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(p. 219) 12. Postcolonialism 

(p. 219) 12. Postcolonialism
(p. 219) 12. Postcolonialism

Shampa Biswas

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Reader’s Guide

The location of much of our current International Relations (IR) theorizing in the post-Second World War Euro–American world has meant that the preoccupations and priorities of much of the discipline have rarely accounted for the conditions and perspectives of those in non-Western societies. What explains the persistent and widespread poverty and abject conditions of life in large parts of the Third World? Why are Third World states often ‘weak’ or more likely to ‘fail?’ Why are most human rights violations targeted at black, brown, and indigenous bodies? Postcolonial IR helps answer these sorts of questions by foregrounding the history and politics of colonialism in the making of the modern world. This chapter begins with some of the central debates in the field of postcolonial theory. It then turns to the relevance of postcolonialism to the study of international relations, discussing the specific kinds of problems and questions postcolonial IR raises in the field. In the process, the chapter also shows some of the affinities and disagreements of postcolonial IR with Marxist and poststructuralist IR. The chapter highlights the continuing traces of colonial history in many of the contemporary institutions and practices of world politics, and the devastating effects of continuing global inequalities on the Third World. Additionally, it suggests different ways of engaging with the insights of postcolonial theory within IR that help open up fresh questions, alternative methodologies, and new modes of writing.


Around the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a number of commentators from across the political spectrum started urging the USA to assume the role of a colonizer. Prominent public intellectual Michael Ignatieff urged the US to get over its reluctance to use the ‘e-word’ and self-consciously assume the ‘white man’s burden’ to build an ‘empire’ and bring peace, stability, and development to the benighted dark corners of the world (Ignatieff 2002, 2003). Many other academics, policy thinkers, and political commentators joined the fray, making the case that the US invasion of Iraq was a ‘just war’, US intervention in Afghanistan was necessary, and a US imperial presence in the world was the only way to prevent a return to ‘the dark (p. 220) ages’ (Boot 2003; Elshtain 2003; Fergusson 2004). Indeed, they urged the US to learn from earlier empires, especially the British one, so as to deliver on its charge with wisdom. Many academics and intellectuals were surprised at how easily and blatantly this call for resuscitating a colonial mission was issued and how quickly and openly it was dissipated by well-known, often self-proclaimed liberal thinkers in respectable newspapers and news journals. It was, indeed, surprising how little effort it took to rehabilitate what just a short while before seemed like impolite words and impolitic advice. Similarly, when the Iraq War turned sour and reports of the brutal torture techniques used by US forces at Abu Ghraib started emerging, many commentators, including those who had supported the war, were surprised and horrified at what a seemingly democratic state was capable and willing to do, despite all the apparent advances on the human rights front.

What can we learn from this sense of surprise at the ease with which colonialism once again became fashionable to suggest and brutal colonial practices became possible to reactivate? At perhaps its most basic level, postcolonialism helps make sense of this surprise as a product of an amnesia—a forgetting about the history of colonialism, ignorance about the ways that its ideology and practices have been inscribed into the structure of world politics, and the failure to take stock of the shape of this brutal past in our contemporary disciplinary knowledge. In reviving this knowledge of colonialism and its contemporary resonances, postcolonial international relations (IR) helps us understand what has made our world so profoundly and recalcitrantly hierarchical, despite so many brave attempts at political change and transformation.

All disciplines have their genealogies and stories. The story of the discipline of International Relations (IR), at least in the form in which we recognize it now, begins in the post-Second World War Euro–American world. It should be no surprise, then, that the most pressing issue that has defined the discipline has been interstate war, and the most persistent questions that have animated debates have been about finding the best mechanism to prevent military conflict and/or build an architecture of cooperation. In the context of a Europe ravaged by such a massive war and a triumphant America growing materially powerful and increasingly self-confident about its place within a new world order, the story of IR—its central characters, its setting, its plot line—was narrated by those who emerged victorious from the Second World War and whose anxieties and ambitions would carve out the dominant trajectories for much of world politics in the next few decades. Postcolonialism draws attention to some of the absences and erasures in this story of IR as a discipline, with particular attention to the stories of those who were left out of the telling of this dominant narrative. In doing so, postcolonial IR also illuminates the damage wrought by the telling of a narrative that has profoundly shaped the infrastructure and dynamics of world politics, as well as opens up space to see and hear IR from other, more marginal perspectives—revealing new concerns, different priorities, and alternative lifeworlds and practices. In thus pluralizing the discipline, postcolonial approaches to IR enrich and complicate our understanding of how the world works, suggest new approaches to solve existing problems, and reveal a whole set of new problems worthy of our scholarly attention. They also underscore questions of Third World inequality and racial justice in the agenda of our discipline, and offer new normative insights about how to live and interact in a profoundly interconnected world.

I begin this chapter with a discussion of postcolonial theory—the concerns, problems, and preoccupations it highlights, some of the central debates that have shaped its intellectual (p. 221) terrain, and the normative and political commitments that distinguish it from other related fields (in particular, Marxism (Chapter 7) and poststructuralism (Chapter 11)). In making my way through a very large and complex interdisciplinary field, I will attempt to pull out those strands that are most relevant to understand the discipline and practice of IR. In the following section, I take up the question of the relevance of postcolonialism to the study of international relations, pointing to the continuing residues of colonial history in many of the contemporary institutions and practices of world politics and the brutal effects of continuing global hierarchies on Third World states and peoples. Finally, I discuss three different, albeit related, ways of engaging with the insights of postcolonial theory within IR that open up new questions, alternative methodologies, and offer different narrative possibilities for telling the story of IR.

