On the Global Entanglements of Race, Empire, and Knowledge

3 April 2024, 0940 EDT

In 1948 the eminent Indian political scientist Angadipuram Appadorai visited the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London to build links and share material with the newly-established Indian international affairs think tank, the Indian Council on World Affairs (ICWA). Behind the scenes British officials were concerned. Appadorai was under surveillance as a result of ICWA’s close links with the Indian independence movement, including those in London. “More reputable contacts,” through Chatham House, were advised. The recently completed ICWA-backed Asian Relations Conference, held in Delhi on the eve of India’s independence had also come under close British scrutiny. The chair of British Commonwealth relations at Chatham House, Nicholas Mansergh, was appointed as a discreet observer to the conference, later reporting his more unvarnished findings to British officials in Whitehall. Some feared that the ICWA and its affiliates would develop into a “pan-Brown v. White movement,” directed in particular against Australia and New Zealand.

Race, empire, and knowledge in international affairs have often travelled together. The return to prominence of race and coloniality in the human and social sciences has brought renewed attention to this. This special issue represents a key moment in this scholarly agenda, in which the editors – through the courage of the commissioning editors at International Affairs – have succeeded in moving the conversation to the pages of one of the bastions of British international affairs expertise. By centering the academic-policy nexus (as the authors term it), this special issue forces this agenda – in a productive way – into the policy space, and addresses the vital question of how we might proceed with, and beyond critique.

Beyond critique: from racism to racialization

I want to concentrate on the historical dimensions of knowledge production in international affairs (and the IR discipline). Decolonial methods, and the bringing of attention to race in knowledge production is necessarily historical. It demands a close re-reading of archives, forgotten texts, and sometimes “canonical” works. As a result, through this special issue and the wider work the authors build upon, we now have a very different understanding of the historical entanglements of race and international affairs knowledge.

We now see not just a racist discipline, but a racialized public policy space

But this in turn raises an important set of questions over the historical evolution of racial hierarchies, and the way they shape the academy, the policy space, and its forms of knowledge over time. As a means of grasping this, David Scott, in Conscripts of Modernity, offers up the concept of the “problem-space”: “an ensemble of questions and answers around which a horizon of identifiable stakes (conceptual as well as ideological-political) hangs.” So we must, as Amitav Acharya urges us in his piece, “incorporate race and racism into the whole framework of how IR and other social sciences and humanities are studied and practiced.” Yet in so doing we might also question a transhistorical conception of race and racism – the benefits of which are demonstrated in these papers.

This special issue succeeds in moving us on from that initial “problem-space” of identifying racism in the foundations of international affairs knowledge, to the more historically mobile identification of processes of racialization – as Robbie Shilliam puts it, “the way in which racist attributes come to determine the everyday meaning and common-sense valuation of an entity or phenomenon.” We now see not just a racist discipline, but a racialized public policy space within which conversations with the IR discipline take place.

We might apply this to the historical recovery of racism and some of the thinkers, concepts, and ideas that this special issue revisits.

Recovery of race across space and time

Luke Ashworth shows how the thinkers of the early twentieth century exhibited racisms in the plural, including Darwinian, biological, scientific, and anti-Semitic variants. The Islamophobia that Amal Abu-Bakare highlights in contemporary counter-terrorism policy debates offers an example of these ongoing variants – and how they manifest differently according to wider “doctrines of power and influence” – as she puts it.

In more contemporary applications, Sjrdan Vucetic (through Stuart Hall) reminds us in his study of the post-Brexit “global Britain” agenda that race and ethnicity shouldn’t be “autonomized” but situated in relation to wider identity formations, with associated knowledge productions interpreted within a broader social and cultural milieu. As Nivi Manchanda and Sharri Plonski show in their piece on racial capitalism and the diffusion of colonial border-making technology, in many of these papers we are often centering not just the historical ontology of race (the idea that the meanings of race  and racism shifts across time and space); but it’s historically situated meanings within a wider assemblage of material objects and socio-political concepts in particular times and spaces.

