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18.3: World-Making

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  • One of the great disciplinary shibboleths is that IR is to be celebrated because it is a neutral instrument of restoration – IR does not so much ‘make’ the world as ‘restore’ it (Kissinger 1957). According to this logic, the discipline provides helpful tools – and, sometimes, a hopeful heart – that a world devastated by war can be restored by the discipline’s science. But here too there is a need for a contrarian view. Largely absent from this optimism are the interlinked questions: who has the right to remake the world and whose interests will be served by any remaking? These questions would not have troubled those responsible for making – or remaking – the international community on three previous occasions: at the end of the South African War (1899–1902); at the end of the First Word War (1914–1918); and at the end of the Second World War (1939–1945). Certainly, each of these moments presented as a time of despair interlaced with feelings of hope for what might come; each was marked by a particular configuration of politics, both local and global; and each was held captive by the vocabulary of the moment. Let’s consider each event in turn.

    The South African War (also known as the Second Boer War) was fought between the United Kingdom and the peoples of European descent on African soil known as Afrikaners. This is because the Westphalian state – and the diplomatic routines developing around it – had migrated from its European heartland to Africa. It was the culmination of many contestations for the positioning of an alien social form, the modern state, on a new continent. As recent work has shown, the making of the world after the South African War was concerned with reorganising the British Empire, which was then the dominant form of international organisation. The idea of shifting understandings of what constituted sovereign identity away from an imperial setting towards a species of ‘inter-nation’ exchange, primarily between Britain and its four settler-ruled vassals – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa – had gained salience in the years following the First World War. If the three other dominions showed that the local and the international could be seamlessly realigned, South Africa – with its diverse peoples – was a harbinger of the messy world to come. Hence, for the theoreticians of the empire, the reorganisation of the colonies in southern Africa into the single state of South Africa foreshadowed a model for the dismembering of empire. Thus, the chosen path was the idea of an ‘organic union’, a system that gestured towards the importance of sovereignty within the semblance of an imperial brotherhood – in modern terms, it was a particular strain of multilateralism.

    The later incorporation of white-ruled India into this organisation would end in the British Commonwealth. Out of this, in the 1930s, grew the idea of a whitedominated ‘World Commonwealth’, sometimes called a ‘World State’ (Curtis 1938). The thought crime – there is no other phrase for it – in this worldmaking was that all the imaginings of the international excluded other racial groups except in the sense of ‘trusteeship’. After the First World War, this status was awarded to states that could be ‘trusted’ to control foreign spaces in the interests of those who were deemed to be lower down the Darwinian ladder (Curtis 1918, 13). The legacy of this move remains the great unexplored story in IR as an academic discipline because it continues to suffer from the arrogance of defining the international by the optic provided by wealth, race and gender.

    In the lore of IR, the restoration of the world after the First World War is sacred ground. The discipline’s celebrated tale is how the international codified as science would build a better world. The discipline’s institutionalisation was the founding of an academic chair, named after Woodrow Wilson, America’s twenty-eighth president, at what is now Aberystwyth University in Wales. As Ken Booth (1991, 527–8) has pointed out, ‘when David Davies founded the Department for International Politics at Aberystwyth in 1919, he became the midwife for the subject everywhere.’ The genuflection to the United States suggests that the establishment of the discipline was in recognition of America’s importance in ending the ‘war to end all wars’. Not only did Wilson help to deliver victory, he also offered the League of Nations as an instrument for securing a future of international peace. But this was not to be. In the 1930s, the League failed to prevent another war – the idealism of early IR, around which the discipline was founded – was in tatters. The failure of this resolve, both institutionally and theoretically, is well documented in the chronicles of IR.

    The construction of a new world was sought mainly through the idea of embedded liberalism, which could marry free trade, strong government and multilateralism (Ruggie 1982). But an inconvenient truth remained: global apartheid was entrenching itself. Absent in the great councils of peace were the voices of those who were situated in the outer reaches of world-making and excluded by IR’s founding bargain. The truth was that sovereignty, and the passport it offered to statehood, was only available to those privileged by birth and by skin colour. The scientific task of understanding those who were excluded was for not IR, but for other academic disciplines, especially Applied Anthropology (on this, see Lamont 2014).

    IR folklore holds that the international system is indebted to the triumph of American idealism. An end to American isolationism in the 1940s beckoned the world’s most powerful country towards a reincarnation of its ‘manifest destiny’ – rooted in the nineteenth-century belief that settlers were foreordained to spread across North America. It was a belief shot through with understandings of white superiority, as this quote from the Maryland Democrat, William F. Giles, in 1847 suggests:

    We must march from ocean to ocean. … We must march from Texas straight to the Pacific Ocean, and be bounded only by its roaring wave. ... It is the destiny of the white race, it is the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race. (Zinn 1980, 153)

    The call now was towards making ‘the international’ as it had made the national – with technology, violence and self-belief. Hopes for this future were transmitted through the increased force of culture, especially American. The sense of ‘freedom’ that this sentiment conveyed was infectious, and it spread increasingly to all spaces – including colonised ones. In doing so, it fostered ‘a period of optimism’ throughout the world, as the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy (2003, 1) put it. Interestingly, for all the celebration of the idea of freedom, the discourse suffered terrible amnesia: the story of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), the only successful slave revolution in modern history and a powerful example of black people making a state, conducting diplomacy and practising freedom, was excluded from the emerging narrative.

