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From Trans-Atlantic Order to Afro-Eur-Asian Worlds? Reimagining International Relations as Interlocking Regional Worlds

Authors: Nora fisher-onar and Emilian kavalski

Journal: Global Studies Quarterly

Date/Place:  January 2, 2023/NM

Type of Literature: Research Paper

Number of Pages: 11



Keywords:  Trans-Atlantic, Afro-Eur-Asia, International Relations (IR), Alternative Visions, Multipolarity



The trans-Atlantic order faces unprecedented challenges as geo-economic power spreads to regional hubs throughout greater Eurasia. Often referred to as the “global power transition,” these processes can be interpreted as endeavors in “world-making.” Sites involved in world-making activities encompass expansive connectivity platforms like China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Indo-Japanese “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor,” Turkey’s “Middle Corridor,” the American “Build Back Better World,” and the European Union’s “Global Gateway.”

The primary aim of this study is to analyze the substantial challenges arising from the decline of Eurocentrism, avoiding duplicating or intensifying the focus on the importance or impact of these transformations.

Based on this, how can we make sense of the emergent regional imaginaries, the ways that they interlock, and the implications for IR theory and practice?


The study is divided into three main axes, the first entitled “What Is in a Name? A Short History of the Concept(s).” The authors began this part by emphasizing the importance of labels as a powerful device, especially when institutionalized, as they delimit cognitive fields and spheres of action.

Among the main terms in the study is “Eurasia,” which first appears as a set of nineteenth-century ideas related to American and British strategic geographers such as Halford Mackinder. However, today it refers to “the scope of Soviet influence and its geopolitical effects today, from the Russian Pacific Ocean to the contested regions in Ukraine and the Caucasus.” 

The authors mentioned that this approach to Eurasia not only ignores smaller actors but also other major entities and forces that have shaped Afro-Eur-Asian spaces, such as imperial successor states like China, India, Iran, and Turkey. Yet, the de facto fuzzy borders and plural protagonists of even this relatively restrictive reading are attested to by unresolved debates over whether or not to include in today’s definition of “Eurasia” the countries and peoples of eastern and southeastern Europe—not least Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

The authors affirm a connection between the historical naming of the Afro-Eur-Asian region and corrective attempts to empower this region in the international context. They illustrate how the Cold War and the Marshall Plan strategy significantly influenced our current understanding of regional study classifications. The corrective strategy aimed at empowering Afro-Eur-Asia did not target the core of the current system but sought to transform it through international institutions and seeking independence from major powers.

Current projects such as BRICS, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Belt and Road Initiative, exemplify how these initiatives attempt to overcome the economically dominant relations of the Atlantic.

In the second part of the article, entitled “Internalized Binaries and Multipolarity as Great Game,” the author argues that three aspects in the field of International Relations theory and practice hamper a pluralistic reading of the world, leading some to classify the emerging dynamics in the Afro-Eur-Asian region as a challenge.

The First aspect: IR as a discipline relied heavily on Europe and its colonies in constructing our knowledge systems, theories, categories, questions, and answers. However, we should be cautious to avoid overlooking and marginalizing non-Western voices and perspectives. Rather, views, issues, and solutions originating from non-Western cultures must become an integral part of scholarly discourse.

The authors emphasize the importance of overcoming this bias and thinking about international relations in a more inclusive manner, as it is necessary to incorporate the understanding of perspectives, problems, and solutions from “non-Western” regions, which are often overlooked.

The Second aspect: the problematic pattern in default IR literature to focus on material and economic power when considering “non-Western” actors. This leads IR scholars to focus primarily on China and Russia, while smaller countries and communities outside the Atlantic scope are neglected and remain largely unnoticed by international relations theory. Consequently, they continue to be dominated in the practice of science, with smaller states and communities remaining outside both the theoretical framework and under the influence of hegemony in the field of international relations.

This focus on the material aspect often relies on binary templates that reflect Western ideas in ontology and knowledge. However, the author emphasizes that not all analysis in Western political science follows a binary pattern (actor and receiver, East and West, Other and Self). Instead, there is a shift towards a more diverse approach, such as “relational,” “reflexive,” and “practice” in the field of international relations.

The third and crucial aspect: the dialectical uptake of dualistic frames for international engagement within political communities that have historically been on the receiving end of European imperialism. The author discusses how this dialectic has given rise to a form of “subaltern realism” in various contexts, where realpolitik operates in situations of systemic marginalization. This is often accompanied by ontological insecurity and a profound sense of “moral injury” stemming from experiences of subordination to Western powers.

Therefore, instead of dismantling Eurocentric dualisms, revisionists often reproduce these binary frames in an inverted form. This results in the weaponization of Occidentalism against Orientalism, attributing moral authority to an equally reified “East” or “South” in contrast to perceived cruel agendas associated with the “West” or “North.” Putin’s rationale for aggression in Ukraine, framed as retaliation for decades of perceived denigration by the West, tragically illustrates the influence of internalized binary thinking.

The authors conclude this section by confirming that the prominent contenders in the contemporary geopolitical landscape, characterized by mirrored oppositions, encompass assertive Moscow and sensitive Beijing. These actors aim to extend their influence across multiple regions in contrast to well-established powers such as the United States, the European Union (EU)/Europe, and their defense alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The smaller entities caught between these “post-imperial” powers serve as the strategic pawns, rooks, and knights in this grand competition. Although local kings and queens may pose as rivals, ultimately, only the great powers emerge victorious or face defeat. Within this framework, there is potential for strategic collaboration between powers upholding the existing order and those seeking to revise it.

