Barbarians and Civilization in International Relations
by mark b. salter
London, Pluto Press, 2002. 228 pages
Hardback: UK £50.00, US $69.95. Paperback: UK £15.99, US $24.95
In the opening pages of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s protagonist, Marlowe, offers us an insight into the relationship between the West and Africa:
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there … But there was one yet—the biggest, the most blank, so to speak—that I had a hankering after.
True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It has ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.
The darkness that Europe found in Africa, Conrad suggests, is actually a consequence of contact with the West. The so-called darkness is the effect of the naming of the African continent (e.g., Victoria Falls, Stanleyville, Leopoldville, etc.). It is in this naming by the West that Africa becomes a location beyond civilisation, a site of the barbaric and the savage. Mark B. Salter’s book traces how the imposition of the binary categories of civilisation and barbarian occupies one centre of gravity—central categories of understanding—in the discourse of international relations as it is practised in the West.
Salter begins his account of this phenomenon with an examination of how the Enlightenment developed the barbarian/civilised dichotomy in order to frame the relationship of identity and difference, self and other. Montaigne, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and later Mill, are among those who feature in the early European/Western tradition that launched the vocabulary of barbarism/civilisation. Those terms have retained a prominent place over the intervening years, affecting contemporary political discourse.
Salter does an excellent job of showing how in one form or another the barbarism/civilisation binary permeates the practice as well as the theory of Western relations with the rest of the world. Moreover, these categories do not mark just the difference between the West and non‑West: they also mark the latter as unequal and dangerous. Repeatedly, the “barbarian stereotype was represented as not merely ignorant of civilization, but also as antagonistic and destructive towards it” (p. 35). This threat of violence perceived as emanating from the uncivilised (i.e., non-Western) justifies, in the political discourse of the West, not only violence in return but extensive systems of order characterised by Benthamite panoptic institutions, Salter argues. “The primary mechanism that England and France used to combat the uncertainty of colonial rule and the constant threat of violence was an economy of space structured around the principle of surveillance” (p. 42).
Eventually, the barbarism/civilisation tropes and their accompanying panoptic space were deployed internally in Europe. The lower classes and other marginalised groups whose status made problematic their standing as “civilised” became, in effect, the internal other, the inner barbarian that must be domesticated. Similarly, within the European continent, other European nations (e.g., the German “Hun”) were from time to time characterised as barbarians in so far as they were seen as posing a threat to civilisation itself. The result is that the barbarism/civilisation binary has become the central category of political self-understanding, according to Salter. It provides the basis for national and cultural self-identity as well as the terms by which to identify the other, the enemy.
The self/other dichotomy, which proved so powerful, was mobilized against both internal, European “Others” and colonial “Others”. While these different groups were often described in the same way—relying on the discourse of civilization/barbarian—the national “self” was strengthened by these threats. National identity was solidified in the face of threats within the nation, from other European nations, and from the colonized. (P. 87)
Salter is at his best in his treatment of contemporary international relations theory and practice. Specifically, he shows how in its will to create a realist and often scientific account of international relations, and to operationalise the concept of imperialism, contemporary international relations theory dehistoricises Western imperialism and, in effect, depoliticises it. For example, both Hans Morgenthau and Frederick Schuman define imperialism in terms of the extension of nation-state power and the attempt to enhance one’s power status. The latter for both, of course, is simply ordinary politics. Hence, there is nothing remarkable left to explain when it comes to Western imperialism. Since all imperialism is part of the natural order of things, i.e., the pursuit, consolidation and enhancement of power, imperialism simply names one type of politics that is to be expected from all nation-states. Given that on this view one has all the explanation one needs, any further specific historical–political account is of secondary importance at best or superfluous. Moreover, this treatment blunts the moral edge of any criticism of Western imperialism. If imperialism is just a version of the pursuit of power that typifies all nation-states, then Western states are simply doing to others what the latter would do to them were the power relations reversed.
Salter also does a thorough job in showing how, just as the nineteenth-century vocabulary of Orientalism permeated Middle East studies, so the colonial vocabulary of “barbarian” and “civilisation” along with related terms still features in the political discourse of current international relations theory. Hence, Salter points to such expressions as “backward peoples”, “dark and impoverished multitudes”, and “teeming hordes”, used to describe the populations of non-Western countries by a range of authors (pp. 119–27). One might expect such language from Rudyard Kipling; it is somewhat disturbing to find it still used in an academic discipline.
Finally, Salter’s argument locates Samuel Huntington squarely in the tradition of barbarism/civilisation discourse. In some respects this is the least remarkable part of the text. Numerous commentators have similarly identified Huntington, seeing him as deploying the self/other binary in his account of the clash of civilisations. Indeed, Huntington admits as much with his approval of the language of “friends and enemies” from Michael Dibdin’s novel, Dead Lagoon.1 Nonetheless, Salter’s account here is helpful in situating Huntington in the barbarian/civilisation tradition. Moreover, Salter does something often overlooked by other commentators on Huntington: he draws out the extent to which Huntington’s thesis also has an accompanying domestic agenda for disciplining the political culture of American citizens. For as Salter points out, there is a domestic front to the foreign civilisational wars: the domestic culture wars. Huntington’s own version of “friends” requires not only external enemies but domestic ones as well. It seems clear that this issue will become even more important over the next several years.
There are a few minor problems with Salter’s book. Salter invokes an enormous range of thinkers to illustrate and support his thesis. The result is that we sometimes get only a gloss on the substance of their work, and they frequently drop out of the argument altogether. For example, Salter opens chapter 2 with a brief review of several positions on the ideas of identity, self and other found in contemporary political theory. The chapter focuses on outlining the lineage of the terms “civilisation”, “barbarian” and “savage” and how they mark gradations of distance from the West. But there is no discussion of the substantial differences that exist between, for example, the stances of Huntington on the one hand and William Connolly or Michael Shapiro on the other. The reader is left with the impression that the self–other nexus is pretty much the same throughout the literature.
Given the number of thinkers Salter does engage with, it is hard to fault him for exclusion, but there are a couple of others he might have addressed. For example, the fact that Carl Schmitt’s work on friends/enemies has received so much attention of late, and its similarities with Huntington’s own thesis, suggest it is worth consulting.2 Similarly, one text that has explored the self/other connection and has become something of a classic is Tzvetan Todorov’s Conquest of America.3 But Salter gives it only a passing mention. I think a more detailed consideration would have been useful in exploring the historical background discussed in chapter 2.
Finally, I would suggest that interesting as the discussion of de Gobineau’s racialism is (pp. 65–6), I am not sure his thought entered the vocabulary of the West to the extent that, say, Nietzsche’s or Freud’s did, two thinkers Salter also discusses. Much of the racialism that characterised Western political discourse in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was so over-determined that it is hard to single out one thinker as distinctively influential. That said, there is much in de Gobineau that is typical of the racialism of the time and he still serves as a useful example.
In sum, this is a valuable account of the development of international political discourse. It shows the extent to which much of that discourse is still anchored in the concepts of “barbarian” and “civilisation”, and how over the years such terms have been forged and reiterated, still influencing our cultural inheritance and understanding. The dangers implicit in continuing to deploy these categories are among the major challenges facing those who look to rethink international relations. Salter’s book is a timely contribution to that task.
1. See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 20.
2. For an introduction to Schmitt’s thought, see his Concept of the Political (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
3. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (New York: Harper and Row, 1984).