Continuities, Ruptures, and Gendered States

The second post in our short series on the edited volume Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (Oxford, 2018) – the full series may be viewed here. In this post, Christine Agius revisits here contribution to the volume. Christine is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Swinburne University and the author of a number of pieces on sovereignty, identity, foreign policy and security, most recently (with Emil Edenborg), ‘Gendered Bordering Practices in Swedish and Russian Foreign and Security Policy’, published in Political Geography.


Like some of the most important questions of the day – will there ever be a decent Terminator film beyond T3, and is it still ok to love Broad City after their Hillary love-in – the question of who or what the state is has perhaps never been as important as it is in these troubling times. As authoritarian and right-wing governments produce electoral wins, and initiate policies that seek to assert the power of the state in the name of ‘the people’, the effects and affects are becoming more and more visible across a range of levels and registers. So much has already been written about recent authoritarian politics, including in this forum (see here, here and here). As I began to write this blogpost, the US border with Mexico militarised with the visible presence of troops, tanks and weaponry in preparation for the arrival of the ‘caravan’ of mostly women and children from Honduras. Austria had rejected a UN migration pact in order to ‘defend its national sovereignty’. And Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly-elected president, has projected the view that international climate action is a threat to Brazil’s national sovereignty. Public discourse and debate has been deemed to have become uncivil, individuals emboldened to ‘say what they think’ or act on impulses that until recently might have been kept in check, whether it be policing non-white citizens or ‘going in’, to deal with ‘invaders’ as the Pittsburgh shooter who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue recently did. The visibility of the alt-right in western democracies even conforms to specific aesthetics, from the alt-right art of ‘fashwave’ to MAGA caps and Hitler Youth haircuts.

Despite liberal anxiety about the rise of right-wing populism (or should we just call it fascism?) as a decisive and seismic moment of rupture for liberal democracy, this isn’t necessarily new. While we may be tempted to see this as a crisis point in ‘normal’ politics, some have highlighted how the very basis of liberal democracy might sow the seeds of the divisions we now see across lines of tolerance, race, gender and political economy. Here the debates are as complex as they are multifarious. Take, for instance, the rise of an overtly masculinised approach to protecting borders and defending sovereignty. This ‘strongman’ politics blatantly attempts to raise defences against imagined outside incursions – and it is easy to see the gendered dynamics that construct these efforts to reclaim and exert power, order and hierarchical relations. We see it in ‘America First’, and ‘take back control’, as well as replicant iterations elsewhere. It also provokes a sort of counter-strongman response. I’m thinking here about Arnold Schwarzenegger (as I often, inexplicably, do) taunting Trump over Putin, support for white supremacists or climate change denial. While Arnie gets a lot of likes for this, he’s still married to a conservative idea of what the state is, what statecraft should look like, and how strength should be used. This is part of the problem. Dig a bit deeper, and the very order we’re claiming to defend relies on ideas of strength, autonomy, rationality. This is highly gendered, not simply in the way ideas of strength and weakness are invoked, but in the sort of solutions and responses that are offered to counter such positions.

So instead of rupture, I’d rather talk about continuities. I was reminded by Debbie Lisle, at her recent workshop for Roland Bleiker’s Visual Politics seminar series at UQ, of the idea of intensification. Debbie used this a long time ago in response to the crisis of 9/11 – rather than see 9/11 as a rupture, it was an intensification of already existing and ongoing processes. It’s been a useful device for teaching my critical terrorism studies class, and I’ve referred to it ever since. At her UQ seminar, intensification again emerged in response to the migrant ‘crisis’, in this case, how ‘crisis’ invites affective modes of urgency, enabling and disabling certain actions, responses and responsibilities. Intensification has me thinking about this exact juncture between event, rupture, and crisis, which seems to constantly interject into ‘normal’ politics. There is a purpose and a danger to categorisations of rupture and crisis – such descriptors can invoke a range of different responses, placing events out of time, context and space. This has been interrogated in various ways across political economy, democracy, and security post-9-11 and in the era of Trump. So, I want to skirt away from the realm of urgency and instead look to and try and expose the continuities when apprehending how gender is threaded into the very fabric of states and the performance of statehood. And herein lies the complexity: gendered states are practised and performed in different ways, and often rework the very conditions they claim to try to change. Focussing on rupture can distract us from what is already embedded and part of the very thing we are trying to defend. So instead maybe we ought to look to the spaces in-between – the cases where we might miss the signs and connections of the ways in which gendered states operate and persist, or work in different ways.

