IR in Dialogue… but can we change the subjects?

The academic enterprise requires that we make our arguments in
conversation with existing work and ideas. As such it is an inherently social
activity – indeed we might consider conversation a constitutive element of
academic life.The move to thinking about IR’s conversations as a set of
‘dialogues’ rather than ‘debates’, as Millennium’s conference has encouraged,
is both in keeping with the traditions of the study of world politics and
subversive of the order that has historically shielded the conversation from

The notion of ‘dialogue’, taken etymologically, is about speaking (-
logos) across or through (dia-), suggesting distance and difference between
reviewers has been invaluable, although all remaining errors are my own.
the speakers. It requires that we ask questions about their identities, horizons
and interests, and indeed how these are situated within the world of practice
and action, rather than presuming homogeneity of interest and a common
purpose to inquiry. We are pushed towards understanding academic work as
a live enterprise, disorderly and dynamic in form, embedded in a world of

And yet, despite engaging in the conversational practices all the time
that constitute the practice of academic work, the mainstream has been slow
to pick up the emergence of a movement in the discipline that extends
dialogue itself as a critical strategy for thinking about the world.2 As this
paper aims to show, self-consciously decolonising strategies aim to articulate
different subject-positions from which this ‘speaking across’ or ‘dialogue’ can
take place.

In doing so they bring to prominence a principle that is already
taken for granted in everyday academic practice – that understanding is
improved through dialogue – and use it to generate a wider and more critical
understanding of what we think of as international relations.3 Although
necessarily rooted in common traditions of social thought, decolonising
strategies aim at reconfiguring our understanding of world politics through
subjecting its main perspectives to philosophical and empirical challenges.

This project sees itself as broadly rooted in a progressive ethic, motivated by
the desire to see and understand world order in a way appropriate to the
realisation of more equal relations between and within diverse political

2 Recent texts include Inayatullah, N. and D. L. Blaney (2003). International relations and the problem of difference. New York, London, Routledge, Bhambra, G. K. and R. Shilliam (2009).Silencing human rights: critical engagements with a contested project, Palgrave MacMillan.
Grovogui, S. N. (2002). “Regimes of sovereignty: International morality and the African condition.” European Journal of International Relations 8(3): 315, Hobson, J. M. (2004). The Eastern origins of Western civilisation. Cambridge, UK ; New York, Cambridge University
Press, Jones, B. G. (2006). Decolonizing international relations, Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers, Agathangelou, A. M. and L. H. M. Ling (2009). Transforming world politics: from
empire to multiple worlds, Taylor & Francis, Nayak and Selbin (2010) Decentering
International Relations, (London: Zed Books)
3 The concerns of the discourse ethics movement were similar but were critiqued in terms of
how they viewed the problems of power. See Hutchings, K. (2005). “Speaking and hearing:
Habermasian discourse ethics, feminism and IR.” Review of International Studies 31(01): 155-165

4 The role of normative evaluation in social analysis is a controversial issue. I am broadly
sympathetic to the position articulated by Mervyn Frost, who sees normative judgements as
relevant at all stages of analysis, and argues for making them more explicit. See Frost, M.
(1994). “The Role of Normative Theory in IR.” Millennium – Journal of International Studies
23(1): 109-118.

This paper aims to develop conversations within IR about the
contribution of decolonising strategies. The overall argument is that
decolonising thought can be viewed as a set of distinct but connected
intellectual strategies that provide a productive platform for identifying
specific problems in our research into world politics. Firstly, I will read
decolonising strategies as problematising the embedded ‘subjects’ of world
politics in various ways and offer a heuristic typology of this wide research
programme along these lines.

Secondly, I will demonstrate the contribution of this critical move through applying these distinctive strategies to the ‘liberal peace’ debate in IR and the case of Mozambique. Finally, I will offer some reflections about the questions this raises for the future study of world politics, both through building theory and research practices.

The paper seeks to make contributions to the literature on a number of
fronts. Primarily, in offering an innovative typology of decolonising strategies
it sets up a useful framework for debate about and between different
‘postcolonial’ or ‘anti-Eurocentric’ approaches in the study of world politics.

In particular, it enables the detailed comparison of complementarities and
tensions in decolonising thought through indicating how and why
approaches differ and what their specific concerns are. However, the corollary
contribution is that it also offers a unique mirror to the discipline of IR
through articulating different ways in which its framings might be
problematic in a supposedly postcolonial era.

The contribution of the case study is a demonstration of the ways in which the typology supports a development of applied critical approaches in IR, which all too often attempt to critique international political power without disturbing some important underlying assumptions. It demonstrates that these specific decolonizing strategies as articulated by the typology can be usefully concretised and applied to specific sites and topics of interest. It also makes a case for how and why appropriate empirical research is a crucial part of an active decolonising project, whilst highlighting the precariousness of the support that the profession offers for this.

Theory as strategy: recovering the purposes of critique

If ‘theory is always for someone and some purpose’, we should think
about it as a form of intellectual strategy, i.e. a response to a particular set of
conditions, involving different tactics employed towards a particular end. In
this sense, the philosophical wagers and commitments made are located in
and directed towards a particular problem, and express different interests.5

This is as true for a conception of the international derived from a statist and
materialist ontology of power as it is for feminist excavations of the
international structures of patriarchy or concepts of globalisation. This now commonplace observation has at least three important
implications for how we assess and think about theories of the international.

Firstly, it suggests that an important aspect of evaluating theory needs to be
done in the context of its own purposes. This may not seem controversial to
many academics, and particularly not the readership of Millennium, but given
the persistence of ‘science’ controversies in the broader discipline it needs to
be borne in mind.6 Theories are not the ‘last word’ on phenomena, but
analytic lenses that structure our thinking to a particular end. Secondly,
however, it must mean that it is at least useful, but also legitimate and
necessary to engage with, discuss and challenge the purposes of work and its
context rather than assume that this stands outside or apart from the
endeavour. This does not preclude the possibility of reasonable disagreement
about these objectives, but it does preclude the denial of their relevance.7

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially however, it also draws attention to
the necessarily limited and incomplete nature of our conceptual endeavours.
These are not shortcomings of our work but its constitutive features – it is
grounded in a particular conceptual vocabulary or register, and has a
particular focus or target. As such, when thinking about how we analyse
complex social phenomena, such as patriarchy, political violence or racism,
given a wide acceptance that these are manifested and can be explained at
various levels, no single mode of analysis is likely to be completely

In drawing together the connections in this literature, it makes sense to
read the contributions as ‘decolonising strategies’ for thinking about world
politics rather than as ‘theory’ as IR has conventionally tried to understand it
– these are critical intellectual strategies designed to challenge the centrality of
particular ideas about the international which naturalise forms of historic
inequality between communities and people. In particular, these are
connected to the legacies, broadly understood, of European colonialism and
the hierarchies of power, wealth and regard that it sought to institute.

5 In future work I intend to deal more fully with the essentially situated character of decolonising critiques. The link between anti-colonial thought and philosophical pragmatism is found in the work of Cornel West – I am grateful to Joe Hoover for pointing this out.
6 Jackson narrates these controversies well in the first chapter of Jackson, P. T. (2010). The
Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. London, Routledge.
7 Frost, op.cit., 118.

Why do we need a typology?

To this author at least, there is a clear sense in which the decolonising
project in IR has been blossoming in recent years. The publication of
groundbreaking monographs has been complemented by more edited
collections, mainstream journal articles, conference panels and entire
conferences, postgraduate courses and now textbooks.8 In this period, the
principal aims and concerns of the project have been articulated in divergent
ways by different authors, which has contributed to the flourishing of the
research programme. However, it also raises important questions about the
relationship between these different articulations.

