Constructing a Non-Eurocentric Theory of International Relations: a cosmological framework

This article was shortlisted for the Millennium: Journal of International Studies Northedge Prize 2019.

This article is based on research undertaken as part of my Masters thesis in 2018. This paper largely represents where my research started, but also how it has vastly evolved since.

(longer read)


International Relations (IR) theory is intrinsically based on (neo)imperial Western history. As a result, the discipline reifies, justifies and legitimises Western knowledge above all else. This renders the entirety of the non-West voiceless and marginalised within a discipline that ironically espouses universal applicability. This article therefore proposes a non-Western alternative to Eurocentric IR theory by marrying together aspects of three unconventional cosmologies from outside of the constructed Western IR boundary – Daoism, ubuntu, and dharma. By exposing the legitimacy and heterogeneity of non-Western thought in one approach, a truly non-Western analysis of world politics is made possible; the upshot of which is the eventual degeneration of Eurocentric IR over time. This research therefore forces us to re-evaluate our current predispositions toward the intellectual integrity of Chinese, African and Indian approaches to knowledge and encourages their appreciation as legitimate approaches to IR.

Key words: non-Western IR, cosmologies, Eurocentrism, Daoism, Ubuntu, dharma


The Eurocentrism of International Relations (IR) as a discipline and its resultant inapplicability to the non-West has been extensively criticized and should by now be uncontroversial. The dangers of this Eurocentrism are manifold, specifically as IR claims applicability to the entire international system despite the production and consumption of knowledge being intrinsically based on (neo)imperial Western history. IR is therefore unable to theorise outside of the West due to its inability to look beyond Western history and academic criteria, which is rooted in an incessant Euro-centric/fetishist gaze that reifies, justifies and legitimises Western theory and practice above all else. This renders the entirety of the non-West voiceless and marginalised within a discipline that ironically espouses universal applicability. This Western ignorance of non-Western thinking has resulted in the depiction of non-Western peoples as “deficit people” in mainstream IR scholarship – irrational, disorderly, backwards, underdeveloped, lacking health, wealth and the ability to think.[1] This research therefore debunks these common-sense understandings of the non-West as ‘thought-less beasts’ by exposing the vast array of non-Western contributions to studying the international that at first (Eurocentric) glance may seem inapplicable.

As a result, this article aims to create a non-Western alternative to Western IR by marrying together aspects of three unconventional cosmologies from outside of the constructed, Western IR boundary: Daoism, ubuntu and dharma. This will be achieved by undertaking a comparative analysis of the three cosmologies against six features – history and change, universalism, the Self/Other, community, and sovereignty – with the aim of eliciting aspects of synthesis and division between them to determine whether they can be married together. By “cosmologies” I refer to those beliefs, philosophies and ways of life advanced by various religions and traditions in the non-West.

The motivations for analysing these specific cosmologies are threefold; 1) they have a widespread following both within and outside of their respective region of origin; 2) as a collective, they broadly represent Indian, Chinese and African perspectives and therefore the heterogeneity of non-Western thought; and 3) they serve to challenge orthodox assumptions of who can “think” and subsequently theorise. Likewise, the six features were specifically chosen as they reoccurred in the core beliefs of each cosmology and can therefore be used to elicit areas of synthesis and division between them. The features were additionally employed as they serve to successfully expose ubuntu, dharmic and Daoist perspectives on a diverse range of issues, enabling an extensive overview of each cosmology.

This preliminary research will draw upon secondary sources and the work of acclaimed scholars specialising in each cosmology, such as: L.H.M Ling (Daoism); Rajiv Malhotra (dharma); Thaddeus Metz and Mvuselelo Ngcoya (ubuntu). These sources provide an outline of the core beliefs of ubuntu, dharma and Daosim and therefore allow for a thorough comparative analysis. An analysis of the primary texts pertaining to each cosmology is the subject of future research and is thus beyond the scope of this particular article.[2] 

It must be stressed that the temptation to employ, as Shani terms it, a “nativist” discourse, which depicts a homogenous, ahistorical, non-Western IR theory should be resisted as the heterogeneity within and between non-Western cultures is vast.[3] As a result this research is highly sensitive to the differences between these cultures and their resultant cosmologies; attempts to marry these perspectives together are undertaken with caution, reflexivity and sensitivity. The penultimate creation of a non-Western cosmological approach to IR does not assume the homogeneity of all indigenous perspectives.  By marrying them together, the integrity and individuality of each approach is maintained whilst respectfully blended with similar approaches from contrasting cosmologies. This essentially depicts, not an insensitive underappreciation of the individuality of non-Western cultures, but the ability for contrasting cultures and philosophies to be woven together for the purpose of Oriental-international theorising.

The article begins with a brief overview of the Eurocentric underpinnings of IR followed by an interrogation of the current debate on the prospect of a non-Western IR theory. The core beliefs of Ubuntu, daosim and Dharma are then comparatively analysed against the six features to draw out potential areas of synthesis and division between them before offering a non-Western take on ideas surrounding history and change, universalism, the Self/Other relationship, community and sovereignty. This research is then brought together in the final section, which outlines what a cosmologically derived non-Western theory of IR looks like in practice.

The Futile Quest for Non-Western IR Theory

Eurocentric International Relations Theory

The Eurocentrism of IR, both conceptual and institutional, has been meticulously analysed by scholars such as Hobson, L.H.M Ling, Vitalis, as well as many others and should by now be uncontroversial. As a result, this section only briefly explains the Eurocentric underpinnings of IR before extensively interrogating the current debate on the prospects for a non-Western IR theory.

