As part of our month-long celebration of Black History Month, here’s an excerpt from the Introduction of White World Order, Black Power Politics, by Robert Vitalis. This award-winning book contends that racism and imperialism are the twin forces that propelled the course of the United States in the world in the early twentieth century and in turn affected the way that diplomatic history and international relations (originally known as “race relations”) were taught and understood in the American academy.
In the first decades of the twentieth century in the United States, international relations meant race relations. This sentence is bound to strike many readers as both strange and wrong, just as it once did me. The problem of empire or imperialism, sometimes referred to as “race subjection,” was what preoccupied the first self-identified professors of international relations. They wrestled with the prospect that a race war might lead to the end of the world hegemony of whites, a future that appeared to many to be in the offing. The scholars had also identified the epicenter of the global biological threat in the three-square miles or so at the northern end of Manhattan borough known as Harlem.
Each of these claims at first presentation seems false because 100 years later, a new common sense has taken hold. Today, professors teach that international relations is the scientific study of the interaction among “states” (or “countries” to the uninitiated), with other, lesser “actors” trailing behind. They also speak more abstractly about study of the “state system.” Students interested in race relations look elsewhere in course catalogs and to other experts and departments. So too do those wanting to learn about empires, because imperialism is a thing of the past for social scientists. And no one thinks of Harlem as the capital of a country, so it has no standing in any contemporary understanding of international relations.
In African American studies, meanwhile, together with those parts of the humanities and human sciences most impacted by the field’s emergence in the 1960s–1970s, scholars study the Harlem Renaissance, which is a shorthand for the remarkable movement of intellectual and cultural self-determination that in the 1920s had white scholars scrambling to head off the end days. Many of the thinkers most closely associated with the movement taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The 250-acre campus in the northwest sector of the nation’s capital with its Harvard- and Chicago-trained star faculty remains terra incognita in all standard accounts of the discipline of international relations in the United States. This last fact may prove the most discomfiting one in the years ahead.
When we follow the archival record to places beyond Hyde Park, Harvard Square, and Morningside Heights, the central repositories of America’s “national” international relations history, to Sugar Hill in Harlem (a mile or so from Columbia University but a world away, judging from our maps of intellectual fields); the District of Columbia’s Shaw neighborhood; Port of Spain, Trinidad; Camden, United Kingdom; and Accra, Ghana, it is as if we’ve left behind one field of study and intellectual disputation and wandered into another that is both wholly separate and intimately related. For convenience, call that field the history of “black internationalism.” A central debate in that field concerns the Cold War’s impact on the U.S. “long” civil rights movement, with its roots in the Harlem Renaissance, and on the academic enterprise we know as African American studies.
What White World Order, Black Power Politics shows is that the intellectual entanglements in Morningside Heights and Sugar Hill are part of a common and complicated history. The project of liberation was from its inception (and by necessity) a world-spanning political and theoretical movement in response to the theory and practice of white supremacy. What is new and important in this book is the discovery that the intellectuals, institutions, and arguments that constituted international relations were shaped by and often directly concerned with advancing strategies to preserve and extend that hegemony against those struggling to end their subjection. The new science emerged as a key supplier of intellectual rationales for the political class long before the Cold War—in fact, for the entirety of the long American imperial century. This discovery upends our commonplace understandings of international relations and U.S. foreign policy.
In this book, I trace developments in the history of academic institutions and the politics of academic life not as if they constitute a cloistered world (the “ivory tower”), but as an important part of the history of the United States in the world. It is effectively a sequel to my last book, America’s Kingdom, about the unbroken past of hierarchy on the world’s mining frontiers. There I used company and State Department records to show that the story that the private-owned giant Arabian American Oil Company told about its alleged commitment to developing Saudi Arabia’s human capital—one that scholars continued to reproduce unreflectively decades later—was a myth. Similarly, the private papers of professors, journals, research centers, and foundations reveal a story fundamentally at odds with established belief, even if some still consider the oil sector to be orders of magnitude more important to the twentieth century than the knowledge industry. Yes, academics who first defined their subject matter as international relations in the period 1900–1910 were never satisfactorily practical enough to suit the statesmen (and they were all men back then). Policymakers thought the same about most of a later, somewhat better-known, cast of action intellectuals who had occasional walk-on roles in our histories of the Cold War—the George Kennans, Hans Morgenthaus, Walt Rostows, William Kaufmanns, Bernard Brodies, and so on. This tendency on the part of statesmen and politicians to dismiss the value of scholars and their theories continued in the post-1945 era even as the expanding national security state drew increasing numbers of new and rebranded experts on peace and war, defense strategy, and foreign policy into its orbit. Meanwhile, the critics of U.S. Cold War policy considered the various strategic studies institutes, centers, schools, and so forth at the head of the newly commissioned, government-subsidized academic armada to be nothing less than a full-fledged service arm of the empire. The influence of a discipline and its reigning ideas entails more than the extent to which some professor has the ear of the prince or research findings contribute to policy.
