International Relations Theory and the Hegemony of Western Conceptions of Modernity: A Critical Review

The following critical review was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded a 2:1.

Halperin, S., 2006. International Relations Theory and the Hegemony of Western Conceptions of Modernity. In: B. G. Jones, ed., Decolonizing International Relations. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp.62-88.

This essay aims to critically review the arguments presented in chapter two of Decolonizing International Relations. First, I will provide a concise summary of the chapter detailing how the author structures their overarching argument. Then, I will analyse the critical points posited in their argument before concluding with my opinion on the chapter.

In her chapter, Halperin aims to provide an alternative history and ontology to critique mainstream IR theory by examining areas left wholly untouched by other critical theorists. Halperin asserts that critical IR theory fails to critique much of mainstream IR theory’s historical and ontological basis, reproducing many of its misrepresentations. She then exposes the myths surrounding the “rise of Europe” and the industrial revolution by highlighting how it would not have been possible without the legacy left by the Islamicate world. Halperin concludes that to challenge the Western hegemonic perspective, one must view progress as a product of transnational classes/networks rather than individual states/regions as done in mainstream IR.

Halperin begins her chapter by asserting that critical IR theory has failed in challenging the misconceptions brought about by the prevailing Eurocentric narratives of mainstream IR. Henceforth, critical theorists must ensure that they cover the pitfalls Halperin discusses in her chapter. Namely, a lack of examination concerning Europe’s representation of itself and the outdated notion that progress has historically occurred on a national/regional scale rather than a transnational/global scale. Should critical theorists meet these new requirements in their analysis, they will be able to challenge the Western hegemonic project without drawing from the same classical misrepresentations of the Eurocentric narrative. Furthermore, by pushing the benchmark of critical theory, Halperin forces theorists to become critical of themselves and their shortcomings. Through this continual self-critique, a more accurate picture of history can be painted and new ideas generated in IR theory.

In the main body, Halperin debunks the myths surrounding the “rise of Europe” and the industrial revolution to highlight the gross inaccuracies of the Eurocentric narrative. By choosing to focus on the European experience and contrasting it with that of the post-classical Islamicate world, Halperin demonstrates how later developments were not as unique and exclusive to the West as mainstream IR theory would have us believe. Halperin’s analysis clarifies that the progress in early-modern Europe was simply a continuation of the Islamicate legacy, fitting more broadly into a grander narrative of global human advancement. Furthermore, Halperin points out that the false Eurocentric history of enlightenment is an imperialist tool used to cover up the reality of Western predation. If the wider IR community adopts this approach, it will debunk all notions of Western exceptionalism in progress; instead framing progress as an international human endeavour. Doing so would lay the groundwork for new ideas in IR theory that are not tainted with old fashioned ideas of colonial superiority.

Halperin concludes that to avoid contributing to the falsity of the mainstream Western hegemonic project, critical theorists must develop a new account of world history with a different ontological basis. This different ontological basis should be that of transnational/cross-regional exchange between ruling groups and elites both in and outside Europe. Progress should be viewed as being spearheaded by the urbanised industrial societies located all over the globe, rather than the sole achievement of one particular nation/region such as Europe. This new approach will allow IR theory to uncover much of what is obscured by the mainstream Western hegemonic project, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of social power and its many forms seen across the world. Furthermore, Halperin’s approach would let us better acknowledge the impact of colonialism on non-Western societies, the roles non-Western elites played in it, and the limited nature of Europe’s industrialisation. Lastly, it will also challenge the view that modernity was the achievement of the West alone; instead, making modernity the achievement of humanity as a whole.

Overall, I largely agree with Halperin’s argument. To challenge the Western hegemonic project, we must rebuild our account of world history with a new ontological basis; otherwise, we risk propagating the Eurocentric narrative of mainstream IR. However, in this regard, Halperin’s chapter falls short in two ways.

Firstly, much of Halperin’s account of world history still relies on a comparison to the Eurocentric narrative. While the comparison helps highlight where the Eurocentric narrative is incorrect, continuing to include it when attempting to build a new narrative will position the new narrative in relation to the old one, thereby allowing the Eurocentric narrative to propagate further rather than be forgotten. The next step for Halperin would be to write up a brand-new account of world history from the ground up using the ontological basis she discusses in this chapter. Doing so will provide a new foundation for other critical theorists to build upon.

Secondly, Halperin’s new ontological basis does not explain Europe’s exceptionalism; it only reframes it as exceptionalism in domination rather than progress. If we were to use it to construct a new account of world history, we would still be left with the question of how European urbanised industrial societies came to dominate those of other parts of the world. To remedy this, we should view the predation of European societies as a “mutation” in societal evolution. Similarly, we can view the Islamicate exceptionalism in scholarship as another societal “mutation”. Then, we can link these “mutations” together by highlighting how one is dependent on the other. For instance, early-modern European exceptionalism in colonial dominance depended on the scientific advancements of post-classical Islamicate exceptionalism in scholarship, which relied on adopting classical Persia’s exceptionalism in administration. In other words, we would remove the notion of European exceptionalism by demonstrating the exceptionalism of other societies. Western civilisation can no longer be exceptional and independent if all civilisation is exceptional yet dependent.

Despite these shortcomings, Halperin still delivers a much-needed evaluation of the critical theorists’ approach. Without her contribution, we would not understand how critical IR theory fails to challenge the Western hegemonic project. As a result, IR would continue to stagnate where other social sciences are not. I hope that Halperin’s ideas are taken up by the wider IR community so that theorists can acknowledge the Eurocentricity of mainstream thought and begin actively dismantling it as is done in other social sciences.

3 thoughts on “International Relations Theory and the Hegemony of Western Conceptions of Modernity: A Critical Review

  1. Salaam Aqil,
    It’s awesome that you’re getting 2:1s on your essays Maa Shaa Allah, and this topic is fascinating to think about
    I hope this doesn’t come across as strange, but you remind me of a grown-up version of my lil brother, so I just feel like I gotta support

    Liked by 1 person

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