Insight into the Hindsight of History

June 12, 2020 by Eunje Kim


In our analysis of history, we often adopt a linear perspective, examining how the events of the past affect the present. However, the political scientist David Kang emphasizes that history also works backwards. That is, “whose side of the story gets told in the present affects our knowledge of the past.” Although we are familiar with the dynamics of power politics, we frequently fall prey to the narratives written by the dominant culture. In many cases, this leads to inadequate assessments about historical contexts. As a result, we must train to keep a critical eye, or as you would learn during the first week of Introduction to International Studies, “look for the anomalies.”

Let’s consider the Peace of Westphalia (1646-1648). The Peace of Westphalia is commonly thought of as the foundation of the modern international system, which put an end to the religious interstate wars in the 16th to 17th centuries and internationalized the principle of sovereignty. The birth of sovereign nation-states would operate on the basis of equal rights to non-interference to enable peaceful coexistence. The treaties of Westphalia became the standard that nation-states used to evaluate the rights and wrongs of whether neighboring countries’ actions were admissible. 

But let’s not forget about who gets to be the ultimate judge of internalized principles. Although this period might have been the golden age for some European powers, it was remarkably one of the darkest moments for the rest of the world. Only half a century later, the European powers violated the sacred principle of sovereignty, unleashing two wars: the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and Austrian Succession (1740-1748). These conflicts were about deciding the leaders of their neighboring countries and demonstrating power to enforce their national strategic interests. Subsequently, these great powers applied a double standard, pursuing territorial colonization of the New World. As Winston Churchill put it, the Seven Years War (1756-1763), also recognized as the skirmishes of England, France, and Spain over the ownership of North America, was the “first world war.”

The political scientist David Kang also raises an interesting inquiry in his book East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. What accounts for the fact that “Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea marked the only military conflict between Japan, Korea, and China for over six centuries?” The author introduces the “tribute system,” an alternative international relations theory that focuses on the unequal and hierarchical relations of East Asian powers. Although the idea of unequal relations is often condemned, Kang indicates that their shared consensus of deference to one state, China, enabled their “regional stability and prosperity.” It was only after the arrival of the West that these countries came to reinterpret the tribute system as “backward” and “despotic,” thus rewriting history in nationalistic language that viewed sovereignty as inherently normative, while downplaying “centuries of stability and close relations with China” that were previously regarded “a sign of cultural and civilizational strength.” All of this is to say that contemporary history may not represent actual history, but in fact, a modified version that fits the frame of what has been internalized as glorifiable by the rule-setter. 

To sum up this systematic approach of analysis, the point is that the ongoing normalization of ideologies introduced by the dominant culture are not without flaws or intrinsically desirable. We should not take them as givens, but rather, critically analyze their validity before taking steps to adopt them. 

On a closer note to our daily decision-making processes, we could, for instance, re-examine the role of modern capitalism. The rise of the internet in the mid-twentieth century is considered an innovative breakthrough that enabled the democratization of information on a global scale. This has brought promises of increased productivity, efficiency, and optimization. However, the very basics of a capitalist economy tell us that nothing is free. There are opportunity costs to anything. Behind the medium through which we receive our information, there are suppliers who are profit-driven and whose purpose is to capture our attention towards their product. We may think that our attention is worth giving, but are the filters transparent? We are seeing problems of fake news content and addiction to digital platforms. Under the veil of personalized feeds deemed convenient, we pay with the currency of our time, sleep, and values. This is not to debunk nor undermine the benefits that innovation brings us, but to examine to which aspects we are or may become vulnerable. 

Once again, let’s be critical and think, are there no anomalies around us?

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” 

James Williams

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.