Orthodox (Western) IR theory is underpinned by a Eurocentric narrative of development, which assumes that the birth of the modern state and the anarchic state-system was a product of European exceptionalism alone.[4] By adopting these core beliefs as gospel and glossing over various aspects of non-Western agency and Western (neo)imperialism, the discipline of IR has been able to re-write global history in its own favourable image. The provincial concepts that guide the discipline, such as the state, sovereignty and modernity, masquerade as the universal, despite being inherently rooted in and derived solely from (imperial) European history. This Western imperial mind-set has endured and dissipated into every crevice of the discipline to the extent that today, both orthodox and critical IR theories (CIRT) reflect the idealised history of the West. These theories therefore serve to justify and legitimise Western (neo)imperial hegemony while occluding non-Western knowledge and perspectives. IR’s founding moral purpose was therefore, as Vitalis puts it, based on promoting a white supremacist outlook which has ensured that the black history of the discipline of IR has been repressed.[5]

Orthodox IR theories such as (neo)realism, (neo)liberalism and constructivism have unsurprisingly adopted the Westphalian narrative wholeheartedly, placing the West at the centre of all analysis and hoisting them onto a Eurocentric pedestal for admiration and emulation, resulting in the omission of non-Western perspectives. As a result, orthodox IR theories and concepts are inapplicable to the non-West and ignorant to potential non-Western challenges. Similarly, while one would assume non-Western perspectives would have emerged out of the Critical Turn, in reality critical IR theories such as postcolonialism and poststructuralism have (sub)consciously adopted a Eurofetishist exclusionism born out of the Westphalia narrative. That is, they have fetishized the West and treated it as wholly autonomous and self-constituting. Thus, although critical of the West, these approaches assume that Western (neo)imperial exploitation of the non-West is the reason for its current ‘backward’ predicament, essentially omitting the historically co-constitutive relationship between the West and non-West and reifying Western agency at the expense of the latter.[6] These critical theories are therefore imbued with a “secular Eurocentric historicism”, which again wholly limits non-Western perspectives from engaging with and entering into the discipline.[7]

The historical diffusion of this Eurocentric metanarrative into orthodox and critical IR has rendered non-Western cultures incomprehensible to the discipline. Despite attempts by CIRT to challenge mainstream parochialism, these approaches still (sub)consciously maintain predisposed exclusionary assumptions regarding the origin and ownership of ideas and institutions.[8]

The Alleged Non-Western Drought

In response to this, a body of research emerged just over a decade ago with the purpose of not only critiquing the current discipline but rectifying its parochialism by actively searching for and incorporating “non-Western IR theory” into the mainstream. This was typified by the seminal edited book Non-Western International Relations Theory: Perspectives on and Beyond Asia, which aimed to introduce non-Western traditions to a Western IR audience.[9] While this was a refreshing alternative to repetitive critiques of IR’s Eurocentrism, it nevertheless offers surprisingly bleak prospects for the creation or realisation of non-Western theory as it concludes that, “there is no non-Western IR theory”.[10] The authors relate this theoretical absence to; 1) the hegemonic standing of Western IRT; 2) local conditions discriminating against the production of IRT; 3) the fact the West had a “big head start” and the East is now catching up and; 4) non-Western theories being “hidden”.[11] It is therefore argued that the dominance and reputability of Western IR has prevented the production of a non-Western IR theory. This Eurofetishist tendency to (sub)consciously venerate Western IR means that non-Western approaches to knowledge remain overlooked. It is therefore not the “hegemonic standing” of the West, but scholarly Eurofetishism that has lead to the conclusion that non-Western IR theory does not exist.

This Eurofetishism reoccurs in many of the edited chapters, as Western IR is continually reinforced as the academic precedent and actively used as a lens through which to search for non-Western theory. The incessant need to understand “difference” through familiar categories has created a barrier between Eurocentric IR and the realisation of alternative, non-Western knowledge. Acharya and Buzan for example, assign non-Western IR approaches to the level of “pre-theoretical” or “soft” because they do not “add up to theory in their own right”.[12] Similarly, Inoguchi claims that the lack of IR theory in Japan is due to their “weak tradition of positivistic hypothesis testing in social science and the … strong tradition of descriptive work” which has allegedly discouraged the development of IR theory.[13] This essentially assumes that in order to be “fully developed” a theory must adhere to the criteria of American-style IR theory.[14] Additionally, Asia’s alleged “disinterest” in IR is claimed to be because “Western IR does not adequately capture the needs and conditions to be found in Asia”; again, this assumes that Western IR theory is IR theory.[15] The authors therefore neglect alternative, organic indigenous perspectives on world politics by measuring IR theory in the non-West according to Western precepts. This essentially silences potential non-Western contributions under a blanket of ‘supreme’ Western intellect. Ironically, the research concludes that “there is no non-Western IR theory” primarily because nobody was looking for it in the first place. With their Eurofetishist blinkers on, the authors did not set out to look for homegrown, indigenous perspectives on world politics, but were instead searching for indigenous scholars using Western IR theories in the non-West.

In a response to these early oversights, the “Global IR” approach has been forwarded as a new way of tackling disciplinary Eurocentrism. Global IR urges existing IR theories, such as (neo)realism, (neo)liberalism and constructivism, to “accept the ideas, experiences and insights from the non-Western world”, giving “due recognition” to the contributions of the non-West.[16] But while the appreciation of non-Western perspectives is integral, the urge to assimilate this into the mainstream is problematic as it assumes the primacy of Western IR, depicting it as the only way to ‘do’ IR. For example, it is questionable how an approach such as (neo)realism would incorporate non-Western views given that it already claims universal applicability based on provincial Western concepts and categories, while also being imbued with an unapologetic Eurocentric historicism. Calls to assimilate non-Western theory into what already exists will result in:

  1. Western IR mutilating non-Western views, solely retaining aspects beneficial to their own agenda; which
  2. compromises the indigeneity of appropriated perspectives as they are suffocated and rendered unrecognisable under the blanket of Western academic language; or
  3. the creation of a non-Western theoretical alternative (i.e. a non-Western realism) which will be pitted against conventional, “rational” Western theory and ridiculed for its “irrationality” or immaturity, thereby deepening even further the Eurocentric dichotomy between Western and non-Western knowledge production.

