It was an absolute pleasure to be invited to participate in the conference The genealogy of Post-Western IR Historiography: Asian Perspectives (23-24 January 2024) hosted at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan by my colleague Yih-Jye Hwang.
I was particularly delighted to see a wide inclusion of Asian perspectives, including South and West Asia. Such Global IR discussions often fail to include West Asia, which, in the discipline is often folded into a US-centric securitisation discourse where empirically US security/interests dominate and theoretically scholarship relies on the conventional frameworks. Together, these relegate West Asia to the realm of the exceptional, an (orientalised) unchanging place to be explained through great power politics – whose independent histories, trajectories, thinking, and theories are marginalised at best and often erased. So this was a refreshing inclusion!
Below, my brief reflections for the roundtable: IR: Past, Present, and Future.

Reflections on Globalising IR

The IR discipline, sitting in the West, is often treated insularly or unidirectionally – the foundational hypotheses based on some experiences and ignoring large swathes of others. Those with an interest in Global or Post-Western IR increasingly ask questions like – how can we have a ‘global discipline’? Is it sufficient to include diverse voices and perspective? As Thakur and Smith (2021) note in their special issue – there is no universal IR story. Yet, we very often treat IR as a universal story. We can have a more diverse, global IR, as a burgeoning new literature and events like this conference attest.

Over the past decade or two we’ve observed several conversations develop around global or post-western IR, and I’ll group these into three dominant trends. I’ll then pose a selection of challenges and questions for us to consider as an audience of individuals who are invested in a truly global international relations. Finally, I will conclude with three directions I’ve found promising.

  1. Empirical versus theoretical. There are three aspects to this tension. Some scholarship, and this is common in the International Relations of the Middle East (IRME) literature, is to treat IR as the empirical object of international affairs. That is, it examines how international affairs occurs and happens in practice, but not necessarily connected to how we analyse it. When analysis is engaged, the work defaults to the western three orthodoxies (realism, liberalism, constructivism). A second, but connected side, is answering the question of how IR arrived in the “non-West.” These discussions are usually a Western transplant version of IR and how it was engaged within ministries of foreign affairs or dealt with pedagogically in universities. Empirically interesting, but not necessarily the same kind of contribution to knowledge we may be aspiring to. Third, which connects to the area studies/discipline divide, there continues to be an arrogant sense in the Western academy that views non-western areas (Area Studies) as empirical cases to gather data on most similar or most different cases and then use to test existing Western theories. Together, these three aspects tend to be an empirical exercises of "expanding our cases" rather than sources of theory.
  2. Norm diffusion and localisation. Part of the earlier work that built toward the shift to a 'global IR' conversation asked questions about how ideas and norms spread, and "whose norms matter?" (e.g. Acharya 2004). This scholarship started to move away from how Western norms diffuse in the global south toward how norms from non-Western localities and indigenous peoples diffused up and outward (e.g. Helleiner and Rosales 2017; Steinhilper 2014; Acharya 2014 ). [We should also note the earlier work on World Society (see Buzan's 2010 overview), and the discussions about the impact of Confucian and Taoist philosophy and what it offered the analysis of world politics (e.g. Xinning 2010; Ling 2014; and overview by Lin and Chen 2020)].
  3. Voice addition. Another trend worth pointing out is the discussion around diversifying IR sources and adding more voices to the conversation. This is sometimes also connected to initiatives to decolonise our curriculum. Part of this direction responds to the emphasis in the discipline on 'mainstream' or core ontological approaches [what Ruggie (1998) calls the neo-utilitarian (with realism and liberalism) and the ideational (constructivist)]. As traditions that grew out of Marxism received less and less attention, the emphasis on the other mainstream traditions led to the marginalisation of the critical, feminist, and decolonial ones. In much teaching, together these receive the attention of only one day. We therefore spend a lot of time developing curriculum to respond to these marginalisations. We also engage in debates over the value of flipping the standard syllabi – do you start with the critique or with a new starting point?  But this often remains unsatisfying. Simply adding diverse voices to the conversation is insufficient when they just reify the problematic and yet taken-for-granted assumptions underpinning the discipline.  Assumptions built on the experience of the few.

Each of these trends has its place and has offered valuable empirical insights and interesting commentary on the failures and challenges facing a very western-centric discipline. Yet, a core problem remains, succinctly captured by Sankaran Krishna when he writes, "It is the problem of how we talk about Asia in non-Eurocentric terms: a project vexed by the contradiction that the very spatial category “non-West” and the temporal category “before the West” are already infected, indeed constituted, by the West" (2017: 94).

There is danger, then, even in our critical positionality if we fail to challenge the underpinning value structures and neoliberal-inspired belief systems. As Vineet Thakur’s paper so sharply noted earlier, there are “alternative narratives, staggered silences, and wilful erasures that constitute the academic discipline we call IR.” Such invisibilities and silences stagnate analysis. New research is only beginning to engage with other disciplines and issues of critical relevance that had long been sidelined in the field including, among others, colonialism (e.g. Weber and Weber 2020; Bhambra 2021; Gani and Marshall 2022), and race (e.g. Krishna 2001; Anievas, Manchanda, and Shilliam 2015; Shilliam and Tilley 2018; Davis, Thakur, and Vale 2020).

