A reckoning with the traditional diplomatic community

5 April 2024, 0930 EDT

There is so much to commend and comment on, but I want to focus this blog post on just two overlapping themes.

The first has to do with intra-elite debates and epistemic communities. Several contributions in the special issue draw our attention to the colonial complicities of universities, think tanks, and journals in terms of training, informing, and otherwise justifying professionals who pass through revolving doors.

The second theme has to do with state-centrism and methodology. IR proves Western-centric and colonial-modern on account of the cases under analysis, but also because it adopts a sanctimonious attitude toward problems and agents that deviate from explanatory models assumed universally valid. In substance and in theory, state-centric analyses are themselves a badly elitist affair, in that they marginalise other sorts of actors, particularly smaller or subversive actors, and preclude engagement with more complex lived experiences.

Both themes are extremely important. But it would be too quick to dismiss the intra-elite community of statespeople as merely complicit. For there are revolutions, even there, that desperately need to be re-theorised and which expose a real arc of international justice.

To illustrate: in his piece Randolph Persaud shows how multiple prominent academics, by either advising higher offices of the United States or holding those offices outright, have defended empire and neo-empire in languages of liberal internationalism. If disciplinary IR serves an ideological or discursive function in favour of hegemonic liberalism, to what extent does this depend on the centrality of the state in our theorising?

the state-centric level is conceivably anti-colonial and anti-hierarchical

Articles by Kwaku Danso and Kwesi Aning, as well as by Somdeep Sen, advise against state-centrism on account of explanatory weaknesses and normative implications. Weberian notions of the state monopoly of violence, for instance, betray a kind of methodological whiteness when they frame studies of security in Africa and the Sahel region as deviant from the ideal-type state. And by sanctifying the state and its violence as normal or natural, while targeting insurgent politics as unnatural or a source of insecurity, scholars replicate in contexts like Palestine a logic of colonial counterinsurgency.

All this deprives the agency of other producers of knowledge and political action, including women and people of colour (compare with for instance Althea-Maria Rivas and Mariam Safi’s piece on the organizing and practices of Afghan women in peacebuilding). De-centring the state, it so often seems, comes hand in hand with de-centring a Western-dominated colonial modernity.

The state reconsidered

These points have been persuasively made. But I do have to wonder: is there not some more concentrated defence still to be made of the state level and more traditional states systems?

Again that is not to say that the above sorts of arguments do not hold—they do, and they cut deeply in the right sorts of ways—but I am struck by the real possibility that we risk underplaying the role of both governmental and elite institutional machinery in just processes of historical decolonization and decolonizing IR.

We might even put it this way: it is imperative not to see the state-centric level as colonial-complicit in every case, but as conceivably anti-colonial and anti-hierarchical, possibly radically so. Because it is on this level that some of the most influential problematisations of global politics and order have occurred and continue to occur.

Equally, it is important to recognise colonial complicities from below, and support for extreme racism from the bottom—-the most pertinent example is the present-day transnational organising of the far right. Srdjan Vucetic’s article provides one warning along these lines, complicating the binary between the elite and the “masses,” and revealing multiple directions of just knowledge production.

It was after all at the state level that Bandung was organised, the focus of Amitav Acharya’s article on race and racism after empire. It was from sites and summits like these that statespeople have sought to reshape related rules and uproot various hierarchical foundations of global order, particularly since the end of the Second World War.

Consider the institutionalised practices of non-aligned states in relation to subsequent international struggles against colonialism and extreme racism. Relatedly there is the work of the Afro-Asian group and developing-world voting coalition in the UN—in the General Assembly above all, but other UN councils and committees as well (for instance the Special Committee Against Apartheid eventually led by Jeanne Martin Cissé of Guinea, who in 1972 also served as the first female President of the Security Council).

We must revisit how we theorise state interactions

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, in his contribution to the issue, explores related international outcomes in his foregrounding of Africa’s newly decolonizing states in the 1960s and the conception of nuclear weapon-free zones. At some point, stories of global interstate society become stories of contestation, and of revolutionism and reform, that in a broad and international sense must also be called emancipatory or democratic in orientation.

Of course the global South as an interstate initiative is not and cannot be the only configuration of the global South. For one thing, the betrayal of the Third World project is also very much a story of elites and governments, including from within. And a crucial part of the promise and legacy of that project has clearly been taken up by non-elites, non-state organisations, and the grassroots (consider here, for instance, the article by Jan Wilkens and Alvine Datchoua-Tirvaudey and its discussion of Indigenous and community-based organising in defining climate justice and global climate governance).

Still, intra-elite, state-centric society is a strategic front, at times it proves to be the strategic front, and ought to be defended and put to use in the continued development of a global and decolonial turn in IR. Part of that process must involve a re-visiting of what we mean and have meant by those systems and how we theorise state interactions.

For one, analytical state-centrism as a bind is often based on a view of the state as an autonomous entity, rather than on the more particular notion of a global interstate culture and normative infrastructure of statespeople. Such a society or social sphere of statespeople should be understood as interconnected with other social spheres, in a context of imperial-modern rule and global capitalism, but identifiable as a distinct historical community. It must be defined by global encounters with actors beyond the West and the stratifications and coercive dimensions of rulemaking that is central to their critique of world politics. Even more specifically a re-theorising of an elite, state-societal level of analysis must involve greater and direct engagement with intergovernmental geometries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America such as the Non-Aligned Movement.

At the same time it should involve an acknowledgement of the state and interstate co-operation as a presently indispensable component of global crisis resolution not limited to the prevention of catastrophic war. In an era of globalisation in which the sovereign state has decidedly not disappeared, I guess what I am saying is: a focus on states and states-systems in de-colonising IR will never be sufficient, but isn’t it necessary? 

Jasmine K. Gani and Jenna Marshall as guest editors call on readers to draw broadly from anti-colonial practice and legacies in a process of repair. The sort of state-centrism and intra-elite discourse I’ve noted above is of very particular sort and would not be the only tool available in a broader re-making of the study of international relations. But I do think it’s important to recognise: a theoretical and historical reckoning with the traditional diplomatic community is, in some respect, and for the better, unavoidable.