The Western-Centrism Problem in International Security

by Axel Galenda


This article will outline the Western-centrism issue in relation to the understanding of international security. It is a gripping question which need to be addressed because its inherent implications on the policymaking of Western States and non-State actors. Likewise, historically has been a major driver of flawed choices, premises for eventual catastrophes whose effects are blatantly evident nowadays. In doing that, the article will present some empirical examples to gain a practical understanding of the fallacy of such cultural-centric ideological approach in dealing with international affairs. The main finding is about rethinking the intrinsic meaning of security, because it is necessary to revise the old interpretative categories and disrupt the old teleological approach which has been so deleterious in the last two centuries.


The so-called Western-centrism, which has been affecting security studies for a long time, has prevented scholars and students of International Relations from understanding these problems more deeply. This eventually proved to be more complicated than it initially seemed in the eyes of Western pundits, policymakers, and overall public opinion. This has been a strong shortcoming in the understanding of how the Third World has been changing throughout the centuries following the self- evident showing of the globalisation process. This kind of paradigm is inherently problematic because it entails both wrong and limited assumptions about the meaning of the ‘Other-world’ over the boundaries of the purported Western lands. Arguably, recent global historical developments and major events in important regions such as the Middle East or East Asia have demonstrated that we cannot comprehensively discern the new global unfolding processes which are shaping the 21st century world, unless we recognise the limited nature and bias of Western-centric approaches in the analysis of security studies (Barkawi and Laffey 2006: 329).

However, we need to recognise that it is not just about Western-centrism. Each culture has its own limits and self-made prejudices, and this must be acknowledged as an intrinsic cultural fact. As a consequence, we shall reject not just a Western-centric approach. Yet, more widely, a cultural-centric one, because it limits the broadness of such a quest for security (Dunford 2017: 4). Nevertheless, in the case of Eurocentrism, we can also recognise it has been detrimental in the policymaking of core Western actors dealing with international affairs worldwide. Even when it has been given importance to the Third World, as a major feature in the global political environment, it has been spoiled by Western-driven preconceptions and interests (David 1992). This is due, in particular, to the colonial legacy which defines itself as a specific Western heritage. Broadly, this inheritance includes also the U.S. as a post-colonial imperialistic actor (Said 1994: 282), drawing a lot of practical and historical consequences in terms of policies and norms. In this sense, cultural diversity and plurality would allow us to nurture our specific knowledge of an issue, and therefore develop different set of assumptions in the problem-solving of distinct and contingent security issues which cannot be understood through the lenses of a common, unique, and overarching paradigm.

Ironically, we shall bear just one prejudice: what is right for us may be wrong for others, and vice versa. Most importantly, it must be acknowledged that an integrated analytical approach would be the best one which suits for a different range of problems. That is why Western-centrism should be overcome as a normative feature, but it will take a lot of time to do that. In fact, the whole IR theory framework was borne out in the West, according to Western exclusively universalistic worldviews, and along European-made conceptual frameworks (Amin 1988: 53). Unfortunately, there is still a lack of broad and well-developed non-Western IR theories which can be applied to security studies as well.

Breaking the boundaries of prejudice

First of all, we must not forget that the IR theory theoretical substructure has been built upon the Anglo-Saxon hegemony shaped after the Second World War (Biswas 2016: 220). This brings enormous consequences on the way the students of International Relations looked at the post-1945 world, fostering and preserving such normative tradition. Likewise, the changes set in motion by the world war sparked new and wider problematic issues in the so-called Third World, which became the main stage of conflict, violence, and poverty worldwide. All the major current global security issues are unravelling in this entity seen monolithically by the West, and shaped according to its own self-interests (Pettiford 1996: 293). That is the reason why the postcolonial approach became so important when dealing with the problems of the opening Third World, which continued to be seen univocally despite its intrinsic heterogeneity and diversity. A world needed to be discovered, but the instruments to know and understand this environment have been lacking (Rafael 1994). What is more, the process of de-colonisation, a direct outcome of the world war, did not help to raise awareness about Third World inner security problems, given that the State’s security continued to be seen as the main object of reference, rather than societal and economic ones (Acharya 1995). For example, U.S. President Reagan’s anti-communist insurgencies’ rollback policy in Central America during the early 1980s was driven by the realist domino theory. This was inherently problematic, because the focus on the authentic problems of the region, such as unequal land-distribution, environmental degradation, and also overpopulation, have been stifled by State-driven policies. In doing so, Central American militaries have exacerbated situations envisioning themselves as the sole guarantors of the national security, and allowing the spread of corruption and illegal economic activities (Pettiford 1996).

