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Sun. October 17, 2021
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Postcolonialism and ‘Eurocentric’ International Relations
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By Nathan Down

This essay contends that International Relations (IR) theory is Eurocentric and dominantly so. That is not to say that this characterization is fixed or without competing influences and outlooks. The Eurocentric narrative has proved highly adaptive and resilient even in the face of European decline in the postcolonial world. In defining key theories (such as Colonialism, Imperialism and Postcolonialism) and the central concept of ‘Eurocentrism’ itself, this essay will then examine the impact of European Colonialism (with emphasis on the de-centring of Indigenous histories and the substitution of Eurocentric historical narratives) and introduce Orientalism as an important component of the Postcolonial response of Eurocentrism. It explores the Occident-Orient dichotomy in that context, along with the knowledge/power nexus as being crucial in the attainment and maintenance of Eurocentric (even Westerncentric) hegemony. The effects on the cultural identity and autonomy of colonized peoples are explored, insofar that the sovereign state ideal is shown to have re-emerged in the post-colonial world, ushering in de-colonization and the re-definition of Eurocentrism (evident in the mechanisms of the United Nations, and the European Union). Lastly, the de-centring of Eurocentrism (emerging in the potential for provincialization or balkanization following the Brexit Referendum) is one necessary corrective to the prevailing dominant Eurocentric IR narrative that will be scrutinized.      

‘Colonialism’ refers to the “policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically” (Oxford Dictionaries: Language matters, 2014) This is an appropriate account of colonialism, however, to best understand Europe’s influence on the modern world through colonialism, the theory of Imperialism must be examined. Colonialism and Imperialism are both an ‘interchangeable’ process whereby the “settlement of foreign territories, the separation of foreign and indigenous peoples by legal means”, and, importantly, “the growth of racialism” had become commonplace (Abercrombie, 2006, p. 193). This interchanging relationship fits well with the theory of ‘Postcolonialism’, being a concerted “product of resistance to [European] colonialism and imperialism” (Lawson, 2012, p. 56). ‘Eurocentrism’, within the context of Postcolonialism and IR, is the enduring construct of “modern world history” that forms a “homogeneous global space” for European narratives, and, importantly, “universalizes Europe as the ordinary” (Matin, 2012, p. 354). These definitions all posit the importance of European colonialism/imperialism impact on modern world history. Further, these delineations highlight the possibility that Eurocentrism, reinforced by the enduring legacy of colonialism and imperialism, does have a case to answer for in regard to its overbearing influence on modern IR theory and International Politics more generally.

The spread of European colonization throughout the globe, particularly during the nineteenth century, continues to have an inestimable influence on modern International Politics. Underpinned by Enlightenment thinking and scientific modernity, European colonisers were able to exploit their economic, technological, military advances and resources, thus forcibly transplanting European culture, religion, history, philosophy, politics and divisions of their populations beyond European confines. This dynamic led to the dominance of European influence, control and the spread of imperialism that in turn facilitated the expansion of empire built on imperial premises. This mass diaspora of European culture had an immediate effect on the native cultures who found themselves subjugated by colonial rule. The de-historicizing and diminution of Indigenous cultures was replaced with the creation of a ‘universal’ history – a universally accepted history (and narrative) that buttressed a favourable account of European patronage in those cultures and regions (Matin, 2012, p. 360). According to Henk Wesseling (2001) an example of this can be validated in how colonial Europeans believed that Asia had “no history in the Western sense of the word” (p. 122). The immediate impact of colonialism, the dispossession of history and disregard for Indigenous cultures are factors of key importance to Postcolonialism in understanding the enduring Eurocentric narrative so evident. Furthermore, the historical de-centring and falsifying of history to reinforce Eurocentric bias still continues to lead to inferiorization of the ex-colonized, particularly in the Non Aligned and Third World (McClintock, 1994, p. 254-255).

For Postcolonial theorists, Europe’s colonial dominance over non-Western nations extends beyond the de-centring of history, while history continues to be an abiding and adaptive component of Eurocentric influence within IR theory. Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism explores the historical imbalance of the ‘Occident’ (personified by colonial Europe) and the ‘Orient’ (created by the West to categorize the lesser ‘Other’) (McLeod, 2000, p. 42). This theoretical binary juxtaposed European progressiveness with Oriental backwardness and so within this rationale Europe created its coloniality of power over the Orient (Quijano, 2002, p. 557-558). By socially constructing this dichotomy - where one exists in large part to serve the other’s interest - Europe was able to assert and maintain its colonial dominance through re-structuring, re-homogenizing and the denigrating of the Orient (McLeod, 2000, p. 42). In so doing, Europe maintained control over its colonies, albeit forcing colonized peoples to acknowledge their inferiority vis a vis acknowledge the West’s superiority. Through the narrative of Orientalism Europe posited an enduring ideological justification and function where “certain territories and people require and beseech [European] domination” that continues to permeate today (Said, 1994, p. 8). It is therefore pertinent (provided by Orientalists) that the creation of the Occident-Orient dichotomy still buttresses a Eurocentric/Westerncentric worldview that still occupies a dominant and largely unchallenged position within the international system.

