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Racism as a Foundation of the Modern World

Racism as a Foundation of the Modern World

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Acharya, A. (2021). Race and racism in the founding of the modern world order. International Affairs, 98(1), 23-43. https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiab198 

Talking Points  

  • Race and racism, empire, and slavery are foundations of the European- and American-led contemporary world order, as demonstrated by the transatlantic slave trade, racist views held by Western philosophers, and the “standard of civilization” principle. 
  • World order is created by great powers “on the basis of their own self-image, the values they regard as universal, and their own interest and influence,” meaning today’s is characterized by “the primacy of the West,” capitalism, state sovereignty and nation-states, an embrace of imperialism, and race and racism. 
  • In the aftermath of WWII, the creation of the United Nations was a key feature of world order-making; yet foundational documents of the UN reflected the values of the Euro-American world order and systematically ignored Western imperialism and colonialism as a human rights violation.  
  • Exposing the link between the Euro-American world order and racism and empire has been a key contribution of anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles, but this insight has yet to be fully incorporated into the teaching and practice of international affairs. 

Key Insight for Informing Practice  

  • Identifying historical and contemporary examples of racism in war prevention and humanitarian response presents an immense opportunity for the peacebuilding community to critically examine their approaches and then work towards more transformational, structural change. 

Summary  

Amitav Acharya examines the European- and U.S.-led (Euro-American) modern world order through the lens of race and racism, calling for the recognition of racism as a global challenge. In a historical context, race and racism, empire, and slavery may not be exclusive characteristics of the Euro-American world order. However, the “emergence of racism as a scientific, profitable, offensive, geopolitical and normative basis for [organization]” and “the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing link between empire, slavery and racism” are distinctive characteristics of Euro-American global leadership. His argument is demonstrated by a critique of the characteristics of the Euro-American order and the creation of the United Nations following the end of WWII. He looks to the work and struggle of anti-colonial leaders to imagine an alternative world order animated by racial justice and equality. He ends with several recommendations for scholars and practitioners.   

Race: “one of the main groups to which people are often considered to belong, based on physical characteristics that they are perceived to share such as skin colour, eye shape, etc.”

Cambridge Dictionary. (N.d.). Race. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/race (emphasis added)

Racism: “can be defined as ‘prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is minority or marginalized.’ [1] But racism is not just ‘simply bigotry or prejudice.’ It extends to political and institutional ‘beliefs, practices, and policies reflective of and supported by institutional power, primarily state power.’ [2]”

[1] Lexico. (N.d.). Racism. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://www.lexico.com/definition/racism

[2] Henderson, E. A. (2013). Hidden in plain sight: Racism in international relations theory, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 26(1),  72.

What is world order? A popular definition identifies the goals of the modern world order (informed by Euro-American values) as maintaining the nation-state system, state sovereignty, peace between nation-states as narrowly defined as the absence of war, and property rights. As such, Acharya notes that world order is created by great powers “on the basis of their own self-image, the values they regard as universal, and their own interest and influence.” This observation draws similarities between European and American order-making, particularly “the primacy of the West,” capitalism, state sovereignty and nation-states, an embrace of imperialism, and, importantly, race and racism. Racism, slavery, and empire were central to the “making of the contemporary world order” led by Europe and United States. This is demonstrated by the transatlantic slave trade, the racist views held by Western philosophers who were highly influential to the creation of the modern world order (like John Locke, Immanuel Kant, J.S. Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich Engels, and Woodrow Wilson), and the “standard of civilization” principle.

Standard of civilization: An implicitly racist ordering principle, “where the conditions for admission to the club of advanced nations included respect for property rights, provision of infrastructure, safe travel, freedom of religion and commerce, respect for international agreements, and possession of modern technology.” While theoretically any nation could be admitted, in practice, it was employed to justify colonialism in non-white, non-European regions.

In the aftermath of WWII, the U.S. emerged as a great power in the position to carry forward the beliefs and practices of the European order, especially those informed by race and racism. The creation of the United Nations was a key feature of world order-making. Acharya examines foundational texts of the United Nations to demonstrate the ways race and racism were entrenched in the new system of global power. For example, the preamble of the UN Charter prioritizes the value of “sovereign equality” rather than “racial equality” and makes no mention of colonialism, indicating that “racial discrimination and inequality could persist even among sovereign nations.” Further, there was almost no mention of racism and colonialism in the deliberations that created the UN Charter. Acharya proposes three reasons why: First, the key purpose of the UN was “war-prevention in the immediate context of [WWII]” with a focus on German and Japan imperialism and not that of other global/imperial powers. Second, the charter was drafted by Westerners of which many were colonialists and racists. Third, Asian and African nations had little representation and leadership at the deliberations.  

If racial equality had been more central to the creation of the UN, it “might have given more prominence to the fight for racial justice” against racist regimes like apartheid South Africa or  domestic racism in Western countries. The call for racial equality and justice as a global norm became a central demand of anti-colonial and anti-racist leaders from the new countries emerging from decolonization, as seen in the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. Fearing embarrassment, Western countries tried (and failed) to prevent the conference from happening and to manipulate its outcomes. Despite external pressure, the Bandung Conference laid out principles that linked violations of human rights with colonialism and racism. The Conference affirmed that “the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights,” later to be incorporated in the UN General Assembly’s declaration on colonialism in 1960.  

