Language in International Relations

Written by James Lo

This is a post on how different languages used in International Relations can explain the same phenomenon but invoke different thoughts in the reader. Today I will compare terms in English and Chinese explaining the same scenario – when power is disproportionately concentrated in one country. In English, IR theorists use the term “unipolarity” to describe this power distribution. This term is most commonly used to describe US power post Cold War, with US dominating the international sphere both in terms of economic and military might. In Chinese, the term「單極霸權」is commonly used to describe the same scenario.

I have only come across the Chinese term recently. Most of my studies on International Relations have been in English and it is only currently in the third year where I can specialise in various countries and regions. I came across the term “單極霸權” when I discovered the book「大國關係與中國外交」. The English version (Great Power Relations and China’s Diplomacy) was cited in one of my readings and my dad managed to find a Chinese copy of the book. I opted for the Chinese version because I believe that I can more easily understand the points that the author makes in the original position than through a translation.

So why am I doing a comparison between the two terms? In my studies and classes, the word “unipolarity” is mainly used in a descriptive manner. It is used to describe the power distribution in the international sphere, and does not seem to impart any judgement on the power distribution. However, the Chinese term, when I first came across it, differs on this point. The phrase「單極霸權」for me has negative connotations. In particular, the phrase 「霸權」has connotations of tyranny and abuse of power. Although it does describe one entity holding a disproportionate amount of power, I interpret this phrase as more imposing and imparts a negative judgement on the entity. I found this interesting as they are both terms referring to the same phenomenon. This may act as a reflection on how Chinese scholars view the current power distributions within the international sphere.

I believe that the phrases we use are crucial as they affect how we interpret certain phenomena within the international sphere and the perceptions that we associate with different actors. When I come across the term “unipolarity” in a piece of literature, I interpret it in a neutral manner. However, the phrase「單極霸權」leads me to paint a negative picture of the country it is describing. This emphasises the importance to extend one’s studies beyond the reading list. It is important to study International Relations in English, as most scholars are based in US and UK. However, you may then gather a Western-centric view of the world. By diversifying what you read, you can gain nuanced viewpoints and enrich your understanding of International Relations.

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