Book review: “The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010”, by John M. Hobson



Book review: The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. Western International Theory, 1760-2010. By John M. Hobson. Cambridge University Press, 2012. 408 pages. R$ 44,45 (kindle,

Rather than producing value-free and universalist accounts of the history of interstate relations, John Hobson writes, international observers usually provide provincial analyses that celebrate and defend Western civilization as the subject of, and ideal normative referent in, world politics. This bias is not only limited to Western thinkers, but also post-colonial or anti-Western writers, who tend to vastly overestimate the importance of the West in global history. Hobson identifies two subdivisions, one imperialist the other anti-imperialist:

The former I call ‘paternalist Eurocentrism’, which awards Western societies a pioneering agency such that they can auto-generate or auto-develop into modernity while conversely, Eastern societies are granted conditional agency and are unable to auto-generate or self-develop (....) By contrast, the anti-imperialist variant takes the form of anti-paternalist Eurocentrism.

Karl Marx's work is perhaps the most interesting example that shows that Eurocentrism was by no means limited to those who embraced "scientific racism" or those who supported capitalism or imperialism. Rather, Marx believed foreign intervention in what he called backward societies such as China and India was necessary for them to change. He asserted

Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history, is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society. The question, therefore, is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the backward Turk, by the backward Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton. (...) England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other one regenerating - the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the foundations of Western society in Asia. 

All that is particularly noteworthy considering how important Marx is to China's Communist Party's ideology today, and how essential the German thinker is in current efforts to "protect" Chinese universities from Western influence. Earlier this year, for example, a commentary in the People’s Daily, the party’s principal mouthpiece, quoted the party chief of Renmin University in Beijing as saying that Marxist thinking must “enter textbooks, enter classrooms and enter brains”.

karl marx
No friend of China: Karl Marx

Just like Marx, Hegel called China a 'rotting semicivilization', and Hegel said India and China were damned to remain in 'perpetuate and natural vegetative existence' unless the West would bring progress to them. This was a remarkable similarity between Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and liberal imperial capitalists at the time. Just like Marx, Lenin awarded the West hyper-imperial agency, while the rest's agency is essentially eliminated altogether, seeing its role reduced to passive victim.

Marx's and Hegel's opinions were by no means due to a lack of access to better information. German elites had long before come to learn about (and admire) Indian religion, literature and art. In 1789, Kālidāsa's Sanskrit play The Recognition of Sakuntala was translated into English and German, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed his fascination with Indian culture - in the same way he popularized Hafiz's ghazals from Persia, and Chinese literature among Europe's intellectual elites. Voltaire, who lived a century before Marx, famously wrote that "if as a philosopher one wishes to instruct oneself about what has taken place on the globe, one must first of all turn one’s eyes towards the East, the cradle of all arts, to which the West owes everything."

Marx may have been critical of capitalism and colonialism, but he regarded them as necessary steps to lay the foundation for a new form of society, which non-Western societies would never achieve on their own. In citing many leading leftist thinkers, Hobson convincingly shows that racist ideology was by no means limited to imperialists. In a very interesting analysis in the later part of the book, Immanuel Wallerstein, the father of world-systems theory, is roundly criticized, despite often being seen as 'anti-Western', as Eurocentric, largely for seeing the West's rise as an endogenous phenomenon, rather than a complex process that made use of many ideas developed elsewhere. (This argument is made brilliantly by David Levering Lewis' Islam and the Making of Europe, reviewed here.)

Hobson goes so far as to detect Eurocentric tendencies in Kant’s writings, even though the philosopher explicitly opposed imperialism. However, Kant wrote that societies that lived within a domestic state of nature would have to “renounce their savage and lawless freedom, adapt themselves to public coercive laws, and thus form an international state.” In an idea that would later be echoed by Francis Fukuyama, Kant referred to a “hidden plan of nature” that would one day turn all societies into republics. Similar to Marx, Kant subscribed to an informal hierarchical conception of gradated sovereignties, reserving full sovereignty for Europeans and qualified sovereignty for Eastern polities. Even though Kant called for cosmopolitanism, he could not envision a genuinely reciprocal process of inter-cultural and inter-civilizational learning. “The irony”, Hobson observes, “is that only through a non-Eurocentric dialogical approach can we realize the grand aim that Kant’s cosmopolitanism claims to stand for.”