This Saidian strand of Postcolonialism, reflected by Europe’s ability to maintain a coloniality of power over the Orient, also highlights the importance of how these binaries led to the production of knowledge, and subsequently, to the possession of power. This dynamic continues to have a profound psychological impact on the colonized and the colonizer in the postcolonial world. Borrowing from Foucault’s perspective of structures of knowledge, Orientalists believed that the Occident controlled “the production of Oriental knowledge and images for the purpose of legitimising the exercise of colonial power” (Pourmokhtari, 2013, p. 1770). By utilizing Foucault’s ideas on knowledge, Orientalists posit that “intellectual and pedagogical ramifications of imperialism” were and continue to be immense for the developing and Third World (Goss, 1996, p. 240). For the colonizing Europeans, the imperial opportunism brought commodities and scientific riches in the new form of learning (seen in governance, languages and sciences), insofar that this learning experience benefited European industrial power as colonialism ushered in new markets and pools of manpower that could be exploited at minimal economic cost (Rattansi, 2006, p. 483). This overshadowing legacy of Eurocentrism remains pervasive in how the West maintains a monopoly and legacy of knowledge and power (through Eurocentric narratives) that extends beyond Postcolonialism.

The true extent of Eurocentrism’s influence over Postcolonial IR theory can be seen in the perceived normalization of knowledge seen through the power of hegemony and identity (Rattansi, 2006, p. 483). The processes of hegemony and the modern problem of re-creating identity helps give weight to the assertion that the knowledge/power nexus remains monopolized by the West in a modern Postcolonial world. In the case of hegemony, Europe’s historical normalization of its values has helped it to create a modern, Western-dominated, social order - one viewed as acceptable in the international affairs at all levels. It is important to note that this modern order is not intent on or reliant on colonization, although, it does safeguard Eurocentric hegemony and hubris within IR theory. Similarly, the present-day pre-eminence of the United States in global affairs suggests that Eurocentrism and Westcentrism are much the same in its economic, cultural and ideological outlook on normative values. This can, to a varying degree, be seen in the creation of multilateral organizations, in the first instance with the League of Nations, then subsequent United Nations and European Union - global institutions that serves to maintain a Western dominated hegemonic world order or status quo. Although the centre of power of Europe has now shifted to include non-European sovereign nation states (including the United States, Japan and China), along with coalitions of nations along ideological lines and cultural similarity, Eurocentric hegemony within the UN and the EU remain “employed in the organization of knowledges, for the purpose of social control”, but control built to facilitate world security and maintain a West dominated permanency (Persaud, 2002, p. 68). By using a tacit preponderance of power within the UN and other global institutions, Eurocentric (Westerncentric) hegemony continues to govern.

The second important component of the normalization of knowledge can be seen in the power of identity, especially for those historically dominated by European norms and values. For those previously colonized, identity is elusive and hard to pinpoint especially if one’s language and culture had been suppressed. As already revealed, the attainment of knowledge is something not coincidental or accidental within the colonial setting, but exploited and manipulated by an enduring Eurocentric narrative that buttresses the colonial myth. To illustrate further, the intentional suppression of identity was a key to the Occident – Orient dichotomy and broader European colonial strategy. Moreover, achieving an identity from within one of the de-colonized regions (particularly in Africa), one free from the effects of European historical influence, continues to be a fruitless pursuit and unachievable without dramatic social upheaval or revolution. The geopolitics of Postcolonial theory reaffirms this reality around the world, where states falter and fail due to a lack of autonomous identity and experience in self-governance. This failure is due in large part to an omnipresence of Eurocentric (Westerncentric) norms and values in ex-colonized nations, regions and continents in the rules-based International System (During, 1995, p. 125). Hence, the ongoing problem surrounding the colonization of identity still impedes the de-colonization process. 

The conclusion of the Second World War spelt the decline of European colonization in an overt sense. This eventuality meant maintaining and upholding an imperial presence was no longer a viable option, accordingly initiating widespread de-colonization and the return of autonomous control back to the previously colonized. Another damaging colonial legacy of IR can be seen in the practice of European colonial powers hurriedly offloading territories and interests to unprepared, unstable local populations. Additionally, arrangements for de-colonization were hastened by nationalistic insurgencies, whereby after years of suppression open hostility threatened European settlers, corporations and administrations with violent reprisals. Such was the trend and necessity to vacate the colonies that little due insistence was factored in when the Europeans caused the migration of populations, partitioned arbitrarily and granted autonomous sovereignty with abandon (Seth et al, 1998, p. 7).  It was this period of rapid de-colonization that, rather than culminate in the termination of European interference, in fact ensured its continuation but through more subtler means of control. This neo-colonial form of influence and control can be seen in an emphasis of national sovereignty on Eurocentric (Westerncentric) terms, global norms and the officiating of the International Political Economy (epitomised by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank).

