What good is International Relations Theory for the developing world?

“…the claimed inappropriateness of traditional IR to the African experience thus reinforces the marginalisation of the continent in the international system with a marginalisation within the discipline” (Brown 2006:219)

A critical discussion of this view, also shedding light on the more general question of how our understanding of international relations is subverted (or enriched) by the dominant discourse of the American scholarship?


Brown’s comment comes about in the context of an emerging body of literature that recognises and questions the consequences of a discipline of International Relations that was created in the West and during a time in which most of the world was colonized by Western powers.

This means that, in a way, much of the body of literature does not only reflect a Western or European cultural heritage but also a worldview which once justified the colonization of non-Western peoples. Just like in the case of Feminism, it was initially expected that the political emancipation – decolonization – would put to an end the inequalities between the Western and the non-Western world. Yet, this hope has proven wrong.

Post-colonialist theory, a category in which Brown’s comment and text falls into, thus theorizes the continuing inequalities and the means by which they are reproduced. Prominent amongst these means is the construction of knowledge which excludes the particular experiences, issues, and contributions of non-European peoples to international history and politics. In its critique, post-colonialism does not just address the orthodoxy of International Relations but also the so-called critical approaches by arguing that non-Western people are facing the triple oppression of race, class and gender.

Brown’s critique primarily targets Neo-realism. He believes that, because it is the most mainstream of International Relations approaches, an analysis and critique of its underpinning beliefs can effectively demonstrate how the African continent has been neglected from the central debates of the discipline.

A quick analysis of the chronology of International Relations as a discipline shows how it has to a large extent been an Anglo-Saxon affair. All of International Relations’ big debates have originated and been dominated by authors with headquarters and origins somewhere in the West and most probably in Britain, the United States or Canada. This constitutes a fascinating debate because, despite sound criticism over this situation, the tendency for a globalisation of the discipline in terms of overture for alternative non-Western approaches in general and African approaches in particular has been severely questioned by authors such as Brown.

The historical legacies of the enlightenment and the sheer amount of investment poured into education, research and development in the West does go a long way in explaining, though not fully justifying. Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Leibniz and Kant were some of the forefathers of Western essentialism and served as the basis for an hegemony in the social sciences that has been characterized by reductionism, Eurocentrism and over-generalizations (Atabaki 2002:7). This essentialism found its way into International Relations theory for example in the scientific aspirations of Neo-Realism. Although it is an ongoing discussion within epistemology and the philosophy of knowledge, one can consider that the prominence of this essentialism, understood as the belief that it is at least theoretically possible to attribute set and universal characteristics to an entity, is one of the central problems of what is being debated. Mainstream theory from the West and its universalistic, one-size-fits-it-all approaches are primarily criticized on these terms.

The direction of knowledge and of research in the sciences is of a normative nature, though not necessarily of a consciously hegemonic one. In this sense, the very hiatus in the economic division of labour at the global level and the imbalances between North and South constitute a continuation of persistent patterns of control and subjugation that originated during the colonial period. This is where the term “post-colonial” term for some niches of International Relations theory arises, one that works both as an attempt to put the unfairness of these continuities under the spotlight but also one that offers a normative alternative to theory-making that replicates the status-quo. The fact of the matter is that the Westphalian Eurocentric state model ended up being exported and internationally recognized as the primary form of political organization. Though the state-centrism of the international order is undoubtedly being challenged, state sovereignty remains a crucial premise of international relations meaning that literature can sometimes be harshly accused of using a Eurocentric template for their analysis as this template has, to some extent, gained a “life of its own” and has been consistently used as a point of departure for all other alternative approaches in International Relations. This “life of its own” however can still be rightly criticized as simply consisting in the reification of historically specific social forms, in this case statism and anarchy, which reduce the study of international relations to timeless struggles of power of static uni-dimensional actors (Rosenberg 1994).

The African example is illustrative of these tensions, though frequently the political systems in place hardly resemble fully fledged sovereign state machine. Even if you recognise the label of “failed state”, meaning a weak state whose central government has difficulties in having practical control over its whole territory (Thurer 1999), as being potentially problematic, states that face these control problems at different levels are still legally and politically recognized as sovereign. This means that even if a realist approach can, for example, shed no light in the internal political affairs of the state and tell us very little about the reasons for its foreign policy, it can shed some light on why other fellow sovereign states behave towards that specific political unit the way they do.

