New metres for a wider world: interregionalism and Global International Relations

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

by Frank Mattheis

Bild Mattheis

Regional institutions are more than the product of merely regional forces. The Picture above shows the African Union Conference Centre, which illustrates Chino-African entanglements (photo: Antonia Witt)

Assessing a new global order with old concepts produces a distorted image of the world. After decades of Westphalian categorisation, IR scholars suffer from disciplinary blindness, or at least from academic ametropia. The dominant concepts force us to focus on things that have lost relevance. They feign a world that is not to scale. Accordingly, we cannot see the essential logics at play. Global IR suggests that the world is larger and more complex than conventional tools of IR allow us to grasp. Our metres are not long enough to measure the multiplicity of layers, spaces and actors.

In this blog post I reflect on my personal experience as a researcher of regionalism and interregionalism. First, I outline the limits the academic discipline has posed as well as the challenges to overcoming them. I then share my experience in concrete research projects and reflect to what degree they have been able to contribute to the ambitions of Global IR.

Regionalism in IR

Studying regionalism while relying on conventional IR premises means reading and speaking about intergovernmental organisations – like IR has for a long time mainly focused on an inter-state world. Thus, for the study of regionalism, instead of reassessing the empirics of transnational and transregional dynamics, academia seems to reproduce and confirm what is already presumed and – even worse – what we had ‘always known’.

After roughly two centuries of nation-states and half a century of the proliferation of regional organisations, these two categories are deeply inscribed in the ontology and epistemology of IR, even though they are crumbling away as soon as we venture into studying them in practice. Borders are hardly as stable as they appear on a political map. They are constantly deconstructed and renegotiated in social practices. In some cases they are even ignored. Social, economic and political spaces overlap in multiple ways, and so do identities and loyalties. Those whom we conceive as main actors of international life often appear less important or dissolve into a multiplicity of actors once we look beneath their veneer.

Imagining new measures

A new world cannot be measured to its actual scale with old metres. Yet, established concepts and categories do not easily disappear. They survive justified by claims to pseudo-reliability and because of academic routines. Those in pursuit of innovation face a real dilemma. They need to excel according to the old standards in order to claim the space to find new, practical ways of capturing social realities. They first need to spend time pretending that the old criteria are still the right ones in order to satisfy peer reviews and teaching curricula. But how much time does that leave to play around with new ideas?

The world does not stop changing, and so our concepts need to keep changing, too. The quality of several key concepts differs considerably across contexts. In most of the Global South, for instance, the nature of the state and its borders unfolds according to logics that are quite different from those in Europe. In Africa, neither the concept of the nation-state nor sovereignty is a useful heuristic to understand order, power, and the distribution of loyalties.

Thus, we need to base our core concepts on doubt, rather than on the acceptance of established categories and inertia. We too often shy away from cognition and reassessment out of fear. Imagining new concepts, using new delineations, and experimenting with new measurements are ways to enter in dialogue with the global world so as to try to understand its essence. Are we ready to change a discipline and our own research, once we realise that the world is not the one our categories painted?

The example of interregionalism

The study of Global IR requires us to start our research from the margins and the centres alike. In many cases this means that concepts emerge in the West and are applied to cases from elsewhere. This work is indeed of relevance but more balance is desirable. Yet, the more often concepts are transferred from one context to another, the more meanings they acquire and the more difficult it becomes to settle for an overarching definition. As I grew to learn as a research coordinator for a transnational research team, regionalism and interregionalism can mean something very different according to where and by whom the concept is used.

The research agenda of interregionalism was initiated on two premises that were similar to the roadblocks that have curbed IR: Eurocentrism as well as the assumption that the world of interregionalism is solely composed of formal regional organisations and their interactions. Starting off as a field of research mainly for the study of the European Union’s (EU) external relations, interregionalism has made important advances to overcome these initial limitations. The global scarcity of institutionally sophisticated regional bureaucracies comparable to the EU required an expansion of the ontology of interregionalism so as to include a wider gamut of actors and structures. At the same time, acknowledging the porousness of regional delineations has increasingly questioned the viability to consider regionalisms as preconditioned and distinct objects of study. These developments have triggered important methodological and conceptual reconsiderations regarding the making, multiplexity, and practice of regions.

