Developing Global International Relations: What, Who, and How?


This article is part of the TRAFO Series „Doing Global International Relations”.

by Amitav Acharya

Bild Acharya

Amitav Acharya

While the programmatic idea behind Global International Relations (IR) has been discussed widely, how to actually do Global IR is – fortunately – still up for elaboration.[1] It is important to bear in mind that Global IR is not meant to be a theory, but a perspective, similar to Global History for example. It seeks broadening and deepening the academic study of international life in order to make it truly universal. Since the discipline has so far marginalized the non-Western world, the effort should be to bring it in, in multiple ways. Global IR cannot resolve inter-paradigmatic debates in IR, but should be an avenue to transcend it. So the next step in developing the agenda of Global IR is how to practically translate and operationalize it. In this context, the idea of a blog on “Doing Global IR?” is both timely and innovative.

So what does it mean to “do” Global IR? Doing Global IR is not simply adding a case-study from non-Western parts of the world, or having a regional perspective on world politics. Such works mainly end up applying theories from the West. It is also not done by simply highlighting the exclusion of regions, themes, or non-Western voices. This has already been done in a good deal of recent work on postcolonialism and Non-Western IR Theory. Finally, it is also not done by treating Global IR as if it were a theory in itself that merely needs to be “applied” to different world contexts. So what then?

What? Multiple pathways

There are multiple pathways to “doing” Global IR. No single way can be imposed. But the key to any approach to Global IR is to “bring the Rest in”: to end the marginalization of the non-Western and Global South’s ideas, history, voices, and agency. Hence, in developing Global IR, it is important to have as many voices as possible, representing different subfields: development, security, feminist IR, foreign policy, IR theory, and other sections. This will be consistent with a core principle of Global IR, which is to engage in broad conversation across perspectives, rather than a dialogue of the like-minded, or preaching to the converted.

In my view, “doing” and writing Global IR thus involves:

  • Bringing in multiple and global origins of concepts and processes
  • Focusing on time and context
  • Paying attention to both material and ideational/normative causes and consequences
  • Comparing and generalizing from the local to the global and vice versa; a two-way process acknowledging diversity and circularity but seeking to identifying shared and common patterns
  • Drawing from global history and philosophy, and developing narratives on the basis of autonomous, comparative and connected histories
  • Shedding Westphalianism and acknowledging the contribution of classical and hierarchical (international) systems
  • Focusing on agency of the states and societies other than the West

Who? Engaging rather than dismissing established knowledges

The essence of Global IR is to be inclusive. I have clarified in my writings that Global IR should embrace theoretical and methodological pluralism, and engage both critical and mainstream theories. But I also think some theories, especially postcolonialism and postcolonial feminism, can be regarded as “vanguard” theories, because they have already contributed to the effort to expand IR beyond the West.

Many feminist scholars for instance share with Global IR a concern for marginalized groups. However, the relationship between Global IR and feminist perspectives is not straightforward. Some feminists may see advantages in staying within their specific epistemic group. Moreover, there are some tensions between Western and postcolonial feminists, so much so that it sometimes appears as an inter- rather than intra-group cleavage. Many feminist scholars from the Global South see Western feminist scholarship as domineering and exclusionary of Global South identities. This, however, should not mean to shun certain perspectives. Bear in mind that Global IR is more than critical theory or any single theory; it has place for all approaches, and it us open to scholars from the South and the North.

At the same time, not all scholars outside the mainstream would see the need for a Global IR for it might compromise their distinctiveness. Some critical theorists, including postmodern and poststructuralist scholars, may be already sympathetic to Global IR, but still prefer to maintain a separate, or distinctive identity, or at least do not engage sufficiently with the “global”.

Moreover, there are some variations within mainstream theories that are better reconciled with Global IR. Examples include Mohammed Ayoob’s subaltern realism or my own constructivism which differs from both post-colonialism (I believe the subaltern can speak) and mainstream constructivism (which neglects Southern agency on norm making).

