11 June 2018

Anti-Geneva: European Inter-Imperial Cooperation in the 1920s–1930s

The interwar years saw an increasing interplay and indeed a blending of imperial, international, and transnational political activities among imperial powers. This evolution is at the core of Associate Professor Cyrus Schayegh’s recent research and monograph project, which he presented this semester at a History Brunch Seminar of the International History Department.

Professor Schayegh’ new monograph project is titled Anti-Geneva: European Inter-Imperial Cooperation, 1920s–1930s. It examines the multiple overlaps in the histories of internationalism emerging after World War I, a period of uncertainty for many imperial powers. The central focus is the Institut colonial international (ICI), a private institution based in Brussels, Belgium, that existed as a counterpoint to the League of Nations during the mandate period. This ICI is a useful lens for Professor Schayegh in order to investigate the connectedness of several processes which, he argues, has been otherwise treated separately in academic debates.

One key point he pursues is how an organisation such as the ICI provides a space for understanding what may be described as a “prehistory” of the European Union, in view of its involvement in European regional centres as well as its physical establishment in Brussels, which is arguably more than a coincidence. However, it would also be inaccurate to view the activities of the ICI as an enterprise that was coherently “pan-European by design”. Instead, it may be worthwhile to think of the institution and its broader activities as “European-forming in effect”. Thus, this research will throw more light on how international agents and actors responded and shaped global politics at such sites where political, diplomatic and informational exchanges could occur in a way that was not replicable in more formal institutions.

The ICI emerged as an institution that embodied the growing “internationalism” of the age and the conservative reactions to this trend. Beyond this particular debate, it provides the researcher with a wealth of information regarding historical scholarly debates on empires, pan-Europeanism and early 20th-century globalisation. The investigation of ICI archival correspondences and meeting notes reveals indeed volumes about its political interactions regarding these wider global trends. After the Great War, European empires in particular were caught in a tension as the need to demonstrate an “international” outlook collided with an emerging Eurocentric outlook. This was in response, partly, to the blurriness of what “international” and “national” meant, but also to a time when imperial and non-imperial entities as well as non-European empires and nation-states were competing and collaborating through officially recognised international channels and mechanisms like the League of Nations. Professor Schayegh’s project builds on a published article that sheds light on the attempts by “second-rank” imperial powers such as Belgium to subvert what was often perceived as projects that could potentially jeopardise the sovereignty of empires in their own colonies. In this article, he shows how the League of Nations and Geneva represented a “hothouse” for new ideas about international governance while also being a site where empires such as that of Belgium could articulate their status as imperial powers of significance. Likewise, Belgium used the ICI “that, although non-governmental in nature, was filled with pro-colonial elites” representing Belgian imperial interests. The monograph project will go beyond the Belgian case to show how it was tied to larger processes and could not be accommodated into a single category such as national, imperial, transnational and so on.

As an informal, selective and private arena, the ICI provided representatives of imperial governments with a multilateral platform for exchange of information and informal networking opportunities behind closed doors. Professor Schayegh suggests that one gets a sense that these “gentlemen” gathered in a cigar-club-like atmosphere, where backroom discussions betrayed antidemocratic and certainly anti-egalitarian undertones. Moreover, the knowledge production and dissemination activities, such as the compiling of the Annuaire de documentation coloniale comparée, are interesting because they brought various actors with colonial interests together. Octave Louwers, a former Belgian magistrate in the Congo, oversaw the assembling of this Annuaire which consisted in collecting the data provided by imperial governments about their policies and imperial projects, particularly in the colonies, and transforming it into this publication.

The Annuaire is furthermore of interest for its comparative and thematic organisation of imperial undertakings instead of classifying them under nation-states or empires. This implies that the way that empires were being imagined was also being standardised around this time, and issues and actors that did not conform to this view were excluded. This accounts for the notable omissions of Germany, Russia, Turkey and Iran. While the exclusion of Germany in the aftermath of the Great War may be more self-evident, the marginalisation of Japanese imperial issues – despite some degree of presence in the proceedings – is paradoxical as Japan had already assumed significant imperial status in the preceding two-three decades.

There is thus an opportunity to study the ICI as being part of Europe-forming experiments and experiences, which have arguably contributed to a standardisation of ideas of imperial diplomacy and governance of European colonial projects.

Full citation of Professor Schayegh’s article:
Schayegh, Cyrus. “The Expanding Overlap of Imperial, International, and Transnational Political Activities, 1920s–1930s: A Belgian Case Study.” International Politics (2017). doi:10.1057/s41311-017-0109-x.

By Aditya Kiran Kakati, PhD candidate in International History and Anthropology and Sociology