Global/Regional IR and changes in global/regional structures of Middle East international relations

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Morten Valbjørn, Aarhus University

The overall theme for this collection concerns the question about how changes in international structures at both the global and regional levels have and will affect Middle East international relations. One way to approach this question is by engaging in a discussion about whether the Middle East is in a transition from a post-Cold War ‘American order’ to some kind of ‘post-American’ (dis)order, where not only regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia but also non-Western great powers such as Russia and China aspire for a larger role in regional politics. In the following, a related yet somewhat different approach will be adopted. I will focus less on international relations than on the academic field of IR and discuss what these changes ‘out there’ might mean for the study of Middle East international relations ‘in here.’ In the following, I will do this by (re)visiting two debates in the scholarship on (Middle East) international relations.

Revisiting the classic debate on global vs. region-centric understandings of the Middle East

The question about the role of (changes in the) international structures for Middle East international relations is far from new. The current discussion can instead be seen as the most recent chapter in a book, where the opening chapter starts with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the modern Middle East. Thus, the debate over the relative importance of the global and the regional began almost as soon as there was even a concept of “the Middle East” as a distinct region. At the turn of the 20th century, Alfred Thayer Mahan, one of the first to use the very term ‘the Middle East,’ argued that it was nothing but ‘a shifting strategic concept [for an area that] had been and would be in the future a geopolitical no man’s land (…) destined to be a disputed area between Russia and the maritime powers.’[1] The interplay between regional and external players was also a key theme in the debate about the legacy of the 19th century ‘Eastern question.’ L. Carl Brown, for instance, argued that the permeability of the Middle East for external powers was a key part of what had made the Middle East into a distinct regional system with its unique own logic.[2]

During the Cold War, the Middle East was often perceived through a global bipolar prism. But this view was challenged throughout. In the 1950s, Leonard Binder for instance argued that ‘policies based upon the assumption of global bipolarity will be unsuccessful in the Middle East…it is far more likely that the Middle Eastern states will feel compelled to act in terms of their own complex system so as to preserve their individual position within the Middle Eastern structure.’[3] In a discussion about the US/Soviet influence in the Middle East during the Cold War, Fred Halliday similarly observed that if the superpowers’ relationship to the regional actors was to be grasped in terms of a ‘master-client relationship, it was not entirely clear which one was the master.’[4]

The question about the relative importance of changes in global and regional structures for the Middle East reemerged on the scholarly agenda in force after the end of the Cold War. While some such as Birthe Hansen argued that the Gulf War 1990/1 and the Oslo process was an outcome of the transition from bi-to uni-polarity at the global level, Efriam Karsh in turn asked ‘Cold War, post-Cold War: Does it make a difference in the Middle East?’ and answered this question with a ‘no.’[5]

At first sight, it may appear as if the previous chapters of this discussion have been polarized between those who view the global level as having profound structuring effects, and those who view regional dynamics as largely autonomous. However, this masks a large middle-ground trying, sometimes in very sophisticated ways, to grasp the complex interplay between dynamics at global and regional levels.[6] Some of the lessons from these past debates may also be useful for the current one about the emergence of a ‘post-American’ (dis)order in a Middle East with declining and rising new global and regional powers. Today, it therefore makes good sense revisiting some of the previous ‘chapters’ in this classic debate.

Visiting the Global/Post-Western IR debate

The classic debate on global versus region-centric understandings of Middle East international relations has traditionally been played out between discipline-oriented IR scholars and area specialists and has been closely related to the so-called Area Studies Controversy.[7] In addition to this US – or at least Western – centric debate, there is another debate which has received much less attention in discussions about Middle East international relations. The debate in question is the one about what has been labeled as Global, Post-Western or Global South IR and the related issues concerning ‘geo-cultural epistemo­logies’ and the role of ‘the cultural-institutional contexts.’[8]

The debate takes its point of departure in Cox’s famous remark about how ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose. There is …no such thing as theory in itself divorced from a standpoint in time and space.’[9] This is related to Hoffmann’s statement about how IR to a large extent has been an ‘American Social Science’[10] and Wæver’s suggestion that ‘IR might be quite different in different places.’[11] In particular since the turn of the millennium, there has against this background been a growing interest within parts of the broader field of IR Theory concerning the development of IR scholarship beyond North America and Europe.

