Queer International Relations: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Cynthia Weber’s new book Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge. We kick off the symposium with an inaugural post from Cynthia, followed by replies over the next few days from Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh and Dianne Otto. We will conclude the symposium with a reply from Cynthia. cw-headshot

Cynthia Weber is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.  She has written extensively on sovereignty, intervention, and US foreign policy, as well as on feminist, gendered and sexualized understandings and organizations of international relations.

UPDATE (22/11/2016): a response from Joan Cocks.

UPDATE (23/11/2016): a response from Antke Engel.

UPDATE (24/11/2016): a response from Cyril Ghosh.

UPDATE (25/11/2016): a response from Dianne Otto.

UPDATE (27/11/2016): a response from Cynthia Weber.


What is ‘homosexuality’? Who is ‘the homosexual’? Queer Studies scholars have long engaged with these questions, as well as with a vast array of additional questions about gender variant, gender non-conforming and gender expanding people. They have done so not to answer these questions but to trace how what Michel Foucault calls the will to knowledge about ‘homosexuality’ and ‘the homosexual’ drives various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, techniques of medicalization, psychologization, and (self)disciplinization, Queer Studies scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ subjectivities are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sexes, genders and sexualities, which they read intersectionally through (amongst other things) race, class and ability. What Queer Studies scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sexualities is a specifically sovereign will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see, for example, Berlant’s work on sovereignty).

International Relations (IR) scholars, in contrast, regard sovereignty as among their core concerns. This leads them to pose an alternative set of questions in their research, including: What is ‘sovereignty’?; Who is (the always presumptively male, masculinely-engendered) ‘sovereign man’?; and What arrangements of national and international politics does ‘sovereign man’ authorize? Foucauldian and other social constructivist and poststructuralist IR scholars ask these questions not to answer them but to trace how the will to knowledge about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sovereign man’ drive various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, the social construction of nation-states as sovereign, justifications for intervention in the name of sovereignty, and sovereignly-authorized international economic distributions of wealth, these IR scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ international subjectivities and international orders are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sovereignty. What IR scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sovereignty is a specifically sexualized will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see Peterson’s work).

Queer Studies scholars undertheorize sovereignty and IR scholars undertheorize sexuality in part because there has been a long-standing neglect of Queer Studies scholarship by IR scholars and a corresponding long-standing neglect of IR scholarship by Queer Studies scholars. The unfortunate result of this mutual neglect is that it can appear as if there is no (need for) queer theory in IR and no (need for) IR theory in queer studies. One of my aims in Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is to contest this proposition. I do so by putting Queer Studies scholarship and IR scholarship in conversation around sexuality and sovereignty. The story I tell in Queer International Relations is about how the crafting of sovereign and sexualized figures is a tool in domestic and international games of power that confirms as well as contests traditional logics of ‘modern statecraft as modern mancraft’.[i]

The concept of ‘statecraft as mancraft’ – which can take modern or classical form – was coined and introduced into discussions about sovereignty by Richard Ashley. Ashley argued that ‘statecraft as mancraft’ refers to those practices that attempt to craft an agent in whose name a political community governs by investing that agent with legitimate political authority. Argues Ashley, ‘If medieval statecraft was in part an art of fixing an interpretation of God that the king could mirror and serve…then modern statecraft is in significant measure an art of fixing a paradigmatic interpretation of sovereign man that the state can mirror and serve’.[ii]

By performing a close reading of modern ‘Western’ theories and foreign policies on development, immigration, terrorism, human rights, and regional and international integration, I demonstrate how answers to the question ‘Who is “sovereign man”?’ are intricately bound up with answers to the question ‘Who is “the homosexual”?’ Following in the footsteps of feminist and gender theorists, critical race scholars, postcolonial, decolonial and native studies scholars who evidenced how ‘sovereign man’ is sexed, gendered and racialized often in/through colonial and/or settler colonial practices, I evidence how ‘sovereign man’ is also sexualized. And because ‘sovereign man’ is a figure who is used to authorize political authority within a political community (e.g., like a sovereign nation-state or a regional organization like the EU or even like a multi-scalar transnational assemblage of policing power) and also to project that authority beyond the boundaries of that political community, this means that it is not only ‘sovereign man’ who is sexualized; in formal and informal ways, international relations arranged through what IR scholars discuss as order vs. anarchy are also sexualized. I refer to these international arrangements (and additional combinations of order and/or anarchy) as sexualized organizations of international relations.

