Friday, February 25, 2011

International Relations Theory and Western Dominance: Amitav Acharya

In the field of international relations, there is now a growing recognition that what passes for theory has been, and continues to be, shaped mainly by the Western ideas, experiences, and practices. Stanley Hoffman once famously described the field of international relations as an ‘American social science.’ If this is true of the entire field, it is even more so of its theory, although the latter is more accurately characterised as “western”, rather than merely “American”, despite the latter’s greater claim to “social scientifism”. Moreover, international relations as a field of study is no longer the exclusive preserve of either American or Western universities. Some of the fastest advances in the discipline are taking place in non-Western countries, especially China, India and even Indonesia. In China, for example, some 48 universities are now conferring bachelor degree in international studies. Yet, IR theory remains stubbornly Western, incorporating relatively few insights and voices from the non-West.

Why is this the case? A recent investigation into this question by a project led by Barry Buzan and this writer and entitled “Why is there no Non-Western IR Theory: Reflections on and from Asia”, came up with a number of possible explanations. These explanations, which can apply to other parts of the non-Western world, range from the hegemonic status of Western scholars, publications and institutions in IR, to a realisation that Western IRT has discovered the right path to understanding IR, or the right answers to the puzzles and problems of the day, to a serious lack of institutional resources, the problem of language, and the close nexus between IR academics and the government which discourages theoretical work. We also found an uncritical acceptance of Western theory, a lack of confidence to take on Western theorists, blind deference to scholars from prestigious Western institutions, such as Australian scholars studying Indonesia who “may think Indonesia as their academic backyard”, and too much social life for scholars. What passes for theory in Asia is mostly theory-testing, scholars looking at Western thinking, and applying to the local context, rather than injecting indigenous ideas and insights from local practices to the main body of IR theory.

Of these, the first explanation, namely the hegemonic status of Western IRT, is of particular importance. To elaborate, this project is:

...not about whether Western IRT has found all the right paths to truth. It is about whether, because Western IRT has been carried by the dominance of Western power over the last few centuries, it has acquired a Gramscian hegemonic status that operates largely unconsciously in the minds of others, and regardless of whether the theory is correct or not. Here one would need to take into account the intellectual impact of Western imperialism and the success of the powerful in imprinting their own understandings onto the minds and practices of the non-Western world...the process of decolonisation left in its wake a world remodelled, sometimes badly, on the lines of the European state and its ‘anarchical society’ form of international relations. The price of independence was that local elites accept this structure, and a good case can be made that they not only did so under duress, but absorbed and made their own a whole set of key Western ideas about the practice of political economy, including most conspicuously and most universally, sovereignty, territoriality and nationalism. (Introduction to the Acharya and Buzan Volume)

It is this type of Western dominance that forms the rationale for my project of which this lecture is a very preliminary and truncated version. In this project, I explore the following questions:

1. If we assume some form of Western dominance in IR theory exists, can we come to some agreement as to what it actually means, or how is it manifested?
2. Is Western dominance merely an intellectual question, i.e. establishing the ‘non-universality’ of IR theory, or a normative one, extending to an examination of whether and how IRT has legitimised the West’s dominant position in the international system?
3. How is Western dominance reflected in some of the principal approaches to international order?
I should note here that it is not my aim to start a new ‘debate,’ as happened in the past between Idealists and Realists, or traditionalists and behaviouralists, or rationalists and post-positivists. This would amount to taking an extreme position for and against something or someone. I do not dismiss, much less denounce, the contribution of IR theory in spreading the discipline of international relations in the non-West. I also acknowledge that IR theory is not a monolith, and that some theories are more sensitive to non-Western experience and hence more cognizant of the dominance of the West over the non-West, than others. These include post-colonialism, feminism, and even some versions of what may be called “subaltern constructivism”, i.e. social constructivism that recognises the two-way diffusion of ideas and norms and examines the patterns of socialisation leading to community-building in the non-Western world. I also do not consider the problem of Western dominance as a grand conspiracy by Western intellectual elites and their leaders to keep the rest of the world down and out. Instead, I view Western dominance as inevitable, perhaps even necessary, deriving from the West’s recent historical position. Instead of being a grand conspiracy, I see it as a series of loosely connected intellectual discourses, which have excluded the non-West, due as much to the intellectual conditioning associated with Western power and influence as to the ignorance or laziness of the theorist, or his/her proclivity for generating testable hypotheses by keeping the relevant samples relatively small and familiar, and thus Western. ....

Western Dominance

I then turn to the second concept that requires clarification: what do I mean by Western dominance. This is a far more difficult task. Normally, dominance means physical subjugation of the weak by the strong. But there can be other, softer forms of dominance. The Gramscian notion of hegemony offers a useful framework for capturing the essence of dominance. First, dominance, like the Gramscian notion of hegemony is both material and ideational. Since IR theory is essentially a set of ideas, it is a natural arena where Western dominance would be clearly manifested. Second, drawing upon the well-known formulation of Robert Cox (1986: 207) that ‘Theory is always for someone and for some purpose’, IR theory can be generally understood as serving the purpose of the dominant Western actors. Last but not the least, dominance, like hegemony, is both sustained by coercion and consent, but consent may be the more important element. It is therefore not surprising to see many scholars in the non-West accepting and using IR theory without much hesitance, at least initially, and that the field of international relations has progressed in the non-West despite having been rooted in Western historiography and foreign policy experience.

Dominance can take many different forms: exclusion, ethnocentrism, marginalization, oppression, contempt, ignorance, etc. In this project, I define Western dominance in terms of four dimensions: (1) auto-centrism (2) universalism, (3) disjuncture, and (4) agency denials. Together, they have contributed to four essential tendencies in IR theorizing.

