Reflections on (not so) International Relations … and what scholars from the Global South can do about it


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

by Anthoni van Nieuwkerk 

As a scholar of and from the Global South (Johannesburg, South Africa to be more precise) I attended the 2015 annual convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) in New Orleans, USA. It was a thought-provoking journey. And it made me wonder what scholars from the Global South should make of the world’s biggest IR convention, which is supposed to be the forum to advance our discipline.

It is a massive academic project. 5325 participants congregated in three enormous hotels and presented 8295 papers at 1250 panels over four days of frenetic activity. The programme was distributed in the form of a 300-page book. One had to make use of an online software programme to select panels to attend. Publishers displayed their wares in a hall with 300 stalls. It was so big that I got lost in the halls of Hilton more than once.

From this rather overwhelming academic undertaking I formed a few impressions. The first is that it was a well-organised event. It was even business-like, and I guess one can talk of the political economy of conventions in America.

The rules of ISA convention attendance, I’ve discovered, are simple: present a paper on a panel in the hope of impressing the leading scholars in the field. And if you are a discussant, dazzle the panel with a masterful deconstruction. After your panel performance you attend other panels to take the measure of your intellectual rivals. You then carry your paper to the publishers in order to negotiate a book deal.

Bild van Nieuwkerk

Seen from a distance: the ISA 2015 conference venue in New Orleans (photo: Antonia Witt)

The ISA – who are the producers of “international” knowledge?

A less flattering impression is that it was mostly a gathering of white people (from North America and Europe) talking to other white people, mainly about what they do amongst themselves, and sometimes about the problems of others elsewhere. Two examples.

First, as a field of study IR (or international studies as it is now often called) – closely associated with political science (or political studies as it is now called), as well as sociology and history – is dominated by Americans. And to be more precise, white male Americans. Although the theme of the convention was grandly titled Global IR and regional worlds: a new agenda for international studies”, suggesting a dialogue between regions, it remained the case that the intellectual space was dominated by Americans. The meaning of ‘regions’ was really Canada as a region, or Europe as a region, or the American Midwest and so on.

A second, small example: a series of four high-level panels – the Sapphire Series – were advertised as a reflection on key issues in the field to be addressed by eminent scholars. The themes were: epistemology in IR, the state of IR theory, teaching and professional development, and commentary on breaking current events (terrorism, Ukraine, Ebola). Without fail, all the speakers were white and drawn from American and Western European universities. The same is true for the ISA governing council. Among the 12 members of the Executive Committee, eight come from a US-academic institution. Not a single one comes from an academic institution in the Global South. The only exception I could find was the chair of the Global South Caucus (the other two caucuses are called ‘women’ and ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and allies’, as well as ‘online media’).

So. Having experienced this international studies tsunami and the way it is presented, I asked myself some questions. What does this reflect? Clearly there is a core and a periphery. The caucuses are clearly peripheral. But whom does one engage? The periphery? The core? Both? How and to what end?

These questions of how to deal with prevailing unequal power relationships are obviously not only posed to academics. They play out on another level too, namely global economics and politics. For instance if we translate it to South Africa’s foreign policy, the questions remain: whom do we engage? Some or all of the core (meaning the 34 market economies of the Global North, or developed world as represented by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD)? Some or all of the Global South? How and to what end? More broadly, how do we in Africa structure our relations with the South and the North?

To show colorfully, why these questions are so difficult to answer, let’s think through the following example: the Chinese, signalling a close relationship, donated the new multi-storey headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The European Union (EU), housed in a small building next to the Chinese giant, carries the brunt of the AU’s peacemaking and peacekeeping costs. Paradoxically, the intellectual engagement around Africa’s continental institutions to address peace, security and governance challenges is with European counterparts. At the same time, some European partners did not hesitate to compromise the very same institutions, most evidently for instance by invading and destroying Libya. So again: whom to engage?

Leaving the complexities of global politics behind, let me turn to possible explanations of this ISA animal. How do supposedly international conferences with a focus on engaging regions, end up reproducing political-economic inequalities? Which mechanisms are at work here?

On a mundane level is the question of geography. Simply getting to an ISA meeting in the USA takes time and money. Lots of time and lots of money. This is also true for some of us contemplating building African research networks. It requires time and money, and more often than not, one ends up working with a Northern donor to make the network functional.