Exposing the link between the Euro-American world order and racism and empire was a key contribution of the anti-colonial struggle, but this insight is yet to be fully incorporated into the teaching and practice of international affairs. Acharya warns about the tendency for researchers to study race only as it remains newsworthy and appears politically correct. Instead, he recommends sustained attention to race and racism and the integration of these into the teaching of all social sciences and humanities subject areas. Further, conversations on race and racism should not be compartmentalized into short-term or narrowly domestic contexts. He argues that anti-racist movements have always been transnational, and understanding race as a global challenge creates opportunities for reshaping norms on human rights, justice, and governance for the 21st century.  

Informing Practice  

A recognition of how race and racism operate in global affairs is critically important to understanding contemporary peace and security issues. Although it is perhaps more obvious how racism has informed the practice of war and empire-building across the centuries, it has also shaped the practice of war prevention and humanitarian response. Identifying historical and contemporary examples of racism in war prevention and humanitarian aid highlights blind spots and presents an immense opportunity for the peacebuilding community to critically examine their approaches and then work towards more transformational, structural change.  

While not explicitly stated in this article, European and U.S. imperialism and empire-building were conducted with extreme violence against the inhabitants of conquered territories. Further, the process of decolonization was often marred by violence whether through violent uprisings, civil war, and/or Cold War-era proxy wars. And yet, the purpose of the UN at its inception was “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The UN has largely failed to prevent war in much of the world outside of Europe and North America, and it is still abundantly clear how violence is perpetuated, obscured, or ignored by global powers and multilateral institutions.  

There has been a seemingly endless flow of commentary on the war in Ukraine. In many ways, this is appropriate—it’s a shocking war of blatant territorial invasion and conquest that has not been seen in Europe since WWII. Perhaps the most profound response to the war in Ukraine was delivered by Kenya’s Ambassador to the UN. In it, he drew a direct comparison to the experience of African countries established by the end of empire and not only condemned Russian actions but condemned all powerful states in repeatedly breaching international law on peace and security.   

While this statement was imprecise on exactly what powerful states have done, it is easy to guess what the Ambassador was referring to. In recent memory, the U.S. has repeatedly violated international norms on state sovereignty, most notably in its 2003 invasion of Iraq and drone warfare throughout Africa and Asia. Refugees fleeing from wars in Africa and the Middle East (wars that are actively supported by global powers through military aid or intervention) face resistance, hostility, and indifference from American and European countries—the very same countries who have now warmly welcomed Ukrainian refugees. The selective compassion towards refugees is a glaring example of how race and racism still permeates global structures to protect people from violence.  

The peacebuilding community (including non-governmental organizations, funders, government agencies, etc.) can do so much more in recognizing how the vestiges of empire and racism condition responses to war and violence. These are apparent in funding decisions among governments and private funders, in the structure and delivery of aid and humanitarian assistance, and in the conflicts that garner public outrage and support. The movement to decolonize aid is an excellent starting point to reform practices in peacebuilding. [KC]

Questions Raised   

  • How would (Western) peacebuilding practice change with a deep consideration of race, racism, and empire? 

Continued Reading  

Aquino, E., & Paige, S. (2022). Decolonizing U.S. aid and foreign policy. New America. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://www.newamerica.org/political-reform/reports/equity-and-racial-justice-where-do-they-fit-in-a-national-security-strategy/decolonizing-us-aid-and-foreign-policy-by-elana-aquino-and-shannon-paige  

Booker, S., & Ohlbaum, D. (2021). Dismantling racism and militarism in U.S. foreign policy. A discussion paper. Center for International Policy and FCNL Education Fund. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://www.fcnl.org/dismantling-racism-and-militarism-us-foreign-policy 

Chappell, B. (2022, February 22). Kenyan U.N. ambassador compares Ukraine’s plight to colonial legacy in Africa. NPR. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from  https://www.npr.org/2022/02/22/1082334172/kenya-security-council-russia  

Love, A. (2022). Recognizing, understanding, and defining systemic and individual white supremacy. Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://issuu.com/wcapsnet/docs/recognizing_understanding_and_eradicating_system 

Narayan, P. T., Asirwatham, R., & Afolayan, A. (2022, February). Systemic racism in mass violence and atrocity prevention. Stanley Center. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://stanleycenter.org/publications/systemic-racism-mass-violence-prevention/  

Osman, E. (2022, March 8). Ending our selective compassion for refugees. Inkstick Media. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://inkstickmedia.com/ending-our-selective-compassion-for-refugees/  

Peace Direct. (2021, May 10). Time to decolonize aid. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://www.peacedirect.org/us/publications/timetodecoloniseaid/  

Organizations  

WCAPS: https://www.wcaps.org  

Peace Direct: https://www.peacedirect.org/us/   

Keywords: race, racism, empire, imperialism, United Nations, colonization 

Photo Credit: Library of Congress via picryl

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