Sunday, February 22, 2009
Make it go away posted by Richard Seymour
In an analogous fashion, international relations has been the subject of an energetic white-washing. As a discipline, and as a discourse that frames policymakers' decisions, the problems central to IR have been always been Eurocentric. After all, the obsession with strategies for maintaining an equilibrium between sovereign states, coupled with a tautological reading of the character of such states as 'power-maximisers', has its origins in the writings of David Hume, whose original contribution was to universalise the interests and behaviours of emerging European states. Maintaining that states were sui generis institutions, essentially the same from the Greek city-state to the modern nation-state, and that sovereign states had ontological primacy in world affairs, his narrative rendered invisible that majority of humanity which he, in other writings, racially denigrated.
Imperialism was similarly not among the predicaments of IR when the discipline was launched in 1919, that year of Wilsonian 'national self-determination' (after which colonialism continued to expand, reaching its apogee by 1947). This was not because the institution of race was disavowed. Quite the contrary: global jurisprudence in 1919 was explicitly imperial, colonial and racially-laden. The dichotomy in positivist jurisprudence between civilized and non-civilized states asserted that law did not apply outside the small family of existing sovereign states. The emerging institutions of liberal order were also underwritten by explicit codes of racial solidarity. Woodrow Wilson's remarks on the launching of the League of Nations at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference are worth excerpting:
"We, Anglo-Saxons, have our peculiar contribution to make towards the good of humanity in accordance with our special talents. The League of Nations will, I confidently hope, be dominated by us Anglo-Saxons; it will be for the unquestionable benefit of the world. The discharge of our duties in the maintenance of peace and as a just mediatory in international disputes will redound to our lasting prestige. But it is of paramount importance that we Anglo-Saxons succeed in keeping in step with one another." (Quoted in Naoko Shimazu, Japan, Race, and Equality: The Racial Equality Proposal of 1919, Routledge, 1998, p155.)
This was crucial to Wilson's rationale for rejecting the proposed 'racial equality' clause. Parenthetically, it is only fair to state that any interest Wilson ever had in the idea was circumscribed by his own devoutly held belief in racial inequality, expressed in his support for Jim Crow in Washington, his paternalistic arguments for empire in the Philippines, and his writings on governance and statehood. So, if race and empire were not officially recognised as problems in international relations, it was more because they were taken for granted than because it was necessary to cleanse the territory of such incriminating associations.
Post-war Realism in IR was different. Not by accident or design, but as a consequence of its function, Realism coded imperial pursuits in the language of power-balancing, maintaining an equilibrium between the US and the USSR. Just as anticommunism was the official ideology behind America's attempts to variously manage, curtail, and coopt decolonizing movements, so the sacred Balance of Power was its strategic rationale. If the US sought to repress national liberation movements through the proliferation of right-wing dictatorships, this apparent conflict with the objectives of liberal internationalism could be rationalized as a necessary balance to Soviet assertiveness in supporting Kim Il-Sung, Castro, the Viet Minh, etc. To the extent that decolonization was important at all to Realism, it was only in the sense that European sovereignty was apparently being extended to what is still called the Third World. And once formerly non-sovereign peoples were assimilated to the order/anarchy of sovereign states, their susceptibility to external intervention, exploitation and so on was just one more vista onto the Hobbesian tragedy of world affairs. The dominant ideas concerning order, the sovereign, the international, and so on, were thus gradually expunged of their racial content. The fact that decolonization did not ultimately end relations of dependence or the imposing inequalities of power and resources that were generated by the colonial system could be delicately effaced in the language of development and modernization theory. The fact that a caste of formerly colonial powers still determine under what conditions the sovereignty of a state outside that caste is abridgable, has equally been interpreted as the right of 'democracies' over their 'totalitarian' opposites.
The norm has thus been established that it is bad form to notice how world affairs continue to be conspicuously structured by race. The failure to notice, though, is so laboured, and so arduous, as to demand attention and explanation. There is a whole genre of literature waiting to be written here.