On reckoning and repair in the international: revisiting imperialism and race in IR

5 April 2024, 1030 EDT

Two years after publication, we are in some position to assess how the Special Issue has been used by scholars, teachers, and students, and the kind of impact it has had so far. It was one of many parallel projects at the time that helped to cultivate a space for deep theorising on the role of race and colonialism in contemporary issues; we especially wanted the special issue to push beyond short-term reactions to the shocking and heinous murder of George Floyd in the United States in May 2020. Students and scholars were able to use the Special Issue as a tool to elicit ongoing conversations on race and colonialism in their institutions and classrooms in contrast to the instrumentalist tokenism widely on display in the summer of 2020.

Second, the Special Issue helped to connect the important, existing theoretical work on race and imperialism in International Relations to the research on foreign/security policy (subfields that have not sufficiently been brought into dialogue), and in so doing encouraged continued efforts at theorising and historicising the relationship between academia, theory, and policy.

And third, the special issue called for a re-evaluation of who and where we draw our scholarly theories from. As noted in our introduction to the symposium, we argued that scholars ought to expand how knowledge is understood and should incorporate grassroots and marginalised theories and practice in our knowledge production – there has been some evidence that this brief was embraced through, or at least was reflective of, greater awareness of the need for community-building and dissemination outside of academia.

And yet, while these short-term contributions have been worthwhile, there remains a continued concern and challenge that with greater attention paid to race and imperialism in IR, these issues will become co-opted into the game of academic production, sanitised as intellectual curiosities, instead of being treated as matters of life and death that need to be opposed practically and not just on paper.

Meaningful reflections, sustained recovery

Picking up on this danger, Inderjeet Parmer in his piece expresses concern at the incapacity of liberal internationalism to embrace the normative positions and theoretical innovations from postcolonial, anti-racist and decolonial scholars in the field. As Inderjeet notes, this resistance, described as a business-as-usual posture, employing “elision by acknowledgement” and “plausible deniability via footnote”, produces merely shallow inferences to the colonial problem without engaging with it on a structural and holistic level. 

Similarly, Oumar Ba questions the motivations behind recent acknowledgments of colonialism in world politics within prestigious journals, prompting reflection on whether conventional publishers have done enough to provide space for critical race and post/decolonial work.

we sought to push against the notion that racism and imperialism were either domestic issues or practices of the past

As its outgoing Editor Andrew Dorman acknowledged in the original call for  special issue proposals in 2020, International Affairs has not been immune to that charge. Despite the association and its historical genesis, the journal International Affairs has of course for years been editorially independent from Chatham House, and our special issue was a beneficiary of that independence. What needs recognising, without an obvious solution, is that the path of any institution may ultimately hinge on who makes up those organisations, where necessary epistemic and cultural changes that better reflect an evolving world are made or even reversed as a result of personnel.

As we have seen, agents matter when it comes to resisting ‘faddism’ just as much as structural change.

These are necessary and critical enquiries that, two years on, facilitate the type of reflection and accountability needed to avert the complacency and short-termism so often seen with recurring disciplinary ‘turns’ in IR. For this reason, the special issue sought to point not to mere instances of racism and colonialism, but to explore the entire architecture in International Relations as one intellectually built on the conditions of empire.

The theories and concepts that dictate the “state system” as “anarchic” and “self-interested” served, and continue to serve, the purpose of imperial administration, to govern so-called inferior races alongside the management of resources extracted from their indigenous homelands. And although the immediate catalyst for the Special Issue was the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, of central importance to us was to render that moment legible intellectually in International Relations beyond the historical event by situating it within a wider scholarship on race and empire. As we witness the ongoing horrors of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, it is painfully brought home to us that race and empire continue to structure global events, with multiple themes and cases raised in the individual articles in the Special Issue directly relating to the catastrophe in Palestine.

the impulse to ‘include’ should not serve superficial representational motives

As guest editors, we sought to push against the notion that racism and imperialism were either domestic issues (often interpreted as relating to the United States) or practices of the past. Instead, the articles all illustrated contemporary international relations as steeped in (interconnected) colonial afterlives; and interrogated how those afterlives are sustained. Moreover, we wanted the Special Issue to be a continuation and recovery of the scholarship that preceded us, but much of which had been marginalised.

