Is it Time to Abandon International Interventions and International Relations? A Response to Sabaratnam

This guest post, from Megan Mackenzie, is part of our symposium on Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention. Meera’s opening post, with links to the other contributions, is here. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention!


Megan MackenzieMegan Mackenzie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research is broadly- and humbly- aimed at reducing and, eventually ending war; it bridges feminist theory, critical security studies, and critical/post development studies. Megan has contributed research on topics including sexual violence in war, truth and reconciliation commissions, military culture, images and international relations, and women in combat.

 


When I was briefly living in Sierra Leone I was invited on a boat trip off the coast of Freetown with a range of women, including a translator at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a “high-ranking” official within the World Bank who was visiting for three days, a photographer, and a “low-ranking” UN staffer. At one point on the boat trip, we passed what is known as Kroo Bay or Kroo Town, one of the largest “slums” in central Freetown. The Nigerian World Bank official clucked her tongue, seemingly irritated, and said “things just don’t get better here – I don’t get it.” The rest of us sat in silence, including the local male boat driver, who may in fact have lived in the area. This woman was not asking why things “don’t get better,” what “better” might look like, or for responses from those of us in the boat – not least from the driver, who was silent the entire trip. She was making a declaration: “things just don’t get better”, period.

I’ve often thought back to this trip and wondered what this woman did for the rest of her three-day visit to Freetown and what other “poor” country she visited afterward. This small interaction remains a signal to me of two endemic features of both international intervention and international relations. First, it is easy to ask silly questions and draw simple conclusions when you are sitting in a boat looking into a community from the outside. In this story, we were a group of privileged women floating by Freetown. Similarly, I often think of the “discipline” of International Relations (IR) as this boat. IR scholars rely on the stability of “established” knowledge and approaches from which to ask questions and observe “the international.” Second, the encounter signalled the complex relationship between “interveners” and “locals.” The World Bank official was objectively the most powerful person in the boat. Her confidence was impressive, yet she asked no questions, stuck to her set research and work agenda, made many assumptions, and dismissed the local Sierra Leonean as an ignorant worker who should, and did, remain silent. When it comes to powerful IR scholars and approaches, I still can’t help but see the comparisons.

boat

Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique calls out IR scholars for continually floating by “case” countries and concluding, with a “tsk, tsk”, that “interventions keep failing”. What is remarkable and inspiring about Sabaratnam’s contribution is the way she weaves several rich intellectual contributions together. First, she makes the case that existing work on international interventions (including critical, “edgy” work) conducts uninspired, repetitive, and theoretically light analyses that ignore the history of intervention and its roots in imperial, racist logics. Second, Sabaratnam speaks back to the discipline of IR by mapping out IR’s commitment to a) Eurocentrism, b) “core” approaches, c) a laughably generous reading of its own history. Sabaratnam argues that these features of IR limit the study not just of international interventions, but of – well, international relations. In other words, Sabaratnam reminds us of the ways that IR scholars remain fiercely committed to a discipline that is parochial, provincial, and often unhelpful in understanding global politics. In short, IR often doesn’t help us understand international relations. This echoes Ann Tickner infamous conclusion: “International Relations is neither international nor relational.”

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Intervention, Protagonismo and the Complex Sociology of Difference: A Response to Sabaratnam

This post is part of a syposium on Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention. Meera’s original post, with links to the other contributions, is here. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! [Photo selection – LJ]


amyAmy Niang is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her research is informed by a broad interest in the history of state formation, peace and conflict, and Africa’s international relations. Her work has been published in Alternatives, Politics, African Studies, Journal of Ritual Studies, African Economic History, Afrique contemporaine and many edited collections. Her forthcoming publications include “Rehistoricising the sovereignty principle with reference to Africa: stature, decline, and anxieties of a foundational norm”, in Zubairu Wai and Marta Iniguez de Heredia (eds.) Bringing Africa “Back In”: World Politics and Theories of Africa’s Nonfulfillment (Palgrave Macmillan).


A Methodology of Critique

In Decolonising Intervention, Meera Sabaratnam shows how putatively critical perspectives in the intervention literature are not immune to complacency, in part because of an obsession with the intellectual endeavour for its own sake, and their tendency to revisit “the genealogies, contradictions and trajectories of intellectual traditions associated with the West” (p.23) as the key object of intellectual concern. Such conceptualisations of intervention often paper over, if they don’t ignore or invisibilise people as targets of intervention.

