The Ideal International Institution: A Response

The concluding post from the author herself, drawing our symposium on The Ideal River to a close. Dr Joanne Yao is Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. Previously, Joanne taught at Durham University and the LSE, where she completed her PhD in 2017. Joanne was also one of three editors of Millennium: Journal of International Studies for Volume 43 (2014-2015) and is currently a member of Millennium’s Board of Trustees.Her research centers on environmental history and politics, historical international relations, international hierarchies and orders, and the development of early international organizationsThe Ideal River is her first book; Joanne’s next project focuses on the history of Antarctica and early outer space exploration.

One question that repeatedly comes up from readers of this book is about its disciplinary identity. On the one hand, this is one of the book’s strengths – it seems to shapeshift across disciplinary boundaries and some of the central conclusions, particularly on the desire to control nature as a marker of a Western-led (imposed) modernity, might have been arrived at from a variety of different disciplinary starting points. On the other hand, this question puzzles me since the book is self-consciously situated in International Relations which is a clear path-dependent consequence of the intellectual riverbeds my own thinking has flown through. Perhaps what they wish to know is how did someone who started her academic life with the ‘Great Debates’ of IR end up contemplating the physical and metaphysical river (especially since I might have gotten ‘here’ more quickly and eloquently from elsewhere). But like all aspects of social and political life, we don’t get to re-run the experiment, and so this book is here, with its IR-warts and all. 

But aside from my own intellectually situatedness, this book is a work of IR because, alongside the three rivers, international institutions are also pivotal characters in my story. Perhaps starting from IR, this point is obvious, and I felt the harder sell was to illuminate my three rivers as worthy protagonists in a story about international order. For this, I might have neglected my other characters. 

International institutions have inspired less poetry than rivers, but what I want to show is that their veneer of technocratic dullness does not mean international institutions are devoid of poetry and the imaginaries that animate our dreams and nightmares of the future. The idea that international institutions or organizations can be purely technocratic and therefore apolitical and infinitely generalizable is as lofty an ideal as a river that is perfectly straightened and a frictionless conduit for global commerce. The ideal international institution does political work in that it prevents us from seeing the deeply ideological content of Harrington’s phrase ‘engineers rule the world’. And my hope is that by pinpointing how imaginaries of specific rivers influenced moments of institution-building at three 19th century diplomatic conferences, I can make some effort towards Harrington’s challenge to show when and how geographical imaginaries work (and save them from being relegated to that positivist dustbin of ‘epiphenomena’). 

The ideal river and the ideal international institution are siblings conjoined at birth, and in constructing the ideal river, we as an international society are also trying to create the ideal international institution – one model built on all past human knowledge and expertise that can ensure peace and security across the infinite variety of human societies. It is the same grand vision that rests on the same totalizing logic and the same certainty that if we are clever enough and have big enough data, we can find a model that fits. Perhaps because the river is more concrete, it is easier to see the violence the ideal river does to actual rivers (and Danewid expresses this perfectly in comparing the caging of rivers to carceral capitalism), but I think equally, we can consider how the ideal institution does violence to everyday, lived institutions that flower around us. In this way, institutions are also assemblages in the way Phull describes the river, and that we can even think of braided institutions, to borrow from Phull’s (and Wall Kimmer’s) lovely imagery where we can imagine distinctiveness and harmony both at once. 

An antidote to the destructive ideal river, Carabelli suggests, is a different way of loving the river. Rather than “projecting, assuming, and directing” the river in an effort to love it through control, Carabelli pushes us to listen, observe, and learn from the actual river to practice a love freed from the need to control. We might also make the same observation about institutions – that we engage in love as control by seeing international politics as solely problems that must be fixed through increased technical expertise. What would happen if we stopped to listen, observe, and learn from the infinite varieties of collective solidarities that have always already populated the international without a desire to fix, control, and master? Perhaps this is a first step towards what the international would look like while immersed in the river. 

And, as Birkvad reminds us, in resisting the ideal river and ideal international institution, we must look both ways in time. It is just as easy to idealize an imagined future of straight lines and modern efficiency as a romanticized past where the river and society are frozen in the gauzy prison of nostalgia. Rivers and institutions interact and evolve, and a controlling love over either might seek to return them to an imagined mythical past. In my recent travels, I met a geographer in New Zealand whose research also focused on the ‘ideal river’, but his project looked backwards as different actors steering current river restoration efforts clashed over what they believed to be the ideal river. This romantic yearning for return, Birkvad warns us, can paper over oppression and injustices, and prevent the river and society from flowing and evolving. The question then, is how to look forward downriver without being ensnared by a singular idealized future, and how to recognize the past upriver without being held prisoner by it.


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