As a discipline, international relations or IR in short is founded on a number of historical oversights and selective amnesia. The international relations theory largely dwells on matters that assume nation-states just coming into being without really considering the history behind their formation. In so doing, the study becomes incomplete in a way that renders it only partially relevant and being applicable only to the white Western and privileged persons while leaving out the black non-Western and underprivileged in its discourse. While crying out about a post-colonial era, the international relations theory seeks to wipe out the memories of the colonial era, by emphasizing equality and sovereignty among states. The call to decolonize IR is thus a movement that is aimed at creating a more holistic picture in defining the relationships between various states. The equality defined in terms of sovereignty and ‘independence’ is far from practical and the reasons for this can be found in the history that the IR currently strives so desperately to block out. The current paper discusses the subject of decolonizing the IR and the effects this may have in terms of the general constructions of the international domain.
The IR is considered as a study about the relationship between nations and their foreign policies in terms of the way they respond to threats to sovereignty, national security, war, and other insurgencies. Its history is founded on the concept of sovereign states, implying that the state is the ultimate power within sovereign borders with no internal equals or external superiors. In advocating for equality in sovereignty, international relations can be seen as a study in which the world is a level playing field for national governments. This is however an ideal situation that is far from the practical truth. These ideals drive the international relations concept as all efforts are channeled towards finding peace and equality and ending wars and terror attacks among other threats to the human security.
Looking at this definition of international relations, it would be easy to note that it is merely a construct of the Western world seeking atonement for its part in the global inequality resulting from the colonial era. The atonement is, however, being sought without acknowledging the acts they committed. This has resulted in a chronic failure to find lasting solutions to the world’s problems both as of now and in the future. For as long as the international relations concept is focused on its ‘presentism’ approach, there will not be a day when the international community will jubilate and say it is finally over. Peace and harmonious co-existence will continue to remain a subject of the fantasy and fictitious world, while the reality will grapple with war and terrorism among other things.
From a constructionist point of view, the definitions of international relations are largely built on a colonial pedestal. The ideology of sovereignty is in itself an opposition to colonization, seeking to emphasize the independence of a given state from external interference. International relations theory is built on nationalist ideologies. Thus, it consistently looks for ways to deal with threats to sovereignty, matters of national security, terrorism, war, and other counter insurgency situations. This means that the concept of international relations is focused on solving problems that are rooted in the past by using ‘presentism’ as the relevant approach. Coronil reckons that, while there are numerous frameworks that have been created as a result of this approach, including the UN Human Rights Charter, which has proven to be invaluable over the years, there are a number of issues that continue to be overlooked in the drive to international peace and harmonious coexistence among nations. The IR is built on the need to start with a clean slate and this is easy for the perpetrators of the historical injustices. The victims are always the last ones to forget and, while the concept of IR in some way forces them to look past their pain and anger, the consequences of these historical injustices bubble under the surface with such vigor that they may at some point boil over and destroy the thin layer of forgiveness that may be seen on the surface.
With this in mind, decolonizing as a concept can be defined as the act of acknowledging the past and using it to adjust and adapt a given concept for a non-colonized situation. In this case, decolonizing the IR would imply going back to the basics and defining the causes of the current global inequality. The wars and insurgencies have very deep roots in the colonization and it is this aspect of the global history that requires addressing as opposed to forgetting. As opposed to repressing historical facts, a decolonized IR concept would acknowledge the past and use it to adapt the constructs of international relations so that they would be practical for the entire world and not for its architects only. This would mean looking at international relations from the point of view of the Whites, the Blacks, a woman, a man, a child, and even a soldier. As opposed to using the eyes of a white, western, male, privileged bureaucrat or scholar, decolonizing IR entails examining the historical facts as they happened, in plain and simple terms, and without alterations for the benefit of personal or national interests.
The end result, once the IR is decolonized, would be a concept of international relations that delves beneath the surface to deal with the cause of international problems and not their symptoms. As opposed to handling issues like terrorism, national security, and wars, a decolonized IR would focus more on the issues of historical injustices, exploitation, genocides, slavery, racism, and land theft. It is these issues that have created the prevailing unequal state of nations and addressing them may bring scholars closer to a lasting solution. Currently, the IR is simply handling the symptoms of the disease and, as a concept, it may never really achieve the desired results.