For example, Inayatullah and Blaney have foregrounded the ‘difference’ problematic as central to their project, concentrating on the Self/Other encounter that constitutes the space of the international.9 This project suggests a focus on the production of alterity and the question of respect. On the other hand, Jones articulates the project as a common preoccupation with the persistence of colonial and imperial relations within the international system, with an emphasis on discovering the Eurocentric and imperial constitution of international relations in the present day.10

As she notes, debates about Eurocentrism can often divide into
culturalist and political economy camps which talk past each other.11
Whilst valuable, this richness also brings the potential for opacity. As
Bhambra notes, following Wallerstein, the notion of ‘Eurocentrism’ is itself
contested and can mean different things.12

Whilst this does not mean that it cannot be a useful frame of analysis, it does mean that usages might be interchanged or conflated in a number of ways. For example, for Hobson, Eurocentrism is the assumption that the West lies at the centre of all things in the world and that the West self-generates through its own endogenous ‘logic of
immanence’, before projecting its global will-to-power outwards through
a one-way diffusionism so as to remake the world in its own image.13
8 E.g. Seth, S. (ed) (2011) Postcolonial theory and International Relations: A Comprehensive
Introduction, London: Routledge.
9 Inayatullah and Blaney, op. cit., 9-16.
10 Jones (2006). ‘Introduction: International Relations, Eurocentrism, and Imperialism’, in
Jones, op.cit.
11 Ibid.
12 Bhambra, G. K. (2007). Rethinking modernity: postcolonialism and the sociological
imagination, Palgrave Macmillan, 4.
13 Hobson, J. M. (2007). “Is critical theory always for the white West and for Western
imperialism? Beyond Westphilian towards a post-racist critical IR.” Review of International
Studies 33(S1): 91-116, 93.

Hobson’s conception suggests that Eurocentrism simultaneously
contains certain historical, sociological and political claims, which brings to
the fore how these may be inter-related. However, as Bhambra notes, it may
be possible for work to explicitly reject some aspects whilst retaining others.14

Moreover, in some of the literature the ‘Eurocentrism’ problematic can drop
out altogether, particularly that concerned most principally with
contemporary US / North American power.15

Yet, even with this diversity, I want to argue that there is a common
framework that unites the project, recognition of which might serve as a
platform for dialogue between its elements and with those working outside it.
This is the claim that IR is constructed around the exclusionary premise of an
imagined Western subject of world politics.16 Decolonising strategies are those that problematize this claim and offer alternative accounts of subjecthood as the basis for inquiry.

The recognition of possible alternative subjects of inquiry is the essential precondition for a dialogic mode of inquiry in IR – that is, speaking across divides from different positions. Conversely, without challenging the implicit and assumed universality of a particular subject, the possibility for genuine dialogue – rather than simply conversation – in the discipline becomes remote.

A typology of strategies: challenging the ‘subjects’ of IR

In social theory, the ‘subject’ of inquiry has multiple but related
definitions.17 I am using these different meanings in a non-exhaustive and
heuristic sense to delve into the structure of thinking behind decolonising
strategies (numbered i-vi in the text).

I summarise these here before elaborating in more depth in the rest of this section. In the first sense, various approaches focus on the construction of the West as an epistemically privileged or centred subject that can represent, know and treat parts of the world as its objects, through processes of objectification. In the second sense,

14 Bhambra, op.cit.
15 In particular, Agathangelou, A. M. and L. H. M. Ling (2009), op.cit.
16 This framing emerges in a limited way in the debates around subaltern historiography, but
is not extended in consideration of other decolonising strategies as far as I know e.g.
O’Hanlon, R. (1988). “Recovering the subject: Subaltern Studies and histories of resistance in
colonial South Asia.” Modern Asian Studies 22(1): 189-224.
17 For explicitly disaggregating different uses of the term ‘subject’ in social theory, I am
indebted to Paul Kirby’s unpublished paper ‘The System Of Subjects: International Relations
Theory and the Hard Problem of Subjectivity’ , International Theory seminar at the LSE’s IR
Department, 23rd November 2009, although his usages are not mine.

there is a strategy to challenge the exceptionalist presumption of the West as
the primary subject of modern world history and international relations.

Thirdly, a number of approaches challenge Europe as the implicit subject of
historiography. Fourthly, various works reconstruct the subjectivities of
subaltern positions. Fifthly, there is a tradition which interrogates the
presumed contours of the political subject underpinning analysis. Finally,
decolonising work in IR has sought to challenge the constitution of the socialpsychological subject underpinning recent work which anthropomorphizes states as reflexive beings.

Understood in this way, at a broad level decolonising strategies argue
that IR sees the world through the subjecthood(s),18 in all the senses just
described, of formerly colonial and imperial European and American
modernist, capitalist elites. This is understood to constitute a system of
multiple exclusions that continues to permeate the study and conduct of
world politics, which subsequently retains deeply hierarchical forms oriented
towards the interests and perspectives of this particular audience.

However, as a response decolonising strategies do not on the whole advocate a
systematic erasure or denial of these categories – rather they have attempted
to expose the alternatives and initiate dialogue between them. In this sense
they seek to re-negotiate the terms and preoccupations of inquiry, a point to
which I will return in the conclusion.19

The first strategy (i) centres on exposing the ways in which the
conceptual framings of both International Relations and international politics
express and reinforce hierarchical subject-object relationships between
formerly colonising and colonised peoples, despite the political-legal act of
decolonisation. Drawing directly on Said’s critique of colonial practices of

18 I owe use of the term to Robbie Shilliam.
19 A point which at the time of writing must be temporarily shelved is the ongoing tensions and overlaps between the decolonising project and the historical materialist project. Whilst they are in some ways inseparable, for this author the key fundamental difference arises in the possibility of a socially meaningful alterity that is not sidelined analytically as a form of false consciousness, incomplete modernity or underdevelopment; in short, the debate over the significance of pluralities of experience and standpoints in the analysis of human affairs.

Decolonising approaches on the whole are broadly sympathetic to, and often use, arguments in terms of social forces and the material conditions of political power and change; however there is discomfort with the potentially reductive implications of such a view for human subjectivity and political subjecthood in the extrapolation to the ‘objective’ understanding of
world history.

However, this is a very general statement and it is clear that there are broad
churches of thought within the various camps self-identifying as ‘Marxist’ or ‘decolonising /postcolonialist’, who have varying approaches to this relationship between selves and social forces

For an alternative account of the encounter between Marxism and postcolonialism from a broadly Marxist perspective, see Bartolovich, C. and N. Lazarus (2002). Marxism, modernity, and postcolonial studies, Cambridge University Press. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803

representation in Orientalism, further elaborated in Culture and Imperialism,
this strategy has focused on the discursive and normative structures
governing contemporary international politics and sought to show how they
depend on the establishment of the ‘flexible positional superiority’20 of
Western/Northern countries and agents.

For example, Doty analyses historical and contemporary framings of North-South relations, from colonialism to governance to foreign aid in terms of the persistence of the imperial structure of the discourse that produces the relationship.21

Antony Anghie argues that the concept of ‘good governance’ is historically continuous with international legal norms that established rights and duties for colonial powers to rule the colonies, operating under ideas of racialised civilisational hierarchies.22 Both writers, amongst others, point towards the ways in which the ways that the global South – that is to say, spaces outside Europe and North America – become objectified in discourse as requiring external control, involvement and direction – in Said’s term that they ‘beseech domination’.23

In a substantive sense this means that formerly colonised countries become understood through being fixed as the object of some other subject which instrumentalises it or treats it as lacking proper agency.24 Under conditions of objectification, then, the possibility of dialogue becomes remote.