If questions about the figuration of ‘sexualized sovereign man’ and the sexualized orders of international relations he produces and is produced through are so important for IR theory and the practice of foreign policy, then why have they been at best marginalized or at worst excluded from IR for the two-plus decades when Queer Studies scholarship blossomed outside of the discipline of IR? One answer (noted earlier) is that IR scholars do not usually read the work of their Queer Studies colleagues (and vice versa). Yet there are arguably three additional reasons for this state of affairs, which are rooted in the understanding and conduct of the discipline of international relations.

First, grounded (in part) in Martin Wight’s description of international relations as ‘the study of the state’s system itself’ and Wight’s positivist inclinations for determining what counts as knowledge about ‘the state’s system itself,’ what we might call ‘Disciplinary IR’ is able to employ a number of strategies to make it appear as if there is no queer international theory and as if there is no need for queer international theory.

Second, even though some Feminist IR and (what are now being called) ‘Queer IR’ scholars have long argued that sexuality is a fundamental organizing aspect of international politics, it was only recently that examples of ‘sexualized sovereign man’ and sexualized organizations of international relations became so obviously integrated into foreign policy that so-called Disciplinary IR could no longer ignore them. Primary among these forms of integration is US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2011 declaration that ‘gay rights are human rights’, and the Obama administration’s leveraging of this declaration as a fundamental aspect of its foreign policy.

Finally, as more IR scholars have begun to recognize the importance of sexuality and its relationship to sovereignty, they have (until recently) often lacked theoretical and methodological frameworks that would allow them to explore these questions in a rigorous analytical fashion (although see, for example, Nash and Browne’s work on queer methods).

Just because Disciplinary IR has been slow to recognize the role of sexuality in figuring ‘sovereign man’ and organizing international relations, this does not mean that complexly entangled relationships among sovereignty and sexuality are recent occurrences in international politics. Far from it. As I argue in Queer International Relations, IR theories and policies around modernization and development, immigration, terrorism, human rights and regional and international integration rely upon as well as construct complex relationships of sovereignty and sexuality that participate in the sexual organization of international relations. Paying attention to how ‘homosexuality’ and ‘the homosexual’ are made meaningful and known in IR theory and in foreign policy helps to make these complex relationships of sovereignty and sexuality and their stakes for IR theory and practice more apparent.

qirTaking this task seriously, I pose four questions about ‘Western’ hegemonic discourses of IR theory and foreign policy as the analytical focus in Queer International Relations:

  • What is ‘homosexuality’?
  • Who is ‘the homosexual’?
  • How is ‘the homosexual’ figured as/in relation to ‘sovereign man’? and
  • Why are these questions relevant for IR and for (transnational/global) Queer Studies?

I seek to answer the last two of these questions by tracing how the will to knowledge about male ‘homosexuality’ and the male ‘homosexual’[iii] drives some always imagined and unstable ‘Western’ discourses of sovereign statecraft as sovereign mancraft, while opening up the notion of ‘statecraft’ to political communities other than the nation-state. I do this by performing four key moves. First, I stage a conversation between IR scholarship and (transnational/global) Queer Studies scholarship on questions of sovereignty and sexuality. Second, I set out two theoretical and methodological frameworks for analyzing sexualized organizations of international relations that are grounded in explorations of both sexualized figurations of ‘sovereign man’ and in what I call queer logics of statecraft. Third, I offer a series of interlinked case-studies to support my arguments. Finally, I explain the stakes for IR scholars and for (transnational/global) Queer Studies scholars of considering as well as neglecting to consider sovereignty and sexuality together. Let me explain each of these moves in more detail.

I stage a conversation between IR scholarship and (transnational/global) Queer Studies scholarship by reading IR insights about sovereignty with (transnational/global) Queer Studies about sexuality. This leads me to read, for example, Queer Studies critiques of developmental logics with IR/Comparative Politics theories and policies of modernization and development, Queer Migration scholarship with IR theories and policies on immigration and terrorism, and Queer Studies theories of heteronormativities, homonormativities, and homonationalisms with IR analyses of terrorism, human rights and regional and international integration.

