White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Author’s Response

Bob’s response to Naeem, NiviSrdjan, and Meera completes our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics.

Four critical IR theorists have taken time away from other tasks to read my book carefully, generously, and thoughtfully. What a gift. The brevity of this response will appear stingy by comparison, but I don’t mean it to be. Rather, I am typing with my wrist in a splint, and it hurts, while I am also due to leave in the morning for a two-week vacation. Perhaps there will be another chance to show my gratitude. Many of the questions that Nivi, Naeem, Srdjan, and Meera raise have to do either with the book’s and my relationship to theory or with the limitations of my research strategy, as I anticipated and sought, self-servingly, to head off.

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“But What On Earth Is Whiteness That One Should So Desire It?”

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. [1]  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’).

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

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

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…


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

No Less A Scream For It Being Artful

Naeem InayatullahAnother guest contribution from Naeem Inayatullah to our symposium on Vitalis’s White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s research locates the Third World in international relations through history, political economy and method. With David Blaney, he is the co-author of International Relations and the Problem of Difference (Routledge 2004), and Savage Economics: Wealth, Poverty, and the Temporal Walls of Capitalism (Routledge 2010). He is the editor of Autobiographical International Relations: I, IR (Routledge 2011), as well as Narrative Global Politics: Theory, History and the Personal in International Relations (Routledge, 2016) with Elizabeth Dauphinee. His writing, research and talks can be discovered and devoured at his academia.edu page.

*Update* Nivi’s response is here, and Srdjan’s is here.

When I finished reading White World Order, Black Power Politics, I made three decisions.  I would read the book again.  Not because it is theoretically difficult or jargon heavy.  It’s not.  But because I want to absorb its details, re-orient my body through its revelations, savor Bob’s story telling skills, and anticipate his scarce but nevertheless Pharoah Sanders-esque screams.

In addition, I immediately designed a course titled “Race and IR” around Bob’s book.  The course has been approved and I am scheduled to teach it in September.  Third, I’ve suggested Bob’s name to my best students as someone they might consider as a future mentor in graduate study.  So, boom!  Immediate impact.  Could a book and an author want more than this?  Perhaps not.  Still, I suspect Bob has larger ambitions for this book.  It could change our field, if we are lucky.  Count me in for this project as well.

The importance of Vitalis’ book is easy to articulate.  It demonstrates the racist foundations of our discipline (IR).  Bob recounts the narrative as two sides of one tale.  There is the account of those who theorized and practiced white hegemony.  And there is the story of those who rejected it.  Our origin story is not about the three great debates, not the mythical line of realism going back to Machiavelli and Thucydides, not the immaculate conception of a Cold War politics, not anarchy as the founding condition, and not abstractions concerned with statics or dynamics of inter-state relations. Rather, Vitalis demonstrates, it is racist theories and institutions of imperialism constitute the actual origins of our discipline.

Here is how Bob puts it:

What is new and important in this book is the discovery that the intellectuals, institutions, and arguments that constituted international relations were shaped by and often directly concerned with advancing strategies to preserve and extend [the theory and practice of white hegemony against those struggling to end their subjection.  (2)

But also:

…we can’t understand the history of the early decades of the discipline without understanding the long and globe-spanning freedom movements that are central to its intellectual, social, and institutional development. (9)

Each part of the tale is told in equal measure: the ying and the yang, the force and counter-force, imperialism and liberation. 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.


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. Continue reading

The Racial Empire of International Relations

Primarily, our action is based on national self-interest. In other words, it is patriotic. A certain limited number of persons are fond of decrying patriotism as a selfish virtue, and strive with all their feeble might to inculcate in its place a kind of milk-and-water cosmopolitanism. These good people are never men of robust character or imposing personality, and the plea itself is not worth considering. Some reformers may urge that in the ages’ distant future patriotism, like the habit of monogamous marriage, will become a needless and obsolete virtue; but just at present the man who loves other countries as much as he does his own is quite as noxious a member of society as the man who loves other women as much as he loves his wife. Love of country is an elemental virtue, like love of home, or like honesty or courage. No country will accomplish very much for the world at large unless it elevates itself. The useful member of a community is the man who first and foremost attends to his own rights and his own duties, and who therefore becomes better fitted to do his share in the common duties of all. The useful member of the brotherhood of nations is that nation which is most thoroughly saturated with the national idea, and which realizes most fully its rights as a nation and its duties to its own citizens.

Theodore Roosevelt, The Monroe Doctrine (1896)

Roosevelt’s imperial condescension is but one of the historical anecdotes mobilised in a recent paper by Robert Vitalis to trace the legacy of empire and race in the development of International Relations as a discipline. Although eschewing a direct critique of the contemporary field (since “the likelihood is small that self-identified specialists in international relations will seek out an account of the discipline’s past in a journal that has no standing in the field”), he nevertheless provides a wealth of historical detail on the complicity of scholarly ancestors in ‘colonial administration’ and its attendant euphemisms.

Take A. Lawrence Lowell, a political ‘scientist’ who went on become President of Harvard and used that lofty perch to impose a  dormitory colour bar for freshman in 1915 (and a man now also revealed as the convener of homophobic secret trials). A proponent of professionalised training for colonial administrators, Lowell also set legal arguments before Congress explaining that the requirements of the Constitution need not be upheld in those violently-acquired territories where the racial capacities of the indigenes fell short of proper statehood. And, like a rather more recent over-flattered Harvard globetrotter, he was particularly interested in the wisdom to be gleaned for such bold endeavours from British experiments

Or take the institutional delivery rooms of International Relations itself. At the first ever APSA conference in 1904, ‘Colonial Administration’ was designated one of the five fundamental branches of Politics. One prominent speaker that September was William Frank Willoughby, an APSA founder, its 10th President, and the author of Territories and Dependencies of the United States (1905). He crafted this work in a particularly applied setting (pay heed ye  assembled bridgers of theory and practice), serving as both Treasurer and Secretary of Puerto Rico from 1901-1907. It seems reasonable to assume that auto-ethnographic reflexivity did not feature heavily in his work. A decade later he became director of a new research body, soon re-christened as The Brookings Institution.

And what of our learned fora? Perhaps most symbolically of all, the debates over the proper governing of lesser peoples were carried out in the discipline’s first publication, The Journal of Race Development. It was founded in 1910 by G. Stanley Hall, who headed up a centre on the psychology of the races at Clark University, and who also pioneered the idea that the developmental stages of individual humans mirror the hierarchies of race, with children being to adults as savages are to the civilized. The twist being that in 1922 The Journal of Race Development became Foreign Affairs, still the go-to publication on global ‘administration’ (although this particular legacy is mysteriously absent from its current autobiography).

Several general themes emerge from the detail. First, far from positing states as the central actors of global politics, the comprador intellectuals of the early 20th century saw race, both within and without the United States, as the salient frontier. The earliest IR scholars all included American racial relations (to wit, the Southern ‘Negro problem’) within their disciplinary remit. In a racial supremacist twist on W.E.B. Du Bois’ ‘colour line’ “the world’s biological boundaries mattered much more to theory-building than did territorial boundaries”.

Second, the centrality of race as a category was not a mere function of scientific ignorance. Continue reading