Within the discipline of IR itself, there has been solid critique of Robert
Jackson’s analysis of ‘quasi-states’ along similar lines, which obliquely
renders the third world as a cracked or incomplete image of the first.25 The
various objectifying representations of the South as backward, developing,
failed or ‘new’ states continually reproduce the hierarchical self imagery that
underpinned European colonialism, and specifically produces a disposition
that favours intervention and control between the full subjects and lesser
objects of world politics. The critique that decolonising thought makes is that
whilst the formal political and legal acts of decolonisation have broadly
occurred, the deeper challenge to the colonial system of thinking – of
objectifying the South in discourses of world politics – has not happened. The
strategy in this case is to raise consciousness about the ways in which our
20 Said, E. W. (2003). Orientalism. London, Penguin, 7.
21 Doty, R. L. (1996). Imperial encounters : the politics of representation in North-South
relations. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
22 Anghie, A. (2008). Decolonizing the Concept of” Good Governance. Decolonizing
international relations. B. Gruffydd Jones, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
23 Said, E. W. (1994). Culture and imperialism. London, Vintage, 8.
24 See Nussbaum, M. C. (1995). “Objectification.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 24(4): 249-291.
25 See Morton, A. D. (2005). “The ‘failed state’ of International Relations.” New Political
Economy 10(3): 371-379; Jones, B. G. (2008). “The global political economy of social crisis:
Towards a critique of the ‘failed state’ ideology.” Review of international political economy
15(2): 180-205.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
systems of knowledge and political discourses objectify those who were to
have become its subjects, perhaps more radically its authors.
As a decolonising intellectual strategy, the critique of objectification
through the analysis of authoritative discourses is clear and deeply important
but also necessarily limited in scope. As Anghie recognises, this strategy must
work alongside others which recover another telling of this encounter in order
to challenge these discourses as not just hegemonic but essentially fictive
rhetorical devices.26 Insofar as these strategies work within a framework
whereby the discourses of the powerful are the primary object of analysis,
they have tended to do the latter understandably in only a secondary or
limited sense. Nonetheless, this groundwork is clearly critical in clearing the
space for alternative discourses and speakers, and the possibility of dialogue
which is precluded by Orientalist objectifications.
The second approach is a deconstruction of the West as the primary
subject of world history. This wider approach develops into two distinct
strategies. The first (ii) involves the direct contradiction of foundational
historical myths in social theory and discourse about Europe itself – i.e. that it
was technologically advanced, economically developed, that it advanced the
problems of international coexistence through the institutionalisation of state
sovereignty, that it was the origin of enlightened and universalist ethical and
political thought. These strands have generally had their heritage in historical
sociology, political economy and revisionist readings of political thought.27
Overall they have sought to contradict or subvert the correlation of Europe
with pioneering a progressive modernity. John Hobson for example argues
that historically in the encounter between West and East it was the West that
was considered backward in terms of technology and social structures, and
was only able to flourish as the consequence of being a ‘late developer’.28
Sandra Halperin argues that the mythologisation of European development,
and in particular the various ‘revolutions’ that were instantiated, obscures the
fact that European growth and expansion was predicated on the ‘dualistic’
economy, with its violences and exclusions, that the Third World is currently
26 Anghie, op cit. .However, there is disquiet amongst thinkers about the extent to which
postcolonial literature has been constrained by the postmodern / poststructuralist tenor of its
approaches, and the commitment to ‘real’ lives. See Appiah, K. A. (1991). “Is the post-in
postmodernism the post-in postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry: 336-357 for one such discussion.
27 Under my reading decolonising strategies are themselves heterodox in scope and origins,
inclusive of aspects of other traditions as well as work which self-identifies as ‘postcolonial’.
28 Hobson, J. M. (2004). The Eastern origins of Western civilisation. Cambridge, UK ; New
York, Cambridge University Press.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
critiqued for having.29 Beate Jahn’s critique of nineteenth century liberal
political thought suggests that it was predicated on the limited and
particularist rather than universalist protection of rights, and was supportive
of imperialist policy.30
Collectively they deconstruct the mythic subject of the ‘European
model’ in history through challenging the primacy and exceptionalism that
has been historically claimed. This is important to the decolonising project
insofar as the implicit particular history of exceptionalism and enlightenment
often serves to legitimate various forms of control and authority in the present
day. By pushing beyond the ‘winner/loser’ account of world history31 it is
argued that they open up a dialogical mode of thinking that elevates the
hybrid, connected nature of the relationships between civilisations.32
This line of thinking has led to a third, in some ways more subversive,
strategy (iii) for decolonising thought, as a critique of the particular European
subjects immanent and naturalised in the writing of History itself. The
argument here is that historiographical understandings of change and
development, even for critical historians, are understood in terms of
categories and trajectories that were seen as significant in the emergence of
Europe’s modernity, thus excluding the significance of the pluralities of pasts,
presents and futures that were and are happening elsewhere, to which this
modernity was necessarily connected. This line of thought was extended from
the work of the Subaltern Studies group, who took issue specifically with the
claim in Marx and Hobsbawm that the colonies were ‘outside history’ prior to
their insertion into the European capitalist system, although this critique was
extended to other historiographies.33 This understanding of history, they
argued, preserved the centrality of an underlying European referent subject to
the telling of history, even when that history was intended to be of elsewhere,
and even if such history was critical or myth-shattering, and even if such
29 Halperin, S. (1997). In the mirror of the Third World: capitalist development in modern
Europe, Cornell Univ Pr, Halperin, S. (2006). “International Relations Theory and the
Hegemony of Western Conceptions of Modernity” in Jones (ed) Decolonizing international
relations, op. cit.: 43-64.
30 Jahn, B. (2005). “Kant, Mill, and illiberal legacies in international affairs.” International
Organization 59(01): 177-207.
31 Exemplified, however unintentionally, by Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The
Fates of Human Societies. 1997. New York, Norton.
32 Hobson, J. M. (2007), ibid., 106.
33 Prakash, G. (1990). “Writing post-orientalist histories of the third world: perspectives from
Indian historiography.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 32(02): 383-408. See also
Hutchings, K. (2008). Time and world politics : thinking the present. Manchester ; New York,
Manchester University Press, for a related argument about the specific conceptions of time
that inform influential thinkers from the Western canon.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
categories were otherwise indispensable.34 Instead, it has been argued that
there is a need to think in terms of ‘multiple modernities’ occurring in the
context of ‘connected histories’35 to avoid analysis that only refracts
understanding of social relations through a truncated telling of the European
experience of industrialisation. Alison Ayers’ work on an African
historiography makes a similar point about the histories of democracy that
begin in Europe and are translated to African contexts, without any
consciousness of alternative and autonomously developed traditions within
Africa itself.36
The historiographical critiques make manifest a seeming paradox at the
centre of decolonising strategies for social inquiry, which is that despite this
problematisation of the exclusions of social theory, it must nonetheless
continue to employ in some sense this intellectual inheritance as a means of
engagement and response. This is in some senses an important tension
between the approaches of the second strategy, which are more clearly aimed
at a straightforward rebuttal of myths, and this third strategy which
interrogates the conduct of inquiry itself. Certainly this is a perennial critique
put by those operating outside the paradigm, who complain that decolonising
strategies are ‘really’ or ‘ultimately’ ‘Western’ or even ‘liberal’ in content and
outlook.37 Partly in response to this issue, for some, this has prompted the
response of seeking much more widely for intellectual resources from non-
Western traditions to think about the international, as Ayers does.38 However,
as I will elaborate in the conclusion, by and large there is little need for
anxiety about this issue, insofar as decolonising strategies are self-conscious
about the ‘geocultural’ conditions of their production, and the strategic
purposes for which they are employed.39 Indeed the emphasis on the
inherently dialogic production of societies, selves and social analysis that
means that accusations of inauthenticity which presuppose the possibility of
