The 1970s and 2008: Theorizing Benchmark Dates for Today’s Decentred Global Order

Date01 January 2019
Published date01 January 2019
Subject MatterArticles
The 1970s and 2008:
Theorizing Benchmark
Dates for Today’s
Decentred Global Order
Maximilian Terhalle1,2
Many Western and non-Western scholars consider the 2008 financial crisis a
fundamental caesura, precipitating a decentred globalism. However, they have
neither conceptualized the foundations of the dynamics that developed before
this caesura nor have they theorized the amalgamating process which ultimately
merged the hitherto overlooked and the formerly predominant Western forces
and actors. Addressing this deficit, this article presents two innovations. First,
it re-conceptualizes the 1970s by integrating two macro-developments: China’s
deviation from patterns of the former Third World’s development and the thick-
ening of liberal politico-economic institutions. Their relationship was comple-
mentary, but independent, since heterogeneous purposes drove these strands.
Neither was disrupted by the end of bipolarity. Thereby, this article offers the
first narrative of the years 1970–2008, viewing them as the incubation period
of both strands’ simultaneous development before their fusion in ‘decentred
globalism’. Consequently, the 1970s supersede International Relations (IR’s)
hegemonic benchmark date of 1989–1991. Second, the article accounts for the
merging of macro-developments. It argues that, despite regularities, international
social life is characterized by heterogeneous purposes derived from different
social contexts, reflecting an environment that operates in multidirectional ways.
Large trends in the environment, such as those of the 1970s, may coincide at
contingent points in time (e.g., 2008). Based on comprehensive reviews of dis-
tinct literatures, these two innovations emerge as the key building blocks for
the development of a theory of benchmark dates for a ‘decentred’ global order.
Decentred global order, benchmark dates, 1970s, end of cold war
1 University of Winchester, United Kingdom.
2 King’s College London, Strand, London, United Kingdom.
Corresponding author:
Maximilian Terhalle, University of Winchester, Sparkford Road, Winchester, Hampshire SO22 4NR,
United Kingdom.
International Studies
56(1) 1–27, 2019
2019 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881718825076
2 International Studies 56(1)
Western and non-Western scholars of international politics broadly agree that the
financial crisis of 2008 represents a fundamental caesura (James, 2011, p. 525;
Saich, 2015, p. xix; Yan & Qi, 2012; Yizhou, 2011; Zhang, 2010, pp. 40–41, 46,
58). In fact, theorists of International Relations (IR) now widely agree that the
crisis precipitated a new era of ‘decentred globalism …, marked by the relative (if
not absolute) decline of the West and the more sustained closing of the power gap
begun during the post-Second World War period’ (Acharya, 2015; Buzan &
Lawson, 2015a, p. 318; Nye, 2015). China in particular facilitated and accelerated
this closing of the gap to such an extent that, by 2008, scholars and practitioners
acknowledged that it had become one party of the ‘most significant … bilateral
state-to-state relationship in the global order’ (Foot & Walter, 2011, p. 15) and,
thus, was deemed ‘indispensable’ for international policymaking (Milliband,
2009). In this sense, China provided the most obvious indication that the nature of
the global order had shifted from one that used to be centred on its dominating
Western core to one that has become materially less unequal and normatively
more diverse and is, thus, ‘decentred’. Moreover, ‘decentred globalism’ is now
frequently the starting point for strategy papers of high-level policymakers;
though, Buzan and Lawson’s term was introduced already by Bradley Klein some
20 years earlier (1994, p. 12).1
Curiously, the aforementioned unspoken consensus among a broad majority of
researchers has had very little to offer regarding the caesura itself, which pro-
pelled world politics into ‘decentred globalism’ in 2008. In particular, as the
notion of caesura implies the sustained disruption, possibly by coincidence, of a
previously predominant(ly) (Western) social structure and its yet unfinished mor-
phing into something unknown (though more global), this consensus has ignored
two critical developments. First, scholars have failed to explore the foundations of
the macro-historical dynamics that evolved before the caesura of 2008 occurred
and, second, they have not examined the key features of the amalgamating pro-
cess itself, in which both the hitherto overlooked and the formerly predominant
forces and actors merged in 2008.
Significantly, this article views the two developments as inextricably linked, in
that its theoretical analysis of the otherwise historically abstract notion of caesura
would remain unintelligible without the prior (and new) conceptualization of the
two macro-trends’ genesis since the 1970s. Only together, and in this inverse
order, they can help construct the framework for the formation of the new global
narrative of the 1970s. This eventual narrative may be understood as a theory in
the sense that it ‘structures questions and establishes a coherent … set of inter-
related concepts and categories’ (Buzan & Hansen, 2009, p. 47).
In order now to systematically build such a framework, this analysis offers two
innovations. The first, that is, conceptual move, is designed to supersede the dis-
cipline’s currently defining benchmark date of 1989–1991 and introduce the
1970s as the new global benchmark date for international politics. This is all the
more difficult as benchmark dates commonly ‘sustain a historical narrative, which
undergirds how the discipline constructs much of its research’ (Buzan & Lawson,

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