Future Anterior: A Genealogy of International Relations and Society

This book project reconsiders the ideas of the ‘international’ and “international relations” postulated by the discipline of “international relations”. It has three basic aims: 1) to present a genealogical view of the concept of “global order” in the discipline of international relations; 2) to discuss related discursive modes (scientific, philosophical, literary, historical) and their political/ideological implications; 3) to examine key issues (objectivity, subjectivity, ontology, epistemology) and aspects (reality, strategy, interdependence, security) associated with international relations within the global order. In all these regards, the project present challenges to disciplinary representations. In the first instance, it challenges what amounts to a theoretical fundamentalism in international relations: the twin tendencies of disciplinary traditions to 1) conflate international relations with the processes and modes of  institutionalization of Western power, interests, and identity globally; and 2) substitute generalized and fixed assumptions of the modern state, state interests, sovereignty to complex historical events involving a multiplicity of actors with conflicting desires and interests. We arrive at this point in the discipline by invoking all manners of founding texts: for instance, Thucydides, to von Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Morgenthau and beyond (for realists); Aristotle, Kant, Grotius, Voltaire, Montesquieu but also Mills and Gramsci (for an assortment of liberals and cosmopolitans); and more recently Nietzsche, Freud, Levinas, Deleuze, and others (for postmodernists). Feminists, postcolonialists, and others too have founding figures but the latter are less implicated in the principal theoretical enterprise of the discipline.

The organization of the projected book reflects postcolonial contestations of modern subjectivity, identities, and their political economies. Critically, such contestations make a case for a separation of the historically expressed Western wills, desires, and subjectivities from those projected or embraced by other constituent members of international society. Thus, the project re-examines the ‘past’ of international relations with particular regard to the identities, values, and roles of multiple agents, subjects, and actors worldwide who helped bring about what amounts today to the “international community” and/or “society”.  In these latter regards, the book evokes ‘archeological concerns’ (involving epistemes and the formation of systems of thought) such as expressed by Michel Foucault. Foucault amended these concerns later with a ‘genealogy’ that centered on the causes of transition from one way of thinking to another, together with the contingency of history and historical positions.

Foucault explored knowledges, discourses, and domains of objects without reference to subjects: according to Michel Rolph-Trouillot, the ‘voices that are aware of their own vocality.’ Consistent with Rolph-Trouillot, the present book places an emphasis the mechanisms of power, value, and interest of the political entities that have defined the terms of international relations throughout the modern age. The indication of this voice and its vocality, when paired with the recovery of those that they suppressed or erased, direct one to a different approach to genealogy: one not defined by discontinuities in ways of thinking (forms or presentations) but by the contingency of historical positions; the discursive and ethical effects of the desire for hegemony; and the contrasts between ascendant norms, values and interests, on the one hand, and those contained by the vanquished systems of thought.

The projected book therefore seeks to bring to the fore these actors, their intellectual resources, and their ideas of the moral order in order to broaden international theory and related policy options. Finally, the project is intended as basis for envisaging a new ethics as well as future political possibilities. As presently structured, the project consists of sections or chapters: 1) Encounters: Transacting Renaissance and Discovery (1492-1600); 2) The Ghost of a European Experiment: Sovereignty, Modernity, and Violence (1600-1850); 3) Nationalism and Alienation: Nations, Empires, and their Demises (1850-1945); and 4) Impasses: Reason, Identity, and Interest [Solidarity, Peace, and Justice] (1945 to the present).

The first chapter, Encounters, opens on the context of Columbus’s voyage to the New World in 1492, rather that event itself. During this time, but with the exception of the as-yet-to-be discovered New World, were integrated by overlapping trade routes that invariably connected peoples to goods, religions, and ideas from faraway sites that were as differed as their participants. The later varied markedly. They included actors (merchant classes, the faithful, and adventurers who operated on behalf of themselves but also of city-states, empires, kingdom, and other loosely-organized entities that dotted the sea, deserts, mountain passes, and the like. The structures, rules, and norms that governed the related transactions had lasted centuries in many cases. They offered not only possibilities but also inhibitions to which each regions and entities responded markedly.

