White World Order, Black Power Politics: A Symposium

vitalis-e1458738905580This is the first post in the symposium on Robert Vitalis’s, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). Professor Vitalis (who also answers to ‘Bob’) teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt, was published in 1995. His second book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, published in 2005 was named a book of the year by The Guardian. He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2009), Rockefeller Foundation (2003), the International Center for Advanced Study, NYU (2002), the American Council of Learned Societies (2002), and the MacArthur-SSRC International Peace and Security Program (1998). He was a MacArthur Award nominee in 1998. Below is his introduction to our symposium.


Naeem’s response is here; Nivi’s is here and Srdjan’s is here.


White World Order, Black Power Politics may well be the only book discussed in this symposium series that isn’t primarily concerned with theory, or at least the only one by an author who does not self identify as a theorist, teaching in a department that does not recognize what I do as “IR.”  It is also less an intellectual history, which might allow it to pass as theory, than it is an institutional history. So I am grateful for the interest in it here.

28522646._UY1280_SS1280_That said, it is indeed a critical history. The records of professors, schools, research organizations, and foundations in the early twentieth century United States reveal a past that bears scant resemblance to the “practitioner histories” or insider accounts of great debates invented about the discipline of international relations in the second half of the century, which are the ones most specialists tell themselves and their students until now. In fact, the more I learned and labored in the archives the more I came to see the problem as similar to the one I wrestled with in my last book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. The history that U.S. oil companies invented after World War II about their early and unshaken commitment to a “partnership in progress” with the Saudi people, at a moment when criticism of U.S. imperialism was on the rise in the Eastern Province and across the globe, is the one that books repeated uncritically for decades. The firms’ private records though revealed a dramatically different reality. I developed an account of the exploitative order in place in the oil camps, the racial science that justified it in the minds of the American engineers and managers, and the failed efforts of Arab and other workers to bring about its end. I likened what I did in that book to “reverse engineering” particular processes of mythmaking. I’ve done more or less the same thing for a sector of the U.S. academy in White World Order.

Readers of the Disorder of Things likely will recognize W. E. B. Du Bois’s quote: “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” the earliest version of which appeared in 1898. A century or more later we tend to treat it as a kind of prophecy else an idea that seemingly never gained much traction. Grappling with it thus appears long overdue. Only back then the idea hardly represented the dissident edge of American social scientific thought. Rather it is one that every American professor of the new emerging field of international relations took for granted. “International relations was race relations,” they said. And the problem was the prospect for more or less violent conflict as the “dominant and subjugated races” came into increasing contact. Why? Well, to draw from the book, as the University of Chicago’s Charles Merriam, one of the leading political scientists of the day, explained in 1924, deepening “industrialism” had led to the penetration of the backward areas of the world or the invasion of the tropical by the temperate zone. The result is on the one hand the “harsh jangle of imperialism” and on the other hand the rise of movements for self determination. This was all taken for granted, mainstream social science knowledge. The white professors saw the world the way the oil company executives did, the former producing the theories that the latter turned into policy.

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the paternalism that governed life in their departments and disciplinary organizations, journals, conferences, and the like resembled in part the order that governed life in the camps, even if the practitioner histories take no note of it. Again, as I write in the book, the handful of African American theorists whose careers I trace might have earned PhDs at Harvard and Chicago in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, “thus demonstrating the validity of the laws of race development,” which liberal internationalists back then advanced as assuredly as those who today speak of the “democratic peace.” Those same scholars were then forced into exile in one or another historical black college or university (HBCU), where they had to create their own journals and associations in order to do their intellectual work.


Du Bois had quit his position at Atlanta University in 1910 to edit the Crisis for the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, during which he joined the board of editors of the discipline’s first journal, The Journal of Race Development. Institutionally, conditions grew worse rather than better for the new PhDs hired at Howard University in the next few decades. The “Howard School” theorists nonetheless pushed ahead in challenging the scientific validity of the discipline’s beliefs about superiority and inferiority together with the management strategies–segregation, semi-serfdom, closed borders, disfranchisement, tutelage, and so forth–that these ideas licensed. “Race” was the “strategic rationale” par excellence, to adopt the term that IR professors like to use today, for legitimating exploitation of peoples and expropriation of resources.

White World Order also benefited from my writing about the Arabian American Oil Company or what one U.S. state department observer called “the octopus” and “a disgrace to American enterprise.” It prepared me for the reaction among the true believers once you reveal the struts and bolts of racism that somehow have gone unnoticed. The faithful will often reach for the seemingly exculpatory fact that the ancestors, whose theorizing, I thought, is what distinguishes scholars from others, could not help conforming to then prevailing norms of their time (“Everyone was racist back then.”). The Howard School thinkers were, perhaps, the exception.  Still I offered up what evidence I could find of leading white lights in the discipline actively working to quarantine them and their dangerous ideas about equality, even as or perhaps because the “great continental rearrangement” had begun, which is how MIT’s Harold Isaacs describe the “end of white supremacy in the world” in an award-winning book that no political science or international relations journal chose to review.

