Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order

Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order

Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order

Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order


Writing more than one hundred years ago, African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois speculated that the great dilemma of the twentieth century would be the problem of "the color line." Nowhere was the dilemma of racial discrimination more entrenched-and more complex-than South Africa.

Gordian Knotexamines South Africa's freedom struggle in the years surrounding African decolonization, using the global apartheid debate to explore the way new nation-states changed the international community during the mid-twentieth century. At the highpoint of decolonization, South Africa's problems shaped a transnational conversation about nationhood. Arguments about racial justice, which crested as Europe relinquished imperial control of Africa and the Caribbean, elided a deeper contest over the meaning of sovereignty, territoriality, and development.

Based on research in African, American, and European archives,Gordian Knotadvances a bold new interpretation about African decolonization's relationship to American power. In so doing, it promises to shed light on U.S. foreign relations with the Third World and recast understandings of the fate of liberal internationalism after World War II.


A racial consciousness, evoked by the attitudes and practices of the
West, had slowly blended with a defensive religious feeling; here, in
Bandung, the two had combined into one: a racial and religious system
of identification manifesting itself in an emotional nationalism which
was now leaping state boundaries and melting and merging, one into
the other.

—Richard Wright, The Color Curtain (1956)

One needs to appreciate the sense of possibility of these years and to
understand what ensued not as an imminent logic of colonial history
but as a dynamic process with a tragic end.

—Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question (2006)

Bandung teemed with energy in April 1955. Nestled at the heart of the sprawling Citarum river basin on the island of Java, the city was one of independent Indonesia’s most cosmopolitan and culturally diverse urban centers. Diplomats from twenty-nine decolonized countries, as well as dozens of activists from subSaharan Africa and over 650 reporters, had converged on the city to participate in the first official gathering of decolonized peoples from the global south. This six-day “Asian-African” summit began on April 18 at the architectural crown jewel of Bandung, the newly renovated Gedung Merdeka building. The center’s colonial origins—it had been built by the Dutch in 1895 and used throughout the first half of the twentieth century to celebrate European art, culture, and social privilege—mattered little to the representatives assembled in its spacious main hall. “Every religion under the sun” was present, novelist Richard Wright wrote as he watched the opening proceedings from the press gallery. “Almost every race on earth, every shade of political opinion, and one and a half billion people from 12,606,938 square miles of the earth’s surface were represented here.” For the participants, the gathering embodied both the shared possibilities and the political optimism of decolonization.

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