This has been reflected in a multi –dimensional debate in IR about 1) whether IR has been made “by and for the West”[12] and what, this means for our way of studying and understanding international relations; i.e. how have some issues/forms of knowledge been considered more important/legitimate than others; 2) whether and how it is possible to identify substantially different ways of studying international relations elsewhere; i.e. is the ‘international’ imagined in identical ways everywhere and is ‘security’ perceived differently in different places?[13]; and 3) which kind of analytical strategies are more likely to make IR Theory genuinely international, not only regarding what is studied but also when it comes to how and by whom; i.e., how can the ‘non-West’ to a larger extent become a ‘producer of knowledge’ rather than being only an ‘object of knowledge’ and how can insights from different places be connected in a genuinely international debate?[14]

Considering the prominence of Said’s critique of the ‘Western’ production of knowledge about the ‘East,’[15] one might expect the study of Middle East international relations to be one of the fields where issues of ‘Global/Post-Western IR’ had been extremely prominent. This is, however, far from the case, despite the fact that the Middle East according the TRIP survey on theory and practice of IR around the world figures as one of the most studied regions ‘beyond the West.’ Instead, the Middle East has been surprisingly absent in the Global/Post-Western IR debates, which instead have been occupied by discussions concerning Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Latin American or continental European IR.[16] These issues have similarly only received limited attention among Middle East scholars (from the region and elsewhere).[17]

How Global/Post-Western IR Matters for This Debate

The neglect of this Global/post-Western IR debate does not appear viable any longer for those seeking to grasp the implications for the Middle East of changing structures at global and regional levels. It seems at least for two reasons necessary to engage with this debate.

First, if the emergence of a ‘post-American Middle East’ implies a growing and more independent role to regional actors and the rise of more region-specific dynamics, it is crucial to gain a better understanding of whether for instance the ‘international’ is thought and ‘security’ is perceived in the same way in the region as assumed by ‘universal’ IR theories usually developed (for the West?) by Western scholars. Bilgin, for instance, has brought attention to how discussions about ‘security’ in international relations to a larger extent should include questions such as ‘what is security,’ ‘security for whom,’ ‘what is a threat’ and ‘a threat to whom.’[18] Such a focus will not only bring attention to how security may be perceived very differently by different kinds of actors (also within the Middle East region). It may furthermore bring awareness to how debates about security in the Middle East often have concerned security for Western powers or local regimes and how this at times has been at the expense of attention to how an increased security for some may lead to an increased insecurity for other actors, such as the local populations.

An acknow­ledgement of the need for more attentiveness to local/regional perspectives does however also raise the question about how to do so, which is far easier said than done. Some advice on what (not) to do can be found in the broader debate on Global/post-Western IR, which has grappled with these issues for quite some time. A basic question concerns how to study and include local/regional ways of perceiving and practicing international relations, i.e., what kind of actors should be included/listened to (practitioners or scholars, elites or the broader public, state or non-state actors), what are the relevant sources (ancient or contemporary voices and documents), what kind of theories and approaches deserves attention (descriptive, explanatory, normative) etc.?

Similar to the strand of the ‘Chinese IR’-debate, which has examined what ancient Chinese sources have to say about the ‘international,’ it might be tempting to look for an ‘authentic’ and ‘truly indigenous’ understanding of international relations in the ‘Islamic Middle East.’ Both Western and Middle Eastern scholars have against this background studied what the Quran and classic figures such as ibn Khaldun, ibn Taymiyya or al-Marwadi allegedly have to say about dar al-Harb/dar al-Islam, jihad, or the ummah. [19] However, the critique that has been directed at this kind of approach in the debate on ‘Chinese IR’ also seems relevant to consider in the present context. Often unintentionally, its proponents sometimes ends up reproducing classic orientalists stereotypes about how every aspect of the Middle East is defined by some Islamic essence. In turn, insufficient attention is paid to the ambiguity of these sources[20] and to the question about whether policy-makers and other international actors are actually informed by these distinct ‘Islamic concepts and perspectives.’

Instead of looking for completely new and radically different “authentic” theories about Middle East international relations, others have taken their point of departure in the observation that students and scholars in the region to a large extent read and use the same academic texts as at Western universities. Against this background, focus has been directed to what happens when general IR theories, originally formulated in a Western context travel, are not only applied to but also used in other contexts such as the Middle East; in other words, what is it like reading Waltz in Riadh, Wendt in Tehran or the Copenhagen School’s securitization-theory in Cairo? Some have seen this as reproducing IR’s Eurocentric underpinnings and a Western hegemony within IR. Others like Bilgin have suggested that ‘‘mimicry’ may emerge as a way of ‘doing’ world politics in a seemingly ‘similar’ yet unexpectedly ‘different’ way.’[21]

Yet another and partly related approach reflecting an ambition of including and incor­po­rating local perspectives has given rise to what has been described as an emerging Beirut School of Critical Security Studies.[22] It emerges from a transnational group of scholars from, working in, and/or with close ties to institution in the Arab world. With support from the Arab Council for the Social Sciences they have formed a working group on ‘Critical Security Studies in the Arab Region.’ This group has developed a series of research projects and training programs for students and junior scholars in the region based on alternative understandings of security that focus on the encounter with lived experiences of insecurity in societies in the Arab world and engage with knowledge production from scholars and institutions in the Arab world.