The term sovereignty itself was a Eurocentric conception with Westphalian traditions, and was “institutionalized” within the UN as being “a global norm” (Pourmokhtari, 2013, p. 1783). Understandably, a European tradition of sovereignty meant little to colonized peoples who had been previously shunned from positions of authority. When autonomous rule was returned to the indigenous custodians, typically the process was conducted without appropriate assistance and with minimal resources from the once-colonizers and the international community as a whole. Importantly, rather than being a source of consternation and embarrassment for Europe, de-colonization was itself turned into a Eurocentric narrative; a “grand redeeming project of bestowing sovereignty” all over the world (Pourmokhtari, 2013, p. 1785). The European rejoinder of sovereignty (a central concept of IR theory), particularly through the UN, does give validity that IR is Eurocentric (Westerncentric) and will remain so whilst ex-colonized states continue to struggle under the unrealistic weight of autonomous and sovereignty expectations. 

The fallout from de-colonization persists in IR and is the basis for Postcolonial theory. Inevitably, de-colonization has provoked Postcolonial theorists into a vigorous debate concerning the question: can Eurocentrism be somehow de-centred from the non-European world? One such seismic departure from Eurocentrism can be demonstrated in the founding principles of the Non Aligned Movement at Bandung in 1955; whereby South-South solidarity between newly created sovereign nations (coming ostensibly from de-colonization) asserted a newfound consensus for global order built on non-intervention, the respect for sovereign rights and international law (Mulakala, 2015).  Although some theorists suggest that Eurocentrism is now defunct, what is more convincing is that it has embedded itself deeply within Western-ism (epitomised by United States influence and control), the International System, and particularly, IR theory. There are some Postcolonial theorists, including Dipesh Chakrabarty, who now suggest that Eurocentrism (and even Europe itself) should and must provincialize and RENEW (Rethinking Europe in a non-European World). By RENEWing, Europe would be able to reconcile with its modern reality and not its historical memory (Fisher Onar & Nicolaidis, 2013, p. 284). By provincializing, colonial Eurocentric notions, assumptions and narratives (such as binary thinking) can be jettisoned from the forefront and centre of global affairs. Furthermore by provincializing, this would encourage Europe to discard historical narratives of colonialism and come to terms with its own modern and increasingly diverse future (Fisher Onar & Nicolaidis, 2013, p.287-291). It is also suggested that the process of de-centring Eurocentrism has amounted to Europe itself struggling with its own colonial demons in its postcolonial phase. This struggle - whether imagined or not – encompasses a loss of identity; a comprehensive sense of decline; a “crisis of hospitality” and an inherent fear of the “foreigner from within” (Huggan, 2008, p. 242). Whether or not this is a modern European reality remains unclear, especially with an increasingly emboldened Eurosceptic movement following the Brexit referendum. What does remain plausible is that Europe will continue to be a significant actor in global affairs in some form. Furthermore, what is of key importance to Postcolonialism and IR theory however, is that Eurocentrism (underpinned by colonial narratives) is increasingly provincialized and accordingly de-centred for the benefit of a postcolonial world. The reality is complicated by less obvious influences at work in the world including the scope of multinational corporations and changing relationships amongst countries along ideological and trade driven lines not necessarily along the traditional West/East or Occident/Orient divide.

In conclusion, IR theory is predominantly Eurocentric (Westerncentric) and enduringly so, despite a powerful China and resurgent Russia.  The Eurocentric narrative has proved highly useful and adaptive for its proponents and their objectives in the pre- and post-colonial world. It has overwhelmingly benefited the European/Western colonial powers and left a negative legacy to its once subjugated peoples. Insofar that now the attainment of autonomy through sovereignty is a typically flawed process, which is especially evident in Africa. The Eurocentric narrative in IR theory possesses the flexibility to change the historical narrative, and so in a sense, re-invent itself and its role. It has a solid institutional mechanism for survival (through the UN and to a lesser extent the EU) and useful institutional means (including NATO) to ensure its survival and the attainment of its objectives.  It does face something of a counterweight in the emergence of the provincialization and even the balkanisation of the EU following the Brexit Referendum. It does also face ideological and political competition and opposition no longer necessarily along the West/East or Occident-Orient traditional divide. However, despite a downturn in the prestige of contemporary European politics, the Eurocentric (Westerncentric) narrative itself remains secure in its pervasiveness and adaptiveness in the Postcolonialism, International Politics and IR theory.

Nathan Down is a lecturer and researcher in the fields of Politics, History and Communications at Charles Sturt University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. He graduated from Macquarie University with a Master of International Relations.

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