The study of international relations is fundamentally concerned with understanding the drivers, dynamics, and outcomes of interactions between state and non-state actors on the global stage. As with any academic field, different theoretical perspectives have emerged over time to explain and predict international political behavior. However, a persistent critique leveled against mainstream international relations theory is that much of it exhibits an inherent Western, and specifically American, bias. This raises important questions about the objectivity and universality of knowledge produced in the field.
This article reviews the problem of bias in international relations theory by examining three main areas. First, it looks at the historical development of the field and how certain cultural assumptions and viewpoints came to dominate academic discourse. Second, it analyzes how bias manifests in the content and methods employed by major IR theories. Third, it considers the implications of biased theories for how we understand world politics. The article concludes by assessing potential ways to mitigate bias and develop more objective theoretical frameworks. By reviewing seminal literature and debates on this issue, the article aims to provide a comprehensive study of the challenges bias poses for the study of international relations.
The Development of International Relations Theory
Realism and Idealism
Modern international relations theory emerged in Europe and North America in the first half of the 20th century. The horrors of World War I and accompanying disillusionment led to a backlash against the previous optimism in human progress that underpinned 19th century liberal philosophies. Two competing perspectives – realism and idealism – arose to make sense of the descent into chaos and destruction. Realists saw power politics and national self-interest as immutable factors driving conflict between states. Idealists focused on how ethical principles and international institutions could overcome baser instincts and foster global harmony.
Despite their differences, both theories embodied the Western experience and worldview. They took the nation-state as the primary actor and Europe as the center of global affairs. Realism and idealism also assumed the universality of Western values and interests across cultures. This mirrored the colonial mindset of the time that saw Western civilization as inherently superior and destined to spread across the world. The continent-wide scale of World War I further entrenched the idea that global norms and institutions emanating from Europe were necessary to prevent future wars. Thus, while innovative, early IR theory exhibited considerable Eurocentrism.
Hegemony of Realism
After World War II, realism emerged as the dominant paradigm in American IR theory. The decisive role of power politics and national security interests in the war lent credibility to core realist assumptions. Pioneering realist scholars such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz focused on how anarchy and self-help induce states to compete for power and engage in balancing strategies. They relied on rationalist models of state behavior that discounted norms, values, and international law as marginal influences compared to survival imperatives.
Realism appealed to American policymakers during the Cold War given its ability to explain expanding Soviet power and patterns of deterrence between competing superpowers. Leading journals and university departments elevated realist scholars and marginalized alternative perspectives. Hence, realism became an orthodoxy that suppressed ideational and transnational approaches more common in Europe. This created a profound American imprint on IR theory that persists today. While realism possesses many insightful elements, its thin assumptions about human nature and state identity reflect the Western cultural context from which it emerged more than universal realities.
Alternatives and Critiques
In the late 1980s, scholarship emerged challenging realism’s dominance in IR theory. Constructivists emphasized how norms, identity, and social interactions constitute the international system as much as material forces. English School theorists focused on the global society of states and how shared values uphold order. Feminist theorists highlighted how gender biases infect assumptions about security and power. Post-colonial scholars criticized the neglect of race, cultural imperialism, and Western hegemony in mainstream IR.
Each of these perspectives provide compelling evidence that realism and neorealism exhibit parochial Western biases. They neglect how culture, identity, and intersocietal forces shape international outcomes. Decades of American theoretical hegemony effectively universalized a particular worldview grounded in individualism, materialism, and state-centrism. Post-positivist theories often rely on postmodern and critical social theory from Europe to underscore how knowledge reflects wider paradigms linked to history, culture, and power. These debates reveal deep divides within the field over questions of objectivity and universality.
Manifestations of Bias in IR Theory
While critiques of bias exist at a philosophical level, bias also manifests in concrete ways within the content and methods of major IR theories. This section examines how reliance on Western history, ethnocentrism, and methodological choices serve to reinforce parochial perspectives.
The Use of Evidence
All IR theories rely on historical evidence to some degree to build causal explanations for why states and other actors interact as they do. This poses some methodological dilemmas. If theory derivation focuses excessively on recent Western history – particularly 20th century Europe – then it risks biasing the theoretical apparatus toward that specific cultural and geopolitical context. Unfortunately, IR scholarship often succumbs to this tendency by fixating on nuclear deterrence, the World Wars, and transatlantic relations as archetypes for theorizing international conflict and cooperation.
While impactful, overemphasizing these cases imputes patterns that may not recur in other regions like Asia, Africa, or Latin America. It inhibits comparisons or inductions from the multitude of contexts outside the Western experience. This narrow evidentiary base channels theorizing in ethno- and Eurocentric directions. Expanding the domain of cases and implications tested during theory formation and confirmation can mitigate such biases. Doing so allows scholars to separate contingent, place-bound theories from more universal IR knowledge claims.
