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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Historical Amnesia: The Colonial Origins of International Relations and the European Union


By Waldo Smart

For Europe, the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century is painfully reminiscent of its past. In the context of yet again the scourge of war on the European continent and unimaginable tragedies unfolding in its direct neighbourhood, pertinent debates are taking place within the academic profession of International Relations (IR) and political institutions of the European Union (EU) with the aim of formulating effective disciplinary and institutional responses to these situations. In these debates, the past is frequently invoked to support arguments vis-à-vis the present and future, but little critical attention is given to the constitutive role of the history of ideas and practices in the present form and functioning of our disciplines and institutions. As the title indicates, we perceive a certain ‘historical amnesia’ regarding the colonial origins of IR and the EU. To make this evident, we give an example. Anno 2024, an International Relations student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona gets told the following story:

    The First World War was tragic for Germany and Europe; The Second World War even more. But from them emerged the EU and a set of institutions key to avoid new challenges. International Relations arose when a social desire (never again the scourge of war) was transmuted into an intellectual endeavour: understand the causes of war in order to establish the conditions for peace.” (Grasa, 2015, p. 35)

This story seems logical: after the First World War there was a strong sense that the world was in crisis. Shortly after 1919, two new IR think tanks were established: the Council on Foreign Affairs and the Royal Institute for International Affairs, along with the first university degrees dedicated to this new discipline. After the Second World War, these institutions were consolidated and improved in what is termed IR’s second founding. Moreover, the EU ushered in an unprecedented era of peace, stability and prosperity in Europe. But is this an accurate portrayal of the context in which IR and the EU came about? Was IR a merely intellectual endeavour responding to a demand of civil society? Did the EU just come about as a project of peace and democracy?

In this article, we aim to dispel some myths surrounding the emergence of IR and the EU. First, the founding of IR in 1919 did not represent a rupture in thinking, but rather served the continuation of empire through other means. Second, these myths functioned to cover up that in the interwar period all theories were focused on preserving and propagating Western values and ideas that easily took on a racist content, while the post-1945 dominant theory of realism allowed its practitioners to advocate a pragmatic support for imperial powers. Third, the discourse of some of the ‘founding figures’ of the EU shows the narrative of the EU's birth as a beacon of universal values to be a myth.

1. IR’s “founding in 1919” and the “first great debate” between realism and liberalism

The first ‘myth’ we explore is that IR was founded in 1919 as an intellectual endeavour to understand the causes of war and establish peace among states after the First World War. This is only part of the story. Presenting it as a merely intellectual endeavour obfuscates the intrinsic relation between knowledge production and power relations. In the decade before the First World War, the discipline of Political Science emerged through the founding of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 1903. The political scientist Theodore Lowi, undertaking a historical pilgrimage to the origins of his discipline, concludes that its emergence needs to be considered a political phenomenon:

    There was no evidence to suggest that the founding generation were trying to form an intelligentsia, defined as an organisation of intellectuals in opposition to the state. One could say, however, that the early APSA was a kind of counterintelligentsia formed in defence of a state that did not yet exist. (Lowi 1992, p. 2)

In the interwar period, the thinking in the institutions that saw the light in 1919 shows a strong continuity with the thinking before the First World War: ‘IR before IR’ was characterised by “four ideologies of progress: Liberalism, Socialism, Nationalism and ‘Scientific’ Racism. While ‘Scientific’ Racism has fallen out of fashion as an explicit mainstream approach to IR, implicit racism has by no means disappeared from relations between North and South. Liberalism, Socialism and Nationalism are still very much explicit parts of IR’s normative and structural discourses” (Acharya 2019, p. 38). We find the following description indicative of how widespread imperialist and racist sentiments were within Western societies:

    Most political scientists believed that the colonized regions – the ‘dark’ places, the ‘uncivilized’, the ‘backward’ or ‘barbaric’ areas of the world – did not belong to the society of states. Rather than being viewed as constituent members of international society, the colonized regions were seen as falling outside of the society of nations and as places plagued by internal anarchy. (ibid., p. 42).

Part of the attraction of the myth that the field of IR owes its birth to the outbreak of the First World War, is “the convenience of forgetting IR’s links to imperialism, colonial administration and racism (to which might be added geopolitics)” (ibid., p. 64). Another myth that adds to the notion that the field emerged out of a moral purpose is that of the first great debate between Realism and Liberalism. Not only did this debate never take place as such, but it also obscures what both sides had in common. If we consider that “Wilson, despite his liberal credentials, was an active exponent of race politics and white supremacy both domestically and internationally”, it becomes clear that “all the IR theories, irrespective of which side of the debate they were on, were focused on preserving and propagating Western ideas and values that easily took on racist content”, thus showing “a ‘strong continuity between pre-1914 international theory and its interwar successor” (ibid., p. 93).

