A few weeks ago, when I checked Twitter and saw that Fidel Castro had died, the news felt strangely distant. True, Fidel was a giant of the twentieth century rather than the twenty-first, but I think that feeling of observing the news of his death from afar had more to do with the fact that we (Cubans and Cuba-watchers, journalists, scholars, beret-wearing backpackers) have already been living with the spectre of his death for so long. And, as he has faced death so many times through the years, the mere fact of his death – now material, tangible – seems hardly enough to stop him from living on.
This is the fifth post in our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics, which will be followed shortly by a response from the author. Earlier responses are here from Naeem, Nivi and Srdjan. This piece expands on, and in some senses muddies, a short review I wrote of the book for a symposium in Perspectives in Politics.
This book is an indispensable and provocative account of the genesis of International Relations in the US as a discipline expressly concerned with the maintenance and expansion of global white supremacy. It is an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how we study world politics, which has thus far ‘disappeared’ racism and racial politics from its foundational narratives.  It seems, this time anyway, that people are paying attention – the book is receiving wide acclaim and attention in the roundtables, symposia and review sections of the very journals, conferences and institutions that constitute the historical objects of its narrative. Does this mean that the ‘rising tide’ of calls for the discipline to deal with its racist foundations are being answered?
We will have to wait and see. Vitalis’s book makes some important headway in that direction but the rearguard is already being mobilised. Gideon Rose’s capsule review for Foreign Affairs, the journal once named for Race Development, perfectly captures precisely how this rearguard can function, in the process re-inscribing the ‘norm against noticing’ the operation of racism and white supremacy in both world politics and the discipline (IR) that claims to study it. Marking the book as ‘flawed’ and ‘political’, Rose accepts that the origins of the discipline were racialized and characterized by discussions about race relations. However, his rhetoric effectively consigns the analytic case that there are continuities in these ideas to a conspiratorial form of politics (attributing to Vitalis, bizarrely, a rather childish view of the US as ‘evil’).
The most prominent of these linkages in the text is Vitalis’s juxtaposition of Lorthrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, which foretold of coming race wars in the twentieth century, with Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations which does the same for the twenty-first (4, 62-4, 177). It is true that Vitalis does not work through a point by point analysis of the two texts; however, it is also equally demonstrated that there are clear overlaps in form and content between the arguments. Both are grounded in the belief in coherent civilizations existing in fundamentally antagonistic relations, of which the white (or Western) is the most advanced and against which others will attempt to rise. For Rose to refuse to acknowledge the argumentation at all, even in a capsule review, seems odd until one reads the same reviewer’s graceful, generous assessment of Huntington’s famous work in the same journal in 2013, commemorating the 20th anniversary of its publication:
The origins of “The Clash of Civilizations?” lie in the conjunction of a special scholar and a special time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington was already one of the most important social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, having authored major works in every subfield of political science. The hallmarks of his efforts were big questions, strong answers, independent thought, and clear expression. The end of the Cold War, meanwhile, had ushered in a new era of international relations along with a host of questions about what would drive it. Drawn, as always, to the major practical and theoretical questions of the day, Huntington set himself the task of limning this new world.
The more he thought about it, the more he decided that most existing analyses were heading in the wrong direction. The future was not likely to be an easy run toward democracy, peace, and harmonious convergence, nor was it likely to be a return to the old games of traditional great-power politics or ideological rivalry. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he concluded; “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. [Rose, Foreign Affairs, The Clash at 20]
What can we make of this? Continue reading
This 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.
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.
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. Continue reading
This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.
Our next guest contributor to the EU forum is Philip Cunliffe. Philip is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent and editor-in-chief of the journal International Peacekeeping. He is co-editor, with Chris Bickerton and Alex Gourevitch, of Politics Without Sovereignty (UCL Press, 2007), and author of Legions of Peace: UN Peacekeepers from the Global South (Hurst, 2014). His most recent book, co-edited with Kai Michael Kenkel, is Brazil as a Rising Power: Intervention Norms and the Contestation of Global Order (Routledge, 2016).
