The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination – Book Review

8 June 2022

A book review of Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton University Press, 2019.)

As World War II ended, European colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries—British and French especially, but also Belgian, Italian, and Portuguese—were breaking apart, to be replaced in the post-war period by newly independent nation-states throughout Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. The United Nations counted 51 member states when its founding charter was signed in June 1945. By 1970, UN membership had more than doubled to 127 member states. But serious theorizing about potential pathways to decolonization and independence had been underway at least since the era of World War I. In Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, Adom Getachew, an Ethiopian-born scholar presently teaching at the University of Chicago, seeks to capture the multiple and often conflicting strands of thought that aspired to define the direction of the 20th-century anti-colonial independence movement.


Uniting these strands, as Getachew’s sub-title suggests, was the notion of “self-determination,” roughly the notion that the newly independent states themselves and not their former colonizers should determine the terms of independence. Getachew highlights a bold strand of thinking about self-determination, developed in the 1930s by a handful of Black Atlantic thinkers. These thinkers emphasized the racial disparities and economic inequalities that had shaped the international global order.


Anglophone Black Atlantic” is a more precise term for the world Getachew describes. The thinkers she focuses upon were all English speakers, schooled in the United States or Great Britain and, with one exception, became early leaders of newly independent English-speaking countries while doubling as political theorists. That exception was W.E.B. DuBois, the ubiquitous American scholar and educator who functions as Getachew’s lead character. Over the course of more than a half-century, DuBois provided the intellectual glue for the Black Atlantic vision of self-determination.


Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly for a work focused on the anglophone Black Atlantic, prominent francophone anti-colonial nationalists such as Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léopold Senghor of Senegal, do not figure in Getachew’s analysis.  Getachew argues that these thinkers favored retaining strong administrative ties to France, as an “effort to ward off the limits of independent statehood,” and as a “demand for an equal share in the wealth the colonies had produced.” Martinique, along with its Caribbean neighbor Guadeloupe, became an administrative department of the French state in 1946. Senegal and most of the French colonies in sub-Saharan West Africa, by contrast, became independent states in the early 1960s.


For Getachew’s Black Atlantic thinkers, the right to self-determination was “never conceived as the culmination of their worldmaking aspirations,” but rather as a “first step in political and economic transformations, both domestically and internationally.” Their goal was a “thorough-going reinvention of the legal, political and economic structure of the international order.” That reinvention began by recognizing the “foundational role of New World slavery in the making of the modern world.”


When DuBois famously observed at the first Pan-African Congress in 1900 that the “problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” he had in mind the entire colonized world, not simply the Jim Crow American South or the United States more generally. Over the course of the century, Black Atlantic thinkers went on to reiterate and amplify DuBois’ insight, “centered on a critique of colonialism as a dual structure of slavery and racial hierarchy.” Getachew returns continually to DuBois’ insight and its ramifications.


The most concrete manifestation of Black Atlantic “worldmaking after empire” was a quest to build supra-national institutions that would link if not bind newly independent states together. National independence required international institutions, some Black Atlantic thinkers reasoned. Getachew zeroes in on two short-lived and unsuccessful projects, the West Indian Federation and the Union of African States. Both faltered in the 1960s due to “deep disagreements about the precise balance between federal union and independence of member states.”


Getachew’s Black Atlantic thinkers also manifested their commitment to world-making through two resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) which they championed: Declaration 1514, “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” and the “New International Economic Order” (NIEO). The former, passed in 1960, served as the political declaration of independence for the emerging independent states, placing colonization outside the boundaries of the international legal order. The NIEO, adopted in 1974, sought to “reestablish economic equality as the central ideal of the post-imperial world.”


Getachew terms Wilson’s version of self-determination a “racially differentiated principle,” fully compatible with continued colonial rule.


Worldmaking after Empire began as Getachew’s dissertation at Yale University and is written in dense academic prose that some readers may find slow-going. But those readers willing to take the time will find a rigorous analysis of an influential strand of anti-colonial thinking which, with its emphasis upon the global order’s racial disparities and structural economic inequalities, remains salient today.


