What is This Thing Called IR? A View from Howard U

This is the fourth post in our symposium on Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s post is here, and Nivi’s is here. Further responses, including from the author are to follow…


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It was a party for DAAD-funded scholars from all over Germany and our hosts at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg invited to us a historical costume play.  It was childish, and therefore well-suited for us international Stipendiat/inn/en, many of whom still struggled with basic German: some students and faculty dressed up as famous scholars from various periods in the university’s 500-year history and said a few things about themselves.  I have now forgotten all of the names but one: Anton Wilhelm Amo. A West African slave of a German duke who in 1734 successfully defended a dissertation in Halle’s philosophy department. The (black) guy who played Amo spoke loudly and clearly, but I recall turning to the (black) DAADer sitting next to me, a fellow poli sci student from France: “1734?” “That’s what I heard, too”, she said, “1734.”

Since this was in the era of the (dial-up) Internet, a few days later I was able to learn more about this Amo fellow, including the details eluded in the university play. Vitalis’ latest book, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell, 2015) is a powerful reminder of another lesson I learned then: that work by non-white scholars tends to be “denied”–that is, ignored, temporized, ornamentalized and outright purged [1]. How many students of international law or of the German Enlightenment today know anything about Amo’s “On the Right of Moors in Europe” (1729)?  Not many given that the essay has been lost to history, probably because its copies were deemed unworthy of those meticulously maintained rare book collections.  And this is a huge loss given the relevance of historical “rights of Moors” debates for the constitution of “Europe.”

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An African-American Social Science: International Relations

This is the third post in our book symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics. The opening post by Bob is here, and the earlier response of Naeem is here. Further responses will follow.


White World Order, Black Power Politics (WWOBPP) was on my reading list before it was released; it had come highly recommended by my supervisor who was then reviewing it for Cornell, it was a on a topic that was close to my heart, and it was written by Bob Vitalis, whose work had been an inspiration to me for years.

And yet I was unprepared for the full emotive and intellectual force of the book. WWOBPP is a genealogy of American International Relations, which it turns out is essentially an enterprise in systematic forgetting, in the writing out of and over an already established body of scholarship in the ‘discipline’ pioneered primarily by a cohort of black academics including Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan and Merze Tate from the 1920s to the ‘50s that ultimately coalesced around Howard University in the US.

The Howard School were veritable trailblazers in all their scholarship as Bob painstakingly documents, but two of their insights stand out for me in particular: (i) that imperialism was the core problematique of IR, that is, the “central problem for scholars seeking to grasp the nature of and threats to the existing world order” (86) and (ii) that racism and imperialism were mutually implicated, that there was an “elective affinity between the concept of race and empire” (87). Together these two insights revealed that international relations were essentially inter-racial relations, and IR a racial science that served as steadfast handmaiden to empire. Continue reading

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.

*Update*

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


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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. Continue reading