2. IR’s second founding and working towards a “Bandung conference in reverse”

In the post-1945 second founding of IR, the massive expansion of institutions was accompanied by “a major exercise in forgetting or dismissing much of what had come before” (ibid., p. 139). E.H. Carr’s The Twenties Year’s Crisis (1946) propagates not only the 1919 founding myth, but also the myth of the first great debate between realism and liberalism. Moreover, far from being absent, the non-Western world kept being a central concern in the building of the contemporary models of international organisation. The dominant post-war IR theory of realism “allowed its practitioners to advocate a pragmatic support for imperial powers and reproduce classical tropes of imperial thought” (Guilhot 2014, p. 698).

Recent historical research has established “the importance of imperialism and colonial administration in the constitution of international studies as an academic field, originally designed in order to secure the continuation of empire through other means”, making “eurocentrism not just a limitation of IR, the result of negligence or intellectual laziness, but its very condition of possibility. It is ingrained in the concepts and the logic of IR as an intellectual discipline” (ibid., p. 699).  Backed by the Ford Foundation, imperialism and racism are continued in scholarship of “realist thinkers, who did not fail to see an ‘anti-European’ ideology in anti-colonial nationalism, as it threatened Europe’s ‘predominance over the coloured races’ (the expression, in case the reader wonders, is used by Hans Morgenthau in 1960)” (ibid., p. 700).

    Realism’s emphasis on national interest ‘dictates general support of the European colonial powers’, and the best possible world for the United States was one that Bell characterised oxymoronically as ‘a series of “happy” colonial relationships’. The policy implication of the analysis was clearly spelled out: ‘The first political objective of the United States should be the discouragement of sentiment for independence rather than the promotion of it, while at the same time working quietly, but with force, to push the mother country into making reforms which may be necessary for any “happy” relationship.’ (ibid., p. 710-1).

Another scholar, Thompson, framed it as follows: “It is one of the ironies of history that force may sometimes be necessary to preserve colonial arrangements not in order to perpetuate them but that their orderly liquidation may be achieved” (ibid., p. 711). The silence of realist thinkers on historic events relating to decolonisation such as the 1955 Bandung Conference did not stem from the failure to notice, but because it was considered a threat requiring counter-discourse:

    In the mid-1950s, alarmed by the activities of postcolonial states in the international arena, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF), Dean Rusk, sought ‘a sharp increase in the funds available for underdeveloped areas.’ Rusk was alarmed and so was the US Secretary of State and RF trustee John Foster Dulles, who had asked Rusk whether the RF could work toward a ‘Bandung conference in reverse.’ […] This resulted in a series of programmes between 1955 and 1965 to train diplomates and IR faculty […] in the US and abroad. (Laíz 2022, p. 3).

3. The EU as a beacon of universal values

When in 2012 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union, they framed the narrative on the origins of the European Union in two important political results: “the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights” (Duranti 2017, p. 406). This narrative conveniently overlooks the contradictions that underlie the EU’s foundations.

When “EU officials speak regularly of a European ‘community of values’ based on respect for human rights and democracy” as if Europe was this from the beginning, whereas in fact these words were only first mentioned in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (ibid., p. 209). While it is true that in 1950 the European Convention on Human Rights was signed, this was not a progressive step forward, but a conservative revolution based on the remnants of Europe’s colonial past. Winston Churchill, a figure often revered within the EU narrative, played a pivotal role in shaping a discourse with which he could convince conservatives that European unity was the best way.to “revive the prosperity of Europe” in the aftermath of war and safeguard the interests of Western Europe in an increasingly uncertain global landscape:

    European civilisation must rise again from the chaos and carnage into which it has been plunged; and at the same time we have to devise those measures of world security which will prevent disaster descending upon us again”, in which European unity “is the best way of establishing the rights and freedom of the human race, and it is on the whole the best chance of preventing the arrival of another hideous war” (ibid., p. 149).

However, his vision was deeply rooted in a ‘liberal imperialist’ framework, a worldview that structured a hierarchical system of rights and obligations along racial and national lines compatible with colonialism. Forced to articulate a position regarding the inhuman treatment of Asians and Africans in South-Africa, he talked about the “principle of equal rights of civilized men”, requiring “a careful patient discrimination between different classes of men”, in which he distinguished between “a proper status for our Indian fellow-subjects” and “large reservations of good, well-watered land where the African aboriginal, for whom civilization has no charms, may dwell secluded and at peace” (ibid., p. 125). Hence, Churchill spoke of human rights “not as universal entitlements, but rather as the distinctive birthright of those living within the borders of what remained of Christendom” (ibid., p. 209), which contrasts with “the UN Human Rights Commission’s definition of human rights as the equal and universal rights belonging to all human beings irrespective of the characteristics of the community to which they belong” (ibid., p. 149):

