This is the second post in our book forum on Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. The first post by Duncan can be read here. Dan Gorman is Associate Professor in History and Political Science at the University of Waterloo and Director of the PhD programme in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. He is currently working on a project which assesses the role of the UN as a venue for debates over decolonization from the end of WWII to the early 1960s.
Duncan Bell has packed a career’s worth of work on the intellectual history of Britain and its empire into the last dozen or so years. His recent collection of essays, Reordering the World, considers the intellectual attempts by British liberal thinkers (mostly, though not entirely, Victorians) to reorder the international system through empire, and the means by which they justified and rationalized their ideas. The essays republished in the volume have been updated to account for more recent scholarship and the evolution of Bell’s thought. They are joined by new essays on the “dream machine” of liberal imperial thought and on the Victorian imperial publicist J.R. Seeley, whose book The Expansion of England (1883) is the exemplar of Victorian liberal imperial boosterism. Reordering the World is not just a “scholarly greatest hits”; rather, its finely-grained and astute essays are united within a common field of interpretive focus on what Bell terms the “pathologies and potentialities of empire.” (2)
Despite imperialism’s central role in nineteenth century political discourse and world affairs, as well as its influence on the creation of the discipline of International Relations (IR), it has been conspicuously understudied by political scientists. In a discipline that continues to position the nation-state as its theoretical alpha and omega, an examination of the constitutive role of imperial variables such as race and “civilizational” hierarchies has been left to exceptional studies by scholars such as Robert Vitalis, David Long, and Brian Schmidt whose work seeks to “desegregate” IR and reveal its imperial origins. Yet, as Bell’s essays demonstrate, nineteenth century international relations was in many ways about imperialism, and empire remained (and, in the eyes of scholars such as Jeanne Morefield, remains) a salient category of international politics well into the twentieth century. The “imperial turn” in historical scholarship, meanwhile, has in a rich irony colonized much of the historical discipline over the past several decades. Bell’s scholarship is so rewarding in part because he seeks to identify connections between imperialism and the disciplinary history of international relations.