an ‘authentic’ self become misplaced. Moreover, by retaining a consciousness
of these as ‘strategies’ we are alive to these circumscriptions of purpose and
34 Chakrabarty, D. (2000). Provincializing Europe : postcolonial thought and historical
difference. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 38-9.
35 Bhambra, G. K. (2010). “Historical sociology, international relations and connected
histories.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 23(1): 127-143.
36 Ayers, A.J. (2006), ‘Beyond the Imperial Narrative: African Political Historiography
revisited’, in Jones (ed) (2006), op. cit.
37 Most recently, this emerged from discussion at this conference and by a reviewer of this
38 See also Shilliam, R. (2010). International Relations and Non-Western Thought: Imperialism,
Colonialism and Investigations of Global Modernity, Routledge.
39 Tickner’s keynote at this conference deals with the meaning of ‘geocultural’.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
The deep critique of history itself as being a type of practice centred
around the subject of Europe’s own modernity has generated the fourth
strategy (iv) of pluralising the various potential subjects of social inquiry and
analysing world politics from alternative subaltern perspectives.40 In some
senses, this is an inheritance from Fanon’s engagement with the
phenomenological aspects of colonialism and their importance in being able
to understand these relations in their entirety.41 In Chakrabarty’s work, this
has involved an exploration of the lifeworlds – a term from Husserl – of
various groups in Bengal in order to illustrate narratives of human experience
that are otherwise excluded or suppressed by modernist history.42 Within the
context of IR conversations Laffey and Weldes have re-told the story of the
Cuban missile crisis through the lens of Cuban interpretations rather than
superpower perspectives.43 This re-centring of different subjectivities has
necessarily involved a more interpretive engagement with both historical and
contemporary sources and people; that is to say an engagement with what
they thought and what they thought they were doing, rendering them as
more than principally the instruments of history or social forces. Often, as in
the case of Chakrabarty and others, this involves multiple layering of ideas
and sources in order to build up the understanding of the lifeworld as
concrete experience. Mohanty’s call for this engaged and detailed empirical
work as a means of appreciating fully both different domains of power and
the meanings given to the various structures also supports this approach.44
Clearly this strategy is connected with and complementary to the previous
one which problematises the adequacy of universalist historiographies and
narratives for a diverse social world.
However, this strategy, most closely connected with standpoint
theories in general, begins to pose important questions for decolonising
approaches to the study of world politics – in particular in thinking about the
relevance of particular experiences and worlds to the questions about world
politics which are pitched at an ostensibly general level. What weight should
be given to the inter/subjective interpretations of subaltern peoples about
their experiences of domination? Do these entail a commitment to the
40 An interesting example of this, developed somewhat separately from the Subaltern Studies
movement is Honwana, R. and A. F. Isaacman (1988). The life history of Raúl Honwana : an
inside view of Mozambique from colonialism to independence, 1905-1975. Boulder ; London,
41 Fanon, F. (1986). Black skin, white masks. London, Pluto.
42 Chakrabarty, op.cit; Chakrabarty, D. (1989). Rethinking Working-class History: Indian jute
workers in Bengal, 1890-1940, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
43 Laffey, M. and J. Weldes (2008). “Decolonizing the Cuban Missile Crisis.” International
Studies Quarterly 52(3): 555-577.
44 Mohanty, C. T. (1988). “Under Western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses.”
Feminist review: 61-88.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
‘objectivity’ of the position of the subaltern with regard to structures of
domination, which e.g. feminist standpoint theory has claimed?45 How do
these engagements with colonised lifeworlds deal with Nandy’s attention to
the colonisation of the mind, and Spivak’s warnings about the hegemonic acts
involved in attempting to voice or translate the subaltern?46
This problem can be addressed in part through a reminder of the
strategic character of inquiry. For example, the controversy about ‘objectivity’
only makes sense where the value of work is primarily evaluated through the
prior commitment to mind-world dualism which suggests a direct form of
comparability between competing explanatory frameworks.47 Where the
notion of social inquiry as objective ‘science’ is rejected, as in many
decolonising approaches, and the principal concern is for ‘worlding’ our
understanding of social relations – as discussed for example by Agathangelou
and Ling, or by Said48 – this suggests that interpretive and non-interpretive
understandings can and should be intertwined and work in dialogue with
each other. As I will suggest in my discussion of applying these strategies to
my own research, the weight given to each will tend to depend on the nature
of the research question and the normative commitments entailed. This is
consistent with the way Fanon sets up the problem – he makes clear from the
outset that he is interested in understanding how colonialism de-humanises – as
such the relevance of the phenomenological is closely integrated with Fanon’s
conception of humanity as requiring both ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’
engagement.49 For these other critiques too, it is a humanist and pluralist ethic
which drives the interest in the exploration of the lifeworld, but not at the
expense of thinking about how these might be interpellated into what can be
understood as broader political structures.
A fifth strategy (v) which relates to, but is somewhat distinct from,
these modes of rethinking history is the recovery of alternative political
subjecthoods in both historical and contemporaneous contexts. CLR James’
The Black Jacobins has served as one point of departure for this strategy, which
was a story of slave emancipation written at a time where Black and Asian
45 Harding, S. G. (2004). The feminist standpoint theory reader: Intellectual and political
controversies, Psychology Press.
46 Nandy, A. (1989). The intimate enemy: Loss and recovery of self under colonialism, Oxford
University Press Delhi; Spivak, G. C. (1988). “Can the subaltern speak?” Marxism and the
Interpretation of Culture: 271-313.
47 For clarification on these terms, see Jackson, op.cit, 34-37.
48 Agathangelou and Ling, op.cit., Chowdhry, G. (2007). “Edward Said and Contrapuntal
Reading: Implications for Critical Interventions in International Relations.” Millennium-
Journal of International Studies 36(1): 101
49 Fanon, F.(2001) Black Skin. White Masks, Pluto Press, 63-4
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
colonial peoples were making claims for political emancipation and equality.
In this sense it was an alternative vision of Black political subjecthood that
asserted an already-existing capacity and desire for freedom which was
militant and resurgent, even if it had to appropriate and subvert the
discourses of its oppressors. This was a reply to contemporaneous scientific
racist discourses on Black political subjecthood that emphasised its incapacity,
as well as alternative conceptions of decolonisation which were more
conservative and reformist in outlook.50 Ongoing interpretations of the
significance of the Haitian revolution have also sought to read within it the
possibility of an emancipatory ideal of politics and political subjecthood for
formerly colonised peoples that do not necessarily imply the passive diffusion
or acceptance of European norms.51 Gandhian conceptions of swaraj and
satyagraha are a further example of this strategy – the articulation of political
subjecthood that offers an alternative vision of the bases of authority, rule and
resistance to those conceived under colonial rule, that are not simply
imitations of secular nationalism but resonate with and draw on particular
cultural and spiritual tropes.
Within IR, Shilliam has used a similar strategy in terms of pitching
Rastafarian cosmologies of freedom as a claim and counterpoint to
universalist developmental ones, which represent the contemporary mould
for ideas surrounding international development and engagement in the
Third World.52 This strategy is of course closely linked to the attempts to decentre
Europe as the referent subject for historical accounts; instead it is a
provincialisation of the concept of individualist secular citizenship as the only
referent frame for politically relevant being.53 Instead, through a privileging of
the contextually grounded character of political subjecthood, this strategy
attempts to elucidate rather than suppress alterity.54
50 Scott, D. (2004). Conscripts of modernity : the tragedy of colonial enlightenment. Durham,
Duke University Press. There is controversy over exactly whether James’ account is
representative of an ‘alternative’ which was ‘post’-colonial or simply another version of elitist
and exclusionary politics: I am sympathetic to Scott’s point that reading James in his historical
context is key to understanding the significance of the ‘alternative’ that he had envisaged,
although contemporaneous readings of Toussaint’s political programme note his
authoritarian tendencies. See Nesbitt (ed) 2008, Jean-Bertrand Aristide presents Toussaint
L’Ouverture. The Haitian Revolution. London, Verso.
51 See Grovogui, S. N. (2006) ‘Mind, Body and Gut! Elements of a Postcolonial Human Rights
Discourse’ in Jones (ed) Decolonising International Relations, op.cit.
52 Shilliam, R. (2009). Redemption From Development: Amartya Sen, Rastafari and Promises