Second, I offer two theoretical and methodological approaches for analyzing figurations of the ‘homosexual’ and sexualized orders of IR. The first combines Michel Foucault’s concepts of ‘putting sex into discourse’, ‘productive power’, and ‘networks of power/knowledge/pleasure’ with Donna Haraway’s conceptualization of ‘figuration’, Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, and Ashley’s arguments about ‘statecraft as mancraft’ to develop a method for analyzing figurations of the ‘homosexual’ and sexualized orders of IR that are inscribed in IR as either normal or perverse. The second theoretical and methodological framework recombines these elements—especially Ashley’s ‘statecraft as mancraft’—with a pluralized rendering of Roland Barthes’s rule of the and/or, which offers instructions on how to read plural figures and plural logics that signify as normal and/or perverse. These figures might be described as queer, following Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s understanding of queer as a refusal or an inability to signify monolithically in relation to sex, to gender, and to sexuality. By developing a theoretical and methodological framework to read queer figures as/in relation to sovereignty and the orders and anarchies sovereignties are produced through and of which they are productive, I offer an additional lens through which to investigate singularized and pluralized figurations of the ‘homosexual’ and sexualized orders of IR – queer logics of statecraft.

Third, through a series of interlinked case-studies I trace the specific ways in which sovereignty and sexuality are intertwined. The case-studies span the range of what IR takes to be its core concerns and what (transnational/global) Queer Studies scholars increasingly discuss in their work – state and nation formation, war and peace, and international political economy. Each case-study reads international figures, international theories, queer theories, and foreign policies together. For example, in the first case-study, I explores how the colonialist figures of ‘the underdeveloped’ and ‘the undevelopable’ found in modernization and development theory owe debts not only to the structural-functionalist sociological theories of Talcott Parsons but also (as Queer Studies scholar Neville Hoad demonstrates) to how Freudian psychoanalysis linked civilizational discourses with the sexual development of ‘the homosexual’. I then trace how the sexualized ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘undevelopable’ inform not only contemporary Western foreign policies of modernization and development but also Western foreign policies of (not surprisingly) immigration and terrorism and (more surprisingly) of human rights as well as regional and international integration.

Read together, my case-studies demonstrate three things. First, they demonstrate that the figure of ‘the homosexual’ appears in these overlapping discourses and their corresponding public policies in three very different ways – as a perverse figure (like ‘the undevelopable’), as a normal figure (like ‘the gay rights holder’), and as a simultaneously normal and/or perverse figure (like the figure of ‘the bearded lady Conchita Wurst’, who won Eurovision 2014). Second, they show how these ‘figurations’ of ‘the homosexual’ – these various shared meanings and distilled knowledges about ‘the homosexual’ – find expression in key issue-areas of international relations, including development, migration, terrorism, human rights, and regional and global integration. Finally, they explain how in these key issue areas of international relations, figurations of ‘the homosexual’ – as ‘the underdeveloped’, ‘the undevelopable’, ‘the unwanted im/migrant’, ‘the terrorist, ‘the LGBT human rights holder’, and ‘the Euro-visioned bearded drag queen’ – are fused with figurations of or against some variously-figured ‘sovereign man’, who is mobilized to ground the authority of a state or another political community.

Finally, I explain the stakes of this analysis for IR scholarship and for (transnational/global) Queer Studies scholarship. My claim is that – read separately – neither IR nor (transnational/global) Queer Studies lives up to its intellectual or political promise. For by failing to read sovereignties and sexualities together, IR and (transnational/global) Queer Studies insufficiently comprehend contemporary mobilizations of power, which undercuts their abilities to support or resist these mobilizations. This is because their singular analyses: (1) inhibit understandings of how ‘sovereign man’ and ‘sexualized man’ are intertwined in transnational/global/international theories and policies; and (2) inhibit understandings of how queer logics of statecraft complicate and exceed Ashley’s traditional logics of ‘statecraft as mancraft’ in theory and in practice. Yet read in combination, these overlapping bodies of scholarship can and do further enrich understandings of how ‘sovereign man’ as ‘sexualized sovereign man’ functions in existing and emerging sexualized understandings of intimate, national, regional, and international relations that both sustain and threaten to suspend traditional understandings of sovereignty. Read together, then, these two traditions of scholarship enrich understandings of contemporary formations of sovereignty and contemporary formations of power in international politics. Let me offer a few concrete policy example.

The UN Development Program Team on Gender, Key Populations and LGBTI is developing an LGBTI Inclusion Index. In the spirit of the World Bank’s concerns about ‘the economic costs of homophobia’, this index will collect data on ‘the LGBTI’ worldwide, in relation to national indicators that seek to measure the success or failure of LGBTI inclusion. Knowing who ‘the LGBTI’ is, is a prerequisite for collecting this data.