Getachew’s narrative is roughly chronological, starting with World War I and the version of self-determination which American president Woodrow Wilson brought to the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference. In his famous Fourteen Points presented to the US Congress prior to traveling to Versailles, Wilson called for a “free, open-minded and absolutely impartial” adjudication of colonial claims, in which colonized peoples should have an equal say in determining their future.


But Wilsonian self-determination proved to be a highly qualified principle, predicated upon “preparation for self-rule.” It was “not a given right,” as Wilson put it, but one “gained, earned, [and] graduated into from the hard school of life”—his way of saying that self-determination was a principle reserved mainly for people of European descent. Getachew terms Wilson’s version of self-determination a “racially differentiated principle,” fully compatible with continued colonial rule, a principle to be used primarily to ward off worldwide Bolshevik revolution and preserve “white supremacy on the planet.”


Wilson’s Fourteen Points also proposed the creation of a League of Nations, a recommendation adopted by the Versailles Conference but subsequently rejected by the United States Congress in a humiliating rebuke to Wilson. Arthur Balfour, Britain’s representative to the Conference, expressed what Getachew considers the League’s de facto official view of race and racial hierarchy: if it was “true in a certain sense that all men of a particular nation were created equal,” Balfour opined, that did not mean that “a man in Central Africa was created equal to a European.”


Yet, Ethiopia and Liberia, two African nations not part of European empires, managed to become members of the League. From the start, they were plainly second-class members, primarily because of the continued existence of slavery within both states. Although slavery had been explicitly banned by the 1926 Anti-Slavery Convention, forced labor—not quite slavery, but close—remained a central practice in every colony. Britain and France successfully lobbied for the exemption of forced labor from the 1926 Convention. Slavery was thus “disconnected from colonial labor and cast as an atavistic holdover in backward societies,” Getachew writes.


For the League, the continued existence of slavery in two of its member states served as evidence that Africans “could not rule themselves and their territories in ways that conformed to the standards of modern statehood,” making European oversight and intervention the “only mechanism that could secure humanitarian norms in Africa.” Perversely, Benito Mussolini justified the 1936 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, in which Italy engaged in overwhelming and unnecessary violence that included illegal use of mustard gas, indiscriminate killing of noncombatants, and the torture of captured soldiers, as the logical fulfillment of the League’s aims of abolishing slavery and developing backward states.


For DuBois, Italy’s invasion confirmed that “economic exploitation based on the excuse of race prejudice is the program of the white world.” The League of Nation’s concern with slavery in Ethiopia and Liberia was a thin pretext to permit European powers to “dominate native labor, pay it low wages, give it little political control and small chance for education or even industrial training,” while extracting the “largest possible profit out of the laboring class.”


As World War II ended and the United Nations came into being in 1945, DuBois found the situation eerily reminiscent of 1919, with abundant reference to universal principles that again applied differently to the colonized world and did not foresee the end of colonial rule. The United Nations Charter, for example, contained only two references to self-determination, both of which were subordinated to the larger aim of securing “peaceful and friendly relations among nations.” DuBois worried that by not addressing international racial hierarchy and colonial domination, the world had not yet learned the lesson of two world wars. We have conquered Germany, he wrote, “but not their ideas.”


By 1960, world-making in the form of federation had become a “central strategy for securing international nondomination.” But the two Black Atlantic federation projects that Getachew describes, in the Caribbean and Africa, both failed to overcome concerns over ceding too much sovereignty to central authorities (surprisingly, both sides developed arguments based on the 18th-century experience of the American colonists breaking away from Britain to form the United States).


Getachew characterizes UNGA Declaration 1514 as the instrument through which colonial domination became “illegitimate for the first time in modern international society.”


The West Indian Federation came into being in 1958, with a federal parliament and executive authority that governed ten Caribbean island states. But the federation vested only limited powers in the federal government, with no independent sources of revenue. When the federation’s constitution went under reconsideration in 1962, Eric Williams, Trinidad and Tobago’s president, advocated a stronger federal state as the best means to achieve both independence and national unity. Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Michael Manley, successfully lead the opposition to Williams’ push for more centralization, signaling the federation’s demise.


