The International Relations Discipline and the Rise of Asia


A few months ago, I was commissioned by the International Relations and Security Network of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to provide a brief write-up on how Asia’s rise will impact the formal discipline of international relations (IR) within political science. I didn’t get a chance to put it up earlier, and inevitably, the brief means sweeping judgments in just a few pages, but I think it’s a reasonable effort. Here is the version on their website; below it is reprinted:

“It is widely understood that international relations (IR) relies on modern (post-Columbus) and North Atlantic cases as the research base for its general theory. Our graduate students are well-versed in a heavily researched set of cases such as the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. While this is arguably ‘eurocentric’ training – white, western practitioners feigning to build ‘universal’ theory from just the cases and languages they know best from their own civilizational background – it might be also reasonably explained by Western dominance of world politics for so many centuries. So long as the West (including the USSR as a basically Western leftist project) so overawed the planet’s politics, then a modern and Atlantic prejudice was perhaps less narrow than it seems. Whatever the cause, this will likely change in the coming decades.

The rise of Asia will likely challenge eurocentricity for two reasons. First, as Asian states become more consequential in world politics, IR will be forced to grapple with these cases more clearly. Policy concerns frequently drive IR’s research interests; 9/11 and the European Union, e.g., implicitly motivate work on terrorism and international organization. Similarly, Asian growth will push us to learn Asian history and cases as Asian concerns increasingly set global priorities. Second, as western institutions struggle under austerity, comparatively flush universities and think-tanks in Asia will have greater resources for recruitment, conferences, research, and journals. This will inevitably pull the field.

This development should be generally welcomed for two reasons. First, IR is something of a strange beast, insofar as much of it is conducted within the West about the West while claiming nevertheless to be ‘international.’ IR is dominated by English: many important scholars are anglophones, most major programs are in anglophone countries, and the best journals are all in English. Some of this is excusable – a lingua franca is an important collective action resolution, and there is a ‘first mover’ legacy. The origins of IR as a discipline distinct from history and as a ‘science’ (i.e., within empirical political science) lie mostly in the US after WWII.

Nevertheless, most political scientists would likely agree that IR should be better globalized, and that rich, new questions could be uncovered by pushing our empirical work ‘vertically’ back through time (history) and/or ‘horizontally’ across (non-European) space. Just because we don’t know much about non-Western places and pre-modern periods does not mean they would not make fascinating tests for our theories. And this need not apply solely to Asia. For many centuries, native American polities interacted in pre-Columbian America. An IR exploitation of such cases could be fascinating; unfortunately, I know of no serious effort to do so.

At this point, we are told that many non-western, pre-modern polities did not keep records and that mapping our theories onto these cases would be nearly impossible. Perhaps, but I dare say this is also a convenient fig-leaf for our eurocentric ignorance of places like pre-columbian America or pre-colonial Africa. Further, this will not wash in Asia, as literacy and record-keeping go back many centuries, most obviously in China. These records make the testing of our theories against Asian history possible, an exciting development represented by scholar such as David Kang, Alastair Iain Johnston, and Victoria Hui. Our excuses for not knowing these cases are running out. (Readers curious for a longer and more academic treatment of the issues raised here can turn to Johnston’s very helpful recent review essay of East Asia in IR.)

A second advantage of expanding IR from its current western seat to include newer schools and institutions in Asia is innovative theoretical challenges we do not yet see today. Just as Latin American scholars helped push leftist international political economy theories into contention, most obviously dependencia, it seems likely that the growth of IR in Asia will push enriching new issues and approaches into our field. In my own experience teaching IR in Asia, I find much interest in constructivist and culturalist approaches. This is just the beginning. In this vein, we should hope that further reviews of the IR discipline by the ‘Teaching and Research in International Relations’ project (TRIP) from the College of William and Mary will include scholars from Japan and South Korea. It currently includes Hong and Singapore. Given the formal ideological constraints on Chinese scholars (despite their well-known ‘track II’ openness), it is perhaps best that China not be included yet.

And China’s exclusion from TRIP despite the country’s remarkable rise brings up one of the challenges of the Asian expansion of our discipline. Traditions of free academic inquiry are less deeply-rooted in Asian academia, with the possible exception of Japan. I work in Korea where colleagues routinely tell me, e.g., that the best history and political science on Korea is written outside the country, in English, because of the strong, if informal, domestic political pressures to conform to ideologically-desired findings – such as a tough anti-communism at the expense of North; the nationalist assertion that ancient Korea was a ‘bridge’ of sinic thought to Japan (and therefore the ‘root’ of Japanese culture) for historiographic ‘revenge’ on Korea’s erstwhile colonialist; and a teleological, nationalist-statist understanding of Korean history to bolster the ‘stateness’ of the current half-country republic in the South. One can imagine similar pressures in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, and indeed, the express lack of academic liberalism in China is likely the reason it is not included in TRIP and is a long-term constraint on IR’s growth there.

A second constraint on an Asian rise within IR is the policy-relevant tradition of the scholar in Asia. Most of us are vaguely familiar with the notion of the mandarin – the sage who passed punishing exams to enter the bureaucracy and serve the state. This tradition continues and is quite flattering to western PhDs accustomed to exclusion from power, policy irrelevance, and the perception that we are absent-minded egg-heads. Whereas the American right is frequently openly hostile to academia (over polling, darwinism, or global warming, e.g.), the scholar in Asia enjoys a level of social prestige for which I was wholly unprepared. I am routinely asked to speak and write for Korean media and think-tanks, as I never was at home. Yet while flattering, I worry also that we are too close to the state and too interested in joining the policy process.

