Of paradigms and power politics: The NIICE convention and international order after Afghanistan

  • 0

Peter Vale (photo: provided); Covid picture: Canva; Afghanistan soldier: https://www.litnet.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Thinus_Afghan03.jpg)

........

The conflict between power politics and the hopes for a better world is the stuff of the discipline of International Relations (IR) – an academic field which has promised so much, and seems to have delivered so little.

It was against this backdrop that 330 speakers recently took part in a convention to consider the weighty issue of world order.

.........

The conflict between power politics and the hopes for a better world is the stuff of the discipline of International Relations (IR) – an academic field which has promised so much, and seems to have delivered so little.

It was against this backdrop that 330 speakers recently took part in a convention to consider the weighty issue of world order. The three-day event was organised from Nepal by a think tank which enjoys the name NIICE (Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement). Like other new generation institutes, especially those in the global South, NIICE aims to understand and explain, but is equally keen to change the ways in which scholars think about the field.

The gathering’s immediate aim was to draw scholars in South Asia into a regional-centred conversation. But the organisers reached out, and support came from some 110 universities, think tanks and participants from 35 countries, including South Africa.

The intellectual fare was organised within the framings of orthodox IR, but there was a distinctive critical edge to the deliberations. This was in no small part due to the images of departing Westerners beamed from Afghanistan, and of remorseless fires and flooding from elsewhere across the world. The immediacy of these real-world events pushed both panellists and participants into suggesting that something beyond the ringing calls to “decolonise” the field is needed.

.....

Their message was clear: to remake the world, IR must be remade. Will this be done?

.......

Their message was clear: to remake the world, IR must be remade. Will this be done?

It has been an article of faith that the West represents the best when it comes to the theory and practice of IR. This modernist belief was propagated with ceaseless energy by Western-dominated knowledge centres in the form of university-based departments in the fifties and sixties and, especially since the seventies, with the rise of the policy-centred think tank.

Undoubtedly, however, the most powerful influence in making IR into “an American discipline”, as it was once put, has been the convention industry – especially through the US-centred International Studies Association, which was founded in 1959 and which is called “the most respected and widely known scholarly association in this field”.

Demonstrably, however, the “West is best” approach to IR is underpinned by assumptions of racial superiority and an unwavering belief in capitalism. Both of these, in turn, are linked to the notion that Judeo-Christian values will place a check on injustice, and so ensure international order.

But the Afghanistan experience, among others, shows how this approach has hollowed out, rather than enhanced, policy options to make a better world. This is arguably because it has stymied ways to imagine an international order other than one dominated by power politics.

Panellist after panellist at the NIICE Convention pointed out the limitations of this approach. In a session called “Non-Western thoughts and international relations”, one speaker pointed out that each country in the international system is unique in terms of geography, culture, history and the like; so, the idea of uniqueness, rather than a predetermined set of assumptions, should shape how to study IR.

.......

To change this will require new approaches: this will only be possible by abandoning the building blocks around which experts – including IR scholars and policy-makers – understand what is at stake in the old ways of speaking and acting.

But crossing the divide will be treacherous, because it goes to the heart of epistemology – what we know, and how we know it – and this is where the NIICE Convention may represent a tipping point for IR.

........

To change this will require new approaches: this will only be possible by abandoning the building blocks around which experts – including IR scholars and policy-makers – understand what is at stake in the old ways of speaking and acting.

But crossing the divide will be treacherous, because it goes to the heart of epistemology – what we know, and how we know it – and this is where the NIICE Convention may represent a tipping point for IR.

Not only was the event organised in, and on, and around, the global South, but the volume of people who attended its 44 panels was astonishing: more than 20 200. The number is certainly telling us something about how knowledge has been curated and broadcast during COVID. Over time, however, the sheer weight of numbers may well call into question the way in which research is funded. Navigating these choppy waters will be difficult, if not impossible, especially in a time when science is being called into question as never before.

The question, for the present purposes, is how the Nepal experience will threaten the credibility of what is currently accepted as knowledge in the field of IR. It seems unlikely that legitimacy of IR knowledge will be a popularity contest. But, as Thomas Kuhn taught, paradigms do change when they no longer fit the real-world circumstances, and together with new language and a different methodology they supplant old understandings.

So, the central obstacle in shifting IR away from the orthodoxy represented by power politics lies in how it will be validated.

This is where IR journals will play an important transitional role. The importance is well understood by institutes like NIICE, who are planning journals which they hope will compete with those based in the global North.

At the theoretical end of the journal spectrum, there is tolerance of – rather than great enthusiasm for – new ways of thinking about ordering the world. But stubborn resistance to new ways of thinking – let alone embracing a paradigm shift – will come from journals which serve the policy community. This is because they remain invested in the lore – and the lure – of the power politics approach to IR.

Even in the aftermath of the retreat from Kabul, the mood of the policy community seems to be drawn from the Latin adage Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”). So, it seems possible to extrapolate that their writing – as after the retreat from Saigon in 1973 – will return towards old ways rather than exploring the new.

Many academic disciplines have false starts, but few have had more than IR. After each global convulsion, the world is flooded with ideas of how to make and manage what amounts to a new normal. The present confluence of COVID, climate change and the collapse of the West’s 20 years in Afghanistan is such a moment.

.......

After each global convulsion, the world is flooded with ideas of how to make and manage what amounts to a new normal. The present confluence of COVID, climate change and the collapse of the West’s 20 years in Afghanistan is such a moment.

........

The message which came out of Nepal last week has shown (to use the social activist phrase) that another world is possible.

Will a new generation of IR scholars embrace a new paradigm?

Also read:

Die einde van ’n asimmetriese oorlog

Reguit met Robinson: A Zoom conversation with Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers

A lesson still not learnt

Afghanistan: “Dit is takties ’n moeilike situasie.”

COVID-19: Die jongste | The latest

 

  • 0

Reageer

Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.


 

Top