Scholars of international relations often operate under the assumption that their project is to generate the truth, to come to some objective understanding of what the international sphere is and how it works. Most contemporary international relations theory, though, is tainted by a major source of bias: it is produced in western nations by western authors for western readers. International relations theory is skewed westward, which impairs its ability to explain and to produce social good.

Much of this western bias is due to the historical political and military dominance of the west; history is written by the victors, and political philosophy seems to be too. Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan argue in their 2010 book Non-Western International Relations Theory: Perspectives On and Beyond Asia that the vast majority of schools of thought in international relations are outgrowths of one western philosophical tradition or another: realism comes from the work of Thucydides, Hobbes, and Machiavelli; liberalism derives from Kant, Locke, Smith, and others; Marx and Engels were German; and even those constructivist and postmodern accounts of international relations that emphasize relativism and diversity draw mostly on the ideas of French authors such as Pierre Bordieu and Michel Foucault. Of course, non-westerners from Sun Tzu to Amartya Sen have also made valuable contributions to political science and international relations theory, but on the whole, western voices have dominated throughout the history of international relations discourse.

The problem is not just one of heritage. The field of international relations is becoming increasingly grounded in economics and psychology. The growing use of applied game theory to explain and predict phenomena in international affairs means that international relations theory has become entangled with the assumptions, ideological commitments, and empirical findings of behavioral economics—a body of knowledge that exhibits a western slant. There is nothing inherently biased about applied game theory, but as it is practiced in modern academic circles, the field privileges westerners over people of other backgrounds. Social psychologists use convenient subjects in their research; this means that western researchers use almost exclusively western subjects. The body of knowledge generated by studies in game theory and behavioral economics, then, is considered to reveal certain universal truths about human beings, whereas in reality it is highly culturally specific. In 1995, then-UCLA graduate student in anthropology Joe Henrich traveled to Peru to study the economic behavior of indigenous peoples. Henrich found that the subjects of his research behaved very differently in game theoretic simulations than North American subjects did. North Americans are generally eager to propose and to reward fair distributions of resources in games; Peruvian natives, on the other hand, did not seem to care nearly as much about fairness. This is not to say that some cultural, ethnic, or regional groups played the game more or less rationally than others; no style of play is necessarily better or worse. Instead, Henrich’s findings simply point to a diversity of values across cultures that translates into different goals and strategies. Henrich replicated this study in various countries and cultures around the world, observing a wide range of behaviors across cultures. These findings challenge the common, western position that game theoretic study reveals fundamental features of human nature. His work points to one of the sources of bias in international relations theory: it is built on research in behavioral economics and psychology that commonly assumes that people operate the same way regardless of culture and that takes mainly westerners as the subjects of its study. The concept of human nature that informs international relations theory is a western one, produced through studies of western subjects but erroneously applied to people the world over. Despite these limitations, applied game theory was widely employed in prominent publications to explain Vladimir Putin’s actions and intentions after the Russian invasion of Crimea last spring.

Moreover, international relations theory is largely the product of western thinkers at western institutions. In 2011, the Christian Science Monitor ranked the top 25 graduate programs in international relations worldwide; 19 were in the US, five were in the UK, and one was in Canada. None were in non-western countries. The Times Higher Education world university rankings for the social sciences in 2013-2014, meanwhile, list no non-western institutions until the National University of Singapore, which comes in tied for 29th. The QS World University Rankings from 2013 for politics and international studies puts only seven non-western universities in the top 40. Granted, these are western rankings in western publications, and perhaps this is an example of western bias in journalism; but it is telling that there are many fewer non-western rankings of international affairs programs and that they agree with western rankings. Even Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, despite its non-western character, has placed only two non-western universities in its top 50 every year since its creation in 2003. These rankings are an indication of the western provenance and perpetuation of international relations scholarship.

The western nature of those academics responsible for international relations research and teaching is noteworthy because of the influence of a researcher’s identity on the outcomes of research. This is the central argument of standpoint theory, a school of thought that holds that those individuals who are marginalized or oppressed gain privileged access to knowledge and truth that is routinely excluded from the mainstream. For example, non-westerners subjected to centuries of western political and military domination likely have novel and insightful interpretations of international affairs to offer. Because it fails to take into account a wide variety of important perspectives, international relations theory that is the product of western thought in western institutions cannot claim to be global theory or to be true in any meaningful sense.

