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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First-Time Author Spotlight: Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire

Decolonization revolutionized the international order during the twentieth century. Yet standard histories that present the end of colonialism as an inevitable transition from a world of empires to one of nations—a world in which self-determination was synonymous with nation-building—obscure just how radical this change was. Drawing on the political thought of anticolonial intellectuals and statesmen such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.E.B Du Bois, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere, Adom Getachew’s important new account of decolonization reveals the full extent of their unprecedented ambition to remake not only nations but the world.

In the book you argue that anti-colonial critics and nationalists in Africa and the Caribbean were worldmakers. What do you mean by worldmaking?

I use the term worldmaking in contrast to nation-building in order to highlight the global ambitions of anticolonial nationalism. In the book, I chart three different projects of worldmaking: the institutionalization of a universal right to self-determination, the constitution of regional federation in Africa and the Caribbean, and the effort to create a New International Economic Order. In these worldmaking projects, anticolonial nationalists took the international arena as the central stage for the politics of decolonization. In this context self-determination came to have a domestic and international face. Domestically, self-determination entailed a democratic politics of postcolonial citizenship through which the postcolonial state secured economic development and redistribution. Internationally, self-determination created the external conditions for this domestic politics by transforming conditions of international hierarchy that facilitated dependence and domination. Setting aside the better known story of the domestic politics of anticolonialism, I examine its forgotten international vision.

It’s surprising that nationalists seeking independence and national self-determination pursued these global projects. Why did anticolonial nationalists become worldmakers?

For anticolonial figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere the end of empire could not be limited to the achievement of national independence because empire itself was a globalizing force. For these anticolonial nationalists, empire had created a modern world, by politically and economically integrating disparate lands and peoples. However, this was always an unequal from of integration that engendered international racial hierarchy and produced dependence and domination. The hierarchical world of empire was not limited to colonies that had not achieved national independence. As I show in the book independent states like Ethiopia and Liberia were also subject to the consequences of unequal integration and racial hierarchy.

Studying the fate of these states, Nkrumah, Williams, Manley and others warned against a decolonization limited to the achievement of national independence. They argued for projects of anticolonial worldmaking that could overcome empire’s world of hierarchy by creating the legal, political, and economic foundations of an egalitarian and domination free international order.

While we often consider nationalism to be illiberal and parochial, I show that attending to the animating role the problem of international hierarchy played in anticolonial thought and excavating the worldmaking projects it inspired reveals the universalism of anticolonial nationalism.

Can you tell us about the research process? What inspired the project, how did you select actors and archives?

I started this project at a graduate student in African-American studies and Political Science at Yale University. I came to the project animated by what I thought were gaps in my two fields. First, studies of black internationalism and Pan-Africanism tended to stop at 1945, suggesting that the postwar period was one where the nation-state triumphed over alternative institutional imaginaries. In relation to this body of work, I wanted to trace the afterlives of black internationalism in the age of decolonization and excavate the forms of internationalism that anticolonial nationalists believe the postcolonial state required. Second, over the last two decades political theorists have turned their attention to the problem of empire tracing the ways in which canonical figures in this history of political thought developed their accounts of sovereignty, liberty, and justice against the backdrop of European imperial expansion. Emerging in the context of the post-2001 resurgence of American empire, this body of work has highlighted the way sin which earlier entanglements between liberalism and empire or domination and international law continue to shape our international order. Yet, political theorists have yet to systematically consider the political actors and movements that articulated the most far-reaching challenges to the world of empire. Worldmaking after Empire is a step in this direction. It traces how in the thirty years after World War II, anticolonial nationalists launched the most ambitious project of remaking the world.

I tell the story of this effort trough a Black Atlantic perspective that centers African and Caribbean anticolonial nationalists as well as their African-American interlocutors. The figures in the study— Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.E.B. Du Bois, Michael Manley, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, George Padmore, and Eric Williams—were worldmakers in part because they had emerged from black international and Pan-African circuits. While empire had created a world of inequality, it also facilitated connections between colonial subjects and created the conditions in which they developed a common language of critique and collectively envisioned a world after empire. In tracing the connections between these figures and in reconstructing their political projects, I traveled to archives in Barbados, Ghana, Switzerland, Trinidad, and the United Kingdom.  

Your book charts both the rise and fall of self-determination. What contributed to the fall and perhaps failure of these projects?

 I argue that we can locate the fall of self-determination in both the internal crisis of anticolonial nationalism and the external challenges to its vision of a world after empire. Internally, authoritarianism, secession, and humanitarian crises called into question the anticolonial insistence that the postcolonial state was the site of an egalitarian politics of citizenship that could accommodate religious, ethnic, and racial pluralism. Critics exploited these internal crises to repudiate anticolonial worldmaking. By the 1970s, North Atlantic intellectuals and statesmen such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that the anticolonial right to self-determination and demand for equality amounted to no more than a hypocritical mobilization of liberal ideals to legitimize illegitimate states. This critique set the stage for a counterrevolution that dejected and displaced the short-lived moment of anticolonial worldmaking. Faced with these internal and external challenges, postcolonial statesman who had boldly called for the a post-imperial world retreated into a minimalist and conservative defense of the postcolonial state against domestic dissent and international critique.

One might say that Worldmaking after Empire is a history of unrealized political projects. Why is it important to recover these histories?

