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International relations research moves beyond Eurocentrism

Author  :  Feng Daimei     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-07-12

The symposium took place in early July at the University of International Relations in Beijing. Photo: Feng Daimei/CSST

At an international symposium in early July, scholars reviewed and discussed the evolution of international relations (IR) theory over the past century since 1919, the year commonly recognized as the start of IR research. Participants particularly emphasized a new approach to IR—global IR, which tends to break through the Eurocentric paradigm, with more non-Western perspectives.

The symposium, hosted by the University of International Relations in Beijing, conducted a centennial retrospective on IR research and considered its prospects.

Barry Buzan, an emeritus professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, recalled the origin and evolution of global IR studies. He said that IR from the beginning was defined by the concerns and perspectives of core dominant Western interests. However, “there have been significant modern voices and perspectives about IR from the periphery since the 19th century.” Those have included anti-colonialism, anti-racism, pan-regionalism, sovereignty and non-intervention, and dependency theory. They were delivered more by political leaders and public intellectuals than academics at the time.

Beginning in the 1950s, especially after the 1990s, the core and periphery discourses have seen slow but significant integration. “That needs to continue,” Buzan said, “not in a spirit of rivalry, but in a spirit of mutual respect, dialogue and learning.” Buzan called for breaking through Eurocentrism and establishing an IR studies that is more global.

Qin Yaqing, president of China Foreign Affairs University, introduced China’s representative IR theories including Zhao Tingyang’s Tianxia concept, Yan Xuetong’s moral realism, and Yan’s relational theory. He argued that all of these originated from traditional Chinese values. As such, he emphasized that culture and indigenous knowledge can play an important role in the construction of non-Western IR theory. Meanwhile, he also suggested more exchange and communication among different theories.

After Donald Trump, a man with a strong personality, became the US President, more non-mainstream approaches to analysis have emerged, such as those focusing on human nature, personality or emotion. Yin Jiwu, a professor from the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, said that the Trump phenomenon may make scholars re-examine the influence of leaders’ personal characteristics on domestic and foreign policy decisions, but not the influence of emotion necessarily.

Compared with the major theories, non-mainstream IR theories have indeed developed faster after the Cold War, Yin continued. During the Cold War, the influence of structural factors was given more concern; after the Cold War, more attention has been paid to non-structural factors and non-material factors. This is also the reason why identity politics has been more popular after the Cold War.

Liberalism and realism are the two major schools of IR. However, European and American scholars tend to categorize themselves into the liberal school, and only a few would define themselves as realists.

“I don’t find those labels of paradigms terribly helpful,” said Steven Miller, director of International Security Programs at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “I have a lot of sympathy for realism because I think it is the foundation.”

Miller said that realism is often characterized in a misleading way. “States care deeply about their security; that’s the basic principle of realism. I don’t see how you could disagree with that.” However, he disagreed with the assumption that realism necessitates rationality. He said that sometimes states will act irrationally, and this reinforces realism.

The development of IR theory will show more diversity in the future, and the discourses that have been neglected may gradually become stronger. However, some scholars warn that we should be careful not to overemphasize the “local or exceptional.” IR theories shouldn’t be constructed to oppose each other.

When thinking about international relations, it is necessary to take a truly global perspective, said Pang Zhongying, director of the Institute of Marine Development at Ocean University of China, adding that the classification of “Western” and “non-Western” has been outdated. However, he was also concerned that globalization is at a crossroads, and that it is increasingly difficult to reach a global consensus.

Michael Barnett, a professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University, said that to some extent, the building of a global IR theory is due to the relative decline of the dominance of Europe and the United States. They have become less confident themselves, with fewer resources and less power. The big question though, is whether this is going to be global IR or something like the Non-Aligned Movement, and whether it will help lead to more open global international relations.


Editor: Li Yujie

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