How? Suggestions for this blog series and beyond

The next step in Global IR is how to develop it further or operationalize it. In this context, the idea of a blog on “Doing Global IR?” is both timely and innovative. I think the focus of a Global IR blog should be on graduate students and younger scholars. But it is also important to seek contributions from some senior scholars who may seem rather mainstream or Eurocentric in their understanding of theory, but who can still share their views and experiences with the “global” in their teaching, research and networks.
In developing Global IR (and this was very much in my mind during my 2014-15 presidential year) it is crucial not to put the “gurus” on the defensive, or to imply that their traditional approach is passé. Instead it is important to inquire how they have in their own work thought of the “global” and tried to look beyond European and American theories and methods.

The goal here is to challenge them to reflect on the “global” in their work and to go beyond what they might have done. Global IR should not be and need not be a dialogue among the like-minded or the already converted. It need not rely on any particular theory, method, epistemology although some (such as postcolonialism) are already more open to Global IR than others.

So the idea of a Global IR platform should be to engage scholars, including senior scholars, from different theoretical and methodological traditions. Especially scholars who may seem sympathetic to or even already oriented towards Global IR, and whose work overlaps with the research agenda of Global IR, even if they have not used the term Global IR as such. I am thinking here for instance of Mohammed Ayoob (originally from India), Bahgat Korany (now at American University in Cairo), Barry Buzan, Peter Katzenstein, Yan Xuetong (China), Takashi Inoguchi (Japan), W. Andy Knight (now in Canada), Kanti Bajpai (originally from India, now in Singapore). Others who may be regarded as already being part of the Global IR community include Navnita Behera (India), Pinar Bilgin (Turkey), L.H.M. Ling (New School, New York), Qin Yaqing (China), and Tang Shiping (China).

Another crucial issue is to lay out what “global” in Global IR really means. Why not taking this up for this blog series? Although the term features prominently in the title, its meaning is neither imposed nor self-evident. So to begin with, each contributor may explicate how they view the “global” in their own work, or the way they want the future direction of IR to evolve. This would stimulate a discussion, based on ideas and patterns that emerge from the various contributions.

Finally, let me suggest some practical steps in developing Global IR. One is to create a new journal focusing on Global IR. Another one is to have a Global IR book prize. To the best of my knowledge, 2015 was the first time the ISA Annual Best Book Award was given (on a shared basis) to a scholar originally from the Global South (Tang Shiping from China). That it took until 2015 may also be explained by the fact that many Global South scholars simply don’t bother to submit their books to the book prize, assuming they will be ignored anyway.

Another idea is to push our existing IR journals into revising their mission statements to reflect the issues that are important to the Global South. They all say that they are trying to get more submissions from the Global South. But we are also familiar with the politics of how this is done (or sidelined) and with the more general obstacles scholars from the Global South have to overcome in order to get their work published. In the end, it may therefore be better to have regular forums on Global South issues commissioned by established journals with contributions by scholars from both the Global South and beyond, and in particular the younger ones.


[1] This piece is based on my recent writing on Global IR, but it was also shaped by my correspondences and exchanges with the editors of this blog series and their ideas on it.


Amitav Acharya is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC. He was President of the International Studies Association during 2014-15. His recent books include: The End of American World Order (Polity 2014, and Oxford India 2015); Rethinking Power, Institutions and Ideas in World Politics: Whose IR (Routledge 2014); and an edited volume, Why Govern: Rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His articles have appeared in International Organization, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Asian Studies, Journal of Peace Research, and World Politics.


Further Readings on TRAFO:

Antonia Witt, Felix Anderl, Stefan Kroll, Philip Wallmeier (2016), Clues, Careers, and Curricula – Doing Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.



Citation: Amitav Acharya, Developing Global International Relations: What, Who, and How?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.08.2016,


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