Malhotra poignantly outlines the dangers of indigenous assimilation into the Western mainstream and I quote him at length:

One does not say of a tiger’s kill that both tiger and prey are ‘changed for the better’ by the digestion, or that the two kinds of animals have ‘flowed into one another’ to produce a better one. Rather, the food of the tiger becomes a part of the tiger’s body, breaking down and obliterating, in the process, the digested animal. [Non-Western] traditions and wisdom are compromised or even obliterated once they can be substituted with Western equivalents which are not capable of accurately representing [them].[17]

Ironically, this miscegenation of non-Western and Western ideas leads to the degeneration of the former, not the latter. Subsuming non-Western knowledge into Western IR theory therefore does not produce a hybrid intellectual body of knowledge. Instead, a false illusion of hybridity is produced which leads to the annihilation of non-Western knowledge. All of which returns us to the earlier discussion of the Eurofetishism of CIRT. Despite claims to the contrary, recent efforts made by critical theorists in the “post-positivist” era to open the discipline up to previously marginalised voices have largely failed due to their (sub)conscious adherence to the Westphalian narrative and the belief that Western academic criteria should be a prerequisite for legitimate theory creation. If anything, these efforts have reinforced the exclusionary, Euro-centric/fetishist nature of International Relations, which leads to the urgent need to look beyond the discipline and its parochial criteria when searching for and appreciating non-Western voices. Contra Buzan and Acharya, the Western “skewing” of IR needs to be rectified by challenging its ontological premise, and not “by the inclusion of a wider range of [non-Western] voices” into the (Eurocentric) mainstream. [18] Adding and stirring non-Western knowledge into the Western pot will merely lead to the disappearance of the former.

The Antidote

With this in mind, the remainder of this article seeks to prove that non-Western IR perspectives do in fact exist outside of the mainstream and should work alongside, not within the current Eurocentric discipline. Although they may not take a recognisably “Western” form, non-Western cosmologies such as the ones studied here have a lot to contribute to world politics. A truly heterogeneous non-Western perspective on world politics is yet to be realised as scholars are unable to look past the Western discipline. This article therefore stresses the importance of engaging with ideas and perspectives outside “the house of IR”and the social sciences more broadly, delving into unorthodox, truly non-Western territory to expose the cultural practices and traditions which underpin indigenous approaches to knowledge in both theory and practice.[19]

That said a vast body of literature has recently arisen with these commitments in mind, taking various forms such as Forgetting IR, Worlding IR, and Post-Western IR. The Forgetting IR approachgoes further than mere critique and aims to search for alternative, unorthodox ways of producing knowledge to overcome the parochialism of the discipline. This is embodied in L.H.M Ling’s work, in which she subverts the perceived necessity to conform to Western IR criteria by incorporating unorthodox representations of knowledge through storytelling, anecdotes, plays and drawings.[20] The second approach is typified by Tickner and Waever’s Worlding Beyond the West series, which aims to expose “alternatives for thinking about the ‘international’ that are more in tune with local concerns and traditions outside the West”.[21] Their concept of worlding aims to make IR genuinely international by depicting how alternative non-Western knowledge is produced. Finally, a Post-Western IR approach seeks to expose Western IR’s omission of non-Western agency and the co-constitutive relationship between East and West. A genuinely Post-Western IR therefore problematizes the alleged universal assumptions of Western superiority and exposes non-Western agency in the making of the modern world order. This is typified by Hobson’s work on the (neo)imperial roots of IR and the Eastern origins of Western civilization.[22]

While these contributions are indisputably integral and serve to remedy the aforementioned Eurofetishist setbacks, the Forgetting IR and Worlding IR approaches specifically do not provide a non-Western alternative to Western IR theory. What this means is that their research focuses on a single country/culture, or whether there is for example, a Chinese,[23] Japanese,[24] Korean,[25] and Indian school of IR[26] etc. Individually, these contributions succeed in proving that there are alternative perspectives outside the West, but they cannot claim the title of a non-Western IR theory as they do little to actively represent the non-West as a whole. Likewise, while the Post-Western IR approach works from within the current discipline to re-write and re-construct fabricated Eurocentric imperial histories, it does not propose a non-Western alternative to the mainstream.

This is not to discredit these approaches as without their contributions, the one advocated here would not have been possible. The approach advocated here nonetheless differs as it proposes a cosmologically derived non-Western alternative to Western IR theory that is representative of the heterogeneity of non-Western thought.

The next section will therefore present a brief explanation of Daoism, dharma and ubuntu before analysing their adherence to or deviation from the six chosen features.

Alternative Non-Western Cosmologies


Originating from the Nguni language, Ubuntu—literally meaning “humanness”—is a South African philosophy or worldview primarily stressing the importance of community. Although originating in South Africa, the philosophy is not restricted to that locale but shared by vast indigenous populations in the sub-Saharan region.[27] Ubuntu advocates altruism over greed, idealism over materialism, and interdependence over (sovereign) individualism.[28] This idea of interdependence is embodied by the phrase umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu in the Nguni language, which loosely translates to “a person is a person because of/by/through other people”, emphasizing that individuals require full (inter)dependence with others to enable human flourishing. [29] Ubuntu is“anti-egoistic” in that it discourages individuals from seeking their own good without regard for others, encouraging them to engage in mutual aid and act selflessly and sympathetically in ways that benefit each other.[30] With its primary focus on community, Ubuntu therefore socialises individuals to think of themselves as “inextricably bound to others”; that is, as an integral part of the whole.[31]

A lot of research into ubuntu has already been undertaken within the discipline of philosophy, specifically in the realm of normative ethics. In South African philosophy ubuntu serves as a moral theory; it is used to inform public policy and analysed in relation to its progressive applicability to the South African constitution and human rights.[32] While this work is invaluable, ubuntu has scarcely scratched the surface of IR. The next section will therefore fully utilise the interdisciplinary capacities of the cosmology in the hope that this will contribute to the creation of a more inclusive non-Western IR.


Dharma comprises a family of “spiritual traditions” originating in India, which manifest themselves as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism.[33] While each of these traditions are individual in their own right, they are united in that they all follow the tradition of the dharma. Dharmic traditions broadly speaking do not foster an absolute historical identity, they believe that one is free to “tap into his/[her] potential for discovering the ultimate reality in the here and now”.[34]

Research into the value of dharma is already underway, a positive contribution coming from Rajiv Malhotra who challenges Western universalism from an Indian perspective through the comparative analysis of dharma and Western Judeo-Christian religions. Malhotra’s work is undoubtedly important and his book, Being Different, will be used as a reference point. That said the dharmic cosmology—like ubuntu—has yet to fully immerse itself into the study of IR until now.