On the level of knowledge production, Arlene Tickner, a scholar based in Colombia, argues that disciplinary gatekeeping practices are used as effective barriers to third world participation in scholarly enterprises in the core. She and others argue that the basic contours of IR have changed surprisingly little – despite the end of the Cold War, the rise of climate change politics, or recurring and perhaps deepening financial crises.

What does this tell us about IR?

What does this analysis tell us about IR as a discipline? It makes again visible how much text about the “international” is produced in the US. Indeed, IR textbooks continue to be written by American authors and rely upon ‘Americo-centric’ (or is it Eurocentric?) representations of global politics in which the US is normally at the core of world events (and have you noticed how often disaster and alien movies have NY’s Central Park as the key setting?). Publishing patterns in specialised IR journals indicate the pervasiveness of US and European scholars, and the predominance of rationalist modes of thought. Jonas Hagmann therefore repeatedly pointed out that IR teaching, despite calls for cosmopolitanism, remains essentially parochial.

Distinct authors take a similar analysis as a starting point to suggest that knowledge of IR is (1) constitutive of international practice, which in turn recreates and reaffirms that knowledge; (2) socially constructed, having more to do with the interaction between members of the academic community than the external world itself; (3) autistic, in that it ignores problems and perspectives that fail to resonate with its own worldview.

Seen in this light, IR reinforces analytical categories and research programmes that are systematically defined by academic communities within the core, and that determine what can be said, how it can be said, and whether or not what is said constitutes a pertinent or important contribution to knowledge. Dicta such as ‘the strong do what they will while the weak do what they must’, spoken long ago by Greek military historian Thucydides, constantly recreate the idea that the countries in the Global South are simply irrelevant to the study of international politics.

Why should IR care about what others outside the discipline have to say?

Arlene Tickner suggests that the intellectual crisis that currently plagues the field, manifest in the misfit between theoretical treatments of the world and fundamental global problems, warrants tapping into alternative sources of knowledge. For her, critical scholarship informed by feminist and postcolonial approaches, and post-positivism, allows for thinking about issues that tend to be overlooked or conceptualised differently in dominant academic circles.

So… what should scholars from the South do?

Visiting ISA in New Orleans made me think about identity, roles, power and relationships. And about the potential role of scholars from the Global South in shaping the discipline.

I can develop a spirited defence of African scholars as being research-active, networked, in tune with their and their community’s world-views, and so on. I can tell the story of my own academic institution – the Wits School of Governance – regarding security studies. It is a good story, by and large.

However I’d rather ask a number of probing questions. As African scholars, teachers and researchers, is our role to look inward? Or outward? And if so, to what extent? How do we overcome our marginality, our insecurities? How do we address the South-North divide? Should we recognise the reality of the power of the core and accept our status as peripheral thinkers?

When Western donors descend upon us to study us as problems – whether Ebola or HIV or violence or weak states – do we gratefully accept their offers of support and undertake to play the role as workshop rapporteurs rather than agenda setters? Or do we seek out like-minded scholars in the Global South and build networks and research programmes, South-South cooperation? What is the track record for this? Do we build our own publication platforms or do we compete to get published in the North? Do we associate with political projects such as BRICS and provide a back-up service to decision-makers? Or do we critically examine power as exercised by unaccountable governments?

Finally, how do we incorporate non-Western world-views and everyday life experiences into theoretical reflection, writing and teaching? Do we celebrate those that do? Who and where are they?

Paradoxically, these questions demand responses in the form of an annual convention in a big city with many hotels. A little like New Orleans perhaps?


Antoni van Nieuwkerk is Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa and Academic Director of the Wits School of Governance. He holds an MA in political science from the University of Johannesburg and a PhD in International Relations from Wits University, Johannesburg. Anthoni has published widely on regional security politics, the African peace and security architecture as well as the academic evolution of political science in South Africa.


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.

Amitav Acharya (2016), Developing Global International Relations: What, Who, and How?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.


Citation: Anthoni van Nieuwkerk, Reflections on (not so) International Relations … and what scholars from the Global South can do about it, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.08.2016,

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