Postcolonial theory: debates, preoccupations, commitments

While the term postcolonial itself has been debated and contested, the crucial point of departure for the body of scholarship loosely categorized as postcolonial theory is to foreground the history and politics of colonialism in making sense of our present social reality.1 Colonialism can be broadly defined as the conquest, domination, subjugation, and exploitation of primarily non-Western people and lands by European powers. This history commenced with the Spanish and Portuguese ‘discovery’ of the Americas in the fifteenth century, reached its peak in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with British, French, and Dutch annexation of lands and resources in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and its classical or formal phase ended with the wave of national independence movements in Asia and Africa in the mid-twentieth century. There has been considerable documentation of the damage inflicted in the course of European colonization—lives destroyed through direct and indirect forms of violence, the transfer of wealth from the colonies to the colonial metropolises, the destruction of local industries and life-worlds in the colonies, and the resultant loss of cultural identity and self-esteem. One of the central discussions in the field of postcolonial theory is how much in the post of colonialism we are at the current moment.

While some critics argue that the term postcolonialism mistakenly suggests the end of colonialism, thus making it more palatable in the West (Shohat, 1992), others suggest that the term signifies a continuity in the relations and practices of classical colonialism, despite the latter’s formal demise (Shome, 1998). Indeed, there was at one time a debate on the significance of inserting a hyphen between post and colonialism, with those in favour of hyphenating arguing for the need to honour the contextual specificity of contemporary states trying to carve out a postindependence national identity after the formal dissolution of European empires, while those arguing against the hyphen emphasizing the ways that formal independence masks the colonial continuities that need highlighting in any analysis of the present. Regardless of how significant different theorists might consider the rupture of political independence to be, all postcolonial theorists agree on the central role that the colonial encounter played in shaping both colonized and colonizer societies and the kinds of relations between them. The more important question for our purposes is to understand the shapes and forms of these colonial residues in the contemporary world.

Another important debate that has engaged postcolonial theorists has to do with the distance of postcolonial theory from Marxist theory (see Chapter 7), and, in particular, how (p. 222) sufficiently attentive and critical postcolonial theorists are to the workings of global capitalism. Several critics have objected that the field of postcolonial studies pays inadequate attention to political economy and the contemporary forces of neoliberal capitalism. Some of the most hard-hitting of these critics have disparaged the metropolitan location of postcolonial critics (Ahmed 1992), some even suggesting that postcolonial theory serves as an apology for neoliberalism (Dirlik 1997). These critics are right to suggest that accounting for the resilience and import of continuing relations of colonial power requires attention to exploitative global capitalism, in all its contemporary dimensions (Dirlik 1997; Lazarus 2001; Young 2001; Parry 2004), even if some of their criticisms are unfair and do not always consider the breadth of work in a rapidly evolving field. Rather than break from or distinguish itself against Marxist theory, some of the most sophisticated work in postcolonial IR is very much attentive to the ways that capitalist and colonial forces work in conjunction with each other (even if sometimes contradicting each other), recognizing that the historical development of industrial capitalism was very much coeval with and heavily dependent for both resources and markets on colonial expansion. In other words, postcolonial theory suggests that understanding the functioning and reproduction of contemporary global capitalism requires some understanding of both colonial history and the forms of colonial relations that continue to structure the workings of transnational capitalist forces in contextually specific ways in different locales. In that sense, postcolonial IR and Marxist IR help supplement each other’s analyses of how income and wealth inequalities continue to increase and economic exploitation continues unabated within contemporary neoliberal globalization, while also helping to explain why its most adverse effects are felt disproportionately in some geographical parts of the world and by particular racial and ethnic groups over others.

In addition to economic issues, perhaps the most distinctive contribution of postcolonial theory has been its critical examination of different forms of cultural domination and the politics of representation. Here the groundbreaking work of Edward Said, sometimes referred to as the founder of postcolonial studies, is critical. The now widely used term—Orientalism—was used by Said (in his seminal 1978 book with the same name) to refer to the institutions and processes (primarily of knowledge production) that helped establish the cultural superiority of Europe, which, in turn, both enabled and accompanied European colonial expansion (Said 1978, 1993). Accounting for the deeply rooted sense of European cultural superiority—examined by other scholars in the spheres of media representations, curricular practices, feminist theory, policy thinking, and so on—made it possible to show why Orientalism has been so resilient, despite the formal dissolution of European empires. This is, in part, why Eurocentrism—the tendency for analyses and explanations to presume or centre the experience of Europe as the normative referent—has been so difficult to dislodge, including in critical works of IR. In an attempt to show how cultural prejudice could seep into the work of even the most critical and empathetic of thinkers, Said showed the existence of Eurocentrism in some of Marx’s writings. Yet very much sympathetic to Marx and Marxism, Said also drew from the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to cast Orientalism as a form of ideology that helps Europeans make sense of, as well as be somewhat complacent about, global hierarchies and Third World suffering. Other theorists have drawn attention to the psychology of the colonial encounter and the long-term damage it inflicted on both the colonizer and the colonized (Memmi 1965; Nandy 1983). Postcolonial IR theorists help draw attention to the persistence of such deeply entrenched cultural practices and habits of mind that continue (p. 223) to shape the identities and relations between the global South and North. In the process, ‘provincializing Europe’ (Chakrabarty, 2000) helps disable Eurocentrism and open up spaces for different perspectives on world politics and new imaginaries for organizing global lives.

Finally, and related to the above, questions of alterity and cultural difference have been quite significant in postcolonial studies. Like poststructuralists (see Chapter 11), a wide range of postcolonial studies scholarship has interrogated the discursive production of identity in and through various (often binary) categories of difference (race, ethnicity, nation, gender, sexuality). For instance, the work of French poststructuralist Michel Foucault and his concept of discourse have been quite central to the work of many postcolonial theorists, including Edward Said. In global politics, this attention to discourse often helps draw attention to the ways that the categories of North and South or First World and Third World or Developed and Underdeveloped come into being not as innocent descriptors of geographical regions or facts of economic well-being, but as signifiers of worth and valuation with grave consequences for the inhabitants of those groups.