It might be easy for readers to walk away from this book thinking that the anticolonial visions of a world after empire were utopian, unrealistic or otherwise doomed to fail. But my hope is that in recovering these histories we are better able to grasp our present political predicaments and find resources in the past with which we can imagine new futures. We have inherited from the anticolonial worldmakers an incomplete and as yet unrealized project of decolonization. While we take imperialism to be a feature of our past, the world of hierarchy empire created remains with us in the erosion of sovereign equality, the dominance of unrepresentative institutions such as the Security Council, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, the unrestrained power of private corporations, and the rise of American unilateralism. The persistence of international hierarchy demands new efforts at making a world after empire. To be sure we cannot simply recuperate the projects of worldmaking anticolonial nationalists pursued half a century ago. We will have to come up with our own languages for worldmaking, but we might learn anticolonial worldmakers that our efforts will depend on our ability to combine domestic and international transformation.

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

An interview with Wendy Laura Belcher on “The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros”

The Life and Struggle of Our Mother Walatta Petros jacketWendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner’s translation of The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros is the first English translation of the earliest-known book-length biography of an African woman predating the seventeenth century. The original author, Galawdewos, collected stories of Petros told by word of mouth from the leader and Saint’s disciples in 1672, thirty years after Petro’s death. Petros was a significant religious figure, who led a non-violent protest against European Jesuits forcing Ethiopians to abandon their African Christian faith. In this interview, Belcher, associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, offers us valuable insight into who this woman was, and the historical context that shaped her fascinating life.

Your title calls this a “seventeenth-century African” text. Are there many African texts from this time?

WLB: There are lots of texts, the problem is that they are rarely preserved or translated. So we are glad to be bringing one to the attention of the public, in part to demolish this myth about Africa being a continent without a written literature. It’s a common assumption, even among scholars, that there is no writing in Africa before Europeans, but that is an error. This text was not written by or for Europeans or in a European language, but by Ethiopians for Ethiopians in an Ethiopian language about an Ethiopian woman.

So, why is this particular book important?

WLB: It’s the earliest-known book-length biography about an African woman. As a biography, it is full of human interest, being an extraordinary account of early modern African women’s lives—full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph. For many Americans, it will be the first time they can learn about a pre-colonial African woman on her own terms.

Who was this woman?

WLB: She was a revered religious leader who led a nonviolent movement against European proto-colonialism and was the founding abbess of her own monastery, which still exists today. She lead an amazing life: a woman who was born to an adoring father, lost three children in infancy, left her abusive husband, started a movement, defeated a wicked king, faced enraged hippos and lions, avoided lustful jailors, founded seven religious communities, routed male religious leaders, gathered many men and women around her, and guided her flock subject to no man, being the outright head of her community and even appointing abbots, who followed her orders. Her name is Walatta Petros (which means Daughter-of [Saint] Peter, a compound name that cannot be shortened) and she lived from 1592 to 1642.

This is a biography, not an autobiography. So who actually wrote it?

WLB: Thirty years after her death, her Ethiopian disciples (many of whom were women) gathered to tell stories of her life to a scribe named Galawdewos (Claudius in English). So, it is a kind of oral history of the community. They praised her as an adored daughter, the loving friend of women, a devoted reader, a disciplined ascetic, and a fierce leader.

This book was originally written on parchment. Nearby Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries copied it. We used twelve of these manuscript copies of the book to create our translation, including three from the saint’s own monastery. The text was written in the classical African language of Ethiopic, or Gəˁəz. Ethiopians innovated a writing system in the first millennium BCE and have been using it to write bounds books since the fourth century CE.

If this text wasn’t written for Europeans, how are Europe and Christianity involved?

WLB: It is confusing! First, the Christianity in this text is African. Ethiopians have been Christians since the fourth century, long before most of Europe. They have retained a distinctive form of Christianity in their Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Second, this book records an early encounter between Europeans and Africans from an African perspective. When the Jesuits came in the 1500s to try to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism, many Ethiopians resisted, especially the royal women. Walatta Petros was one of these women, and she led others in a successful fight to retain African Christian beliefs. For these acts, she was elevated to sainthood in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Are there a lot of these Ethiopian biographies?

WLB: There are over 200 Ethiopian orthodox saints and over 100 of them have biographies. At least 17 of them are women and six of them have biographies (or, since they are saints, what are called hagiographies). Ethiopian stories about Ethiopian saints are a vital archive of African literature that has gone almost entirely unexplored outside Ethiopia. They are fascinating narratives about Ethiopian folk heroes as well as rich repositories of indigenous thought. This will be the first accessible translation into English of any of these stories. (There are three of the other hagiographies in English, but they exist only in art books that cost thousands of dollars each.)

Can you tell me more about yourself and your fellow translator?

WLB: Dr. Kleiner is a German scholar with an excellent knowledge of over a dozen languages, including Arabic, French, Amharic, Ethiopic, and English. He is widely acknowledged as one of the two best living translators of Ethiopic (or Gəˁəz) into English. I am an assistant professor of African literature with a joint appointment in the Princeton University Department of Comparative Literature and the Department for African American Studies. I spent part of my childhood in Ethiopia and I now work to bring attention to early African literature.

What other important figures from Walatta Petros’ life are mentioned in this text?

WLB: The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros features a life-long partnership between two women and the depiction of same-sex sexuality among nuns. This is the earliest known depiction of same-sex desire among women in a sub-Saharan Africa text. Walatta Petros was in a life-long celibate relationship with another nun, Eheta Kristos, and they “lived together in mutual love, like soul and body” until death. Interpreting the women’s relationships requires care and this scholarly edition and translation provides the necessary political, religious, and cultural context in all its richness. The same-sex relationships are a fascinating aspect of the text, but just one small part of it.

Read the introduction to The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros here.