Sunday, November 10, 2013

Nowhere to go but up

A couple of things I've seen recently in the blogoshere led me to take a look at an article called "Decolonizing International Relations: Perspectives from Latin America," International Studies Review, Sept. 2012.

The author begins by saying that "the aim of this paper is to think differently about International Relations (IR) by thinking differently about the Americas." The author writes "as a Latin Americanist, and as such...bring[s] a particular geographical and disciplinary perspective to the question of power in the region, drawing on the 'coloniality of power' perspective developed by Latin American academics."

I suppose that could be interesting, provided the perspective is lucidly explained for those unfamiliar with it.

But then my eye fell on this passage, in which the author is approvingly discussing Inayatullah and Blaney's book International Relations and the Problem of Difference:
[Inayatullah and Blaney] show how ideas such as sovereignty and just war -- keystones in the edifice of IR -- are grounded in an understanding of the world which writes such ideas as universal without acknowledging that they emerged from a particular social milieu.
Let's put 'just war' aside and focus on sovereignty. How is the idea of sovereignty "grounded in an understanding of the world" which fails to acknowledge that it emerged from "a particular social milieu"? Virtually every intro IR textbook informs its readers that the idea of sovereignty (as the term is used in contemporary international law and relations) emerged from a particular milieu -- i.e., Europe during a particular era (whose precise dates one might argue about) -- and then eventually spread beyond the milieu in which it originated. No doubt the spread of the idea and institution of sovereignty was historically tied up in various ways with European imperialism, but are people not aware that the most vociferous proponents of state sovereignty and its corollary of noninterference in internal affairs are the states that emerged from the processes of decolonization in the nineteenth and then the mid-twentieth century? Try telling any leader of an Asian, African or Latin American country that the idea of sovereignty is a tool of the 'coloniality of power' because it is a European idea pretending to be a universal one. Chances are you'll be greeted with a shrug or a quizzical look and then politely asked to leave.

Things get worse with this:
...the notion of European superiority was caught up with the Peace of Westphalia, which allowed the birth of the modern nation-state to be heralded as a social advance and confirmed the nation-state as a 'natural' and desirable social model....
Actually the Peace of Westphalia had very little (indeed I would say nothing) to do with the "birth of the modern nation-state," which was a long process that did not reach its end-point until well after 1648. How much Westphalia even had to do with sovereignty is highly debatable, but sovereignty and "the modern nation-state" should not be treated as the same. As for the Peace of Westphalia allowing "the birth of the modern nation-state to be heralded as a social advance and confirm[ing] the nation-state as a 'natural' and desirable social model," I think that is little better than gibberish.

A glance at the rest of the article suggests that it gets somewhat better, but then, starting from such a low point, it has nowhere to go but up.

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