Closet Postcolonialists? On Buzan and Lawson’s Global Transformation

julianaugust13This is the second post in our symposium on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. We are delighted to welcome Julian Go, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies at Boston University, and Editor of Political Power and Social Theory. Julian’s recent books include American Empire and the Politics of Meaning (Duke University Press, 2008) and Patterns of Empire: the British and American Empires, 1688 to Present (Cambridge University Press, 2011), both of which have won numerous prestigious awards in various disciplines. He is currently working on a manuscript provisionally entitled Postcolonial Theory and Social Thought and a volume on Global Historical Sociology co-edited with George Lawson.

Update: Jeppe’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now also live. Original post here.


In this magisterial work, Buzan and Lawson make two overarching claims: 1. the nineteenth century saw a fundamental “global transformation” in the “international order”, creating the essential aspects of the “global modernity” we inhabit today, and 2. disciplinary IR needs to recognize this transformation and reconfigure its identity and agenda accordingly. As a historical sociologist, I feel less certain about judging the second claim but more certain about the first. Was there a fundamental transformation in the nineteenth century that has shaped our contemporary global modernity? Yes. And Buzan and Lawson painstakingly and persuasively chart this transformation like none other.

What, then, to say about this important book – a book, by the way, which every serious historical social scientist needs to read? A book which, in my estimation, belongs among the great works of historical sociology like those of Wallerstein, Tilly, and Mann? Pushed to say something critical, I will instead say something didactic. More precisely, I will comment on two things: the relative absence of theory and the remarkable presence of empire. Put differently: what is the theoretical frame or theoretical considerations mobilized in the work? And why isn’t empire the fundamental organizing analytic category? Or, put simply: are Buzan and Lawson closet postcolonialists? Continue reading

The Anglosphere, Part Two: Of Liberal Leviathans and Global Turns

Viewed from the perspective of liberal IR, Britain’s globe-spanning empire can be described as “Liberal Internationalism 1.0.” According to G. John Ikenberry, the “liberal ascendancy” had everything to do with the “growth and sheer geopolitical heft of the world’s liberal democracies.” The British may have been the first to harmonize national interest with the stability, openness and rule-following in the international systems, but it was the Americans who “fused” them. “If the liberal order was built after World War II primarily within the West, the end of the Cold War turned that order into a sprawling global system” [1].

The question that has always fascinated me is how we got from Liberal Internationalism 1.0 to Liberal Internationalism 2.0, or how, to freely borrow from Ikenberry, power shifted between two liberal Leviathans, Britain and the U.S. What is puzzling here is the absence of the Wars of Anglophone Succession. Instead of fighting each other at least once or twice, the two empires first found ways to cooperate and coordinate their imperial activities around the globe, then engaged in what can be described as a pacted transition, even as a corporate merger. Here’s one verdict, taken from “The imperialism of decolonizationpiece by Wm Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson:

The British were welcoming the Americans back into the British family of nations and, informally at least, into the Commonwealth . . . [the post-war empire operated] as part of the Anglo- American coalition . . . like a multinational company.

Putting aside the historiography debates about its scope, timing and sequencing, this historical process was no doubt of momentous importance for the evolution of the liberal order, both in terms of the accumulation of hegemonic power, and in terms of social and institutional learning. The Anglosphere, in other words, begins here. So how do we explain it? Strategic calculus and/or a putatively liberal predilection for cooperation, compromise, and conciliation (last word Churchill’s) are only parts of this story, as Charles Kupchan notes in his How Enemies Become Friends:

British appeasement of the United States and the practice of reciprocal restraint that followed cleared the way for rapprochement. But it was the emergence of a new discourse on both sides of the Atlantic – one that propagated notions such as a “shared Anglo-Saxon race” and an “Anglo-American family” – that produced a compatible identity, consolidated stable peace, and laid the foundations for the strategic partnership that exists to this day.

I could not agree more. Racialized identities operate as social structures of power, and this was a time when they explicitly authorized unity and superiority for Us against Them in ways that had profound consequences for the evolution of the so-called liberal international order. Anglo-Saxonism enabled the U.S. and Britain – or their elites – not only to position themselves favourably vis-à-vis each other at the turn of the twentieth century, but also with respect to the rest of the world and in a longer term. The Anglo-American rapprochement was no “global turn” of the sort that Kupchan talks about in his latest book, but it arguably comes close to it in macro-historical term. For one, the paths, pace and outcomes of the 1945-1951 international institution-building spree – that foundation of Liberal Internationalism 2.0 –followed the patterns of UK-U.S. cooperation first established during the colonial wars and near-wars in the 1890s. The much-disclaimed “special relationship” has its origins in this period – something to keep in mind next time we hear that U.S.-hugging remains in someone’s national interest, as General Sir David Richards, the head of Britain’s armed forces, argued last week.

This story I wish to tell can be expanded and contracted empirically (Anglo-Saxonism is dead today, but its effects can be found everywhere from university scholarships to contemporary military alliances) and theoretically (through, say, an account of core-periphery relations that made global capitalism possible), but the main substantive point remains the same, and that is that we cannot fully understand the “liberal ascendancy” without pausing (as Siba Grovogui might say) over the pervasiveness and power of racialized identities that connected Liberal Internationalism 1.0 and 2.0 [2]. Continue reading