Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Race, Amnesia, and the Education of International Relations

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Race, Amnesia, and the Education of International Relations

Article excerpt

Sankaran Krishna (*)

Aren't all cultures and civilizations just screens which men have used to divide themselves, to put between that part of themselves which they are afraid of and that part of themselves they want to preserve?

Richard Wright

This article argues that the discipline of international relations was and is predicated on a systematic politics of forgetting, a willful amnesia, on the question of race. Historically, the emergence of a modern, territorially sovereign state system in Europe was coterminous with, and indissociable from, the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the "new" world, the enslavement of the natives of the African continent, and the colonization of the societies of Asia. Specifically, I will argue that the discipline of international relations maintains its ideological coherence via two crucial strategies of containment that normalize the coeval emergence of modern sovereignty and dispossession on a global scale: these strategies are "abstraction" and "redemption." In this article, I flesh out the argument vis-a-vis "abstraction"; for, reasons of space, however, I can have no more than an adumbrated discussion of "redemption."

First, IR discourse's valorization, indeed fetishization, of abstraction is premised on a desire to escape history, to efface the violence, genocide, and theft that marked the encounter between the rest and the West in the post-Columbian era. Abstraction, usually presented as the desire of the discipline to engage in theory-building rather than in descriptive or historical analysis, is a screen that simultaneously rationalizes and elides the details of these encounters. By encouraging students to display their virtuosity in abstraction, the discipline brackets questions of theft of land, violence, and slavery--the three processes that have historically underlain the unequal global order we now find ourselves in. Overattention to these details is disciplined by professional practices that work as taboo: such-and-such an approach is deemed too historical or descriptive; that student is not adequately theoretical and consequently is lacking in intellectual rigor; so-and-so might be better off specializing in com parative politics or history or anthropology; such-and-such a question does not have any direct policy relevance; and so on.

A second strategy of containment in IR discourse is the idea of deferred redemption. This operates by an eternal deferment of the possibility of overcoming the alienation of international society that commenced in 1492. While "realistically" such overcoming is regarded as well-nigh impossible, its promise serves as the principle by which contemporary and historical violence and inequality can be justified and lived with. Redemptive strategies of containment are reflected in a wide variety of IR discourses: Kant's idea of perpetual peace as consequent upon international war and dispersion; the possibility of an international community epitomized in organizations such as the United Nations; the promise of international socialism; the discourse of capitalist modernization on the Rostowian model; and more recently, the "end of history" under the regime of globalization. All these strategies hinge on the prospect of deferred redemption: the present is inscribed as a transitional phase whose violent and unequal cha racter is expiated on the altar of that which is to come.

In the first section of my article, I illustrate an exemplary act of abstraction that is central to the self-construction of the discipline of international relations--the depiction of nineteenth-century Europe as a pacific zone (the Hundred Years' Peace) orchestrated by diplomatic virtuosity. I offer a brief reading of this same century from the vantage of outside the imperium to illustrate the possibilities of contrapuntal readings of international-relations discourse. In this section, I further elaborate what I mean by "strategies of containment" and how they have worked to constitute IR discourse as a "political unconscious. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.