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Emancipatory promises: how international relations is failing its students

Thomas Garvey

Empty library with desks and books.
Source: Media from Wix

As a discipline responsible for educating the minds of future leaders in global affairs, it is important that International Relations (IR) provides space for a variety of voices to be heard and equally considered. It is well known that the field of IR attracts diverse young minds that are politically engaged and anxious to do good in the world. What is regrettable, however, is that IR is failing these young minds in its ability to equip them with culturally unbiased methods of analysis.

IR’s theoretical orthodoxy, which forms the backbone of its teachings, is manifestly drawn from Eurocentric histories. Far from allowing diverse views on global conditions, it perpetuates the view that Western thought is the primary site from which to critique and analyse global politics. By grounding its theories exclusively in Western academic tradition, IR often ignores important non-Western ontologies that are crucial to painting a fuller picture of international politics. Furthermore, by failing to accept non-Western histories as legitimate IR theory, the discipline ensures that its graduates are acculturated into the systematic reproduction of Western political hegemony. While the ways that the discipline does this are manifold, this article examines how IR’s core principles of anarchy and sovereignty are both an example of the discipline's inherent Eurocentrism. In addition, it also evaluates possible sites of decolonisation in IR as a discipline.

Revisiting IR’s core concepts

Every IR student is taught that the international system is made up of sovereign states that exist under the conditions of anarchy. Although vague mention may be made to 18th century social contract theorist Thomas Hobbes, the historical denouement of this narrative is usually minimised to allow for greater concentration on contemporary state relations. Several problems emerge with this type of ahistorical analysis, prominent among which is how it encourages students to accept theoretical structures such as anarchy, or the absence of a world government, as eternal truths rather than as culturally specific constructions that were born out of, and uphold, certain power relations.

For instance, the modern usage of the term anarchy has its epistemological roots in the theories of Thomas Hobbes, who used the term “savage anarchy” to refer to indigenous peoples living in a “state of nature”; that is, without political organisation. In his most famous work, Leviathan, Hobbes makes mention of the “savages of America'' whom he believed lived without subjection to a sovereign. The consequences of ascribing such a condition to the First Nations peoples of America was that they came to be seen by European colonialists as “primitive” and “barbaric”. This meant that they were considered to be politically powerless in the eyes of European colonial powers, leaving them susceptible to the imperial policies of European colonisation that were constructed on these racial precepts. This racist logic was used across the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries to justify European colonial expansion and the acquisition of indigenous lands.

It is these foundations that are embodied in the etymology and usage of the term anarchy. Although the term has taken on a very different meaning to that proposed by Hobbes - referring instead to the absence of world government that has come to define the modern state system - by using this term in mainstream IR theory, theorists resurrect racist colonial discourse in order to describe contemporary politics. This amounts to a disavowal of the West’s history of scientific racism. It is this ahistoricity that makes Western orthodox political theory and its attendant statist ontology appear as though it were a naturally occurring and unproblematic representation of the political world, rather than a culturally biased and racially hierarchical form of oppression.

The political corollaries of IR’s colonial heritage are evident in its treatment of global indigenous peoples. Orthodox IR theory shows little more than a marginal interest in indigenous peoples, for according to realist and liberal thought, they are stateless and therefore are not regarded as political actors in international politics. In this way, indigenous politics is relegated to the domestic sphere, meaning that to assert their cultural sovereignty, indigenous people must often appeal to the colonial governments of the states that directly benefit from their oppression. It is apparent that claiming one’s sovereignty within the legal bounds of another's is nigh impossible, especially when it directly conflicts with the interests of those by which one is bound. The way that IR subsumes indigenous people within the domestic politics of colonial states reflects the Hobbesian-inspired view that they are powerless in that they do not hold sovereign rights in the international system.

Some may point to the United Nations as a place where indigenous rights are addressed in an international context. However, it is important to note that its most important instrument for enshrining indigenous collective rights, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), is afflicted with the same statist ontology as IR. This is evident in Article 46, which declares that nothing in the Declaration may be construed as affecting the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States. UNDRIP, therefore, supports the domestication of indigenous issues, thereby denying the sovereign claims of global indigenous peoples. This state-centric ideology reflects the Eurocentric orthodoxy of IR theory which speaks to the power of the discipline’s influence over international political decision making. It also reveals how analysing global politics in purely statist terms ignores the rights of non-state actors such as indigenous peoples.

Decolonising the discipline

Mainstream IR’s statist ontology is unfit for recognising the intricacies of indigenous politics. As such, the very principles of anarchy and state sovereignty are powerful sites from which to decolonise the discipline. Allowing non-Western perspectives to reconceptualise core IR concepts such as anarchy and sovereignty would permit a more pluralistic understanding of global political conditions. This, in turn, would equip IR students with less Eurocentric methods of political analysis.

Manuela Picq has argued that indigeneity is about as far beyond the state, and Westphalian sovereignty, as possible. Therefore, it is the most strategic site from which to reconceptualise mainstream IR’s understanding of sovereignty. It would be beneficial for IR to include new constellations of political organisation and community into its theoretical framework as the old, statist ontology it is built upon becomes less relevant in the increasingly globalised world. It will not do for IR to continue generalising about global politics from within the narrow confines of its racist epistemological heritage. Such theorising does not speak for the whole of humanity, only those that happily benefit from the perpetuation of Western hegemony.

Students are drawn to IR for its emancipatory potential, yet it is clear that the discipline has a long way to go before it can deliver this promise to its students. For as long as it reproduces the Western colonial discourses it was born of, it will not be able to provide an authentically international articulation of global politics. Thus, it is essential that IR begins to acknowledge its colonial heritage and sets foot towards decolonising its fundamental theories. This can be achieved by accepting non-Western perspectives as valid to the discipline’s evolution and acknowledging this as a positive move towards constructing powerful counter-hegemonic theories. It is only through the conversations sparked by such theories that IR students can begin to work towards creating a plural and egalitarian world.


Thomas Garvey is completing a Master’s of International Relations and International Law at the University of Western Australia and is currently working on a dissertation on Indigenous sovereignty. He is passionate about human rights and the environment.