Regardless of the centuries of work by white western scientists that has led us to believe whether in the tradition of international relations (IR), history, philosophy, or the life sciences, the race is not based on any particular “truth”. Instead, race is constructed socially. People with common biological, historical, and / or cultural traits are grouped together and referred to as a particular “race” (Henderson, 2017). Such racial differentiation serves as the basis for the oppression of groups of people, which we know today as racism. In contrast to individual “discriminatory” racism, in practice racially motivated hierarchies cement throughout the political world at home and abroad (Henderson, 2017; Henderson 2015; Henderson, 2007). DuBois’ concept of “color prejudice” is an early theoretical exposition of the structural aspect of racism as it describes racial institutionalized power (Du Bois, 1925: 442). This review will use DuBois’ concept in conjunction with the aforementioned definitions of race and racism to identify, deconstruct, and criticize the racist logic underlying mainstream IR.
IR graduates learn to combine the discipline with a handful of theories that diachronically dispute some aspect of the fundamental nature of the international system in so-called “big debates” (Carvalho et al., 2011; Thakur et al., 2017)). The paradigms that typically take center stage in these “big debates” are liberalism (and its many varieties), realism (and its many varieties), and constructivism. Together they make up the “big three” and will be what will be referred to as “mainstream IR” in this review ”(Hobson, 2012). I am not going to focus on any particular variation of realism, liberalism, or constructivism, but rather identify broad theoretical assumptions that all of these theories and their sub-schools subscribe to. First, this recap will outline the early IR’s theoretical focus on race and empire, and how they were deliberately removed from the canon. Second, using Critical Race Theory, I see the underlying racist logic of popular notions of anarchy and sovereignty. I will then look at the implications of these concepts on popular theories about the causes of international conflict. In conclusion, I will summarize how these racist assumptions lead to the building of Western civilization as a panacea for international conflict.
P1: Colonial origins of the IR theory
Before we begin our analysis, we need to consider the overwhelming absence of colored people (POC) in IR as professors, PhD students and / or researchers, and the impact of this absence on the construction and dissemination of knowledge in IR science. The white of science leads to racist prejudice in the construction of knowledge, as white perspectives and ideas are more strongly represented than their non-white counterparts (Vitalis, 2015). Mills attributes such a racial bias to what he calls it epistemological race contract (1997: 17), where white is constructed as “factual” and everything that tries to deviate from it does not conform to the standard of academic rigor. This tendency pervades all levels of the political system, from individuals to national to international institutions (Henderson, 2015). The following section describes the historical origins of the racial bias in the attempt by the IR and mainstream theorists to hide it.
1.1 The creation myth
IR is perceived as a highly specialized field within political science that focuses on the nature of relations between states, the origins of interstate conflicts and cooperation, and the structural and regulatory principles of the international system (Ashworth, 2014). It is said that these are the specific focuses of the IR as the discipline originated from the WWI wreck. In this creation story, IR theorists are positioned as humanists whose interest in state relations arose from a virtuous attempt to prevent carnage like that of the First World War (Carvalho et al. 2011). Despite the persistence of this myth, in reality the IR emerged in the decades before the war out of concerns about international conflicts sparked by imperial competition and racist tensions in the colonies (Du Bois 1925, 1915; Hobson, 2012; Vitalis, 2015) ; Thakur et al., 2017; Ashworth, 2014). Theorists sought to “improve” political theories based on philosophical and historical analysis by applying scientific methods to arrive at ultimate political “truths” about the international order (Ashworth, 2014; Morgenthau, 1954). This positivist trend in early international theory can be traced back to the popularization of scientific racism, which led theorists to base their ideas of the international system and theories of colonial expansion on the biological “superiority” of the white race (Anievas et al., 2015); Hobson 2012; Vitalis, 2000). Thakur et al. (2017) point to the importance of the colonial states of the white settlers as centers for the creation and implementation of theories. For example, South Africa’s apartheid policy was a global inspiration for the policy of segregation. Contemporary academic journals such as Foreign Affairs and RoundTable emerged from the tradition of promoting positivist IR with colonialist goals (Anievas et al., 2015; Thakur et al., 2017). Since its inception, the IR theories have moved away from their association with scientific racism, in line with the anthropological turn from biology to culture as determinants of race. However, much of the underlying logic associated with scientific racism has been preserved (Boas, 1911; Hobson, 2015).
