Because of America


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ANY interested observer scanning available literature to determine the connotations of ‘Empire’ can discern rather easily that the concept has been employed in disparate contexts. According to E.J. Hobsbawm, the period 1875-1914 was an ‘Age of Empire’ marked by ‘new imperialism’ and was ‘not only an economic and political but a cultural phenomenon.’1 In a more contemporary invocation of ‘Empire’ in a book that goes by the same name, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that ‘Empire can only be conceived as a universal republic, a network of powers and counter powers structured in a boundless and inclusive architecture.’2 Hardt and Negri have the United States in mind when they refer to Empire. To Uday Singh Mehta ‘Empire’ has been a project of British liberal thought in the 19th century that presented itself rather dubiously as a ‘self-consciously universal …political, ethical and epistemological creed.’3 A brief conceptual primer by Stephen Howe on Empire adds an additional dimension to the word. To Howe it has encompassed ‘levels of imagination and metaphor as well.’4

Quite evidently, Empire carries a different resonance to diverse political constituencies. My interest here is confined to theoretical moments of immense ambition (consistent with Howe’s reading) in the discipline of international relations. While conscious of the Anglo-American origins of international relations, the following article seeks to run a thread illustrating problematic aspirations of certain strands of theorizing in the past as well as in the present manifest in the contemporary rendition of the discipline.



International relations as a discipline has been well-known for its Anglo-American parochialism.5 Several scholars have chronicled the influence of the external environment in determining the trajectory of the discipline. Stanley Hoffman in the late ’70s for instance argued that ‘a convergence of three factors: intellectual predispositions, political circumstances and institutional opportunities’ lent a particular stamp to the American variant of the discipline.6 The reliance on an ‘applied enlightenment’ ethic is best reflected in the dominant ‘policy-science’ orientation of the discipline.7 The area studies focus similarly exercised an enormous sway in defining the geography of the world according to the lenses of the dominant power of the day.8 A strong inclination in the discipline to arrive at certitude and a continued fixation on ‘the present’ are also seen as distinguishing aspects of this parochialism.9

However, not all intellectual historians of the discipline are convinced that the best way to appraise the content and ambitions of the discipline is achieved through a focus on the external environment. A recent assessment of the discipline built on its academic historiography concludes that ‘the history of international relations clearly reveals that the discourse about sovereignty was really what animated the political discourse of anarchy.’10 However, Brian Schmidt’s study has also endorsed the impossibility of chronicling a history of the discipline without describing its distinct American presence.11



The verdict about the ongoing American dominance of the discipline was reinforced as recently as the late ’90s when a thoroughgoing empirical study of contributions to leading journals in the field revealed that ‘an American hegemony exists and that it influences the theoretical profile of the discipline.’12 What does this imply?

To a student of international relations in India, this has often entailed an exposure to a vocabulary of ‘great powers’ premised on military and economic capabilities and a series of theoretical propositions that privilege this conceptual universe.13 What is referred to conventionally and uncritically as the ‘third world’ in the literature is placed on a different pedestal and remains marginal to mainstream theorizing. In the course of this article, I identify some principal theoretical propositions which appear rather normatively problematic from our vantage point but which inevitably underscore the dominance of the United States best reflected in the inclusions and exclusions that define the discipline.



For instance, in the ’70s realists writing on issues of political economy advanced the proposition that a hegemon lends stability to the global economy.14 This is conventionally referred to in the literature as ‘hegemonic stability’ theory. The theory went further on to argue not merely that a hegemon was indispensable to international stability but that one could attribute an ‘enigma of hegemonic benevolence’ as well.15 The theory was empirically rebutted but what is troubling from our vantage point is the ‘unmistakable normative implications in the hegemonic vocabulary.’16 As Isabelle Grunberg candidly stated, ‘[t]he theory of hegemonic stability is of American origin and is quite strongly biased in favour of the United States.’17 Further, it lent itself amenable to the critique of ‘ethnocentrism’ and was treated more as a ‘powerful mythology’ rather than a convincing explanation of the workings of the international system.18

More recently at the closure of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama advanced the ‘end of history’ thesis. It was emphatically asserted that we were at ‘the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’ was unfolding internationally. The conclusive nature of the claim posed some equally disturbing normative implications for those in large parts of the post-colonial world.



