Chandran Nair on White Privilege in International Relations

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Chandran Nair on White Privilege in International Relations

“The West harbors an anachronistic sense of superiority over others and retains privileges from its colonial exploits and setting up the ‘international rules-based system.’”

Chandran Nair on White Privilege in International Relations
Credit: Depositphotos

Discussion of White supremacy and White privilege have risen to the forefront of global conversations, as “Black Lives Matter” has been picked up as a rallying cry around the world. Yet in the current world order, steeped in colonialist heritage and born in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the assumption of White supremacy continues to guide decision-making in both conscious and subconscious ways.

Chandran Nair explores the role White privilege plays in international relations – from great power diplomacy to cultural exchanges – in his new book, “Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World.” Below, Nair, who is also the founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, an independent think tank based in Hong Kong, discusses some key takeaways from his book.

Your book begins with an exploration of White privilege in geopolitics. In that vein, I’d like to ask for your thoughts on the AUKUS alliance, which was announced after the book was finalized, so is not addressed in the text. In many aspects, it reflects the themes you raise in the book, yet even the most vocal critics of AUKUS tended to focus their objections on other points (for example, nuclear non-proliferation).

AUKUS is an excellent case study of White privilege in the global systems that shape our world and what constitutes foreign policy within the West. It can be summed up as preserving might and control across the world through the containment of the legitimate rights of other countries to rise and even assert themselves on the international stage. This is a right which the West believes is its sole prerogative and masked in narratives about upholding the rules-based order and therefore global peace and prosperity. But the world does not buy it anymore and AUKUS has sent troubling reminders across Asian capitals of the outdated and imperial mindsets of its three partners, and the power of the Anglo-Saxon tribe for three main reasons.

First, AUKUS is a slap in the face to Japan and India, which previously joined the U.S. and Australia to counter China in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad. To them and other Asian nations, it should hopefully be the final reminder that there is no power-sharing with old imperial Western powers and they will always be viewed as second tier friends of convenience.

Second, it is a reminder that the West pulls off geopolitical moves like this because it harbors an anachronistic sense of superiority over others and retains privileges from its colonial exploits and setting up the “international rules-based system,” which it seeks to often credit for the peace, prosperity, and interconnectedness we see today. This lends Western nations the carefully crafted moral high ground, which they extensively leverage in attempts to convince the world that their actions are justified because their worldview is righteous – despite having committed centuries of atrocities in the drive to colonize and dominate the world.

The final reminder concerns the West’s inability to deal with contests to its power. The fundamental thing to question about AUKUS is the assumption that China is a country which needs to be “constrained.” Why is this? The fears of the West are not the fears of the rest of the world. Yes, China can be accused of some aggressive behaviors, but it hasn’t committed the atrocities that Western nations have – it hasn’t invaded any countries (unlike the U.S.), started any wars, or sanctioned other nations resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The reason is that for the first time in two to three hundred years, the West is having to deal with the rise of a world power, and a non-Caucasian one furthermore, that can challenge the status quo.

What is ironic is that the West asks the rest of the world to support it in containing China, being oblivious to the fact that the world has been under the Western yoke for so long. Not everyone in the world shares the West’s view of China or for that matter supports its aggressive and destructive approach to relations with Iran and North Korea. Global diplomacy needs a new approach and it cannot be one where the West, led by the U.S., in its arrogance believes it has to take the lead.

I’d like to address the issue of “countering China” or the “China challenge” more directly. You write: “At the global level [White privilege] is seen in the actions of the U.S. and its Western allies to contain the rise of other economies such as China.” This ties into a theme often raised by China’s defenders, that U.S. criticism of China is imbued with racism. There is a central truth to this, but there are also real problems within China, eloquently spoken and written about by Chinese citizens themselves (including those belonging to marginalized ethnic groups like Tibetans and Uyghurs, as well as the Han majority). How can we address the issue of racism in U.S. foreign policy without going to the other extreme: claiming that any criticism of China is inherently racist?

I agree that it is a central truth that racism exists in U.S. foreign policy – and given its role as the global superpower as well as its reckless track record of “all options are on the table” diplomacy and using them destructively against non-White populations. But this hard truth is rarely acknowledged in international commentary. Calling for recognition of this does not mean this conversation exists solely at the extremes, i.e. saying that all criticisms of China are racist.

In fact, moderate conversation is precisely what is needed, because at the moment it is severely lacking. No one is saying that China has no internal problems – it absolutely does, just like all countries. After all the subjugation of minorities in the U.S. is centuries old but no other country seeks to intervene in its domestic affairs nor does the international community feel it can call for sanctions against the U.S. because of its war crimes in the Middle East.

