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Towards Non-Western Histories in International Relations Textbooks

May 07, 2015

CREDIT: Patrik Göthe

A long tradition exists in International Relations (IR) textbooks of focusing upon Western history when outlining the evolution of the international order. Most textbooks begin with ancient Greece and Rome, advance through the European Middle Ages, and continue with the Peace of Westphalia and the Enlightenment. Some make passing reference to the wider world during these periods, but never in comparable depth, and only really begin to acknowledge non-Western societies during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even here, these groups are normally considered within the context of Western colonization, rather than as international actors with foreign policy objectives or value in their own right.

As late as the Second World War, most IR textbooks hone in on the conflict in Europe, Russia, and North Africa, while giving little consideration to the Pacific Theater, especially to those Asian-Pacific struggles that lacked direct Western involvement, such as the Second Sino-Japanese War. After 1945, the non-Western world is usually addressed more prominently, but typically through the lenses of the collapse of Western colonization and the Cold War in Europe. Scarce mention is made of non-Western societies as independent entities, except for when they influenced the two superpowers and their European allies.

This article outlines and critiques the justifications presented in IR textbooks for concentrating on Western histories of IR, highlights the negative repercussions of this approach, and suggests how some of the hurdles to supplying truly global histories in IR textbooks could be overcome. It is worth noting, as a limitation, that the examples of non-Western contributions to the history of IR given here come mostly from the Asia-Pacific. This is not intended to marginalize the significance of other regions, but merely represents the author's region of specialization. The contribution of other regions to the evolution of IR is certainly extremely important.

Flawed Rationales

Some IR textbooks appear to adopt a Western-centric approach unintentionally, without any stated justification, but others make this decision deliberately. In Essentials of International Relations, Mingst and Arreguín-Toft assert that a "European emphasis is justified because, for better or worse, in both theory and practice contemporary IR is rooted in the European experience."1 Similarly, in Introduction to Global Politics, Lamy et al. claim that students will gain "a better understanding of the origins of the modern international system... This is primarily a Western, Eurocentric system—one that spread even as former empires tried to contain European expansion."2

A Western orientation is further defended in Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches, by Jackson and Sørensenon, on the comparable basis that although other political systems existed across the world, states and sovereignty form the central tenets of modern IR, and these concepts were first founded in Europe and then spread abroad by European expansions in recent centuries.3

International Relations by Goldstein and Pevehouse also supplies a predominantly Western perspective for its history, which the authors defend by commenting that "The present-day international system is the product of a particular civilization—Western civilization, centered in Europe. The international system as we know it developed among the European states of 300 to 500 years ago, was exported to the rest of the world, and has in the last century subsumed virtually all of the world's territory into sovereign states."4 Unlike many of their fellows, however, they partially caveat this by noting that "other civilizations existed in other world regions for centuries before Europeans ever arrived. These cultural traditions continue to exert an influence on IR, especially when the styles and expectations of these cultures come into play in international interactions."5

If the majority of IR textbooks are correct that the modern international system is founded exclusively upon Western history, then it could be argued that IR textbooks should, indeed, provide a Western-dominated account. Yet this is simply not the case.

A major critique of this presumption is that numerous factors and dynamics in modern IR possess multiple independent founding points across both time and space, rather than singular Western origins.

If the majority of IR textbooks are correct that the modern international system is founded exclusively upon Western history, then it could be argued that IR textbooks should, indeed, provide a Western-dominated account. Yet this is simply not the case.

One example is the concept of "exceptionalism," which is the notion that a political force views itself as being different to other actors and therefore does not need to conform to the same rules and principles. The origins of this concept are often connected with the United States, specifically with the idea that the original European colonists viewed the institutions they created in America as representing the biblical "City on the Hill" (although the concept was not formally coined until 1929 by Joseph Stalin).6 In reality, the notion also possesses myriad non-Western roots. In China, for example, exceptionalism originated in the millennia-old conviction that China was "the Middle Kingdom" that existed between Heaven and Earth and formed the center of the world.7 In Japan, a belief that the homeland was exceptional was generated by the country's seeming immunity to foreign incursions throughout its history, with the exceptions of two abortive Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281, Commodore Perry's expedition in 1853, and the American occupation in 1945.8 These conceptualizations predated the emergence of the concept in American political discourse by hundreds (for Japan) or thousands (for China) of years.

A further example is the concept of "Just War," which is the principle that war may only be undertaken if specific ethical criteria are met and chaste principles of combat are followed. The origins of this idea are frequently connected with events and theorists in Western history, such as Homer's Iliad and St. Augustine's City of God.9 In fact, the concept was also conceived wholly separately in other regions of the world. In pre-Imperial China, for example, inter-kingdom relations were guided by codes regulating both when and how wars could be waged. The early Chinese history, Chunqiu Zuo Zhuan ("the Chronicle of Zhou"), records one instance where a duke refused temporarily to attack a rival in battle because certain conditions had not been met. Committing his rationale for posterity, the duke asserted that "The noble person (junzi) does not inflict a second wound. He does not capture those with graying hair. Of old, when campaigning one did not obstruct those in a defile. Though I am but a remnant of a destroyed state, I will not drum up to attack when they have not drawn up ranks."10 Similarly, early historical texts in India outline a range of ethical requirements for warfare.11