The discovery of the New World provided Europe with a distinct opportunity: a space that they would exclusive dominate, exploit, and settle as foundations for advantages over other regions of the world. This action derived from a singular political ideology and pragmatism that was in ascendance in Europe: the idea that the symbolic and material benefits of commerce and politics should accrue to discreet units on the basis of identity, power, and technology. The year 1492 (Queen Isabela’s miracle year) was particularly symbolic of the new moralities. To its authors, the expulsion of Jews from Spain purifies the Christian realm; the defeat of the Moors sanctioned not only Christianity superiority over Islam but also of white over black; while the discovery of the New World ended the dependence of Europe over Mediterranean Muslim provinces and trade routes. These events and their assigned meanings shaped Europe’s early engagements of the entities of the New World, particularly in the Caribbean island (particularly Ispañola), the eastern coast of North America, and present-day Brazil. The results were mixed but unmistakable by the end of the 17th century: while related transactions led productively to transculturations, hybridizations, and other forms of mixity, they also led tragically but predictably to usurpations of power, property, and legitimacy. These actions still reverberate today in global politics.

The second chapter, Ghost of Europe, sheds light on the manners in which concurrent transformations worldwide affected not only intra-European political dynamics but also relationships between Europe and other regions of the world.  In this context, the chapter explores the genealogies of the three ascendant European languages of inter-communal and interstate relations: international theory, international law, and international ethics. The chapter explores the above events in light of the intra-European contexts –of cultural renaissance, scientific and philosophical achievements, commercial success, religious wars, wars of religion– and the global contexts of European practices of conquest, settlements, and colonization throughout the world. These subsequent events call into question the boundaries, ambiguities, complexities, and implications of the discursive and material practices that enabled the ascendency of Europe, the modern state system, and capitalism. The chapter places special focus on the modern concepts of sovereignty (as the ultimate form of power) and the sovereign (who may legitimately claim and exercise sovereignty), together with the associated privileges and immunities. This examination begins with the religious (ecclesiastic) instantiations of the concepts of sovereign and sovereignty under the Roman Catholic Church and extends to their mutations during the Reformation (c.1320-1648), the Counter-Reformation and Inquisition (1480-1834) and the Thirty Years’ War (1619-1648) and beyond in the colonial European universes in modern times. The subsequent political, technological, and linguistic constitutions of sovereignty and sovereigns remain key to understanding modern constitutional questions and ethics. Specifically, the advisability and ethics of violence within the modern state emanated in the 17th-century in conjunction with parallel conceptions of society, law, religion and their supposed opposites: including nature, heresy, barbarism. As a result, modern political subjectivity necessarily invokes and evokes violence. Finally, this second chapter ponders political and moral questions regarding the normalization of state violence and the militarization of external relations –later foreign policy.

The third chapter, Nationalism and Alienation, broaches the subject of the post-discovery colonial cartography of global politics. Structured around the historical advent of imperialism and decolonization, this course places special emphasis on the emergence of ethnically-based national identities within heterogenous territories, including empires and colonial domains. The chapter stresses the modernity of the concept of nations (and its attendant conceptions of sovereignty, territorial boundaries, and justice) while exploring alternative articulations of communal identity prior to and/or concurrent with modern manifestations of nation and nationalism. It examines different imaginaries and teleologies of “collective memory”, “religion”, and “geography” which define the ethical dimensions and temporal horizons of “citizenship”, and, therefore, inclusion and exclusion, toleration, antagonisms, and conflicts in international politics today.

