Decentring International Relations

The other day I took again a plunge into the field of International Relations and read an academic article by Kimberly Hutchings entitled Decolonizing Global Ethics: Thinking with the Pluriverse (in: Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 33, No. 2, 115-125).

The essay starts with the following statement: „There has been a recent growth in arguments for decolonizing dominant frameworks of normative thinking in international relations“ (115).

The dominant framework Hutchings means in this context is a „one world Euromodern ontology“ (116) or a „Western colonial modernity“ (119). As a result to decolonize means  „to mobilize resistance to modernity“ by stressing „the radical distinction between Western colonial modernity and other ways of being“ (116). In the context of the essay we should really say that „other ways of being“ mean other or alternative ways of viewing the world through word and deed, in theory and action. Hutchings refers to a body of literature which is highly critical of this dominance of a modern  framework, a dominance which apparently pushes other alternative frameworks out of the way. For this reason the essay supports a so-called pluriversal approach, even if it suggests a more refined way of thinking about this still quite novel concept. Pluri-versal means that „there are actually multiple worlds, ontologically different from the Euromodern world, and with different ethical and political implications“ (117). As there is more than one world view, we need to be more appreciative of other world views and need to acknowledge their distinct otherness.

What exactly, however, constitutes the mentioned Euromodern ontology? Unfortunately, the essay cites only a rather general, macro description: a cognitive distinction between nature and culture, hierarchical thought-patterns and a linear temporal conception (cf. 116). The essay – or better: the references mentioned by Hutchings – overlook the extreme pluriversality within modern thinking and institutions at the meso and micro-level. There is not one way of looking at the world (and its worlds) even from an assumed Modern point of view. Claiming that in the West we are all Modern monists, is simplifying things slightly.

The same holds true for those alternative ‚other‘ worlds. Where are they exactly? Who lives in them? And who writes about them, describes them, other than researchers who were raised and are socialised in the context of a modern intellectual framework? It is interesting that pluriversal thinking, as presented in the essay, feels obliged to make use of straightforward Modern concepts. Hutchings writes for example: „Pluriversal global ethics, therefore, is both proceduralist and substantive, essentially democratic in the way that it tackles ethical questions in world politics“ (119, emphasis added). This sounds quite conventionally Modern in my ears. Some degree of redundancy, then, qualifies this latest streak in International Relations; especially for those readers who are familiar with critical theory and liberation theology for example.

But readers should not be fooled. International Relations theory as well as any political theory is always in need of what I would like to call „decentring“. Hutchings and her references do have a point. But admitting our need for decentring goes hand in hand with the acknowledgement that we depend on yet another Modern invention: subjectivity. All our reasoning and theorizing is subjective, to a greater or lesser extent. We can only escape subjectivity – and that only for a fraction of a second, the impossible moment – if we practise the art of decentring, the art of taking other people and other world-views seriously until we let ourselves be questioned and pushed out of the centre of attention.

This seems to be Hutching’s point. We shouldn’t just exchange our Modern world-view – in International Relations and any other discipline – for another world-view. We should, rather, transform our way of thinking and normative theorizing. Hutching writes of

„the importance of the cultivation of particular kinds of virtue in the context of ethical practices of coexistence and collaboration. Pluriversal ethics is not about finding new ways of sorting out the meaning of justice but rather about finding new ways of relating to ourselves and to each other in our pursuit of whatever we may think of as justice.“ (121)

And a bit further down the essay she adds:

„I am suggesting, therefore, that taking pluriversality seriously means shifting our understanding of global ethics away from seeing it as a route to determining answers to questions of global justice and toward seeing it as an embodied, reflective practice contingently attached to specific goals and contexts.“ (123)

Hutchings, thus, asks for a pluriversal  approach of a second order: we don’t need another way of thinking, at least not primarily. Instead, we need another, more modest way of relating our thoughts with the thoughts of other people. It is no surprise to anyone familiar with the idea of decentring that Hutchings finishes her essay by saying that pluriversality

„focuses our attention on what it means to live with others without subsuming them into one world or another. It makes us think about how coexistence and collaboration work and the kinds of virtues and capacities they rely on and cultivate. A pluriversal ethics is not about finding out the right answers but about experiments in “being with.” It is not something that can be known in any satisfactory way; it is only something that can be done.“ (124)

It may sound odd, but this notion of „being with“ is again part of a specific tradition of thinking.  This practice of decentring, although it refers to the ways we relate to other people and their world-views, is in itself rooted in a specific world-view. Or at least it can be interpreted as such.

A master in formulating a theory of decentring – if such a thing is at all possible – is Rowan Williams. In his latest book „Christ. The Heart of Creation“ (London: Bloomsbury 2018) we find quotes – Christological statements – which are very close to what Hutchings has to say about pluriversality in ethics. Hold your breath as Rowan Williams ponders on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological writings:

„Christ’s essential identity lies in being pro nobis and pro me; Christ is who he is as the one who exits for my and our sake.“ (190)

„The only way of speaking truthfully about Jesus Christ is from that mutually defining relationship in which human existence responds to the summons to self-abandonment, life for the other, which is the life that Christ embodies, in history as in preaching and sacrament.“ (195)

„The Christological transformation of humanity is the transformation of all our constitutive relationships as humans so that they are now able to move more freely towards this maximal for-otherness.“ (204)

If we follow Rowan Williams, the Christian commitment is a lot about being changed, transformed, decentred in relation to other people, the whole of creation and God. Thinking and acting Christologically involves a radical promise of decentring my world-view in order to let myself be changed by something entirely „Other“. This results – in the human person of Jesus Christ –  in „the most radical imaginable embodiment of solidarity“ (ipid. 203).

Thinking and acting pluriversally, as sketched by Hutchings, is also a radical ethical experiment of (global) solidarity in which I allow the seemingly strange and other to rule my thoughts and normative theorizing.  Indeed, if we take the notion of pluriversality seriously, we don’t seem to be far away from a political theology of International Relations, a humble way of acting out global ethics.

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Ein Gedanke zu “Decentring International Relations

  1. My experience with international Relations Show me that cultures of the world are not so far away from each other. All cultures need their historical Background, and as good as every culture experiences similar challenges and similar Solutions. They maybe use different language to transmit those. And to my experience there is no such Thing as „the West“. This was Cold War talk. We in central Europe, Germany, Austria, the Balkan and Italy have similar experiences as in Asian Countries. In the UN I avoid Talking About Philosophy or „values“. I share situations and judgement of common sense, then all the world agrees.

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