    But American optimism and the future it promised arose in the very age when the conquest of nature by science promised to deliver much to the world. It is difficult today to underestimate how ‘the endless frontier’ – as America’s chief scientist, Vannevar Bush (1945), called natural science – was received in the final years of the Second World War.

    Demonstrably, the atom bomb, the quintessential product of science, had brought the war to an end – even though the surrender cry from Japan’s emperor foreshadowed different understandings of what science had delivered to the people of Japan and to the world. Speaking after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito surrendered with these words: ‘We have resolved to endure the unendurable and suffer what is insufferable.’

    Conventional IR history has it that both politics and science – acting both on their own and together – speeded the desire of peoples all over the world for liberation, thus ending formal colonialism. This is certainly nominally so, but the reach of this freedom was, once again, to be framed within the sovereign state. If freedom was one dimension of an American-inspired post-1945 world, it was complimented by a series of international bureaucracies that aimed to manage the new world in the making. These drew sovereign states – both newly independent and well established – towards the bureaucratic authority insisted upon by modernity with its technical know-how and techniques of social control. The international community in the making was to be what anthropologists call an ‘administered community’ – both states and individuals would be controlled even as they celebrated their freedom.

    So, the celebrated multilateral structures of post-1945 – the United Nations and the Bretton Woods family; the International Monetary Fund; the World Bank; and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – were controlling institutions even if they were intermittently cloaked within a rights-based discourse. The archetype of this was the UN Security Council where the power of veto was vested in five states – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. This ‘override power’, which aimed to control any threat to the interest (or interests) of an already advantaged group, remains a symbol of an international structure that is fatally unequal and grossly unfair.

    In academic IR, the reconstruction of the world after 1945 is the story of how the United States appropriated and adapted European ‘understandings’ of the international for the challenges it faced as ‘leader of the free world’. The evidence supports this explanation: at least 64 first-generation émigré scholars (mostly from Germany) taught political science and IR in the United States. More than half of them came from law, including figures such as Hans Kelsen, Hans Morgenthau, John Herz and Karl Deutsch, who would command IR. The ways of the world that they transmitted – culture, diplomacy, law – remained essentially white, Western and male. In disciplinary IR, the non-West was deliberately silenced by exorcising two of the most important issues – decolonisation and racism – from its theoretical concerns (Guilhot 2014). It was this legacy that led the late Stanley Hoffman, who was born in Vienna, to declare that IR was ‘an American Social Science’ (1977).

    The ghastly – but truly historical – advent of nuclear weapons certainly raised the question that awakened ethical concerns within IR, the most important of which has already crossed our paths: could humankind destroy the planet? Yet the counter-factual question on this issue, the question that should have mattered but which was never asked or answered, is: would the United States have atom-bombed a white Western country? At the centre of IR was – and remains – the ideology of white supremacy. This is undergirded by the understanding that only Europeans – and whites, to sharpen the point – live ‘within’ history: all others, as Ashis Nandy (2003, 83–109) has argued, ‘live outside’ of it.

    If these three moments of reconstruction – the South African War, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 which concluded the First World War, and the ending of the Second World War in 1945 – represented the remaking of the world, what about the ending of the Cold War? It is difficult not to believe that the ending of the Cold War has been one of continuity rather than the muchanticipated fundamental rethink of the nature and idea of the international. The moment was certainly marked by a new vocabulary, of which the word globalisation promised new horizons. However, it quickly became an encryption for the celebration of neoliberal economics and a ‘thin’ form of democracy that was characterised by Francis Fukuyama as ‘the end of history’ (Fukuyama 1989). In essence, Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy and capitalism had proved itself superior to any other social system. This theory was seized upon by IR scholars who had, embarrassingly, failed to predict the ending of the Cold War. For IR theorists, the bipolarity that had characterised the Cold War was a stable system for both superpowers. They therefore saw no reason for either power to seek to end it. What they did not envision was that an internal collapse of the Soviet economy matched with the rising opposition of subjugated peoples in Eastern Europe would break the Soviet system from within. This was just one of the reasons that the critical turn in IR theory began around the end of the Cold War and IR began to look beyond the state towards the individual.

    However, not long after this embarrassment there was a return to triumphalism. A US president, George H. W. Bush, declared that the ‘West had won’ the Cold War – but even this was not enough. What lay ahead was a new challenge that one disciple of realist thought called a ‘clash of civilizations’ (Huntington 1993). Let me insert a personal story here. Just after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 – the event that symbolised the beginning of the end of the Cold War – I was invited to participate in a high-level panel organised by one of the big think tanks in the world, the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. My co-panellists included former members of successive American cabinets, a former director of the CIA, and many academic luminaries from the IR community. During the course of several meetings, it became clear to me that Islam was being constructed as a threat to America’s ‘global interests’ and that it would be targeted. This kind of thinking created a kind of intellectual swamp that gave rise to successive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, dangerously, for IR a tendency to focus disproportionately on such ‘threats’. What this does to how the world is made remains to be seen.