IR and the West

by Mohammad Rubaiyat Rahman

Hans Morgenthau defines International Relations (IR) as an empirical science that studies facts rather than values or aspirations. Tom Conley in ‘International Political Economy’ states that the modern IR has emerged as an academic discipline after the tumultuous First World War. As per Hoffmann, IR has arisen from the stash of British and US scholarship. The subject of IR is very vast. War, demographic change, state making , global warming, war on terror, international organization, and even the shifts of power- all from the uphill to the down dale of this world are fallen into the dynamic ambit of IR.

Since the wrapping up of the Cold War, International Relations scholars were seen to sought to identify and explain the actors and forces that are shaping the emerging world order. Among the debates stimulated by the conclusion of the Cold War, two of the most dramatic focuses on the contrasting visions of world order were presented by Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ theses. Francis Fukuyama in his propounded theses illustrates the situation as the world being stratified between societies which are still evolving and where the West is deemed as at the bellwether of civilizing process. Huntington’s analysis of the post-Cold War world is radical and shocking at the same time, suggesting an era in which world politics is dominated by tussles between civilizations.

Though both of their theses pave 180◦ view point (i.e opining distinct views as to post cold-war era), these theses present vivid images of the emerging world order that highlight the significance of the West. As per Bull and Watson (1984:2) the modern IR is being framed by the ‘west’, since it synchronized most of the cornerstones of western models like the sovereign territorial state, the web of diplomacy, the procedures of international law. After the collapse of the USSR, the entire world politics has peg down to the “West”. From the Kosovo Conflict to the Greek Austerity; From the War crimes trial of the African warlords to the blossoming Arab Spring, it is the West which has been representing with up to the hilt significance.

After roaming around the domain of IR, one can easily comprehend that “WEST” is an indefeasible concept in the domain of IR. Richard Falk contends that the political and economic capabilities in tandem with the expansion of the western ideas, institutions and structures provide the impetus to form the hegemony of west into this discipline. However, it is pertinent to mention here that in the paradigms of IR, the concept of west is synchronized in a very tacit way. 

The evidence of the seamless relationship between west and IR can be visible into the main paradigms of International Relations: realism, liberalism and structuralism.  The term ‘paradigm’ is useful as a metaphor. It became popular during the study of IR in the 60s as well as 70s of the last century. The word ‘Paradigm’ came through the scholarship of Thomas Samuel Kuhn, anAmerican philosopher of science who is well renowned for his highly debated ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. Martin Griffiths in the article ‘World Views and IR Theory: Conquest or Co-existence?’ illustrates the word ‘paradigm’ as a ‘mode of thinking within a field of inquiry that regulates scientific activity and sets the standards for research.’ The ‘west’ of this era, which as per Jacinta O’Hagan, is associated with resistance to totalitarianism, poses different from the west of the 20th century when ‘west’ was simply the synonym of ‘imperialism.

Conversely, the ‘non-west’ ideas and concepts cannot create a parallel viaduct with ‘west’ in the dynamic domain of IR. Simply to say, the ‘non-west’ concepts are cloistered under the thicket of hegemonic west. A justified reason can be garnered from the contention of Hedley Bull and Adam Watson. They content that the emergence of positivist approaches in 18th and 19th centuries gave the impetus of ‘west sense of differentiation’. At that time, the potential significance of ‘international institution’, in the realm of international society, was ignored. The erstwhile legal theorists deemed international society as society of sovereign states conceiving certain rights and obligations. Thence, entities which are mostly of non-western communities’ viz. Oriental Kingdom and Islamic emirates were scrapped out due to the deficit of the paradigm framed by those legal theorists.

Another reason behind the minuscule space for ‘non-west’ in the realm of IR is the prevalence of neorealist assumptions that do not encourage students to be curious about ‘non-Western’ parts of the orb of IR. But there has been a voice veers such attitude. From 1970s ‘ping pong’ diplomacy (where Pakistan played a vital role) to the nuclear tests of 1970s and 1990s (by India and Pakistan) and latterly, the foundation of BRICS, all these stepping stones have veered the view of Eurocentric IR towards the transforming Asia.

It would be wastage of intellectual efforts to fit the Western and Non-western IR into a hierarchical scale. Neither should it be done by tracing the origin of these ideas nor by scouring the time span of their practices. Therefore, Edward W Said aptly opines:

To prefer a local, detailed analysis of how one theory travels from one situation to another is also to betray some fundamental uncertainty about specifying or delimiting the field to which any one theory or idea might belong.


 1.) Edward Said, Traveling theory, in M Bayoumi & A Rubin (eds), The Edward Said Reader, (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) p 197

2.) PINAR BILGIN, Thinking past ‘Western’ IR?, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2008, pp 5 – 23

 3.) Thomas W Smith, History and Int’l Relations (Routledge, 1999)

 4.) Cynthia Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction (Taylor & Francis, 2009)

 5.) International Relations Theory for the 21st Century, Mart Griffiths (ed), (Routledge, 2007) p.3

6.) Jacinta O’Hagan, Conceptualizing the West in Int’l Relations Thought (Palgrave McMillan, 2002)

Mohammad Rubaiyat Rahman is a first semester student of LL.M at South Asian University, New Delhi.

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