What “Introduction to International Relations” Misses Out: Civilizations, World Orders, and the Rise of the West

30 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2021

See all articles by Amitav Acharya

Amitav Acharya

American University - School of International Service

Date Written: December 16, 2020


This essay challenges the traditional Eurocentric or Western-centered view of International Relations (IR) and offers a “global” historical perspective by examining the contribution of non-Western civilizations, especially those of India, China, and Islam. The essay begins by defining some key concepts such as “civilization” and “world order” and discussing the advantages of taking a civilizational, as opposed to the traditional nation-state perspective on international relations. The idea of world order is presented as the political structure of a civilization that is broader than the notion of an “international system”, as it includes both anarchic (a system of independent states interacting without a higher political authority) and hierarchic (such as empire) structures and captures both material (diffusion of economic and military power) and ideational (ideas and innovations) interactions. The benefits of a broader perspective include going beyond a narrow Westphalian and state-centric approach, presenting a more holistic historical view of IR through time and space, and introducing greater analytical depth by questioning the “universality” of concepts and practices that IR scholars have taken for granted and revealing the multiple, diverse and global heritage of IR as a field of study. The subsequent sections of the essay discuss four civilization-based “world orders”: classical Near Eastern, India, China and Islam respectively, to international thought and practice. Each of these sections identifies the structure of the world order, its key underlying ideas and innovations and its legacy. The overall finding is that all three present an eclectic mix of anarchy and hierarchy, idealism and realpolitik, rationalism and spiritualism, which should lead us to seriously question the often stereotyped portrayal of them. A subsequent section discusses the role of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean in developing the open international trade and the practice of freedom of seas which is often attributed to the West. The last section summarizes the manifold ways in which the ideas and innovations of non-Western civilizations contributed to the rise of Europe and the West. Contrary to historian Niall Ferguson’s view that the rise of Europe was substantially due to it own autonomous knowledge and practice, this section concludes that the West borrowed much from the Rest in its march to global dominance.

Keywords: [comma separated] International Relations, Global IR, civilizations, world order, rise of the West

Suggested Citation

Acharya, Amitav, What “Introduction to International Relations” Misses Out: Civilizations, World Orders, and the Rise of the West (December 16, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3750112 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3750112

Amitav Acharya (Contact Author)

American University - School of International Service ( email )

4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States

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