Racism and the history of international relations

Amitav Acharya, Lucian Ashworth, Tomohito Baji and Jasmine Gani

A statue of Belgian Soldier Émile Storms vandalized by protesters for his role in establishing the Belgian Congo Free State and participation the atrocities it committed. Photo taken in Brussels, Belgium 2 June, 2020. (Photo by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images).

The January special issue of International Affairs explores the role of race and imperialism in International Relations. In this blogpost, contributors from the special issue outline some of the key ways in which racism has impacted on the history of international relations both within and beyond the academic discipline of IR. Contributors outline the role of race and imperialism in the formation of postwar international order, their erasure from Anglo-American IR’s founding myths, legacies in western policy responses to the Middle East, and ambivalent impact on the formation IR as a discipline in Japan.

How did racism and colonialism influence the formation of postwar international order?

Amitav Acharya: First, we should consider the legacy of racist ideas developed by European and white American societies, leaders and philosophers during the ‘rise of the West’. They viewed non-whites as inferior and a threat to progress and developed racist norms for organizing international order.

For example, Europe’s ‘standard of civilization’ divided the world into civilized white and uncivilized non-white nations. The latter’s unwillingness to privilege western companies and colonizers was deemed ‘uncivilized’, and met with aggression and colonial rule. US President Woodrow Wilson led the exclusion of the racial equality principle from the League of Nations charter. Furthermore, western nations who played a decisive role in the drafting of the UN charter ignored colonialism and racism.

These gaps were recognized by non-western nations with movements and conferences, such as the pan-African conferences and the Asia–Africa Conference in 1955. They challenged white privilege in decolonization, human rights and economic development to promote a more inclusive international order. Indeed, this fight is far from over and calling for more vigilance and anti-racist action on a global basis, instead of being a purely national cause or political fad, remains crucial.

Amitav Acharya is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance, School of International Service, American University, Washington DC. Read his article here.

What are the limits of the so-called ‘realist–idealist debate’ for understanding the founding of Anglo-American IR?

Lucian Ashworth: The realist–idealist debate myth in International Relations is not an innocent oversimplification. The effect of framing past debates as an over-simplified Manichean struggle between realists and idealists has created the illusion that the core concern of international thought has been solely war and security between states. One manifestation of this illusion is that figures before 1914, such as A. T. Mahan or Norman Angell, have been mined for what they had to say on war, and their views on race and empire have been sidelined. Thus, the realist–idealist framing hides the role that race, racism and imperialism have played in international thought. Sometimes the major block to us seeing something that is otherwise obvious — like the role of race in early international thought — is the way we are taught to frame our ideas. In short, the simplification of the ‘realist–idealist debate’ hinders our ability to see how academics on both sides were fundamentally enmeshed in the colonial project and the impact this had on their international thought.

Lucian Ashworth is Professor in Political Science at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. Read his article here.

What role did racism play in the foundation of Japanese IR?

Tomohito Baji: Racism played a deeply ambivalent role in the dawning era of Japanese IR. Indeed, early-twentieth-century Japanese IR practitioners often challenged prevalent Anglo-centric international order. Despite this antiracism, their theorizations of Japan’s then colonial regions, such as Korea, Taiwan and Nan’yo (the South Seas), were often marked by unrestrained racist conceptions. Colonial Policy Studies which formed a key provenance of Japanese IR is a paradigmatic example. Its exponents — including the liberal internationalists Nitobe Inazo and Yanaihara Tadao — resisted white supremacy as embodied in the immigration restriction policies of the United States. However, they simultaneously defended Japanese colonial rule by imposing envisaged racial hierarchies among non-whites. The oceanic imperial hinterland, Nan’yo was a key experimental frontier for their racialized international theories. Like many Western liberal internationalists, who also were the forerunners of western IR, their advocacy of liberal ideals was entirely reconciled with the maintenance of empire and racial discrimination.

Tomohito Baji is Associate Professor in the History of Political and Social Thought at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo, Japan. Read his article here.

What are the parallels between historic orientalism and contemporary western responses to political uncertainty in the Middle East?

Jasmine Gani: The West’s approach to the Middle East has been shaped historically by orientalist and civilisational beliefs, especially since the 18th –19th century. That is, the West saw itself at the top of a hierarchy of races, with non-western societies still in their ‘infancy’ and in varying stages of underdevelopment. The ‘Orient’ was somewhere in the middle of that hierarchy, low enough to be stigmatized as irrational, dogmatic and passive, but high enough (and geographically close enough) to be seen as a military and ideological threat. A belief in the need to tutor ‘backward’ Arabs (and especially Muslims) in the art of statecraft to bring order and civilisation to the region saw the imposition of the European mandate system after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. That desire to mould the Middle East in the West’s own image, alongside a deep mistrust of independent agency in the region, has never fully disappeared. It has been repeatedly manifested via western support for military coups (e.g. Syria in 1957, Algeria in 1992); direct military intervention (Iraq in 2003); debilitating sanctions (Gaza after 2006); or continued support for authoritarian allies (e.g. after the 2011 Arab uprisings).

Jasmine Gani is Senior Lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, and Co-Director of the Centre for Syrian Studies. Read her article here and introduction to the special section co-written with Jenna Marshall here.

This blogpost was commissioned by Joseph Hills, the Digital Content Editor at International Affairs.

All views expressed in this blogpost are individual not institutional.

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