of Freedom. British International Studies Association Annual Conference. Leicester, UK.
53 See Ayers, A. J. (2009). “Imperial Liberties: Democratisation and Governance in the ‘New’
Imperial Order.” Political Studies 57(1): 1-27 for a sustained critique of the political subject
exported through the ‘democratisation’ agenda.
54 Inayatullah and Blaney (2003), ibid.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
Of all the tensions raised by all the strategies, this is probably the one
that challenges the practices of comparative and evaluative social inquiry
most explicitly, giving rise to the underlying question: how is it that humans
can be the same and yet different?55 And how does our work reflect
assumptions about the relevant degrees and nature of sameness and
difference? In thinking about the extent to which decolonising strategies are
viewed as controversial, despite few disputes on their objectives or normative
orientation, it seems that much revolves around an apparent willingness to
reject human similarity in favour of valorising human difference, giving up
both analytic and moral ground to some sort of relativism.56
Much has been said in response to this problem, and I will not cover
the relevant issues here.57 I am sympathetic to work that suggests that the
tension is inescapable.58 Indeed, in the abstract it makes little sense either
analytically or morally to deny either sameness or difference as foundational
aspects of existence. The real question, then, is what the limits of their
relevance might be, and the extent to which we can presume this ahead of
time. As I suggest in the application of this strategy to a particular problem,
there is a large extent to which different emphases might be reasonable
choices in different circumstances.
One final strategy (vi) of the decolonising project in broader social
theory that is only just beginning to take off self-consciously within IR is the
attempt to comprehend, challenge and displace the presumed psychic and
psychologically-understood ‘subjects’ that are produced by and support
various aspects of international relations. This is however consistent with the
low level of attention given to the affective dimension of politics within the
discipline as a whole.59 However, the emergence of considerations of the
affective and psychic dimensions of international politics within IR has also
stimulated a decolonising critique of the particular origins of this view of the
self. In particular, Shilliam’s critique of Lebow’s Cultural Theory of International
55 With apologies to Nancy Banks-Smith, whose formulation of anthropology I have stolen
and adapted: “the study of how people are the same, except when they are different.”
56 This critique is made strongly within by sympathisers as well as critics. Mohanty, S. P.
(1997). Literary theory and the claims of history: Postmodernism, objectivity, multicultural
politics, Cornell Univ Pr.
57 Inayatullah and Blaney, op. cit.
58 Paipais, V. (2011). “Self and other in critical international theory: assimilation,
incommensurability and the paradox of critique.” Review of International Studies 37(01): 121-
59 Arguably, the discipline’s overwhelming critical focus on Foucault, poststructuralism and
the productivity of discourses turned it away from the questions of subjectivity and affect,
although this is also changing across the field. See .
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
Relations demonstrates clearly the limits of the neo-Aristotelian basis on which
the human psyche is imagined in this text, pitching as an alternative a
Fanonian conception of colonised subjectivity as a necessarily embodied or
‘situated’ subjectivity.60 This is in distinction to the presumed mind-body
distinction that underpins the conception of the psyche in Lebow. In reimagining
the security bonds between states, Chen, Hwang and Ling
introduce questions of ambivalent postcolonial longing through the allegory
of the relationships in the film Lust/Caution.61 The displacement of the
rationalist, masculinist subjectivity/psyche attributed implicitly to states’
relations with each other within security studies with one that is more
complex, situated, affective and particular is a useful move, and seems to
deliver a compelling account of the relationship between mainland China and
Taiwan. Whilst these two pieces consist of very different analyses, they both
use a strategy which looks at the ways in which the presumed seeing subject
of world politics identifies itself, with itself and with other entities, and show
how this vision is tied to both particular locations and particular
psychological assumptions, often masking the inherently dialogical and
relational production of the self. 62 The decolonising project thus seeks to
examine and problematise this tethering, and in doing so start to imagine
alternative sites of departure.
It is noteworthy that this final strategy of challenging the presumed
psyche of international actors emerges principally in response to a particular
provocation – namely the anthropomorphisation of the state in a culturally
and gender specific way in analysis. In this sense it principally relates to the
disciplinary context of IR, the mainstream of which has moved from treating
states as ‘billiard balls’ to treating them as ‘people’.63 Although as yet not
widely developed, it is a particularly useful challenge to lay to a discipline
that continually attempts to update its core ontologies in a way which is
seemingly disembedded from the evaluative content of this theory.
60 Shilliam, R. (2009). “A Fanonian Critique of Lebow’s A Cultural Theory of International
Relations.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 38(1): 117.
61 Chen, B., C. C. Hwang, et al. (2009). “Lust/caution in IR: democratising world politics with
culture as a method.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 37(3): 743.
62 Not irrelevantly, however, both the sub-disciplines of war studies and peace studies have a
history of engaging with the psychological and affective dimensions of conflict and
peacebuilding. This has not, as far as my understanding of developments in these two fields
goes, led to a problematisation of the imagined psychological subject which serves as a
baseline for analysis, but it is a longstanding problematisation of the assumptions of
instrumental rationalities as dominating these two processes.
63 See the Review of International Studies forum, 2004, Volume 30, Issue 2.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
Decolonising strategies: central questions
Given the breadth of their conceptual concerns and intellectual
approaches, how, then, do decolonising strategies operate in a way which is
more dialogic than other modes of studying world politics? Why might these
be better? And what does this entail in terms of applying these strategies to
other areas of research?
Whilst there is increasing recognition that there are a plurality of ways
to study world politics, decolonising strategies, through pluralising the
subjects of inquiry, offer an intellectual platform for making good the ambition
of a discipline that has been trying to transcend its imperial, colonial and
racist roots.64 What they also expose however is the deep implications and
effects these roots have had on the ways of thinking within social theory at a
broad level as well as within the discipline, across theoretical divides. By
seeing this as a set of particularistic intellectual choices, they may provincialise
rather than reject wholesale these modes of analysis, meaning dialogue about
their relevance and structure is not only possible but imperative. The act of
provincialising particular perspectives and introducing the relevance of
others is a way of making inquiry itself a dialogue – speaking across different
subject positions – about the world rather than a single narrative which might
be more agnostic about its exclusions.
A central question that these strategies seem to generate is about the
level of co-implication between normative and analytic exclusions – whether
and how the forms of intellectual discrimination which are exercised in the
conduct of analysis, e.g. in a state-centric analysis of the international system
or a Gramscian account of capitalist hegemony, always reproduce types of
political and normative discrimination which we would consider problematic.
For example, one might accept that these failed to represent the experiences of
many in the world or continued to be Eurocentric but nonetheless had
explanatory purchase on events in the international arena by virtue of their
ability to parse events in a coherent manner.
Much might depend on the extent to which this work acknowledged or
failed to acknowledge its shortcomings as a piece of humanist research. Given
broad overlapping consensuses on a) the inherently purposive character of
inquiry, b) the necessarily perspectival character of knowledge and c) the
64 Vitalis, R. (2000). “The Graceful and Generous Liberal Gesture: Making Racism Invisible in
American International Relations.” Millennium – Journal of International Studies 29(2): 331-
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
illegitimacy of presumed civilizational hierarchies65, persisting with work that
rested on structures of thought which depends on denying or ignoring these
starting points seems odd to say the least. If these really are three
foundational assumptions for research then recognising and managing the
tensions these generate seems a rather more intellectually honest if precarious
way forward. As Mervyn Frost has argued, this is not about ‘adding’
normative values to structural analysis but making clear what is
commitments are already implicit.66
Such tensions include the co-implication between frames which enable
analysis through comparison or modelling and frames which suppress
potentially relevant difference. However, in general decolonising strategies
have tended to deal with this through putting these elements into dialogue
with one another and formalising this tension in the concept of ‘worlding’.