Sovereignty and gendered states

In Revisiting Gendered States, many of the contributors return to the work of the state’s relationship with gender, in particular, “to what extent the state speaks a gendered language, behaves like a patriarch, and enables gendered politics, citizenship, and policies at different levels.” For my contribution, I focused on the question of sovereignty and how we can understand gendered states through certain sovereign practices that aim to remake sovereignty or reassert sovereignty in response to forms of insecurity. I chose to examine Sweden and Australia, two ‘middle powers’ and their bordering practices: Sweden in terms of its recent ‘robust’ military engagements and Australia’s efforts to reclaim or reassert its borders from irregular migration. In both cases, sovereignty and protection carry specific meanings that only make sense in the context of previous calibrations of national identity and the performances of sovereign practices that emerge from these meanings and self-narratives. Central to this analysis was the examination of this idea of state protection – what is being protected? Who is being protected? What structures are being upheld and safeguarded? How do the practices of protection reproduce gendered subjectivities? How does the identity of the state intersect with these practices of protection?

To do this, I looked at the gendered constructions of the state in each case. I focused on specific aspects of bordering practices and ideas about protection that animated these states, especially those that married militarism with protection. Sweden was a state that was moving away from its legacy of neutrality towards more robust engagements in the international sphere, notably in Afghanistan. Although Sweden interpreted its post-war neutrality in activist terms, the wider perception of neutral states was that they were weak or duplicitous players in the international system. A desire to avoid this categorisation is present in the way Sweden engages in militarised peacekeeping and forms of intervention; it instead associates this with its activist reputation as a ‘humanitarian superpower’ – saving distant others, and especially under a ‘feminist foreign policy’, protecting women too. More recently, Sweden has been actively participating in the performances of military exercises as a partner country of NATO. In recent years, increased tensions at the border with Russia has seen Sweden boost its military spending and return to conscription. It has also actively engaged citizens in this process by issuing a booklet to all households with information preparing for attack or invasion. Concerns by the military of ‘impotence’ in the face of Russian incursion of sovereign space have featured in public debate on Swedish security and helped secure more funds for defence, and has fed into wider debates about what sort of orders are being defended: the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society used a flashing pink sonar device (the ‘Singing Sailor’) to deter homophobic Russian submarines in Swedish territorial waters in an effort to make a point about rejecting Swedish militarisation.

The Singing Sailor Sweden

Australia, on the other hand, is protecting its borders from the ‘crisis’ of asylum seekers and boat arrivals in an overtly militarised manner, linking asylum with insecurity, the breach of its sovereignty, and control over its territory. Embellished by a clearly tough stance, the discourse on ‘stopping the boats’ was justified in terms of protecting the state as well as protecting lives at sea and disrupting the people smuggling operations. But protection of borders was really about protecting the state from what is seen as the negative forces of globalisation – trafficking of people, the flow of unwanted effects. To do this, the subversion of international norms of protection was necessary to craft as a discourse to sell to a public that can be hostile towards asylum seekers, as well as outsourcing asylum to poorer neighbouring states. When Australia extends asylum, it is framed in selective terms about who is deserving (white South African farmers or Yazidi and Syrian Christians). This suggests not only a post-colonial continuation (juxtapose this with the treatment of the Indigenous population) but also a neo-colonial ordering, relegating those seeking asylum to out of sight sites that cannot be effectively monitored or reported on. There is also a silencing that is officially sanctioned.

No Way You Will Not Make Australia Home

In both cases of bordering practices in these middle powers, there is a gendered dynamic that underscores how these states understand their sovereignty and identity. And the practices they are engaging with in relation to sovereignty speak to a type of continuation rather than a rupture. But another word on middle powers themselves. Middle powers are an odd categorisation of states in the international system. Neither great powers nor weak ones, they have the ability to pursue their interests in specific areas of strength and recognise their limitations in other areas, or use creative diplomacy. Those writing and theorising middle powers readily fall in line with strategic, rationalist modes of understanding the international system and the role of states within it. Efforts by some scholars to rethink the term have resulted in conceptualisations such as ‘systemic impact’ – that is, measuring how states can shape parts of the international system to cohere with their interests, but not the overall structure. While efforts to associate some types of middle power behaviour with ‘good international citizenship’ make up parts of this theorising, the label of middle powers is really constraining because it keeps the ontological and empirical focus on a particular understanding of what it means to be a state operating in a specific type of system. Theorising middle powers are sort of like trying to rank boxers without wondering why the boxers are trying to belt the crap out of each other. Categories like these may have a story to tell us about how international politics works, but they blind us to finding ways out of that system. It also normalises certain behaviours and practices in the international system, confirming this is what states look like, and this is how they play the game. For all the discourse and policy initiatives on feminist foreign policy, for example, at moments of tension – such as arms deals with Saudi Arabia – the ‘rational’ impulses of being a state kick in – we see this when Swedish business interests, the former foreign minister and the King got involved to warn against the naivety of allowing feminist principles to take precedence over trade, and in Canada, economic rationality motivated Trudeau to keep the commitment of the previous conservative government to sell tanks to the Saudis (because it would cost too much to renege).

