International History
22 October 2019

A conversation on the history of international relations with Robert Vitalis

Interview with Professor Robert Vitalis from the University of Pennsylvania

Robert Vitalis  is Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he previously served as Director of the Middle East Centre. His work focuses on the history of international relations and development studies, the political and cultural economy of the world oil industry, US expansionism, and race and American international relations theory. He is the author of When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt (1995) and America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (2006), which was named a Book of the Year by The Guardian. At the occasion of Professor Vitalis' lecture before the International History Forum of the International History Department of the Graduate Institute on 22 October 2019, Professor Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Chair of the International History Department, held a conversation with him on the set of issues raised in his most recent work, White World Order, Black Power Politics: the Birth of American International Relations (2015).


Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou (MMM): Your book White World Order, Black Power Politics – The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell University Press, 2015) helpfully unearthed the forgotten – arguably concealed – relationship between the emergence in the early twentieth century of the discipline of international relations and race relations in the United States at the time. In what way are the two related and how did this genesis play out?

Robert Vitalis (RV): I think the question as phrased—as we all would naturally phrase it in the early twenty-first century—gets in the way of our understanding a simple but to our minds a strange idea. As I write in the book, at the moment I was writing about and for the thinkers I had studied, ‘international relations’ meant most basically ‘race relations.’

MMM: How so?

RV: Think of it as a way to encapsulate what was understood as the increasing and increasingly-fraught encounter between imagined superior and inferior peoples globally. The ‘problem’ was the same across the colour line whether in work camps, towns, cities, states, territories or colonies. What was debated was the prospects for avoiding (or not) the ‘coming race wars.’ Thus, even by the time the distinction between the domestic and the foreign had become fixed we find [American journalist and political scientist] Harold Isaacs taking seriously the idea that decolonisation struggles in Africa could lead to race wars at home.

MMM: We forget indeed that the link was vivid for many. It stayed so for several decades, as it were. In an October 1962 editorial, the New York Times, of all papers, was registering as much writing that 'the United States is experiencing in Mississippi what is tantamount to its own form of decolonisation; for our colonialism, sociologically-speaking has been within the United States and not abroad'. What underwrites the analogy?

RV: Well, as you probably know, the analogy of the US South’s Jim Crow system of segregation and second-class citizenship for blacks to colonial rule in Africa and Asia was a mainstay of 1930s Marxian (specifically Stalinist) thought. Ralph Bunche, then a radical of I believe Trotskyist sympathies (he would later deny any kind of attraction to communist theorising) criticised this form of thinking explicitly in the long out-of-print essay that Alain Locke [the philosopher and first African-American Rhodes Scholar] commissioned, A World View of Race (1936). It is doubtful that the New York Times editors were thinking of the ‘black belt’ debates, and the revival of this idea under the auspices of the Black Power movement was still a few years away. It is likely instead that the editors had come to embrace the ‘cold war civil rights’ view that US efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Third World were foundering on the denial of equal rights to African-Americans. In this view, it left the Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy administrations open to charges of hypocrisy. No doubt the world had noticed. In researching my book America’s Kingdom, about the oil complex in Saudi Arabia at the dawn of the cold war I found an account of US Air Force personnel at the airport – that the Harry S. Truman administration built and maintained primarily for the oil company – which reported that their Arab employees were puzzled by two things about the United States in particular: the country’s utter disregard for the fate of the Palestinians and its racism at home.

MMM: It is striking that this research and argument of yours are relatively rare when their logic is compelling and should have been for earlier waves of political scientists and historians, indeed social scientists generally. Recently we had the work of Jessica Blatt – Race and the Making of American Political Science (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) – following in your footsteps, and the debate has been gathering momentum with the likes of Zeynep Gulsah Capan, Audrey Alejandro, Ersel Aydinli, Gonca Biltekin and Turan Kayaoglu among others. Yet besides this new phase and earlier key works by John M. Hobson, there is a revealing sense of a critical outlook long delayed. What accounts for that?

RV:  Here I am going to do precisely what I would criticise Rogers Smith for. That is, I have not studied the phenomenon, collected um data and tested my idea against possible other explanations. My hypothesis is that forthright reckoning was more not less likely where and when African Americans and other 'minorities' (as we began to say in the United States it turns out after the League of Nations made it a term of art) entered a field in critical numbers. As I wrote in the book, I counted less than ten in International Relations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and these intellectuals actually did try to bring the question of race relations into the field. Since they had been taught and had absorbed the discipline’s Cold War era origin story (idealism begat realism after the former’s failure to predict World War II) they understood themselves as raising the question of race conflict for the first time. This cohort though basically left the field for more challenging let alone lucrative careers as diplomats, foundation officers and university administrators, leaving no trace on the discipline. This was at a high point of black Americans pursuing PhDs in political science. The numbers began to decline thereafter.

