Adam Sandler and the Rise of the Rest: Theoretical Myopia and the Liberal International Order

27 July 2021, 1030 EDT

Like most millennials (especially Jewish ones), I grew up on a steady diet of Adam Sandler. Billy Madison, Big Daddy, Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky, ‘the Hannukah song’—I loved all of them. By age 16 or so, I’d moved on to new forms of comedy (except, of course, in the most substance-fuelled late night watch sessions) but I retained fond memories. I thus transitioned to adulthood with what I felt was an appropriate appraisal of Sandler’s strengths and weaknesses. Still, when listing my favourite childhood movies to my more *cultivated* (ie, academic) interlocutors, I always kept Sandler’s work off the list.

Then, a funny thing happened. In 2019 Sandler starred in the Safdie brothers’ action-packed thriller/drama Uncut Gems and the world seemed to awaken to the fact that he actually had some talent. He was profiled adoringly in the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote of how his “frantic and fidgety performance provides the movie with its emotional backbone.” For children of the 1990s and 2000s, this was not a surprise—we’d seen his range in films like Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People, and Spanglish, and had grown up appreciating his strengths and weaknesses. But somehow it took another two decades for Sandler to earn even a modicum of respect from critics.

The reason for this is simple: Film critics, like academics, typically are not funny people.[1] Though they are given newspaper columns to pontificate about comedy, they are the last people who should be consulted in evaluating what your average teenager will laugh at.

So, what does this have to do with the rise of the non-West?

For decades now, IR scholars have been writing about the rise of non-Western powers (chief among them China and India) through film critic-esque glasses relating to the so-called Liberal International Order (LIO). Funnily enough, though the LIO is a touchstone for many IR theorists, its definition has always been somewhat murky. In my mind, IR scholars typically use the term to refer to a supposed consensus among the elite commentariat and policymakers (especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall) that some combination of electoral democracy, Western-dominated rule-based institutions, and a de facto preference for neoliberal economics leads to an optimally peaceful international arena. Nevertheless, the meaning of the LIO adapts significantly depending on context.

As non-Western powers’ economies and influence have grown in recent decades, IR scholars have continually assessed them by asking to what degree they will either be able to either challenge the LIO as they understand it or adapt to its confines? In other words, IR scholars—most of whom hail from the elite Western social milieu most wedded to and embedded within the LIO—can’t help but analyse China’s potential hegemony or India’s growing scientific and cultural influence via the prism of ourselves.

This tendency abounds in our discipline and thus cannot be blamed on any individual scholars. However, a particularly visible display came with the recent 75th anniversary issue of International Organization—the IR discipline’s preeminent journal—focused on “Challenges to the Liberal International Order.” Though the issue purports to examine the relevance of the LIO in recent years, the issue focuses predominantly on its status in the West and deals only peripherally with alternative emerging forms of power projection and order-building. Its introduction, for example, problematically lumps together the increasing influence of non-Western international players with “nonagentic forces” like technology and Covid-19 in a 3-page section titled “External Challenges: China and Beyond.” In other words, the majority of the world’s population, living in Asia and Africa, don’t even get their own sub-head.

The 16-article issue features only one article focused on the actions and agency of a non-Western power (China) and the potential contemporary relevance of the LIO in the face of such global realignments. Though the piece does an admirable job taking seriously Chinese foreign policy, it nonetheless fails to critically assess the relevance of the LIO in assessing the rise of China (or any other non-Western power). Another widely-cited 2018 IO article similarly assesses the potential for Chinese hegemony solely via public discourse on democracy and neoliberalism in various countries, omitting any consideration of how Chinese hegemony might operate outside of Western preconceptions about international order.

Lest we make the mistake of film critics thinking Adam Sandler ever cared about critical acclaim, I suggest we ask why our discipline proves so ill-equipped to engage with non-Western powers’ influence on its own terms. Why can’t we understand systemic changes in world politics without reference to our own preconceptions of what international order is, where it comes from, and what it should look like?

In practice, this would mean considering the notion of influence beyond the stodgy work of Western elites, questioning how non-Western states project global power outside biased institutions created in the post-World War II era without their input. The most obvious example of this in recent years has been China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which, despite being mentioned only twice in the 400-plus pages of IO’s special issue, consists of approximately $1 trillion USD of new institutions and projects across Asia, Africa and Europe deliberately crafted to project power outside the Western LIO. But critically re-evaluating how IR scholarship considers non-Western power and influence increasingly reveals that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and that influence comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. China, for example, is now responsible for a whopping 28 percent of global manufacturing, while India’s Serum Institute is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, pledging to produce 1 billion doses per year. By deconstructing the false binary between the LIO and its discontents, perhaps we can begin to understand how such trends might constitute alternative forms of global power and influence, as well as how they might contribute to new forms of order.

Now, I am by no means a scholar of China nor can I claim in-depth knowledge of each of the wide variety of ‘rising powers’ this discussion uncomfortably lumps together. However, as an IR theorist who has seen more than a dozen Adam Sandler movies, I do anchor a unique Venn diagram that affords me a niche form of expertise. In fact, in addition to having spent approximately two years researching and reporting in Delhi, I can honestly say that I ‘get’ why Netflix has purchased hundreds of millions ofdollars worth of Sandler films, as well as why Murder Mystery, despite receiving only 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, was the most streamed piece of content on the platform in 2019.

Sitting on this admittedly dumb high horse, I would thus humbly suggest that IR debates about the ‘rise of the rest’ would be wise to consider a broader understanding of influence and power projection beyond the comforts of LIO norms that have traditionally preoccupied Western elite discourse. Doing so will not only make our IR more responsive to pivotal international changes, but also prevent the discipline’s Western biased gatekeeping.

As Sandler sarcastically threatened prior to being snubbed by the Oscars for Uncut Gems, “If I don’t get it, I’m going to f***ing come back and do one again that is so bad on purpose just to make you all pay. That’s how I get them.” As IR scholars, let’s not ignore shifts taking place beneath our noses. Otherwise, like elite film critics, we might be forced to sit through another Rotten Tomatoes 8-percenter like Grown Ups 2.

[1] I say this less as criticism of others and more as critical self-reflection—since entering my PhD program, I have become an increasingly unpleasant dinner party guest.