International Relations is Not an American Discipline (Well, Maybe It Is, A Little)

Helen TurtonA guest post on the state of the discipline by Helen Louise Turton. Helen is a University Teacher in International Relations and Security Studies at the University of Sheffield. She received her PhD from Exeter in 2013 for a dissertation on ‘The Sociology of a Diverse Discipline’, and next year Routledge will publish her International Relations and American Dominance: A Diverse Discipline. She also has work on marginality and hegemony in IR forthcoming in the Journal of International Relations and Development (with Lucas Freire) and is beginning a larger project on ‘Rereading European IR Theory’ (with Knud Erik Jørgensen and Felix Rösch). Helen is also the co-convenor of the BISA Working Group on IR as a Social Science. If you wish to join the working group please follow the link.


Gary Hilliard

It has been said on more than one occasion that International Relations is an American dominated discipline, or that the US IR community is hegemonic. In fact, one could even go so far as to say that the disciplinary image of IR being dominated by the US has become a disciplinary truism, with many academics reproducing this characterisation time and time again. The TRIP survey that has just been sent to academics in 33 different countries even poses the question “Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement: The discipline of international relations is an American dominated discipline” to ascertain the degree to which IR scholars around the globe feel dominated by the US. Furthermore, other empirical surveys of the discipline have sought to demonstrate the seeming continued disciplinary dominance of the American academy, pointing to the different ways in which the US is able to exercise its disciplinary hegemony.

In my new book International Relations and American Dominance I challenge the claim that IR is an American dominated discipline because the underlying question is itself deeply problematic. Asking whether IR is dominated by the US presupposes a yes or no answer. We are therefore presented with an either or option which overlooks the possibility that the discipline may be dominated by the US in some ways but not in others. This then leads us to unpack what it means to be dominant. When scholars claim that IR is an American dominated discipline we first need to assess how they understand disciplinary dynamics and relationships of dominance. Are dominance claims being made because it is perceived that American methods populate the discipline? Or do certain American theories dominate global IR? Perhaps the US is stated to be dominant because it is American IR scholars who are in positions of power? Maybe scholars have argued that IR is dominated by the US because there are more American IR scholars than those from other national IR communities? Or does the discipline subscribe to an American agenda and American understanding of what ‘international relations’ is?

The reality is that all these grounds have been used to state that the US IR community is hegemonic. Academics have implicitly drawn on different understandings of dominance and explicitly drawn attention to the different implications of US dominance, but often this is done without first clarifying what is meant or implied by American disciplinary dominance. Often scholars are speaking about one form of dominance on one page of a text, and then refer to a different understanding on another page. What this means is that the word dominance when in the context of claims stating ‘IR is an American dominated discipline’ or ‘IR is no longer an American enterprise’ is used in many different ways, taking on many different forms and measured in numerous modes despite the fact that it is presented as ‘one size fits all’ form of dominance. What this means is that although certain scholars may agree that the US is dominant they may be talking at cross-purposes about how and why America dominates. Whilst there may be agreement in one sense, there will be different answers to the crucial questions of how and why America allegedly became and remains disciplinarily dominant.

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Four Things the Left Should Learn from Kobane

The Kurdish town of Kobanê has recently become the centre of a geopolitical conflagration that may well change the course of Middle Eastern politics. After months of silence over the threat faced by Kurds from ISIS, the world is now finally watching, even if the ‘international community’ remains conspicuously quiet. However, many Western responses, be it from scholars, journos or activists, have somewhat predictably retracted into recycled critiques of US and UK imperialism, often at the expense of missing what is truly exceptional and noteworthy in recent developments. So, in the style of contemporary leftist listicles, here are four things we can and should learn from events in and around Kobanê.

