Terra-forming Islands in the South China Sea, or the Future of International Law in the Age of Anthropocene

As per our disciplinary formations, IR scholars often indoctrinate instruct their students with the assumption that anarchy is a constant in international relations. The use of the term, however, generally assumes that there are natural/material constants within the international that transcend central concepts of sovereignty, power, and choice/preference. In other words, the assumption is that anarchy has (material) limits. Even those subscribing to the discursive turn would/might agree that there are material constraints that limit ‘meaning construction.’ We base a number of international laws, norms and regulations on this assumption; there are certain constants that cannot be changed through human actions. Our aspirations, capabilities, hopes, preferences, do not change these constants. What if – and this is a big ‘what if’ – for the time being, we are increasingly wrong about this assumption? What if human ability to transform the earth’s eco-systems has reached a level where this basic assumption no longer holds valid, or as valid as it used to be?


A number of geologists, environmental scientists, and futurists alike have already picked up on this trend. Looking at climate change in particular, they claimed that the earth has entered a new epoch in its life cycle. “We now live in the age of Anthropocene!” these scholars claim. Anthropocene, in this context, refers to the humans’ distinct ability to affect earth’s ecosystems. This claim is disputed, yet many see merit in it. To understand, or reflect, on the implication of the fact that we, as humans, are not the only ‘things’ that matter in this world of ours, you can also look at this amazing post by Audra Mitchell on Posthuman Security.


While in the future we might see the effects of other types of terra-forming and/or bio-engineering in international relations and international law, this post will only look at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the effects of the Chinese pursuits in the South China Sea on the said law. The BBC ran an excellent exposé back in September on the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) pursuit of building man-made islands on the South China Sea and its (intended) effects on the territorial water disputes between the countries of the region. Aside from the amazing medium through which the BBC editors and reporters managed to convey the message, the story itself is equally worth reflecting on for all things international.

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Eurocentrism, Racism: What’s In A Word?: A Response to Bowden, Sabaratnam and Vucetic

The fifth and final post in our symposium on John M. Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: a reply from John himself, responding to the commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett. John’s original summary post is, of course, still available too.

Introduction: All for one and one for all?

I would like to begin by thanking most sincerely my three blog interlocutors for having gone to the trouble of reading my new book, never mind taking the time to write up their extremely thoughtful and interesting blog responses. Of course, the cynic reading all of this might be forgiven for thinking that such a blog forum is hardly a ‘testing environment’ for Hobson’s book, given that his interlocutors are either postcolonialists or at least influenced by postcolonialism and have presumably, therefore, been “cherry-picked” for their potentially sympathetic tendencies. Even the titles that they have chosen, so the cynic might think, would appear to be symptomatic of this, with Meera Sabaratnam’s piece proclaiming – extremely generously I must concede – that my book has succeeded in ‘blowing up the disciplinary citadel of International Relations’, while Srdjan Vucetic’s title projects even further the meaning of the front cover of my book to that which I had intended, suggesting that IR is a ‘foolish discipline’ given his resounding agreement that it suffers from a pervading Eurocentrism. In this vein it might be thought that Brett Bowden’s title – ‘Eurocentrism and More’ – chimes in with yet another wholehearted rendition of the now familiar chorus of ‘IR is a Eurocentric discipline’. So why the fuss about all this and is there much point in reading on? For it would seem that we’re all agreed and there’s nothing to debate, right?

Well no, not quite all for one and one for all. Continue reading

The Citadel Has Been Blown Up. Hurray! Next? A Response to Hobson

This is the second post in a symposium on John M. Hobson’s new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The series began with a post by the author summarising the argument of the book and laying out some provocations for sympathetic readers. In the next few weeks, we will have further posts from Srjdan and Brett Bowden, followed by a reply from John.

Update: Srdjan’s post and Brett’s post are now up.

I was at an IR event last year where the speaker jovially declared that they just did not care about being, and being accused of being, Eurocentric. At the time, I found it both a little shocking and depressing that they could see fit to dispense with that fig leaf of serious acknowledgement that often accompanies discussions of Eurocentrism.  And indeed I thought, glumly, that it perhaps reflected many scholars’ underlying attitudes to the issue – a tokenistic practice of acknowledgement underpinning a wider apathy or disconnection. What only struck me later was also the possibility that the speaker also didn’t really understand the issue which was batted away so carelessly. Indeed, it is unclear that many ‘mainstream’ IR scholars truly understand the problem of Eurocentrism, given the mythologised twin deaths of colonialism and scientific racism in 1945 (or so).