In addition to serving as a reminder of the importance of listing to and incorporating different kinds of local perspectives on the implications for the Middle East of changes in international structures at global and regional levels (as well as of the potential pitfalls in such an endeavor), there is another reason why the post-Western/Global IR debate might be worthwhile a visit. While regional powers maybe are going to play a more prominent and independent role as the US dominance in the Middle East declines, few observers expect that extra-regional great powers will be absent in a future ‘post-American Middle East.’ On the contrary, many believe that other – and rivaling – great powers will be increasingly present in the region and challenge the United States’ ‘traditional’ position in the Middle East.

This does not only raise the question about whether this marks the beginning of a ‘new great game’ or ‘Eastern Question redux.’ It also poses the question whether great powers such as Russia or China – and maybe India? – perceive and will engage with the Middle East in the same way as the United States – and Europe historically – have done. Will their approaches to the Middle East be based on other ways of imagining ‘the international,’ the Middle East and their own role as a great power involved in various parts of the world? For those interested in those kind of questions, it seems highly relevant to consult the broader post-Western debate on whether or not, it makes sense speaking about, say, a distinct ‘Chinese IR’ and to what extent this actually inform Chinese policies; or is it rather so that great powers have certain kinds of interests making them behave in certain and quite familiar ways, for instance, in the Middle East – regardless of their official ideology, cultural background etc., as Waltz would have suggested.[23]

By (re)visiting past and current debates on the study of (Middle East) international relations, it is possible to identify a range of tools and issues of relevance for those attempting at grasping the implications for the Middle East of changes in international structures at both global and regional levels. Thus, there is a long tradition among Middle East scholars for discussing the strengths and weaknesses of global and region-centric approaches and various sophisticated suggestions for how global and regional structures interact. By turning to the broader IR debates, it is moreover possible to identify the discussion about Global/Post-Western IR, which despite of the past neglect of the Middle East raises a number of issues also of relevance for the present context.


[1] A. T. Mahan, ‘Persian Gulf and International Relations,’ The National Review, (1902), pp. 27-45.

[2] L. C. Brown, International Politics and the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 1984).

[3] L. Binder, ‘The Middle East as a Subordinate International System,’ World Politics, 10 (1958), pp. 408-29.

[4] F. Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations – Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[5] B. Hansen, Unipolarity and the Middle East (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001). E. Karsh, ‘Cold War, post-Cold-War: does it make a difference for the Middle East,’ Review of International Studies, 23 (1997), pp. 271-91.

[6] For an overview see also M. Valbjørn, ‘The ‘New Middle East’ and the encounter with the Global Condition: Exploring the global/regional interplay from the perspective of the New English School,’ in S. Stetter (ed.) The Middle East and Globalization: Encounters and Horizons (NY: Palgrave, 2012), pp. 171-190.

[7] On the Area Studies Controversy, see Tessler, M et al., (eds.) Area Studies and Social Sciences – Strategies for Understanding Middle East Politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); M. Valbjørn, ‘Toward a ‘Mesopotamian Turn’: Disciplinarity and the Study of the International Relations of the Middle East,’ Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 14 (2004), pp. 47-75

[8] A. Acharya, ‘Global International Relations (IR) and Regional Worlds,’ International Studies Quarterly, 58 (2014), pp. 647-659; A. B. Tickner and O. Wæver (eds.), International Relations Scholarship Around the World (NY: Routledge, 2009). K. E. Jørgensen and T. Brems Knudsen (eds.) International Relations in Europe: Traditions, Perspectives and Destinations (NY: Routledge, 2006), pp. 1-15. Part of this section draws on Valbjørn, Morten & Waleed Hazbun (2017). “Scholarly Identities and the Making of Middle East IR. APSA-MENA Newsletter, no. 3 (Fall).

[9] R. Cox, ‘Social forces, states, and world orders: beyond international relations theory,’ in R. Cox and J. S. with Timothy (eds.) Approaches to World Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[10] S. Hoffmann, ‘An American Social Science: International Relations,’ Daedalus, 106 (1977), pp. 41-60.

[11] O. Wæver, ‘The Sociology of a Not So International Discipline: American and European Developments in International Relations,’ International Organization, 52 (1998), pp. 687-727

[12] T. Barkawi and M. Laffey, ‘The Postcolonial Moment in Security Studies,’ Review of International Studies, 32 (2006), pp. 329-352.

