Though much of the modern world is indebted to the spread of Western ideas throughout the past few centuries, the current academic climate reflects a troubling abandonment of non-Western alternatives to established thought.
A course on political theory, whether it is taught in a university in Tokyo or Toronto, will feature largely the same roster of writers and intellectuals. Although there is the occasional exception, such as Sun Tzu or Amartya Sen, Western voices dominate in intellectual discourse. Machiavelli is more recognisable around the world than, for instance, Kautilya, an Indian scholar whose similar appraisal of socio-political relations predates Machiavelli by centuries.
By limiting academic learning solely to the lexicon of Western thought, there is a risk that a more accurate understanding of the world — with its complex and diverse intellectual and cultural traditions — may be lost.
Consider the field of international relations (IR), which is, in fact, distinctly un-international in nature. Because IR theory is eurocentric in its intellectual tradition, many of the policies and predictions derived from it fail tragically in non-Western countries where local traditions dominate.
Indeed, some of the twentieth century’s biggest policy mistakes stem from a failure to recognise bias. The U.S. failed to see that the Vietnamese saw the Vietnam War not as a clash of political ideologies, but as a continuation of a millennia-long struggle against foreign invaders, thus underestimating the determination of the resistance. NATO also failed to recognise the power of local culture when it painted communism as a monolithic entity, indistinguishable from Beijing to Havana. This error sparked fruitless proxy conflicts that ended only when Kissinger, recognising that China’s strong cultural traditions had altered Chinese communism to one wholly distinct from its Soviet counterpart, reversed the U.S,’ policy of containment.
In this way, Western bias in academic theory can impair one’s ability to explain and to produce workable international policy.
Even something as simple as a world map, found in every Canadian classroom, reveals the subtle biases in Western education. Because Europe pioneered global cartography, our maps place Europe in its centre while most of Asia is relegated to the edges of the map. This is in contrast to Pacific-centric maps, used mainly in East Asia, which places China in the map’s centre, thus showing how paradigms such as East/West or core/periphery can be manipulated.
Trivial as this may seem, maps — our literal view of the world — have symbolic importance; the United Nations, after all, sought to depict global unity by adopting as its flag a pole-centric map, which displays the continents as joined in a circle, as opposed to being divided by oceans.
Cartographical bias is but the surface layer covering deep-seated worldviews. China, for instance, has long depicted itself as the middle kingdom (the centre of the world), which provided a basis for China’s tributary system of inter-state relations and the Chinese concept of tianxia (the view that the emperor ruled all under heaven). Because of the vast difference in worldview, Western scholars have often been guilty of translating Chinese concepts into terms familiar to the Western reading, thus distorting Western understanding of China. The words ‘emperor’ or ‘king,’ for instance, do not come close to the cosmic religious-political nature of the Huangdi, the Chinese sovereign, to which Europe has no equivalent.
Contemporary conflicts in the region such as those in Tibet, the South China Sea, and across the Taiwan Straights, can thus be interpreted as a discrepancy between Western conceptions of state sovereignty and self-determination, and China’s historic-cultural claim on hegemonic rule in the region.
The best solution to this problem is to cross-pollinate Western and non-Western views so that Alexis de Tocqueville may have equal place alongside Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani in syllabi. When the intellectual branches of Thucydides, Hobbes, and Kant are intertwined with those of Chanakya, Ibn Khaldun, and Han Yu, the academic community will surely flower, and bear fruit.
Jeffery Chen is a third–year student at Trinity College studying English and European studies.