Certainly, Edward Said’s ground-breaking masterpiece, Orientalism, must be considered as a watershed, in order to understand the deconstruction of such dominant narrative.1 Rather than being just an essential text for historical and anthropological studies, it is also a seminal book for security studies as well, because it argues that colonial constructions and patterns did survive despite the collapse of the physical empires, paving the way for other kinds of dominance. In fact, dominant groups legitimised their power through Western-made political and cultural discursive categories, striving for the survival of regimes instead of addressing the actual grievances of the people under their power. In a broad sense, also U.S. primacy has been accountable as an imperialistic one, after the demise of French and British hegemonies. As a matter of fact, Americans imposed themselves through their cultural and economic model, pursued by all the Third World elites, westernised and detached from the local masses (Bilgin 2010: 618). Therefore, it is crucial to understand why the old Western-centrism did survive after colonisation, being projected from the British and French heritages into the ‘American Way’ (Gienow-Hecht 2000: 466-69). Besides, it has been argued that Orientalism had become a ‘headless theoretical beast’ (Breckenridge and Van der Veer 1993: 11), harsh to deal with because of its inherent ontological resilience, which has been nurturing in the Western-centric epistemological tradition which teleologically aims to change the norms of the world we live in (Shani 2017: 280).

In this regard, David is fundamentally right in arguing that the U.S. based their own foreign policies during the Cold War in relation to their own narrow interests (1992: 129). Unfortunately, the Western governments continued to act in such way even after 1991, relentlessly aiming at ‘exporting democracy’ where they deemed necessary (Hobsbawm 2005). The perceived self-realisation of the West, after the collapse of the Soviet model, inflated Western policymakers’ narrow thinking: that they were rightly committed in pursuing policies directed at democracy-building, spreading the alleged Western values of openness and freedom all over the world. Yet, not even the significant and predictive events of Mogadishu, in early October 1993 (Doston 2016: 196), gave the U.S. the ability to be able to fully understand how the world they were facing as a unipolar hegemonic actor would not have been shaped according to their own worldview. Indeed, the 9/11 terrorist attacks further enhanced such ideological narrative, and allowed the U.S. to launch the so-called ‘Global War on Terrorism,’ which defined security in terms of American self-perceived safety. Despite the huge internal disapproval, the government’s constructed narrative eventually legitimised a self-serving dominant power which overcome the real grievances affecting the hotbeds of Islamist radicalisation in the Islamic world. Forgetting about the actual structural complexities and insecurities underlining the various and diverse regions of the Islamic world enacted the legitimisation of radical anti-Western movements, which conceived themselves as a mere resistance against Western interventionism in the Muslim world (Barkawi 2006: 329).

Flawed conceptions

Hence, there is a need to break the ontological boundaries built by the classical positivist IR theory. The aim of the postcolonial approaches envisions the will to build a deeper and more complex understanding of the processes unfolding in the countries affected by the colonial phenomena themselves. In particular, they deconstruct these ideological patterns, and show their flaws. Yet, they also want this critique to become a main driver to fight social inequalities, in order to promote a different narrative of inclusiveness and security. This approach allows us to rethink the so-called ‘modernisation theory,’ which is clearly visible in Fukuyama’s belief that the entire world would eventually conform to the American standards of free-market and liberal- democracy (1992). In fact, despite his positive and optimistic expectations, such a new democratised world never unfolded nor saw the sunset on the eve of the 21st century. The need to pursue the ‘development’ in the Third World rests on flawed teleological premises (Wang 2002: 173), for which the ‘Western saviours,’ both State or non-State entities, would rescue the less-developed and poorer countries leading them to economic liberalisation and social openness.

Likewise, the ‘white man’s burden’ set of ideas unfolds again, in a more veiled but hypocritical way (Broude 2007). This carries a lot of significance for methodological ways of conceiving security, flawed by a wrong historicist attitude (Chakrabarty 2008: 8), which sees development as a definite and regular path towards an eventual self- realisation of State-democracy under the recurring liberal framework of international organisations like the U.N. or the Bretton Woods institutions. What is more, this theoretical outlook has been denied by practical security issues in the Third World. Arguably, also the humanitarian conception of aid has been a limit when looking for the root causes of civil wars or mass-phenomena around the world.