Underlying these explicit preferences was a whole body of literature that went by the name of ‘democratic peace.’19 According to democratic peace theory, democracies do not engage in war with other democracies.20 However ‘[b]ecause it links American security to the nature of other state’s internal political systems, democratic peace theory’s logic inevitably pushes the United States to adopt an interventionist strategic posture.’21 Premised on these grounds the United States has often invoked the ‘spread of democracy’ as a value worth committing itself to internationally whenever and wherever it chooses to intervene unilaterally or multilaterally.22 Such a view again is discomforting for those wary of rationales lending support to projects of expansionism.

Another interesting strand of theory referred to as ‘just war’ theory posits criteria for determining the conditions governing both the resort to war and the actual conditions governing warfare. It draws attention to the dilemmas involved in all humanitarian intervention exercises. As Michael Walzer, one of the key proponents of the theory argues, ‘political motivations are always mixed, whether the actors are one or many. A pure moral will doesn’t exist in political life, and it shouldn’t be necessary to pretend that kind of purity.’23 While it would be imprudent to dismiss all cases of intervention out of hand simplistically, there is really no escape from a serious engagement ‘about agents, means and endings’ involved in such operations.24 It is important to remind ourselves in this context that notions relating to the conduct of war are not exclusive to any single national collectivity and that different ‘cultures have all given expression to a variety of limitations on the extent to which any means can be used for the purpose of fighting one’s enemy.’25



Further, consider security studies, another important sub field of international relations. For much of the Cold War attention was focused completely on the ‘arms dynamic’ between the former Soviet Union and the United States. It has been alleged that the charge of ‘ethnocentrism’ may be levelled here given the clear and conspicuous neglect of the Third World.26 Further, it was argued that the Cold War era had witnessed a ‘long peace’ when in reality large parts of the world outside the great power frame witnessed considerable war and suffering.27 Such a proposition however is unlikely to be contested in the First World because as John Lewis Gaddis himself claims, the accent is on the life of the great powers. He observes that ‘[t]he Cold War, with all its rivalries, anxieties, and unquestionable dangers, has produced the longest period of stability in relations among the great powers that the world has known in this century; it now compares favourably as well with some of the longest periods of great power stability in all of modern history.’28



All these strands of thought illustrate the centrality of ‘great powers’ to mainstream theoretical imagination in the discipline. Such a reading appears natural given the intrinsic link between prevalent structures of knowledge and political dominance. It poses a considerable challenge to the scholar from the post-colonial world trying to grapple with the central claims and overriding preoccupations of the discipline. However, a plausible way out is not to abdicate the responsibility of ‘doing’ international relations theory in the face of such prowess but to engage ‘critically’ with the terms of discourse and also go beyond critique.29 I have merely sought to suggest that there remain considerable normative issues in advancing theoretical claims that ignore a large part of the world or treat it as inconsequential in an account of the international system.

Without ‘lapsing’ into an equally dangerous national parochialism, international relations theory scholarship in this part of the world needs to be conscious of the lineage of the discipline and recognize the huge investments made by the major powers in configuring our understanding of the world in a certain fashion.30

It is normatively disturbing to be constantly reminded that the great powers are all that matter in the international system, that hegemons are good news as far as systemic stability is concerned, that liberal democracies alone do not engage in war with each other, that the Cold War generated a ‘long peace’, that just war notions are not ‘multicultural’ or that all of human history in terms of ideas have indeed come to an end.31 Any project of Empire ultimately relies on our succumbing to such inflections of thought and perpetuating these disciplinary prejudices.