1. It’s Time to Question the West’s Fixation on ISIS

If Barack Obama, David Cameron and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are to be believed, the ‘savagery’ of ‘fundamentalism’ is the primary focus of NATO involvement in Syria. Notably, many left critics have reproduced this very same fixation on ISIS when discussing Western interests. However, for an almighty imperialist organisation supposedly hell bent on stopping ‘Islamic extremism’, NATO have been curiously ineffective. In fact, the US has been indirectly responsible for arming ISIS and altogether incompetent and/or reluctant in arming the decidedly secular Kurdish resistance. US and UK air strikes have been fleeting, and at best symbolic, making little impact on the advance of ISIS. Moreover, Turkey has repeatedly turned a blind eye to ISIS’s use of its territories and borders for training activities and supply lines, respectively. More recently, as Kobanê teetered on the edge of conquest, Turkey insisted any military assistance was dependent on the Kurdish PYD abandoning self-determination and self-governing cantons, and agreeing to Turkish buffer zone in Kurdish controlled areas in Northern Syria (which amounts to little more than a colonial land grab). Now, considering the US and UK were keen to intervene long before ISIS was seen as a threat, and considering Turkey long-standing hostility to the PKK/PYD, we should be more demanding of any analysis of intervention that begins and ends with ISIS. In short, it is becoming increasingly clear that ISIS is little more than a pretext for NATO to pursue other geopolitical aims – namely removing Assad and destroying Kurdish autonomy.

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Clinton’s World

As part of the Canada 2020 conference, Hillary Clinton will be giving a lunch-time talk at the Ottawa Convention Center on Oct. 6. The subject of her speech is yet to be announced, but I imagine due attention to “Canada-U.S. relations in a changing world” will be given. I also imagine the event will be sold out despite high ticket prices (495 Canadian dollars per person + sales tax).  The main reason is that the former U.S. Secretary of State—former front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, former U.S. Senator, and former First Lady—is also the most likely person to succeed Barack Obama as POTUS (according to the American and British bookies at least).

By my count, this will be her fourth visit to Canada’s national capital region, and the first since 2010, when she swung by to attend important meetings in nearby Wakefield, Quebec. But where exactly is my city in Clinton’s world?

To answer this question, I turned to Hard Choices, her second memoir published earlier this year, and I read it through the lens of Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” a famous Manhattanite mappa mundi from the era when the Vietnam War was a fresh trauma and Jimmy Carter was making an unexpected splash in the Democratic presidential primaries.

steinbergnewyorker1976

 

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Resistance to Global LGBT Norms

International Relations is not normally thought of as the go-to place for lessons on the protection of gays, lesbians, trans, bi and queer people. But in recent times, it has been possible to get the impression that something about the practice of international politics has changed; that norms regarding sexual orientation and gender identity were gaining prominence and exerting discernible influence. In politics and policy making, one could point to the Yogyakarta principles. In mainstream IR theory, one could assess the steady stream of work that has arisen from theories of norm change and entrepreneurship and consider how they might apply to the LGBT case.

yogyakarta-principles

The Secretary General of the United Nations has launched a campaign for the protection of the human rights of LGBT people (with its own Bollywood movie clip!) He has said that the protection of human rights is “one of the great, neglected human rights challenges of our time.” In 2011, the UN released its first ever report (pdf) into the human rights of LGBT people. It states that:

a pattern of human rights violations emerges that demands a response. Governments and inter-governmental bodies have often overlooked violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The mandate of the Human Rights Council requires it to address this gap: the Council should promote “universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner. (see here, paragraph 2)

The question of how “Governments and inter-governmental bodies” might go about looking at and responding to violence and rights abuse against LGBT people is a complex one. Knee-jerk responses that impose aid conditionality measures, such as that suggested by UK PM David Cameron in the case of Uganda, are probably the least helpful route. Nonetheless, some form of conditionality, or assessment of the rights afforded to LGBT peoples, has become a standard within the repertoire of pro-LGBT rights states and their foreign policy advocates. Continue reading

Rendition and Exception in the Carceral Archipelago

Given half the chance
They danced around the truth
For most of my youth
Like you’re really going to jump off that roof
You lived your life
In a perfect paradise
The sun always shone
On your beaches with lies

- Leatherface, ‘Diego Garcia’ (2010)

