Review – The Dao of World Politics by L.H.M Ling

(7 min)

In The Dao of World Politics, Ling uses Daoist dialectics to move beyond the parochial, state-centric Westphalian conception of a hierarchical and violent world politics in order to portray a world politics based on ethics, fluidity, compassion and care. Daoist dialectics offer a relational perception of world politics, emphasising the complementary and contradictory relationships between actors. For Ling, Westphalia World exhibits the yang quality of public dominance and visibility against the yin quality of silence and concealment embodied by Multiple Worlds.[1] It could be argued from the onset that Ling is ironically further reinforcing the West vs non-West dichotomy by portraying Westphalia World as the strong, visible yang to Multiple World’s weak, silent yin. Yet the author acknowledges that change within and between this relationship can only occur if we engage directly with the current issue, dispelling the common assumption that one must either succumb to or ignore dichotomies completely. By attributing East/West relations to yin and yang, Ling is neither reinforcing the necessity for Eurocentric binaries nor omitting them altogether, instead she effectively engages with and exposes this dichotomous relationship in order to propose an alternative, relational, more inclusive way of perceiving it.

This relational approach is introduced through Ling’s theory of Worldism in part one, which begins with a critique of the parochial Eurocentric depictions of hierarchy and violence offered by orthodox Western IR on the grounds that they serve to silence subaltern voices. This initial critique of mainstream Western IR ultimately justifies Ling’s proceeding non-Westphalian analytic. The author seeks to achieve a “post-Westphalian IR” through Worldism, which aims to expose subaltern contributions to world politics as well as the co-constitutive relationship between Multiple Worlds and Westphalia World.[2] Ling’s Worldism therefore differs from that advanced by feminism and postcolonialism as it not only addresses the marginalisation of the subaltern and their effect on world politics, but also recognises their ontological parity with and ability to balance Westphalia World. Instead of rejecting Western approaches to the international altogether, Ling actively engages with Westphalia World to encourage “creative speaking and listening among Multiple Worlds as well as within Westphalia World”.[3] Worldism is therefore advanced by Ling with the aim of mitigating the epistemic violence inflicted upon Multiple Worlds as it provides a means for subalterns to “speak to Westphalia world from a position of parity”.[4]

Ling’s direct engagement with Westphalia World in relation to Multiple Worlds is a refreshing alternative to Critical IR theory’s (CIRT) compulsion to either solely criticise Westphalia or ignore them altogether when trying to overcome Eurocentric depictions of world politics. Most Critical IR approaches – such as Postcolonialism, Post-Structuralism and Marxism – are solely concerned with placing the West at the centre of analyses to expose, critique and subsequently prosecute them for their exploitative, (neo)imperialistic undertakings in world politics. Whilst their critique of Western (neo)imperialism and its effect on “Multiple Worlds” may be agreeable, this nevertheless reifies Western agency at the expense of non-Western agency.[5] Put in Ling’s terms, solely exposing the (neo)imperial exploitation inflicted upon the subaltern by the West ignores the agential capabilities and influences of Multiple Worlds on and within Westphalia World and hinders any possibility for communication between the two worlds. The epistemic and practical dominance of Westphalia over Multiple Worlds – whether constructed or real – is undeniable, yet it is precisely this dominance that necessitates a direct engagement with Westphalia World. Ling’s approach is therefore one of the first to provide hope that a post-Westphalian International Relations is viable; only by recognising the mutuality and co-constitutive relationship between both Westphalia and Multiple Worlds can we move beyond the parochial, hierarchical and violent conception of world politics towards a more ethical, fluid and relational approach.

The strength and necessity of Ling’s Worldist approach is further explicated in part two which focuses specifically on the application of the three Worldist dialogics – resonance, relationality, and interbeing – to cotemporary political issues. Here, Ling aims to move beyond the Westphalian binary logic of the “China threat”, which assumes Chinese institutions are so “alien” that in order to integrate into world politics they must conform and internalize Western norms, or else face discipline from the West.[6] Ling’s relational approach emphasises engagement over assimilation, parity over hegemony, and therefore deviates from orthodox assumptions of hegemony as a zero-sum game. The utilisation of Chinese dialectics in this way exposes the co-constitutive relationship between the US and China, revealing the “China-within-US” and the “US-within-China”.[7] Ling is therefore effectively able to de-link the Eurocentric West vs Rest binary inherent within the China threat thesis by reconstructing the US-China relationship as one of relationality and mutuality. Worldist dialogics are therefore integral to the unbiased realisation of both Eastern and Western agency in the making of world politics.

