Landmarks and warning signs

4 April 2024, 1000 EDT

This landmark special issue on ‘Race and Imperialism in International Relations,” marries two interconnected but independent developments. Firstly, there is an upsurge of mass resistance to racist violence, to imperial wars, particularly in this century, referred to as ‘endless wars.’ Secondly, there is a stronger tendency within academia, including in a reluctant and resistant International Relations (IR) discipline, to conceptualise, research and empirically establish the significance of inequality, race and colonialism in the making of the international system and, indeed, a global order in which non-Western powers are increasingly significant. Both point to a legitimacy crisis at the heart of established Western power including its knowledge institutions.

However, the development also warrants issuing a warning and acknowledging an omission. The warning: the special issue’s concerns could easily be a passing ‘fad’ as the forces of the status quo bide their time. And, a focal point on race, necessary as it is, could elide class and material factors’ influence on world politics. Both points are developed below.

The establishment is paying attention

There were previous glimpses of the relationship between the two developments in mass politics and academia. But the immediate conditions for this special issue were created by the explosion of worldwide protest in the wake of the police murders over the past decade, but especially of George Floyd. Traditional academic journals like Security Studies, for example, initiated efforts to cover race issues. There was a significant and rapid response across public opinion, questioning the nature of policing, the symbolism of colonial statues and flags, among other things. Numerous institutions and corporations moved to uphold ‘brand’ credibility in face of their implication in enslavement. The far-right US Republican party lost corporate donors for its racist positions (but has since won most of them back).

Knowledge and political life have always been connected including in the production of knowledge that questions, resists, challenges, and is linked with activism and spontaneous uprisings. This is especially key today, within a legitimacy crisis only further deepened by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Elision by acknowledgement; plausible deniability via footnote

This helps explain why International Affairs, founded and enmeshed in the material and ideological structures of colonial power, inside the liberal-establishment think tank, Chatham House, published such an indictment of the hierarchical international system. International Affairs bridges the divide between academics and journalists, civil servants, MPs, students, and an attentive public. Its reach is wide and deep, suggesting that this special issue may leave a lasting legacy and inspire further investigations.

Beware superficial conversions

As Acharya argues in his contribution to the special issue, however, “It is important that this moment not be passed over as a fad, something…you lean towards…in a tokenistic kind of way.” This reflects how power frequently works: In the immediate wake of mass protests, liberal-democracies adapt, accommodate, assimilate, and domesticate. Beware gutting of the core of a radical idea, retaining the shell, yet persisting in little-changed pragmatic practices.

And those signs are already apparent, including close to home with key IR academics who lean in to accommodate the rising crescendo of recognition in academia and elsewhere of race, violence and empire.

One example suffices to make the general point: Princeton’s Professor John Ikenberry. Compare and contrast his book, Liberal Leviathan (2011) with A World Safe for Democracy (2020), which indicates a shift in liberal thinking in regard to race, empire, colonial violence, the periphery-versus-the core. However, it is a form of gloss, because ultimately, none of those factors shift liberal-internationalist theorising. Elision by acknowledgement; plausible deniability via footnote. The theory cannot actually accommodate that new evidence – hierarchy and violence annihilate ‘Long Peace’ ideology. The depth at which established theories are embedded in institutions and elite networks – think tanks, foundations, government agencies, and the IR ‘canon’ in graduate programmes – is so great that it is virtually unalterable, especially if left in the hands of those who guard the gates.

And take the European Union (EU), a pillar of liberal order, specifically the head of its foreign and security policy agencies, Josep Borrell. In the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, Borrell condemned racist violence, called it “an abuse of power” especially in a liberal democracy. Two years on, Borrell’s speech to the EU’s Diplomatic Academy is textbook colonial racism. The EU, he noted, is an attractive “garden” threatened by “invasion” by the global “jungle”. “The gardeners have to go to the jungle. Europeans have to be much more engaged with the rest of the world. Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us, by different ways and means.” But we must avoid the taint of “neo-colonialism”, he suggests, while promoting that very thing.

And yet, there are resistances and movements that refuse to accept the status quo. The iron law of oligarchy meets the iron law of democracy. Academic and political resistance, however, must also take into account how class and race inter-relate to create racialised-class structures, legacies of colonialism impacting race as lived and thought about, but also influencing the very class-based neoliberal institutions that created wider inequalities of income, wealth, and power. Kojo Koram (2022), Quinn Slobodian (2018), and David Vine (2020), contribute to such analysis.

For Koram, the after-life of empire is more than racism alone, highly significant though it is. He argues that, historically, “racism grew out of colonialism, not the other way round.” The colonial system of “armed robbery,” also left a legacy of “legal and economic structures [that]… still drive our world.” Even as it receded, the British empire waged a “counter-offensive” that continues to influence “how global capitalism operates today.” The end of empire was also a period of transition to an even more resilient form of hierarchy, operating as an engine of broad-scale racialised-class inequality. This is, as Stuart Hall argues, class as lived through the prism of race.

Responsibility of scholars

So, what is our responsibility as scholars? There are numerous opportunities, including supporting mass movements for radical change. But there are options closer to home, including through the Research Excellence Framework’s Impact agenda. REF incentivises linkages with policymakers, practitioners, media, and mass movements. It can also work to reform the school curriculum, a major problem due to the relative absence of race, empire and colonialism in standard syllabi. REF provides an opportunity to change what and how it is taught, by producing and promoting research-based educational materials, to assist teachers (and examination boards) to overhaul the curriculum.

But ultimately, there are two forces, both incredibly powerful. On one hand, the persistence of racialised and imperial thinking, and power structures, and on the other outbreaks of resistance, which persist because there exist aggressive, violent, oppressive hierarchies, with real-world effects.

A courageous move

The special issue is a courageous move by the International Affairs editor, Andrew Dorman, and his team. My own work in Chatham House archives includes uncovering its racialised-class and imperial thinking from its origins in the Round Table imperial movement, role in founding IR, in policy-planning in World War II and Cold War, and confronting the global colour line partly through its Board of Race Relations (BRR).

Expect a long-term war of attrition punctuated by periodic offensives

Chatham House is publishing a centenary volume which includes the study of race, war and empire/commonwealth, a welcome willingness to risk discomfort with the findings. As part of the scholars’ group the editors (Christopher Hill, Michael Cox, Caroline Soper, Alex May) have assembled, my contribution (with Bamo Nouri) focuses on the BRR. The corporate and US foundations-funded BRR was a racialised-class-based initiative to prevent the fusion of anti-racism, anti-colonialism and communism (class power) in world politics, fearing it would destroy Western supremacy. Ironically, due to a mass-members rebellion, the BRR (by then called the Institute of Race Relations) transformed into a (cash-starved) Marxist, anti-racist organisation, which still exists today, publishing a radical academic journal, Race & Class.

Knowledge is Power

Ultimately, powerful knowledge institutions and their leaders, with corporate and state donors, are unlikely to change in any thoroughgoing way. We should expect a long-term war of attrition punctuated by periodic offensives from those who reject the meaning of the colonial past, its attendant racist and classist legacies. They understand how that past directly influences the present and future. The battleground is the broad swathes of the people whose knowledge/ignorance of history is primed, framed and shaped by the corporate media representations of history. But, undoubtedly, the current crises of economy and state legitimacy are deeply rooted in the very entrails of empire, neo-colonialism, and ongoing global power shifts.

There is a revolutionary struggle in progress in the realm of thought, political economy, and geopolitics. The challenge is to develop a counter-hegemonic theory, alliances, and movement to promote a radical shift in the climate of opinion as a precursor of deep and thorough-going change in the direction of racial and class equality.