This may sound like a good thing to many western IR academics. Frequently we hear that IR is now so technical that we need bridges like Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy to communicate our findings to the ‘real world.’ We lament that we are policy irrelevant. Perhaps, but I contend that public policy schools, area studies and international studies programs, think-tanks, and popular journals can provide ‘relevance.’ IR, as a specific sub-discipline of political science, is the only part of the broad world of ‘international studies’ that focuses on basic research in world politics. For many in IR, this is what separates us from the larger, hazier study of ‘international affairs’ which we see in so many IR-lite, ‘international studies’ or ‘global studies’ programs. For Asian IR programs to compete more seriously against western programs, deep pockets will not be enough. Asian IR programs will need to focus more systematically on IR as a ‘science,’ and a ‘speaking truth to power’ role will need to be cultivated which will inevitably generate tension with the traditional mandarin role. This will be difficult given the statism of many Asian countries and the dominance of national university systems. If IR programs in Asia retain their attachments to both the state and the policy-making process, basic theory IR will likely maintain its western center.

Finally, the Asian shift will push methodological changes – most obvious toward currently underemphasized training like language learning and in-country residence/experience. Acultural, ‘universalist’ approaches such as formal modelling, game theory, and rational choice will come under pressure as they are applied to new cases where western-reared analysts have little on-the-ground knowledge. Much of the coming work will be qualitative case studies as researchers collide with cases we simply have not studied before. The clash between generalist John Mearsheimer and China experts like David Shambaugh over whether China is another rising hegemon comfortably fit under standing covering laws in IR about hegemony, or something new requiring theoretical expansion, is just the start of the methodological and conceptual struggle to absorb these under-researched cases with thousands of years of history generally unexplored by IR. In my own work, I have tried to note some of these collisions. This is not a call for Edward Said’s ‘orientalism’ – that Asia is so different that general theory is impossible. Rather, ‘concept stretching,’ if not outright reformulation, will happen as we move IR theory beyond the time-space (modern and North Atlantic) world in which it was built. (See Kang on this important point.)

Broadly, we should cheer these developments. International relations should obviously be less dominated by the US, English, western institutions, and western cases. This is not a PC ‘multiculturalization’ of the field, but rather an effort to truly universalize our general theory. Realism, e.g., posits inter-state competition as a timeless constant. Is it not a good question to ask if the histories of China and India support this contention? How many of us know the relevant history well-enough to make those judgments? (What about the earliest city-state systems of Mesopotamia, or pre-columbian America?) Not only are these interesting questions in themselves, they help us test the limits of our generalizations – a widely shared social science goal. Here is an example of the kind of scholarship I mean.

Finally, the rise of Asian universities, and IR programs, brings new blood and new resources into our discipline. As austerity bites in the West in the coming decades, university funding is an obvious target. In the US, National Science Foundation political science funding may be cut this year, and public support for state university systems has been declining for years. Asia can help us through this coming belt-tightening. At a conference recently, I met an American former colleague, a well-published, strong researcher, decamping to a major Asian university. Well-ranked Asian schools like Tokyo (Todai), the National University of Singapore, or Seoul National University, in wealthy, modern countries, will increasingly leverage their resources and prestige to attract western scholars. A circulation of Asia and western scholars back and forth can only strengthen the international character of IR and our research. We should all welcome that.”

4 thoughts on “The International Relations Discipline and the Rise of Asia

  1. I loved your new post at Duck on the need to “extend” IR theory horizontally (across space) and vertically (through time).

    This got me thinking about various things in an unorganized fashion, and one question that emerged from this jumble was whether there was any work on whether IR theory (as applied by foreign policy officials or as advice given by advisors) had an independent effect on US relations with Asian countries.

    The reason for this question is that I remember reading a bit on how Kissinger was explicitly criticized for the inflexible ways in which he used realist theory for dealing with Vietnam, China, etc.

    In the present period, in an interview on the show “Conversations with History” (run by UC Berkeley’s Harry Kreisler), Mearsheimer explicitly put some blame on neoconservative/liberal internationalist theory for the Bush administration’s foreign policy failures.

    In a later interview in the same venue, Robert Keohane blamed realism.

    I guess a more theoretically-oriented question is the extent to which IR theory is “performative.” A British sociologist named Donald Mackenzie wrote a book called “An Engine, not a Camera” which argued that the importation and implementation of finance theory from places like U. of Chicago and MIT economics into Wall Street had an independent effect on worsening volatility in financial markets. Here’s a good discussion of the concept:

    Not quite sure if I’m making any sense here…


    • Thank you. I think IR theories can be applied to Asia, but not with the same confidence, because no one is trained in the relevant history. There’s a lot of empirical work to be done. Anyone who is reading this – here is your degree. Go read a lot of Indian or Chinese history and try to explain it with IR theories and tell us what you find. No one really does that.


  2. Pingback: Korean Foreign Policy Year in Review 2012: So Many Grievances… (UPDATED in response) | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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