For instance, the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya has been dictated by a reasonable set of humanitarian and legal motivations, namely the responsibility to protect (Bellamy 2011: 263-66), but it did not address the deeper structures of the post- colonial weakly built Libyan State. The Western States, indeed, exploited Libya’s implosion according to their governments’ narrow and short-term interests (Pradella and Rad 2017: 2416-17). Firstly, the Western policymakers did not address local grievances linked to inequalities, labour market compression alongside unemployment, and lack of national identity. Secondly, and most importantly, they did not pursue a shared dialogue-policy with the core Libyan tribes, a key driver for the previous regime’s legitimisation (Najem 2004: 2). In fact, the tribes were the ones who reneged Khadafy’s power after he violently repressed the first wave of protests in February 2011, in the wake of the broader Arab Spring. Such misconceptions and lack of will to look for a wider and more nuanced approach has eventually brought Libya to become one of the most dangerous places in the world (Finlay 2017: 214). Nowadays, the country is inflamed by an ongoing multifaceted civil war, and is the ground for the most serious humanitarian crisis since 1945. In 2014 the “refugee crisis” became a matter of national security for European States, henceforth Libya became again a new compelling issue in the agenda of European policymakers, who steadily securitised the question, losing again the focus on the inner causes of the crisis (Fakhoury 2016: 71). In the end, a genuine focus on Libyan security has been ruined by egoistic Eurocentric agendas, leading also to the politicisation of the “refugee crisis” (Colombo 2017: 3), according to narrow European-made conceptions and problems. Sadly, there is no resolution in sight, at least in the short term.

Rethinking security

Moreover, the need to overcome such unsuccessful approaches leads us to rethink the very concept of security in the Third World, even reshaping its geographies and boundaries, Western-constructed themselves. Arguably, as long as States will be the key security referent, according to the Westphalian working framework, we can share Ayoob’s standpoint, which highlights that the State-building enhancement would be the key motive to absolve security issues in the Third World (1997: 140). Others also theorise a ‘counter-hegemonisation’ of the Third World, but only with the development of the State itself, eventually accepting the old dominant paradigm (Cox 1996: 115).

Nevertheless, we can also account for the existence of different actors in the global arena, and therefore different ways of looking at the global structure as well. That is why security should be conceived no longer as a State-centric matter but as a human- centric one (Bourne and Bulley 2011: 456-58). Broadening its horizons is fundamental to address local grievances which affect the living of millions of people forgotten both by grand strategies and the biggest financial and legal institutions. To strive for a human agenda is vital, because it entails all the specific needs and blueprints of different societies and cultures worldwide. In fact, one cannot rely just on the State in achieving such a goal, because it often has been the root cause of insecurity (Booth 1991: 320), especially in the Third World. Moreover, there is a stark pressure to focus on ecological and demographic issues, which account as the main causes of displacement and strife in the Third World nowadays. The need to find a sustainable equilibrium between development and cultural-environmental heritage’s preservation is critical. Thus, it is necessary to overcome the positivist outlook, and focus on human necessities on a specific basis (Cash and Kinnvall 2017: 270), in relation to environmental and socioeconomic contingencies which define from the bottom subsequent political changes and upheavals.

In conclusion, as argued by Arcudi, we can uphold a different security outlook (2006: 103), based upon the wealth of the people, and detached from just a insufficient national security focus, which is unlikely to solve the Third World security predicaments in the long run. A more detailed and committed focus on transnational and also non-military threats surely encompasses a broader range of expertise and different levels of understanding (Acharya 1995). Likewise, it builds the ground for a common policy aimed at containing issues like environmental degradation, or eradicating malicious ideologies which are nurtured when the State lacks the means to provide hope and relief to its citizens. Rethinking security entails a new attitude, acknowledging the world we live in is in constant flux. An environment which cannot be understood univocally, nor through our limited Western worldview, but only compromising and striving for a common project aimed at the development of the human being. In doing so, breaking the boundaries of hegemonic constructions would be the key step to undertake to achieve such goal.

  1. “The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.” (Said 1978)
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