Said’s call for contrapuntal analysis conceives of these framings as part of a
wider whole, in which the relationship between the two or more melody lines
is as interesting, perhaps more so, than each line in and of itself.67 Note then,
that the substantive assumption returns here about the value any attempt to
narrate the world single-handedly or monologically – it will remain
inadequate and partial. Moreover, it may persist in cementing structures of
exclusion that continue to deny the experience of ‘most of the world’ in
Chatterjee’s expression as legitimate bases of knowledge. Whilst ‘worlding’
will still produce analyses that exclude important analytic and experiential
issues, this is a better way to think about a diverse and hierarchical world
than by denying this diversity.
This section, through unpicking the contributions of decolonising
strategies in world politics, has sought to re-articulate the project in a way
which demonstrates both its existing uses and possible future uses in the
study of world politics. As indicated at the outset, however, one of the
reasons for reflecting on decolonising thought and its commitments has been
to work through how it might be more widely applied.
I now turn to a particular research framing in order to explore more
deeply the potential for re-thinking IR through this typology. Drawing on a
wider research project, this case study specifically demonstrates the ways in
which the typology developed above helps re-frame critical approaches to
world politics, which express concerns for Western hegemony or imperialism
65 There may be a less broad consensus on this, although few who would be prepared to
admit to such in print.
66 Frost., op. cit.
67 Chowdry, op.cit.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
but without an adequate intellectual framing to redress the problem of
exclusion that they identify. I reconfigure the problematic of the ‘liberal
peace’, widely employed in the critical literature, through imagining
‘Mozambique’ as the relevant subject of inquiry in different ways. I do this
through an alternative historical grounding, through exploring shared
conceptions of political subjecthood and how these shape an engagement
with international co-operation, and through exploring the lifeworld of social
relations that this co-operation is part of in a variegated middle class. By
foregrounding these subjecthoods, critique can move away from assuming the
non-West as a space of insuperable difference and move towards a more
articulate, inclusive and concrete dialogue about the nature of international
‘Changing the subjects’: decolonising the ‘liberal peace’ in Mozambique
A central topic in the study of world politics is the nature and structure
of international power and authority. There is widespread agreement that in
the contemporary world something called the ‘West’ remains predominant in
various spheres, although much dispute takes place regarding the nature,
origins, durability and effects of that power. Is the power hard or soft?68 Is it
based in military, ideological or capitalist expansion? Does it support or
undermine international institutions? Is it best characterised as operating
through consent, coercion, hegemony or governmentality? A particular
critical debate in this broader literature, emerging from the confluence of
peace studies, IR and globalisation theory is about the nature of the ‘liberal
peace’, as discussed by writers such as Duffield, Paris, Chandler and
This research programme has a clear relevance in terms of
contemporary global politics, addressing a wide range of political and ethical
questions regarding the legitimacy, political effects and effectiveness of
Western power. At least some of these questions emerge from the claims of
certain governments to be acting the interests of humanity as a whole or on
the basis of the will to help the internationally vulnerable rather than simply
national self-interest. This coheres with seemingly inclusive cosmopolitan
stances on the need for globally-promoted standards of governance in
political and social life. Clearly, questions about the liberal peace are relevant
not only to the more narrowly defined activities of peacebuilding missions,
68 Berenskoetter, F. and M. J. Williams (2007). Power in world politics, Taylor & Francis
69 For a extended summary, see Chandler, D. (2011) ‘The uncritical critique of ‘liberal peace’’.
Review of International Studies, Available on CJO 26 Aug 2010 doi:10.1017/S0260210510000823
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
but resonate strongly with this wider set of political goals, upon which much
of their legitimacy depends. My argument is that this research programme
has nonetheless failed to produce a dialogic account of this power, articulated
through the perspectives of those supposedly subject to it.
The principal thrust of the critique is that multilateral intervention in
post-war environments in the name of peacebuilding powerfully cements and
advances Western control and transformation of these societies through
economic and political liberalisation, the institutionalisation of conditional
foreign aid flows and related governance monitoring mechanisms in the state,
and the attempted re-making of civil society through the promotion of liberal
values.70 This is in some cases analysed as being problematic due to the
implications for political sovereignty and the principle of autonomy,71 in
others due to the increased vulnerability of economies to market forces,72 in
others consolidation of Western power over the South,73 and in others as for
promoting social and political arrangements more likely to lead to conflict
than not.74 In each of these cases, analogies with former European imperialism
and the civilising mission have been drawn. These analogies are of critical
moral, ethical and political salience given the contemporary de-legitimisation
of these historical practices.
These critiques have been hugely productive in terms of generating an
extensive critical narrative on the nature of international peacebuilding, and
reflect much of the richness of contemporary critical theory in IR, including
neo-Gramscian, Foucauldian and feminist responses. It is not my intention to
suggest that what has been said is fundamentally wrong or misguided – on
the contrary it has been very important and generally illuminating.
Nonetheless, despite an anxiety about the hegemony of the West and the
political exclusions generated by the liberal peace, these global critiques have
largely failed to dislodge it as the central subject of inquiry, in many of the
senses described in the previous section. Although these critiques profess
interest in advancing an agenda ‘in solidarity with the governed’ or more
attuned to the ‘everyday’, their modes of analysing world order end up
reproducing, perhaps unintentionally, many of the exclusions they critique. In
Hobson’s formulation, their focus on Western agency and the question of
70 Richmond, O. P. (2005). The transformation of peace. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan
71 Chandler, (2011), op.cit.
72 Pugh, M. (2005). “The Political Economy of Peacebuilding: A Critical Theory Perspective.”
International Journal of Peace Studies 10(2): 23
73 Duffield, M. R. (2007). Development, security and unending war : governing the world of
peoples. Cambridge, Polity.
74 Paris, R. (2004). At War’s End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict, Cambridge University
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
‘difference’ reproduce a monological quality to the analysis.75 In some senses,
there has been a partial engagement of the first strategy discussed – an
identification of how discourse objectifies recipient societies76 – but little else
by way of counter-argument.
This is because the primary subject of analysis remains the (neo)liberal
and hegemonic West, which acts imperiously upon this objectified non-liberal
non-West.77 Richmond, recognises and attempts to address the problem in his
more recent work,78 which is broadly articulated as a critique of the liberal
peace’s colonial tendencies. However, the debate is framed through a contrast
between the ‘liberal’/ ‘Western’ and the ‘local’ or ‘non-liberal’ – as defined
variously by ‘kinship’, ‘custom’, ‘agency’, ‘the individual’, ‘community’,
‘tradition’ and so forth.79 Although it is argued that this transcends the
colonial gaze through calling for a hybrid, post-liberal peace, centred on the
‘everyday’, it is difficult to see how the rationale does not also simultaneously
re-assert particular assumptions about the centrality and coherence of
Western agency and the necessity for Western engagement to bring peace in
the non-liberal non-West. This ‘local’ space, whilst contrasted to the space of
power, is also represented as banalised – ‘everyday’ – rather than politicised
as such.80 Difference, where it exists, is primarily represented as cultural or
‘customary’ in character.
This pattern of exclusion is repeated within the other literature in the
locating of the historical subject of analysis as the post-imperial Western states
qua interveners, represented through the backstory of UN peacebuilding
missions or more broadly Western development aid, or nineteenth century
colonial policy.81 In this manner, the West is also represented as a coherent
political subject with its formative essence in the Enlightenment, in capitalism,
in imperialism – a liberal subject that seeks to universalise itself through
modern forms of liberal governance.82
75 Hobson (2007) ‘Is critical theory always for the white West and Western imperialism?’,
76 E.g. in Duffield, (2007), ch. 7.
77 I expand on this point in Sabaratnam, M (2011) ‘Situated critiques of intervention:
Mozambique and the diverse politics of response’, in Campbell, S., Chandler, D. and
Sabaratnam, M (2011 / forthcoming) A Liberal Peace? The Problems and Practices of
Peacebuilding, (London: Zed Books)
78 Richmond, O. P. (2010). “Resistance and the Post-liberal Peace.” Millennium – Journal of
International Studies 38(3): 665-692, footnote 10, 667.