Daoism is a Chinese worldview based on parity, mutuality, fluidity and ethics. The Daoist canon reflects two “roots” (principles) and two “branches” (applications), one root originating from the classic text Daodejing or Laozi, and the other from Zhuangzi. The Daodejing and the Zhuangzi comprise texts written and rewritten over centuries by various anonymous writers.[35] The Huainanzi syncretizes these Daoist principles and practices with those of Confucianism and Legalism.[36] The fundamental underpinnings of Daoism are yin/yang dialectics, which emphasise the “dynamic interrelations among constituent parts and part-whole relations”.[37] In Daoist thought, yin operates within yang and yang within yin (Figure 1.1 visually depicts this below). Daoism’s yin/yang diagram shows two polarities, black (yin) and white (yang) meeting each other in a central S-shaped curve, in which both are constitutive of the whole (circle). Ling notes how “each half of the diagram also retains within it an element of the other: a white dot in yin and a black one in yang”.[38] This is therefore representative of the co-constitutive, co-implicative and intersubjective relationship between the Self and the Other in Daoist tradition.

According to Ling, Daoist dialectics comprise of four key epistemologies:

  1. “Ontological parity”, which comes from interaction between particles and signifies a “simultaneity of oneness and multiplicity, difference and community, continuity and change”.
  2. “Creative and transformative mutuality”, which signifies co-constitutive opportunities for creativity and the mutual transformability of Daoist dialectics which “enable polarities to address their differences and distinctions ontologically”.
  3. “Knowledge from here, in place”, which emphasises the situatedness of knowledge in time, place and feeling, claiming knowledge cannot be truly objective.
  4. “Agency in context”, which stipulates that all individuals have participatory agency which arises in conjunction with others in nature, human or animal-form.[39]
Macintosh HD:Users:bryvince:Desktop:Northedge Essay Prize:Figure 1.1 Daoist Dialectics.jpg
Figure 1.1. – Daoist Dialectics: Relationship Between Yin/Yang[40]

Unlike Ubuntu and dharma, Daoism has found its way into IR scholarship through L.H.M Ling’s theory of Worldism. L.H.M Ling utilises Daoist dialectics in order to move beyond the parochial, state-centric, Westphalian conception of world politics as hierarchical and violent in order to expose the mutual relationships between East and West and ultimately portray a world based on ethics, fluidity, compassion and care. This application of Daoism depicts the ability for non-Western cosmologies to be applied to world politics, and will therefore be drawn upon in the next section.

Whilst Ling’s agenda is similar to the one advocated here, her focus remains solely on Daoist, and therefore Chinese, thought. Ubuntu and dharma have also been analysed in isolation from alternative cosmologies, cultures or approaches. While these approaches make great strides to approaching international phenomena from a non-Eurocentric, cosmological perspective, the analysis has generally been undertaken from one perspective. As a result, there still remains no stable alternative to Western (Eurocentric) IR that is reflective of the heterogeneity of non-Western perspectives as a whole. This exposes the need for an IR theory that is reflective of an amalgamation of non-Western cosmologies from diverse countries and cultures.

The next section therefore outlines the aspects of synthesis and division between Daoism, dharma and Ubuntu in relation to the six chosen features: history and change, universalism, Self/Other, community and sovereignty. The findings are summarised in Table 1.1.

Synthesis or Division

History and Change

Firstly, because the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi have been written and rewritten over centuries by various anonymous writers, Daoism places no historical significance on the teachings of specific individuals.[41] Similarly, Malhotra outlines how the dharmic traditions believe human self-realisation to be attainable through bottom-up (human initiated) practices such as yoga, selfless service and devotion.[42] Specifically, in Buddhist thought it is believed that Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment was a discovery of a reality that already existed and therefore by following the same path he did, what Buddha discovered could be discovered by anyone. As emphasised my Malhotra, “knowledge of Buddha’s life-history is not necessary in order for Buddhist principles to work”.[43] The Dharma traditions are therefore more comfortable with itihasa—a more flexible narrative of the past—as historical awareness is not required to achieve an “embodied state of divine consciousness”.[44]As a result, Daoism and dharma alike do not place dogmatic importance upon historical individuals and events, which ultimately results not only in a fluid conception of history but one that is also open to change.

This openness to change is evident in the dharmic principle Adhyatma-Vidya, which refers to an “extensive range of inner sciences and experiential technologies … to access divinity and higher states of consciousness”.[45] This body of wisdom is gathered from centuries of first-hand empirical inquiry undertaken by advanced practitioners into the nature of consciousness. These accounts are not reified into cannon or absolute historical statements but should instead be viewed as a guide for replication. These “truths” must therefore be rediscovered and directly experienced by each person, as “the field of rediscovery remains open to new approaches”.[46] Malhotra terms this “embodied knowing”, as each generation or culture can retest empirical claims.[47] Daoism arguably mirrors this idea of embodied knowing as it is believed that resolutions or historical claims are never “complete and forever”, emphasizing that “we cannot take anything for granted and must attend constantly to changing situations”.[48] Dharmic and Daoist traditions are therefore open to new approaches due to their fluid view of history, which encourages the rethinking of ideas as opposed to their extrapolation as untouchable, historical, universal truths.

In keeping with this, ubuntu does not view history as fixed. Although there is no specific reference to history in ubuntu thought, the core claims of collectivity and community can be utilised to foster a sense of collective memory, which has been used to deconstruct narratives shaping contemporary South African history. According to Fox, collective memory is “forged in the process of collective narrative, amalgamating individual experiences towards a publicly accepted statement about how history has impacted the present” or in the South African case, how apartheid has impacted citizens of colour. Fox outlines that by forging collective memory, “communities are able to reclaim an aspect of pre-colonial sovereignty, laying the groundwork for a self-determined history”.[49] This public practice of memory is therefore seen as an expression of ubuntu—“forging the collective through the shared experience of individuals”.[50] Utilising ubuntu in this instance therefore results in a national dialogue aimed at deconstructing and re-writing fabricated historical narratives, fostering lasting ontological change as a result.