At the same time, postcolonial scholars (with poststructuralists) have also drawn attention to the porosity of boundaries separating groups—boundaries that are often considered distinct and rigid in IR’s state-centric territorial imagination—pointing both to the Third Worlds of poor, minority, indigenous populations within the so-called First Worlds, and the hybrid forms and intersecting boundaries that characterize lives in both the global North and South (Pratt 1992; Bhabha 2004). However, sometimes postcolonial studies scholars chide poststructuralists for too much valorization of diversity, fragmentation, and pastiche at the expense of a sustained focus on power—that is, who wields the power to represent or produce and deploy categories of difference, what is the basis of that power, how is such power wielded, and with what material consequences for those who are disempowered in that process. Furthermore, postcolonial theorists distinguish themselves by underscoring their political commitment to move beyond deconstructing categories and revealing the workings of power towards more constructive projects whose aim is to diminish inequalities, improve conditions of life, craft alternative narratives, imagine more democratic possibilities, and produce movements of solidarity and transformation.

Postcolonial international relations

More than half a century after the wave of decolonization that followed powerful national independence movements, the condition of many formerly colonized societies remains bleak. Even a cursory examination of the World Development Reports annually issued by the World Bank shows that most of the countries who are doing particularly poorly on both income generation and quality-of-life indicators are located in the parts of the world that Europe once conquered and occupied—much of Africa, as well as large parts of Asia and Latin America.2 Even countries such as India and Brazil that are often touted as recent economic success stories have enormous levels of poverty, massive economic inequalities, and large numbers of very vulnerable populations living extremely precarious lives. Yet, despite the fact that this so-called Third World consists of over two-thirds of the world’s population—hence sometimes referred to as the ‘Two-thirds World’—mainstream IR has only paid any attention to these states either when they threaten ‘systemic stability’, which for realists means ‘great (p. 224) power’ interests, or as objects to save and redeem by liberal humanitarians. The historical causes and the contemporary mechanisms of domination and exploitation, as well as the aspirations and imaginaries for global politics that continue to exist in non-Western regions of the world have seldom had a place in the study of international relations. This neglect—which postcolonial IR draws attention to and attempts to redress—has much to do with the dominance of political realism and political liberalism within the discipline.

The nation-state has been the primary unit of analysis for both realists and liberals—both accepting it as a natural and enduring aspect of world politics. For realists, especially neorealists (see Chapter 3), the existence of states in a condition of anarchy leads to the perpetual possibility of conflict, while liberals (see Chapters 4 and 5) believe in the possibility of mitigating some of this potential for competitive conflict by channelling state interests towards more cooperative and expansive ends. The story of IR narrates the birth of this form of the bounded territorialized nation-state in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and its diffusion from Europe to the rest of the world, culminating with the birth of new nation-states in former colonies in Asia and Africa. Sovereignty is the underlying principle that binds the nation to a representative state that speaks for its interests, and that protects the integrity of its territory and people from outside intervention. The institutionalization of the sovereign state thus creates a world populated by formally equal units that interact in the anarchy of a world without any overarching power as their self-generated national interests dictate. As authors of their own priorities and destinies in the post-Second World War decolonized world of IR, Third World states meet First World states as sovereign equals, conflicting or cooperating as they please. Why, then, have most of these states been unable to lift themselves out of poverty and improve the conditions of life for large numbers of their populations?

Postcolonial IR theorists have problematized the assumption of formal sovereign equality not just by pointing to the unequal structure of world politics within which Third World states were born and within which they continue to operate, but also by theorizing the very constitution and institutionalization of the Westphalian European state itself in a history of colonial expansion (Grovogui 2002; Hobson 2013; Seth 2013). The very process that helped establish and consolidate the legitimacy of the European sovereign state as benefactor and protector of its territory and people also led to the depletion of resources from and contributed to the dissolution of the social and cultural fabric of colonized societies. Furthermore, the boundaries that form the modern nation-states of much of the postcolonial world were crafted by the colonizers, arbitrarily dividing integrated communities and pitting groups against each other for access to finite resources; a colonizing practice based on a Eurocentric notion of political ordering that has been the source of considerable tension and violence in current postcolonial states. In other words, the postcolonial nation-states that emerged from the diffusion of the Westphalian ideal were often fragile, fractured, and internally ravaged, with minimal ability to exert their sovereign authority internally or externally. In some ways, they were overdetermined to become the ‘failed’ or ‘weak’ states that many IR theorists describe, and yet it is this very condition that made European states richer, stronger, and more cohesive. When realists focus on ‘great power’ relations as the predictor of systemic stability, they forget how unstable this system has always been from the perspective of Third World states, both internally as well as a result of the foreign policy practices of these powerful states in the name of systemic stability. Even terms like the ‘Cold War’—which dominated the agenda of IR for so long—make little sense when one considers how hot this war was for countries (p. 225) like Vietnam, Guatemala, Indonesia, and so on, in the global South. Considering the forms of systemic instability that have plagued large parts of the Third World as a direct result of superpower policies might also better explain and help provide more effective responses to ‘terrorism’—the new threat to First World-focused systemic stability—understood as political actions emerging from legitimate grievances.

Rather than make a case for just reparations for this history of plunder and exploitation, many liberal IR accounts suggest ways to ‘fix’ the problem of Third Worldism through the project of development, or seek to save an abject Third World through well-intentioned humanitarianism. From a postcolonial perspective, both approaches are deeply fraught, relying on Orientalist presuppositions about Third World cultural backwardness and looking for redemption to an infrastructure of global governance that is colonialist in its structure and practices. The entire pedagogy of development, as carried by the modernization theory that was so triumphant in the post-Second World War era and that has returned with renewed vigour in the post-Thatcher–Reagan era of neoliberal globalization and ‘end-of-history’ prognosis, was grounded on a set of colonial preconceptions about Third World peoples as ‘deficient’. This deficiency was measured in terms of the absence of, or distance from, European values—inability to exercise rationality, existence of backward ascriptive social institutions that hampered individual achievement, proclivity to excess (of emotion, affect, desires) over-reasoned moderation and deliberation, and so on (Escobar 1994; Krishna 2009). Naturally, the policies that followed required the Third World to emulate Western values and institutions in the path to progress. Such preconceptions and policies are Eurocentric in their foundations and their effects—where Europe represents the normative referent that defines what lacks need to be remedied and the form of the universality to which all states and cultures aspire.

