3 August 2012
While the rise of the BRICS and the diversification of IR studies will lead to changes in both curriculum and content, Sunjoy Joshi argues the same may not be true about the actual frameworks used to explore IR topics.
Prepared by: ISN staff
ISN: International Relations (IR) still seems to be a very Western-centric discipline, with many of the top academic institutions for IR located in North America and Europe. Do you agree with this view and if so, how would you explain this?
Sunjoy Joshi: Actually, International Relations is far from being the only stream of study that has been dominated by western scholarship. Such a statement can be made for most of modern thought irrespective of the discipline. Inevitably therefore, the framework of investigation and analysis in IR too has been largely framed by western institutions and experts.
While on one hand the roots of most contemporary thought in IR continue to draw inspiration from the Westphalian model as suggested by the name of the discipline – Relations between Nations; on the other hand the notion of states themselves, existing as loose confederations of dissipated power centres, is a reality many are yet to come to grips with.
This underscores the significance of the challenge, which traditional frameworks of analysis are struggling with as they seek to rationalize contemporary developments. Typically, the complex (baffling to some) responses of nations such as India and China to geo-political and economic situations confound many experts. Typical linear motivations from the western curriculum, such as "strategic interest", fail to resolve many of these contradictory impulses visible in the actions of these emerging powers. Even while the same experts have jettisoned the recklessness of imputing motives and emotions while analysing actions of their own governments, the tendency to do so for those perceived as "them" (the term now in vogue is “emerging”) persists in most contemporary thinking on IR.
This trend survives as a relic of traditional thought in IR and suffuses the analysis coming out of both Western as well as "non-Western" analysis. Even as there is a realization among the emerging nations that there may be a need to develop their own programmes and specific scholarship, the western model of IR education dominates attempts to localize such endeavour.
Of course the engagement with IR has a causal relationship to the level of stake communities and nations believe they have in territories and activities outside the national boundaries. So the dominance of the western hemisphere is natural and the emerging interest of the new economic and political powers follows.
You mentioned that traditional IR concepts are inadequate to examine contemporary challenges, and that experts schooled in western institutions have a tendency to impute motives and emotions while analysing actions of governments other than their own. Can you give an example of how this plays out in international/global affairs?
During the height of the Cold War the US, infuriated by the non-alignment doctrine of India, questioned the country’s neutrality. Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State went so far as to say that “neutrality between good and evil is itself evil”. The underlying assumption being that nations, or even groupings and collectives should organize themselves along ‘macro’ attributes of language, religion, or even governance frameworks such as democracy. Worse, these collectives could then be simply pigeon-holed into value-laden labels to count friends and foes.
Contemporary discussions on climate are again such a value-laden discourse where this pigeon-holing again becomes obvious. The position of the US at international discussions is well understood to flow from the pulls and pressures of their domestic politics. It is known that the US President’s commitments at international climate summits is and will be conditional and subject to congressional ratification. Yet with a more disadvantaged population and a more complex political system, India is expected to commit to actions which no Indian Prime Minister (let alone Minister of Environment) has the mandate to commit the country to. Any such commitment would be meaningless because the policy regarding much that affects carbon emissions and mitigation is neither made nor controlled by policies made at New Delhi alone.
Again the possibility of an India – China partnership at the BRICS breeds certain disquiet. While many Western reports dismiss the BRICS as a passing fad citing among others things the “historical” distrust between China and India, others see India “opportunistically” siding with China in matters of climate change and trade. The fact that for reasons of equity, access and entitlements, India finds common cause with China (with whom it does have testy relations) is something that is readily glossed over.
On the other hand, when the so-called democratic and capitalist world and its organisations pump money and technology that have helped create the “Chinese Miracle” and continue to profit from this engagement with China, differences of ideology, geography, territory, development models are glossed over.
What kinds of problems can this cause in practice for the relevant stakeholders?
The first obvious problem is that it complicates the process of negotiating the rules for understanding and engaging with each other in an increasingly complex world. The comfortable binaries of yore do not work any more – in fact it is questionable if they ever did!