Across the Atlantic, Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah insisted that only a continent-wide government could ensure Africa’s place in world affairs. Total surrender of sovereignty was “not necessary to create a strong and effective union,” he contended.  Equality among states “could be maintained within the union.” Rejecting the French model of some sort of fusion with the colonizer, Nkrumah further argued that any integration that included European states would “preserve and deepen economic dependence.”


Nkrumah’s proposed draft constitution for a Union of African States closely resembled the robust federal government which Williams had unsuccessfully proposed for the Caribbean. It ran into a similar opposition, led by Nigerian president Nnamdi Azikiwe. Speaking for many African leaders, Azikiwe feared that a centralized organization would “undermine the independence anticolonial nationalists had sought to secure,” weakening the sovereignty of individual, independent African states and, with it, their legal, national, and cultural pluralism.


1960 was also the year Declaration 1514 passed in the UNGA. A “watershed moment in the history of decolonization,” Declaration 1514 was viewed as correcting the omissions of the UN Charter and superseding the Wilsonian version of self-determination. Its effect, Getachew contends, was to make self-determination a human right and colonialism itself an international crime. She characterizes Declaration 1514 as the instrument through which colonial domination became “illegitimate for the first time in modern international society,” with racial hierarchy abolished and sovereign equality extended to all members states.


As a supplement to the political independence which Declaration 1514 recognized, Jamaica’s Manley and Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere spearheaded the push for the NIEO, which passed the UNGA in 1974. In what Getachew terms the “biggest departure for the postwar international legal order,” Manley and Nyerere contended that the formal political independence and legal equality attained over the course of the prior two decades had “masked the material inequality through which powerful states reproduced their dominance.” Rebalancing these inequalities required a more equitable share of the wealth which newly independent states had helped to produce.


Manley and Nyerere focused on ownership of natural resources, the relationship of newly independent states to multi-national corporations (which Manley saw as the 20th-century heir to imperial-era trading companies), and unequal trade relations between developing and developed nations. For Manley and Nyerere, NIEO was the “international corollary to the effort to institute socialism at home.” But the NIEO’s demand for greater international equality and equity proved to be a step too far for the world’s economic powers.


Daniel P. Moynihan, United States Ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-1970s, became one of the NIEO’s most vocal and visible critics. Moynihan derided the NIEO as the product of former British colonial subjects who had over-imbibed in the doctrines of Fabian socialism at the London School of Economics and were “seeking to internationalize the lessons of British welfarism.” The impoverished economic conditions of the world’s underdeveloped countries, Moynihan contended scornfully, were “of their own making and no one else’s.”


Critics to the left of Moynihan pointed out that the NIEO had nothing to say about the domestic distribution of wealth and resources. Self-determination, they argued, had been “concerned solely with the absence of alien rule and disconnected from democratic self-government.” Civil wars in Nigeria and the Congo led many newly independent states to prioritize zealous protection of sovereign prerogatives, raising questions about their internal stability and capacity to respect such democratic norms as pluralism, political dissent, and human rights. John Rawls’ influential 1971 work A Theory of Justice spurred advocates of global justice to shift their focus from protecting the sovereignty of newly independent states to protecting the rights of individuals within those states.


Further undermining the Black Atlantic vision of self-determination was the United States, the principal architect of the post-World War II international order. Getachew notes America’s “gradual abandonment” in the 1970s of the United Nations and other key multilateral institutions. The end of the Cold War in the following decade gave rise to what she terms a “new era of unrestrained American imperialism where the principle of sovereign equality was curtailed, and the United States was freed from even a rhetorical commitment to a rule-bound international order.” Three decades after the end of the Cold War, Getachew perceives a “striking return to and defense of a hierarchical international order.”


The Black Atlantic vision of a reinvented international order did not survive the neoliberalism of the 1980s. But a host of contemporary global crises hitting former colonies much harder than their colonizers—climate change and access to Covid-19 vaccines come immediately to mind—serve as reminders that vestiges of 19th and 20th-century colonial domination remain part of today’s international order. The time may therefore be ripe, Getachew concludes with a slight hint of optimism, for “reformulating the contours of an anti-imperial future and enacting new strategies to realize this vision”—a time in other words for another reinvention of the international order akin to what Black Atlantic thinkers boldly set in motion in the 1930s.

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