Diego Garcia US Navy SeaBees

In October 2005, then Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells stood before Parliament and reported that the UK government had granted no requests for extraordinary rendition in any part of British territory or airspace, and was aware of no such use. Critics – who suspected that the UK was indeed complicit in rendition for torture – pressed the point. So in December Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary, explained that “careful research” within government had turned up no evidence of renditions since 9/11 in UK spaces (land, air, or sea) and, again, no requests. The very next day Straw was giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and was asked about the possibility of an investigation along similar lines as other EU states. Came the forceful reply:

I do not think that there is any case whatsoever for such an investigation here…I did what it is my duty to do, which is to provide a thorough comprehensive answer. That has been done. It has produced a nil return. Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been, and so what on earth a judicial inquiry would start to do I have no idea.

Conspiracies! Dark forces. Lies and secret states, no less. By January 2006, Howells was again reporting to MPs that all relevant Foreign Office records and recollections had been checked, implying that no proof of rendition had been discovered. Two years later David Miliband, who replaced Straw, was forced to admit that two renditions in fact did pass through the island of Diego Garcia in 2002 (Blair, pathetically: “We have just been informed by the United States of America about what has actually happened”). Suspicions were somewhat confirmed, but it was all a long time ago, and there was a change of Prime Minister, and then of government. While rendition-torture didn’t exactly go away, it faded from view. But it has resurfaced. Last month we discovered that some crucial records are incomplete due to ‘water damage’. Because if you have files pertinent to a major foreign policy controversy, why not store them that badly? Never mind that Ministers had previously argued that they wouldn’t be keeping notes anyway, and had to rely on assurances from the Americans (an “error” in US records was the culprit). Kettle logic, again.

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Dispatches from the Robot Wars; Or, What is Posthuman Security?

Audra MitchellA guest post from Audra Mitchell, who is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of York. Audra is a Fellow of the Independent Social Research Foundation (2014-15) and has held or will hold visiting fellowships at the Universities of Queensland, Edinburgh and Melbourne. She is the author or editor of three books: International Intervention in a Secular Age: Re-enchanting Humanity? (Routledge, 2014); Lost in Transformation: Violent Peace and Peaceful Conflict in Northern Ireland (Palgrave, 2011) and (ed. with Oliver Richmond) Hybrid Forms of Peace: From the ‘Everyday’ to Postliberalism (Palgrave, 2011), as well as articles in Security Dialogue, Review of International Studies, MillenniumBritish Journal of Politics and International Relations, Third World Quarterly, and Alternatives, amongst others. She blogs at Worldy IR. Audra’s current research project explores how mass extinction challenges the ontological and ethical underpinnings of ‘security’.


“So when are the intergalactic robot wars coming?” This is a question I’ve been asked (more than once) by colleagues who’ve heard that I’m working on posthumanist thought and international security. The implication is that what I’m doing is a kind of science fiction. Well, there’s definitely science (including robots – see below) and a rich fictional literature to draw on, but it’s not taking place in a galaxy far, far away. It’s very much rooted in, and attuned to, this planet.

‘Posthuman security’ is an umbrella term I’m using to talk about a recent surge in thinking and writing at the nexus of posthumanist philosophy, security and ethics. It starts from the proposition that international security is not solely a matter of securing human lives and bodies. Diverse beings other than humans are implicated in the conditions of (in)security. Whether other animals, machines, networks, minerals, water, ecosystems or complex assemblages thereof, a wide range of beings other than humans shape the contexts of (in)security and the ways that we define them. This, in turn, challenges the engrained notion that the human is the ultimate referent object of security, ethics and philosophy.

Mojave Desert Ecology

Indeed, another question I get asked frequently is “are you critiquing human security?” The answer is both yes and no. The norm of human security epitomizes a humanist turn in the last two decades of international thought, also reflected in the fields of humanitarianism and norms such as Responsibility to Protect. These frameworks have carved out a space for themselves within international ethics by framing a specific image of the human individual as the focal point of security, ethics and, by extension the universe. So, of course, adopting a post-human (or more-than-human) approach to security means challenging and deconstructing these influential paradigms. But this new discourse is not simply a critique of existing frameworks. Posthuman security thinking offers a number of distinct, positive contributions to international security, ontology and ethics.