Ethnocentrism in Assumptions
IR theories also demonstrate bias in their basic assumptions about human nature and social organization. Individualism underpins most mainstream IR scholarship. Theories treat states as unitary rational actors pitted against each other within an anarchic order, mirroring attributes of the self-interested rational individual in philosophy. This contrasts with more collectivist worldviews that reject methodological individualism. Likewise, IR theories tend to treat states as inherently competitive power-maximizers, reflecting European experiences with sovereignty and the balance of power but differing markedly from East Asian or African norms of foreign policy.
Other assumptions infuse IR theory with Western biases as well. Notions of a single secular-liberal path to modernization pervade modernization theory. The democratic peace theory presumes representative democracy, a relatively rare regime type globally, as universally desirable. Marxist approaches critique the inequities of global capitalism from a distinctly Western perspective. In these ways, parochial Western ideas and values implicitly shape supposedly universal IR theory claims.
Individual Level of Analysis
IR scholarship focuses overwhelmingly on states while ignoring individuals and groups as consequential actors in world politics. This statist orientation is understandable given the preeminence of states in ordering international affairs. However, it also mirrors the traditional primacy placed on governmental institutions in European political thought and the nation-state’s centrality within modern Western history. This individual level of analysis bias results in insufficient theorization of transnational non-state actors that wield growing influence in a globalizing world.
From multinational corporations to terrorist networks, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to social movements, collective individuals exercise agency across borders outside formal state control. Cyber actors, activists, and multitudes engaged in mass politics are reconfiguring global affairs, often from the bottom up. Yet our state-centric theories are ill equipped to explain the causes and implications of their rise. Incorporating more diverse levels of analysis, as done in sociological social movement theory, could help transcend these biases.
Scholars have extensively debated how methodological choices in IR theory can introduce cultural and disciplinary biases. Overreliance on quantitative methods and explicit modeling, particularly rational choice approaches, inhibits holistic understanding of complex international contexts shaped by domestic politics, culture, and contingency. Rationalism imputesPatterns discerned from quantitative datasets covering limited periods may not represent general causal mechanisms. The preoccupation with parsimony and testability privileges particular epistemological criteria that devalue inductive knowledge.
Positivist approaches aimed at uncovering universal covering laws governing international politics obscure the context-specific construction of meaning and identities that shapes why actors make certain choices. Methodological individualism and materialism common in IR methods impose Western cultural biases on otherwise diverse political contexts. Expanding methodological pluralism provides one pathway to mitigating biases arising from narrow techniques. However incorporating non-Western perspectives more fundamentally requires tackling positivist assumptions that quantitative, deductive, ahistorical modes of analysis yield superior understanding. The field remains divided on how to integrate “Western” and “non-Western” ways of producing knowledge.
Implications of Bias for Understanding World Politics
What impacts do entrenched biases have on the ability of IR theory to explain and predict contemporary world politics? This section reflects on three significant implications arising from parochial perspectives that dominate the field.
Due to its grounding in Western experiences and assumptions, mainstream IR theory often struggles to explain political dynamics in non-Western regions. Significant events from the Islamic Revolution in Iran to the rise of Hindu nationalism in India confound realist and liberal predictions. Constructivism and post-colonialism offer some correctives but do not fully escape Western biases either. This provincialism of IR theory risks irrelevance given the global diffusion of power.
The problem has less to do with geography than the inability to comprehend different cultural logics. For instance, realism explains little about the foreign policy principles underlying Chinese strategic culture. The lack of emic perspectives from within non-Western societies inhibits strong theorization. Provincial theories that rely exclusively on Western logics and evidence chains generate limited insights into realities elsewhere. While parsimony has merits, expanding theoretical horizons is necessary to understand complex 21st century world politics.
Biased IR theories that universalize Western interests and institutions as optimal or inevitable help reinforce global power structures that advantage the West. Realism normalizes anarchy but delegitimizes anti-Western attempts to revise the status quo. Liberal theories posit Western democracy and capitalism as universal ideals, obscuring their ideological nature. Eurocentrism within IR thereby provides implicit justification for Western-led projects of global order or development that ignore local realities.
Even critics of Western hegemony frequently rely on Western-derived post-positivist theory. This risks inadvertently extending rather than transcending biases in knowledge production. Overcoming hegemony requires autonomous, locally-articulated IR theories from the Global South. While difficult given Western dominance of academia, decolonizing theory remains essential for genuine multipolarity in global knowledge and power. Absent this, IR theory will remain an instrument to reinforce the unipolar aspirations of its creators.
Flawed Policy Prescriptions
Biased assumptions that distort how Western IR scholars view foreign realities and possibilities lead to questionable policy advice. During the Cold War, theories of modernization and democratic peace provided putative scholarly justification for forced regime changes in Latin America and Southeast Asia, often with disastrous results. After 9/11, the ignorance of Islamic social dynamics and reliance on Israeli security narratives evident in US policy circles enabled calamitous interventions in the Middle East.
