The paper argues that international relations has been too little aware of its deeply western-centric character. The critics are strong when they say that this helps to preserve existing power structures, but that critique can give too much weight to representations, too much fixated on single contexts, too static and too ‘local only’. Scholars need to pluralize, to relativize, and to historicize.
My own thought is whether acting with the intention of ‘decentering’ (rather than ‘decolonialising’) might open up the field of what can be imagined for the future in ways that are not pre-defined by the past.
This post is part of the #ReadingNotes series, see here for more (including format and use of bullet points).
A great deal of the western post-Cold War writing on global order and global governance was all too little aware of the deeply western-centric character of its assumed historical narratives, its allegedly universal theoretical categories, and its political preoccupations. The alternative perspective of seeing governance as the ordering and preservation of power, and who exercises power, was sidelined. Equally, liberal interest-driven accounts of the problems of global governance all too often evaded the deep conflict over values, underlying purposes and ways of seeing the world.
For the critics, ‘liberal’ global governance has not ushered in a new world of justice-based law and institutions but has rather introduced new forms of hierarchy in which cosmopolitan values are a thin veneer for the self-interest of western states. An incomplete list of many very important critical arguments:
- We must devote far more attention to International Relations as it is understood and experienced ‘from below’.
- We need to understand much more about the agency of the apparently ‘powerless’.
- Common concepts such as ‘security’ have a very different meaning and content when seen from below.
- ‘International’ itself is a malleable and un-obvious category.
Even so, the existing critical work has weakness:
- Yes, there is power embodied in patterns of knowledge production but it is a post-modern conceit to give so much weight to representations. The post-modern fascination with difference (especially in this context between the ‘West’ and the ‘non-West’) can lead to an extreme stress on otherness that is extraordinarily unhelpful, analytically and normatively.
- The need to re-think what critical scholarship involves within different contexts. It is often rather easy to be trapped by accounts that stress the foreign policy ideas and foreign policy orientations of particular countries (and just replace ‘US’ with ‘China’).
- The need to pay close attention to the way in which shifting patterns of power affect our view of who or what needs to be ‘de-centered’. Because much critical and post-colonial writing has concentrated on the power of the West and the neoliberal core, other important relationships and patterns of interaction (especially the case with what we would now call South-South relations).
- So much critical and post-colonial work often appears committed to a rather static view of power, hegemony and hierarchy. Post-colonial work, in particular, seems to build on an all-encompassing view of western power, US hegemony, and neoliberal globalization. It also seems, implicitly at least, to accept the old categories of North and South and of Third World at a time when these spatial categories and taken-for-granted historical geographies are eroding..
- How to explore the regional and the local without neglecting the continued, and perhaps increasing, power of the global.
There is only one global order. There is no ‘outside’. It came into being with expansion of an originally European international society on to a global scale through:
- First, the globalizing force of capitalism and the immense transformative impact that it has on the regions and societies.
- Second, the emergence of an often highly conflictual international political system which came to see the entire Earth as the single stage for promotion of the interests of the core powers of the system.
- Third, the development of a global international society whose institutional forms (the nation-state, Great Powers, international law, spheres of influence) were globalized from their originally European context.
So the question remains: how to understand a global order in which there are complex patterns of power diffusion and even more complex patterns of social, economic and political change, in which our inherited categories of analysis are eroding, and in which new hierarchies and inequalities are becoming established?
We certainly need to pluralize, to relativize, and to historicize. We need to recognize the continued power of Chakrabarty’s claim that western analytical and theoretical categories remain indispensable but inadequate.
- Take the power of the global very seriously. We need to demand a deep understanding of how the global plays out in particular contexts. It is not sufficient to avoid the global level out of a deep suspicion of grand narratives and big historiographical stories.
- Develop concepts and conceptual frameworks out of varied regions and contexts but to seek their more general application and relevance.
- Study of the normative and the global study of political ideas. One part of the challenge is political: listening and noting the views and values that are expressed and argued in different parts of the non-western world
- Contending global narratives. An enormous amount of work within western thinking on global order and governance has depended on a set of mostly 19th century narratives about history and time, space and modernity. It is perhaps around the study of different narratives of the global and their contestation that the re-articulation of the study of global order might begin.
- Need to take Western dominance out of how we understand the world.
The shift from de-colonial to de-centre is itself contentious.
It could be received as de-politicising, that is it using ‘de-centering’ is itself a way of sidelining the radical impetus of decolonialisation. In that, it could be a backdoor to preserve past harms and current injustices.
Conversely, it might open up the field of what can be imagined for the future in ways that acknowledge but no longer burdened or defined by the past.
If no one view can be put at the centre (whether the Euro-centric one, nor the de-colonial one), then what is a way of being together where there are many worlds in one? (I’m part way through Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse which is trying to answer that.)
Can the Study of Global Order be De-centred? by Andrew Hurrell (PRIMO Working Paper No. 2/2015). Dowloaded here [20/08/2019] but no longer available. Here is a link to the Google Scholar entry.
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