For nearly two decades now, the discipline of International Relations has lived on a lament: that it is Eurocentric and we need to de-westernise it. Every year, proponents of non-western IR make their pilgrimage to the Mecca, the annual conference of International Studies Association (ISA) in the US or, once in a while, Canada, and talk endlessly of why we need to move beyond the West.
Occasionally precinct but mostly verbose, these are no comparison to the arrogance exhibited from the high and mighty. In a panel last year, when the leading IR figure, John Mearshimer was made aware of a whole groundswell of writings on non-Western IR, he said: ‘please ask these scholars to come to the ISA. I would like to listen to them’.
Was there ever a statement more revealing – cocky or innocent, take your pick – of the schism that lies between the mainstream and the margins in IR?
In the first half of January, some of us made the journey, metaphorically cutting right through the globe from the US, to New Delhi. The city was under a thick coat of smog. Pollution levels in Delhi had reached unprecedented levels and the government in Delhi was forced to take drastic measures, including adopting the odd-even rule for the first fortnight of January.
The sense of desperation outside could also be felt inside our conference hall, albeit the nature of the beast was different. A series of workshops – three in total – were organised by International Research on India and International Studies (IRIIS), World International Studies Committee (WISC) and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS) to rethink foundational assumptions of the discipline. It was a remarkably eclectic bunch of scholars from Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe and North America discussing ways in which the discipline could be ontologically re-defined.
Interesting discussions followed. Hardly a consensus emerged, but it was interesting to see young scholars drawing from a wide range of philosophical sources from East Asia to Latin America. In a discipline, which makes a virtue of its reluctance (mostly stemming out of ignorance) of using non-European sources, this was a hopeful sign. Just last year I had found myself with a group of young scholars at ISA who advised me to tone down the postcolonial approach of my paper in favour of constructivism to make it ‘IR proper’. I had wondered then if almost three decades of interventions from postcolonial scholars was merely inconsequential head-banging. The Delhi Conference was reassuring that it was not.
Towards the end of this journey, my fellow traveller and an IR rebel of old standing, Peter Vale, asked me: have we reached a Kuhnian moment in IR? In his 40 years of struggle against orthodoxy from within the discipline, he seemed, for the first time, I suppose, alive to the possibility that the margins have arrived at the gates of the citadel of mainstream IR, ready to claim it. What a time to be in the discipline, I thought. Bring it on!