It’s often heard that the European Union (EU) is a peace project – an institution engineered to bring peace, prosperity and stability to a war-torn continent that was at the core of global conflict over the last century. This was the animus behind UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on 9 May 2016, in which he claimed that Britain leaving the EU could lead to renewed rivalries, geopolitical tension and ultimately war in Europe. It is one of the most powerful, popular and enduring claims given in defence of the EU and one that drastically raises the political stakes in the debate over Brexit.
Given that this claim comes from our political leaders, it is a remarkably menacing way of eliciting popular support: Vote for us, they seem to be saying, vote for the European Union, or war will be the result ... That political elites could threaten voters so brazenly while implying their own powerlessness to control the course of events at the same time speaks to the strength of popular (mis)conceptions about the origins of conflict in Europe.
This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.
Our next guest contributor is Toni Haastrup. Toni is Lecturer in International Security and a Deputy Director of the Global Europe Centre at the University of Kent. Her current research focuses on: the gendered dynamics of institutional transformation within regional security institutions especially in Europe and Africa; feminist approaches to IR; and the politics of knowledge production about the subaltern. She is author of Charting Transformation through Security: Contemporary EU-Africa Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and coeditor, with Yong-Soo Eun, of Regionalizing Global Crises (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
One key aspect of the EU referendum debate has been the rise of competing narratives about Britain’s role in the world inside and outside of the EU. On the Brexit side, campaigners argue that escaping the EU would revive Britain’s standing, allowing it to reconfigure relations with Europe, strengthen existing non-European partnerships, and forge new ones. These claims rest on a series of self-delusions about Britain’s capacity to unilaterally set the terms of its international partnerships. Brexiteers willfully ignore those prospective partners who say that a post-Brexit UK would be a less attractive partner. Their narrative seems to rest more on imperial delusions than solid ground – and it is hardly a narrative appropriate for a truly democratic, internationalist country.
A Part of Europe, Apart from the EU: What is Possible?
Pro-Brexit campaigners often suggest that if the UK were to leave the EU, it could fashion a new kind of relationship with Europe similar to the one Norway enjoys. Norway is viewed as a country that has maintained its sovereignty while remaining a close partner of the EU.
But of course, Norway is different. It is a thriving smaller country that is dependent on oil reserves that are much larger than the UK’s. Further, Norway negotiated a very specific entry into the European Economic Association (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). If the UK was to depart, a relationship with the rest of western Europe especially in the context of EFTA is possible, but it is not automatic. Further, a relationship between the UK and other countries that currently exists only in the context of a regional EU relationship will have to be renegotiated, with no guarantee that the UK will indeed be better off outside the EU.
Those in favour of staying within the EU, or Bremain, thus rightly question this narrative as one that is based on uncertainty and the UK’s self-imagining, rather than the realities of the international environment. The idea that Britain would regain its sovereignty way from the EU is a myth whose consequence even the Norwegians warn against.
This is the first post in a Disorder forum on the EU referendum. Click here for the forum introduction with the links to the other posts.
Our first guest author is Christopher J. Bickerton. Chris is University Lecturer in politics at POLIS and an Official Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He has taught at Oxford, the University of Amsterdam and Sciences Po in Paris. He is author of European Union Foreign Policy: From Effectiveness to Functionality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford University Press, 2012) and, most recently, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (Penguin, 2016). Chris is a regular contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and The Wall Street Journal, and has written for the Financial Times, New York Times and Foreign Affairs.
When I am asked to describe the EU, I often say that it is a bit like a mirage. We all know how a mirage works. From far away, the image is clear and strong. As you get closer, it starts to wobble and shimmer until eventually, it disappears.
The EU is like that. Seen from national capitals, from London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Bratislava or Madrid, it looks clear and distinct. It has its own institutions, its own buildings, even its own legal order. It can punish national governments for over-spending and close national banks. But as you get closer to Brussels, this image begins to wobble. Finally, when you are really up close, it disappears altogether.
