Thinking Internationally About The Arms Trade

A guest post, following our recent podcast on the arms trade and its discontents, from Anna Stavrianakis. Anna is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on the arms trade, arms transfer control and militarism.


Zapiro - Russia Syria Arms Trade

September 2015, ExCel Centre, London: Stop The Arms Fair activists block the road and prevent military vehicles entering the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition. They are protesting against one of the largest arms fairs in the world – sending a message to the UK government and arms companies that “inviting representatives of repressive regimes and their armed forces to hob-nob and do dodgy deals at DSEI … with representatives from the UK government and unscrupulous arms companies from around the world IS NOT OK.” Two weeks previously, Cancun, Mexico: Control Arms activists build a life-size sand sculpture of a Stormer 30 tank on Baracuda Beach, Cancun, calling on states to save lives! by ensuring the toughest possible standards at the first Conference of State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, the biggest game in town for contemporary international arms transfer control.

These two campaigns share the language of “dodgy deals” but are otherwise quite different visions of the arms trade and its control. The Control Arms campaign focuses on encouraging, informing and embarrassing diplomats into agreeing a multilateral treaty that enshrines higher common international standards and establishes stronger norms against arms transfers that violate human rights and international humanitarian law. The Stop The Arms Fair coalition, meanwhile, takes direct action to halt the operation of arms fairs in the UK by physically blockading the exhibition centre, in protest at the relationship between arms companies and the UK government, and the relationships between the UK government and authoritarian, repressive and war-fighting foreign governments.

I’ve written in the past about the international politics of NGO and campaign group strategy – whether reformist, insider approaches are more effective than transformist, outsider ones – in the context of debates about global civil society. Yet what continues to trouble me, intellectually and politically, is a raft of questions about the operation of the arms trade itself. Namely: where, or with whom, does political responsibility lie for the negative effects of the arms trade in a world of formally national states that are home to internationalising arms companies and operate in a multilateral system based on sovereignty? What social forces drive the arms trade, how does their power operate, what is the character of the problems they generate, and how should scholars and activists best respond? Competing understandings of the operation of the arms trade can be seen in the varied activist responses to it: is the problem one of lack of regulation, the need for improved multilateral action, improved normative standards and international law, as per the Arms Trade Treaty? Or is the problem the relationship between the state and arms capital, and government promotion of the trade, as per the anti-DSEI protests? In the case of DSEI, how are we to understand the operation of internationalising arms capital that has an intimate yet fractious relationship with national states? And in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty, how should we make sense of efforts to create a level playing field of respect for human rights and humanitarian law in the context of a vastly asymmetric and hierarchical world military order?

Thinking theoretically, I have come to see that a large part of the difficulty in answering these questions lies in the grip that methodological nationalism continues to hold on IR as a discipline. Continue reading

Three Theses on ISIS: The Universal, the Millenarian, and the Philistine

Nimer SultanyA warm welcome to Nimer Sultany who brings us a guest post on thinking about ISIS. Nimer is Lecturer in Public Law, School of Law, SOAS, University of London. He holds an SJD from Harvard Law School. He practiced human rights law in Israel/Palestine, and was the director of the Political Monitoring Project at Mada al-Carmel – The Arab Research Center for Applied Social Research. His recent publications include: “The State of Progressive Constitutional Theory: The Paradox of Constitutional Democracy and the Project of Political Justification” in the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review and “Religion and Constitutionalism: Lessons from American and Islamic Constitutionalism” in the Emory International Law Review.


The ruthless brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) unfolds before our eyes on the screens. As commentators struggle to explain and understand it, it becomes convenient to revive old Orientalist tropes. Beyond the spectacular brutality, the reason that ISIS invites attention (both fascination and fear) is that it seems easy to fit in confrontational narratives of Islam (us v. them, anti-American, etc.). Muslims are clearly angry at something. In his infamous article “The Roots of Muslim Outrage”, Bernard Lewis simplistically explained that Muslims are envious of, and angry at, Western modernity and secularism. The U.S. magazine Newsweek illustrated this knee jerk reaction, and recourse to run of the mill thinking patterns, in a Muslim Rage cover in September 2012.

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In his book “Covering Islam” (1981) Edward Said has effectively critiqued these binary simplifications that dominate not only journalistic discourse about “Islam”, but also expert-talk about Islam. For Said, all attempts to conceptualise other cultures are a value-laden interpretive exercise. He showed the deficiencies of orthodox writings on—and views of—Islam, and called for “antithetical knowledge” to challenge the orthodoxy’s claims of value-free objectivity.