The term itself is highly contestable – and should be contested. Continue reading

The Onuf Principles

Nicholas Onuf recently gave an interview over at e-IR. Several people of our acquaintance shared the tail-end of that, in which he is prompted to dispense career advice. Although opinions are indeed like assholes, these are good enough to elevate far above the gutter.


Original image by Stéphanie Saramago

Original image by Stéphanie Saramago

1. Preparing at length for classes does not make you a better teacher. Insofar as it dampens spontaneity, students will think you are boring; this will undercut the self-confidence you thought your lengthy preparations had purchased for you. And, of course, it steals valuable time from your scholarship.

2. Writing is a craft; writing well takes most of us a great deal of work. The usual practice is to think of a problem or issue, formulate a project, do ‘research,’ and then write it up. Bad idea. Keep writing at every stage, even if, in the end, you throw out most of what you have written. Writing makes the problem clearer, points up what more you need to do in the way of research, and, most of all, keeps your writing skills well-honed.

3. Don’t send sloppy, badly crafted papers out for review. As a frequent referee, I see them all too often. Many referees will punish you, not always consciously, for doing so, even if they think you are on to something. Once you think you have a well-crafted piece of work, do send it out, because most referees and editors take their duties seriously and will give you valuable feedback.

4. Be cautious about taking on collaborative projects. We all know that scholarship is a lonely occupation. Collaboration reduces the loneliness quotient and can result in better work than any of the collaborators could have produced on their own. It can also result in a piece of work that no one is entirely happy with. Sometimes collaboration causes damaging tension and bad feelings because of temperamental differences, greater or lesser commitment to the project, and perceived inequities in the distribution of work. All that said, collaborating with my brother on two book projects was hugely rewarding. That it might have been hugely risky never occurred to us.

5. Be even more cautious in participating in symposium projects. Their thematic foci may not match your interests very well; they tend to be superficially refereed and thus are not taken seriously; they also tend to disappear quickly from view. There are exceptions—symposia that mark major developments in the field—but you’ll have a pretty good idea if a particular symposium project has that potential. As a senior scholar, I contribute to symposia because it is fun to do projects with friends and I can afford the luxury. Most of all, avoid editing symposium volumes. This involves collaboration under the most difficult conditions. It is extraordinarily time consuming. Wrangling recalcitrant contributors is too often a thankless and disheartening responsibility.

6. Do not take on too many projects at one time. You will spread yourself too thin, miss deadlines, and make it all the more likely that you will succumb to the 90% rule—you run out of steam when any given project is 90% done and only needs some fine-tuning to be sent off. You will end up with a drawer full of nearly done projects that you have progressively lost interest in and will therefore never finish.

7. Dissertations are apprentice projects, immediately recognisable as such. Turning a dissertation into a book is probably the smart thing to do, but it will often take longer than writing the dissertation did. For most of us, it takes five years to write a good book; World of Our Making took me ten years. Whether you have that much time, institutionally speaking, is another matter.

8. Read every day. When I get up in the morning (early) and get my coffee, I read for 45 minutes. In my case, it has always been something that I do not have to read for whatever I am doing at the time. While this has broadened me immeasurably, for many scholars, a fixed time for reading is an opportunity — perhaps the only opportunity — to keep up on the literature in the field.

9. Whether to jump on a trend in the field’s scholarship, try anticipating a trend, come late to a trend but treat it critically, jump around from thing to thing, or plug away at something few others seem to be interested in is a tricky question, having much to do with temperament. It requires you to ask yourself how ambitious you are, how much you need validation from others, how long you can stayed focused on one thing, et cetera.

10. On the assumption that you are smarter than most people (or you would not be a scholar), seek out people whom you know to be smarter than you in various obvious ways. On the one hand, the more of these people you know, the less intimidating you will find them, and the more you will learn from them. On the other hand, knowing really smart people will remind you of your own limitations and help you be less arrogant. Arrogance is, of course, a constant hazard in our line of work.