Looking ahead, if American IR theory treats China primarily as a threatening peer competitor rather than attempting emic understandings, it risks fueling dangerous zero-sum geopolitics. Similarly, false universalism about liberal democracy can encourage destabilizing political engineering projects. While policy relevance is valued in IR, inadequate self-reflexivity allows prescriptions informed by implicit cultural biases to go unquestioned. This highlights the need for greater pluralism and dissent in the field.
Overcoming Bias in International Relations Theory
What steps can IR scholars take to overcome biases rooted in the Western origins and worldview of the field? There are no straightforward solutions, but adopting certain best practices and expanding debates can help build more objective, universal theoretical knowledge over time. This concluding section assesses some potential options.
Reflexivity and Pluralism
The first imperative is embracing more reflexivity about the contours and consequences of bias. Too often these issues are brushed aside as ephemeral concerns separate from serious theory building and testing. Being forthright about the cultural situatedness of all knowledge claims is essential. IR scholars must also accept valid critique rather than dismiss it outright when it challenges treasured assumptions or approaches. Supporting theoretical and methodological pluralism provides avenues for self-correction by bringing diverse perspectives into the canon and debates.
However, simple openness to difference is insufficient. Marginalized voices must gain institutional standing within the discipline to shape agendas and frameworks. This means hiring scholars and publishing research from underrepresented regions, cultures, and epistemologies. Pluralism will only affect the mainstream if it moves beyond tokenism. A recurring danger is Western or Western-trained scholars coopting “diverse” ideas without meaningfully integrating non-Western colleagues as equal participants in knowledge production.
Case Selection Parameters
Broadening the range of historical evidence used to build and test IR theories helps overcome parochial biases. Seeking more representative cases from different periods and regions of the world limits theories resting overwhelmingly on particular Western experiences. Scholars must move beyond a narrow fixation on 20th century Europe and North America to incorporate insights from Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and Latin American political history and society.
Multi-method research that combines quantitative datasets and case studies facilitates wider comparative analysis. Being transparent about the geographic and cultural scope of underlying evidence allows scholars to be more precise about the domain of their theoretical claims. All evidence has limits, but expanding parameters helps distinguish conditional, localized propositions from more universal causal claims.
Gaining deeper inter-civilizational understanding based on immersive, emic experiences represents the most direct means of overcoming bias. Language training, cultural exchanges, collaborations with foreign scholars, and field research in non-Western societies exposes scholars to alternative worldviews and narratives. It moves the frame of reference beyond derivative knowledge gained from translating Western theory abroad. Internalizing non-Western ways of looking at power, ethics, security, and order is invaluable.
Of course, American IR will remain centered on US foreign policy concerns. However, cultivating empathy, discarding unwarranted universalism, and adding inter-civilizational depth to theory building better equips scholars to understand diversity in motives and outcomes across world politics. Exchanges should be two-way – welcoming foreign scholars into American academia is as important as sending US scholars abroad. Inter-civilizational fluency and co-production of knowledge provide keys to unlocking parochial constraints.
Convergence Around Shared Standards
At a deeper level, tackling bias requires identifying epistemic standards and theoretical concerns all scholarly communities uphold as universally valid. Rather than imposing a particular cultural lens, finding common ground on ethics, standards of reason and rigor, and shared human experiences provides starting points for convergent theorizing. There are cross-cutting norms against fabrication, plagiarism, and conflicts of interest which build consensus on knowledge integrity. Logical contradictions and fallacies represent universal markers of bad theorizing. No tradition endorses theories detached from empirical reality.
Identifying these shared commitments to reasoned inquiry helps overcome relativist critiques. From this foundation, IR scholarship can progress through debate, mutual critique, and accumulating insights over time toward objectivity and truth. Biases persist but their consequences are mitigated by adherence to common standards. This gradual convergence represents the strongest pathway to universal knowledge.
Bias constitutes a significant meta-theoretical challenge in the field of international relations. The Western origins of IR theory risk distortions, provincialism, and blind spots as the discipline globalizes. However, through expanded reflexivity, pluralism, inter-civilizational engagement, and upholding universal epistemic values, scholars can mitigate endemic biases over time. This will support conceptual frameworks and policy analysis commensurable with the complex, multipolar 21st century world.
The development of more objective, cross-culturally valid IR theory requires humility and commitment to iterative knowledge advancement. Recognizing how scholarship inevitably embeds contextual perspectives is imperative. Integrating alternative voices and worldviews helps overcome insular tendencies within Western IR. Through debate and application, a combination of universal insights and localized knowledge can emerge. Managing the problem of bias remains an ongoing process central to the scientific and ethical missions of international relations theorizing.
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