Moreover, these paradoxes have not been fully ignored and have actually increasingly come to the forebear in Western writings as can be noticed in the work of Boas, Herbst and Eriksen (2003;2004;2005). The West is slowly coming to terms with the huge pressure that ongoing geopolitical fragmentation has exercised on an international system whose foundations rest upon a state-based template is particularly interesting. This western nation-state template worked at its best when it dealt strictly with formal sovereign states but has since been struggling, particularly in Africa, where it has to deal with weak states managed by ‘muscled’ regimes and by the recurrence of protracted conflict. In his insightful work, Herbst (2004:308) notes that there has not been a process of natural selection in terms of state capabilities in Africa since the “political existence of states was no longer necessarily threatened by failure”. Indeed what has occurred instead seems to have been, in my perspective, a process of natural selection of which regimes hold power to the artificially colonially created state templates.

It is slowly being recognized that the criteria for a ‘muscled’ regime is different of the criteria for a strong state. It is here where the problem of the accusation of state-centrism on Western writings lies. An analysis that has as the state unit its departing point but that is not necessarily state-centric remains useful since failed states tend to hold regimes whereby the first decisive factor for natural selection is military capability and secondly, when in power, ability to keep in place a patrimonial structure that makes the most of an informal underground sector or/and an unaccountable primary commodity export sector (Liberia from Tubman to Charles Taylor is one example). All of this whilst, of course, managing to keep any forms of civil unrest on the low. On this instance, Eriksen for example, is quick in recognizing the essentially distinct new nature of conflict in Africa when he observes that states in themselves “are not faced with the threat of extinction (Eriksen: 2005: 1110). It is as if war does not destroy or make states (Tilly, 1985) as it used to. What you have now are direct battles between regimes, regime-seekers or stakeholder regime-establishers (like for example Angola and Libya in the Democratic Republic of Congo war) instead of simple inter-state battle. Herbst’s (2004 310) remark that “regimes do not require national political order” supports this, he pushes for an understanding of political order in terms of administrative accountability and control of the territorial extension of the state. These would be pre-requisites for states to be considered sovereign and would prevent regime-seekers from ripping out the benefits of belonging to the international community as soon as they control the capital city.

Although this understanding can be seen as once again hegemonic in its indirect conception of the orderly, centralized state as the best model, it represents nonetheless legitimate efforts to challenge the status quo and the inadequacies of traditional approaches of International Relations to analytically understand the specificities of the African models and as Brown puts it, at “exploring more developed theories of the state than realism has to offer” (Brown 2006:132). These are sets of theories that aim at avoiding situations whereby leaders and policy-makers in developing countries perceive an empowerment of the state as counter-productive to the strengthening of the regime. The hegemony of this discourse might still be open to debate but it is a discourse and an idea that has thoroughly permeated the masses of African citizens under both democratic and less democratic regimes.

Ultimately, Herbst’s (2004:312) suggestion for the international community to decertify states (not recognize them as sovereign) can surely strike us as ambiguous and impractical but one can also could see that it was a product both of logical reasoning exercise but also of a clear challenge to traditional forms of thinking in International Relations. In failed states there seems to be a parallel structure of neo-patrimonialism that uses the old state template of the international order as a platform for sustenance, a template that is more often that not replicated by the mainstream discourses of International Relations theory such as Neo-realism. Understanding traditional theories remains honest attempts at understanding how these regime-seeker factions tap into template that is discursive but also institutional. A template whereby the traditional rituals of state protocol and recognition have sometimes artificially given conflict entrepreneurs the ability to log into the international economy (formally or informally), log into transnational networks as well as given them the ability to remain to hold asymmetrical amounts of power as long as they seize strategic nodal points (instead of large extensions of territory) such as capital cities and river basins. These templates cannot just be disregarded as “neo-colonial” theory since they stand as insightful theories that digest the complexity of reality and translate it into more understandable schemes of thought. As Brown recognizes, not recognizing every single nitty-gritty actor, process and interaction in Africa is not the same as “missing the point” (2006: 124).

IR as Hegemony - Western domination and subversion of discourse

On a piece that mixes quantitative with qualitative data, Weaver (1998) sets out to understand the politics of publishing within the field of International Relations. He concludes that, besides European journals being understandably less American-dominated, the field in the United States is much more limited in terms of publishing and career opportunities for non-rational choice approaches than is the case in other Western non-American spheres.