Non-Western Conception of History and Change

Evidently Daoism, ubuntu and dharma do not hold a fixed view of history and are therefore open to change as a result. If synthesised into a non-Western theory, these principles would challenge previously coined Eurocentric histories and ensure that past and present analyses undertaken are not biased, parochial or rigid but instead open to criticism and therefore able to re-think, re-learn and change previously presumed knowledge claims for the better. For example, the aforementioned application of ubuntu to historical narratives works to challenge previously assumed knowledge and reinstate indigenous communities with agency through the creation of a collective narrative. This, coupled with the dharmic idea of embodied knowing and the Daoist emphasis on a flexible analysis, will ensure that knowledge claims are constantly retested and not universalised as dogma, overcoming the possibility for a misplacement or omission of indigenous agency when theorising about IR.


The aforementioned approaches to history and change lead directly into views of universalism. While it could be argued that Dharmic ethics such as: truth, honour, loyalty, fidelity, courage, chastity, love, long suffering, self-sacrifice, harmlessness, forgiveness, compassion and benevolence are essentially universal principles, dharma encourages these to be adapted relative to individual circumstance, community, culture and country. These ethics are not rigid or monolithic but are “formulated in response to the situation and context of the problem”.[51] Malhotra draws upon ancient Indian ethics, which outline how a ruler must appreciate the contextual nature of dharma: “a king who knows the sacred law must imagine it into the laws of jati [community], of districts, of guilds, and of families, and thus settle the particular law of each”.[52] In dharmic tradition, each individual person’s dharma must be respected above universal ethics; specific circumstance is favoured over universal moral principles.[53] Therefore, while dharmic principles may be universal, their application is relative to context and personal circumstance. Individuality is thus respected over universality as each person has Svadharma (personal dharma) – the freedom to choose their individual path based on circumstance or natural preference. [54] The disbelief that there is one correct path to universal truth has facilitated dharmic pluralism and its transferable applicability to a multiplicity of circumstances, cultures and countries. This therefore depicts the diversity, eclecticism and adaptability of dharmic spiritual practices to communities, families and individuals, and its ultimate detachment from universalism.[55]

Similarly, while Daoism and ubuntu do not explicitly talk of universalism, their detachment from dogma, openness to change and emphasis on integration undoubtedly illustrates their opposition to espousing or imposing universalism. For example, Ling applies Daoist dialectics to US/China relations in order to challenge inward-looking claims to a universal civilisation. Here, relationality is applied to the “China threat” thesis, which assumes Chinese institutions are so “alien” that in order to integrate into world politics, they must conform and internalise Western norms, or else face discipline from the west.[56] Daoist dialectics insert China and the US in yin/yang relationality in order to expose the mutual relationship between the two, encouraging us to see beyond the bilateral US/China relationship, exposing the larger context of “world politics writ large”.[57] Ling’s utilization of Daoist dialectics serves to dispel Western hegemonic gate-keeping over the Westphalian world politics “club”, emphasizing how there is “not one national interest but many, and not one national identity, but many national subjectivities”[58], this idea is quoted at length:

With water as a metaphor, world politics no longer segments into individuated actors like states or contained centres of hegemony. Instead, world politics turns into circulations of a myriad things, both concrete and abstract, each with ontological parity. Multiple founts of subjectivity and trans-subjectivity appear. Westphalia World must interact with others, especially newcomers like China, India, Brazil, indigenous peoples, the environmental movement, and so on; otherwise, it will find itself left out of the mainstream as a social relationship, regardless of economic, political, or even military asymmetries.[59]

Daoist dialectics challenge the conventional Eurocentric assumption of a universal hegemonic power by portraying world politics as an arena wherein there exists multiple sites of ontological parity. Daoist dialectics therefore facilitate the interaction between equal parts, subverting the view that hegemonic individualism and a preponderance of political and military power is desirable and functional, towards a depiction of world politics as mutually constituting and based on equal interaction. In addition to not espousing universalism in its own right, Daoist dialectics can also be utilised in order to depict world politics as culturally relative, respecting the autonomy of each individual culture and delegitimising Western claims to universalism.

Similarly, although ubuntu is described as a “worldview”, it does not impose rigid, African values upon the entire international system. Instead, ubuntu emphasises community and interdependence, claiming that, “our true human potential can only be realized in partnership with others”.[60] If an ubuntu ontology was applied to IR, the international system would be conceived of in terms of “we” as opposed to “I”. There is therefore no place for rigid, exclusionary universalisms within an ubuntu worldview. Instead ubuntu emphasises that we are all in some way connected and equal and that no perspective is superior; this would promote a world politics based on interconnectedness and the sharing of ideas, perspectives and approaches.

In sum, Daoism and Dharma both emphasise how particular ethics should not claim universal applicability but should instead be contextually and culturally relative and adaptable. Ubuntu agrees with this as it emphasises the equality of culture and perspective.

Non-Western Conception of Universalism

In this instance ubuntu, Daoism and dharma, if synthesised into a non-Western theory, would promote a world politics based on interconnectedness over division, inclusivity over parochialism and context over universalism. A cosmologically derived non-Western theory of IR would be culturally and contextually relevant, deeming every perspective as legitimate. The autonomy of each individual culture would be respected, delegitimising potential hegemonic claims to universalism in favour of, as L.H.M Ling puts it, ontological parity. World politics would not be analysed in terms of who has a preponderance of political and military power, but instead depicted as an arena based on mutually constituting relationships.


Ubuntu, Daoism and Dharma all view the relationship between the Self and Other as fluid and mutually constituting, believing the Self to be in the Other and vice versa.

This relationship in ubuntu thought, as noted earlier, is poignantly epitomised by the expression umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu which assumes that “a person is a person because of/by/through other people”.[61] An ubuntu perception of the Other is therefore never fixed, it is fluid and adjustable. In addition, it is believed that one is not born with their own personhood, rather that this is achieved via the fulfilment of obligations to the Self as well as the household and community (Others).[62] Therefore, because ubuntu encourages self-realisation through the Other, “the other needs to be respected and taken seriously”.[63] Essentially, the Self and the Other are intrinsically bound under ubuntu, emphasising the idea that one should live for others.