Some parallels can be drawn with the recent and laudable Women in Historical and International Thought project; as one of its authors, Kimberley Hutchings, recently explained, many of the women profiled in their anthology did see their ideas receive acclaim and attention in mainstream scholarship as recently as 50 or 40 years ago, but they were actively written out of the IR or political theory canon through erasures in textbooks, hiring practices in academic departments, and refusals to cite.

We should not, therefore, assume when past scholarship is overlooked or has been forgotten that it is simply because it has organically fallen out of relevance. There is at times a conscious effort to exclude or occlude. Thus, we wanted to ensure this pattern was overturned with the Special Issue, and to see that the rich scholarly inheritance on matters of race and empire continues to be passed on. In this way, our aim was for the Special Issue to be a part of a long history of existing scholarship on colonialism and race; and for it to provide further momentum for future research and discourse as part of this trajectory.

Academic-policy nexus as intra-elitism

Oumar and Inderjeet’s invitations to reflect on the long-term possibility of this project points us to think constructively on two main issues.

The first issue is the value of institutional pushes to carve out spaces of inclusion and participation for those who have historically been marginalised and excluded. The merit of such projects invokes much larger projects of inclusion at the international level, and turns us to Patrick Quinton-Brown’s concerns about the continuation of a “state-centric society” via the illusion of inclusivity – a theoretical move from neorealism to English School that encompasses states and people from across a transnational elite, including from the Global South.

the intellectual edifice of IR is built on the conditions of empire

The question becomes whether the state, inclusive of contestations, revolutionism and reform, as he sees it, can be emancipatory. Recent scholarship shows how historically the postcolonial state, in particular, as a vehicle for self-determination, was imagined but unrealised, even though others hold that there was radical potential in the developmental state. And yet Patrick’s scepticism is important and relates to Martin Bayly’s warning against the “territorialising [of] race and coloniality” that “obscures the mobility of social hierarchies”.

The impulse to ‘include’ should not serve superficial representational motives (the expansion of ‘International Society’ feigning equality but still upholding a hierarchy warns against precisely this) but rather should be to assert the dignity of the lives of marginalised peoples and to pursue a more just world. The adjacent and automatic result of this is, happily, increased rigour, richness, and depth for the academic discipline.

Patrick’s society of multi-ethnic transnational elites and Martin’s transhistorical conceptualisation of racism are helpful because they identify the mutability of race, its direction of travel across geographies, temporalities, societies, and ethnicities, and its intersection with class. It reaffirms the necessity to ever-ground inclusive practices that give credit and attention to those who are racialised or marginalised, whether they have access to state power or might be outside of the academy producing knowledges in forms that may not traditionally be recognised as ‘scientific’.

Indeed, Oumar rightly highlights that one of our main goals and hoped-for takeaways from the Special Issue was to move away from the need to ‘bridge-build’ between academia and policy-makers, and recognise that both groups can, as Oumar notes, “at the very least be described as bedfellows”, putting into question the entire notion of an ‘ivory tower’. If, then, academia (or notable segments of it in IR) has never truly existed separate to policy and practice, perhaps the concept of ivory tower should be discarded altogether and replaced with the more expansive and collusive notion of intra-elitism, as Patrick alludes.

Lina Benabdallah further challenges the ‘bridging the gap’ discourse, agreeing with our contention that the gap has never really been between academics and policy-makers, but, she adds, has instead existed between academics and the ‘real world’, which does not necessarily equate to the policy world (indeed oftentimes it is anything but). It is the ‘outsiders’ beyond the intra-elites of academia and policy who have greatest potential to offer ways of knowing and being that might reconfigure a deeply flawed system of politics and knowledge production – a system that provided cover to policymakers in legitimating incessant violence, premature death, and theft as common-sense, normalised and therefore inevitable.