But the real question is: Why is China made public enemy number one by the West and why must its peaceful rise be “countered”? Countering the globally destructive military expansion of the U.S. was never the subject of an international discourse let alone within the media in the West. Why are China’s internal issues so frequently conflated to a failing of its entire governance system and even its culture? Are the rest of the world to really believe that Western politicians care about Chinese people or Muslims for that matter?

So why does commentary of this nature proliferate on a daily basis? That is the question that needs to be asked and the book argues that it has roots in racial superiority, which in turn is tethered to the need to maintain economic hegemony. And the irony is that the so-called free media in the West has aligned itself with Western governments in this cause, which is telling as it reveals the racial nature of the so-called need to constrain China.

There is so much else happening in China that is worthy of headline news. President Xi Jinping announced last year that China successfully uplifted up to 800 million people from poverty alleviation, but this is hardly discussed, when it is in fact one of the greatest human achievements of the last few hundred years.

By focusing solely on specific criticisms, Western commentators are betraying their racism and also nurturing racism against an entire people – and completely being oblivious to it by masking it with geopolitical interests. This is responsible for the surge of attacks against people of Chinese origin in the U.S.

This is dishonest and immoral because the rise in anti-China rhetoric we are seeing is so clearly linked to the preservation of Western power. And because of the West’s premier position in the global ranking and the power of its global media, the whole world is subject to the projection of the West’s moral high ground, which masks its deeply held racist views. Constant judgements of “we know best” is the height of superiority rooted in a sense of racial superiority.

You devote a chapter to the role of White privilege in sports, and the Olympics is a good example – the brainchild of a Frenchman based on an interpretation of ancient Greek traditions, now become the premier international sports competition. Yet, at the same time, despite steep opposition and anger against China hosting the 2022 Games from many in the United States and Europe, the IOC has refused to budge. What’s your take on this dynamic, where the inherent Western-centric nature of the Olympics – and especially the Winter Olympics – is being overruled by the IOC itself?

The position taken by the IOC should be normal behavior and is the right one. The point is that a group of countries from the Anglosphere are once again using their sense of privilege to hurt a rising non-Western power. The same occurred during the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. It’s true that the Olympics are a Western invention but the fact that to this day it is controlled by Western institutions and people who inevitably make rules to favor the West (as I argue in the book) should be questioned and exposed.

In the 21st century, with all the grand posturing about social progress, inclusion, and diversity, it is high time the West understands the Olympics is for the whole world, not just for the West. The opinions of Western countries should not carry more weight in an international body than the combined opinion of over a hundred others, the global majority.

With regard to the Beijing Winter Olympics it is not necessarily the case that the IOC’s actions are simply motivated by “doing the right thing,” or are somehow more aligned with China or the West. Simply put, it’s a business decision to keep the games going. The IOC knows that acting on the performative demands of a small but powerful cabal of Western nations will result in China withdrawing from future Olympics, will be unfair to all the athletes, anger many countries and sponsors. Lose China and you lose one of the largest sports markets in the world. The global brands – the largest of which are Western and who have large commercial interests at stake in the games proceeding and in China as a market – will not let that happen.

Another chapter deals powerfully with the harmful impact of Western dominance in pop culture, from music to television and film. Do you see the mainstreaming in the West, particularly the United States, of Korean alternatives – whether BTS or “Squid Game” – as a promising sign? Or is the “Korean wave” itself a product of Westernization, as you argue for Bollywood?  

Yes and no. Yes, because there clearly is a new wave of culture that is spreading from East to West in ways that doesn’t really occur besides some Japanese entertainment – and these are melding with modern, youth culture in the West to create something entirely new. Indeed, having views of Korean culture through the Korean lens (rather than Western interpretations) may very well be helpful in spreading cultural awareness.

But there are three reasons why it’s not as promising as one might hope.

First, Korean entertainment is a small – albeit bright – star amidst the sea of Western media that dominates screens the world over. After all, if you look at the various lists of “most highly paid musicians and actors,” they are invariably Western (mainly American, exporting cultural norms that are in many ways damaging to other cultures but not even considered as such in the West) with only Korea-based BTS ever gracing these lists.

Second, the rise of “Squid Game” and other Netflix-based TV series are often at the invitation and economic interest of Netflix – so the choice is a Western economic decision (this is less true of K-Pop) – and reinforces a point in the book that global recognition, whether in movies, music, literature, or fashion, can only be achieved through Western channels and driven by its economic interests. And what that ensures is that one needs to produce goods and services that appeal to the lowest common denominator of Western sensibilities, meaning you have to be Western enough in your outlook even in the creative industry. Be too Black, too Indian, or too Muslim and you are out.