In a seminar brief about the state of International Relations, Smith (2000) posed the question of the existence of an American Hegemony in the field. The findings corroborated Neuman’s critique of International Relations as being over-positivist and frequently having unfounded universalistic ambitions. Smith found that American International Relations in particular, when comparing for example with the case of the United Kingdom, for a large part privileged positivism. The direct comparison Smith puts together of the American and the British schools of International Relations also shows that the field does not consist of an uniform mass of thought and that it is actually constantly in a dynamic process of change and reinvention as there are pockets or research, namely that comprising reflectivist approaches, that are potentially better prepared for some of the new global challenges such as the illicit trade in diamonds, the overflow of illegal trade in small arms and light weapons, and the real nature of the processes behind Post Cold War “New Wars” than others (Smith 2000: 376).

In relation to how these technical differences apply in the theoretical approaches themselves, Neuman is quick to observe the hegemonic character of mainstream International Relations by pointing out to its universalistic ambitions (1998: 2). This can arguably represent a form of cultural chauvinism. Going back to Brown’s argument one can most definitely understand International Relations theory as being traditionally subject to a state-centric and positivist debate, particularly by the realist-liberal debate, one that is ancient and that despite some substantial transformations an innovation is still ongoing and dominant in the field. The most classical example of the critique of Westerm civilization’s discursive domination is the one advanced by Edward Said and his “Orientalism” thesis (Said 1978). He looks at the long historical trends and succession of events that put together a mythological archive and sets of identities that put the West and the East in positions of fundamental opposition. This opposition is not only cemented in the psyche of those on each side of the barriers but also replicated by means of social construction and representations that in this case can include writings in International Relations. The notion of socially replicated oppositions ties in nicely with Neuman’s argument that rational choice theories have presented IR with an Eurocentric approach in that the rational model, as abstract as it is, is in its inception crafted in Europe and excludes other non-Western rationales which are in an extreme case automatically taken as irrational. It can also to a certain extent explain the absence of Africa from International Relations theory that is concomitant to the perception of Africans as agency-lacking individuals when it comes to meaningful political matters as is noted by Dunn. This critique has almost “violent” repercussions on his view of the current state of affairs of International Relations theory in that oversimplification such as :Kaplan’s coming anarchy (2001) [then criticized as “new barbarism”(Tuastad 2003)];Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” (1993); and Fukuyama’s “End of history” (1992). These not only undermine the field of study but also have serious implication when it comes to the practical empirical sub-products of theory-building.


In conclusion, despite the fact that the West in general and the United States as functioned as historically been functioning as the “engine” of the discipline, this has not meant that the main bodies of literature have been fully impermeable. Mainstream theory-building, perhaps if not so receptive yet to alternative is at least slowly realizing thee fundamental changes that are occurring in its eclectic object of study to which strictly rationalist approach are less and less seen as enough. Also, if there is a Western discursive dominance in the field, this dominance is not so monochromatic as Dunn and Neuman portray it and is in fact, particularly in the United Kingdom, slowly coming to terms with the problematic of euro-centrism and orientalism.

This is dues to, among other reasons, the idea that traditional International Relations has to some extent struggled to fully understand and mechanize some of the problems that are top of the international agenda in the 21st century such as the changing nature of war and the issues of state-building in Africa. Why is it that because it is a government purchasing the weapons this is more likely to be seen as legal? This is particularly relevant in a world where it is now recognized that the nation-state as an entity is a shadow of what Westphalia proposed it to be, a world where borders are less resilient and where actors and challenges increasingly cut across them. Theories of failed states, state formation and decertification (Herbst: 2004) pop to mind and it could be interesting to analyse SALW through these perspectives. Reading Herbst and complementing the two texts, it is perhaps time to move from the classic argument that states make war and “war makes states” (Tilly, 1985:171) to a situation where regime-stakeholders make war and war both makes regimes and unravels states.

This means that traditional and alternative approaches to in the field need to build bridges in order to understand not only the breaks with the past and the particularities of the developing world but also the endurance and relevance of concepts such as interdependence, state-building and anarchy. These do play a role in the developing world in general and Africa in particular, at least as regions that are affected and incorporated in the wider sphere of the international system (Brown 2006:143). and its attached mainstream discourse.

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