Central Questions

Drawing on this important scholarship, there are three central questions to ask ourselves today and as we move forward in order to address these silences and invisibilities:

  1. What are the (silenced) histories that underpinned the possibilities of those theories? (Bhambra 2021)

Gurminder Bhambra draws this out in her recent article by pointing to colonialism in the context of global expansion as one of these silences. Colonialism in IR and IPE is standardly "presented as merely the companion condition of the emergence of capitalism, which is understood to be constituted through an immanent logic (an impulsion ‘outwards’ – whether of markets or production) that is independent of colonialism" (2021: 308). In this way, colonialism is displaced from the centre of the analysis of IR. If it makes a reappearance in the analysis it appears through a discussion of imperialism. This is unsettling, because as Bhambra points out, there is "an underlying continuity between colonialism and imperialism" that is neglected. This is just but one of numerous silences for us to question moving forward.  

  1. What are the invisible assumptions that underpin our frameworks? (Krishna 2022)

Like the silences of the discipline, we need to interrogate the invisible assumptions underpinning the development and use of our ontologies and frameworks. Krishna (2022) looks at merit as one such key, yet invisible, assumption. According to him, “a key element in the successful export of IR to the rest of the world has been the idea that the gross socioeconomic inequalities that characterize our world – both across and within nation-states – are a reflection of inborn or innate differences in merit" (82). While IR does not address merit explicitly, it lingers in the background of explanations from what makes the world hang together (to borrow Ruggie's turn of phrase) to how and why states sit in different positions in the global hierarchy. The idea of merit is an aspirational one that contains the possibility of change and therefore resonants with elites and aspiring middle classes around the world. This is, after all, how the power/knowledge nexus operates to reproduce structures often by "seduction" instead of imposition (104). Identifying and interrogating such underlying and seductive assumptions like merit is key. As Krishna goes on to say, "decolonizing our imaginations from IR may thus require more than pluralizing the voices and diversifying the skin-tones of those at the high table of the discipline. It may at minimum require a profound reexamination” (82).

  1. Where are our starting points and origin stories? (Thakur and Smith 2021)

Thakur and Smith's special issue on the Multiple Origins of IR (2021) highlight the "multiple births" of international relations, showing how we can also rethink the disciplinary history of IR by expanding our geographic focus. Interrogating how we historicise, conceptualise, and relay the birth and development of the intellectual history of IR is an incredibly important aspect of disentangling our discipline from its silences and oversights and toward building a truly global IR.

Together I believe these three questions will aid our re-imagination of the discipline and our journey to embracing a global scholarship.

Looking Forward

To do so, in my own work (and especially in my new book) I have found three venues especially promising - the historical turn, the interdisciplinary emphasis, and Said's contrapuntal reading. Conducting historically-rich analysis, building on archival sources and learning historiographic methods has introduced much more nuanced, complex, problematised, and grounded theory building that combines well with the questions discussed above. Second, and connected to the historical 'turn,' the emphasis on interdisciplinarity has opened fruitful paths and insights. For example, engaging with anthropology, both theoretically and through methods like ethnography, has offered approaches to empirically and socially-grounded deep cases studies, enriching scholarship like everyday IR and IPE. Likewise, engagement with geography has introduced critical research on spatial transformations and how global order and connectivity manifests in material realities. Finally, and bringing all three together, the extension of Edward Said's "contrapuntal reading" (Culture and Imperialism 1993) as a method to IR suggests a way to respond to many of the problems being discussed (see Chowdhry 2007; Bilgin 2016). The use of contrapuntal reading as a method allows IR scholarship to move analysis away from its tendency toward "universalising discourses" (Said 50) and its penchant for singular sources for ideas, processes, and theories. Instead, it facilitates a reading of the "overlapping territories and intertwined histories" that shows how IR narratives have been co-constituted by multiple ideas, materialities, beginnings, and relationships in the local, regional, and international order.

I have extended this application, to make use of contrapuntal reading as a method in global political economy. The idea behind contrapuntal reading is to account for the structures, ideas, and discourses that are ignored or silenced while the view from the centres of power are privileged. To apply this, I analyse source material from multiple perspectives to understand the history and context behind governance, discourse, and policy, as well as the history and context of resistance. That is, contrapuntal reading is a rereading which lends to "a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts.” (Said 1993: 51). This allows for a grounded, multicausal reading of IR and GPE, one which does not discard policy documents by colonial authorities or foreign policy actors or even the mainstream theoretical literature, but rereads these alongside and beyond their contextual and analytical scope. (To read more about how I have applied this approach, please see chapter 3, "Rereading Omani Work History and Labour Market Governance," in Millennial Dreams in Oil Economies). To embrace Said's call, we need to pay attention to "the hierarchies and power-knowledge nexus embedded in them" and recuperate "a non coercive and non-dominating knowledge" (Chowdhry 2007: 105). As Bilgin notes, "rendering IR more international would involve rethinking the hierarchies among different kinds of knowledge" (2016: 137).

As one final remark, often on panels and round tables addressing critical IR, I hear colleagues question whether or not what they are doing is "actually an IR paper" or instead sits more comfortably within postcolonial studies (or other fields). Why do we need to differentiate and who delineates these boundaries? Who defines the discipline? We do. Or at least, we can!

Reflections for "The Genealogy of Post-Western IR Historiography: Asian Perspectives" conference