create new cultural patterns. Similarly, anti-colonial movements frequently adopted Western liberal ideas in order to oppose both traditional elites and colonial governments.

Maoist legacy
A communist cultural mixing?

The traffic was also not one way. African Americans benefited from a ‘Black Atlantic’ cultural exchange, which saw literate populations in West Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States exchange ideas via new periodicals and other forms of exchange. The modern Commonwealth owes much of its current form to the active participation of recently independent India in the 1950s, Global South diasporas in the West have used their transnational links to enrich the cultural, political, and economic lives of societies across their networks. The idea of a single troublesome liminal conflict in the newly decolonized world is only a part of the story of post-1945 intercultural relations.

In addition to this, Bozeman’s idea of international history as a common human heritage is a powerful antidote to the Western parochialism that Bozeman criticized in the last section of the book. Her vision of frustrated Westerners retreating into ethnocentric traditions (522) seems to flow from the false idea that we can clearly delineate a separate Western tradition. The idea of a diverse international history, united by its multiple interconnections, which she first champions in this book but then abandons, is perhaps Bozeman’s most important lesson. As she wrote at the end of the book:

“The particular moment in which we find ourselves today… invites the thoughtful to reconsider the realities and myths in international history that have called forth the present world society, and to resume the creative quest for intercultural accords upon which so many of their predecessors have engaged.” (522)

Sadly, her short-term political loyalties overcame her broader political judgment.


  1. I enjoyed the article. I found about Adda Bozeman in SPH clash of civilizations and found her book like a month ago in Thank you for the review of her book.


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