Look at India-China relations for example. The fact is that at one level relations with China remain strained and challenging. Yet, China’s resources, financial capacity and infrastructure sector competence present a great opportunity that can bring rich dividends to both. India continues to engage with China economically even as it contests and negotiates political solutions to legacy issues.
The new emerging nations will need and demand the space to discover their own models of development and engagement with each other and the world. As one foreign policy thinker in India recently said, “We must strive for Multi-Alignment”. The new IR scholar needs to feel comfortable with, rather than be perplexed by, dichotomy and diversity. The stakeholders themselves need to learn the same.
Do you think that IR education has changed (or will change) a lot in the context of economic and political shifts in the world, such as for example the rise of the BRICS and other emerging countries?
The field of IR studies is transforming. Thematic courses around law, economics, climate, trade, non-traditional security, space code, human development etc. are becoming as commonplace today as are the traditional courses on power, oil politics, nation and regional studies, security, diplomacy, democracy and human rights. That the content has changed is not in doubt and this is a reflection of the contemporary challenges that engage us all today. Interestingly, many of these themes are part of IR today due to the amazing diversity of meanings and connotations, often contradictory, that surround familiar phrases and labels like sustainability, development, democracy etc in the modern world. It is this diversity that emphasizes the growing role of the increasingly influential voice that groupings such as the BRICS are acquiring. And yet, the tendency persists even amongst these groupings to cloak emerging aspirations within existing frameworks.
Meanwhile research streams within IR are today shifting from a study of just geo-political flashpoints resulting from ideological and power struggles to those that are far more intractable. These call for a deeper understanding of communities, groups, and divergent interests coalescing within nation states who derive their impetus from issues of access, control, alternative modes of development, the perceived inequalities of trade, the divergent views of how intellectual property is defined and should be held. Sovereignty, the anchor of Westphalian IR has itself become a mere pointer.
If terms like “Sustainable Development” are to become contested spaces of meaning-making, the response that we must take globally to reduce green house gases becomes equally contested. These differences are dominating global interactions today just as the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ did decades ago. Additionally, information, knowledge and science have a role in IR today that could hardly be matched by the navies of nations of yesteryear. Social scientists, development economists and political theorists now find they have company in IR studies.
Many of these global debates still tend to get polarized in the binaries of West vs. East or North vs. South. But increasingly coalitions of interest cut across these divides and these coalitions witness fluid and variable composition based on issue and institutions. This trend is bound to change the way IR are shaped and studied.
In light of all these changes – in terms of issues, political fault-lines and other factors – it would be surprising if emerging countries had not yet started to develop their own IR frameworks. Is it just too early to see the results of localized efforts to do so, or is IR as a discipline gradually becoming obsolete as a result of the dramatic diversification that you have just described?
Let me respond to the second part first and in the process answer the first part as well. On the contrary, this may be the most exciting time to be a student of IR and to seek scholarship on global interactions. The breadth of topics and themes is vast today and brings with it the depth that eluded such studies earlier. Today, to be an IR scholar, you do need to dig deep in specific areas. So we have engineers, scientists, economists, environmentalists alongside social scientists who are shaping international relations and how it is studied. Additionally, within IR, specialisation and localisation will continue to determine the relevance of any investigation. IR did not begin with the West’s discovery of the New World. Sub national histories, traditional linkages among people and races living across national boundaries are all grist for the mill.
And we are seeing this unfold rapidly. For instance there are the BRICS studies centres in Brazil, and theme-based departments in universities in Asia and elsewhere that are focussing on sustainability or security or IPR and other themes. China is proactively nudging IR studies toward a study of traditions and cultural studies to derive local contexts. Confucius centres are now not only making such traditional philosophy more popular in China, but now form part of China’s efforts to influence global thought as well.
I am convinced that the curriculum and content is changing, what I am not sure about is whether the frameworks of imparting learning and research are changing to the same degree. Many erstwhile colonies need to build frames of reference that stretch beyond the West’s discovery of them.
Sunjoy Joshi is the Director and Head of the Observer Research Foundation in India.
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