It seems little has changed, however, since Said wrote his book in the wake of the Iranian revolution. In this brief commentary I want to examine three attempts to understand ISIS. These are long treatments in respected liberal media outlets. To use Said’s phrase, these are treatments that fit in different “communities of interpretation.” These three essays are all aware of the need to provide “context” for ISIS. However, their contextualisation differs. The success of this contextualisation in shedding a light on ISIS varies. Let me call these interpretive techniques: universalization; Millenarian confrontation; and intellectual bewilderment. These three attempts operate mostly on the ideational/ cultural domain.

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Governing Borderless Threats

Southeast Asia’s recent Rohingya refugee crisis, and the parallel and still-unfolding horrors in the Mediterranean, are stark and tragic reminders of how the nature of international security has changed in recent decades. Traditionally, security involved building military strength to deter or repel attacks by other states. Today, beyond a tiny handful of ‘flashpoints’, so-called ‘non-traditional’ security issues dominate: irregular migration, drug trafficking, terrorism, piracy, pandemic disease, environmental degradation, transnational organised crime and cybersecurity – to name but a few. How are states and international organisations dealing with these challenges, and what does this tell us about global politics today?

The latest “boat people” crisis

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The Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and Its Critics

I have a piece out in the latest International Affairs on the UK government’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), better recognised as that thing William Hague did with Angelina Jolie(-Pitt) when he was still Foreign Secretary. As well as an important project in its own right, the Initiative might be read as signalling a new front in ethical foreign policy, and another success story in feminist activism around sexual violence (alongside the rise of ‘governance feminism’ and what have been called ‘femocrats’ in the UN and elsewhere). The role of the UK as a diplomatic and political presence becomes more important still against the background of rising attention to gender in global policy discourse in recent decades (conventionally referred to as the ‘Women, Peace and Security’, or WPS, agenda). Alternatively, the PSVI might be understood as a cause without demonstrable success, already fading from the scene along with Hague, its main advocate. And from either a conventionally Realist or a more radical activist perspective, the chances of a Foreign Office-led policy initiative making any feminist ground would seem slim.

Against this background, and building on a few years of following the Initiative’s progress, I stake out a preliminary analysis of three planks of the PSVI’s work. First, its wholesome embrace of ‘weapon of war’ thesis. Second, the great emphasis on ending impunity as the most effective means to reduce atrocity. And third, the repeated foregrounding of men and boys as ignored victims of sexual and gender-based violence. The headline conclusion is that, despite its promise, the initiative has thus far achieved little on its own technical terms, and its underlying approach to gender violence in conflict is in important senses limited. The conceptual bases of this relative failure lie in an unduly simplistic account of where and why such violence happens and an inability to reckon with the lack of evidence for strong deterrence effects or the significant resource challenges involved in supporting local and national justice programmes. By contrast, the PSVI stands as an important moment in the opening out of policy understandings of gender violence, although there nevertheless remain important ambiguities over ‘gender neutrality’ in practice, and therefore a likelihood of disputes over resources.

Missouri Emancipation Ordinance

The arrival of the Hague-Jolie Initiative onto the WPS scene was unexpected. The Conservative manifesto for the 2010 general election made no mention of wartime sexual atrocity, and was utterly conventional in its references to human rights. UK support for Security Council resolutions aside, activities on sexual violence have historically come from the Department for International Development (DFID), and with the exception of the attention generated during the London summit, the UK government has not made much of the initiative in its public relations since. The PSVI is thus heavily identified with William Hague personally, and can be traced to his epiphany over the role of genocidal rape in Bosnia. Hague, who is also the biographer of William Wilberforce, has framed war rape as similar to slavery in its immorality and argued for the role of the UK as an abolitionist force, repurposing standard diplomatic practice to progressive ends. This is to seek nothing less, in his words, than “the eradication of rape as a weapon of war, through a global campaign to end impunity for perpetrators, to deter and prevent sexual violence, to support and recognise survivors, and to change global attitudes that fuel these crimes”.

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O (fuck you) Canada!

Our very first guest rant, courtesy of Sankaran Krishna of the University of Hawai`i at Manoa.


Fuck Canada

Okay, I need to get something off my chest. I am sick and tired of the way “Canada” is positioned as a beacon of progressive socialistic state policies and a peaceful, enlightened citizenry. I am sick and tired of hearing white, liberal colleagues assert during every Presidential election in the United States that if “… Dole/ Bush / McCain / Romney … wins, I am moving to Canada.” I am also sick of the way Canada’s educational system, its health care system, its gun control policies, and a variety of other practices are contrasted favorably with the United States and held up to the latter as a model worth emulating. I am sick of American tourists abroad putting Canada stickers on their backpacks as a way of immunizing themselves from opprobrium. I am sick of all the evocations of Canadian politeness and niceness and what not, conveniently forgetting that in every war-making venture the United States has been in since its founding, the Canadians have been there right alongside. I am sick of all this for at least three reasons.

