Things to know about World Politics and how it really works
Nobody is in charge.
A continuing feature of world politics is that there is no overall authority such as the federal government in the U.S. Each country has sovereignty, which means that it has the authority to make its own domestic and foreign policies.
The notion of sovereignty came about after the Thirty Years War killed about one third of the European population in an orgy of battles, massacres, atrocities, starvation and switching sides. The weary survivors agreed in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that maybe it wasn’t so important after all whether a kingdom was Protestant or Catholic. Each ruler could decide for himself the religion of his state. From this beginning arose the notion of sovereignty, or the ability of each country to decide its own domestic and foreign policies.
The flip side of sovereignty is that each country is on its own, plus whatever support it can gain from allies and international organizations. Technically, this is called anarchy, but this does not imply the colloquial meaning of “chaos.” There is plenty of order in the system, since most nation-states follow the international rules. However, there is no formal authority enforcing the rules. Each country follows what it sees as its national interests. For instance, North Korea believes it is in their interest to have nuclear weapons to increase their power in the world system and as deterrence against a U.S. attack. We can’t call World 911 to stop their program because there is no World 911.
Nation states are still the primary international players.
Although international organizations such as the United Nations and other nonstate actors such as ISIS and Coca Cola are much more numerous and important, nation states remain the primary players in world politics. This is despite repeated predictions that they will weaken and eventually disappear. Ain’t gonna happen in the foreseeable future. Within international organizations, nation states are again the main players.
Domestic factors affect world politics and vice versa.
In order to stay in power, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised the anti-European Union faction of his Conservative Party that he would hold a national referendum on whether to stay in the EU. To everyone’s shock, in 2016 the country narrowly voted to leave (Brexit), which is causing all kinds of problems in a country that imports 70% of its food from Europe. On the other hand, leaders sometimes use foreign policy to gain stature and win elections (e.g. Bush 2 used 9/11 to win in 2004), while failed foreign policies can result in leaders being pushed out of office. (Lyndon Johnson did not run for re-election in 1968 because of the Vietnam War. Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair lost in 2007 because of the Iraq War. U.S. Republicans lost in 2008 partially because of the Iraq War.) Political parties, the military and other bureaucracies may want or oppose war. Domestic industries complain about foreign imports and demand help in increasing exports. Exiles from other countries try to affect policy toward their home country. For instance, Iraqi exiles had a big influence on the decision to Invade Iraq in 2003
Perceptions Affect Reality. Perceptions influence and can become reality.
People, including national leaders, see the world through filters that organize and sometimes distort reality. For instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the U.S. as trying to hurt Russia and is fighting to regain world power.
How maps are drawn is another example. One humorous map turns the world upside down and puts Australia at the top and center instead of ‘down under.’ Some U.S. maps cut Eurasia in half to put the U.S. at the center. Japanese maps put Japan at the center. Maps from the 1600s through the 1900s used the Mercator projection, which exaggerates the size of the Northern hemisphere, where most maps were produced. Today’s more accurate maps show that Africa is 2 ½ times the size of the U.S.
Cooperation and Conflict.
There is a huge amount of unnoticed cooperation in the international system that we take for granted. For instance, an international organization called ICANN decides on each country’s internet suffix. In 2009, they decided to allow new suffixes and the use of Chinese, Arabic and other non-Roman languages. Intelsat decides where communication satellites should be placed in orbit. Even during the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR cooperated in numerous ways to avoid conflict. NATO members work together on military matters, e.g., intervening to stop the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s.
Continuity and change.
Today, things are changing more and faster, but many things remain the same. Years after 9/11 supposedly changed everything, global trade continues, China continues to rise, and India/Pakistan, North Korea and Israel/Palestine remain flash points. The nature of war has changed dramatically, with precision bombs that can go through the doorway of a building, drones that can be controlled from several thousand miles away and cyberattacks that can cripple governments, banks and utilities. However, much of war is still being fought by infantry walking down alleys and kicking in doors.