Why do most big ideas in international affairs come from the United States?



"When was the last time a non-American thinker based at a non-American institution came up with an idea that changed the way we see the world?" Moises Naím of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, asked recently. "Is there any non-American idea that had a true impact on global thinking in international affairs since the end of the Cold War, such as Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilization, Fukuyama's End of History, or Joseph Nye's Soft Power?

The inability to find a clear answer to these provocative questions points to an intruiging gap: While the world is heading towards economic multipolarity, our intellectual world is still fundamentally unipolar. The field of International Relations is dominated, like few other disciplines, by US-American and US-based thinkers. Most mainstream scholars would struggle to name any current influential Chinese, Latin American, African or Middle Eastern international affairs thinker who is not based at an institution in the United States or the United Kingdom.

This lack of knowledge and incapacity to develop new ideas outside of the United States has real-world consequences. Brazilians who seek to study China or India still need to read US-American books and narratives about how to think about these places. The same is true about global topics such as terrorism and humanitarian intervention. As the leading India, China or terrorism scholars are based in the United States, their analyses are inevitably affected by their geographic location and, as a consequence, by US American interests. This reduces non-US American actors' capacity to gain a profound understanding of complex issues that may be crucial to designing their foreign policy strategy.

On a more global level, the fact that the world's leading scholars seem to be concentrated in a very small geographical area is unlikely to help much when finding solutions to global challenges. After all, not a single global challenge can be solved by the United States alone.

On an academic level, US-American dominance raises a series of important questions. First of all, are thinkers based outside of the United States simply not good enough to make it into the world's leading peer-reviewed journals? Or, are non-American thinkers simply unable to 'speak the language' of US journals or apply the methods required to make an article acceptable?

Quality and language may play some role, but regional difference in perspective may be even more important. The world's leading academic journals in the field of international relations choose articles on topics of 'global relevance'. Yet what is relevant and what is not greatly differs on whom you ask. While US-American scholars may believe nuclear proliferation, terrorism and the rise of China are the world's most important issues, Africans may care more about infectious diseases, poverty reduction and environmental degradation. Yet these topics will always certainly seem unappealing to the editors and reviewers of Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy. The future of US-India relations may seem relevant to editors based in Washington, D.C., but not to a South African academic.

One of the reason that the United States still produces or hosts the vast majority of leading international relations thinkers is that it is still the only country with a truly global outlook. No country or region is entirely outside of the United States' sphere of interest. Virtually everything somehow affects US interests. Even scholars who work on very specific issues in regions far away from the US - like, for example, Tajikistan - may at some point be called to testify in Congress or advise the state department. An India-based scholar who specializes in Peru-Ecuador relations, on the other hand, is unlikely to ever gain much visibility, so the incentive to study the issue is low.

The logic not only applies to regions, but also to topics. Academics are less likely to study an issue if the national government has no position on it. Take humanitarian intervention. Brazil's launch the concept of the Responsibility While Protecting in 2011during its time in the UN Security Council led to a spike in academic publications by Brazilian scholars in leading journals. In the most recent volume of the journal "Global Responsibility to Protect", which focuses on the issue, half of the authors are based in Brazil. Today, no serious academic conference on the matter can take place without a Brazilian voice. The same is true for internet governance, where Brazil has assumed thought leadership. If Brazil were to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it would profoundly affect Brazilian academia, boosting the number of scholars who study security issues.

Critics may point out that some important ideas, such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), have important non-Western roots. Indeed, Francis Deng, a South Sudanese Diplomat and former Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide to the UN Secretary General, is one of the intellectual pioneers of R2P, and one of the promoters of the notion of 'sovereignty as responsibility'. Yet the academic debate about the Responsibility to Protect is fundamentally a Western one, and scholars like Francis Deng and Ramesh Thakur are exceptions. The majority of leading thinkers on the topic - Gareth Evans, Alex Bellamy, Jennifer Welsh, Edward Luck, Michael Ignatieff, and so on - are all from the so-called 'Global North'.

China is the first country in a long time to rival the United States' global presence, and its global expertise is set to deepen as a consequence. Since China's political system does not incentivize free thinking, its universities are less attractive to ousiders, so its intellectual catch-up will almost certainly be delayed.

Other emerging powers like India and Brazil will take some time to establish a truly global presence that generates demand for political expertise in different regions and issue areas. Therefore, China seems - for now - to be the only country to challenge US dominance in the study of international affairs in the medium term. Yet an active and engaged foreign policy on a global scale by other emerging powers such as Brazil, India and Turkey would greatly contribute not only to better outcomes in international affairs, but also to a more exciting, interesting and productive global intellectual environment.

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