The dharmic traditionsshare almost exactly the same values as ubuntu in this instance. For example, dharma takes the Judeo-Christian notion to “love one’s neighbour as one loves oneself” one step further by claiming there is no Other because “each apparent other is ultimately the same as oneself”, therefore you should “love your neighbour as you love yourself because your neighbour is yourself”.[64] Specifically, the Hindu Bhagavadgita (part of the Mahabharata, one of the major Sanskrit texts), advises us to “see the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self”.[65] The Bhagavadigita clarifies that “the self is alike (sama) in all beings” and that the “spirit of even-mindedness and discipline equality (samata) generates the conviction that there dwells in each person the same spirit, and it is this that fortifies the feeling of solidarity”.[66] More generally, the dharmic concept Bandhu (friend/guardian) explains how the whole and the parts are held together in integral unity. Malhotra outlines how, “the parts exist only provisionally, temporarily and relatively to the whole, never as discrete existences though they have distinct roles to play within the unity”.[67] This concept, shared by all dharmic traditions, has arguably led to the fluidity and interconnectedness of the Self and Other in dharmic thought.

Daoism, in keeping with ubuntu and dharma, shares similar views on the Self/Other relationship. As previously depicted in Figure 1.1, Daoism’s yin and yang diagram, with the white dot in yin and the black in yang, explicitly depicts the co-constitutive and intersubjective relationship between the Self and Other, as each half of the diagram holds an element of the other within it; the Self in the Other and the Other in the Self.

Non-Western Conception of Self/Other

Evidently therefore, Daoism, ubuntu and dharma all view the Self/Other as a fluid relationship of mutual connectedness and interrelation. Blended together, these ideas can be applied to the international system to produce a non-Western conception of the Self and the Other. If synthesised, this entangled view of personhood would negate any predisposed hierarchical dichotomies inherent within the discipline. A non-Western conception of the Self/Other will therefore break down “rock like” dichotomies and emphasise the contrapuntality between the West and the “rest”.[68] In this worldview, the West and the non-West are not seen as two separate inferior/superior entities, but as a fluid, co-constitutive whole in which the self constitutes the other and vice versa. This idea could serve to reimagine orthodox power relations within IR by emphasising the co-implicative, reciprocal nature of interactions involved in humanitarian missions dictated by the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), for example. Because the Self lies in the Other, the responsibility to protect and secure another would directly implicate your own protection.[69] R2P would therefore be reconceptualised as a mutual, co-implicative responsibility to protect one(Self) through the protection of an (Other). The primary focus would be on the provision of resources to protect and benefit the local community as opposed to Western hegemonic institutions.


These perceptions of the Self/Other lead directly into how each cosmology perceives community and individualism. As previously outlined, ubuntu is inherently based on community ethics. Schute explicates that under ubuntu, “our deepest moral obligation is to become more fully human. And this means entering more and more deeply into community with others”.[70] This African notion of community encourages people to identify as members of the same group, act sympathetically, and engage in mutual aid, conceiving of themselves as “we” instead of “I”. These anti-egoist ethics therefore discourage people from seeking their own good to the detriment of others, enshrining the belief that each individual is an integral part of the whole community.[71]

This perception of being an integral part of the whole is reflective of the aforementioned dharmic concept Bandhu, which encourages finding unity in difference. Although dharmic traditions are largely individualistic in that they encourage Svadharma and the ability to choose a personal path, the underpinning adherence to Bandhu serves to foster a community of cultural interdependence and pluralism of all kinds. This is explicit in the Buddhist notion of upaya, which has become the basis for mutual respect between those who are different. Similarly, the Hindu Mahabharata is founded on a non-exclusivist framework and therefore includes a multiplicity of beliefs and ideas; as a result, Indians are comfortable with pluralism.[72]

This idea of pluralism is underpinned by the wider dialectical approach within dharmic traditions—purva paksha—which asserts that a protagonist must argue from the perspective of his/her opponent in order to test their individual understanding of the opposing argument. Under these dialectics you are only qualified to refute the views of the opposition after perfecting your understanding of said views. In purva paksha therefore, one does not ignore differences but attempts to clarify them to retain equality. Through this, the appreciation of differing perspectives is encouraged, the upshot of which is a commitment to not promote one philosophy over another. Dharma is therefore able to promote a community of cultural pluralism and inclusivity through the encouragement of deep individual thinking. This has resulted in the multiplicity of contrasting Indic spiritual traditions such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism residing under the banner of dharma. These dharmas experience aspects of similarity but also great division, yet their shared plurality rests in their adherence to the dharmic tradition. Dharma has also absorbed and incorporated external beliefs from surrounding Asian countries, such as Chinese Daoism.[73] Dharma therefore fosters community and welcomes difference both within and outside its specific spiritual tradition.

Daoist conceptions of community are almost identical to those shared by the dharmic traditions. Although specifically focusing on the individual, Daoism advocates pluralism, mutuality and co-constitutive relationships. Daoist dialectics interrogate the interrelations among constituent parts and part-whole relations. The yin/yang diagram in Figure 1.1. depicts the mutuality and fluidity of relationships, wherein each individual is intrinsically bound to one another. In her analysis, Ling applies these dialectics to East/West relations through her theory of Worldism, which depicts world politics compassionately, ethically and fluidly, emphasising the mutual relationships between Westphalia and Multiple Worlds. Although dharma and Daoism do not explicitly refer to community, their core beliefs synthesise with ubuntu’s community ethics by encouraging difference, plurality, multiplicity and co-constitutive relationships.

Although in Dharmic and Daoist thought an individual’s journey to enlightenment is not based on collective action, all three cosmologies promote community, interdependence or sharing.

Non-Western Conception of Community

A non-Western approach to the international system would therefore favour community and mutuality over individualism and division. Focusing on the idea of community beings within ubuntu and the Daoist and dharmic emphasis on co-constitutive, fluid relationships would undoubtedly depict a world politics based on reciprocity and equality. Where once lay Eurocentric asocial isolationism would now lay a fluid, communal, co-constitutive depiction of West/non-West relations, acting and reacting in an international community. As Malhotra denotes, “no community’s narrative is absolute, nor is it sanctioned to undermine the narratives of others. This is how diverse worldviews, practices, paths, images and subcultures can coexist”.[74] A non-Western approach to the international system based on community will ensure and promote this.