A further criticism is that, despite claims in numerous IR textbooks that sovereignty defines the modern international order, other political systems play fundamental roles, including multinational corporations, global governance agencies, non-governmental organizations, and transnational terrorist groups. The existence of these alternative and competing entities suggests that the world is not purely characterized by states. It is noteworthy that the stated objective of both al-Qaeda and ISIS [Islamic State] is to establish an Islamic Caliphate, which is a political entity that refutes and ignores Western conceptions of the nation-state.12

Moreover, the notion that the world was ever truly transformed by the West into a system of sovereign states to begin with is profoundly flawed. While at a surface level, regions such as Africa and the Middle East do now purport to consist exclusively of sovereign states, the deeper reality is often different. In many cases, intra-state and trans-state groupings dominate that do not correspond with Western created state borders. This was illustrated in Iraq over the past decade, where tribal dynamics often determined the direction of the territory and its population more decisively than any Western notions of national sovereignty.13

A third critique is that there are also numerous important concepts in the modern global system that lack Western origins. The notion of a "tribute system," for example, was pioneered in imperial China several millennia ago. This system revolves around the idea that a strong political entity does not expand through conquest, but instead compels political and economic fealty from its weaker neighbors.14 This concept has also featured occasionally in Western history, but its usage has been sporadic and has garnered little attention.

Finally, some principles and events in Western IR have not been replicated overseas. Colonization is one example. While numerous non-Western powers have conquered their neighbors and established local empires, few—if any—have engaged in transcontinental expansions that brought far-flung territories into a global rather than regional empire. Even Japan, arguably the most imperialist of non-Western powers in recent history, limited its ambitions to East Asia and the Pacific Ocean, with no efforts made (or even really conceived) towards securing territory further afield.15 The experience of pursuing globe-spanning empires has therefore been a uniquely Western phenomenon that holds little relevance for understanding the approaches of non-Western societies to IR.

Deleterious Implications

Multiple detrimental consequences arise from IR textbooks fixating on Western history. Independent of other considerations, this deprives scholars and students of the chance to encounter and appreciate the full richness of the international system, the development of its myriad non-Western participants, and the ways in which the former was influenced by the latter.

A second negative impact is the relegation of non-Western societies vis-a-vis their Western counterparts. When non-Western groups are finally introduced in many IR textbooks, it is not as systems that are worthy of independent study, but as victims of Western colonization that demonstrate the increasingly predatory nature of the West. Little, the textbooks seem to suggest, can be gleaned from examining the foreign policy perspectives and international interactions of non-Western states, unless these pertain to Western interests.16 This portrayal could be seen to present a xenophobic perspective of Western supremacy that justifies the imposition of Western practices and suppression of non-Western practices across the globe. It further appears to suggest that non-Western societies can only be considered modern political actors once they have internalized and begun mimicking historically Western IR values and dynamics.

Furthermore, a Western-centric perspective of IR history leads to the erroneous allocation of exclusivity to events and theories in Western history as origin points for certain dynamics and characteristics of the international system.17 The suggestion that "exceptionalism" and "Just War" were imported into Japan and China from the West in the past several centuries is risible. Yet this is exactly the kind of false assumption that many IR textbooks appear to promote.

The approach also creates knowledge deficits, which lead to incomprehension about the reasoning behind non-Western foreign policymaking. Many Westerners struggle to understand, for example, the dynamics of China's foreign policies towards its neighbors today, at least partially because the notion of a "tribute system" is mostly alien to them. China's actions appear simultaneously passive (as it does not appear to be seeking major territorial expansions) and aggressive (as China is becoming increasingly imperious, demanding, and belligerent in its tone). From a historically Western IR perspective, China's actions appear contradictory and baffling, and indeed there exists a schism between Western scholars who portray China as a peaceful power and those who depict it as territorially aggressive.18 Through the lens of a "tribute system," however, China's actions seem clearer. China may be pursuing a foreign policy approach similar to its ancient predecessor, including pressuring its neighbors to recognize it as regional suzerain and offer fealty on that basis, without seeking to physically conquer their territory.

As a second example, there remains to this day confusion amongst Western scholars about the fluctuating attitudes of the North Vietnamese towards pursuing and breaching peace negotiations during the Second Indochina War. Some authors argue that the North Vietnamese were genuinely interested in achieving peace, while others suggest that they simply sought time to rebuild their forces during cease fire agreements. Both hold some validity, but because they draw primarily upon Western IR history for their inspiration, they miss an essential piece of the puzzle. In fact, the North Vietnamese were involved in something considerably more complex that drew from their own history, as one researcher of the conflict itself describes:

The technique itself was deeply rooted in Vietnamese history, an approach to war "refined over centuries of confrontation" with more powerful enemies… The aim of talking was not necessarily to reach a settlement but to feed the enemy's hopes for peace and heighten divisions in the enemy camp. The goal of fighting was to maintain or even intensify the pressure that had brought the adversary to the conference table in the first place.19

These knowledge gaps reduce the ability of Western IR scholars to understand the current-day activities of non-Western states and to predict their future actions.20 During the past few centuries, when Western political, military, and economic power dominated the globe, this has not mattered as much as it might, because other actors possessed little ability to threaten the Western world. However, the loosening of Western hegemony and the rise of multiple non-Western actors in the international system means that the ability to effectively understand both the current actions and the future intentions of non-Western powers is growing ever more paramount.

