Some of my colleagues who know that I am unapologetically a neorealist might be surprised that I am penning something like this. I am not flip-flopping; I still believe in neorealism and it’s more pragmatic and sensible ahead of liberalism and neo-conservatism.
So why this article? Well in the words of Stephen Walt, one of my favorite realist, “international relations theories are tools, not religions.” We label people liberals, realists, constructvists, etc. but scholars “contain multitudes.” I don’t profess to be a scholar yet, but I hope I can find refuge in Walt’s words as I challenge my own neorealist school of thought and international relations in general.
Do we really live in a post-colonial world? Are we de-colonized? Who is “we”? With these questions in mind, my argument calls for the exploration of the legacies of colonial rule and how it implicated contemporary global order. International relations should include alternative traditions of thought and ways of interpreting global politics. To what extent do our understandings of global order need to be decolonized? Does it matter that international theory has been produced overwhelmingly in an Anglo-American context?
The discipline of international relations is largely an Anglo-American social science. It has been concerned mainly with the powerful states and actors in the global politics and dominated by North American and European scholars.
However, this focus can be described as Euro-centrism. International relations demonstrates little interest in history, for history is unimportant if the defining feature of the international order is considered to be the trans-historical fact of ‘anarchy’. Thus, Kenneth Waltz, for instance, writes that “the enduring anarchic character of international politics accounts for the striking sameness in the quality of international life through the millennia …” Realists like John Mearsheimer, Kissinger, Walt and many others see anarchy as the defining feature of the international order. They in some cases try to account for how an order came to be. Just doing that is not enough.
The main concern of euro-centrism in international relations is that it heavily distorts our understanding of international politics. Consequently, international relations theories can be perceived as acting as a tool that legitimises a concealed imperialism in international politics. When looking at international politics through the lens of Eurocentric international theory, our understanding is heavily distorted.
Decolonizing international relations should expose the ways in which international relations has consistently ignored questions of colonialism, imperialism, race and slavery in the non-Occidental world.
No doubt some colonial powers no longer physically occupy the lands of the formerly-colonized, but colonial ways of thinking still occupy the minds of many. Traditional theoretical approaches to international relations validate this by systematically excluding some people, times and places from their understandings of the world, despite claiming that their accounts of international politics are objective. International relations has been somewhat resistant to the de-colonization, deconstruction and change impulse. International relations has increased focus on discussing the conditions that lead to war and ways to prevent it. This has produced a fixation on issues pertaining to national security.
The unabated focus on national security has deemed some historical issues less relevant. Beyond realism, Neocons and Liberals seem to be blind to the role in which the history of colonialism played in shaping global politics. This gives international relations discipline in general preference for abstract theories at the expense of historical contexts and some specifics.
The construction of international theories in an Anglo-American context does matter, as it produces euro-centrism — an idea that promotes the centrality of Europe, or now ‘the West,’ in its interpretation of the world. International relations enquiries remain problematically narrow; only reflecting issues of concern to great powers and in the process marginalizing the perspective of the powerless. The heavy reliance on western political thinkers and lack of inclusion in languages and international relations literature is problematic.
This implies that there has been a lack of history and theoretical studies on international relations outside of the “West.” This denies legitimacy to non-Western thought and discourse. In that regard, it falls short of recognizing processes and voices from other parts of the world — downplaying their important contributions.
International relational thought, which seeks to achieve some balance, still borrows from Western thinkers like Marx, Foucault and Gramsci. Not often do we encounter parallels to the ideologies of Samora Machel, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah or Amilca Cabral. Even the few alternatives still relies on euro-centrism.
De-colonizing such a discipline is no easy task. We could begin by posing a few questions regarding our practice of international relations in its mainstream variety. Can we not counter international relations’ statist discourse?
Posing such questions is an important and critical step towards de-colonizing the discipline. Moving forward, international relations should listen to the voice and narratives from experiences outside the mainstream.
International relations should be taught in ways that do not revere a canon but rather open up that canon for contestation and deconstruct narratives.
Eventually, de-colonizing international relations is the responsibility of all who are interested in this discipline. It is not the special attribution of those from specific countries, races, genders or any form of orientations.
The current international political structure is at least in its most basic features a product and legacy of Europe’s now vanishing dominance.
To deconstruct a narrative entails exposing the role colonialism had in its construction and through that awareness enhance its future development in ways that are inclusive and accommodates other schools of thought.
Most modern disciplines have disciplinary practices, objects of study and interpretations that are inseparable from colonialism.
The realization that power and knowledge were inextricably intertwined, and that ‘western’ descriptions of the non-West were never innocent of their own political, economic and other interests in those spaces, gradually worked their way towards a still incomplete and ongoing process of de-colonization of these disciplines. This realization of the power intellectual hegemonies is important in changing the discourse in international relations.
Image Credit: University if British Columbia