Current forms of humanitarianism that have taken up some of the space vacated by the discrediting of the industry of development are premised on similar prejudices that always position the Westerner as the saviour of a passive Third World with little say or control over how to shape its own destiny. The infrastructure of global governance that puts development and humanitarianism to practice—the Bretton Wood institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in particular) and a whole complex of international nongovernmental organizations—are themselves ridden by deep inequalities of power, so that most of the policies and practices that direct foreign aid are crafted by First World elites, sometimes in collaboration with Third World elites, with little-to-no meaningful input from the people whom these policies affect most directly and forcefully. Many such policies are designed by Western-educated technocrats whose expertise requires little-to-no knowledge of the social and cultural milieu in which these policies are implemented and minimal meaningful interactions with the objects of aid. With an approach that depoliticizes the structural generating conditions of poverty, it is these global governance institutions that sustain themselves, while Third World poverty continues apace (Ferguson 1994). At the same time, with the massive amounts of Third World debt accumulated in these attempts to develop and the resulting levels of debt-servicing payments, the net transfer of resources flows from the global South to the global North, not unlike the wealth flows of classical colonialism (Steger 2009).

There are similar studies of how colonial relations have shaped many of the other contemporary institutions and practices of international relations, with devastating consequences for postcolonial states. A group of scholars studying the colonial foundations of international law—now called ‘Third World Approaches to International Law’, or TWAIL—has shown how (p. 226) the apparatus of contemporary international law serves to manage and subordinate Third World countries and peoples (Anghie 2005; Chimni 2006). Others have shown how transnational capitalism operates through resource extraction processes and forms of cheapening labour that rely on racialized logics that have their roots in colonial history (Mohanty 2003; Ferguson 2006; Ong 2006). A postcolonial approach to nuclear security reveals that the entire architecture of the nuclear nonproliferation regime—whose thrust is on preventing proliferation to new states rather than disarming existing nuclear weapons states—rests on deep-seated presuppositions and prejudices about who should be the legitimate and responsible custodians of nuclear weapons and in whose hands they would become destabilizing and dangerous (Biswas 2014). Postcolonial IR theorists have suggested that even critical approaches to IR that have questioned many of the assumptions and explanations of realist and liberal IR theories have not paid sufficient attention to the colonial underpinnings of these

Featured book

International Relations and the Problem of Difference is an excellent attempt to account for the legacy of colonialism in the making of the discipline of International Relations (IR). The book begins with the concern that IR as a discipline has not paid due attention to the needs and demands of the Third World. It traces this absence, however, not to simple ignorance or neglect, but rather an incapacity in the discipline to confront cultural difference—an incapacity whose origins lie in the political imagination that has shaped the very structure and foundations of the discipline. Thus, even scholars of IR who attempt to make sense of and ameliorate the condition of the Third World repeatedly fail at that task as some of their deepest presuppositions about Third World people emerge out of a scholarly training that has, in effect, excised the question of cultural difference in any meaningful form.

Inayatullah and Blaney study this erasure of the question of difference in the formative cultural encounters between the Spanish conquistadors and the Indians during ‘the discovery of the Americas’ and by examining the writings of some of the foundational theorists who helped form the canon of classical political economy. They suggest that this containment of difference that occurs in late medieval–early modern Europe happens through a process in which space becomes time—that is, spatial differentiation that marks out a homogenous ‘inside’ beyond which lies an incomprehensible ‘outside’ becomes temporal in a teleology in which Europe offers the universal model against which all difference is measured as deficient or dangerous. It is this containment that they call ‘the Westphalian deferral’—a refusal to acknowledge and deal with the profound question that radical otherness poses to the self of European modernity. The ‘inside–outside’ distinction so integral to state-centric IR accounts and the developmentalist teleology of modernization theory in which the First World offers the aspirational image of the Third World’s future are both products of this framing of difference.

It is from these foundations that IR inherits a parochial political imagination in which cultural alterity is never encountered in any substantive or meaningful sense. Instead, difference comes prejudged—either to be eradicated or assimilated for the radical danger that it always poses—to both comprehension and life. Inayatullah and Blaney challenge IR scholars to take stock of this colonial history through which the institutions, practices, and study of IR emerge and to understand how mainstream IR’s partial accounts of the world are thus unable to take stock of the injuries and harm to Third World people and ways of life. Furthermore, they invite the imagination of a dialogical IR that can conceptualize diversity, promote coexistence, and produce a truly pluralist and more global world.

Naeem Inayatullah and David L. Blaney (2004), International Relations and the Problem of Difference (New York: Routledge).

(p. 227) institutions and practices of international relations (Chowdhry and Nair 2002; Barkawi and Laffey 2006).

To fully understand this neglect of the role of colonial history in the shaping of modernity requires a scrutiny of how IR theory itself was formed out of particular colonial encounters, so that underlying assumptions and taken-for-granted preconceptions about cultural alterity are often invisible, even to critical scholars. Some postcolonial IR theorists have undertaken the task of conducting just such a genealogy and revealing the exclusions that form the very foundations of a Eurocentric discipline (Jahn, 2000; Hobson, 2012). They find that such prejudgments and absences are widely pervasive in the works of many of the founding thinkers on whom contemporary IR scholars rely. For instance, Inayatullah and Blaney refer to ‘the Westphalian deferral’, finding that the displacement of the question of cultural difference at the very moment of the resolution of the question of political order that became the nation-state is institutionalized in the grounding theories of international political economy (Inayatullah and Blaney 2004—see ‘Featured book’ box). Beier finds IR theory, including its critical versions, as complicit in a form of advanced colonialism by continuing the longstanding practice of erasing indigenous voices, practices, and ways of life (Beier, 2009). What all this suggests is that decolonizing the discipline of IR will require a deep and thorough examination of not just many of our current IR theories and approaches, but also their underlying sources of intellectual inspiration. In the ‘Narrating a postcolonial IR’ section, I discuss some of the approaches that postcolonial IR scholars have adopted to theorize the role and place of the Third World in the making of the world.