Going Forward

Despite a growing body of scholarship indicating that the evolution of the international system cannot be understood through a purely Western perspective, this research has yet to influence IR textbooks in any meaningful fashion. The challenge of physically implementing the creation of a clear and comprehendible multi-society history of IR may be one reason for this failure. Weaving together the sheer breadth and depth of historical information from societies across the entire world, rather than purely the West, into a meaningful and manageable history of the international system may seem like a daunting task for new and existing textbook writers. One solution could be to provide a single evolutionary thread that draws upon relevant concepts and formative events from different societies across the world throughout history, with these components selected according to their significance for IR theory and practice. A second way forward could be to supply multiple regional histories, with an accompanying table that allows readers to quickly compare between the IR developments in different regions over time. These solutions would enable textbook writers to present holistic histories, without overwhelming their readers with information.

A second reason may be that textbook writers were themselves raised in a tradition that prioritized Western history.21 This has created a culture in which authors genuinely believe that the current international order was formed by the West and drew little inspiration from elsewhere. The writers may also lack comprehensive knowledge about the histories of other regions for this same reason. To tackle this issue, the creation and dissemination of research highlighting the contributions of non-Western societies to the development of the global system should be encouraged. This would expose scholars and students to increasing amounts of scholarship, which in turn would breakdown existing misconceptions and foster an academic culture that embraced the historical contributions of non-Western societies. It would also provide the knowledge and motivation needed for scholars to effectively represent non-Western histories in future editions of their textbooks, which would then positively influence the knowledge and perspectives of subsequent generations of IR textbook writers. The creation of a chain sequence of this kind would be very beneficial for solving this challenge in a positive and organic manner. This solution would also help matters by providing the requisite knowledge needed for authors of IR textbooks to be physically able to incorporate information about non-Western as well as Western histories.


1Karen A Mingst and Ivan Arreguín-Toft, Essentials of International Relations (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014), 20.

2 Steven L. Lamy, John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens, Introduction to Global Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 29.

3 Robert Jackson and Georg Sørensen, Introduction to International Relations: Theory and Approaches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 10-18.

4Joshua S. Goldstein and John C. Pevehouse, International Relations (New York: Pearson Longman, 2014), 443.

5 Ibid.

6 Byron E. Shafer, "American Exceptionalism," Annual Review of Political Science 2 (1999): 445- 463; Terrence McCoy, "How Joseph Stalin Invented 'American Exceptionalism'" The Atlantic, March 15 2012, accessed April 25, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/how-joseph-stalin-invented-american-exceptionalism/254534/.

7Douglas M. Johnson. The Historical Foundations of World Order: The Tower and the Arena (Leiden, Holland: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2008), 471.

8 Mark McNally, "Exceptionalism, the Atomic Bomb, and U.S.-Japanese Relations." in J. David Markham and Mike Resnick (Eds.) History Revisited: The Great Battles, Eminent Historians Take on the Great Works of Alternative History (Dallas: BenBella Books), 140-142.

9 Erich Freiberger, "Just War Theory and the Ethics of Drone Warfare," E-IR.Info, July 2013, accessed April 24, 2015, http://www.e-ir.info/2013/07/18/just-war-theory-and-the-ethics-of-drone-warfare/.

10 William Theodore De Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 213.

11 John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2003), 55.

12 Larisa Epatko, "What is a caliphate?" PBS Newshour, July 1, 2014, accessed April 25, 2015, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/caliphate/.

13 William S. McAllister, "The Iraq Insurgency: Anatomy of a Tribal Rebellion," First Monday 10 (March, 2005), http://ojphi.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1215/1135.

14 "Chinese Tributary States." GlobalSecurity, accessed April 25, 2015, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/history-tributary-states.htm.

15 Richard W. Stewart, American Military History, Volume II: The United States Army in a Global Era, 1917-2008 (Washington, D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History, 2009), 169-170.

16 S. Clifford, "Theory Talk #42: Amitav Acharya on the Relevance of Regions, ASEAN, and Western IR'S False Universalisms," Theory Talks, August 10, 2011, accessed April 25, 2015, http://www.theory-talks.org/2011/08/theory-talk-42.html.

17 Ibid.

18 Loren Thompson, "Five Reasons China Won't Be A Big Threat To America's Global Power,"
Forbes, June 6, 2014, accessed April 25, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2014/06/06/five-reasonschina-wont-be-a-big-threat-to-americas-global-power/; John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014), chapter 10.

19 George C. Herring, LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995), 176.

20 Clifford, "Theory Talk #42".

21 Alex Young, "Western Theory, Global World: Western Bias in International Theory," Harvard International Review 36 (1) (2014), http://hir.harvard.edu/archives/7281.

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