1.2 The deliberate deletion of Race and Realm from the IR
The deletion of race and empire from the canon of IR theory was not accidental, but of great strategic importance (Thompson, 2015; Vitalis, 2000; Vitalis, 2015) because of the acceptance of scientific racism and emerging taboos about open white supremacy declined in the west (Mills, 1997; Vucetic, 2011). Furthermore, scholars in the interwar years believed that by veiling the racist hierarchies of world politics in a peaceful step towards less recognizable racist logics of humanism and equality between men, racist tensions could be reduced (Boas, 1911; Henderson, 2017). This idea was expanded in the post-war years into a liberal world order based on humanitarian principles of equality for all people and the right to self-determination, which is anchored in international institutions such as the UN (Hall & Hobson, 2010). Thus began the transition from openly white supremacist theories dealing with racial relations to theories dealing with abstracted “structures” and “power relations” (Henderson, 2015; Anievas et al., 2015).
Mainstream IR also has a rich intellectual tradition of Black American scientists who have historically centralized the race, excluded from formal IR science (Vitalis, 2015). The most obvious example of such obliteration is the marginalization of Howard School students, a group of black intellectuals that included W.E.B DuBois, Alain Locke, and Merze Tate, by established IR scholars of their time. For example, Tate has been systematically denied publication opportunities by popular contemporary IR magazines (Vitalis, 2015). The IR’s Howard School dealt with the criticisms of white supremacy and biological racism that had permeated mainstream IR, as well as the development of groundbreaking theories on imperial competition, international conflict, interdependence and development (Du Bois 1925, 1915 );; Carvalho et al., 2011; Henderson, 2015, 2017). However, this radical theory of racism as an international structural problem came under attack in the context of the Cold War during McCarthyism and the US fight against communism. Black scholars have come under immense pressure from journals and scholars to define racism as an internal “domestic” problem that the US had to overcome rather than an international problem related to American imperialism (Vitalis, 2015: 158; Doty, 1993). Unfortunately, this pressure eventually led to the decline and marginalization of this important school from the theoretical canon of the IR (Vitalis, 2015). The Howard School’s early and seminal contributions are discussed in the following section with reference to the IR’s general assumptions about sovereignty, anarchy, and the nature of interstate conflict.
P2: Theorising of the international state system
Sovereignty, defined internally as state power within and over its territory and externally defined as the supremacy of the sovereign state in the international arena and the equality of sovereignty between nations (Ashworth, 2014). Sovereign states are represented in all current IR theories as the main actors in the international system created by the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 (Ashworth, 2014; Morgenthau, 1954). In realistic traditions, the sovereign power of the state trumps the power of international institutions and non-state actors in any situation, since their power depends on the authority of the former (Hobson & Sharman, 2005; Waltz, 1979). . Their position in the international system is so taken for granted by mainstream IR that they are perceived as a natural feature of the system (Ashworth, 2014; Carvalho et al., 2011; Henderson, 2015).
Classic contractual partners agree that sovereignty is a prerequisite for political existence when men leave the state of nature by building a sovereign authority based on “equality among men” and binding them to rules and norms. However, they conceptualize men (or people) as white (Mills, 1997). The separation of whites and POCs in theories of sovereignty enables the creation of a hierarchical society in which whites have a right to equality and are dependent on the theory of democratic representation. However, POC are wholly or partially excluded from these benefits (Mills, 2017). This production of racial dichotomies, which whites privilege domestically through POC, is reproduced internationally (Henderson, 2015; Mills, 1997). Racist sovereignty materializes in the international arena mainly through the lack of recognition of the sovereignty of racially motivated political groups (Nisancioglu, 2019; Vitalis, 2000; Mills, 1997). The transfer of a racized hierarchical concept of state sovereignty to the international arena questions the concept of equality of sovereigns and fundamentally questions the anarchic nature of the international system (Carvalho et al., 2011).