What is left are our own national leaders – Merkel, Hollande, Renzi, Cameron – taking decisions between themselves in meetings closed to the general public. We also find our own civil servants and fonctionnaires filling the Thalys trains, the TGVs and the Eurostar, travelling from their own capitals to Brussels to take part in working group meetings that craft and shape EU legislation. Some power is delegated to EU institutions but it is closely policed by member states.
Traditional EU institutions, like the European Commission, have lost much of their power in recent decades, with a leading role played by the European Council which is made up of heads of state and government. Even an institution like the European Central Bank, with its shiny new headquarters in Frankfurt, is far weaker than many think. Its new powers were foisted onto it by national governments keen to distance themselves from the responsibility of solving the Eurozone’s economic and financial crisis.
Looking at the EU as a whole, we cannot say that it stands above its member states, dominating them and issuing orders that national governments must comply with. In fact, the EU is these member states. But why doesn’t it look that way? Continue reading
A timely guest post from Jesse Crane-Seeber. Jesse grew up in the woods of Ithaca, New York where he graduated from a democratically run public alternative high school. After a BA in “Resisting Hegemony” (a major of his own design) at Ithaca College, he earned a Ph.D. in International Relations at American University. His dissertation ‘Making War’ analyzed the occupation of Iraq in terms of how U.S. soldiers’ negotiated and made sense of their surroundings, their missions, and the people they tried to help and/or harm. His research involved participant observation, living with military families, analyzing official documents, and sifting through hundreds of hours of soldier-uploaded video content. He teaches at North Carolina State University, and is currently finishing Fifty Shades of Militarism, a study of the fetishization of all things military in the contemporary United States. The views in the post are those of Jesse Crane-Seeber as a private citizen and do not reflect those of North Carolina State University. Obviously.
“coming of age during the plague
of reagan and bush
watching capitalism gun down democracy
it had this funny effect on me
– Ani DiFranco, Your Next Bold Move
In recent months, the United States has seen a substantial rebellion against Hillary Clinton’s status as heir-apparent of the Democratic Party. Combined with the contemporary Republican Party’s confusion about whether to embrace regime change, free-trade, or multilateral institutions (even those like NATO that secure US hegemony in the world), the current election cycle offers US voters an unusual set of choices that may not be fully appreciated by those caught in the horse race and name calling of an expensive election.
It is normal to be cynical about what any individual nation can do, never mind a particular leader. Technological change, ecological collapse, international regime complexes, not to mention economic activity, all help explain the limits of what any nation can do. But the President of the United States is not a generic national leader. As the chief architect of the post-World War II political and economic order, the US retains outsized influence, even as we reach peer-peer levels of economic output with the EU and China.
While Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders voted alike 93% of the time they were both in the Senate, the contrast in how they might impact global politics is much, much larger. One oft-repeated critique of Sanders has been his lack of foreign policy experience, knowledge, or, well, policy. As Ignatius put it, “Foreign policy is the hole in Sanders’s political doughnut.” Several enterprising writers reached out to foreign policy and IR scholars sympathetic to Sanders’ campaign for comment, while a few political scientists have directly addressed the nature of a future Sanders Administration’s foreign policy.
As a critic of the Washington/New York policy expert class and the ways that US Political Science reproduces and authorizes it, what I find troubling is not what ‘experts’ have been saying, but what they haven’t. With the exception of Charli Carpenter’s embrace of Sanders’ willingness to acknowledge what he doesn’t know about foreign policy, all of these commentators seem to reduce US foreign policy to positions on which countries to bomb, (and maybe relations with Israel). More than once, he has been characterized as a ‘realist’ against Clinton’s hawkish liberal interventionist instincts. While that is basically fair and correct, even if the meaning of ‘realist’ in policy debates has little resemblance to the theories I teach under that name, this discussion has been far too narrow. Just this week, an open letter by 20 ‘foreign policy experts’ has explicitly endorsed Sanders’ approach to foreign policy. Going beyond the standard arguments (which I detail below), they draw attention to a wider range of issues that Sanders can lead on. While their arguments and my own line up fairly neatly, it’s important to have a bit more of an extended discussion of the issues involved than their short statement allowed.
Yielding to the dominant view, if only for a moment, I turn first to the Democratic candidates’ approaches to national security and armed force.