If the IR is decolonized, the one thing that would change gravely would be the way in which historical facts are addressed. Currently, history books are no different from fiction books in that the narrative has been altered to suit national interests. Each nation is centered on consolidating its position of power and stamping its sovereignty among its peers. Going back and telling it like it really is would be stepping on many powerful toes, the United States included. Decolonizing the IR would imply acknowledging the exploitation and conquests of the powerless states and ‘primitive’ civilizations of Africa and beyond, a quest that largely benefited the perpetrators. Currently, the UN charter on human rights drafted and endorsed by the very people who historically abused and mistreated human beings as slaves may not make sense to the affected communities unless the acts are acknowledged and an apology is offered (Krishna 2001). Decolonizing the IR would imply moving away from the problem-solving approach of combating external threats and embracing a more critical approach of examining the root causes and using them to formulate a lasting solution.
In the current context, international relations refer to a situation that transcends national boundaries, bringing together more than one sovereign state. This means that the definition of the notion of international is based on a colonial script of nationalism and sovereignty. In decolonizing the IR, defining individuals by their national belonging would be considered as a colonial thing. This implies that individualism will overtake nationalism to the point that ‘international’ in its present context may not draw any attention. In the colonial era, belonging to a nation-state was considered as a basic need. People were classified based on their stand in a ‘primitive’ or ‘civilized’ society as seen in the anthropology manifests. This was an early form of racism, only that it was disguised with a better, yet more repulsive label known as nationalism. Slavery is just but one open manifestation of the downside of this concept.
In a decolonized era of international relations, people will be valued and respected simply for being human. Other than having to align themselves with a certain sovereign state, individuals will be viewed as equals regardless of where they come from. The relationship between nations or national governments should not dictate the relationships between their citizens as this would be interfering with their personal rights and freedoms. The idea that international relations is all about inter-national relationships is a colonial one that elevates the concept of nationalism over non-national existences. In this sense, decolonizing the IR will change the definition of international from inter-national to universal where universal implies a world without boundaries, where every human being is treated with respect and is allowed to live their lives as they choose, of course with the condition that they do not negatively interfere with the lives of those around them.
In a decolonized IR setting, international policies and laws would be formulated based on the opinions and suggestions of the world’s populations and not a group of white Western scholars and bureaucrats with no idea of what life is like outside their comfort zones. These laws affect the underprivileged non-Western citizens of the world as well and it would only be fair that their voices are also heard and their plights are considered in creating these laws and policies.
International relations as a discipline needs to move away from the shallow problem-solving culture of ‘presentism’ and embrace a causal approach that requires genealogical interpretations of the present based on the events of the past. This would imply breaking the long-standing ice on historical injustices and addressing what really caused the current global inequality. While the IR advocates for equality in sovereignty, the resulting policies look like a script from the future, one which the present states cannot live up to. The study looks past the actions and injustices of the powerful states against the ‘primitive’ civilizations, and yet it expects the cooperation of colonial masters and their former colonies despite the ill feelings that are evidently beneath the well-manicured surface. Such expectations make the current IR impractical in many ways. The call to decolonize the IR simply requires the international community to acknowledge the past and give apologies where they are needed so that the victims can move past their pain. This obstacle is however not only emotional, but it goes all the way to the political and economic structures, in some instances up to the social structures where the colonial masters have practically crippled their colonies and left them in rot while exploiting them to enrich themselves. The current state of unequal sovereignty on the global front is a result of the colonialism that is ignored in the IR. Decolonization in this discipline thus puts the status quo at stake by implying that the world problems can be finally given a permanent solution, eventually rendering the ‘super powers’ irrelevant and equal to the ‘primitive’ states. This would also redefine the concept of ‘international’ from inter-national to universal, in most instances rendering governments powerless over their citizens as they embrace global citizenship instead of nationalism.
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