Discussing this initiative with some members of the UNDP team recently, it was clear to me that they are keenly aware of the difficulties of defining ‘the LGBTI’ and have gone to great lengths to address these difficulties. Yet – like all those working in the field of policy formation and implementation – they necessarily impose limits on these discussions so they can get on with their project. On the one hand, this is fair enough. On the other hand, though, these limits erase those who will not or cannot be made to fit within dominant policy categories like ‘the LGBTI’. Whether these kinds of erasures will provide more or less protection to gender-variant, gender non-conforming and gender expanding people will depend upon historical and geopolitical contexts and on specific policies, not just with respect to indexing tolerance (as in the UNDP case) but also regarding the granting or withholding of asylum, for example. To me, this is an important edge where policy, politics and critical IR/Queer theory meet that needs to be pressed, so that the desire of policymakers to know who ‘the LGBTI’ is does not lead them to disavow both the on-going politics of knowing who ‘the LGBTI’ is and the potential life and death consequences for those who are and are not captured or capturable by this category.[iv]

How the UNDP figures ‘the LGBTI’ to measure inclusion is but one concrete example of how contemporary policymakers and publics figure gender-variant, gender non-conforming and gender expanding people to map national and international sovereign spaces and sovereign orders in contestable ways. Another example is US discussions of the Orlando massacre of mostly queers of color (especially Latinx queers) at the Pulse nightclub. These discussions draw upon racialized, Islamophobic and homophobic western stories about development, im/migration, terrorism and sexuality to make various sense of the shooter Omar Mateen, his victims, and their relationships to the ‘sovereign US itself’. Similarly, in the UK, the desire of the majority of Brexit voters for some imagined UK sovereignty triggered a Tory leadership contest in which one candidate reopened the question of whether ‘homosexuality is a sickness that can be cured’. More broadly, this UK discussion raises the question of how gender variant, gender non-conforming and gender expanding people in the UK will be known and treated should the UK leave the EU and/or the European Convention on Human Rights. Finally, turning to recent events in the US, the dangerous wielding of misogynies, homo/bi/trans*phobias, racisms, xenophobias, Islamophobias, and ableisms to figure a ‘US sovereign subject’ with a will to elect Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States urgently demands Queer IR analyses that address how sex, gender and sexuality and their intertwining with logics of statecraft in part made this possible, and what is to be done in response. As a conclusion to this symposium, I take up this challenge in a preliminary way.

One final thought. Having written a book entitled Queer International Relations, I recognize that some scholars might take up this work as a way to designate and champion a new field of study called ‘Queer IR’, as if it were a new sovereign subject of inquiry. They may even misunderstand this ‘Queer IR’ as a field that is about determining and then knowing for sure who ‘the homosexual’ in international relations really is or what sovereignty always was, always is, or always will be or should be. These moves could not be further from my intentions. Instead, my aim in writing this book was to contest what Joan Cocks calls the ‘political delusion of sovereignty’ and its corresponding personal and political delusions of sexuality that appeal to the will to knowledge about ‘the homosexual’ as its way of constituting ‘sexualized man’ as or against ‘sexualized sovereign man’. Only time will tell if Queer International Relations makes such a contribution to IR and/or to (transnational/global) Queer Studies.


[i] Ashley, Richard K. (1989) `Living on Border Lines: Man, Poststructuralism, and War’, in J. Der Derian and M.J. Shapiro (eds) International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics, pp. 259-321. Massachusetts and Toronto: Lexington Books.

[ii] Ashley, Richard K. (1989) `Living on Border Lines, p. 303.

[iii] Certainly, not all figurations of ‘the homosexual’ are male. I trace various figurations of ‘the homosexual’ that are described as male and (often) as masculine because – as Foucault argues – ‘the homosexual’ is ‘birthed’ and therefore ‘known’ in Western hegemonic discourses as male in relation to the practice of sodomy among men. It is this male (if not always masculine) figure of ‘the homosexual’ who I argue appears in discourse of statecraft as mancraft, as a figure who is (or is opposed to) ‘sovereign man’. My aim is not to reify ‘homosexuality’ or ‘the homosexual’ as male and/or masculine but to trace how practices of statecraft as mancraft are (de)stabilized because of their insistence upon a knowable figure of ‘the homosexual’ as or against ‘sovereign man’.

[iv] This is not to say that queer interventions should concern themselves only with neoliberal policies of inclusion, as others have shown. Rather, it is to say that critical engagement with these kinds of on-going policy formulations are among a broader range of transnational/global/international queer interventions made possible by critically thinking sovereignties, sexualities, and the will to knowledge together.

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7 thoughts on “Queer International Relations: A Symposium

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