What Global IR may learn from interregionalism

What may Global IR learn from these investigations into interregionalism? Both need to address the questions of how binary understandings of inclusion and exclusion can be bridged, how new delineations of the global can meaningfully challenge preconceived imaginations of states and regions, and how their fields can benefit from methodologies focusing on reciprocity and practices.

In this sense, Global IR – if it wants to grow in complementarity with IR rather than seeking to replace it – faces a double challenge it needs to master simultaneously. Not only does it have to work on deducting concepts from non-Western contexts and extrapolate them to a more generalizable level. It also needs to engage with concepts that have been developed from a Western perspective, transfer them to non-Western contexts, enhance their usefulness and explanatory value in such contexts, and finally transfer them back into Western knowledge centres. Looking at security in Global IR would for instance mean to use Western concepts of conflict and peace in a post-colonial perspective without reducing the latter to an idiosyncratic regional container. IR as an interdisciplinary subject presupposes a number of existing disciplines to be combined, whereas Global IR would rather be a transdisciplinary subject that reconfigures the boundaries of these various disciplines.

The limits of creating new measures

Global IR is a promising approach and a range of academics convincingly argued in its favour, not least in this blog series. Yet, drawing our attention to the multiplex character of the world is not enough. The most difficult exercise is to permeate the actual study of global phenomena. The orthodoxy of the state and Western-centrism has not been challenged in most empirical studies. Moreover, it would be misleading to assume that the premises of Global IR receive unequivocal support outside the Western centres of knowledge production. Worldviews based on Westphalian and realist ideals have resonated with many academics across the globe, who consider them to be of universal value. In conversations with various colleagues in Africa two extremes tend to dominate: scholars either reject the idea of African concepts of IR altogether or they defend the existence of unique African concepts in a parochial manner.

The African continent also provides apt illustrations for the myriad institutional challenges faced in the effort of reshaping social science disciplines and of making African contributions to it heard. Despite some flagship centres (such as CODESRIA) and a growing number of widely acclaimed intellectuals, funding and capacity are nowhere close to those of OECD countries. In addition, the PhD rate is very low and would be lower still if inferior academic standards than in the West were not considered acceptable by faculty members.

The exercise of re-imagining is certainly not enough to change an academic discipline. Novel research formats are one crucial path to change. Yet this is easier said than done. Compelling as it sounds and in the face of an increasing (funding) support for such endeavours, important stumbling blocks remain. I will therefore conclude this piece with examples of collaborative research projects in which I was involved and reflect on problems that we encountered in exploring innovative research formats.

Conducting research (more) globally

In the past years, I have been involved in several research projects of different sizes and agendas but all of them related to interregional or transregional perspectives and thus resonating with some of the premises of Global IR.


The Brazilian National Research Council (CnPQ) funded this two-year research project by a group of scholars from Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and South Africa. The object of study was the multilateral organisation Zone of Peace and Cooperation in the South Atlantic (ZOPACAS), evaluating its opportunities and challenges at the moment of its 30th anniversary. Both the object of study and the team was thus in line with Global IR ambitions: multilateral, collaborative and emerging from the margins.

2) The European Studies Association of Sub-Saharan Africa (ESASSA)

The European Studies Association of Sub-Saharan Africa was resurrected by the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation with the objective of serving as a platform for researchers in Africa with an interest in the EU and Africa-Europe relations. The aim is to re-balance the knowledge production on these two themes by deepening research networks among African scholars and establishing bridges to their European colleagues for future collaborations.

3) Atlantic Future

This three-year endeavour received substantial funding from the EU’s FP7 programme in order to investigate the Atlantic Ocean as the centre of a transregional social space. 12 partners from all four continents (though mostly European) collaborated in a number of studies and data collection projects. In terms of Global IR, the main characteristic in addition to the transregional team stems from the deconstruction of orthodox continental delineations in favour of a maritime-centred approach to study global linkages and transfers.

4) Adaption and Creativity in Africa (SPP 1448)

This large-scale special priority programme (SPP) is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and brings together the leading African Studies centres in Germany under a transdisciplinary research theme. In principle, this programme is more geared towards promoting a national discipline, i.e. German African Studies. However the emphasis on knowledge transfer and joint research with African colleagues has also effectively contributed to globalise this domestic discipline and to change research practices.

