Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination

| September 9, 2019
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Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, Adom Getachew (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2019), 288 pp., $35 cloth, $35 eBook.

Contemporary global justice theorists have largely neglected the transnational aspirations of the post-1945 decolonization movement, instead seeing it as solely a movement for countries to gain national political independence. Adom Getachew’s groundbreaking study challenges this misconception by recovering the internationalist thought and political projects of twentieth-century anti-colonial nationalism. Drawing from anti-colonial thinkers and statesmen such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, W. E. B. Du Bois, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere, Getachew argues that anti-colonial nationalists were as much “world makers” as they were state builders. As colonies became independent states while already deeply embedded in unequal global relations, anti-colonial nationalists clearly saw the interconnectedness between national self-determination and global equality. Responding to and proposing innovations based on their specific historical situation, anti-colonial nationalists generated a universal ideal of a post-imperial world in which “democratic, modernizing, and redistributive national states were situated in thick international institutions designed to realize the principle of nondomination” (p. 28). This vision, as Getachew compellingly suggests, is still deeply relevant for thinking about global justice today.

Analyzing the anti-colonial “worldmaking” that is present in institutionalizing a universal right to self-determination, experimenting with regional federalism, and pushing for a “welfare world,” Getachew advances two important and novel theses, which she discusses in the first and most theoretical chapter of the book. The first is that empire was and should be conceptualized beyond alien rule, and understood instead as unequal integration into an international hierarchy, a process that continues to this day. The second is that contra the anti-statism prevalent in cosmopolitan theories of global justice, nationalism and internationalism may, in fact, be compatible and mutually reinforcing. As Getachew states, anti-colonial nationalists “believed national independence could be achieved only through internationalist projects” (p. 170). These two theses clearly have implications for theorizing contemporary global justice. Indeed, Getachew alludes to the possibility of a “postcolonial cosmopolitanism” that takes seriously collective claims to sovereignty and self-determination as bulwarks against past and present imperialism.

These theoretical claims are substantiated by analyses of four major historical moments that structure the book. In the first, Getachew argues that Woodrow Wilson and Jan Smuts, an American visionary and a South-African architect of the League of Nations, respectively, appropriated the principle of self-determination to protect, rather than dismantle, European empire. In the next chapter, the author recenters the role of anti-colonial nationalists in transforming self-determination “from principle to [universal] right” (p. 87). Critiquing colonialism as enslavement, and mobilizing the language of human rights, anti-colonial nationalists inscribed self-determination in international law. Formal independence, however, was insufficient to protect newfound sovereignty.

In the third chapter, Getachew examines regional federation, exemplified by the Union of African States and the West Indian Federation, as a second instance of anti-colonial worldmaking to secure international nondomination. Tracing these proposals’ roots to Nkrumah’s and Williams’s readings of American federalism, Getachew shows how some anti-colonial nationalists saw political integration beyond the nation-state as crucial to securing independence. Yet this was met with resistance from others such as Azikiwe, who was concerned about the loss of autonomy that a strong African federal state implied.

With the option of postcolonial federation foreclosed, in the fourth chapter Getachew examines the New International Economic Order (NIEO) of the 1970s, and argues that it represented radical reforms to the global economy that amounted to building a “welfare world” (p. 145). This new iteration of anti-colonial worldmaking saw Manley and Nyerere critique and propose to reform the international division of labor through a host of measures, such as granting trade preferences to developing nations and helping countries diversify their economies, thereby pushing for a substantive rather than merely formal principle of sovereign equality. The book concludes by considering the fall of self-determination in the 1970s and the rise of U.S. hegemony after the Cold War.

This extensively researched and eloquently written book will make important contributions to a wide range of fields, including the history of empire and international law, black political thought, anti-colonial and postcolonial studies, and normative political theory. In the remaining space, I want to focus on one of the main claims of the book: that nationalism and internationalism may be compatible. While Getachew’s analysis of anti-colonial worldmaking demonstrates clearly that anti-colonial thinkers saw their nationalist commitments as fully compatible with their internationalist projects, I am less convinced by her thesis that the three projects of anti-colonial worldmaking show that nationalism and internationalism were, in principle and in practice, truly compatible.

The argument seems to conflate two understandings of “internationalism”—a term that the book does not define. First, internationalism might mean engaging in political projects that are not centered exclusively on the nation-state. At times, the book seems to portray participation in international bodies such as the UN General Assembly as a form of internationalism. This thin notion is easily compatible with nationalism in the sense that nation-states retain full sovereignty as they participate in making international law and forming international organizations.

However, there is another kind of internationalism that is closer to the cosmopolitanism that Getachew critiques, and I suspect this is what is often meant in the book. Internationalism, in this thicker sense, consists of two related principles: that national boundaries are morally irrelevant for the demands of justice; and that individuals rather than nations are the appropriate unit of moral concern. I am skeptical that the author has shown that internationalism of this kind is compatible with nationalism. First, while the right to self-determination empowered postcolonial collectives that were in a position to claim nationhood, it also allowed newfound states to deny their minorities equal rights to self-governance, and in some cases (such as the Biafra separatist movement that Getachew discusses) to violently suppress them. Second, proposals of transnational federation required giving up national sovereignty, and in the end African states prioritized the nation. Finally, the NIEO undoubtedly had redistributive elements, but the assertion of the permanent sovereignty of nation-states over natural resources is hard to reconcile with the idea that national boundaries are morally irrelevant for the demands of distributive justice.

In other words, these three moments of anti-colonial worldmaking seem to demonstrate a contradiction between pursuing collective rights for the nation and individual rights that cut across national boundaries. Whether these projects failed because of internal contradictions or external challenges is beside the point; what matters is that the three projects analyzed here do not seem to give us reason to think that nationalism is compatible with internationalism in the thicker sense—rather, in each case a choice between the two was forced.

All this relates to an important ambiguity regarding the suggestive ideal of a post-imperial world that Getachew recovers from anti-colonial nationalists. If a postcolonial cosmopolitanism takes nondomination as its core commitment, the relevant question becomes: nondomination for whom? As Nkrumah writes in Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, “It is the so-called little man, the bent-backed, exploited, malnourished, blood-covered fighter for independence” (p. 254). The possibility of a postcolonial cosmopolitanism hinges on articulating a moral agent that eschews the limitations of the nation, while also avoiding neoliberal individualism. In this pioneering study of the political thought and projects of those who theorized and resisted one of the most significant forms of global injustice, Getachew has, above all, shown us where to start, and why it is important that we do.


—Shuk Ying Chan

Shuk Ying Chan is a graduate student in the Department of Politics at Princeton University, where her dissertation project explores the moral and political implications of decolonization as an unfinished project of global justice.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 33.3

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