[13] Tickner and Wæver (2009); Bilgin, The international in security, security in the international (London: Routledge, 2017);

[14] A. B. Tickner, ‘Seeing IR Differently: Notes from the Third World,’ Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 32 (2003), pp. 295-324;.G. Hellmann and M. Valbjørn, ‘Problematizing Global Challenges: Recalibrating the “Inter” in IR-Theory,’ International Studies Review, 19 (2017), pp. 279-282.

[15] E. Said, Orientalism – Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1978).

[16] A. Alejandro, Western dominance in International Relations? The Internationalisation of IR in Brazil and India (NY: Routledge, 2018); K. E. Jørgensen and T. Brems Knudsen (eds.), International Relations in Europe: Traditions, Perspectives and Destinations (London: Routledge, 2006).P. M. Kristensen and R. T. Nielsen, ‘Constructing a Chinese International Relations Theory: A Sociological Approach to Intellectual Innovation,’ International Political Sociology, 7 (2013), pp. 19-40. A. B. Tickner, ‘Hearing Latin American Voices in International Relations Studies,’ International Studies Perspective, 4 (2003), pp. 325-350.

[17] For important exception see, for instance B. Korany, ‘Strategic Studies and the Third World: a critical evaluation,’ International Social Science Journal, (1986), pp. 547-562; B. Korany and K. Makdisi, ‘Arab Countries: the object worlds back,’ in A. B. Tickner and O. Wæver (eds.) International Relations Scholarship Around the World (NY: Routledge, 2009), pp. 172-190; P. Bilgin, ‘Security in the Arab world and Turkey – differently different,’ in A. B. Tickner and D. Blaney (eds.) Thinking International Relations Differently (NY: Routledge, 2012), pp. 27-47; W. Hasan and B. Momani, ‘Arab Scholars’ Take on Globalization,’ in A. B. Tickner and D. Blaney (eds.) Thinking International Relations Differently (N.Y.: Routledge, 2012), pp. 228-249; W. Hazbun, ‘The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Challenge of Postcolonial Agency: International Relations, US Policy, and the Arab World ,’ in G. Huggan (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 217-234.

[18] Bilgin (2015); P. Bilgin, ‘Whose ‘Middle East’? Geopolitical Inventions and Practices of Security,’ International Relations, 18 (2004), pp. 25-41.

[19] Among others, M. Khadduri, ‘The Islamic Theory of International Relations and its contemporary relevance,’ in J. H. Proctor (ed.) Islam and International Relations (London: Pall Mall Press, 1965), pp. 24-39; B. Tibi, ‘Post-Bipolar Order in Crisis: The Challenge of Politicised Islam,’ Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 29 (2000), pp. 843-859; B. Lewis, ‘Politics and War,’ in J. Schacht and C. E. Bosworth (eds.) The Legacy of Islam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), pp. 156-209; G. Shani, ‘Toward a Post-Western IR: The Umma, Khalsa Panth, and Critical International Relations Theory,’ International Studies Review, 10-4 (2008); D. Abdelkader, N. M. Adiong and R. Mauriello, Islam and international relations : contributions to theory and practice (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); H. Malik, ‘Islamic Theory of International Relations,’ Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studie, (1979); D. Shahi, ‘Introducing Sufism to International Relations Theory: A preliminary inquiry into epistemological, ontological, and methodological pathways,’ European Journal of International Relations; M. H. Alruwaih, Islamic Agents, Structure, and International Relations: Ontology as Faith, Durham theses (Durham: Durham University E-Theses Online, 2014).

[20] J. Piscatori, Islam in a World of Nation-States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); M. Valbjørn, ‘Culture Blind and Culture Blinded: Images of Middle Eastern Conflicts in International Relations,’ in D. Jung (ed.) The Middle East and Palestine: Global Politics and Regional Conflicts (N.Y.: Palgrave, 2004), pp. 39-78;

[21] P. Bilgin, ‘Thinking past ‘Western’ IR?,’ Third World Quarterly, 29 (2008), pp. 5-23; P. Bilgin, ‘The politics of studying securitization? The Copenhagen School in Turkey,’ Security Dialogue, 42 (2011), pp. 399-412.

[22] S. Abboud, O. S. Dahi, W. Hazbun, N. S. Grove, C. Pison Hindawi, J. Mouawad and S. Hermez, ‘Towards a Beirut School of critical security studies,’ Critical Studies on Security, 6 (2018), pp. 273-295; W. Hazbun, ‘The Politics of Insecurity in the Arab World: A View from Beirut,’ PS: Political Science & Politics, 50 (2017), pp. 656-659; W. Hazbun and M. Valbjørn, ‘The Making of IR in the Middle East: Critical Perspectives on Scholarship and Teaching in the Region,’ APSA-MENA Newsletter, (2018), pp. 5-9; see also

[23] K. N. Waltz, ‘The Emerging Structure of International Politics,’ International Security, 18 (1993), pp. 44-79