Even though I find the concept of middle powers extremely limiting, I refer to it because in some ways it shows up the practices of states like Sweden and Australia whilst at the same time highlighting problems of repetition and the very lack of imagination around the state. Most definitions of middle powers centre on capabilities, behaviour or identity/role. However, basic definitions of middle powers is in itself inherently constructed along gendered lines – hierarchy classifies them (great/weak/somewhere in the middle), their ‘interests’ are assumed to be the same as other actors within the international system (conforming to the system of sovereign states, and how they are expected to work and respond to phenomena and opportunities), and what sort of activities are available to them (agency, performativity). I realise I am probably speaking another language when it comes to how to think about rethinking the state, but sometimes the middle power concept shows us the tensions of a world of our own making, where potential transformation is unable to be creatively imagined.

Can we imagine a post-sovereign politics?

One of the most significant contributions of Revisiting Gendered States is to show, I think, how difficult it is to think outside of the state. But a gendered analysis can push this forward, so long as it interrogates how gender structures relations, institutions and interactions between agents and how co-constitutive that relationship is. I would also add that we need to bring back a more moral imperative – gendered international relations means being attentive to the everyday lives, experiences and suffering of people, planet and life, and those who are often without voice or representation. This also brings us to the problems that are posed by the state – care and duty towards non-members and distant others. Elshtain wrote that we need to consider a post-sovereign politics, exchanging it for responsibility. Constructing the idea of responsibility as a feature of the state can open up ways for the state to be less inward looking, less constrained by boundaries – and boundaries and borders are now back in a major way that need to be challenged.

Applying a gender lens to the ways in which middle powers practice, perform and interpret their sovereignty tells us something about how we cannot simply apprehend sovereignty as a uniform practice, part of what states ‘do’ and how they are constituted or recognised as states in the international system. Taking a gendered lens to practices of sovereignty can make visible the sorts of power relations that are seemingly taken for granted as a result of ‘being sovereign’: notions of protection, bordering, exclusion, hierarchy, ordering and disordering. Sovereignty is mostly analysed in functional terms – how we recognise it, instances of when sovereignty is breached, what it means for agency and self-autonomy. But being sovereign is also about adopting a gendered subjectivity that is difficult to untangle from mainstream understandings.

But I would also suggest we need a radical rethinking of what it means to be a state and what international relations should mean/be about. As Tickner points out: “Feminist analyses usually start, not with the structure of the system, but by examining the composition and behaviour of states in terms of their ability to increase the security of their citizens in both physical and economic terms.” Cynthia Enloe also tells us that we need to return to a structural analysis. Yes, we need a shakeup of the established order. Our very livelihoods and existence, as well as that of non-humans, depends on it. We need to think about wider impacts and effects on ecosystems, communities, violence, how seemingly benign practices or everyday practices like work and trade shape and buy into what we expect the state to be. But all we seem to be producing is a facsimile of the same, just with different slogans. Maintain the strength of the state, ensure economic growth, protect borders, sovereignty, yada yada yada. Even the Australian Labor Party, within striking distance of governing, still maintains that offshore processing is necessary to protect the state. Shaking up the order today means keeping the order exactly where it is.

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 15.00.06

So how can we radically rethink the state as a social entity, organisation? Is it no longer fit for purpose, especially when cities are taking the lead on important issues like climate change? How can we reconfigure its role in terms of protection? Protection of what? And what might be dangerous about doing that, especially at this juncture in history? While the appeal of ‘representing the people’ is one that is increasingly being associated with that populist impulse so prevalent today, perhaps recognising the continuities and intensifications might help us to identify some ways in which we can think around these problems. But it’s also those places that are in-between, that often escape our attention, that play an equally important role. It’s in the language we use to normalise practices that should not be normal, to make uncontroversial controversial things. When reporters fawn over Ted Cruise’s beard or Malcolm Turnbull’s metro-sexuality, these small things aren’t jokes. They make reprehensible politics likeable and trivialise our capacity for critique. In the final edit of this post, news reports of the death of a seven year old girl, Guatemalan Jakelin Caal Maquin, at the US-Mexican border from dehydration and shock is accompanied by statements by Jason Chaffetz, the former Utah republican representative, and Kirstjen Nielsen, who blame the death on the ‘choice’ to make the journey. The non-profit No More Deaths has compiled footage of Border Patrols destroying water supplies that are left for those who make it across the border, vital for their survival. What drives this absolute disconnect? It’s a moral gap, indeed, but there is also a fragmentation at play – by protecting the state, we can easily enact and buy into masculinised ideas of what that protection should look like, the form it should take. And that is perhaps the real failing of the project of the state.

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