President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI一带一路) in 2013. The BRI, which will pass through over 60 countries in Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa, aims at improving and creating new trading routes and investment opportunities. It consists of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI), and is a continuation of China’s “opening up” policy. It comprises six overland and one maritime economic cooperation corridors, supporting the expansion of Chinese enterprises abroad to facilitate industrial upgrading at home, paving the way for Chinese outward foreign direct investment (OFDI) and trade abroad, and advancing the internationalization of the Chinese currency. In addition, the project is welcomed by recipient countries due to their need for infrastructure investment. China remains the biggest player in the initiation and implementation of BRI projects. As such, the impact of Chinese projects on the economic, political, cultural, and environmental fabric of host countries will likely be dramatic, especially since many BRI projects are large-scale infrastructure projects that cut across different regions and states. The COVID-19 pandemic further implicated the progress of BRI projects in these areas.
Xiang Li, Mengqi Shao, and May Tan-Mullins
John Stuart Mill’s Method of Agreement and Method of Difference have been well known both in international relations (IR) scholarship and methods discussions. Despite numerous methodological innovations since the publication of Mill’s A System of Logic in 1843, the persuasive logic and intuitive appeal of the Method of Agreement and the Method of Difference have allowed them to remain a staple in IR scholarship. The utility of Mill’s methods, however, has not gone unquestioned. Claims persist that the two methods are not suitable for social science research because their requirements are too demanding. Sustained criticism of Mill’s methods requires a sober look at their promise and potential to facilitate causal inference. Cautionary notes necessitate awareness of the logic of Mill’s comparative methods, their underlying assumptions, and remedies for potential pitfalls and weaknesses. Three underlying assumptions are associated with Mill’s methods—determinism, the inclusion of all causally relevant causes, and the independence of cases. Three core criticisms have been leveled at Mill’s methods: the inability to deal with equifinality, the narrow focus on single causes, and the purported incompatibility with observational research. Causal inference in observational settings can be strengthened by dealing with interaction effects, by specifying causal connections as correlational or set-relational, by supplementing the use of Mill’s methods with within-case procedures like process tracing, and by using qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) as a similar yet more complete comparative method.
Process tracing (PT) is a case study method that enables scholars to study how causal processes (also known as causal mechanisms) play out in real-world cases. Despite the increasing popularity of the method in international studies, there is still considerable disagreement among scholars about how to understand the process actually being traced and how these processes can be studied empirically. This article tries to bring clarity to these disagreements by arguing that there is not one correct variant of PT, but instead several distinct variants of PT methods that differ based on the positions scholars take on what is being traced and how it can be traced. First, some scholars work with simple, abstract (minimalist) process theories, whereas others disaggregate process theories into parts composed of actors engaging in activities. Second, some scholars contend that inferences that assess the difference that a process makes for outcomes can only be made through controlled comparisons of cases. Others posit that we should study processes through the empirical traces left by their operation within cases. Finally, there are scholars who contend that causal processes in international studies involve social actors, meaning that more interpretive methods should be combined with more traditional PT. The article illustrates how different variants of PT have been used in published work within international studies, followed by a discussion of key challenges with using PT methods.
Joana Setzer and Karen Anderton
Subnational diplomacy has become an increasingly important part of foreign policy and international relations. This observation concerns a state of affairs that is not necessarily obvious or given. First, by definition, subnational governments usually conduct subnational activities and address problems that affect their constituencies. Second, in many countries subnational governments undertake such an agenda without an actual legal framework authorizing such initiatives. However, with an intensified global interdependency, policy areas such as environmental protection, human rights, immigration, and trade, just to name a few, require action both at the international and territorialized levels, as many of them transcend political administrative boundaries. As a result, in the early 21st century it is possible to determine various forms of international relations conducted by subnational leaders. This activity involves direct interactions undertaken by subnational leaders and bureaucrats with other actors across borders (private, non-governmental, and governmental—national or subnational), participation in transnational networks, and/or participation in international policymaking. Because subnational governments are closer to the people and can test experimental or groundbreaking policies with less risk, oftentimes they can become pioneers of measures that can be rolled out or replicated elsewhere in the international domain. Such policy leadership is just one element of subnational engagement in the diplomatic arena whereby subnational governments move across jurisdictional levels, breaking the fixed scales in which they would traditionally operate. In the past years, scholars investigating the external relations undertaken by subnational governments have dedicated great effort to understanding the motivations for regions to go into the international arena. What these studies lack, however, is an understanding of what the implications are of subnational governments’ engagement in international relations.
The discipline of International Relations is not at the cutting edge of dealing with planetary ecological problems such as the worsening climate crisis. The notion of the Anthropocene developed by earth scientists highlights the extent to which humans are a geological force shaping earth’s ecosystems. This official scientific discourse has gained traction in the United Nations climate negotiations process and is beginning to shape the knowledge project even in the academy. However, the discipline of International Relations has not engaged in any serious way with the Anthropocene discourse. Its claim that the Anthropos, the human as a species, and more generally 7.8 billion people on the planet are responsible causally for dangerous impacts such as climate change clashes with how the discipline of International Relations understands and seeks to explain global politics through its theoretical frameworks, relations, dynamics, and institutions. This claim warrants critical engagement from the International Relations discipline. However, mainstream International Relations epistemology reinforces coloniality in international relations such that an oppressive and relational hierarchy between the Global North and South is reproduced while being oblivious to how the ecological substratum of our lifeworld is being destroyed through replicating modes of living central to global modernity. Ecological relations are not part of mainstream International Relations thinking. Within mainstream International Relations, its hegemonic theories and frameworks are the problem. The conception of the international and international relations operating within the Anthropocene discourse also reproduces coloniality. Although the science it furnishes to understand the human–nature relationship is compelling and important, its human-centered explanation of how global power works is inadequate and reinforces the subordination of the Global South. To overcome these problems, a decolonized approach to the discipline of International Relations is crucial. At the same time, given the urgency of the climate crisis, countries in the Global South need to remake the world order and its future through decolonized International Relations. Several Southern decolonial thinkers are crucial for this task.