79 Ibid.
80 Ibid., 689-690.
81 Paris, op.cit., Duffield, op.cit.
82 Chandler, (2011), op.cit, 3-4.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
By contrast, however, across the critiques of the liberal peace, direct
engagement with the ‘recipients’ of these interventions has been relatively
limited, except as demonstrations of where the liberal peace has failed to
bring democracy, human rights and so on.83 The typology I present above
shows precisely the kinds of intellectual strategies that can be used to address
these exclusions. For example, by using this framework, attention is drawn to
the fact that there are few substantive articulations of these societies as
potentially distinctive or significant subjects of politics and history, and
extremely few examinations of the ways in which people and groups within
them have interpreted or engaged the practices and agents of intervention.84
As such, the potential for the exploration of possible alternatives to it through
a dialogic and situated understanding of this relationship is deeply inhibited.
In counterpoint and contrast to these critiques, I have sought to
reconstruct an analysis of the liberal peace that foregrounds as alternative
‘subjects’ of analysis the society which is normally rendered its ‘object’. I deal
with a specific site which seemingly expresses par excellence the power of the
liberal transformation agenda through peacebuilding and development –
ongoing multilateral presence in Mozambique. I attempt to think about it in a
way which deliberately attempts deeper engagement with and appreciation of
the intended recipients as politically and historically located subjects whose
experiences and interpretations of the so-called liberal peace can be used in
the ‘worlding’ of analysis.85 However, I will go on to identify various
constraints that limit the reach of this dialogic strategy.
A preliminary step in this process is to re-locate understanding of the
liberal peace not in the history of the West but within the social and political
history of Mozambique. To do this, I set out the contemporary period in a
relationship to late colonialism and the post-independence socialist regime.
This means that the foregrounded issues are about the relations and struggles
between different groups, the nature of state, the political economy, social and
political authority, the experiences of war and the nature of the peace, in
which international interactions play a role but do not occlude these other
issues. Using ‘Mozambique’ as a historical ‘subject’ rather than ‘the liberal
83 E.g. Roberts, D. (2008). “Hybrid Polities and Indigenous Pluralities: Advanced Lessons in
Statebuilding from Cambodia.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 2(1): 63-86.
84 Although there are a few important exceptions – e.g. Belloni, R. (2001). “Civil society and
peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Journal of peace Research: 163-180, Heathershaw,
J. (2007). “Peacebuilding as Practice: Discourses from Post-Conflict Tajikistan.” International
Peacekeeping 14(2): 219-236.
85 Kristoffer Lidén has also engaged post-colonial thought as a framing for thinking about the
liberal peace as self-governance,. See chapter in Tadjbaksh, S. ed. (2011) Rethinking the
Liberal Peace: External Models and Local Alternatives, Routledge.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
peace’ as a focal point is not unproblematic – it also relies on occluding and
stylising particular issues in order to foreground a particular focus on the
‘imagined community’ of Mozambique as a subject of history. It is also
important to acknowledge that this construction of history has been closely
associated with the political decolonisation and nationalist project, and
remains internally contested within Mozambique itself.86 Nonetheless, insofar
as critics of the liberal peace have expressed an interest in the hegemony of
the West over these societies, and insofar as people within this society identify
with the category it can be a useful place to dialogue from about the
relationship. It also forces a re-thinking of historical agency, usually narrated
as being the preserve of intervening powers, in part because we now
understand what an alternative historical agenda might look like from the
point of view of social relations in Mozambique.
A further step is to engage the ways in which this history has given rise
to complex structures of authority and legitimacy that shape political
subjecthoods and subjectivities, which strongly shape how the liberal peace is
understood, enacted and experienced. The presumptive exclusion of these
factors from an assessment of whether the liberal peace might or might not be
understood as ‘legitimate’ seems to reduce a priori a discussion of the issue to
the discursive framing of the analyst, excluding the possibility of a dialogic
engagement on these issues. For example, engaging public commentaries on
the question of corruption – acknowledged as a key theme in the liberal
governance agenda – demonstrates both that many see the spread of
corruption as emerging historically with the influx of post-conflict aid and the
process of privatisation.87 This viewpoint should give us pause for thought in
reflecting on the liberal peace relationship, as it counter-argues the claim of
the liberal peace to be a general agent of ‘good governance’ in a much more
powerful way than critiques which have not interrogated this stylised
narrative. Furthermore, engaging with historical political discourses about
corruption further highlights that a concern with corruption is not unique to
donor discourses about governance but has a broader political resonance,
which is not simply dismissable as the symptom of a comprador elite trying
to win favour. On the contrary, through engaging how corruption is
understood within popular culture, we can see that it also emerges as a potent
critique of elites themselves at various times and places.88
86 For a minority position, for example, see Cabrita, J. M. (2000). Mozambique : the tortuous
road to democracy. Basingstoke, Palgrave.
87 From author’s ongoing doctoral research on which this section is based; also see Harrison,
G. (1999). “Corruption as boundary politics : the state, democratisation, and Mozambique s
unstable liberalisation.” Third World Quarterly 20(3): 537-550.
88 See for example the work of the musician Azagaia, whose songs decry the corruption of
both national elites and development agencies – ‘Povo No Poder’ (trans. The People in
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
Thirdly, engaging with the ‘lifeworlds’ of those whom the liberal peace
is designed to transform further allows us to construct alternative subject
perspectives from which to think about the political relations instantiated. In
particular, this requires thinking about the specific mechanisms through
which the liberal peace is supposedly deployed and thinking about how these
are interpreted.89 I have sought to do this both through secondary research on
ethnographies undertaken in rural areas whilst the liberal peace has been
implemented, and through a series of observations and interviews of people
working at the interface of donor projects and aid. This brings to the fore not
only important aspects of interpretation but also a raft of issues and problems
usually assigned to the realm of the ‘mundane’ which nonetheless
significantly shape the actual practices of the liberal peace. As just one
example, the ways in which the practices of development and
democratisation assistance restructure material incentives for large numbers
of professional and semi-skilled workers away from long-term employment
in national organisations, as well as the highly repetitive and cyclical turnover
of foreign staff leads to relatively widespread cynicism and alienation that is
not necessarily based on an ideological or cultural rejection of liberalism but
the clearer problem that there is very wide hypocrisy in a system which is
self-interested and ineffective.
These examples demonstrate briefly the added value of the typology
earlier developed in the paper as a frame for approaching the task of
decolonising world politics through the extension of dialogue. By articulating
the key problem as one of the ‘subjects’ of analysis, doors are opened in terms
of thinking about how to rethink the liberal peace in ways which do not
reproduce its own simplified and binaristic understandings of the world.
A good question to ask might be ‘why does it matter’? So what if
political life in Mozambique is structured around the navigation of postcolonial
identity, and so what if anti-corruption laws speak to memories of the
socialist past? How does this help us think critically about international
power relations? I would argue that bringing this research back into the
conversation about the liberal peace begins to lay the platform for a
conceptual and political dialogue about what is at stake when we ‘world’ our
analysis. One issue that seems to become clear is that the division between a
‘liberal’ West and a non-liberal non-West does not really seem to reflect either
Power):; ‘As Mentiras da
Verdade’ (trans. The Lies of Truth)
89 I specify these along the lines elaborated by Duffield, Richmond and Mac Ginty.
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
identities or practices in a place like Mozambique, and should not be the basis
on which our understanding of the liberal peace is constructed.
This might mean that some of the ethical-political-practical questions
raised by the literature which turn on the distinction drop out, with others
taking their place. One replacement question might be about the extent to
which ameliorative interventions structurally re-form social relations and the
knowledge base around their short-termist and superficial needs. Another
might be about the extent to which the liberal peace does not pursue a
transformative political agenda which re-makes the South but a rather
conservative one which preserves its partisans and deflects pressures for