In the second part of the book, Hobson points out that the period of 1914-1945 symbolized not only the apex of eurocentrism, but also the birth of International Relations as a discipline. The author writes that "never before had the possibility of the downfall of Western culture and civilization been as intensively discussed and imagined as in the years after 1918. (...) It was within this fiery crucible that much of post-1914 theory (...) was forged." 

Hobson's argument about Eurocentric realism is perhaps least convincing. He argues that thinkers such as Morgenthau were guilty of treating Western imperialism as the key story in international affairs, and painting the colonial revolutions as a "triumph of the moral ideas of the West." Most realist thinkers at the time had a Eurocentric world view, but it is unclear how this makes realism as a theory Eurocentric. Realism, according to Hobson, focuses on the "Westphalian big bang" in 1648 and then conflates intra-Western relations. Yet many realists cite Thucydides, who lived much earlier. Yes, most realists at US-American universities focused on Cold War issues -- an intra-Western conflict -- and Waltz's claim that the Cold War, marked by bipolarity, was peaceful, is indeed wrong as it overlooks the many conflicts outside of the Western world. Yet, it seems that this can equally be explained by the Eurocentric characteristics of that time, rather than inherent elements of realist theory. Now that China has turned into the United States' most serious challenger, realists will focus on US-China ties, irrespective of whether that is an intra-Western conflict or not. In the same way, it is unclear how realists' focus on countries with hegemonic ambitions is proof of Westerncentrism of realism itself. The only argument that will strike the reader as robust here is that Waltz's master-variables in world politics -- anarchy, sovereignty, self-help, balance of power and great power politics -- are all derived from his reading of the modern European inter-state system, and not on an analysis of interstate relations elsewhere.

The English School (ES), by comparison, is an easy target. Hobson relishes quoting the opening sentence of The Expansion of International Society, an influential volume edited by Hedley Bull and Adam Watson:

The purpose of this book is to explore the expansion of the international society of European states across the rest of the globe (...). 

Here, readers familiar with Hobson will recognize arguments made in his previous book, “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation” (reviewed here), which questions the dominant narratives about how 'Western' ideas spread around the globe.

The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics is perhaps the most sophisticated attempt to roundly criticize the Western-centric way history is taught in most countries. Indeed, in the vast majority of public schools around the world, Western history takes the center stage along with local history. In addition to Indian history, Indian students learn about Napoleon and Bismarck rather than Empress Dowager Cixi and Getulio Vargas. In the same way, Brazilian students have only recently begun to learn about pre-colonial African history, even though African culture is very influential in Brazilian society.

Hobson's book is no easy read and it is unlikely to find a wide readership outside of a small circle of specialists. His frequent charts include at times relatively little-known thinkers and require the reader to repeatedly research their names. Yet his work contains many lessons for observers of contemporary international affairs, who too often suffer from the same bias scholars around the world have shown to have -- both in the West and elsewhere. Today it is common to hear that either China will Westernize or it will, yet again, akin to the 'Yellow Peril' narratives of the late 19th and early 20th century, pose a threat to the West. China's growing influence will only be understood properly if we can transcend the Western-centric binarism that still dominates the discussion.

In the same way, a less Western-centric perspective is necessary to strengthen our understanding of the future of rules and norms. Most scholars still implicitly assume that norms spread from the West to the rest of the world. But rather than having a 'pure Western' origin, most norms are the product of complex negotiations. Others have non-Western roots altogether. For example, ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, has been a global leader in embracing and operationalizing R2P. Despite this, R2P is routinely seen as a Western concept by many analysts from the Global North and the Global South.

Read also:

Book review: “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation” by John M. Hobson

Book review: “A Little History of the World” by E.H. Gombrich

Book review: “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” by J.M. Blaut

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