Review: Worldmaking After Empire

The transition from empire to post-colonial nation-state was neither natural nor inevitable but the result of a radical project of world building on the part of anticolonial intellectuals and politicians, one that combined self-determination and internationalism in an attempt to build a world order based on non-domination and equality. Adom Getachew’s fascinating but uneven Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination traces the arguments of thinkers and statesmen such as such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, W. E. B. Du Bois, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere to argue this ultimately doomed effort spanned multiple generations and evolved through multiple iterations as anticolonial radicals attempted to free their fledgling nations from the hierarchies born of colonial rule. These radicals, she argues, were no mere nation builders but instead believed they could make a more equal and equitable world only by reshaping the international institutions and relationships that had congealed in the waning days of the imperial era. Although those efforts would largely fail, they’d leave enduring legacies for the 21st century even as international hierarchies have endured and continue to enmesh the developing world into our new era of anti-global unilateralism.

Getachew begins her reclamation of these decolonization projects by defining the problem of the anticolonialism in the 20th century, and that problem, in the words of W.E.B. DuBois was “the color line.” Not merely a comment on The United States’ domestic racial politics, DuBois saw international imperial constructs as fundamentally racial, rather than simply statist, and the postcolonial world as one of unequal legal status amounting to an international Jim Crow segregation. This inequality was made explicit with the League of Nations, which refused to endorse racial equality in its charter and rejected self-determination as an international right. Standard accounts of this failure emphasize the initial rejection of self-determination and its slow achievement after World War Two. Getachew, however, argues provocatively that rather than liberating, Woodrow Wilson’s concept of self-determination, from the founding of the League of Nations onward, actually “recast self-determination in the service of empire.” By imbuing self-determination with a set of responsibilities—abolition of slavery, political stability, economic prosperity, and others—that would act as preconditions to the right of self-determination, the international community was able to bind decolonizing states to the “mechanisms of empire” by emphasizing their deficiencies and deviations from new international norms to deprive them of sovereignty. Getachew’s case studies here are Ethiopia and Liberia. Rather than being excluded from the community, the League integrated Ethiopia and Liberia into itself with partial, burdened membership due to the ongoing slave trade in their borders. This ironic partial membership demanded they eliminate the slave trade, something they were incapable of doing, and thus legitimated by their own consent international oversight by white administrators within their borders. This laid the groundwork for Wilson and Jan Smut’s articulation of their concept of “separate development,” which meant different institutions and developmental tracks for different peoples. “In this way, the expansion of international society and the retrenchment of international hierarchy when hand in hand,” Getachew writes. Self-determination was, in practice, only for white Europeans. Getachew argues the hierarchical nature of this version of international society reached its apex with Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, which rather than violating of international norms, in fact adhered to them: In a justification that would be perfectly at home in the post-Soviet world, who could fault a state for resorting to force in the face of intransigence and humanitarian crisis? Italy argued that Ethiopia had failed to meet the obligations required for rights of self-determination. Ethiopia was a failed, outlaw state, and so Italy was able to recast its imperial ambitions as a humanitarian project, and the international community tacitly assented to its intervention.

After World War Two, the second iteration of worldmaking began. With the passage of United Nations Resolution 1514, UN member states were granted the legal self-determination necessary for non-domination. But in this new phase, anti-colonialists understood that without freeing states from the political and economic hierarchies left over from the imperialist system, developing or Third World nations could never obtain true equality in the international community. Basing their critiques in Lenin and John Hobson’s theories of imperial economic exploitation, this new generation of anticolonial thinkers and statesmen attempted to gain equality through international organizations. They would also draw on the American post-colonial experience—“the spirit of 1776—to argue federations of states would be the best way to free their fledgling nations from the dependence inherent to the globalized world economy. This would find its expression in the abortive West Indies Federation and Union of African States, neither of which succeeded in addressing the contradictions between state sovereignty and international cooperation nor internal pluralisms left over by colonial boundary drawing.

With the failure of regional federations, the post-colonial worldbuilders turned at last to the United Nations, rallying behind Karl Gunnar Myrdal’s New International Economic Order. In addition to launching criticism of the outsized role granted to top-tier nations by the undemocratic Security Council, this iteration attempted to transform the UN from a peace organization to a democratic welfare organization. Under the NIEO proposals, anti-colonialists sought to mimic internationally the domestic, socialist welfare policies of Europe that had forestalled class warfare and redistributed economic benefits across class divided societies. This “highpoint of anticolonial worldmaking,” Getachew says, imagined that overcoming dependence and dominance was only possible by limiting the role of multinational corporations in the developing world, reinforcing state sovereignty, and flattening the political and economic hierarchies. Imagining the developing world as the “workers and farmers of the world,” however, ignored internal contradictions, much like the short-lived regional federations had, and left domestic distribution to low-capacity states. With the oil shock and economic crises of the 1970s and 80s, these projects ended abruptly under international interventions. With them ended the radical, internationalized, anticolonial projects of the 20th century.

Getachew’s study is a much-needed reassessment of the decolonization efforts of the 20th century. She draws on sources from outside of the established narrative to counter the standard account of self-determination as a progressive and inevitable advancement, and she resituates the project of decolonization as a contested, determined, and yet-unfinished effort that depended on the racialized and radicalized thinking of oft-ignored anti-colonial luminaries. Her book is at its best when delving into the institutional and legal frameworks that constrained and defined the anticolonial projects, especially her provocative sections on Liberia and Ethiopia’s limited membership in the League of Nations, burdened sovereignty, and the imperial underpinnings of humanitarian intervention.

These sections, which are clear and cogent, are unbalanced somewhat by Getachew’s divergences into political philosophy, which too often confuse rather than clarify. These wordy sections would have been greatly aided by short character sketches that give readers a better sense of the background and ambitions of the thinkers and leaders so central to the story of decolonization. The reader would be well-served by an understanding of how these political philosophies fit into their own personal histories and how they influenced specific national and international politics and policy. By portraying these anticolonial efforts as unitary and cumulative, Getachew also makes a similar mistake to those she accuses of misconstruing the history of decolonization. She draws a straight line through the philosophy and projects of Azikiwe to Williams to Nyerere, ignoring decades in the process, and then sidesteps to Myrdal, giving the impression of a singular and ever-advancing decolonization effort rather than the historically contingent, local, and contested projects each represented.

Those are flaws that can be forgiven, however, in a book that treads such new territory and provides a charged rethinking of decolonization. The ideas and efforts that she excavates are well worth reexamining in a post-Cold War era trending away from internationalism and toward interventionism and hierarchy.

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