    Understood as at once universal and distinctly European, human rights could be invoked as Europe’s unique inheritance as well as its greatest gift to the world. [...] To be properly European meant to be free to exercise one’s human rights. [...] To construct a European union on this basis was not to plunge Europeans into an unknown future or compel them to break with their deeper past. Rather, it was to lead them back to the more enlightened, harmonious civilization of their ancestors. (ibid., p. 350)

Just as the context of the European Convention on Human Rights shows that human rights were considered compatible with colonialism, the other achievement of peace and reconciliation between France and Germany was also influenced by late-colonial thinking. In 1957, while the ‘group of Bandung’ continued to challenge the Western colonial powers and after Nasser and the Suez Crisis were dealt with, Adenauer promoted European cooperation and the signing of the Treaty of Europe with the following words: “the free Europe must be prepared to take this risk, if in the near future it doesn’t want to be crushed by the peoples of Asia and Africa” (Van Reybrouck 2021, p. 407). In the negotiations, the French diplomates were not insensitive to the following arguments:

    ‘If the Six don’t involve their overseas territories with their trade and investments, the Afro-Asian block, “spearpoint of communism”, will settle itself in those territories. Now already, the Afro-Asians and the communists are starting to deploy their damaging activities in the old British colonies in Africa […] If the Europe of the Six through a truly effective financial policy and through efficient investments manages to make the black population see that the Eurafrican association truly is capable to deliver results, then the French and Belgium territories won’t just condemn the intent of the group of Bandung and the communists; they will, for their neighbouring colonies, be a symbol of prosperity.’ (ibid., p. 407).

In essence, the myth of the EU's origins as a beacon of universal values obscures a far more complex reality – one which involves the legacies of imperialism, racism, and strategic thinking. It is important to unravel this myth and for the EU to confront the uncomfortable truths of its past. Until just a decade ago, the late-colonial thinking at the basis of the European project was an “untold history” (Hansen, 2014).


This article has confronted some of the historical myths surrounding the founding narratives of IR and the EU. Narratives attributing the origins of IR and the EU solely to the aftermath of the World Wars overlook the continuity in thinking both before the First World War, in the interwar period, and after the Second World War, and how dominant IR theories and the ideas on European unity sustained colonialism. The myths of the founding of IR in 1919, of the first great debate between realism and liberalism, and of European integration based on universal human rights, obfuscate the many ways in which hierarchies have shaped and continue to inform our institutions and its associated intellectual networks.

In the transmission of culture from one generation to the other through education and history textbooks, we should not overlook the concrete interests and privileges which are served by historical myths which selectively recall some elements of the past while keeping quiet on those chapters of the past about which modernity prefers not to speak. The lack of attention for the past is a serious impediment for the current debates within our disciplines and institutions: “as with individuals, so with nations, real trauma experienced earlier in life can, if not dealt with, cause paranoia later” (Halliday, 2005, p. 198). Despite renewed academic attention and critical scholarship, there is a lot of work to be done to improve the consciousness about the origins of our academic and political institutions.

Waldo Swart holds a  MA in International Relations, Security and Development from the Autonomous Univeristy of Barcelona. He previously obtained a research MA in Philosophy, a MSc in Mathematics Education and a BSc in Mathematics from the University of Amsterdam. Currently, he is a research assistant at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) in the line of Sustainable Development and Latin America. His upcoming paper, “The role of the IR Theorist in the Public Debate", is to be presented at the EISA Pan-European Conference 2024 in August.


Acharya, Amitav, and Barry Buzan. 2019. The Making of Global International Relations: Origins and Evolution of IR at Its Centenary. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108647670.

Duranti, Marco. 2017. The Conservative Human Rights Revolution: European Identity, Transnational Politics, and the Origins of the European Convention. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Guilhot, Nicolas. 2014. ‘Imperial Realism: Post-War IR Theory and Decolonisation’. The International History Review 36(4): 698–720. doi:10.1080/07075332.2013.836122.

Grasa, Rafael. 2015. ‘Cien años después de la Primera Guerra Mundial: Las relaciones internacionales y la comprensión de las causas de la guerra y las condiciones de la paz’. Los orígenes del derecho internacional contemporáneo: estudios conmemorativos del centenario de la primera Guerra Mundial. Zaragoza: Institución ‘Fernando el Católico’.

Halliday, Fred. 2005. The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511790829.

Hansen, Peo, and Stefan Jonsson. 2015. Eurafrica: The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism. First published in paperback. London Oxford New York New Delhi Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic.

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Morcillo Laiz, álvaro. 2022. ‘The Cold War Origins of Global IR. The Rockefeller Foundation and Realism in Latin America’. International Studies Review 24(1): viab061. doi:10.1093/isr/viab061.

Reybrouck, David van. 2020. Revolusi: Indonesië en het ontstaan van de moderne wereld. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij.



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