One, it effaces the conjoined history of both the United States and Canada as settler-colonial societies constructed on the violent usurpation of the lands of indigenous peoples and continued into the present through their ongoing dispossession and marginalisation. Do people not realize the enormous privilege inhering in the idea that you can just move to another country because you don’t agree with election results in your own? That the very idea of such a movement reenacts the originary violence that created both societies?

Two, in this entire imaginary that depicts the US and Canada as contrasts (as distinct from being overwhelmingly similar settler colonies), the unspoken locus of enunciation is white. How does the alleged contrast between the two societies look like from the perspective of someone from one of the pre-contact indigenous groups in either of these nations? What does it look like from Black or South Asian or East Asian or other immigrant (or “arrivant” as Jodi Byrd terms them) perspectives? These questions do not seem to be within the frame of analysis when Canada is presented as a liberal wet-dream in contrast to the United States.

Third, instead of contrasting them, might it not be better to see Canada as the alibi that normalises the extremity that is the United States? And the US as the egregious violence that sanitizes and renders more benign the incredible violence that is Canada? To twist Baudrillard, in different ways Canada and the US serve towards each other the same function that Disneyland does in rendering the rest of Los Angeles real.

So the next time you hear some allegedly liberal colleague, friend, whatever of yours praise Canada and offer it as a salutary contrast to the benighted United States, say something like “a pox on both (y)our houses” – and you can add any expletives that seem appropriate and tactically permissible at that moment.

What We Talked About at ISA2015: State Transformation and the Rise of China

At this year’s ISA, Shahar Hameiri and I talked about our new research project on state transformation and rising powers, with specific reference to China. In a nutshell, we suggest that, like other states, those of so-called ‘rising powers’ are undergoing epochal transformations associated with transformations in the global political economy since the late 1970s, profoundly conditioning how they are ‘rising’.

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Deciphering ‘The International’ in History and Theory

The final post in our symposium in our symposium on Alex Anievas’ Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945, in which Alex himself replies to his critics and interlocutors.


It brings me great pleasure to be invited to respond to such thoughtful and challenging critiques of my book Capital, the State, and War (CSW). On the (meta-)theoretical front, Mark Rupert and Kamran Matin question my use of uneven and combined development (UCD) as a transhistorical ‘general abstraction’ to be incorporated into a historical materialist framework. On the more historical/historiographical front, Campbell Craig challenges my interpretation of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policies during and after the First World War, arguing that I rely too heavily on the extant historiographical literature, specifically N. Gordon Levin’s 1968 New Left ‘revisionist’ critique Woodrow Wilson and World Politics. Craig further criticizes my theoretical approach for being overly structuralist and consequently ‘devoid of agency or praexeology’, while pushing me to consider the relevance of UCD to contemporary world politics.

While disagreeing with some of my interlocutors interpretations of what I was trying to do in CSW, it is a breath of fresh air that they have all offered substantive engagements with my work in ways dealing with genuine theoretical disagreements; though, as I hope to demonstrate, in the case of Matin and possibly Rupert, these theoretical disagreements may be less serious than they first appear. So I would be remiss not to express my deep gratitude to Rupert, Matin and Craig for their highly stimulating critiques. In what follows, I engage with the precise standing of UCD and ‘general abstractions’ in filling out of a distinctly historical materialist theory of ‘the international’ before turning to the more specific historical-theoretical issues raised by Craig.

I. Method, Abstraction and Historicity in Marxist Theory

While being ‘largely convinced’ by the ‘relational, historical, and dialectical conceptual apparatus’ I deploy in explaining the interstate conflicts of the Thirty Years’ Crisis of 1914-1945, Rupert remains sceptical of my conceptualization of UCD as a ‘general abstraction’. He raises the question: “In a world where a great deal of epistemological and actual violence is done by universalizing abstractions, why create another as the basis for a theory whose basic impulse is de-reification, re-contextualization, and re-historicization in the interest of opening potentially emancipatory horizons?”. As such, Rupert is ‘unpersuaded’ by my argument that UCD is best understood as a transhistorical phenomenon which can be employed as a ‘general abstraction’.

Kamran Matin, by contrast, argues that I have not realized the full potentials of deploying UCD as a transhistorical abstraction, Continue reading