Incompleteness, Inclusions and Omissions

On this subject of who is allowed to be included in knowledge production, Patrícia Nabuco Martuscelli identifies the historical challenges facing scholars and practitioners from marginal backgrounds and the Global South who have challenged both intellectual and material imperialism, but which has often been occluded in our knowledge production. Where we depart from her position however is attributing the incompleteness primarily to the linguistic divide and instead recognise the political economy of knowledge production.

the problems of IR are not merely lack of inclusion

Silvia Rivera Cusicanqu is clear in what she sees as scholarship in the global North, including critical work, selectively incorporating ideas and approval of scholars and research foci that may be seen as ‘trendy’ (temporarily at least) but which are conveniently depoliticised.  This selectivity might also extend to policymakers from the Global South and might not present as strong a legitimation crisis as suggested by Inderjeet. The rise of Global South actors and the shift towards a multipolar order does not necessarily signal an undermining of current norms of the modern-capitalist order; rather we might be witnessing its entrenchment albeit with new interests, demands and alliances, via the concept of  “diversity regimes” – this provides a means for thinking about how legitimacy in world order is sustained through embracing a degree of cultural diversity.

An acceptance of difference is a direct response to the challenge of political authority, yet is limited to subaltern groups that remain amenable to the current order, in turn offering them some control over its reproduction. These accepted subalterns as “authorised forms of difference” thus enable, in reality, a means of continued control while implying the initiation of new social and political hierarchies. So as Lina rightly notes, the problems of IR are of inequity and cultural illiteracy, not merely lack of inclusion, and these extend to who gets to be identified as legitimate producers of knowledge in the first place, how we understand different traditions, and who is entrusted with the crafting and executing of policies.

In the midst of such reflections and efforts to widen inclusion, the Special Issue too fell short of our ambition to curate a truly global issue on race and imperialism by the absence of South America, both in terms of a case study that illuminated its rich history but also in terms of the contributing authorship, a point rightly noted by Patrícia in her remarks.

Even in this (unanticipated) omission, we were poignantly reminded of the inequalities and losses of knowledges continuously reproduced by global, class, racial and gendered inequalities: our original contributor from Brazil, an independent scholar unaffiliated with an academic institution, sadly had to pull out of the Special Issue due to several bereavements resulting from the COVID pandemic.

Another contributor, a junior scholar from India, similarly had to withdraw against the backdrop of COVID, bereavement, and political instability in her province. While the Special Issue was catalysed by explicit racial injustice in the US, it is also a registering of (and inadvertently still a product of) the implicit, deeply embedded racial logics in uneven accessibility to healthcare, education, and economic and political welfare, across the globe.

Grounding theories in Praxis

Which takes us to the second issue of how to present intellectual challenges through the construction of innovative methodologies, theories and concepts that are grounded materially. Intellectually, it involves identifying and shifting not just Eurocentric but indeed racist theorising that are conceptually incapable of addressing its limitations as theories that are steeped in logics of empire; materially, it means engaging with practical efforts to promote a more just world not just within but beyond the university – arguably the pursuit of justice and emancipatory politics need not require a choice between theorising and praxis, especially if one sees the two as mutually constituted.

On this point, we find Heloise Weber’s point of disarticulation exercised through theories of development useful; Heloise argues that development theory allows the ideology of Western white supremacy to remain unbothered while permeating policy options faced by developing countries. The recent FCDO White Paper for International Development for example, speaks of debt sustainability and transparency; yet very little is remarked on pathways including debt relief and cancellation, especially for debts incurred under colonialism. At most, there are mentions of possible guarantees for temporary suspensions of debt payments in the event of a natural disaster. Which is ironic since the matter of loss and damages is overshadowed by prioritising financial deepening through leveraging and de-risking activities. This ultimately places debt-burdened and financially vulnerable countries at ever greater risks. The mismatch between well-intentioned (or rather well-packaged) theory and its eventual co-option into upholding the status-quo is a perpetual feature in both academia and policy.

We must take alternativity and the need to decentre as the departure point

Operationally, the shift away from narrow productions of knowledge involves publishing practices, organizational leadership, expanding institutional space as well as adopting an operationalized suspicion that encourages the ongoing task of unsettling, disrupting, and uncovering norms and problematiques in International Relations.Attempts to banalise such efforts through never-ending metrification now also need resisting. To Inderjeet’s point on the Research Excellence Framework, the research body has admittedly done well to respond to some of the criticisms of narrowness within its “environment” criteria to include contributions to the advancement of the discipline which can include but are not limited to non-conventional research, allowing for a collaborative and community-building endeavour. Yet what remains clear is that REF cannot be divorced from the neoliberal logics of a deepening (and suffocating) bureaucratisation of the university.