The last part of the article is titled “Internalizing Relationality: Multipolarity as Interlocking Regional Worlds.” In this final section, the authors draw on the contributions to this special forum to suggest that by serving as itinerant translators, analysts can mediate between Afro-Eur-Asia’s interlocking regional worlds. Via three steps, they push back against binary habits—not because we naively deny conflict propensities but because they recognize that interactive frictions can be generative as well as destructive.


Step 1: Ontological Pluralism

To enhance a pluralistic standpoint, the authors start with the idea of regional worlds as a unit of analysis.

The authors discuss how a pluralistic ontology in their collection provides valuable insights into the language used to describe the emerging multipolarity from the perspective of Afro-Eur-Asia’s interconnected regional worlds. They clarify several contributions of researchers in this regard to support their point of view, including Benabdallah’s contribution that emphasizes relationality in Afro-Eur-Asian views of global politics, particularly in challenging established perceptions of aid and development assistance, including Chinese “debt diplomacy” in Africa.

On the other hand, Forough examines claims to civilizational authenticity in geopolitical contestations across Afro-Eur-Asia, comparing narratives from Beijing, Tehran, Brussels, and Washington. This assessment resonates with Fisher-Onar’s “capitulations syndrome,” highlighting a hybrid positionality between post-imperial and post-colonial conditions. The authors explores Afro-Eur-Asia’s thick imperial histories influenced by nationalism, resulting in an exceptionalist neoimperial nostalgia used by leaders for domestic power consolidation and expansive foreign policies.

Zarakol’s contribution questions the erasure of the category “Asia” in contemporary narratives, comparing Chinggisid imperial perceptions to Rome’s role in Europe. She advocates for a pluralistic vision of community, urging a focus on shared experiences and institutions to view Asia as a connected rather than fragmented space.


Step 2: Registering Empirical Pluralism 

The authors discuss that abandoning the “hegemony of the singular worldview” brings attention to what numerous insider perspectives on Afro-Eur-Asia have consistently acknowledged for a considerable period.

 The Westphalian logic has only (partially) described the experiences of the majority in this vast space (Afro-Eurasia) for a small fraction of the time of its settlement and governance. The author emphasizes that we can begin to recover the lost and significant past, the hidden present, and the yet-unimagined future by focusing not on essential differences but on co-creative processes.

There is ample evidence of Afro-Eur-Asia’s role as a facilitator of multidirectional learning via not only conquest, but also trade, marriage, and ideational exchange. Examples range from the proverbial Silk Road(s) to the lesser-known “Nirvana Way,” via which pilgrims circulated Indian/Buddhist innovations across regional worlds in conversation with Hellenistic legacies and Han prerogatives.

Furthermore, the Islamicate networks connected the classical and medieval eras, bridging the Greek, Persian, and Arab realms. The outcomes encompassed a magnificent architectural synthesis, along with philosophical and scientific advancements, that played a pivotal role for the prosperity of the Western world

In this section, the authors also present several contributions to other researchers in this regard to support their opinion, including Pardesi’s insightful contribution that puts these historical patterns into conversation with IR theory. Parsing fifteenth-century Malacca’s navigation of its position at the interstices of the Chinese and Islamicate “worlds,” he shows that smaller states are anything but squashed.

Hobson and Zhang’s contribution delves into the persistence of historical influences in the present, particularly examining echoes of the tributary system within the Belt and Road Initiative. They reveal a distinct Chinese approach to domestic legitimation through internationalization. Contrary to some views, Beijing’s international efforts are not benevolent gifts, but rather a neo-tributary performance characterized by relational, reciprocal, and hierarchical logic. 

The authors argue that relying on geopolitical and nationalist perspectives, although necessary to understand the current world, limit our vision to what is already known. By transcending these frames, a more comprehensive view emerges as to the various levels of analysis, diverse forms of agency, and intricate causal pathways.


Step 3: A Relational Template for Action

The authors start this step by affirming that to register the plurality of peoples, purposes, and processes that animate Afro-Eurasia is to resist the either/or logics that dominate current patterns of analysis and action.

We increasingly bear witness to the bloody consequences of binary frames touted by key figures in the Afro-Eur-Asian space binary reasoning, which has contributed to the deaths of thousands defending the (battle)fields of Ukraine.

The authors mention, as Benabdallah in this special forum reminds us, a relational rather than binary template for policy practice that could instead draw on emic norms of “solidarity” and “reciprocity” rooted in what Zarakol argues are the “shared histories” of this vast geography. Active (re)discovery of cultural and historical processes of co-constitution can resonate forward, helping to uncover present-day linkages and future connective possibilities. The authors hope that, though no panacea, mindfulness of our being in relationship with others, at the least, can help to call out today’s trend of weaponizing borders and interdependence across Afro-Eur-Asia.

The authors conclude the article by emphasizing that their overall objective is to present an alternative vision for the field of international relations at the dawn of multipolarity, which, despite frictions, does not assume that conflict with “others” is inevitable.


By: Chourouk Mestour, Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations



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