change. These kinds of issues can only come to the fore when we change the
‘subjects’ of our analysis and begin to attempt to get to grips with the
inherently multi-faceted quality of these relationships.
However, the approach that I have set out as a mode of ‘decolonising’
the liberal peace is in no way exhaustive and necessarily instantiates its own
exclusions. As such, it adds only a few more interlocutors – many of whom
are in some senses ‘elite’ – to the dialogue out of many possible ones,
although these interlocutors are very important. These limitations are
certainly not trivial in the context of work that seeks to ‘democratise’ our
understanding of world politics. Clearly, these exclusions are in some senses
borne of habits of analysis developed and trained in a particular academic
setting, and they reflect shortcomings in terms of possible depths of
engagement. In others, they simply reflect the need to limit the ambitions of
any single work – for example, I have used only three of the six distinctive
strategies above at this time, selected through my judgements about their
viability, compatibility and relevance for the research framing.
I hope, nonetheless, that they demonstrate a need for IR scholars, and
perhaps critical theorists in particular to think about the links between analytic
and political exclusion, which lies behind the call for not just more ‘debate’ but
greater ‘dialogue’ in the discipline. This is particularly given the context in
which the power of the liberal peace is justified politically and intellectually –
that is, specifically on its desire and ability to deliver a more just and peaceful
order in the name of war-torn societies and victims of conflict. Yet without
engaging with those societies as real historical and political subjects, they
remain objectified and voiceless in both politics and intellectual analysis.
Analytic inclusion in itself does not however ‘solve’ any problems as
such – indeed, it properly raises a vast array of new ones. This is the point
from a disciplinary perspective – to help re-frame the questions about
international power in terms that appreciate and reflect the situations of the
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
intended recipients, in a manner which is explicit, accountable, and grounded
in detailed engagement and argument. The ultimate importance of this
intervention in the ongoing conversation is not something that can be settled
within the terms of the study itself but rather in its dialogue with existing
studies and the broader context of public discourses about the liberal peace.
Facilitating dialogue: the under-appreciated value of learning-in-exile
Even if, however, if one is convinced of the need for problematising the
subjecthoods of international politics through deep empirical engagement
with those normally excluded, there are several practical barriers to being able
to do so, which themselves need to be highlighted and challenged. A further
issue worth considering is the way in which we as an academic community of
scholars view ourselves and what we do that deeply conditions our ability to
execute the kinds of work that the decolonising project demands of us
personally. It is an uncomfortable but necessary admission that we are
perhaps (though not exclusively) not (yet) fit for purpose, a problem which
makes us all the more needful of dialogic modes of engagement.
By this, I principally mean that we should not shrink from recognising
the limits of our own perspectives and the value of trying to learn from others,
and the necessarily incomplete nature of our endeavours. This of course
involves appreciating the process of studying particular places and cases as a
learning process, and devoting time and energy to improving our own skills –
in languages, historical techniques and so on. These take significant resources
of time, energy, money and commitment for which there is limited incentive
and support beyond one’s postgraduate research methods course. Indeed,
given professional pressures to publish and teach,90 it is possible to say that
further training and deep empirical and applied engagement with alternative
subject positions is structurally inhibited within the discipline.
These perhaps obvious constraints have very serious analytic and
political consequences in terms of maintaining the discipline’s tendencies
towards Eurocentrism in research. It is unsurprising that the decolonising
project requires scholars to look at sources and work quite outside the
discipline for these alternative perspectives, and also unsurprising that the
empirical groundings of projects often do not seem completely satisfying.
When the necessary periods of exile are limited to the few weeks between
terms and funded only partially by institutions and departments, one’s
90 These are of course pressures exacerbated by present pressures on the higher education
Sabaratnam – IR in Dialogue
February 2011
Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 39:3, 781-803
mobility is deeply curtailed. Re-shaping where possible the opportunities for
engaged research is no less important a task
More than this, however, treating the decolonising project as being
about a process of learning is about the spirit or posture in which the research
is undertaken and then presented. If the decolonising project is about taking
the perspectival character of knowledge seriously, then the unsettling of
where epistemic authority lies between ‘researcher’ and ‘subject’ is a
necessary part of it. Whilst our professional identities, and moreover our
personal ones, will require us to re-occupy a space in various epistemic
hierarchies, as scholars and teachers, a consciousness that this is a fragile and
tenuous place imbued with power often presumed rather than justified
should encourage an openness to dialogue and alternative perspectives. In a
practical sense, this could start with putting more value on collaborative
work, as well as working harder to promote awareness of work from
marginalised perspectives, even if we have not produced it ourselves. Whilst
there are always strategic closures within any analysis, nonetheless a
decolonising project in social theory that is working to think in terms of,
perhaps counter-intuitively, heterogeneous and marginalised subjects of
world politics, with an appreciation of how to push the limits of this
endeavour, will contribute to the broader question of democratising world
Conclusions: Decolonising future horizons
This piece has argued that enabling dialogue in international relations
requires us to get to grips with the nature of the ‘subjects’ of this dialogue and
of our research. It has shown through its suggested typology that
decolonising strategies are connected and contested around this common
preoccupation. I have also argued that this can be a productive way to think
about the problem of international power structures in a more inclusive way,
through an illustrative case in which these strategies are applied to a wider
research project.
Through engaging with the preoccupations and strategies of
decolonising thought in the course of my research, I have become alive to the
multiple ways in which even in a politically decolonised age, variously
colonial and imperial ideas permeate the ways in which the contemporary
world is understood and represented, even in critical thought. Whilst, given
the intertwined character of modernity with colonialism in Europe, this is not
altogether surprising, the academy has been relatively slow to elaborate ways
of seeing and engaging that might help unpick some of these myths and
framings of world order. Nonetheless, as I hope I have shown, this is not for
want of innovative intellectual strategies for decolonising our analyses, which
can inspire new ways of researching that offer a less exclusionary terrain for
Substantive questions remain, for which there may be no answers that
satisfy everyone. In particular, the emphasis on the sources and nature of
alterity present key tensions. Can you really ‘do’ social theory that is
ultimately respectful of difference? What are legitimate and illegitimate
differentiations between people in the conduct of social inquiry? In whose
name is inquiry carried out, and who benefits from it? Can ‘dialogue’ be a
satisfactory alternative to Eurocentrism, given the persistence of this
intellectual baggage in constructing alternatives?
Many decolonising strategies have recognised these seeming
paradoxes. These paradoxes are not just ‘theoretical’ but also pervaded the
practical problems faced by the protagonists of Third World decolonisation in
the twentieth century. Although it is a now-standard response to these issues,
maintaining a reflexive and non-dogmatic approach to our conceptual lenses
is clearly important, and being explicit about the objectives of engagement
and analysis more so. However, it would be to capitulate too much to suggest
that decolonising theory is somehow more theoretically compromised by such
a stance in a way that other approaches are not. Simply being prepared to
admit and consider deeply the relevance of these issues does not mean that
they do not apply to other theoretical frames – it is more that they are
systematically ignored.
‘Decolonising’ ‘IR’ may not work as full accommodation or logical
coherence between the two terms, but it might produce some things which sit
better than the alternatives. Yet, for dialogue about world politics to be fully
realised, decolonising strategies and lines of argument require and deserve
replies from mainstream IR rather than being simply included without
comment in the burgeoning roster. Although so far, decolonising strategies
have been treated as little more than ‘local difficulties’, given conferences like
this these modes of thought seem to be spreading in popularity and
sophistication. This paper has aimed to add some small momentum to what is
an exciting research movement in the discipline, through opening up some
explicit ways in which particular problems and conceptual framings might be

Dejar una respuesta