In This Review
White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations

White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations

By Robert Vitalis

Cornell University Press, 2015, 288 pp.

In this interesting and important yet flawed book, Vitalis seeks to bridge the “vast gulf divid[ing] international relations from Africana studies,” bringing the “racism [of the discipline of international relations] to light.” Conventional narratives of the field’s history, he argues, trace it to the rise of realism and national security concerns in the years around World War II, adding a few historical thinkers, such as Thucydides, to claim a timeless intellectual pedigree. But this ignores both the extensive mainstream scholarship of the first decades of the twentieth century that dealt with colonialism and racial issues and the pioneering work of African American writers in what he calls “the Howard School.” Consigning both to the memory hole, he says, paints a distorted picture of the discipline’s origins and nature, obscuring the role that international relations scholarship has played in the construction and perpetuation of white Western dominance. 

These are major claims, and some of them hold up better than others. Vitalis is correct to shine a spotlight on the forgotten academic work of the first third of the twentieth century and offers a timely reminder of just how prevalent racialized thinking was and how central a role imperialism—as opposed to straightforward great-power relations—played in global affairs. Back then, for example, “policy relevance” in political science often meant figuring out how to train good colonial administrators. Vitalis also provides a service by telling the story of scholars such as Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, and Rayford Logan, enriching readers’ understanding of midcentury intellectual debates over U.S. foreign policy and tracing how racism operated inside various professional institutions.

Vitalis is less convincing, however, in casting his analysis as an indictment of the postwar discipline of international relations, let alone its contemporary incarnation. To get there, one has to share his politics. Vitalis sees a project of U.S. imperial domination playing out over the course of the past century, with the “subjection” continuing today, “through new-old policies of intervention, tutelage, and targeted killings in new-old zones of anarchy and civilization deficit.” Given such a reading of U.S. foreign policy, it is not surprising that he believes “the history of ideas, institutions, and practices [in the field] has a constitutive role in their present forms and functions”—or that he sees today’s mainstream international relations scholars as handmaidens of an evil national security state and as the direct descendants of their racist predecessors of a century ago.

Scorning the notion that the postwar liberal international order represents anything particularly new or admirable, Vitalis scores a few points in noting how long it took for some earlier social and racial hierarchies, both international and domestic, to erode. But he refuses to accept the fact that they have indeed eroded. One is left wanting more analysis of how and why the attitudes and patterns of domination Vitalis describes gave way over time, and how the midcentury theorists and practitioners of the liberal international order understood and handled the paradoxes of its halting and inconsistent implementation.