We also see the way in which alternative knowledge complexes become what Amal Abu-Bakare (through Richard Jackson) calls “subjugated knowledges.” Recovering these becomes vital. In her paper, and those by Kwaku Danso and Kwesi Aning; Jan Wilkens and Alvine Datchoua-Tirvaudey, as well as Althea-Maria Rivas and Mariam Safi, we see the value of recovering alternative positionalities on counter-terrorism, on human security, and on political representation. These point to clear policy implications for practitioners.

But do these insights apply historically? Can we reliably recover the historical infrastructure of racial hierarchies? Does the restitution of the local, the ‘indigenous,” the subjugated, or the subaltern offer the solution to colonised knowledge? Can we assume a correspondence with the “problem-spaces” that motivate our enquiries today?

Between the non-Western and the decolonial

As Tomohito Baji also warns us, in his excellent piece on the nineteenth and early twentieth century lineages of Japanese international relations, “de-westernizing IR historiography may not necessarily lead to decolonizing it.” It is perhaps not a surprise to note the growing imperial (and racial) hierarchies present in early twentieth century Japanese international affairs knowledge production – but we needn’t stop there. The “south seas” imperial imaginative geography described in his paper connected with notions of “Greater Asia” (and more specifically “Greater Japan”) that tied together imperialists and anti-imperialists alike. It resonated with ideas of Greater Britain, Greater France, and Greater Germany (through Karl Haushofer – who spent time in Japan), and intriguingly those Indian scholars – some we might label as anti-colonial activists – who advocated a “Greater India.”

Such examples remind us of the danger of territorializing race and coloniality in such a way that obscures the mobility of social hierarchies. It is not sufficient to trade in the logic of “imperialism over here; anti-colonialism over there” – in fact, to do so would risk viewing the world through a colonial lens. Now that the excellent scholarship represented by these papers, and by others, is available to us, we can build on this by exploring the global entanglements through which racism and colonialism pervades within the international affairs academia-policy nexus. We can see how they evolved through time, but also, crucially, how they were enacted across different spaces.

The point here is certainly not a sort of bland “whataboutism” through which we would look at imperial logics beyond Europe, but a call to expand the historical and geographical horizons of those questions explored in this special issue, to continue the work on Euro-American imperialisms, and consider their connected histories with hierarchies elsewhere. Indeed, a growing problem-space for International Relations scholars concerns how best to understand the new imperialisms of the twenty-first century, their authoritarian cheerleaders, their transnational racist ideologies, and their ongoing practices of historical revisionism.

how should scholars best understand the new imperialisms of the twenty-first century?

So how might we read a figure such as Appadorai? A key player in the Asian Relations Conference of 1947 (which Acharya mentions in his paper as having foreshadowed the Bandung moment of 1955), he appears to be an exemplar of a “decentered” international affairs subject – a purveyor, perhaps, of “subjugated knowledge”, and a victim of racialised knowledge hierarchies. Yet his location in a transnational network of pre-existing international affairs think tanks betrays Benedict Anderson’s portrayal of the “double bind of postcolonial modernity” – a drive to postcolonial modernization tending towards an ironic repetition of colonial power and its forms of knowledge. To read him through the lens of modernity-as-coloniality appears to enact upon him, however, a form of double erasure – his work part of the subjugated knowledge of “non-western” international thought, and yet his entanglement in postcolonial knowledge production potentially read as not sufficiently decolonial.

At the same time, we don’t need to look too much further to see how the “problem-space” he occupied intersected with wider recoveries of visions of “Greater India” that sought to reimagine geopolitical, cultural, and intellectual space in South Asia – which appeared hierarchical at times – some versions of which today serve as a resource for those political constituencies in India who seek to justify a foreign policy programme that is both expansionist and exclusionary.

Problem-spaces, David Scott reminds us, are (necessarily) historical. They shift historical narratives. This special issue has established the value of decolonising international affairs knowledge, and continues the wholesale rewriting of the IR discipline as a consequence. The world doesn’t stay still, and events in global politics surely urges us to apply this vital work to the ongoing transnational and global production of hierarchy, racism, and imperial power.