Narrating a postcolonial IR

If mainstream IR begins from the perspective of the richer, more powerful, First World states of the world, one way to write a different story for IR would be to reverse the view. The slave’s perspective by necessity encapsulates that of the master’s world in a way that is not the case in the reverse since the slave is not even fully human for the master. So, suggests Ashis Nandy, an epistemology that privileges the perspective of the colonized offers a fuller picture of the structure and workings of the world (Nandy, 1983). Let me suggest two different outcomes of such a perspectival shift. First, narrating IR from the perspective of the Third World gives the lie to much of the conventional wisdom of IR as a discipline—for instance, the so-called ‘long peace’ of the ‘Cold War’ was neither peaceful nor cold for much of the Third World; notions of ‘bipolar stability’ or ‘hegemonic stability’ seem nonsensical from the perspective of those who have never experienced a world ruled by a condominium of great powers to be particularly stable; the supposedly peaceful inclinations of liberal democracies appear pretty violent when one considers the views of those who were deemed as threats to the civic order of such democracies, externally and internally; the benign and progressive impulses and effects of developmental or humanitarian missions appear questionable when one considers the infliction of harsh conditions for aid, the imposition of universalist visions of a good life by demolishing existing social networks and valued traditions, and the aggrandizement of the power, wealth, and standing of the benefactors while rendering the receivers as abject and pitiable figures of charity.

(p. 228) Similarly, this perspectival view troubles many of the taken-for-granted concepts that underlie the story of IR—the ‘anarchy’ that was experienced as great power rule by poor Third World states; the fiction of ‘sovereignty’ as a protection from outside intervention, perhaps even more so in a post-‘responsibility-to-protect’ world; the very idea of ‘democracy’ and its associated signifier of ‘freedom’ that continues to be exported worldwide through tremendous violence; the understanding of ‘violence’ itself away from simply interstate military conflict to its much wider societal impacts and the much more mundane, everyday forms that it takes in postcolonial states; the differential distribution of human valuations underlying what appears to be a robust and well-established ‘human rights’ regime that makes large numbers of brown and black bodies dispensable and invisible (Barkawi and Laffey 2001; Hansen and Stepputat 2005; Biswas and Nair 2010; Mbembe 2001).

Second, such shift in perspective from the global North to the global South can reveal the Third World as an active, articulate, even formidable agent with alternative visions and distinct aspirations. For instance, the telling of the IR narrative begins from Westphalia but then coalesces around some other key moments that divide up significant periods—the end of the Second World War and the start of the ‘Cold War’, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the ‘post-Cold War era’, and then the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 and the start of the ‘post -9/11 world’. Each of these periods pivots around a significant moment in the Euro–American story. Reorienting the focal moments of world history—say to the decolonial movements of the twentieth century, some of which were attempts at articulating visions of world politics away from nationalist formulations and formulating cross-border solidarities of economic and racial justice or to Bandung (April 1955) where postcolonial states attempted to chart out a Third Worldist path away from Cold War militarism—might yield not just a different narrative of IR, but also offer fresh insights and new ideas for organizing or conducting world politics that emerge from different concerns and priorities. It is important to point out, however, that despite the emergence of a whole series of regionally focused forms of IR—a Chinese School of IR or Middle Eastern IR or recent writings on Eastphalia—the attempt of postcolonial IR is not to replace a Eurocentric IR with a non-Western IR, but rather to offer a more expansive and fuller IR that can account for the diversity of perspectives and worldviews on world politics. Taking the epistemological perspective of the Third World is one way to pluralize the discipline and recognize the multiplicities that form the world (Agathangelou and Ling 2009).

Another approach that has been suggested by some postcolonial IR theorists is to make use of the methodological impulse ingrained in the concept of contrapuntality, as suggested by Edward Said in some of his writings (Chowdhry 2007; Krishna 2001). Contrapuntal readings, Said suggests, are a method for crafting an understanding of global politics as composed of multiple and overlapping worlds. To read contrapuntally is to show a historical awareness of the complex interdependence through which the global has been constituted, which includes metropolitan histories and the various histories of Europe’s others. For IR scholars, this method brings attention to the co-constitution of the modern world, including all the fundamental institutions and processes that underlie the conduct and study of contemporary international relations. It thus helps pay due attention to the contributions of non-Europeans to the makings of the modern world (Mitchell 2000). In a wonderful usage of Said’s contrapuntality, Sankaran Krishna has traced the genealogy of some of the key building blocks of IR discourse—sovereignty, property, nation, international law—to a series of colonial encounters (p. 229) between the West and its others, encounters that shaped the identities of all participant actors in fundamental ways. In the process, Krishna inscribes the centrality of colonialism in the shape of the postcolonial modern world, problematizing and politicizing what is otherwise naturalized by much of IR scholarship.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the narrative approach to writing that has begun to carve out a space in IR for the expression of voices that are less contained by the conventions of the scientific objectivity that IR often aspires to and be more attentive to the social embeddeness of all scholars.3 This enterprise recognizes the disingenuousness of IR accounts that mask their partiality by speaking in a style that signals precision and accuracy, while remaining woefully incomplete and inadequate (Inayatullah 2011). Such an approach is beautifully exemplified in Himadeep Muppidi’s The Colonial Signs of International Relations. The book theorizes how the ‘zoological approach’ of a colonial IR cages Third World people, making them the objects of a Western gaze masquerading as Cartesian objectivity, but this theorization occurs in a voice that both reveals the author’s own investments in an anticolonial IR and invites sympathy with those whose bodies have borne the brunt of its colonial history (Mupiddi 2012). By giving permission to inflect ones voice with affect and emotion, the new narrative forms of writing in IR show vividly the rage, sorrow, and despair whose existence IR has constantly displaced and ignored, yet whose force makes and breaks the world for many of its inhabitants. What such an approach suggests is that decolonizing the discipline of IR means more than just revealing its epistemological exclusions, gaps, and erasures, or decentring the formative figure of the West in analyses and explanations. It also requires rethinking the forms and aesthetics through which a dispassionate IR colonizes its others. In so doing, the pedagogy of narrative IR invites us all to acknowledge and reveal the political stakes of IR scholarship and writing.

