Bridging Rhetoric and Reality 

Student group hosts annual Decolonizing International Relations Conference 
A group of students stands in the front of a room while one speaks.

Last semester, a team of 24 students worked tirelessly to host the Decolonizing International Relations (DIR) conference to investigate the colonial underpinnings of the study and practice of international affairs.  

“When the discussion about decolonization happens, it happens in a silo,” said Akshaya Mohan F24, a MALD student from Bengaluru, India. 

Mohan studies international negotiation and conflict resolution, global governance and international organizations, and international legal studies. At the DIR conference, she identified an opportunity to break down and transform the dialogue.    

“International relations are dominated by a combination of maybe 20 to 30 countries,” said Mohan. “The majority of countries in the world are not even included in this conversation. We recognized that people are talking about decolonization, but it's not reflected in reality.” 

Bridging Rhetoric and Reality  

The conference organizers conceived of the theme, “Bridging Rhetoric and Reality,” to create more immediacy around decolonization.  

“We really tried to look inward through some of the panels and events,” said Megan Madeira F24, who grew up in Mililani, Hawaii. “We're often looking at these faraway places, but how do we make connections to what's going on domestically as well?”  

To this end, the conference opened with remarks from Hartman Deetz, a Wampanoag activist who spoke about moving from land acknowledgements to Land Back, a movement that seeks to reestablish indigenous sovereignty and return ancestral land to indigenous people. The program concluded with a keynote from Dr. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, who studies Native Hawaiian activism and settler colonialism. Dr. Kauanui's keynote provided a comparative analysis between Hawai'i and Palestine through the lens of International Law.

Another event zeroed in on the personal experience of colonialism. Fletcher community members participated in a fashion show to explore how colonialism even trickles down to the clothing people wear. Participants dressed in traditional attire from their cultures and talked about what that clothing represents and how it feels to wear their cultural clothing at Fletcher. Professor Chidi Odinkalu joined the show and questioned how community members default to wearing suits when they’re asked to don formalwear.  

“Why don't people come to Fletcher dressed up in their own cultural clothes?” said Mohan, reflecting upon Odinkalu’s remarks. “Why do we want to be indoctrinated into this conception of what fashion is, or of what art or appropriateness is, based on a colonial idea?” 

Revisiting Structures, Inside and Out  

In addition to reaching across disciplines, the team considered how colonialism is internalized both individually and systematically. Mohan noted that international law reflects a Western world order from biblical times. 

“International humanitarian law is not something that's universal; it does not consider the views from colonized countries,” said Mohan. “The law panel discussed how different countries in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia will be able to influence law now, and how law should evolve to include those experiences.” 

The team organized five panels on topics including the roots and evolution of counterinsurgency, humanitarian aid, and reimagining artificial intelligence (AI). 

“Tech for a period of time was concentrated in the United States, and developments in tech and AI were concentrated in the U.S.,” said Mohan. “How do you apply AI to a global world, with situations like facial recognition systems not being able to recognize someone of a darker color?” 

The conference’s dynamic schedule sparked deep reflection for several conference attendees and organizers alike. For Thaw Htet F24, a MALD student from Yangon, Myanmar, the event crystallized core philosophical ideas on decolonization.  

“We need to remember where we come from,” said Htet. “We need to learn the skills to be successful diplomats, negotiators, or businesspeople. But we must make sure that what we are saying and what we are doing is actually going to help not just the metropole but also every other country moving forward.” 

“That only starts when you can break free from the frameworks that imprison your mind,” he added. “Only then can you imagine for yourself and for your community different, beautiful things.” 

Read more about Fletcher’s global governance and international organizations field of study.