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It’s Time to Rethink How We Teach International Relations

08 Apr 2022
By Dr Somdeep Sen
Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ms Lindiwe Sisulu delivering a Lecture on South African Foreign policy at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, in Moscow in 2018. Source: GovernmentZA, Flickr,

International Relations (IR) has a long history of racism. This legacy should be challenged in the classroom.

The world watched in dismay as Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. The international community quickly declared its unequivocal support for Ukrainians, who were now facing the devastation brought on by Russia’s all-out military onslaught. Such solidarity is essential in a time of crisis. Yet, the narrative that filled our airwaves and told us why we must support Ukrainians was troubling. Journalists, public intellectuals, and politicians seemed to argue that this solidarity was necessary not simply because it is the moral response in a time of extreme suffering, but because Ukrainians were “like us,” “European,” “civilised,” with “blue eyes and blonde hair.” As if to say, such manner of suffering is expected and unavoidable in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, but it is unconscionable that Europeans should be subjected to death, destruction, and exile.

The racist nature of this discourse is self-evident, leading the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) to release a statement calling on “all news organizations to be mindful of implicit and explicit bias in their coverage of war in Ukraine.” The statement went on to condemn the racist implication that any country is “uncivilised,” or might in some way be “worthy of conflict,” noting that such coverage continued the trend of Western journalists normalising tragedy in the Global South and dehumanising its citizens.

But while this discourse may be unacceptable, it is hardly unexpected. And a critical assessment of our curricular and pedagogical approach – especially in a field like IR – would reveal that the seeds of such a racialised perception of the world was already sown in the classroom.

A Racist Discipline

When teaching IR, we are faced with the unavoidable reality that it is a racist discipline. This fact became a matter of public discourse when, in 2020, Foreign Policy responded to the protests against racial injustice and policy brutality by publishing a series of pieces by IR scholars revealing the racist precepts of the field. But long before this mainstream recognition, a slew of scholarly works demonstrated that the discipline’s core theorists were animated by a Darwinist conception of racial hierarchy as they imagined the global order to be rightfully dominated by white races. White Europeans, they argued, had the responsibility to civilise the still barbaric, non-white peoples of the world.

This is evident in, say, Paul Samuel Reinsch’s World Politics at the End of the Nineteenth Century (1900). Often considered the first monograph in IR, the author argues that colonialism is morally justified as “large portions of the earth’s surface are in the hands of nations or tribes who are guilty of an under-development of their natural resources.” Reinsch thus proposes that it is the responsibility of the “powerful races” to rule over the “more barbarous or less well endowed with force of mind and character.”

We could also look to EH Carr’s contribution to An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (1916), where he follows a similarly racist trope, deeming Africans to be savages and Indians and Egyptians to be immeasurably “less advanced” than Americans and Europeans. For Carr, it was only natural that Europeans emerge as “leaders of mankind” because of “their [superior] character” and “their truthfulness and integrity.”

Like Reinsch and Carr, we could also look to the writings of John Atkins Hobson or Franklin Henry Giddings, as they too sought to provide a scholarly justification of a racialised hierarchy of the world. It is then not without reason that IR has been described “a science of imperial relations,” animated by a racialised global imaginary.

Teaching a Racist Discipline

What then happens when this legacy arrives in the classroom? To be sure, instead of the likes of Reinsch, Carr, Hobson, and Giddings, we can look to the Howard School of International Relations in the United States, a cohort of scholars who were critical of the racism that informed the global order. They too were active in the formative years of IR and strived to upend the widely accepted “truths of racial science and the role racism played in sustaining imperialism.”

In fact, scholars affiliated with the Howard School, could be considered the “revisionist” core theorists of the new discipline and represented a “counternetwork” to scholars and institutions committed to the upkeep of a racialised hierarchy in global politics. But this counternetwork was largely forgotten until recently – not least due to a long history of racialised silencing and erasure in the academy. Securely established institutional politics of hiring, firing, funding, and tenure have also worked to systematically relegate scholarly works on race and racism – along with works on class, gender, feminism, sexuality, colonialism, and postcolonialism – to the category of “critical approaches” with supposedly minimal mainstream relevance.

Unsurprisingly then, the “official” story of IR – albeit until the 1990s – was that of a white discipline, one that wilfully forgets the role of racism in the workings of the global order. This absence is also reflected in the IR syllabus, where discussions of race are either entirely missing or placed at the very back of the curriculum. But this wilful amnesia doesn’t mean that racism is absent in shaping our understanding of the world in the classroom.

On the contrary, what lies behind the narrative of solidarity with Ukraine is a deeply racialised approach to understanding the world that extends from the racialised intellectual core of the discipline. After all, IR was founded as a scholarly justification for imperialism, genocide, enslavement, and colonisation. It is not surprising, then, that amid a purportedly existential global crisis, this narrative is being replicated through categories of difference such as “civilised,” “modern,” “developed,” and “European” that engage in a process of othering and reiterating a racially hierarchical configuration of the world.

A Reparative Approach?

To be sure, we cannot simply course correct and sidestep IR’s racist historical legacy. But, while we cannot change history, we can choose what to do with it. When teaching IR, educators must recognise at the outset the central roles that race and racism have played in shaping our understanding of the world. But a non-racist curricular approach cannot merely strive to add a critical pillar to a racist discipline. Cognisant of the fact that IR was founded to keep up racialised global hierarchy, the discipline must be imagined anew.

For one thing, we can search elsewhere – beyond the white, male “core theorists” – for the intellectual building blocks of a new epistemic core. Here we could look to the often ignored and marginalised IR scholarship that critically assessed the imperial and white supremacist makings of the global order. This scholarship cannot be left to languish in the category of “critical approaches” of IR textbooks. Instead, these works must be placed at the front end of the curriculum as part of the mainstream and as an indispensable resource for understanding the workings of the global order.

Unfortunately, institutional politics that inform hirings, tenure decisions, and grant-giving practices may discourage instructors from stepping out of the long-established parameters of a mainstream IR education. For this reason, a non-racist teaching of the world can only be facilitated when IR educators do not need to fear the optics and consequences of critiquing IR’s racist legacy. Instead, such curricular and pedagogical approaches would need to be institutionally and materially supported as essential to learning about the world.

Somdeep Sen is an Associate Professor in International Development Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark. He is the author of Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial (Cornell University Press, 2020) and the co-editor of Collateral Language: From 9/11 to Endless War (University of Georgia Press, 2021).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.