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A New World Order: Ethnocentrism in International Politics

Samuel Swanson

We can see a new world coming into view, a world in which there is the very real prospect of a new world order, a world where the United Nation—freed from Cold War stalemate—is poised to fulfill the historic vision of its founders; a world in which freedom and respect for human rights find a home among all nations.

This optimistic declaration was made by President George H. W. Bush in March of 1991 (Spanier, 178- 179). He made it at the end of the Cold War, in light of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and when the world was at a moment of unbridled optimism and potential. The United States, along with the rest of the Western countries, has been attempting to create a world like this since the end of World War II. This world is one that is founded on liberal democratic principles, rule of law, and a basic respect for human rights. However, this “liberal world order” has not been accepted without resistance from many countries around the world. There has been backlash from countries all over the world that do not share these values. It can be said that many of the actions taken by the United States and many of its Western allies are ethnocentric and have little regard for the culture and historical experiences of countries who did not create this “liberal world order.” They are having it thrust upon them by the more powerful countries, like the United States, who created the current world order and have made it their goal to perpetuate and defend it, through military force if necessary. The attempt to create an international system, one that is devoted to rule of law, liberal democracy, and the fundamental human rights for all people, carries with it inherent ethnocentrism that explains much of the backlash by many countries and cultures around the world. Although these values seem to be benign and for the betterment of the world’s populations regardless of ethnicity, religion, or economic status, this nonetheless is one culture judging another based on their own cultural background and historical perspective. In the context of international politics, ethnocentrism is prevalent in the idea of human rights and humanitarian interventions. The very idea of humanitarian intervention is inherently ethnocentric, both in definition and practice.

The first difficulty that arises when introducing human rights into the world of international politics is deciding what constitutes a human rights violation and what rights should be afforded to people, by nature of being a human being. The fact is, countries do not agree on what rights should be afforded to all human beings, let alone when intervention on behalf of these individuals is necessary. Nonetheless, the United Nations has attempted to create a list of rights that people deserve. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. This document lays out 30 articles stating rights that should be afforded to every human being. This declaration has not gone without its criticisms (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Many Islamic countries have criticized the declaration for its Western bias. Jacqueline Langwith states, “A strong argument can be made that the current formulation of international human rights constitutes a cultural structure in which Western society finds itself easily at home... It is important to acknowledge and appreciate that other societies may have equally valid alternative conceptions of human rights” (Langwith, 2008). Especially considering the secular basis for the declaration, this is troubling to people of religious backgrounds that may have conflicting values. According to Eric Posner, “The liberal order that was born with the Soviet Union’s collapse rested on a fiction: that all nations were equal and submitted to the same rules because they reflected universal human values. In reality, of course, the rules were Western rules, and they were enforced largely by the United States, which was no one’s equal” (Posner, 2014).
It is important not to pretend all Western countries have the same definition of what constitutes human rights abuses. Although their conceptions of human rights are more similar because of a shared history that has led to some of the same values, they are not uniform among all Western countries. For example, the United States is still one of the dwindling number of countries that still uses capital punishment. Many countries around the world see capital punishment as a human rights abuse and even refuse to extradite people to the United States. Some of the United States’ closest allies, such as Australia and Canada, refuse to extradite any alleged criminal unless they are assured that the death penalty will not be sought (Kifner, 2014).

What is even more difficult than defining what constitutes human rights is determining when humanitarian intervention is warranted. In international politics there are also certain rights that are afforded to states, namely the right of sovereignty. Traditionally, states have had the absolute right to rule within their own borders. This right is contradictory to the idea of human rights and humanitarian intervention. Thus, many countries are attempting to revise this definition of sovereignty to make it contingent on providing for human rights. It is ethnocentric to believe that all states should have the same concept of what rights people are entitled. Generally, Western countries are the proponents of this revised definition of sovereignty (Nye, 2011).

What is most troubling about the ethnocentrism displayed in humanitarian intervention and the quest to secure universal human rights is that these rights are not attributed equally. Even with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is by no means universal, it is incredibly difficult to demand compliance from all countries. There are many articles of the UDHR that even some of the most liberal democracies in the West do not meet. Despite the fact that many Western countries do not meet many of the values that they created and try to maintain, there is little to no outrage over what are clearly human rights abuses in their countries (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights). This is especially troublesome when one looks at who is doing all of this intervention on the basis of human rights. There seems to be a clear power imbalance between who is doing the intervention and who is having their sovereignty violated. It is not the poor countries that are intervening, it is the powerful countries in the “global North.” These countries, to at least some extent, are only intervening in the poorer countries because they can. We do not similarly see humanitarian interventions in countries that are militarily strong. As Thucydides famously said, “The weak suffer what they must.” As Americans, it would help to look at the situation as if we were not a superpower; we would not find it tolerable for a strong country to come into our less developed country and tell us how we are supposed to think.