Often justified by methodological rationales based on flawed assumptions, these accounts reproduce, intentionally or unintentionally, very bad habits. By doing so, they reinforce the status of Western agency “as the terrain – or ontology – of the political” (p.25). But one’s methodological choices are inseparable from one’s ontological commitments, and therefore one’s political and ideological outlook. Sabaratnam uses a multidimensional, decolonial approach, beginning and ending with ethnographic and empirical recalibrations that are attentive to the life-worlds of targets of intervention, a methodology often scorned in international relations scholarship for its lack of “objective” scientificity.

mario_macilau

Mario Macilau, A Falha Humana (human failure), 2014

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The Limits of Decolonising Intervention: A Response to Sabaratnam

This post is part of a syposium on Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention. Meera’s original post, with links to the other contributions, is here. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention!


Postcolonial/ decolonial research seems to be entering into what might be called a “second generation”, moving past early, de-constructive critiques of the IR discipline as racist and colonial, and into showing the “value added” of a decolonial approach in studying concrete problems in international politics. Decolonising Intervention is an important contribution to this effort.

Sabaratnam’s basic argument is quite straightforward. Like many critical scholars of intervention, she documents multiple failures of Western statebuilding interventions (SBIs) to resolve the problems they (allegedly) seek to address. Unlike them, however, she attributes these recurrent failures – persistent, despite widespread acknowledgement, even among interveners, and within a gargantuan “lessons learned” literature – to the “colonial” structure of global politics. Put simply: Western donors feel superior to the targets of intervention, and so simply cannot learn from their mistakes. They are obsessed with their own starring role (protagonismo), making them congenitally incapable of deferring to their targets’ concerns, ideas, knowledge or demands. They garner the lion’s share of donor funds, scarcely caring if interventions work or not, implicitly seeing targets’ time and resources as “disposable”. Dependent recipients have little choice but to engage, or lose what resources are offered.

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Of Privileged Viewpoints and Representation of Subordinated Experiences: A Response to Sabaratnam

This guest post, from Marta Iñiguez de Heredia, is part of our symposium on Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention. Meera’s opening post is here. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! [Photo selection – LJ]


person_boxMarta Iñiguez de Heredia is a Marie-Sklodowska Curie Fellow at the Institute Barcelonaof International Studies. She holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She has taught at the University of Cambridge, the LSE, Rouen Business School, Deakin University and La Trobe University.  Her research concentrates on the historical sociology of peacebuilding processes, with a focus on the relationship between order, violence, state-making and resistance, and on Africa in particular. She draws on historical sociology, critical Africanist and practice literatures, as well as on extensive fieldwork. Current research is focused on EU’s peacebuilding policies, the militarisation of peacebuilding and political transitions through the emergence of African social movements.


In his opening chapter of The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe states that a very basic question animating the book is “to what extent can one speak of an African knowledge, and in what sense?” (p.88) By unearthing what he calls African gnosis (“structured, common, and conventional knowledge”), Mudimbe seeks to explore the conditions of the possibility of knowing Africa otherwise; that is, outside the colonial library, that body of knowledge that keeps negating all that Africa is by constructing it as the ultimate other of Europe. What Mudimbe incisively captures is the politics of knowledge whereby, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o puts it, “how we view ourselves, our environment even, is very much dependent on where we stand in relationship to imperialism in its colonial and neo-colonial stages.”

Decolonising Intervention theorises intervention from the perspective of relations of race and empire. Through the case of Mozambique, the global colonial structure of power is revealed not just in how interveners put in place programmes that debilitate state institutions, go to waste, or do not address actual material needs, but also in how the literature has theorised intervention so far. The “habit” of disregarding the historicity and politics of subjects and of thinking from the West is directly linked to how hierarchies of being and having are reproduced. Decolonising Intervention not only helps us looking at intervention in critical, decolonial ways, it also makes a crucial contribution to taking IR out of its colonial, Eurocentric origins and turning it into a critical tool for social change. This is all the more compelling due to the rich and nuanced theoretical framework it uses, by the detailed, impressive and thorough empirical research it draws upon, and by the refreshing writing style that makes the pages flow. Continue reading

Decolonising Intervention: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things‘ own founding contributor, Meera Sabaratnam, has published her first book: Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique, with Rowman and Littlefield International. We are delighted to host a symposium on the book, starting with Meera’s opening post, and to be followed over the next week or so by reviews from Marta Iñiguez de Heredia, Lee Jones, Megan Mackenzie, Amy Niang and Olivia Umurerwa Rutazibwa, and a final response from the author. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! The book is available as an Open Access free PDF download here. -LJ


Cover of the book Decolonising Intervention, which features the former Governor's house on Ilha de Moçambique, now a museum, plus a rusting colonial lamp-post

Things look different depending on where you stand.

This is a simple proposition, but one which, if pursued a little further, deeply challenges dominant approaches to social science, many of which are premised on ignoring or denying the partial character of the social-scientific gaze.