· Auto-centrism refers to the tendency of theorizing about key principles of mechanisms of international order from mainly Western ideas, culture, politics, historical experiences and contemporary praxis. Conversely, it is reflected in the disregard, exclusion and marginalisation of non-Western ideas, culture, politics, historical experiences and contemporary praxis. Part of this auto-centrism can be attributed to a sense of superiority of the Western pattern over non-Western one.. For elaboration, see may paper on Ethnocentrism and Emancipatory IR Theory.

· Universalism: refers to the tendency to view or present Western ideas and practices as the universal standard, while non-Western principles and practices are viewed as particularisms, aberrations or inferiorities. As Steve Walt found out while seeking justification for his selection of Middle East case studies to develop a theory about the origin of alliances, “international relations scholars have long relied on historical cases and quantitative data drawn from European diplomatic history without being accused of a narrow geographic, temporal, or cultural focus.” (Stephen Walt, The Origin of Alliances (Cornell, 1987), pp.14-15. Much of what passes for IR theory then is European diplomatic history and contemporary American foreign policy management.

· Disjuncture refers to the lack of fit between what passes for IR theory and the experience of the non-Western world, although Western scholars seldom see this as an obstacle to theory-building. We have serious problems when applying theories of conflict, cooperation, institution-building, norm diffusion dynamics, that dominate the literature of IR to the non-West.

· Agency denial refers to the lack of acknowledgment of the agency of non-western states, regional institutions, civil society actors in contributing to world order, even serious additions and extensions to the principles and mechanisms which were devised by the West; the non-West is seen as consumers, rather than producers, at least passive recipients rather than active borrowers of theoretical knowledge claims.

I should stress here is that these four dimensions of Western dominance are not mutually exclusive, but inter-related and can run parallel, or in sequence, with each other. But the scope of my analysis of Western dominance does not stop with an investigation of these four dimensions. This is not just a project about investigating how the development of IR theory has mainly been a Western enterprise and contribution. I have framed the title of my project in a deliberately ambiguous manner. My argument is that these above four tendencies in IR theory, which reflect the dominant position of the West in the international system, have also legitimized Western dominance of the international system. Most academic studies of IR theory’s lack of universality focus mainly on the issue of Western intellectual hegemony. But no consideration of western dominance in the formulation of IR theory can be complete without looking at the other part of equation: how IR theory, while itself being a product of Western dominance, has also legitimized Western dominance. This interactive relationship between IR theory and Western dominance is at the core of my investigation. Simply put, the development of IR theory is reflective of the dominant position of the West in the international system. And conversely, IR theory ahs helped to legitimize that dominance.

International Order

While international relations theory has a broad and complex domain, this project looks specifically at the ordering principles and mechanisms in world politics. This is based on the assumption, contestably so perhaps, that issues and mechanisms of international order dominate the theories of international relations or constitute the core of the theory of the discipline. IR theory is in many ways about investigating the sources, mechanisms and limitations of international order building. In this project, I look specifically at four ordering elements:

1. Sovereignties (to signify multiple conceptions of sovereignty): As the organizing principle of international order
2. Powers: Great Power relationships
3. Institutions: International and regional institutions
4. Values and Norms: Norm dynamics and normative change

There are other mechanisms which could be added to the above list: international law, balance of power, democracy etc. But I hope to include discussion of international law in sovereignty and institutions, while balance of power in the discussion of great powers and democracy can be looked at within the context of institutions.

Although my project does not specify a historical timeframe, it is very much concerned with exploring continuities between Western dominance in the classical notions and practices of international order and those in the contemporary setting. Ideas change, so do theories of international order. Contributions to IR theory which reflected primarily Western ideas and sanctioned Western dominance in 17-19th centuries may have lost their relevance or appeal today. Yet, some elements of Western dominance that marked the origins of these ideas may still persist. The study of international relations is changing in major ways, but an important question is whether western dominance of it persists, in terms of the four dimensions identified earlier, and whether the lack of non-Western voices and weak representation of non-Western experiences in IR theory today can be partly explained by the foundational principles and practices of international order in earlier junctures. This is a major intellectual puzzle and challenge for my project.....


In this lecture, I have concentrated on identifying four dimensions of Western dominance with respect to four major instruments of international order. I should end by issuing a note of caution about the limitations of drawing too sharp a distinction between the West and the non-West. As Martin Wight noted in his analysis of Western values, neither West nor the non-West are categories that could be regarded as homogenous. The West is no longer one, if it ever was. Nor can there be any certainty about the shape and identity of the entity that has been excluded from IR theory. Is there a Third World, or South? The concept of the Third World has fallen into serious disuse since the end of the Cold War. But South is not entirely uncontroversial either.

I do not assume that only non-Western scholars are taking up the issue of Western dominance in IR theory. Many Western scholars, including many speakers in this Oxford series and its director are also uncomfortable with the status quo. This has led some to object that this distinction between West and non-West has become increasingly unsustainable and should be subsumed under a single global conversation about the nature and purpose of IR theory. While a global conversation is what we should really aim for, just because “west” and “non-west” are not homogenous categories does not mean that there is no such problem as IR Theory and Western dominance, both historically and in contemporary times. Like global warming, the problem of IR Theory and Western dominance can no longer be wished away. But unlike global warming, it may be desirable here to let the temperature rise a bit for a much overdue debate, which unlike the grand inter-paradigm debates before, might actually end in international relations being a more ‘uniting’, rather than a ‘dividing discipline.’

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