This aligns with Heloise’s contention that a meaningful inclusive political project “cannot be on the terms of colonial capitalist logics”. Government funding allocation and the continued prioritization of quantifiable performance outcomes incentivises short term, uninventive work at the expense of subversive or abolitionist research.  Research (and researchers) who challenge hegemonies, whether in policy or academia, and who are not invested in deference or conforming to the status quo, are less likely to be recognised through funding or awards or rankings; so what does or should that mean for the intellectual currency afforded to these narrow markers of merit?

IR reimagined: repairing the wound of colonial violence

We conclude our response with the question of repair.

As established, the intellectual edifice of IR is built on the conditions of empire and this foundation has enduring significance for how we teach, research and impact world politics today. So, what next? In such vein, it is not enough, as Lina contends, to construct a Manichean system in our syllabi with “real” IR on the one hand and “postcolonial” IR on the other, which simply reproduces the notion that alternativity is peripheral or an afterthought. We must take alternativity and the need to decentre as the departure point to reflect on the contestations that are inherent in a world of diverse actors, interests and ways of being – this also includes Europe, and means attending to its occlusions, margins, or imperialist underbelly.

Should the goal be to repair or to rebuild from anew?

As such Gurminder Bhambra’s “connected sociologies” approach is useful for how we teach and research in the discipline as a means of reconciliation and repair: to consider the colonial encounter as one that compels us to read Europe alongside the world’s majority communities, but to go even further and to rebuild and restore those communities that were fragmented under colonial subjugation; to repair the wound of colonial violence, in its multiple forms. This approach opens up the teaching and research agendas of IR to new actors, ideologies, traditions (often outside the discipline) for example, Garveyvites, Ch’ixinakax utxiwa, dhrama, or Palestinian artists and witnesses, who sit in parallel to the well-trodden ideologies of socialism, communism, and liberalism.

This approach also demands that academics stop being lazy and start to scrutinise their citational practices: persistent reproductions of academic hierarchies and hegemonies by drawing upon narrow bases of scholarship that lack ethnic, gender, regional, institutional, or non-canonical diversity are increasingly jarring and inexplicable for a discipline with the word ‘international’ in it.

Besides these ongoing challenges in reaching or including marginalised or non-traditional writers and readers inside and outwith academia, the wide and diverse engagement and feedback received has been encouraging, with the readership and conversations going well beyond the typical audiences interested in theories of race and empire, ranging from grassroots communities to thinktanks.

The fact the Special Issue was also launched in Chatham House, not historically associated with a critical perspective in IR, has given permission and license for those who may have been concerned that discussing issues of race or empire would be deemed niche or ‘radical’ by their peers, to confidently bring these issues into their own research. Our hope is that this special issue has played a small role in bringing IR theory into alternate spaces in a way that is accessible and recognised as applicable to the real world. The goal here was not to save IR and make it more relevant for the sake of the discipline, but rather to expand the interaction with critical theorising, or border thinking, that originates with and supports those from the margins but also offers fresh insights for a broken political framework.

Relatedly, Oumar poses a valid and important challenge in response to our call for ‘repair’ in the conclusion of our introductory article: should the goal be to repair, if what is being repaired was faulty to begin with (assuming it is the discipline of IR)? Or should the goal be to rebuild from anew?

This speaks to an important debate – both strategic and ethical – between decolonisation and abolition; given the ongoing atrocities in Gaza, and the repeated failures of international organisations, states, and a whole host of other institutions to apply the very same laws, treaties, and codes of conduct they claimed to establish, this question is more pressing than ever. This query enables us to clarify that our call for repair was not necessarily targeted at IR per se, whose gates we wish to see removed and its imperialist edifice dismantled; but rather ours was a call to repair the material/physical damage and epistemic injustice inflicted on multiple communities across time and place due to the collaboration of academics and policymakers. As such, academics, as equal participants in that mess, carry a direct responsibility in the need for redress. Collectively embarking on epistemic justice, then, is a small and incomplete effort, but still a necessary starting point.