CLASS 1: INTRODUCTION
Our current international system is an historical institution and a social organisation.
In our history we have known many different systems: citystates, feudalism, colonialism, …
but empires have been the most common system.
Sovereign states as we know them today didn’t exist before the 16th century. Their origin
coincided with the modern era. The international system defined modernity.
The last empire was the empire of Timurlane, but it was an unsustainable system based on
nomadic rule. It was the last attempt to cover ground from the far west to the far east.
The system same to an end with the peace of Westphalia in 1648. It was an interstate
agreement to balance power. It marked the start of sovereign states and a first attempt to end
the church’s worldly power. It was a sustainable way to make states co-exist in an
Sovereignty is all about authority and power. Authority consists of the right to command, the
right to be obeyed and the power being legitimized and accepted by the subordinates. Power
means the effective and uncontested control of the system.
The authority has to be in the hands of a worldly ruler: not the church, but a government.
Nowadays it is the structuring principle of international relations, but it is no longer absolute.
That is because we have international cooperation: EU trade policy, humanitarian
interventions, globalism, … states depend on each other.
CLASS 2: 16TH CENTURY IMPERIALSM
After 1480 Europeans, mainly Portugal and Spain, travelled beyond known borders and
changed international relations.
Europe became the middle point of a maritime enterprise that extended from China to Peru.
Portugal has a great geopolitical advantage: great oceanic knowledge, a vibrant trade
community and Genovese capital (money).
In 1415 they have their first expedition to conquer Ceuta, because there’s gold available. This
is the start of Portugal’s imperial ambitions: Madeira (1426), Azores (1430), … The
Portuguese imperialism was driven by legendary gold and fuelled by real gold.
They diverted the West African gold trade via the Atlantic Sea route and so gained a
monopoly over the coastal waters and cities of Africa. The Portuguese reached the Cape of
Good Hope in 1488 and later in 1498 Vasco Da Gama reached India.
Their aim was not to create an empire in Africa or elsewhere, they were only interested in
trade so they remained on the African coasts (without going inland) to set up bases to
facilitate trade and travel. This was easy because African and Asian stated were more focused
on their inland affairs and not in control over the waters.
Portugal never behaved like a crusader, but more like a long distance traders between China,
Japan, India and Europe.
Their international ‘empire’ was more of a loose knit network of Portuguese communities,
consisting of settlers and locals.
Later both Portugal and Spain signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, in which they divided their
When Portugal landed in Brazil (1500), this treaty was relevant once more. Even though
Portugal was initially only interested in brazilwood, they installed a government in Brazil
after a few more expeditions in 1549. After that Brazil formed part of the Triangular trade
between Europe, Africa and the America’s. They traded in sugar, tobacco and cotton.
Spain had a similar geopolitical advantage as Portugal.
Spain’s imperialistic adventure started with Columbus, who undertook a voyage to China in
1492, but landed in the Bahamas, followed by more expeditions. Yet the conquest of Latin
America was not logical. Spain only perused this because of the gold they found in
Hispaniola. This was the start of their imperial enterprise.
The gold rush attracted many settlers and the gold they found fuelled further exploration of
America. It was Hernando Cortes who was the first to conquer an empire (the Aztecs), with
the help of cultural, technological and biological surprises/advantages.
Later also the Inca empire fell apart (by lack of loyalty and the capture of the emperor). This
happened in 1532.
The difference between Portugal and Spain is their aim: Spain actually wanted to establish an
overseas Spanish empire. It was a durable expansion of wealth and power: new immigrants in
Latin America necessitated the import of African slaves and the presence of the Catholic
church. They built an elaborate administrative and judicial system in their colonies, but they
were never fully incorporated into the Spanish state.
The princely state of Muscovy (Grootvorstendom Moskou) bordered the European continent.
It had grown from a tributary state of the Mongol empire to a fur-trading empire covering the
greater part of North Asia in the 1650’s.
For the Russians (Muscovy) overseas expansion was not an option, so they mostly expanded
They felt a great competition, both politically and cultural, with Poland-Lithuania at this point
so the goal of Ivan the third was to create a dynastic state according to the European model,
while depending on the income of fur-trade and taxation of the Russian peasants.
Nevertheless Ivan 3 became the Grand Duke of Muscovy and all the Russia’s.
While Ivan 3 had to deal with the expansion and creating a state, he also had an internal
struggle with warrior-barons. But he did win this struggle and celebrated victory over Khanate
He was successful because of a social and political crisis of the societies of the Volga steppe
and a mutual competition for control among the khanates.
There was a double revolution to make Muscovy a proto-state (= is a political entity that does
not represent a fully institutionalized or autonomous sovereign state). A gunpowder army took
control over land and also a close control over the peasant communities.
Yet all through history, there was continuous internal unrest in Muscovy/Russia.
Stronger and more cohesive Islamic states consolidated power and had an expansive drive
into South East Europe, Sub-Sahara Africa, South India and South East Asia.
The Ottoman Empire, built around the Mediterranean had always been a stable society,
determining regional politics for 500 years. Yet there was a change in the 15th and 16th
century. In 1453 Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans. This was the start of their
regional European expansion in the second half of the 16th century, which ended with the
failed assault in Vienna in 1529. In the 17th century they focused their expansionist ideas on
Africa and Asia.
Islamic empires typically had a large standing army and naval power, and skilful diplomacy.
The durability of these empires was based on a combination of Islamic tradition and dynastic
Timar = was land granted by the Ottoman sultans between the fourteenth and sixteenth
centuries, with a tax revenue annual value of less than 20 000 akçes.
Millet = was a separate court of law pertaining to "personal law" under which a
confessional community was allowed to rule itself under its own laws.
Devshirme = known as the blood tax or tribute in blood, was chiefly the practice
where by the Ottoman Empire sent military officers to take Christian boys from
their families in Eastern and Southeastern Europe in order that they be raised to
serve the state.
This stability changed mid 16th century with several transformations within the empire: from
feudal cavalry to gunpowder army, the timar system changed, the devshirme system turned
into hereditary caste system, and the Ottoman empire got into a 100 year war. They had to
adapt to a new kind of territorial stability: the Ottoman empire was no longer an absolutist
state, but more a commonwealth of Islamic communities.