The Place of Race and Racism in International Relations

In case you have not read Susan Pedersen’s review of Robert Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations, you should.

Here is an excerpt:

The Journal of Race Development, established in 1910, was one of a spate of academic journals, associations and institutes founded as American social scientists came to grips with their country’s expanding global and imperial role. The journal’s title, jarring today, reflects perfectly the centrality of the category of ‘race’ to political science at the time. During the ‘Wilsonian moment’ of 1919, the journal was rechristened the Journal of International Relations without much disturbing its contributors or character. A few years after that, it was bought and renamed again by a New York-based association of internationalist businessmen, officials and academics, the Council on Foreign Relations. Yes, that’s right: it becameForeign Affairs, the pre-eminent journal of the foreign policy establishment.

This is just one of the startling and illuminating genealogies Vitalis pieced together during the ten years or more he spent researching this book. White World Order, Black Power Politics does two things. First, it provides a critical history of the institutional development of the field of international relations in the United States, from its founding at the turn of the century through to the Cold War. This history is radically unfamiliar: the ‘origin story’ taught on undergraduate courses, which traces the field’s core concepts (realism, liberal internationalism) back to Thucydides or Machiavelli or Wilson is, Vitalis insists, a post-1945 invention. Instead, at the moment of its American birth, ‘international relations meant race relations.’ Races, not states or nations, were considered humanity’s foundational political units; ‘race war’ – not class conflict or interstate conflict – was the spectre preying on scholars’ minds. The field of international relations was born to avert that disaster.

A blunter way to put this, and Vitalis is blunter, is that international relations was supposed to figure out how to preserve white supremacy in a multiracial and increasingly interdependent world. Segregation and Jim Crow had done the trick at home, where non-white populations were in the minority, but how could white America govern its newly annexed and overwhelmingly non-white territories without losing its republican soul? A few white scholars thought the task impossible. Indeed, one of the most famous – John Burgess, founder of Columbia’s School of Political Science and of the Political Science Quarterly – opposed President McKinley’s imperial adventuring precisely because it threatened the democratic institutions he thought suited to ‘Teutonic’ peoples alone. ‘American Indians, Asiatics and Africans cannot properly form any active, directive part of the political population which shall be able to produce modern political institutions,’ he warned. Unless it wanted to go the way of Rome, America should leave empire alone.

Something to think about for students of development and liberal international institutions, both big and small.

The book is available for purchase here. I can’t wait for my copy to arrive.

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One thought on “The Place of Race and Racism in International Relations

  1. Pingback: Weekly links – Rachel Strohm

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