The same racist processes and myths that underlie the building of the sovereign state have guided the theory of anarchy in the international system, since sovereignty and anarchy are a constitutive phenomenon (Ashworth, 2014; Carvalho et al., 2011). Anarchy is essentially a lack of formal hierarchical structure and centralized governance in the international arena; It creates a self-help system in which the sovereign state is the ultimate authority and behaves selfishly (Sampson, 2002; Hobson & Sharman, 2005; Waltz 1979, Mearsheimer, 2001). Anarchy as currently conceived in mainstream IR is based on what theorists have termed “tropical anarchy” (Sampson, 2002; Henderson, 2015). The concept stems from the theories of scientific racism that those native to “tropical” climates are generally inferior to those native to “temperate” European climates (Hobson, 2012). The defining features of “anarchy” in current IR theories and the anthropological representations of “primitive” pre-colonial societies in Africa overlap considerably. Both are conceived as decentralized systems in which units (states or people) behave selfishly according to their self-interest (Henderson, 2015; Sampson, 2002). This perception of “anarchy” as “primitive” is most evident in Realism’s dull and uncompromising view of anarchy (Morgenthau, 1954; Waltz, 1979). Waltz has gone so far as to explicitly mention racist anthropologists like Nadel, Durkheim and his seminal A Theory of International Politics (1979), which relies heavily on Nadel’s structural-functionalist theory of categorizing “primitive” societies (Sampson, 2002).
2.3 – Effects on current theories of international conflict
The poignant dissolution of anarchy and sovereignty by critical racial theory poses a threat to the mainstream theories of the IR on the causes of international conflict driven by the anarchic nature of the international system and the sovereignty of states (Mearsheimer, 2001; Waltz, 1979). Du Bois, in his seminal works “The African Roots of War” and “Worlds of Color” is one of the first to develop the idea that it is not anarchy or sovereignty, but the imperial competition between European powers, who drives the international conflict, for example the driver of the First World War. Not only does he focus on imperial competition, but he also identifies what he calls “color bias,” one of the earliest theoretical representations of structural racism, as the rationale for imperial competition (Du Bois, 1925). Mainstream theories do not explain the causes of international conflicts because, unlike Du Bois, they do not view the concept of race analytically and as a structural feature of the international system that can motivate and shape the interests of states (Vitalis, 2000).
Conclusion: Western civilization as a “solution” to anarchy?
The racist history of anarchy and sovereignty is obscured due to the high level of abstraction and value neutrality enshrined in mainstream theories. The reproduction of these racialized dichotomies, however, has political implications, particularly the spread and dominance of Western notions of “civilization” in development rhetoric and relations with the “Third World” (Hall & Hobson, 2010; Hobson, 2012; Shilliam; 2008). Western civilization has been and is viewed as the pinnacle of evolution and the hierarchical political system, the preferred and indeed the only form of civilization to be promoted and imitated (Henderson, 2017; Hobson, 2012).
Back to Mills earlier epistemological race contract, The contractual provision that white is privileged in all aspects of social life influences the dominance of Western values and their perception as universal principles in the international community (Mills, 1997; Henderson, 2015). So-called “universal” principles were codified in our international institutions in the form of international law and what constructivists would call common norms (Shilliam, 2008; Cox, 1981). These norms are inherently hierarchical and serve to spread a western (white) world order and at the same time serve as a “strategic” justification for neo-imperialist expansion under the guise of “humanitarianism” (Vitalis, 200; Hobson, 2012, 2017).
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Written To: University of Edinburgh
Written for: Andrew Hom
Date written: 11/2020
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