This the fifth and final guest post in the forum on Duncan Bell’s book: Liberalism and Empire. Richard Devetak is Associate Professor and Head of School of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Queensland, Australia. He has published on the history of international thought, contemporary theoretical debates in international relations, humanitarian intervention, the ‘war on terror’, and globalisation’s implications for justice and the state. His major contribution has been in the area of international relations theory, more specifically in the exposition and analysis of Frankfurt School Critical Theory and post-structuralism. His current research interests include: the history of international thought and the history of the states-system.
Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire is a superb study of liberalism and liberal visions of empire. For its historicization and contextualization of both liberalism and liberal empire, Bell’s Reordering the World challenges many of the theory-driven assumptions that colour contemporary political and international relations theory. Extensive knowledge of Victorian Britain and the intellectual terrain of its political thought enable Bell to cast new light not just on the past, but on our present ways of thinking – especially the ways we try to grapple with the past, deal with colonial legacies, and understand liberalism and liberal world orders.
One of the features I appreciated most about Reordering the World was its will to resist easy (or lazy) theorizing that is intended to advertise the theorist’s enlightened and postcolonial moral superiority over past thinkers. The purpose of the book is not to engage in moral or theoretical self-fashioning; rather, it is to write history – to engage with the past as a historical object of enquiry, not a philosophical or moral one. That is not to say that moral or philosophical registers are entirely absent from the book, they aren’t. But it is to say that Bell does not allow them to overwhelm or pre-empt the historical material or argument. Bell maintains a firmly and unapologetically historical approach throughout. And it is this stance, I suggest, that enables Bell to produce the insights that permit better understandings of liberalism and its colonial legacies.