Additionally, actions such as deception, coercion and exploitation go against communal relationships and these shared cosmological ethics. As Metz outlines, in the absence of such an ethic we find that the actors: 1) distance themselves instead of fostering a sense of togetherness; 2) subordinate instead of coordinate with the other; or 3) act in their own interest and fail to act for the good of the other.[75] These characteristics are reminiscent of current (Westphalian) IR, which is built on the deception, coercion, exploitation and subordination of the non-West by the West on the basis of a constructed idea of Western “supremacy” and righteousness. This results in the failure to act for the good of the “other”. A cosmologically derived non-Western IR would instead promote a system based on communal ethics within which each actor is equal.


Finally, the three cosmologies do not assign any fixed body with ultimate sovereignty. Malhotra outlines how “the average dharma practitioner is largely free from institutional authority”, meaning there is no “theological requirement for the equivalent of a church or [Islamic] umma”.[76] Their preference for decentralised authority is because they are comfortable with plurality, “there can be immense multiplicity without fear of collapse into disintegration and chaos”.[77] In addition, the aforementioned belief that no one person can exclusively offer access to the divine means that dharmic traditions do not claim historical or spiritual sovereignty over the world. As a result, sovereignty is fluid and can reside within each individual through Svadharma.

Daoism merges with this relaxed view of sovereignty as it does not place sovereign importance on specific prophets, evidenced as the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi are both written anonymously.

Likewise, ubuntu places no sovereign importance on one body or individual. By refraining from elevating one specific body as sovereign, individual groups are therefore in charge of their own agency at the local level. The aforementioned utilization of ubuntu ethics to forge a collective narrative has reintroduced self-determined, indigenous sovereignty in South Africa. Under ubuntu, these individuals have been able to re-gain control over their pre-colonial histories as sovereign power is not usurped by a potentially hegemonic body. Ngcoya outlines how ubuntu “censures the obscenity of greed and materialism and the insanity of the idea of a rugged, sovereign individual” and instead advocates connectedness and reciprocity for a just society.[78]

In sum, Ubuntu, Daoism and dharma decentralise sovereign power to the local level, which enables people to reach their full potential free from external constraints and domination.

Non-Western Conception of Sovereignty

A non-Western conception of sovereignty derived from Daoism, ubuntu and dharma would place less emphasis on the international relations between states and ‘great power politics’ and focus more on relations at the individual level and the provision of collective agency. The need to focus on a sovereign body is negated because multiple perspectives and cultures can coexist without fear of chaos, as each has ontological parity. Multiplicity is akin not to disorderliness but to equality, and therefore a relaxed view of sovereignty is suitable. Because of this, this non-Western theory of IR focuses on collective agential capacities and reinstates subaltern groups with previously overlooked epistemic and cultural agency.

Evidently, the above research outlines how dharma, Daoism and ubuntu can be married together to produce a heterogenous, non-Western take on ideas surrounding community, sovereignty, universalism, history, change and the Self/Other relationship. Table 1.1. below summarises each cosmology’s perspective on the six chosen features.

Table 1.1 – Cosmologies Features Table

Conclusion: Non-Western IR Theory in Practice

As the abovementioned congruence explicates, aspects of ubuntu, Daoism and dharma can be married together to create a non-Western alternative to Eurocentric IR theory, which broadly; 1) holds a flexible view of history and is open to change; 2) is open to rethinking, relearning and retesting previously assumed knowledge claims; 3) makes values contextually fluid and relevant and therefore does not espouse universalism; 4) advocates an entangled view of personhood and views relationships as co-constitutive due to the fluid relationship between the Self and the Other; 5) appreciates and encourages pluralism and the heterogeneity of cultures, perspectives and cosmologies; 6) favours community and mutuality over isolation and division, and most importantly 8) does not place Western norms as a prerequisite for international analysis.

This cosmologically derived non-Western theory serves to dispel the rigid dichotomies present within world politics due to its perspective on the ‘Other’ and its openness to multiplicity. Unlike orthodox approaches to IR, it is comfortable with multiple perspectives and cultures, emphasising their ability to coexist without fear of chaos. This is largely derived from the non-Western conception of the Self and Other as being inherently intertwined. Under this entangled view of personhood, the West and non-West are not seen as two separate inferior/superior entities but as mutually constituting. A non-Western approach therefore does not reify difference as ‘threatening’, ‘irrational’ or ‘barbaric’ but instead ensures that attempts are made to clarify and understand these differences in order to retain equality.

Likewise, this approach emphasises the importance of re-thinking and re-learning previously assumed knowledge claims to ensure past and present analysis are not biased, parochial, or rigid. This ultimately ensures that non-Western knowledge claims are never canonised as dogma, which negates any possibility for the historical misplacement or omission of agency so inherent in current approaches to IR. It is through this that we are able to appreciate differing perspectives and not claim hegemonic ownership over bodies, cultures, and ideas. This non-Western approach therefore challenges the cultural essentialism inherent in Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis and instead depicts world politics as a Parity of Civilizations, able to co-exist. [79]

These underpinning principles can be utilised to reconceptualise current approaches to IR phenomena from a non-Eurocentric standpoint. For example, IR is currently ill equipped to accurately deal with the issue of international intervention because it is solely analysed from the perspective of the West, ironically overlooking the indigenous population in question. However, under a non-Western cosmological approach, both Western and non-Western agency is appreciated which offers prospects for a two-way approach to intervention. The overwhelming focus on local and indigenous cultures when tackling vital social problems is an objective largely overlooked by Western bodies such as the UN when intervening internationally. Utilising these non-Western principles offers a means by which external Western interventions in the non-Western world can be transformed into a modality that enables not just local autonomy but a more equitable and peaceful outcome for both sides. The antidote to suffering is therefore not seen as a ‘responsibility to protect’ another but a process of reciprocity, as the Self and Other are intrinsically intertwined. Using this theory, the social needs and heterogeneous cultures of indigenous communities around the globe could therefore be recognised and appreciated.

While a thorough practical application of the theory is beyond the scope of this article, I have nonetheless shown that finding unity in diversity is possible. The heterogeneity of non-Western thought can be maintained whilst being synthesised into an overarching theory of world politics. This cosmologically derived non-Western alternative therefore provides a fresh approach to destabilising the Eurocentrism of International Relations. For the first time, a non-Western International Relations theory becomes possible.

[1] Mvuselelo Ngcoya, ‘Ubuntu: Toward an Emancipatory Cosmopolitanism’, International Political Sociology 9, no.3 (2015): 260.

