History of International Relations Textbook

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TED talk: “What is Non-Western IR Theory?”

I recorded this TED talk last Thursday. The manuscript is below. The video will be here too as soon as I get it. Enjoy!

The way we study of international politics at universities has for far too long been dominated by Western theories and concepts. The academic study of international relations — often abbreviated as “IR” — has a pro-Western bias.

Understandably, people elsewhere in the world are not satisfied with this. This is particularly true for quickly developing countries with a lot of self-confidence — such as China, but people in India, Brazil and even Turkey aren’t happy either. They have their own interests and perspectives — and they want the study of international relations to reflect this fact. What they are demanding is a “non-Western IR theory.”

But it is not at all clear what a non-Western IR theory might be. As a result, even critics continue, despite themselves, to rely on the assumptions of the existing discipline. So what indeed is the alternative? This is what I want to talk about. My suggestion is that we have to be far more radical. If we want an IR theory which is truly non-Western, we must reject the basic assumptions of the Western way of thinking about world politics.

So what is Western IR theory?

So, what are these assumptions? Well, international relations, Western IR scholar tell us, is more than anything the study of states and their relationships. A state is a territorial entity, with borders around it that determine who belongs and who doesn’t. The people who are included constitute a political community — often referred to as a “nation” — on whose behalf the state acts.

States, say Western IR scholars, are “sovereign,” meaning that they have a right to self-determination; they alone can determine their laws, policies and actions. Yet since the world consists of many sovereign states, each one must consider what the others are up to. Each state participates in a system of states.

But this is also the problem. Since all states are sovereign, no one can tell them what to do. Every state is in charge of itself, but no one is in charge of the system as a whole. Western IR scholars call this “anarchy.” The international system is “anarchic,” and this is why wars are common and peace is so difficult to achieve.

Before colonialism

Today there is only one international system — the Western system. All countries in the world are members of it, and they all resemble each other — they have the same kinds of foreign ministries, national anthems, flags, seats in the United Nations, and so on.

But the world did not always look like this. There was not always only one international system. Instead there have been many different systems in different parts of the world — and often they have existed side by side. International politics was ruled by a different logic in East Asia at the time of the Chinese Empire; in West Africa at the time of the Yoruba city-states; in Central America at the time of the Mayas, and so on. These non-Western alternatives had different conceptions of sovereignty, of territory, borders and political community. That is, they worked in quite non-Western ways.

How the Western system spread

So how did the Western international system come to replace all the others? Basically, it was a result of European colonialism in the nineteenth-century. But that can’t be right because colonialism is the very opposite of sovereignty. A colonized people has no self-determination.

Rather, the logic of the Western system spread to the rest of the world as a result of the process of decolonization. This happened above all in the decades after World War Two. Everywhere native politicians appeared who insisted that their particular colony should become a state just like the European states, and that they were the ones to lead them.

At the time, many Europeans worried about the prospect of a world filled with a lot of independent, perhaps unruly, non-Western entities. Yet what the native politicians told them was reassuring. The native leaders had often gone to school in Europe, they spoke European languages, and they could be trusted as “one of us.” True, their rhetoric often sounded anti-Western, but in practice they were in cahoots with their former colonial masters. They grabbed power for themselves while promising to perpetuate the Western model of the state — and thereby the Western international system.

State- and nation-building

As soon as the native politicians were in control there was no going back. From now on the political struggles concerned who should control the sovereign state, but the notion of sovereign statehood itself was no longer possible to question.

The only problem was that the nation-states which the native leaders were supposed to lead in most cases did not exist. There were “tribes” and “clans” and “nomadic peoples,” but they never lived neatly within the borders of the European maps which the independent states had inherited. Instead, what did not exist should now be constructed. Everywhere states and nations were going to be “built.” Exactly how this was to be be done was never quite clear, but international agencies and their experts were ready to help out. For well over fifty years now, the non-Western world has been engaged in desperate attempts at “state- and nation-building.”

Let’s not forget how preposterous this is! The study of international relations is supposed to be a science, but this is not a science. The world is not studied, but instead rearranged so as to fit with Western preconceptions. If there is a mismatch between the two, it is always reality, not the preconceptions, which is at fault. This is not an attempt to study the world as much as a way to transform it. The world is to be recreated in West’s image.

Failed states, and successful

Today we often hear references to “failed states.” A failed state is a country which never managed to construct a viable state and a unified nation. It is a country, that is, which has failed to live up to Western standards.