The danger of western bias is that it shuts out those alternative, non-western perspectives. Limiting the diversity of theory we consider in the field of international relations limits the truth we can generate and taints what knowledge we do produce. This is especially problematic given the growing importance of knowledge as an economic phenomenon – as a good with value. Knowledge and information are increasingly sources of economic worth and measures of economic success. Whereas Marx proposed a philosophy of historical materialism whereby material factors—such as productive capacity and technology—are the sources of power and the drivers of history, we are likely now living in a post-Marxist age of informationism, in which knowledge and its spread are the most important sources of power. Examples abound. A 2009 World Bank report found that a 10 percentage-point increase in high-speed Internet connections is accompanied by an increase in economic growth of 1.3 percentage-points. The US government’s budget for intelligence work has risen every year since 2006 and now sits at around US$80 billion per year. A recent New York Times opinion piece by Karl Taro Greenfeld highlights the importance of information gleaned from social media in building social and cultural capital. If the search for truth drives contemporary history, and westerners dominate the search for truth about international affairs, then much of the world has been unjustly prevented from participating in an important world-historic and power-generating process. Western-skewed international relations scholarship excludes much of the world from touching the benefits of the pursuit of knowledge about the international system.

This exclusion does not seem to be the result of some intentional or malicious grand conspiracy. It would be incorrect to argue that individual westerners are at fault. Instead, this problem is the result of a sort of organic growth, an unintentional historical process. It is more correct to view western dominance of international relations theory as a disease that has infected academia—and one that harms westerners as well as non-westerners. The non-universality of international relations thought prevents western theorists from arriving at good understandings of the international system and from gaining access to the truth. The ethnocentrism at play is implicit and harmful to all interested in the pursuit of truth, from any culture or region. Despite this lack of intentionality or fault, Robert Cox’s insight holds: “Theory is always for someone and for some purpose.” International relations theory is by and for westerners, even if it is not intentionally so.

Now, it is possible that something different is at work. Perhaps instead of a western bias, international relations theory suffers from regional insularism. If this is the case, then it only seems to me that international relations thought is slanted toward the west because I am a westerner writing from a western institution in a western publication. Perhaps a Chinese writer would argue that international relations theory exhibits a Chinese or an eastern bias. This possibility is real but slight; there is good reason to discard it. Acharya and Buzan’s book on western bias in international relations theory features contributions from prominent professors at universities in India, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and China, and all of them agree with the basic premise that western thought dominates the field globally. Students at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul read very few non-western authors, and virtually no Turkish theorists, in their political science courses. Across the world, political scientists and international theorists are much more likely to recognize the name of Italian statesman and theorist Niccolò Machiavelli than they are to recall the name of the earlier Indian scholar Kautilya. Therefore, the regional insularism hypothesis seems to be false; western theory dominates globally, not just in the west.

The problem is more or less clear; the solution less so. There are two plausible remedies for western dominance of international relations theory. The first would require the creation of a truly global, unified theory. Such a body of knowledge would seek to accurately, honestly, and objectively describe the workings of the international system without drawing unduly on any culturally specific tradition. Its task would be to detach scholarship about global affairs from any specific culture, region, or group of people—not at all an easy thing to accomplish. There is a legitimate case to be made, likely from standpoint theory, that such a holistic understanding of international affairs is impossible because all thought is wrapped up in the background of the thinker. In other words, cultural people cannot generate non-cultural thought. The second possible way out of western bias, then, would involve pluralism about theories of global affairs. This approach to resolving bias would accept that theory is necessarily entangled in culture but would strive to make all kinds of theory from all kinds of theorists known and legitimate. Different culturally specific and culturally generated theories would exist and would be in many ways distinct from one another, but scholars in one tradition would acknowledge the existence and potential validity of other, culturally different international theories. Cross-pollination between theoretical traditions could of course occur, and would likely prove fruitful, but various culturally specific bodies of theory would exist side-by-side. This second solution appears to be much more plausible. In order to achieve pluralism in international relations theory, scholars must educate themselves and their students about a wide variety of different ideas from differently cultured authors. University professors who educate the next generation of international theorists must give roughly proportional syllabus space to Alexis de Tocqueville and to Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani– or at the very least, if a professor chooses to assign only readings by western authors, he or she should title and advertize his or her course accordingly. Institutions of research and education must shed their occidentalist leanings and embrace pluralism about this complex, diverse world in which we live.

International relations theory is ironically not a global body of knowledge; instead, it is regionally and culturally specific. We work with a non-global theory of global affairs. Western-biased international relations theory overlooks valuable perspectives that could enrich and enhance our understanding of how the world works. Moreover, that western skew incorrectly excludes potentially valuable perspectives and unfairly privileges some viewpoints, creating disparities in access to knowledge and its benefits. We must strive to make international relations as a field more inclusive and more global—but how? Perhaps the answer lies in some global, unified theory of international relations, detached from culture and independent of any particular regional or ethnic group; more likely, though, the solution will involve pluralism about international relations theory. Researchers and students must acknowledge that western international relations theory does not represent the only option or the truth. We must pave the way toward pluralism in order to craft diverse international theory for a diverse international world.