Colonialism in international relations

The January issue of International Affairs explores race and imperialism in international relations, and launches a new series celebrating its centenary year.

Expert comment Published 4 February 2022 Updated 15 March 2022 3 minute READ

It is quite something to be launching the January issue of International Affairs in this, our centenary year. The special issue, guest edited by Jasmine K. Gani and Jenna Marshall, looks at ‘Race and imperialism in International Relations: theory and practice’. 

Both race and imperialism remain controversial and, at times, uncomfortable areas for debate both within academia and in policymaking circles. As such they are frequently set aside and simply ignored.

Jasmine and Jenna have brought together a great collection to help rethink our understanding of international relations (IR). Their introduction to the issue highlights how colonial knowledge flows between academic and practitioner communities, and how we can move beyond it.

Race in the early years of international relations

The collection starts with an important reminder of where we have come from. Amitav Acharya shows how race and empire were at the foundations of the US-led world order and argues for global fight against racism.

Lucian Ashworth later argues that ‘it is not just statues and stately homes that require a thorough reassessment of attitudes to race, but also our understanding of the progression of ideas in international thought’.

Tomohito Baji reminds us that issues of race and imperialism are not solely a Western preserve through his analysis of Japanese colonial policy studies (shokumin seisaku gaku).

Racism shaped the founding of the post-Second World War American-led world order, in which building a global norm of racial equality was neglected.

– Amitav Acharya, Distinguished Professor of International Relations, and The UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance, School of International Service, American University, Washington D.C.

How colonialism impacts our perceptions

Race and imperialism continue to provide a distorting lens through which the discipline views the world. Randolph Persaud traces the continuities between the early theorization of IR in the United Kingdom and the United States, and the contemporary academic/foreign policy/security ‘complex’ dedicated to the maintenance of a hegemonic world order.

Jasmine Gani argues that Western understandings of the Middle East continue to incorporate Orientalist tropes, with academia and think tanks playing an important role in reinforcing this distorted understanding.

Accompanying this Western bias has been the intrusive projection of the modern state as the most effective site for security governance and conflict prevention. Looking at how insurgencies are conceived and countered, Somdeep Sen argues that this state-centrism is an outgrowth of the colonial hostility towards anti-colonial factions.

Uncovering blind spots

The edition also brings to light issues that have been overlooked in IR. Kwaku Danso and Kwesi Aning suggest that Western dominance within IR has resulted in a pervasive ‘methodological whiteness’, which, while eliding coloniality and racism, projects white experience as the universal perspective. Not only has this resulted in disastrous policies in many parts of Africa, but it raises critical questions about how neutral conventional IR and security studies can be as sites for knowledge production and policymaking on African security.

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh reinforces this idea of an African blind spot in international relations theory. He highlights that the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone symbolized both postcolonial anti-nuclear solidarity and nuclear responsibility; thus representing both ‘obedience’ to—and ‘rebellion’ against—global nuclear order.

Finally, using the case study of Holocaust memory in post-apartheid South Africa, Katrin Antweiler demonstrates that there is a dominant Western view of memorialization that has spread globally.

Racism in policymaking today

This special issue reminds us that racism and the legacy of imperialism remain with us today. 30 years ago, Chatham House research director William Wallace likened British foreign policy to a musical tug-of-war between the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and ‘Europeans’.

Srdjan Vucetic revisits Wallace’s thesis, arguing that the possibilities of foreign policy change were always more constrained than Wallace had suggested. This raises interesting questions for a post-Brexit British foreign policy.

Amal Abu-Bakare situates academic–practitioner exchange within a critique of the imperial dynamics of counterterrorism practices. She makes the point that these counterterrorism policies will inevitably fail because of a basic presumption of what it means to be British.

Jan Wilkens and Alvine Datchoua-Tirvaudey address the broader question of the special issue by reflecting on the coloniality of knowledge production in a context of global climate governance.

Similarly, Althea-Maria Rivas and Mariam Safi examine the ways in which the colonial mechanisms of intervention, patriarchy and the global hierarchies of knowledge production worked in tandem to marginalize Afghan women while upholding them as agents of peace.

Finally, Nivi Manchanda and Sharri Plonski examine borders, an area addressed in an earlier special edition, and ask: has Israel’s border become an exportable commodity and who has enabled this ‘achievement’?

100 years of International Affairs

It is our hope that this collection of articles will help challenge existing views and expand our understanding of international relations to be more global and inclusive. As the journal enters its second century, we hope that its pages reflect this goal. You can find out more about the journal’s history and our second century goals in my editorial.

We are also delighted that this issue includes the first of our new ‘Centenary conversations’ interview series. In its earliest manifestation this journal provided a mechanism for those unable to attend meetings at Chatham House to learn about what was said and discussed.

While the journal no longer prints speeches, this new series brings together Chatham House researchers and senior policy makers to discuss issues that will shape the next 100 years of international relations.

The reality is that the WHO was underpowered and underfunded going into this pandemic… there is no question in my mind that it needs new powers.

– Helen Clark, Co-Chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response

Kicking off the series cont.

Kicking off the series is Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, Administrator of the UN Development Programme and now co-chair of a panel reviewing the World Health Organization’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She was interviewed by Robert Yates, Director of Chatham House’s Global Health Programme, on international responses to the pandemic and what needs to change before the next one.

All articles mentioned above are available to download free in the January 2022 issue of International Affairs.