To these ends, the chapter places a special emphasis on the ambiguities of two sets of relations. The first set of relationships are connected to the imagined but politically potent fixed identity of the nation. The nation appears in this imaginary as legitimizer if not container of the state, politics, and public policy. This identity depended on specific modes of appearance in which religion, race, and region emerged as chief markers of self and multiple others. Through a peculiar anthropology or ethnography, these identities were ascribed determinate behaviors specified by reason and its realms in politics: interest and ethics. While interest and ethics determined how Europe treated others, the modes of modes of engagement involved moralities that incorporated spaces into zones of empathy and cooperation (on account of civilization and religion) which contrasted with affective zones of antagonisms (likened to a state of nature legitimately subject to desire and power. In short, religion, canonical texts, territory, and region defined the fate of the other in moments of encounters, particularly where fights erupted. The second set of relationships involved the response of other regions to the emergent forms of power, especially during empire and anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. These relationships involved equally ambiguous but political effective entities –including historical consciousness and memories of the past– that led first to alienation from European orders and then to the will to emancipation: self-determination. It is a sign of the ambiguities and imprecisions of anti-colonial self-determination that it was necessarily framed around “national” identity. Despite its inherent limitations, national self-determination and nationhood emerged as essential conditions for entry into the international community and later “international society”.

Impasses, the final chapter of the book revisits to the ethical and political possibilities eliminated by the international order instituted in the wake of European (and Western) hegemony. This return is neither nostalgic nor fundamentalist. It is inspired by the fact that much that appears today in the world as signs of either anarchy (inviting of chaos) or ill-fated idealism (bearing on utopia) actually have roots in fragmented memories of the past: For instance, there is much to the cartography of Byzantium that has been discredited but the rhizome that it was begins to make sense when one remembers that the ports of Kalah and the straight of Malacca once brought together seemingly unintelligible peoples and cultures –Chinese, South Indians, Muslims (i.e., Arabs and Africans). This feat both inspired Hugo Grotius and evidence that the freedom of the seas was a universal value. Likewise, much as Western missionaries have tried to blemish the records of their hosts throughout the world, Voltaire tells us that it was the great Emperor Yang-Chin who appeared wisest and most magnanimous emperor. He and others like him in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere appreciated and upheld the freedom of religion –and not the Jesuits that the Chinese empire was compelled to expel from his land. Finally, the dragomans of the Ottoman empire and the Soninke scribes and merchants (or the Wangaras) set in motion practices of translation and hospitality that gave birth to modern consular norms. The dragomans tutored many Venitians in the art of translation, hospitality, and diplomacy. Their traditions gave context to the modesty of Kant’s visions of hospitality.

The Kant’s example above is only one among many that illustrate one central point of this project: that disciplinary conceptions of identity and time (historical consciousness) are inadequate to the challenges posed by globalization: the interpenetration across the globe of public and private lives, systems of production and distribution, and modes of governance. ] The hardest task of the discipline may yet be to convincingly counter two ascendent forces: state and individual actions that imperil human dignity and the environment; and 2) the ideologies of identity and interest and, therefore, ethics, that comfort the prevailing pragmatism. Related disciplinary interventions would be futile without serious efforts toward re-imagining power, order, and their identities. These efforts would be vain without knowledge of the foundations of the countervailing forces, values, and ethos contained in specific ‘cultures’ of globalization that paradoxically evoke cosmopolitanism and parochialism; difference and intolerance; democracy and authoritarianism or autocracy. They are effective and may be efficacious in imagining the future because they retain credibility and legitimacy in the minds of billions around the globe. They also exude hope and politics of different sorts.


It would be foolhardy to believe that the West may legitimately pose as tutor to the rest of the world and that others had not developed institutions of ethics (particularly of representation and hospitality), toleration, democracy, and the like. The historiography, ethnography, and hermeneutics upon which much of our discipline has been built need re-examination. This conclusion is not antagonistic to the discipline –at least the idea of it. Nor does it diminish the role of the West and/or particular Western states in modern history. It is however to warn that the legacies of the West for modernity and in global politics are at best mixed. While certain Western institutions today have great moral appeal and political weight, questions remain about their sufficiency and/or inevitability. Specifically, successive Western enactments of the international order have been predicated on the legitimation of violence –spatialized to coincide with historical moral economies of affect, race, and gender among others. This symbiosis between order and imperial (or colonial) violence depends upon specific logics of supremacy, usurpation, and expropriation whose instruments and ideologies –from salvation to development and democracy– have failed to securitize life and bring about lasting stability. The projected does not merely describe this state of affair, it is designed to point to alternatives.

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