I don’t disagree with the ambition per se of attempting to open up our own understanding of a phenomenon through deep and wide-ranging research; indeed this is what I love about being a scholar. Furthermore, just because things look different depending on where you stand, does not mean you cannot learn more about something, or learn to understand it better. I do not reject the possibility of a better and wider understanding just because points of departure are always partial.

Yet, the first step for studying complex social phenomena must be a recognition of and a grappling with this proposition.

Beyond this, various feminist, anti-colonial and Marxist thinkers have advanced a further proposition: that power relations can be better understood when you look at them ‘from below’, i.e. from the perspective of the disempowered parties.

This stems from the idea that relations of power put different cognitive demands on people by virtue of that relationship.

Grizelda cartoon

Patricia Hill Collins for example points out that domestic labourers must acquire an intimacy both with the ways of thinking of their employers/masters, and with their own sense of how to navigate and survive in this system.

And W.E.B. Du Bois famously drew attention to what many continue to call ‘double consciousness’ – that is, the idea that African-Americans had to apprehend and negotiate the racist negations of mainstream American society, whilst simultaneously cultivating a distinctive intellectual tradition rooted in historical and contemporary attempts at flourishing.

If they are right, then scholars engaging with relations of power from any field of study – and particularly in the field of ‘political science’ – should be especially interested in the perspectives and experiences of the relatively disempowered as a point of departure for analysis. Continue reading

Reply

In this final post in our symposium on  Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History: Divorcing International Relations Theory from the State and Stage Models, Laust responds to his interlocutors.

You can read the other posts in the symposium here.


It is a rare privilege to be afforded the time to reflect on the characteristics of social relations across history, and moreover to have those ideas published. It is even rarer to have such an outstanding group of scholars respond to those ideas. I am truly humbled and thankful, and my comments should be read in this light. In the spirit of academic debate, I will discuss where I disagree with some of the contributors’ observations, and where they may have misinterpreted parts of my argument. However, to paraphrase Yale, I generally think that there is more that unites us than divides us. I am so happy that they all see the value of the book as an intellectual project, and that most of them agree with the general thrust of my argument, of course with several important qualifications. Let me also extend a special thank you to L.H.M. Ling and Hendrik Spruyt who participated in the 2017 ISA roundtable that inspired the present symposium, but who were nevertheless prevented from contributing to the latter.

It is not possible to respond to all of the contributors’ individual concerns. Therefore, I will attempt to address those that I believe are the most significant and those that are shared by several of the them. This should by no means be read as a diminishing of the force of those arguments passed by. Hopefully I will get an opportunity to respond to those arguments in person or in a different forum.

Probably the most important issue to settle is the status of functionalism in my book. This is because it is the basis for the alternative theoretical framework I propose, and for what we can achieve with it. It is also an issue with a substantial room for misinterpretation, because my functionalism is of a specific kind. While most of the contributors seem sympathetic to my critique of the state and stage models, several are nevertheless concerned about different aspects related to functionalism. Continue reading

The Report of the Death of ‘Polities’ was an Exaggeration: Comments on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History

This is the fourth comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Benjamin de Carvalho. Benjamin  is a senior research fellow at NUPI. His research interests are, broadly speaking, between three fields: He works on issues of broader historical change such as the formation of the nation-state in Europe, sovereignty, and the role played by confessionalization and religion.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


Laust Schouenborg invited me to take part in this symposium on his latest book, a request I was thrilled to accept, given that the book had for some time already been on the list of books I wanted to read. Having now read and engaged with Schouenborg’s work, I am very glad I accepted.

International Institutions in World History (IIWH) is an ambitious and thought-provoking work, which I would recommended to any scholar of IR seeking to understand not only the world beyond the state, but also our current predicament. I found his emphasis on social institutions stimulating and on the whole convincing, and really believe he is onto something. That being said, as he himself concludes, the book marks the beginning of an endeavor rather than its end. And as is the case with any broad claim, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Schouenborg’s three cases, while illustrative of his claim about the “universality” of his institutions, nevertheless leave something to be desired. Granted, nomad Central Asia, Polynesia, and the Central African rainforest are pretty much as remote places as one could have picked to engage on such a trip of discovery from New York and Roskilde. And if his framework of international institutions can be found (or even be useful in analyzing) there, then they must be at least fairly universal, is the thought. But then again, while illustrating their occurrence, their utility to the analyst is to me still a bit unclear. While it does structure his accounts, it seems to me that the analysis could have been brought further. Furthermore, for the whole framework to knock out the state (or polities, for that matter) altogether, the book would also have had to tackle some more common cases and demonstrate its utility by superimposing the findings to those of other works in a more sustained and systematic way. Continue reading