MMM: Political science, in particular in its increasingly quantitatively-obsessed paradoxically-depoliticising American tradition, is particularly guilty of poor science in this story. In a 2004 essay ('The Puzzling Place of Race in American Political Science', PS: Political Science and Politics, 37, 1, 2004, pp. 41-45), Roger M. Smith writes: '[A]fter a late nineteenth century period of explicit racism, through much of the twentieth century, American political science devoted much less attention to race than kindred disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and history.' To what can we ascribe such inability, or again refusal arguably, to work on what is obviously the lead story in the United States through precisely much of the twentieth century?

RV: First let me know that Roger is one of the most decent, open-minded and generous colleagues I have had the pleasure to know. I also know that he has played a behind the scenes role to support my career in a department that has a hard time recognising the kind of work I do as political science or international relations, and where I get slotted as the Middle East specialist exclusively. That said, I have had my suspicions about this claim of his since he made it. As I suggested above, I think it is the kind of thing we do all the time in contradiction to how we are taught to proceed in our own research programmes. Basically, he is generalising based on unclear evidence, over an unclear period of time, and so it is easy to discover cases that seem to contradict the claim. Part of the problem is how you ‘code’ the scholars in question back in those days when disciplinary identities were not as fixed as they are now. The case of the tremendously influential William Archibald Dunning at Columbia through the 1920s when he served a term as president of the American Political Science Association is as good as any. How does Roger code Dunning and his many students ('the Dunning School' as Du Bois and others described them)?  Where did he look for evidence? Is he counting the work of black scholars who, as I wrote in White World Order, were resigned to publishing in black-founded publications such as Phylon and the Journal of Negro Education given the de facto segregation of the discipline? Is his generalisation, reasonable or not, one limited to white political scientists?  Did those other disciplines integrate faster than political science? These are the kinds of questions that keep me from accepting the claim at face value.

MMM: Where then did you take your focus?

RV: I chose to focus on what political scientists wrote rather than what they did not write or did not write about as frequently as sociologists. Thus, in White World Order I write about some of the most blatant racist works of the mid-twentieth century by political scientists and about their role in the influential ‘scientific’ racist journal Mankind Quarterly. There is more work to be done on these scholars, the militant right winger Stefan Possony, for one, the head of research at the Hoover Institution in the 1960s and 1970s, who I have continued to research, and A. James Gregor, who taught political theory at Berkeley.

MMM: What place does racism occupy in this story?

RV: Huge, as in virtually every other story about US universities in the twentieth and now twenty-first century.

MMM: Can you elaborate? Are we merely talking about familiar aspects such as access, quotas and overall ability to acquire that knowledge, or be accepted in the confines of the universities, or are there deeper issues about the nature of the knowledge produced itself and where it is coming from historically?

RV:  Those familiar and very material aspects, as you put it, matter immensely of course. But I was thinking of what you capture so perfectly in talking about the nature of knowledge and where it comes from. I was telling the truth when I wrote in White World Order that I moved from studying the Middle East out of shame of maybe and anger at my ignorance of W. E. B. Du Bois who I only read for the first time in my forties. Since then I have experienced or seen for myself the continuing resistance to reckon with the history and continued salience of racism in, to give just a few examples, who gets hired, who gets taught, who gets read, and who takes our seminars. Let me give you one example from my time at the University of Pennsylvania that suggested to me that my white colleagues in African Studies are still reeling from the black students’ revolution and still fighting it decades later. The year I was hired at Penn to direct its Middle East Centre, the sociologist Tukufu Zuberi was appointed director of the African Studies Centre. Only he was forced out of that position within six months by white colleagues who complained that his interest in ‘the Diaspora’ and expanding the Centre’s scope would do untold damage, turn it from a centre of significant knowledge creation to a kind of outpost of identity politics, and so forth. Among the ironies of course is that Africa and Afroamerica were the twin concerns of Melville Herskovits who built the first post-war Centre for African Studies at Northwestern University, but only after failing to get funding for his preferred model. Fifty years later, folks were still as fearful of change and as tenacious in fighting to preserve their privileged positions. Privately, they mocked Tukufu, who, they would confide to me, used to be known as Antonio McDaniel. I could go on. The craziest claim though was the idea that they, the senior white scholars and leader figures in the fields of African politics and the history of medicine were the ones truly committed to Africa and that any change was bound to harm Penn’s reputation for pioneering in the study of the continent. Guess what? Fifteen years later the Centre has been absorbed by the Department of Africana Studies. Tukufu has gone from success to success as a filmmaker as well as scholar.  The sky hasn’t fallen.  Racism is tenacious.



Robert Vitalis

White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations

Fall 2019

International History Forum