Colleges and universities are crucial, obviously, to the continuous reproduction of our everyday ways of thinking, speaking, and writing about world politics, ways that are recognizable not only to the miniscule readership of scholarly journals such as International Security and International Organization but also to those who read (or write for) the New York Times and Foreign Affairs or who watch (or appear on) PBS News Hour and the Daily Show: imagine all those graduates of the Baby Boom– and Cold War–driven years of expansion in American higher education who studied or majored in the subject en route to careers as attorneys, journalists, researchers, writers, teachers, consultants, chief executive officers, department of defense analysts, legislators, staffers, generals, presidential advisors, secretaries of state, and, not least, professors. Henry Kissinger (PhD Harvard 1954), Madeline Albright (PhD Columbia, 1976), and Condoleezza Rice (PhD University of Denver 1981), among many other notables, all studied and taught international relations prior to their years in the White House and leadership positions in the State Department. Fareed Zakaria, the 28-year-old who oversaw a major facelift of the magazine Foreign Affairs prior to his star turn at Newsweek, Time, and CNN, is another PhD (Harvard 1993) in the “realist tradition” as he put it, of “international relations history and theory.” The alumni list is almost impossibly long, and their influence, although hard to measure, is real.
Think back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (or for that matter to NATO’s intervention in Bosnia in 1993) for evidence of the ways undergraduate lecture and graduate comprehensive exam categories inform debates in the public sphere. Antagonists then routinely identified (or derided their opponents) as Kissengerian “realists” or Wilsonian “idealists.” Others claimed that positions on questions of war and peace in the post-9/11 era no longer corresponded to these old ideological constructs (or, as students learn to refer to them, theories, theoretical traditions, or paradigms). Recall, too, the wide play given in the mid-2000s and after to the idea of “soft power.” Harvard’s Joseph Nye (PhD Harvard 1964), a onetime student of Pan Africanism now judged among the top four or five or six most influential thinkers in the discipline, had coined the term a decade earlier in Bound to Lead (1990), and he hit it big after rolling it out a second time in Soft Power (2004). Similarly, Clash of Civilizations (1996), a book by his late colleague Samuel Huntington (Ph.D. Harvard 1950), Zakaria’s dissertation supervisor, sold in greater numbers and presumably earned the author a far greater advance than is typical for a book traded on the academic market. People inside and outside the Washington, D.C., beltway certainly acted as if these books matter.
This is not to begrudge them, by the way. They represent a long tradition of what Bruce Kuklick calls the discipline’s “intellectual middlemen” who are skilled at getting ideas across to nonacademic audiences in Washington, New York, and points beyond.13 Intellectuals played this role long before the Cold War, and it is hardly surprising to find them rediscovering and recycling ideas from earlier years. For example, Clash of Civilizations resembles the earlier, arguably more influential, and no less sensational The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat against White World Supremacy (1920) by one of Huntington’s forebears, T. Lothrop Stoddard (PhD Harvard 1916). Stoddard wrote his dissertation under Archibald Cary Coolidge (PhD Freiburg 1892), the founding editor of Foreign Affairs. Stoddard also provided one of the first analyses I know of America’s soft power, but his many works on international affairs are all but unknown now. Huntington and Nye (among others) reprise the intellectual middleman’s role and also reanimate the arguments of an earlier, not very well-known era when biological racism and resource imperialism shaped the discipline and, not coincidentally, the policies of successive U.S. administrations. That history is critical to recovering the ideas of what I call the Howard school of international relations theory, whose leading thinkers alone evinced a commitment to understanding and writing about white world supremacy from the standpoint of its victims.