Lastly, it is undeniable that Korean culture is deeply imbued with Westernization, which is perhaps a contributing factor to its success in reaching Western audiences. Very little of what is exported from and is successful in the West in terms of music has roots in traditional Korean culture. After all, many of the stars of Korean’s entertainment scene feel compelled to carve their faces and lighten their skin in an attempt to look more White: Seoul is the plastic surgery capital of the world, with over one in three young women going under the knife, including for operations for both men and women to artificially create a “double-eyelid look,” i.e. the rejection of their Asiatic epicanthic fold in favor of Caucasian eyelids.

One stumbling block for efforts to fight against White privilege, particularly in the music, film, and fashion industries, is that many leaders speaking out against Western norms and ideals in these fields are in fact using that argument as a shield for their own homegrown misogyny. I am thinking in particular of the Taliban, but there are other, less-extreme examples across Asia – for example, the argument that China’s homegrown feminist movement is too “Western.” How can non-Western countries fight against the assumed supremacy of Western (White) cultural products without falling into the trap of allowing their own governments to be the final judge of what is “acceptable” traditional culture – which usually results in restrictions on self-expression for marginalized groups, like women, the LGBTQ community, or ethnic minorities?

This is an important question, because it goes to the heart of everything we have been discussing. It is about the supposedly “universal standards” that have been set by the West. If these standards are not being met in other countries, then the assumption is that these countries are morally beneath the West, not modern, or, as a worst-case scenario, require intervention – this is what weaponizing universal standards looks like.

While it is of course the case that criteria such as International Human Rights are the gold standard in how each country should treat its citizens, it is not the case that there is just one route to reach these standards, nor of interpreting them in different cultural contexts.

Yet, if anyone outside of the West speaks out against the use of Western-originated universal standards, they are quickly branded as human rights abusers. This occurs despite the fact that Western countries host their fair share of people with different interpretations on rights – just take a look at the U.S. and its recent abortion debate.

Additionally, the issue is not solely about governments deciding what is acceptable. It is a common mistake to assume that standards within a non-Western country that don’t align with Western standards are somehow being enforced by morally bankrupt people in leadership positions, and there is no denying that there are many of them. It is this line of thinking that enables White Savior Syndrome: “we must save the people of country X from their evil leaders.” This was the same attitude of the colonialists and the missionaries who accompanied them. Civilizing the natives was the rallying call to camouflage the intentions to rape and plunder.

Citizens of nations around the world who have experienced colonization and exploitation are well aware of these tactics; they have not forgotten, just like Black people in the U.S. Western governments and white savior organizations need to be aware that these issues are much more complex than their simplistic analysis: It’s about people having their own ideas and values embedded at a personal and cultural level, and having the freedom and agency to believe in these things, even if they are at odds with Western standards.

Of course, oppressive governments and traditions exist and they need to be changed. But this is the struggle within and those of us who are willing to join them need to do so in ways that are appropriate and helpful. These are not issues that only the West is concerned about, as is often portrayed, further reinforcing the view that other cultures and people are backward and less caring, which in itself is a racist position. Cooperation and support must be steeped in deep understanding and devoid of the Western “holier than thou” approach which often sets things back, but at the same is convenient for the West in terms of its desire to continue to pontificate and occupy the higher moral ground globally.

As we have all seen there is a price to be paid for imposing different standards on other countries and using approaches that rely on power and punishment. Afghanistan is a classic example and the use of the Taliban as the bogeyman and the liberation of Afghan women as a fig leaf to justify an illegal invasion is part of this insincere and failed approach. Not everyone who takes up arms to fight an invader who represents a different religious and militaristic state, is a terrorist, a Taliban member, an Islamic fundamentalist, or an oppressor of women and girls opposed to education. We can support reform, but it is the height of arrogance to assume that entire nations need adjustment from the West in order to become better and modern.

We have repeatedly seen the failures of attempting to do so – from the colonial period (take Myanmar, which now has the world’s longest running civil war because the British first colonized, divided, and attempted to “civilize” them) through to the Cold War (the strife in Vietnam, where new mothers still have traces of the chemical “Agent Orange” in their breastmilk with no apology from the U.S.), and more recently, the war on terror (with nearly 1 million casualties and Afghanistan left in disarray).

The presumption that all positive social changes are spawned in the West and must be spread to the rest of the world is a White supremacist’s point of view. Social movements exist within countries and move at their own cultural pace with discussions that are appropriate for them – this is what Western nations must provide allowance for given their continuing penchant for interference and domination.

The West must move beyond weaponizing social causes to further the belief in the moral superiority of the West while diminishing the social values, political structures, and cultural norms of other countries.