Case study: Of Iranian negotiations

International concern about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme appears to be at a peak. Iran has had a nuclear programme since the 1950s. As a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) since its inception in 1968, Iran has always claimed that its interest is in nuclear energy—permitted by the NPT—not nuclear weapons. However, many statesmen, strategists, and commentators have raised concerns about Iran’s intentions to militarize its nuclear programme and become a nuclear weapons-possessing state. This concern has led, after several failed previous attempts, to restart negotiations with Iran to prevent or delay the possibility of it becoming a nuclear weapons state. The signing of a six-month interim accord in November 2013 whose purpose was to pause Iran’s nuclear programme temporarily was hailed as a major diplomatic breakthrough, which has been followed by continuing talks to find a more comprehensive and lasting solution to halt Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit. Two rounds of negotiations stalled over how many centrifuges and of what kinds Iran can continue to keep and operate, what level and kinds of inspections would be necessary and acceptable, and the length of time for any agreement to last, but in late summer of 2015 the two sides eventually came to an agreement, the implementation of which is still under discussion.

The group negotiating with Iran is commonly referred to as the ‘P5 plus 1’ and is composed of the USA, Russia, China, the UK, France, and Germany. The P5 are the ‘permanent five’ who hold veto power in the United Nations Security Council. These five are also the only five states that are permitted to possess nuclear weapons by the terms of the NPT. Why is there so much worry about an Iranian nuclear (p. 230) weapons programme? The dangers posed by Iranian nuclear weapons appear to be manifold. First, some express concern that Iran could use a nuclear weapon to strike or threaten its arch enemy Israel, or the USA, or perhaps even Europe. Second, many fear that Iran may transfer or sell nuclear materials, technology, or even the weapons themselves to terrorists. Third, some expect Iranian nuclearization to lead to a cascade of regional proliferation as Middle Eastern states that have so far resisted acquiring nuclear weapons—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and so on—decide to pursue weapons programmes of their own. Finally, some worry that weapons pursuit by yet another signatory of the NPT (like North Korea) and by the other signatories that might follow it, will finally unravel a treaty that has been the centrepiece and lynchpin holding together a massive nuclear nonproliferation regime that has played a significant role in keeping the world safe and secure. It is all these expected dangers that have brought so much attention to the current ongoing efforts to reign in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, an effort that the USA is leading. Indeed, it appears that negotiating a successful deal with Iran will help define Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy—the legacy of a leader who had at one time distinguished himself by articulating the desirability of a nuclear-free world. In other words, much is riding on these negotiations and there is a lot of interest in the ongoing diplomatic drama in the international media.

How could we examine the many different dimensions of ‘the Iran problem’ from a postcolonial perspective? In International Relations (IR), realists dominate the security agenda. Realist IR accounts generally connect arms pursuits to state security interests. From a realist perspective, one can make a very good case for why Iran’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons emerges from genuinely and legitimately felt insecurities. Iran is encircled by a range of hostile states. Some of these, like Israel and Pakistan, are themselves nuclear weapons powers. Moreover, an examination of any geopolitical map of the Middle East shows an Iran surrounded by US military bases all around its borders, extended most recently to the territory of Iran’s longstanding regional rival, Iraq. However, in the Western press and among politicians and policy-makers in the US, the rationale for Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit is often seen to lie in a different sort of ‘insecurity’, one of an uncertain and weak state trying to assert its authority and project its power. There are many related versions of this form of insecurity in the scholarly literature: an attempt to produce and fortify a national identity that revolves around the symbolic value of nuclear weapons; an attempt to divert from a whole swath of domestic problems that create a legitimacy crisis for its authoritarian rulers; an attempt to become a regional power whose possession of nuclear weapons will help it project its regional and global power and in particular, counter-balance Israeli (and US) power. The US press and policy-makers will sometimes pick up one or more of these threads that represent a certain form of an insecure Iran, but it is rare to see state insecurity of the sort that is commonly used to justify the continuation of the US nuclear weapons programme, for instance, and is generally the dominant narrative explaining Western military programmes in IR and in popular commentary, used to explain Iranian motivations. What results from this is a divided explanatory framework in most discussions of the Iranian negotiations: the US (and other members of the P5 plus Israel) has a (generally unspoken because taken-for-granted) legitimate (systemically generated) need for nuclear weapons, while Iran’s needs are almost entirely internally generated nationalist or regionalist projections, which makes their motivations suspect, aggressive, and ultimately threatening.

In much of this analysis, it is commonly assumed that an aggressive Iran cannot be contained or deterred like other, more responsible nuclear powers. Among media commentators and US politicians, there is much talk of Iran as a ‘bad actor’. To understand what makes Iran a bad actor threatening systemic stability, it is quite common to resort to a whole series of Orientalist tropes that describe what appear to be the deeply inscribed character/personality flaws of ‘irrationality’ or ‘fanaticism’ or ‘insanity’, making it the agent that provokes in an otherwise calm and reasonable global order. This narrative of Iran’s character often translates in the context of the negotiations into ‘unpredictability’. The fear rampant through media commentary is that Iran’s behaviour is unpredictable in both senses—that (p. 231) it cannot be trusted to have a nuclear weapon since it is not as able to be deterred as rational nuclear actors might be and that its actions during the negotiations themselves, reliant on a diplomatic model of give-and-take that requires a rational calculation of costs and benefits, are not dependable. Certainly, there is occasional acknowledgement that even an irrational Iran may be a smart albeit wily negotiator, but its inscrutability to the West remains a source of frustration. As the State Department official leading the American delegation, Wendy Sherman, told Congress, ‘deception is part of the DNA’, forgetting conveniently, that the Iranian nuclear programme had, in fact, been inaugurated with US assistance at a time when Iran was an ally of the USA. The fact that Iran constitutes a problem in the first place may have something to do with the long and troubled history of relations between Iran and the West—British imperial interests in Iran’s oil and strategic location in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its strategic alignment with the US in the early years of the Cold War under the alienating regime of a West-leaning dictator after a US and British-supported overthrow of a democratic government, and the souring of that relationship with the emergence of a vocal anti-US government after the 1979 Iranian revolution that was a response to the repression of the previous regime. In other words, the stereotypes that so easily conjure up a fear of nuclear Iran currently emerge out of an already existing colonial (and postcolonial) archive of negative representations and anxieties.

It may be unsurprising in light of the above discussion that in much of the coverage of the Iranian negotiations and in discussions of Iran’s nuclear programme more generally, it is always ‘the international community’ that needs to be protected from a threatening Iran in whose predatory hands nuclear weapons become dangerous. Iran stands apart as a ‘rogue state’ and the negotiations are often presented as an invitation made to Iran to join ‘the family of nations’. It might be helpful to scrutinize both the nature of this invitation and the structure of the family to which Iran is being invited.

What are the conditions under which Iran has come to the negotiating table? There have been many preceding attempts to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In what is hailed as one of the most successful forms of cyber-sabotage with the code name Operation Olympic Games, the USA and Israel collaborated to smuggle in a computer virus—‘Stuxnet’—that brought Iran’s centrifuges to a halt in 2010. Five nuclear scientists were assassinated in broad daylight on Tehran’s streets between 2009 and 2011. Even more forcefully, sanctions imposed by ‘the international community’ have been steadily expanded to freeze all of Iran’s assets in overseas banks, impose an embargo on its oil exports, and expel its banks from a global electronic banking system. All of these together have had an enormous impact on the Iranian economy, with devastating consequences for ordinary Iranian citizens—the Iranian national currency, the rial, plunging to its lowest point, inflation rising precipitously, and unemployment soaring to new levels. The offer to Iran in the current negotiations is a gradual easing of these sanctions, and some of the current disagreement is about the speed with which these sanctions would be lifted. President Obama has repeatedly assured his domestic constituencies and international allies that this easing is reversible; the USA is willing to ratchet up the pressure in the future if Iran starts misbehaving. In all, it is safe to say that what appears on the face of it to be a diplomatic give-and-take is, in fact, a brute exercise of power and force in which the range of options open to Iran is quite minimal, while little is expected of the West. The most significant evidence of this exercise of coercion is that the ‘military option’—the willingness by the US (and Israel) to pre-emptively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, if necessary—has, throughout the negotiations, remained ‘on the table’. It is not uncommon to hear US politicians say that the only language Iran can truly understand is that of force and coercion, whether that be sanctions or military force.

Against Iran stands the ‘P5 plus 1’ as the representatives of ‘the international community’. As mentioned before, the P5 are the five states that the NPT recognizes as sole legitimate possessors of nuclear weapons. Between them, they possess over ninety-eight per cent of the nuclear weapons of the world; the US is the second (after Russia) largest owner of nuclear weapons, holding around forty-five per cent of the current global stockpile of such weapons. All these states also have a well-developed, sophisticated ability to deliver these weapons across vast distances. Each of them considers nuclear (p. 232) weapons as essential to its security; none of them has ever engaged in any serious negotiations to eliminate their own nuclear ambitions. In fact, the Obama administration has announced that the US is going to spend trillions of dollars over the next three decades modernizing and upgrading its nuclear arsenal. The US, of course, is the only state that has ever used an atomic weapon and its actual (as opposed to rhetorical) foreign policy posture and actions remain quite belligerent. In comparison, as of now, Iran does not possess a single nuclear weapon, although there is much speculation among nuclear experts on how long it would take for it to build a nuclear weapon, if it chose to go down that path. The US goal in these negotiations is to ensure that it will take Iran at least a year to produce enough bomb-grade material for a single bomb, if it so chose—a time frame that would be sufficient to either impose punishing sanctions or conduct a pre-emptive military strike. The time frame for Iran to convert that weapons-grade fuel into a useable weapon that can be delivered by plane or missile would be even longer. In other words, the primary actors in these negotiations—the USA (and other members of the P5, as well as Israel) with its massive and sophisticated arsenal of very useable (many of which are on hair-trigger alert) weapons has somehow come to represent ‘an international community’ invested in peace and security, while bargaining with a much less powerful state with alleged aspirations to a tiny fraction of the security-providing weapons that are considered essential by the other party.

Nuclear weapons are dangerous. The world will not become safer with a nuclear-armed Iran, but neither is it safe with the massive nuclear weapons stockpiles of many of the states negotiating with Iran, none of whose nuclear programmes are under the same kind of scrutiny. Indeed, the risk from developing a nuclear programme of any kind, whether ‘peaceful’ or military, is not just that it may yield a bomb that can be used to strike and kill massive numbers of people, but that it inflicts considerable and widespread damage on a society that has to live with the everyday hazards posed to communities that house nuclear reactors, workers who handle nuclear materials, and future inhabitants of the earth who must live with radioactive waste. In that sense, Iranian nuclearization poses as much if not more of a danger to Iranians than it does to a global community already living with over 17,000 nuclear weapons and increasing its reliance on nuclear energy as a green panacea to global warming. Instead of keeping the spotlight on one small ‘rogue state’, a postcolonial approach might help generate a discussion about the responsibilities that fall on all, especially the powerful, to chart out a path to universal disarmament.

Case study questions

  1. 1. Is a postcolonial approach useful when considering the proliferation of life-annihilating weapons? Is there any value added by considering a justice-based postcolonial approach rather than putting all efforts into preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?

  2. 2. Why is there so much focus on Iran’s nuclear programme? What does this focus tell us about the global nuclear and political order?


Postcolonialism as a distinct academic field emerged largely in the humanities. It was in areas like comparative literature and cultural studies that it first made its mark. In that sense, postcolonialism appears to have been a late entrant to IR. Yet if IR is considered in its full breadth as the study of global relations in its multiple dimensions and its ambit extended beyond the rarefied institutions of the North American academy, one can glimpse a much longer trajectory of interest in colonial history and its repercussions across institutions, interactions, and practices. At a very basic level, then, postcolonialism invites IR scholars not just to expand the (p. 233) historical depth and the geographical reach of its subject matter and priorities, but also to extend the conversation itself to theorists, researchers, and activists engaged in questions of the global outside of metropolitan locations. We need to multiply and complicate the stories that IR tells about itself, craft new ones from different social and political locations, and enhance the story-telling opportunities for those whose voices have not counted so far. The point, however, is not simply to valorize this diversity but to recognize that alternative articulations of the good life or different idioms of politics—seen on their own terms in a true dialogue with other visions and arguments—might yield new modes of problem-solving and contribute towards more sustainable forms of peace and justice.

In a world of increasing inequalities of wealth and the growing desperation of large numbers of people around the world, the questions that postcolonial IR raises are urgent. Indeed, the existence of these levels of misery despite massive social movements for political and economic rights should be something of a puzzle. While the contours of our contemporary moment are distinct from that of the period of classical colonialism and require sharp and creative critical skills to analyze and redress, there is much to be gained from understanding how colonial logics and habits of mind both persist and are retooled to continue the exploitation of resources and people around the world. This chapter has suggested that postcolonialism has much in common with, and considerable sympathy for, other critical perspectives in IR, yet it offers a distinct epistemological perspective that enriches our understanding of existing global dynamics and raises questions about the politics of knowledge and writing with which all IR scholars need to grapple.


  1. 1. What are the central aspects of the postcolonial critique of mainstream IR theory? Which aspects of this critique are most compelling?

  2. 2. What affinities does postcolonial IR share with Marxist IR and poststructuralist IR? How does it distinguish itself from those approaches?

  3. 3. What kinds of global problems do postcolonial IR theorists help highlight? Does postcolonial IR offer any new insights on how to tackle those problems?

  4. 4. What is Orientalism? How does Orientalism as a concept help make sense of global hierarchies? Why should we care about global hierarchies?

  5. 5. What is Eurocentricity? In what ways is IR Eurocentric? What are some of the ways that postcolonial IR suggests to craft a more inclusive and pluralist IR?

  6. 6. What lessons can we draw from postcolonialism about the importance of context and location in the act of theorizing?

Further reading

Agathangelou, A. M. and Ling, L. H. M. (2009), Transforming World Politics: From Empire to Multiple Worlds (London: Routledge).Find this resource:

    This book stages a conversation between Western and non-Western theory to articulate a vision of a pluralist world.

    (p. 234) Beier, M. (2009), International Relations in Uncommon Places: Indigeneity, Cosmology, and the Limits of International Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).Find this resource:

      This book argues that IR is an advanced colonial practice partaking in the dispossession of indigenous communities and lives.

      Chowdhry, G. and Nair, S. (eds) (2002), Power, Postcolonialism, and International Relations: Reading Race, Gender, and Class (New York: Routledge).Find this resource:

        Covering a wide range of topics, this volume considers how race, gender, and class structure the postcolonial world order.

        Grovogui, S. (2006), Beyond Eurocentrism and Anarchy: Memories of International Order and Institutions (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).Find this resource:

          Using the powerful critiques and visions of world politics offered by a group of African intellectuals, this book reveals the parochialism of most conventional accounts of international order.

          Hobson, J. M. (2012), The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760–2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find this resource:

            This book argues that throughout its history, international theory, including in its critical versions, has been persistently Eurocentric.

            Jones, B. G. (ed.) (2006), Decolonizing International Relations (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield).Find this resource:

              This volume challenges the Eurocentricity of IR and includes attempts to craft non-Eurocentric accounts of international politics.

              Krishna, S. (2009), Globalization and Postcolonialism: Hegemony and Resistance in Twenty-first Century (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield).Find this resource:

                Revealing the colonial underpinnings of contemporary neoliberal globalization, this book offers extensive analyses of both postcolonial theory and the history of development.

                Muppidi, H. (2012), The Colonial Signs of International Relations (New York: Columbia University Press).Find this resource:

                  Written in a style that departs from most standard IR texts, this book challenges its readers to take stock of their complicity with the violent history and present of a colonial IR and the world it has produced.

                  Sajed, A. (2013), Postcolonial Encounters in International Relations: The Politics of Transgression in the Maghreb (Abingdon: Routledge).Find this resource:

                    In addition to an exposition of the traces of the Franco-Maghrebian colonial encounter on the lives of North African migrants, this book also exposes the colonial roots of both conventional and poststructuralist thought.

                    Seth, S. (ed.) (2013), Postcolonial Theory and International Relations: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge).Find this resource:

                      This volume covers a wide range of topics by some of the leading scholars of postcolonial IR that discuss both the colonial past of IR theories and offer postcolonial readings of world politics.

                      Important websites

                      A blog that includes recurrent conversations by established and upcoming postcolonial IR scholars on a variety of topics related to the discipline.

                      A website that includes resources and opportunities to network with scholars interested in questions of colonialism and IR.

                      Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book for lots of interesting additional material.


                      1. For excellent overviews of postcolonial theory, see Gandhi (1998), Loomba (2005), and Young (2001).

                      3. The newly launched Journal of Narrative Politics is one example of this approach.