The world had changed by the 1960s in ways that leading Anglo-American experts had insisted was impossible. Self determination for Africans would take a century, if at all, they had determined, based on their expert race knowledge. Yet the European empires were crumbling. The newly independent countries in Africa and Asia had turned to the United Nations to condemn U.S. imperialism and the defense of white supremacy in the Portuguese and Afrikaner redoubts found south of the equator and yet, in the latter case, somehow part of the North Atlantic security community.  Strange, no, that the newly self-identified “realists” were all but silent about these matters?  As I wrote, it was “as if department, center and institute heads all had received the same strategy memos as the Anglo-American diplomats charged with depoliticizing these issues.” The profession’s “militant right” was the exception, where defenders of bio-racism, champions of upgraded colonial administration, and opponents of civil rights legislation continued to find a home in such places as Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, the University of Pennsylvania’s Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

I don’t think I fully appreciated the irony until now. The white supremacist’s preferred world order had come undone, even if, as President Barack Obama says, racism is still a problem. Stalwart believers in the absolute difference and separation of the so called races lost battle after battle. The black student movement (and, later, the Ford Foundation’s millions) propelled U.S. colleges and universities into the twentieth century. Yet consider the discipline of international relations in the United States today. It is one quadrant of the academy where black thinkers aren’t taught, where few if any people of color graduate, and where the faculty is overwhelmingly white, with the exception, still, of the HBCUs. It is as if the history I recount, to quote the president, “casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that is passed on.”

There is no denying that White World Order charts the course of discipline building and the intimate relations of the “international” in one place, the United States, even if its scholars and scholarship stray across the Pacific and Atlantic. I wish I could have done more, say, about what private papers tell us about the same decades in London, Oxford, and Cambridge.  No aspect of my professional life gives me more pleasure than working in the unpublished records of people, firms, institutions, or governments (“the archives”), which I first began to do in 1985. The most I managed is to point to promising directions, for instance the early history of Chatham House’s Institute of Race Relations. It takes a great deal of time and money to do this kind of work. I travelled multiple times over some ten years to work in twenty-five different collections, in some cases exhaustively, in others less so. At the same time, as I wrote in my acknowledgments, I have never had as much trouble raising funds, and the large grants came only after a bruising fight on my behalf by individual committee members in one case and the intervention of a foundation trustee in another, for which I am grateful, but the reality is that I received over $100,000 less than the other awardees. The controversy, my defenders revealed, was, no surprise, my claim that African Americans mattered to the discipline’s history.

The resource constraints, methodological demands, and anxieties of one or another disciplinary diehard explain a major part but not all of the variance. There are also the things we know matter that we nonetheless never discuss. In my case my time was limited by the birth of a now almost five-year old daughter, and a long-time 200-mile weekly commute home, where my partner was working even harder than me to support a research program that mattered more than mine. Mortgages, dual careers, children, and many other factors shape the books we write rather than the ones others want.

While not naïve about archives—they don’t speak, we interpret them—they limited my ability to address the important argument about the intersection of race and gender, that international relations theory is, always, both a masculinized and racialized discourse. The texts I studied, the debates I reconstructed, and the professors whose private papers I explored do not support the strong version of this claim. Women’s presumed inferiority did not preoccupy the early international relations professors in the way that the inferiority of non-whites did.  While I am convinced records exist I didn’t find accounts of early white women graduate students struggling for recognition. When were they first admitted into PhD programs in the discipline? I reported what evidence I could (e.g. Charles Merriam’s claims about feminism as a rising force in the world), but my main contribution to bringing gender into the history of the discipline is the account I give of Michigan born, and Oxford and Radcliffe trained Merze Tate, the first black woman to specialize in international relations. I bring her work back into focus but I also report for the first time the ways in which many of her male colleagues routinely demeaned her and persecuted her in one horrific instance, and I narrate a long and failed effort to convince the Howard administration to treat her equitably. The fact is, though, that Tate may well have been the first tenured woman to teach international relations in the United States. We don’t know. No one has tried to answer that question to the best of my knowledge. Since reading the book, Catia Confortini identified an obvious place to look: places such as Wellesley and the other women’s schools.


Merze Tate

My answer to the frequently asked questions “how does this research matter?” or “why should we care?” or “what do we do with it?” (and, of course, “where are the testable hypotheses that derive from it?”) hasn’t changed, really, since I published the early account in Millennium sixteen years ago. The answer depends on an act of conscience, no? In my own case, I have changed what I teach with the goal of bringing students into my classes who don’t see themselves or the issues that most concern them reflected in my department’s course blurbs and reading lists.

One hope is that the book lends material and moral support to the critical international relations theorists who have been working on racism and global hierarchy, including recent efforts to “decolonize the academy,” and that it brings the work to the attention of like-minded thinkers in sociology, African American history, intellectual history, anthropology, and others across the fragmented academy who otherwise might not know it. When I began the book my knowledge of critical IR theory ended with David Campbell’s Writing Security (1992) and Bradley Klein’s Strategic Studies and World Order (1994)—and of course Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas Beaches and Bases (1990), although I was told more than once that the latter “wasn’t really theory.” One of the unexpected pleasures of writing a critical history of the discipline is meeting and reading the theorists who run this site and the allied scholars in Manoa, London, Brighton, Ontario, Montreal, Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, and the District of Columbia. IR theory looks different beyond the walls (and syllabi) of my own department at the University of Pennsylvania. That said, I have left the heavy lifting to you.


2 thoughts on “White World Order, Black Power Politics: A Symposium

  1. Pingback: White World Order, Black Power Politics: A Symposium – Forwardeconomics

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