Adom Getachew: The Anti-imperial Vision of the Postwar International Order

On a petition with almost 500 signatures that first appeared as a paid advertisement in the New York Times, leading scholars of international relations defended postwar international institutions like the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the European Union against the “reckless attacks” of Donald J. Trump. According to the signatories, the postwar international order led by the United States “help[ed] to provide economic stability and international security, contributing to unprecedented levels of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers.”

If the contemporary challenges to the postwar international order appear unprecedented, we should remember that the institutions that emerged after 1945 were subject to critique and political contestation from the very beginning. For the anticolonial nationalists who championed decolonization after World War II, institutions like the United Nations were continuous with the imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Immediately after reading the UN Charter agreed to during the April 1945 San Francisco conference, the Nigerian nationalist Nnamdi Azikiwe proclaimed, “there is no new deal for the black man at San Francisco … Colonialism and economic enslavement of the Negro are to be maintained.”

Azikiwe’s critique of the United Nations, echoed by W.E.B Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, and George Padmore, drew on an account of empire as an institution of international racial hierarchy. According to these anticolonial critics, the imperial international order had unequally integrated the colonized world to facilitate European domination. The UN Charter institutionalized the hierarchical world of empire: Members of the Security Council issued binding resolutions and had the power of the veto, the League of Nations mandates persisted under the new trusteeship system, and colonies were euphemistically described as “non-self-governing territories.” Self-determination, the anticolonial demand for independence and popular sovereignty, was only mentioned in Article 1 and Article 55. In both instances, the “principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” was subordinated to the larger aim of securing “peaceful and friendly relations among nations.”  

Having lost faith in the UN, Nkrumah and Padmore organized the Fifth Pan-African Congress as a rejoinder to the hierarchical vision of the international order outlined in San Francisco. At Manchester, a city which emerged from the profits of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, African, African-American, and Caribbean anti-colonial critics declared an alternative vision for the postwar international order predicated on the right to self-determination and racial equality. Extending beyond the nation, the gathered Pan-Africanists called for “autonomy and independence, so far and no further than it is possible in this ‘One World’ for groups and people to rule themselves subject to inevitable world unity and federation.” In their vision, national independence and internationalist federation were to go hand in hand. The achievement of national self-determination and decolonization required the remaking of the international order.

Over the next 30 years, anticolonial nationalists pioneered ambitious worldmaking projects to transcend empire’s world of dependence and domination and inaugurate in its place an egalitarian and domination-free international order. By 1960, they had institutionalized a universal right to self-determination, which secured equal legal standing to all states for the first time in modern international society. At the same time, nationalists in the British West Indies and in West Africa sought to constitute regional federations through which postcolonial states might escape their economic dependence and create egalitarian regional economies. Finally, through the New International Economic Order (NIEO), the most ambitious project of anticolonial worldmaking, nationalists directly challenged the economic hierarchies of the international realm and laid foundations of an egalitarian global economy. The NIEO was the culmination of anticolonial worldmaking. Its vision of democratizing international economic law and equitably distributing the world’s wealth rejected the world of hierarchy that persisted in the postwar international institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. It look forward instead to an egalitarian post-imperial world order where national self-determination was situated within redistributive and democratic international institutions.    

The contemporary nostalgia for the postwar international order depends on forgetting that its guarantees of peace and prosperity were limited to the North Atlantic world. While pitched as “a new deal for the world,” to use Elizabeth Borgwardt’s term, the new international institutions promised nothing of the sort to the colonial subjects fighting for independence and equality around the world. There was, as Azikiwe put it, “no new deal for the black man.” If we are to draw lessons for our present political predicaments from the postwar international order, we should turn to the anticolonial nationalists who fought for three decades to build a word after empire. Their anti-imperial vision of international order was never realized and it might appear from our vantage point that it was a utopian and unrealistic project. But if we are to navigate the impasses of our contemporary moment, if we are to build a viable alternative to the authoritarian populism resurgent in the United State and Europe, we cannot settle for a minimalist internationalism born in 1945 to preserve a hierarchical world order. Instead, we should draw on the tradition of anti-imperial internationalism to imagine our own ambitious projects of worldmaking.       

Adom Getachew is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago.