Book Review: A. Getachew: Worldmaking after Empire

By Christopher J. Lee

Worldmaking after Empire is a study of political thought and institution building during the twentieth century, with a specific focus on black Anglophone leaders and intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere. The central argument of the book is that the anticolonialism they promoted was not solely concerned with national self-determination and the establishment of nation-states. It was equally committed to what Adom Getachew calls “worldmaking” (p. 2). As she writes in the introduction, the principle of self-determination came to be reconceptualized into an ambition much broader in scope than had been originally conceived by the founders of the League of Nations in 1919. If European imperialism had embodied “a world-constituting force that violently inaugurated an unprecedented era of globality” (p. 3) then, in equal measure, worldmaking during the era of decolonization intended to counterbalance and overcome this preceding structure of global power. To make this case, the five chapters that follow in Worldmaking after Empire address five key issues: the aims of anticolonial nationalists, the institutionalization of imperial concerns within the League of Nations, the reinvention of self-determination through the United Nations (UN), the rise and fall of regional federations as an alternative to the nation-state, and the attempt at economic self-determination through the proposed New International Economic Order (NIEO) during the 1970s. Anticolonial efforts at worldmaking sought to establish a world of “nondomination” (p. 12). They would ultimately fail, however, as the idea of self-determination, which was once enshrined as sacrosanct, became a casualty of a new set of global ambitions pursued by the United States.

Chapter 1, “A Political Theory of Decolonization”, sets the stage by confronting the empire-to-nation narrative of decolonization, which in Getachew’s view is too bilateral to be useful for understanding self-determination. As she writes, decolonization was understood by activists to be a “radical rupture” that necessitated “a wholesale transformation of the colonized and a reconstitution of the international order” (p. 17). Furthermore, the international system was thought to require a fundamental redefinition to guarantee the dismantlement of past hierarchies and prevent their re-emergence in the future. The “unequal integration” (p. 20) of colonial territories into the world economic and political system was largely due to the racist approach that defined colonial rule and international politics in general. Reflecting the long-term legacies of New World slavery, Getachew draws on Du Bois to highlight how the color line extended well beyond the United States to indicate a “globalized Jim Crow” (p. 21). In sum, the politics of self-determination sought much more than national sovereignty; it pursued a universal project among decolonizing nations that would create a more equitable international society. As Getachew puts it, “[a]nticolonial nationalists turned to worldmaking because they were keenly aware that national independence in a hierarchical world order was a precarious achievement” (p. 29).

Chapter 2 discusses how the League of Nations, despite its popular reputation as an institution that held respect for self-determination, in fact played the role of a counter-revolutionary institution. It was the desire of the League of Nations not only to blunt the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution and, with it, Vladimir Lenin’s promotion of self-determination, but also to “recast self-determination in the service of empire” (p. 40). Getachew addresses how US President Woodrow Wilson and South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts became the key architects of the League and its mandate system, which effectively replaced self-determination with trusteeship. As a result, a situation of unequal integration arose, as exemplified by the cases of Liberia and Ethiopia, the second being infamously invaded by Italy in 1935 under the rationale that it had become an “outlaw state” (p. 65). With the Second World War and the founding of the United Nations came an opportunity to change these conditions. As detailed in Chapter 3, it was through the efforts of the UN that self-determination became enshrined as a right, not simply a principle. Getachew is quick to position anticolonial activists as a driving force behind this shift. Similar to her critique of the League of Nations, she revises perceptions about the UN and its role in the postwar world, stressing the importance of actions by postcolonial leaders regarding institutional practices. Getachew tracks in particular how talk of rights in the colonies prior to the UN came to inform rights discourse during the era of decolonization, with sovereignty ultimately accepted as the only means for securing individual rights. Rather than a view of human rights as providing protection against states – a view held by Western jurists and policy makers – anticolonial leaders saw self-ruled postcolonial states as the guarantors of rights. Rights could only have meaning through membership in a political community – in this case, within postcolonial nation-states and within the greater postwar international community of the UN.

Other opportunities for worldmaking were available, yet these proved to be tenuous. The remainder of the book depicts this loss of political momentum. In Chapter 4, Getachew examines how postcolonial federations like the West Indian Federation (1958–1962) and the Union of African States (1958–1963) provided a different technique for achieving sovereignty. Both faced internal tensions and critics, which led to their abbreviated lives. Nonetheless, they demonstrated the importance of regional efforts within the longer history of self-determination. After the coup that toppled Nkrumah in 1966, which marked the end of the “first phase” (p. 146) of worldmaking, the NIEO, the subject of Chapter 5, represented a second and “final phase” (p. 146). In this case, efforts were focused on economic self-determination through a rejection of Western development economics and modernization theory to embrace instead understandings of dependency theory and the need to delink and become self-reliant. The New World Group at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, and the Dar es Salaam School at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania articulated variations of this approach, which consequently informed the policies of Prime Minister Michael Manley and President Julius Nyerere, respectively. Manley and Nyerere believed that self-reliance did not translate to protectionism, but did require a restructuring of the world economy, hence the idea and promotion of the NIEO through the UN. Yet, this project confronted tensions similar to those that characterized political federations – a balancing act between national interests and international cooperation. The deathblow to this initiative came through a sequence of events beginning with the oil crisis of the 1970s, followed by economic turbulence that led countries like Jamaica and Tanzania to seek loans from the International Monetary Fund, which diminished the possibility of such countries to restructure trade and growth in their favor. The neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s ultimately ended the dream. With the UN’s gradual decline since the 1970s, global inequalities have remained.

To conclude, it is essential to return to Getachew’s insistence in Chapter 1 that scholars move beyond Westphalian and post-Westphalian understandings of international society in order to address instead how imperial formations continue to define the present. Her criticism of liberal approaches – particularly that of John Rawls and his study, The Law of Peoples (1999), which focuses on international justice – aligns with recent scholarship that has interrogated the liberal tradition. Worldmaking after Empire calls for a “postcolonial cosmopolitanism” (p. 30) that goes beyond the “limited duty of assistance” (p. 35), as promoted by Rawls, to revive the project of anticolonial worldmaking. Yet, some issues remain unresolved. For some scholars, the word “cosmopolitanism” may seem out of place given its embrace by liberal thinkers such as Kwame Anthony Appiah and Martha Nussbaum. The term “postcolonial internationalism” is perhaps better suited for the politics that Getachew is espousing. For others, agreement on the concept of “worldmaking” may also prove elusive. In some instances, its use approximates institution building; on other occasions, it is more ideological in scope. Getachew’s argument is that it can be understood in both ways, though it invites the potential for conceptual overreach in less able hands, which may gloss over specifics of time, place, and practice. In this regard, her discussion of federations is particularly significant, by accenting the role of regions between local and global politics. However, there are lingering questions about the roles of the Soviet Union and China, which receive relatively little attention as supporters of worldmaking or as worldmakers in their own right. Anti-democratic measures, such as Nkrumah’s imprisonment of political opponents and the displacement of peasants under Nyerere’s Ujamaa program, also deserve fuller treatment, reflecting what might be called the underside of worldmaking. Finally, there is the issue of gender: elite men are the worldmakers in this book with future consideration needed on the role of women in constructing the postcolonial international order.

The key strength of Worldmaking after Empire is that it brings together three different historical periods and political realms that are often treated separately: anticolonialism, decolonization, and postcolonial development. Getachew’s work also provides an important corrective to preceding examinations of Wilsonian self-determination and the chronology of human rights discourse by Erez Manela and Samuel Moyn, respectively. Indeed, the scale and sweep of this book demand a reappraisal of the existing liberal world order and the conclusions of its academic interlocutors, who have frequently neglected the deeper reaches of Black Atlantic politics. Through the basic, but essential, task of foregrounding this alternative world of ideas and political agency as a source for political theory, Getachew’s work is a vital achievement.

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