Book review: “International Relations and Non-Western Thought” by Robbie Shilliam (ed.)

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Book review: “International Relations and Non-Western Thought. Imperialism, colonialism and investigations of global modernity.” By Robbie Shilliam (ed.), Routledge, 2011, 272 pages, U$ 54,95 (amazon.com)

“Non-Western" thought has been, for several decades, an object of study of scholars working within critical post-structural and post-colonial traditions, yet the ongoing process of multipolarization -- symbolized best by the rise of China -- has led a growing number of contemporary mainstream scholars to engage in this particular discussion as well, even though adopting a far more policy-focused perspective. The question “What does China want?”, asked constantly during policy discussions in US think tanks, seems to have little in common with post-structural debates, but both approaches share, albeit in different ways, a desire to comprehend the relationship, broadly speaking, between West and non-West.

International Relations and Non-Western Thought mainly discusses non-Western perspectives on modernity, while also looking at their relationship to Western IR theories. International relations, as a discipline, tends to focus on European and Western canons of modern social and political thought. “Non-Western thought,” Robbie Shilliam, editor of the volume, says, was “rarely considered to be a source through which to construct legitimate knowledge of the modern world.” Aware of this limitation, this book seeks to identify and explore the global imperial and colonial context within which knowledge of modernity has been developed.

The book’s title, of course, is highly problematic, as Shilliam recognizes: Isn’t the very object to be retrieved in large part a construction of colonial/imperial epistemology? Is there – and should we conceive of – such a thing as ‘non-Western thought’? And, he writes, “if there is, how might we encounter this diverse body of thought without in the process assimilating it within an existing archive or rendering it as profoundly ‘exotic’?” Similar concerns are voiced in a previous (excellent) edition organized by Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan on non-Western IR theory (reviewed here).

Shilliam thus elegantly calls the book’s first chapter “the perilous but unavoidable terrain of the non-West”, for dismissing non-Western thought as an epistemologically suspect archive runs the risk of "effacing the global and colonial dimension of the making of modernity, thus lapsing back into a default Eurocentrism."

This edited volume has been written for a purely academic audience, yet it does problematize several concepts and frameworks (such as the normative divide between Western universalism and Eastern cultural particularism) that dominate current policy debates. Why are Eastern cultural aspects not seen as universal as Western ones? How does this affect Western analysts’ capacity to imagine the way in which non-Western powers such as China will seek to influence global affairs through norm leadership?

In this context, Shilliam’s argument that not every Western engagement with the non-West was one of pure and simple colonial domination is important – hence, contrary to what the English School or many liberal scholars believe, non-Western actors did possess agency in the creation of today’s norms. The impact of rising non-Western actors on global rules and norms thus appears as something far less novel or disruptive.

Gerard Aching’s chapter on “colonial modernity” presupposes that modernity is a global phenomenon that came into being with the emergence of Europe’s overseas colonies and empires. In addition, he writes that the experience of modernity as colonial domination requires a close examination of local resistance to universalizing discourses, as “enlightened” as these may have been, in the extra-European world. “Colonial modernity” is meant to problematize and challenge the dichotomies that have informed the English School’s theorization of sovereignty in the international order, such as West/non-West, center–periphery, modern– backward, by illustrating how these binaries are rooted in historical, Eurocentric notions of “civilization.”

Branwen Gruffydd Jones’ chapter rightly problematizes the orthodox narrative of the progressive entrenchment of cosmopolitan norms with the expansion of international society from Europe to the rest of the world. He writes that this approach overlooks, for example, the profound struggles over the establishment of the UN system and the imperial world context that heavily shaped those struggles. In particular, the author rightly points to the centrality of struggles over race and colonialism that were waged within the UN system from its very beginnings – an episode described in great detail in Mark Mazower’s No Enchanted Palace.

The cosmopolitan tradition, Gruffydd Jones writes, while upholding the principle of the moral equality of all individuals in the world, retains an assumed notion of ‘the other’ and radical difference or essential cultural specificity; this appears to be the logical corollary of the assumed notion of the ‘bounded political community’.

In a very interesting chapter on Japanese notions of modernity, Nakano explains how the strategy of ‘reverse Orientalism’ has been deployed by various Asian leaders in the guise of ‘Asian values’ in order to legitimize their sovereignty in a Western-dominated world order. This cultural perspective gives higher value to the East by relying upon exaggerated Orientalist dichotomies of center–periphery, rational–spiritual, and modern–pre-(or post) modern. Many non-Western thinkers have been drawn to these dichotomies in representing themselves and merely reproduce the colonizers image of the world. Critics could also claim that the discourse of Asian values is simply a tactic used by authoritarian regimes to divert criticism of their human rights record.

Dirlik’s chapter on the state of Chinese IR scholarship is equally interesting – including the resurfacing of the famous concept Zhongxue weiti, Xixue weiyong (Chinese learning as essence, Western learning as means, used by Chinese policy makers as they designed a way to adopt Western knowledge) in the attempt to build an IR theory with ‘Chinese characteristics’ — even though its structure and approach strongly differs from the previous chapters. In the same way a chapter on German Jewish identity feels somewhat out of place, but may be of interest to specialists.

Chacko’s chapter on Nehruvian thought in international affairs is an interesting contribution as she argues that, with the exception of thinkers like Amitav Acharya, in the discipline of international relations there has long been a lack of deep, critical engagement with Nehru’s political thought, which is reflective of the discipline’s marginalization of non-Western thought in general. Critics will respond that many scholars, such as Mohan and Bajpai, have written about Nehru, looking at Indian foreign policy after independence through the prism of traditional Western IR theory.

Chacko retorts that reading Nehru as a ‘realist’ or a ‘liberal internationalist’ does not take into account his particular approach and cannot explain Nehru's formulation of ‘internationalist nationalism’ which rejects the fundamental assumption of the equivalence of the ‘nation’ and the ‘state’ that underpins both ‘realism’ and ‘liberalism’. Nehru’s international thought should be understood in the context of his desire for an ethical project that is underpinned by a ‘reasoned morality’. Whether or not Nehru may be analyzed through Western theory is debatable. Yet he did, not doubt, represent an interesting bridge between West and non-West, as Nehru writes in his diary:

I have become a queer mixture of East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thoughts and approach to life are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me . . . I cannot get rid of either that past inheritance or my recent acquisitions. They are both part of me, and, though they help me in both the East and the West, they also create in me a feeling of spiritual loneliness not only in public activities but in life itself. I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it. But in my own country also, sometimes, I have an exile’s feeling.

As many organized volumes, International Relations and Non-Western Thought contains an ecclectic mix of contributions of different length and structure, and the central narrative that binds them is not always visible. Still, several chapters -- in my case, Shilliam's, Nakano's and Chacko's -- are of great interest and provide important perspectives in the discussion about non-Western thought in the global discussion about international affairs.

Read also:

Book review: “The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia” by Cemil Aydin

Book review: “Temptations of the West: How to be modern in India, Pakistan and beyond” by Pankaj Mishra

Book review: “From the Ruins of Empire” by Pankaj Mishra

The Western monopoly on defining modernity (Times of India)

Book review: “Non-Western International Relations Theory” by Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan (eds.