Secondly, Ling depicts the emotional and normative resonance growing between, inside and around the Asia Pacific, emphasising how phenomena we typically perceive as unchanging, universal and fixed are actually constantly changing upon interaction with one another. Here, Ling’s aim is to move from notions of a hierarchical world politics to fluidity. These two dialogics help to identify the third –  interbeing. Ling utilises the third dialogic to shift China-India relations from violence to compassion through “chatting”, which is extended towards the end of part two through the idea of creative speaking/listening. This is encouraged by Ling as a means to hybridise individuated identities through mutual respect, which can only be realised if the listeners are able to speak and the speakers listen. Interbeing is therefore achieved through this mutual equality of speaking and listening with the hope that those divided by borders and (non)physical boundaries –  especially India and China – can circumvent socially constructed barriers in order to move away from hegemony towards harmony, installing a sense of inclusivity between and within Westphalia and Multiple Worlds.

The Dao of World Politics therefore stands out from the existing literature as Ling goes beyond a mere critique of Eurocentric approaches to world politics. The author not only produces an alternative perspective to IR’s parochialism but confidently proceeds to implement this framework, justifying the practical integrity of the three Worldist dialogics through applicable, real-world examples. Her insights are therefore not only applicable to IR theory, but can be adopted in order to create a more harmonious world politics, evidenced in her reformulation of India-China and US-China-Taiwan relations using Daoist dialectics.

Whilst Ling succeeds in differentiating her work from the mainstream in this way, she does risk homogenising Multiple Worlds as one single entity that share the same values and worldview. Painting “them” with the same brush universalises Multiple Worlds as one singular entity, ignoring the multiplicity of difference within and between this “world”. Whilst Ling would argue that “a world politics limited to states misses most of the world and its politics”, there must be some differentiation within Multiple Worlds otherwise the author is at risk of advocating vague and poorly defined criteria which may hinder the persuasiveness of the overall argument.[8] As it currently stands, Ling’s depiction of Multiple Worlds is merely reduced to being all alternative, non-Westphalian worldviews.

That said, The Dao of World Politics is applicable to a multitude of disciplines both within and outside IR. On a broader level, Ling’s approach depicts how indigenous and subaltern perspectives, voices, practices or approaches can be exposed and subsequently utilised to either create a broader theory of IR or challenge what is commonly perceived to be universal knowledge. The brilliance of Ling’s Worldism lies in its practical and theoretical applicability wherein both the researcher and the researched can become less violent – epistemically and politically – and move from a system of hierarchical states and research practices towards a world system of harmony and disciplinary inclusion. Ling’s book essentially subverts orthodox Western approaches to world politics, inviting “unreformed, non-Western Others into the formal sitting room of IR theory to engage in a discourse among equals”.[9]

It could be criticised that the strong commitment to reflexivity throughout the book may discourage the majority of “Westphalia World” scholars within IR from engaging with Ling’s work as they do not share these same methodological commitments. Resultantly, Ling’s ultimate aim of moving beyond the Westphalian conception of world politics will be counterproductive as she cannot engage with and directly speak to those perspectives she wishes to alter. Ling therefore potentially runs the risk of speaking solely to a non-Eurocentric audience already in tune with these debates and critiques.

Whilst the author’s unconformity to mainstream IR criteria may seem an unproductive exercise, her reflexivity coupled with the inclusion of unorthodox representations of knowledge through storytelling, anecdotes, plays and drawings is a refreshingly different approach which marries together nicely with the overall theme of the book. The perceived necessity to conform to orthodox Western IR norms and criteria within the academy is subverted here, which enables Ling to subtly remind the reader throughout the course of the book that one can and should approach knowledge about world politics in ways that do not necessarily adhere to the pre-set criteria set out by mainstream Western IR. If anything, Ling’s approach to knowledge is a delightful celebration of bottom-up theorising, depicting the unequivocal ability to write indigenously and authentically from within the mainstream.


[1] L.H.M Ling, The Dao of World Politics: Towards a post-Westphalian Worldist International Relations (New York, Routledge, 2014), p. 18.

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] Ibid., p.2.

[4] Ibid., p.2.

[5] John Hobson and Alina Sajed, ‘Navigating Beyond the Eurofetishist Frontier of Critical IR Theory: Exploring the Complex Landscapes of Non-Western Agency’, International Studies Review, (19) 2017, pp. 547-572.

[6] L.H.M Ling, The Dao of World Politics: Towards a post-Westphalian Worldist International Relations (New York, Routledge, 2014), p. 90.

[7] Ibid., p. 96.

[8] Ibid., p. 139.

[9] Ibid., p. 92.


Hobson J., and Sajed, A., ‘Navigating Beyond the Eurofetishist Frontier of Critical IR Theory: Exploring the Complex Landscapes of Non-Western Agency’, International Studies Review, (19) 2017, pp. 547-572.

Ling, L., The Dao of World Politics: Towards a post-Westphalian Worldist International Relations (New York, Routledge, 2014), pp. 1-173.

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