From the rise of illiberal hegemony to exploring the global history of science, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Barry R. Posen
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump vowed to put an end to nation building abroad and mocked U.S. allies as free riders. “‘America first’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” he declared in a foreign policy speech in April 2016, echoing the language of pre–World War II isolationists. “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves,” he said—an apparent reference to his earlier suggestion that U.S. allies without nuclear weapons be allowed to acquire them.
Such statements, coupled with his mistrust of free trade and the treaties and institutions that facilitate it, prompted worries from across the political spectrum that under Trump, the United States would turn inward and abandon the leadership role it has played since the end of World War II. “The US is, for now, out of the world order business,” the columnist Robert Kagan wrote days after the election. Since Trump took office, his critics have appeared to feel vindicated. They have seized on his continued complaints about allies and skepticism of unfettered trade to claim that the administration has effectively withdrawn from the world and even adopted a grand strategy of restraint. Some have gone so far as to apply to Trump the most feared epithet in the U.S. foreign policy establishment: “isolationist.” [continue reading]
Jessica Ann Levy
A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump sparked yet another international controversy with his reference to “sh**hole countries” to describe immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations. While the media has since moved on to other stories, including the president’s widely anticipated first State of the Union address, Africans are not quite ready to forgive and forget. At the recent African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, various African leaders demanded an apology from the president. African Union Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat listed Trump’s remarks among a host of others “on Jerusalem and the reduction of contributions to the budget for global peacekeeping,” as reason for Africans’ anger. “The continent will not be silent on this subject.”
Far from an aberration, Trump’s behavior is indicative of a decades’ long history of American racism towards Africa and its descendants. Repairing that relationship requires more than an apology from the 45th president; it demands reckoning with that history. Africa emerged from World War II eager to throw off the chains of nearly a century of European colonial rule. Building on the momentum generated by previous decades’ anti-imperial movements and taking advantage of British fatigue on the “colonial question,” Ghana became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to declare its independence in March 1957. Shortly thereafter, seventeen other countries—including Nigeria, Senegal, and Congo—gained their independence in 1960, which has been termed “The Year of Africa.” [continue reading]
Africa is a Country
Black Panther has become a cultural phenomenon unparalleled by any other in recent memory. Rapturous audiences have all but deified the blockbuster film, a remake of a comic book tale about a superhero from the mythical African nation of Wakanda. Viewing the movie has proven especially cathartic for those sweltering under America’s racial politics. With white nationalists on the march and government agencies seemingly conspiring to exacerbate the suffering of people of color, Black Panther’s spectacle of ebony elegance offers more than entertainment; it is a fountain of sweet tea in a searing desert.
Given the dearth of affirming black images in popular media, the impulse to lionize the film is understandable. But Black Panther is more than a celebration of black dignity and sophistication. It is also a discourse on freedom, a dreamscape that draws on black traditions of imagining and seeking to build ideal societies beyond the reach of white supremacy. Black Panther demands critical examination because utopian visions are unavoidably political; they are among the tools with which oppressed people attempt to draft a just future. Unfortunately, anyone committed to an expansive concept of Pan-African liberation — one designed to free African and African-descended people throughout the world — must regard Black Panther as a counterrevolutionary picture. [continue reading]
Stephen M. Walt
. . . . A more serious deficiency is the neglect of history. Diplomatic and international history have fallen on hard times in most history departments, and it has been interesting to observe how schools of international affairs have been able to pick up the slack. (Frank Gavin’s recent appointment at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies is a case in point, as is the presence of Fred Logevall, Arne Westad, and Moshik Temkin here at the Kennedy School.) There’s an obvious reason for this trend: There are hardly any important international issues that can be understood, let alone solved, without knowing a lot about the historical processes that created them.
How could one possibly comprehend the crisis in Ukraine — or get an intelligent bead on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior — without knowing a lot about the history of Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia itself? Could anyone possibly grasp the complex relationship between the United States and Iran, or between Israelis and Palestinians, without knowing how these relationships evolved over time? Ever wonder why South Korea and Japan don’t get along very well? If you don’t know their history, you won’t have a clue. And here’s a pro tip: Although these societies all lived through the same events, the histories they tell themselves about them are radically different. [continue reading]
The year was 1789; the place Bengal. Isaac Newton’s masterpiece Principia Mathematica was being translated for only the third time in its already 100-year-old history; this time, into Arabic. The author of this remarkable feat of scholarship was Tafazzul Husain Khan. According to a member of the ruling East India Company: “Khan… by translating the works of the immortal Newton, has conducted those imbued with Arabick literature to the fountain of all physical and astronomical knowledge.”
For professor Simon Schaffer, who has researched the story of Tafazzul’s achievements, the complex work of translation is deeply significant. Tafazzul worked with scholars in English, Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit language communities in his efforts to connect Newtonian theories with the Indo-Persian intellectual tradition. For Tafazzul was, as Schaffer describes, “a go-between”. “The ‘go-betweens’ are the individuals who, across the centuries, have been the cogs that have kept science moving,” he explains. “They are the knowledge brokers and translators, networkers and messengers – the original ‘knowledge transfer facilitators’. Their role may have disappeared from mainstream histories of science, but their tradecraft has been indispensable to the globalisation of science.” [continue reading]