[2] This is the subject of my future PhD research.

[3] Giorgio Shani, ‘Towards a Post-Western IR: The “Umma”, “Khalsa Panth”, and Critical International Relations Theory’, International Studies Review 10, no.4 (2008): 727.

[4] Benjamin de Carvalho, Halvard Leira and John M. Hobson, ‘The Big Bangs of IR: The Myths That Your Teachers Still Tell You about 1648 and 1919’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39, no.3 (2011): 739.

[5] Robert Vitalis, White World Order, Black Power Politics (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2015) .

[6] John Hobson and Alina Sajed, ‘Navigating Beyond the Eurofetishist Frontier of Critical IR Theory: Exploring the Complex Landscapes of Non-Western Agency’, International Studies Review 19, no.4 (2017): 552.

[7] Benjamin de Carvalho, Halvard Leira and John M. Hobson, ‘The Big Bangs of IR: The Myths That Your Teachers Still Tell You about 1648 and 1919’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39, no.3 (2011): 739.

[8] Pinar Bilgin, ‘Critical Investigations into the International’, Third World Quarterly 35, no.6 (2014): 1102.

[9] Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, Non-Western International Relations Theory: Perspectives on and Beyond Asia, (Oxon, Routledge, 2010) .

[10] Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, ‘Conclusion’, in Non-Western International Relations Theory, ed. Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan (Oxon, Routledge, 2010), 223.

[11] Ibid., 221.

[12] Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, ‘Why is there no non-Western international relations theory?: An introduction’, in Non-Western International Relations Theory: Perspectives on and Beyond Asia, ed. Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan (Oxon, Routledge, 2010), 6.

[13] Takashi Inoguchi, ‘Why are there no non-Western theories of international relations?: The case of Japan’, in Non-Western International Relations Theory: Perspectives on and Beyond Asia, ed. Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan (Oxon, Routledge, 2010), 51.

[14] Ibid.

[15]  Acharya and  Buzan, ‘Conclusion’, 222.

[16] Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, ‘Why is there no Non-Western International Relations Theory? Ten Years On’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 17, no. 3 (2017): 355.

[17] Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, (India, HarperCollins, 2013), p.9.

[18]  Acharya and  Buzan, ‘Conclusion’, 236.

[19] Anna M. Agathangelou and L.H.M. Ling, ‘The House of IR: From Family Power Politics to the Poisies of Worldism’, International Studies Review 6, no. 4 (2004): 21-49.

[20] L.H.M Ling, The Dao of World Politics: Towards a post-Westphalian Worldist International Relations (New York, Routledge, 2014) .

[21] Worlding Beyond the West Book Series. Available at Last accessed 20 June 2018.

[22]J.M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); J.M. Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[23] Yongjin Zhang and Teng-Chi Chang, Constructing a Chinese School of International Relations (London, Routledge, 2016) .

[24] Takashi Inoguchi, ‘Are There Any Theories of International Relations in Japan’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 7, no. 3 (2007): 369-390.

[25] Jong Kun Choi, ‘Theorising East Asian International Relations in Korea’, Asian Perspective 32, no. 1 (2008): 193-216.

[26] Siddharth Mallavarapu, ‘Development of International Relations Theory in India: Traditions, Contemporary Perspectives and Trajectories’, International Studies 46, no. 2 (2009): 165-183.

[27] Daniel A. Bell and Thaddeus Metz, ‘Confucianism and Ubuntu: Reflections on a Dialogue Between Chinese and African Traditions’, Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38, no. S1 (2011): 78-95

[28] Mvuselelo Ngcoya, ‘Ubuntu: Toward an Emancipatory Cosmopolitanism’, International Political Sociology 9, no. 3 (2015): 253.

[29] Ibid., 260.

[30] Thaddeus Metz, ‘Ubuntu as a Moral Theory and Human Rights in South Africa’, African Human Rights Law Journal 11, no. 2 (2011): 539.

[31] Ibid., 538.

[32] Ibid.

[33]  Malhotra, Being Different, 3.

[34] Ibid., 2.

[35] Ling, Dao of World Politics, 40.

[36]  Ibid., 52.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 14.

[39] Ibid., 43-44.

[40] Ibid., 15.

[41] Ibid., 40.

[42]  Malhotra, Being Different, 88.

[43] Ibid., 90.

[44] Ibid., 62.

[45] Ibid., 63.

[46] Ibid., 63.

[47] Ibid., 5-6.

[48]  Ling,  Dao of World Politics,  44.

[49] Graham Fox, ‘Remembering Ubuntu: Memory, Sovereignty and Reconciliation in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Platforum 12, (2011): 109.

[50] Ibid., 113.

[51]  Malhotra, Being Different, 191.

[52] Ibid., 194.

[53] Ibid., 196.

[54] David Frawley, Unity and Pluralism in Dharmic Traditions (American Institute of Vedic Studies), 28 June 2017, p. 14-16. Available at: Last accessed July 11, 2018.

[55]  Malhotra, Being Different, 136.

[56]  Ling,  Dao of World Politics,  98.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid., 99.

[59] Ibid., 98.

[60] Mvuselelo Ngcoya, ‘Ubuntu: Toward an Emancipatory Cosmopolitanism’, International Political Sociology 9, no. 3(2015): 253. 

[61] Mvuselelo Ngcoya, ‘Ubuntu’, 253.

[62] Ibid., 255.

[63] Graham Fox, ‘Remembering Ubuntu’, 107.

[64]  Malhotra, Being Different, 138.

[65] Ibid., 357.

[66] Ibid., 138.

[67] Ibid., 116.

[68]  Ling,  Dao of World Politics, 114.

[69]  Ngcoya, ‘Ubuntu’, 254.

[70]  Metz, ‘Ubuntu’, 537.

[71] Ibid., 539.

[72] Ibid., 119.

[73]  Frawley, Unity and Pluralism’, 14-16.

[74] Ibid., 135.

[75]  Metz, ‘Ubuntu’, 540.

[76]  Malhotra, Being Different, 135.

[77] Ibid., 178.

[78]  Ngcoya, ‘Ubuntu’, 253.

[79]  Samuel  Huntington,  The  Clash  of  Civilizations  and  the  Remaking  of  World  Order,  (New  York,  Touchstone,  1997),  1-353.

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