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18.2: Servant of Empire

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  • There is an obvious link between the claims of the signs on Iffley Road and how it is that the voice of authority is used to preserve and sustain social orders. In the Iffley Road case, the claims to authority and the making of history aimed to position British authority in a quickly changing world. After the Second World War, the United Kingdom scrambled to reassert its global positioning in the face of the rising post-war profile of the United States. Roger Bannister’s achievement and the authority offered by one of the world’s great universities, Oxford, was one way to do so. At the time, the four-minute mile was linked to another attempt to reposition the United Kingdom internationally – the summiting of the world’s highest mountain (Everest) by a British-led expedition, which had taken place almost exactly a year before events on the Iffley Road track.

    The dilemma that the British faced in the world was best captured by US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who famously pointed out that ‘Great Britain … [has] … lost an empire and has not yet found a role’ (1962). Although no longer an imperial power, the United Kingdom’s hold on the imagination of the world – and how it is organised and studied, through IR – continues via its culture and language. It appears, however, in some quite perverse ways. This outcome was foretold in the late 1960s by Richard Turnbull, the governor of the colony of Aden (now part of Yemen). Turnbull informed a future British cabinet minister, Denis Healey, ‘that when the British Empire finally sank beneath the waves of history it would leave behind only two monuments: one was the game of Football, the other was the expression, “Fuck Off”’ (Healey 1989, 283). Though a vulgar phrase like this is seldom heard in IR, British cultural imperialism lingers in the discipline, which explains why English is its tongue. In no small part this is because the language of global culture is increasingly English – a fact readily attributed to the global reach not of the United Kingdom but of the United States. This suggests another relationship between IR and modernity. The third instrument of modernity, after time and space, is language. Like the other two, the English language has set the borderlines for inclusion and exclusion in the world and in its study through IR.

    The place of language and culture in fostering international relationships is explained by the idea of Soft Power (Nye 1990). This concept helpfully drew the issue of culture towards the centre of IR but was silent on the dimensions of language. This is because, as we have already noted, English has been proclaimed a ‘global language’ and therefore objective in its views of the ways of the world. But no language is neutral. Two further points suggest the limitations of having a monopoly of one language in IR – and, indeed, in other social sciences. The first draws upon the thinking of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – who pointed to the conceptual limitations of language – and is caught in his famous phrase, ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. So, however commanding language is as a tool to access the social world, its vocabulary sets limits on our understanding. Second, if English remains the language of IR, the discipline will not only be the domain of a global elite but will continue its long history of serving and servicing insiders. Those who have no knowledge of English are excluded from IR, or they can only access the discipline by developing a professional competence in the language. This is plainly discriminatory. There is also the challenge of the English language unable to grasp concepts that lie outside of its vocabulary. For instance, the Sanskrit word ‘dharma’ is translated as ‘religion’, but dharma in the Hindu cosmology includes a range of practices and conceptions of rights, duties, law and so on, which are not divinely ordained, as in Christianity. Other important terms in the vocabulary of IR – such as ‘state’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘order’ – are sometimes lost in translation.