Although we believe our perception of human rights is the right one, there are many countries that see some of the actions we take as human rights abuses. As discussed, the United States still uses capital punishment. If a large portion of the international community looks at capital punishment as a human rights abuse, why is there no action taken against the United States to intercede on these people’s behalf? The answer is really quite simple: the inactivity of the international community is many times due to the military and political power of the United States. There are different levels of human rights abuses around the world, but this illustrates that whether a country has to be worried about being called out on their humans rights abuses has a great deal to do with how powerful the country is and the level of severity of the abuses. There then seems to be at least some sort of threshold of abuse before humanitarian intervention is deemed acceptable. But who is it that decides what of level humanitarian intervention is deemed acceptable (Barsa, 2005)? It would seem that this is a decision that is also made by whoever wields all of the power; in this case it would the United States along with other Western countries.

Scholars have gone so far as to call the idea of humanitarian intervention a form of “neo-colonialism.” Just like colonialism as we have seen it in the past, the more developed and powerful countries are inserting their will over weaker societies. This is especially evident when you look at the fact that all of the interventions that have taken place are by the stronger, more developed nations, many of which are former colonial powers. It can even be argued that many of the problems that countries which experienced humanitarian intervention are caused by these former colonial powers. The conflicts that are causing the direst humanitarian crises are mainly ethnic and religious conflicts that were created when the colonial empires drew the state borders. Countries that are former colonies are dealing with a variety of different problems that can be traced back to their colonial history. The more developed countries around the world were able to develop in a world where sovereignty was more or less respected. It is unfair to take away the right of less developed nations’ right to self-determination just because the more developed countries in the West disapprove of the way they are doing things (Spanier, 2013).

Other scholars have argued that humanitarian intervention is merely a means of securing political goals that would otherwise be unattainable, or to secure interest that a state deems important. This explains why there is an inconsistency when humanitarian intervention is used. For example, President Bill Clinton authorized and advocated for humanitarian intervention in Serbia, but when there was a humanitarian crisis in Rwanda, there was no action taken to prevent what would later be called genocide. It is unreasonable to expect countries to be perfect in their policies, but it does serve to highlight the point that countries are much more inclined to intervene in countries when there are vested interests in that country or region. Rarely can we see a time when humanitarian intervention was used for purely humanitarian reasons (Barsa, 2005).

A very valid response to all of these arguments is, so what? The United States and the rest of the international community may be acting ethnocentrically, but they are not using their power to expand their territory; they are, in most cases, using their power to carry out humanitarian intervention to save lives because of their belief that human beings have inherent rights. The argument could be made that even if the United States and Western countries in general are acting ethnocentrically, it does not really matter. A little ethnocentrism is worth it if that means preventing another genocide and making sure that people are able to pursue some of the basic rights that are felt to be important. Who cares that the international community is acting inconsistently when they are doing what they can wherever they can do it? It can be argued that absolute sovereignty is not important enough to sacrifice human rights. All of these are fair points to bring up, and that is a question people have to answer. However, whether humanitarian action is right or wrong, we must recognize that it is inherently ethnocentric, and there are very real problems that arise when states use intervention on the basis of human rights. 
Intervention in the sovereign borders of a country on the basis of human rights, whether right or wrong, is ethnocentric, because it imposes the cultural beliefs and practices of one country over the cultural beliefs of another. The values that are at times being forced on another country are not necessarily universal, as many non-Western countries have pushed back against them. The role that human rights should play in international politics is also debated, as many still hold the general belief that individual states have a right to sovereignty. The ethnocentric behavior of certain states is further complicated by the fact that countries are not held accountable consistently, and countries that have a strong military are less subject to these humanitarian interventions. There is a definite power dynamic that forces the weak developing nations to play by the rules of the developed superpowers that are imposing their values of democracy, rule of law, and human rights on the rest of the world. The liberal world order that the West has been attempting to create is based on many assumptions that seem like they should be shared by people everywhere and that the countries should make sure that all humans are given access to these rights. Even though the world may be a better place if the powerful elite do intervene on behalf of the oppressed peoples around the world, it is nonetheless an ethnocentric expression of the values of this liberal world order that inconsistently imposes the cultural beliefs and values of one society over another.

Works Cited

Barša, Pavel. “Waging War In The Name Of Human Rights?.” Perspectives: Central European Review Of International Affairs 24.(2005): 5-20. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Caldwell, Dan, and Robert E. Williams. “The State of the State(II): Rise of Human Security.” Seeking Security in an Insecure World. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Ikenberry, John G. “The Future of the Liberal World Order.” Foreign Affairs. N.p., May-June 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Langwith, Jacqueline. Human Rights. Detroit, MI: Greenhaven, 2008. Print.

Nye, Joseph S., and David Welch. Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation: An Introduction to Theory and History. Boston: Pearson Longman, 2011. Print.

Posner, Eric. “Sorry, America, the New World Order Is Dead.” Foreign Policy Sorry America the New World Order Is Dead Comments. N.p., 6 May 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Kifner, John. “France Will Not Extradite If Death Penalty Is Possible.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Mar. 2001. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Spanier, John W., and Steven W. Hook. American Foreign Policy since World War 2. 19th ed. N.p.: CQ, 2013. Print.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights.” UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

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