If we are to defeat persuasively the designs of any Empire, a large part of the game lies in closely evaluating insensitive theories that lodge themselves as the mainstay of a discipline. For those wary of Empire in all its manifestations we can ill afford to forget least of all in the discipline of international relations that ‘[t]heory is always for someone and for some purpose.’32 This translates into a plea not for less but more ‘self-conscious’ theory, especially in a post-colonial context such as ours.


* The title derives from Stanley Hoffman’s representation of the discipline in ‘An American Social Science: International Relations’ originally published in an issue of Daedalus 106(3) in Summer 1977.



1. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (Calcutta: Rupa & Co, 1987), p. 76.

2. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 166.

3. Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: India in British Liberal Thought (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 1.

4. Stephen Howe, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 6.

5. A.J.R. Groom, ‘International Relations: Anglo-American Aspects – A Study in Parochialism’ in Kanti P. Bajpai and Harish C. Shukul, Interpreting World Politics (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995), pp. 45-87.

6. Stanley Hoffman, ‘An American Social Science: International Relations’ in James Der Derian ed., International Theory: Critical Investigations (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 212-241.

7. Hoffman, ibid., p. 219. Also of particular relevance is Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

8. Arjun Appadurai, ‘Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination’, Public Culture 12(1), Winter 2000, pp. 1-19.

9. Hoffman, ‘An American Social Science: International Relations’, p. 237.

10. Brian C. Schmidt, The Political Discourse of Anarchy: A Disciplinary History of International Relations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), p. 241.

11. Schmidt, ibid., p. 14.

12. Ole Waever, ‘The Sociology of a Not So International Discipline: American and European Developments in International Relations’ in Peter J. Katzenstein, Robert O. Keohane and Stephen D. Krasner, Exploration and Contestation in World Politics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), pp. 47-87.

13. Kenneth Waltz is the best-known exponent of structural realism or neo-realism. See in this connection his work, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1979).

14. Isabelle Grunberg, ‘Exploring the "Myth" of Hegemonic Stability’, International Organization 44(4), Autumn 1990, pp. 431-477.

15. Grunberg, ibid., p. 437.

16. Ibid., p. 438.

17. Ibid., p. 444.

18. Ibid., p. 476.

19. Christopher Layne, ‘Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace’ in Michael E. Brown, Sean M. Lynn-Jones and Steven E. Miller ed., The Perils of Anarchy: Contemporary Realism and International Security (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1995), pp. 287-331.

20. Layne, ibid., p. 288.

21. Ibid., p. 328.

22. Ibid., p. 287.

23. Michael Walzer, ‘The Argument About Humanitarian Intervention’, Dissent, Winter 2002, pp. 29-37.

24. Walzer, ibid., p. 37.

25. 35 I.L.M. 809 (1996) Dissenting Opinion of Judge Christopher Gregory Weeramantry in response to the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, p. 896.

26. Amitav Acharya, ‘The Periphery as the Core: The Third World and Security Studies’ in Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams ed., Critical Security Studies: Concepts and Cases (London: UCL Press, 1997), pp. 299-327.

27. John Lewis Gaddis, ‘The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System’ in Sean M. Lynn Jones and Steven E. Miller ed., The Cold War and After: Prospects for Peace (Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 1993), pp. 1-43.

28. Gaddis, ibid., p. 43.

29. Kanti Bajpai, ‘International Theory, International Society, Regional Politics and Foreign Policy’ in Kanti P. Bajpai and Harish C. Shukul, Interpreting World Politics (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995), pp. 11-42.

30. Ibid. See especially pp. 12-19.

31. For the ‘multicultural’ bases of inter- national humanitarian law see Judge Weeramantry’s Dissenting Opinion to the ICJ in response to the Advisory Opinion of July 1996, especially pp. 896-898.

32. Robert W. Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’ in Robert O. Keohane ed., Neorealism and its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 27-46.