5) Political Economy of Regional Organisations (PERO)

This small-scale collaboration on the political economy of regional organisations is designed to overcome the n=1 challenge of regionalism studies which remains essentially dominated by research on the European Union. It aims at building up a database of the finances of regional organisations in order to compile comparable figures. The project is designed in a way to involve local experts and their privileged access to the data, which in many African cases is usually difficult to retrieve. The object of research is less innovative as it concentrates on formal organisations, yet a thorough examination of their capacity would contribute to assess their role in comparison with other regionalisms.

Remaining challenges

Despite the advancements these projects represent, a number of problems to practising Global IR have emerged in these projects.

Firstly, fieldwork has been an issue. Multilateral organisations in the Global South do not have the capacity to accommodate and inform many researchers and are usually difficult to access. This obviously makes them more difficult to study than the EU or the OECD. In the case of ZOPACAS>30, the ministerial summit we were supposed to attend as observers was postponed repeatedly at short notice. In addition, several countries (including the supposedly more capable member South Africa) struggle to keep track of their involvement in ZOPACAS, let alone making this information available to researchers. PERO has faced similar problems, with regional organisations in Africa not being able or willing to keep track of their budgets and submit them to public scrutiny.

Secondly, the ideal of forging a discipline that bridges between the West and the South is hampered by scholarly asymmetries. In the experience of ESASSA one of the major challenges was simply to rally a critical mass of African Europeanists. Trying to propagate the study of Europe and of Africa-Europe relations as a reciprocal and hence more global endeavour is a noble cause. Yet, on its own it can hardly produce the numbers of African researchers and students it would require. The SPP1448 programme had the advantage of focusing on African Studies and thus had a much bigger pool of potential African partners. Nevertheless, even in this case asymmetries existed. What is more, they might even have been exacerbated by the debates and routines related to accentuating the German perspective on the discipline of African Studies.

Thirdly, conveying a basic idea that reflects Global IR is a feat in itself. The Atlantic Future project started off with the premise that the Atlantic constitutes a meaningful delineation for the study of several transnational dynamics. However, despite finding convincing evidence that such delineation is in fact more appropriate than traditional spatial divisions of the world, a sizeable amount of the project’s energy was devoted to diffusing the basic rationale among project members, partners and funders. Had the delineation been less innovative and more continental-based, i.e. following more classical imaginations, the actual research would have been easier to concentrate on. As described above: innovation requires time. And time is often scarce, not only, but evidently also in academia.

Fourthly, the question of funding remains an important issue. ZOPACAS>30 has been the only project I participated in, which relied on non-Western funding. Compared to most other sources, the budget has been notably more modest. And while less funding is not a problem per se, the project unfortunately did not prove less bureaucratic to manage. Funding stemming from the Global South for project partners that are also located in the Global South also suggests that it is less prone to paternalism. However, it does not prevent research agendas from being set by narrow national interests rather than by academic merit.

What these projects and my experience in South African academia have taught me is that Global IR can only excel if it avoids the risk of repeating some of the mistakes of traditional IR, namely becoming a ‘Southern IR’. Doing research on hitherto marginal themes and questions should not be done in an isolated manner or in antagonism to more orthodox themes. Likewise, cooperation among scholars needs to transcend several borders at once, lest it fosters more compartmentalisation. And even though I have greatly benefitted from my position over the last few years as a European researcher based in Africa, it is still problematic to take up the role of ‘the researcher from the South’ in international collaborations. In this sense, my current role can only be a temporary period of reflection. It needs to be followed by a transfer of this knowledge to Western academic environments in order to contribute to a continuous circulation of European and Southern perspectives.


Frank Mattheis is a post-doctoral fellow of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He holds an MA in Global Studies as well as a PhD from the University of Leipzig. Frank has worked and published on interregionalism and comparative regionalism in South America and Southern Africa. Among his recent publications are a monograph on New Regionalism in the South: Mercosur and SADC in Comparative and Interregional Perspective, a co-authored article entitled Is Africa Really Following Europe? An Integrated Framework for Comparative Regionalism and a co-edited volume on The New Politics of Regionalism.


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.

Anthoni van Nieuwkerk (2016),  Reflections on (not so) International Relations … and what scholars from the Global South can do about it, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.



Citation: Frank Mattheis, New metres for a wider world: interregionalism and Global International Relations, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.08.2016,

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