But why on earth should a non-Western country be able to successfully emulate a Western one? The task is difficult enough under the best of circumstances, but impossible if the population is destitute, the country is rich in natural resources, and power belongs to the warlords with the biggest guns. Non-Westerners just aren’t very good at being Westerners. Westerners, let’s face it, are so much better at it.

But there were or course some successful cases too — like Israel, Turkey and China. They became powerful, and they created nations for themselves, which were no less viable than their European counterparts. In each case, however, a high price was paid for their success. In the struggle for statehood, other political entities were wiped out, peoples were displaced and genocides committed. Thus there is today a Turkey but no Kurdistan, an Israel but no Palestine, a China but no independent Uighuristan or Tibet.

And yet the losers in these struggles did not just go away. They have continued to insist on their right to self-determination. The conflicts caused in this way have lasted for decades — and it looks like they will continue.

The problem

So this is the problem: as long as you make yourself free on someone else’s terms, you will never truly be free. Dependency will be built into the system from the very start. Under these circumstances you will, if you’re successful, only become a copy of the model which has been given to you — and, if you fail, your society will completely collapse.

In order to be truly independent, in other words, we must start from different assumptions. We must reject the logic of the Western international system. This, I would suggest, is what a non-Western IR theory should be about.

Much needs to be said about this of course, and I can say very little here. But let me provide a few suggestions. For inspiration, we can turn to history, but we can also study the present — and we can look to the future.

Learning from history: the glory of the Ottomans

Compare the disaster which is the contemporary Middle East with the international system which preceded it — the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire consisted of a multitude of very different peoples, each ruled by its own respective civil laws. The Ottoman Empire was both more pluralistic and less repressive than the countries in today’s Middle East.

Imagine a world in which the Ottoman Empire was not abolished in 1923, or a world in which a political structure such as the Ottoman Empire could be recreated. Here people of different ethnicities would be able to share the same political space; and everyone would get to live in the country of their imagination. A Jew could easily imagine herself living in Israel, while her Palestinian neighbor could imagine himself living in Palestine. And some, no doubt, would identify themselves as Ottoman. Jewish culture would still flourish in Cairo and Baghdad; and there would be lots of Greeks in Constantinople and in Smyrna.

Present: Failed states show the way

But the present has much to teach us too. Here we should let the “failed states” show the way. By understanding why states “fail,” we can learn more about alternative ways of organizing a society.

Somalia is everyone’s favorite example of a “failed state,” yet the country has viable nomadic traditions which continue to provide a measure of order, justice and security even in the absence of a state. Rather than fixing Somalia, in other words, perhaps it is these institutions that should be strengthened and improved?

This suggestion goes against the well-established prejudice which says that nomads represent a prior, and thereby inferior, stage in human history, one that inevitably must disappear. But what if this is not the case? After all, the lives of most of us are daily becoming more, not less, nomadic. Pushed and pulled by the forces of global capitalism, we too are increasing required to move around in order to make a living for ourselves.

As a result, new kinds of political institutions are required — political institutions which we can take with us as we move around. By learning more about nomadic societies, the nomads of the past can provide advice to the nomads of the future.

Future: globalization and the failed states of Europe

State failures do not only happen in Africa; they happen in Europe too. Indeed, the European Union is premised on state failure. The aim of the EU, as it originally was conceived, was to deal with the failure of European states to live in peace with each other. State sovereignty, as the world wars had demonstrated, was a disaster, and the EU was designed to limit and control it.

More recently, the challenges posed by globalization have provided an additional rationale. The trans-border flow of ideas, goods, people, money, drugs and pollution means that states no longer can control their borders, run their economies autonomously, or shield their citizens from outside threats. States are not about to disappear to be sure, but sovereignty is in rapid decline.

Under these circumstances, sovereignty must be pooled — shared between states. Such sovereignty-pooling is what the EU is about. It is because European states once again have failed that the EU is needed.

In fact, the EU too can be understood as a return to an earlier form of political organization. The international system of the European Middle Ages was not made up of sovereign states after all, but of political entities of many different kinds united in a continent-wide community. By putting an end to the age of the sovereign state, the EU constitutes a return to the normal, and far more viable, way of organizing international relations.


As should be obvious, a non-Western IR theory is not only a science, but it is a political project too. This may sound alarming if you believe in the objectivity and the neutrality of science. But then again Western IR theory was a political project too — and it was a disaster! A non-Western IR is an attempt to try something different. The day when we think of international relations in these terms, we will be living in a better, more peaceful, world.


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