Assoc. Prof. Adam Lerner Discusses Ramifications of Imperialism and Mass Violence

UN-Flags Image by Tom Page
Flags representing various countries fly outside the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

By Marlon Pitter

While the effects of imperialism and mass violence have been documented throughout history, their impacts are often measured by the numbers of casualties.

Political Science Assoc. Prof. Adam Lerner dives deeper into the subject in his recently published book “From the Ashes of History: Collective Trauma and the Making of International Politics.” In the book, Lerner explores how mass violence has shaped the identities and international policies of countries around the world.

Broken down into theoretical and case study chapters, “From the Ashes of History” hones in on India after gaining independence from Great Britain, Israel after the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the U.S. during the Global War or Terror.

“The argument of the book is that mass violence shapes how we understand us and them, and that is really the construction of international politics,” Lerner says. “The differences between my nation and your nation, my group and your group, those are very much framed by histories of violence.”

Lerner discussed his inspiration for writing the book, his international experiences and the reactions to his work.

Q: What are the prevalent themes in the book?

A: It's about collective trauma, which is a term that I define and theorize in the book. The core of the book argues that we pay so much attention to mass violence in international relations. We study war. We study ethnic violence. We study gender violence. We look at body counts. … But there's not as much work on the longer-term sociocultural impacts and the way that mass violence shapes identity. 

A good example of this would be Israel. The Israeli state identity is very much framed by the history of the Holocaust and wars with its neighbors. The way that Israelis understand their place in the world is very much rooted in this history.

Political Science Assoc. Prof. Adam Lerner.
My argument is that we need to take trauma seriously, take the perspective of people who suffer from mass violence seriously and use that to craft a new approach to international relations that appreciates these longer-term effects and the way they can shape identities. When we talk about identity, it's not just a cultural thing. The cultural and more intangible side of it is certainly important, but what I argue in the book is that it has concrete policy impacts. It shapes the way that we think about foreign policy.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: When I began working on my Ph.D., I was interested in history through the legacy of imperialism and histories of mass violence and how they shaped the present. I thought I could bring this all together. So really, the book project was an effort to take this lens that I had been exposed to in limited settings and try and make it meaningful for a new discipline, international relations.

Q: What has the reception for the book been like?

A: I'm frankly a little shocked and surprised, but I'm really grateful to have people reading it and responding to it well. It's been really cool that there are all these different scholars in different parts of the world who are reading it and having a connection to it.

The International Studies Association has a big conference every year, and I was lucky that at that conference, it won the International Ethics Book Award and was a runner-up for the Theory Book Award. I was really grateful to get recognized by them.

Since then, it has won the Peter Katzenstein Award from Cornell University, which is given to the best first book on international relations, comparative politics or international policy economy, and that was amazing. It was also an honorable mention for the Hedley Bull Prize, which is given by the European Consortium for Political Research for the best book in international relations.  

Q: How has living in other countries shaped your worldview?

A: I spent about 10 years of my life living outside the U.S. (in India, Spain, France and the U.K.). I was motivated to move abroad and to learn other languages because I was always interested in other cultures. I wanted to learn about how different people see the world and learn about history from different perspectives.

I think in the U.S., we don't learn a lot in school about the history of imperialism and the impacts it’s had on the world. It's one thing to learn about imperialism as a global phenomenon, but then you go to different countries and hear about that specific country or culture’s experience with imperialism and how foreign rule shapes the trajectory of the country. I was really interested in that.

After college, I did the Henry Luce Scholars Program, a fellowship that allowed me to work in India and travel around Asia. The program has a focus country every year, so we went to Burma and learned about Myanmar. We learned a lot about the history of dictatorship there. I went to China, Japan, Korea and Cambodia as well.

My takeaway from all this would be, as you start to travel … you learn about things from other people's perspectives. The same historical event that you might have gotten from your American history book in one way would have a completely different spin on it if you learned about it from history books in another country, from people who lived through it or from journalists who covered it.