So, Hobson is knocking at the door more loudly, with a bigger stick, and much more paperwork.  Continue reading

A Magical Anti-Rape Secretion

Todd Akin (R-MO) says that doctors told him that women can’t get pregnant from rape. The doctor in question was presumably Onesipherous W. Bartley, whose 1815 A Treaties on Forensic Medicine or Medical Jurisprudence explained that conception:

must depend on the exciting passion that predominates; to this effect the oestrum/veneris must be excited to such a degree as to produce that mutual orgasm which is essentially necessary to impregnation; if any desponding or depressing passion presides, this will not be accomplished. (via)

At least we know how up to date a certain kind of Republican is on the medical literature. Aaron ‘zunguzungu’ Bady offers a less generous, but surely more astute, diagnosis:

The thing about a chucklehead like Rep. Akins is that he doesn’t actually care whether or not women have a magical anti-rape secretion in their body that makes conception less likely. That’s the whole point: his right not to have to worry about it. If you look at his entire statement, for example, you’ll notice that his foray into weird science was tangential to his main point, which was, simply, punish the criminal not the child. And this is more or less orthodox GOP doctrine, which has the hammer of law enforcement and looks for nails: solve the problem of rape by hammering the criminal, and make abortion into a crime, so you can hammer that too. But this simple-minded approach stumbles when it runs into the problem of the rape-victim: how to have empathy for the victim (because “victim’s rights” is a central pillar of the law and order approach) while also criminalizing her if she gets an abortion? How to insulate her choice to get an abortion from the contingency she did not control, and could not have chosen?

As many have pointed out, then, the first imperative is to make it her choice, and therefore her fault. But there’s still he cognitive dissonance of a rape victim forced to have the child of a rapist, something that doesn’t sit at all easily in the mind of a right wing family-and-police; she’s still a problem, and a thorny one. And so, a simple answer, for a simple mind: she does not exist. He argues that the rape victim who is impregnated is a fantasy of people who want to make the whole thing complicated and difficult, with their “ethics” and “problems,” and so he invents a “doctors told me” story to make it make sense, to explain how what seems complicated is actually simple. But the fact that he’s just making shit up, that women’s body’s aren’t Nature’s Own Anti-Rape Kit, is irrelevant; when you believe in the super-sufficiency of simple laws (and in The Law), problem-cases just become nails to be hammered down or ignored, while “facts” are nothing more that the warrant for doing so.


TRIP-ing the Geek Fantastic: A Note On Surveying Disciplinary International Relations

The preliminary results of the 2011 Teaching and Research in International Politics (TRIP) Survey for the US are out (this is a way of saying that if you’re not an IR geek, you’ll likely find what follows boring and/or incomprehensible). As well as feeding into the usual list fetishism for “those looking to run the world” (*barf*), there are also a number of questions pumping faculty for predications, threat listings and popularity contests (turns out Professors of International Relations rate George Bush Snr. as a better President than Obama, but have almost nothing but contempt for young W.).

The self-image of the discipline continues to shift within the American heartland, not least with respect to the Big Other of Realism. The 2009 TRIP Survey recorded the percentage of self-identified Realists among US respondents at 21%, with Liberals at 20% and Constructivists at 17%. Things have progressed some way since then, with only just over 16% now willing to call themselves Realist against a steady 20% of Liberals and a narrowly triumphant 20.4% of Constructivists (and given the rankings awarded to Wendt within the ‘top four scholars’ sections, the shorter TRIPS may be rendered more simply as: ALEXANDER WENDT MADE ME A CONSTRUCTIVIST). Agnostics and Refuseniks together continue to outnumber these main categories with 11.5% naming themselves ‘Other’ and a further 25.7% declining to name any paradigmatic preference (a slight increase, but essentially the same levels as in 2008).

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Reality Mining for Population-Centric Computational Counterinsurgency; Or, Feedback Loops Meet Hermeneutic Circles

Drizzled between the gun battles were occasional accounts of villages stabilized and town elders met. But, written as random notes, the accounts were hard to insert into a database. There was nothing consistent, nothing you could plot as a trend over time.

‘These were intelligence reports, not measurable data,’ the source says. ‘The population-centric information wasn’t to be found there.’

So the team widened their search, without much luck. The most reliable data they could find was weekly fruit prices from Jalalabad, a city in northeastern Afghanistan. At least those could be measured over time.

“One assumed there was some secret mound of data to be exploited. But it’s just not true,” the source adds.

Noah Shachtman, ‘Inside Darpa’s Secret Afghan Spy Machine’

Albright has noted that Iran has material to build only 12,000-15,000 centrifuges, and if 1,000 to 2,000 were destroyed, this would hasten the demise of its stockpile. But his and other organizations have also noted that after the centrifuges were replaced, Iran stepped up its enrichment program and its overall production of uranium had actually increased in 2010, despite any effects Stuxnet may have had.

Stuxnet required an enormous amount of resources to produce, but its cost-benefit ratio is still in question. While it may have helped set Iran’s program back to a degree, it also altered the landscape of cyberattacks…In the end, Stuxnet’s creators invested years and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attack that was derailed by a single rebooting PC, a trio of naive researchers who knew nothing about centrifuges, and a brash-talking German who didn’t even have an internet connection at home.

Kim Zetter, ‘How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History’

These domestic images must be more than simply one more form of distancing, one more way to remove oneself from the grisly reality behind the words; ordinary abstraction is adequate to that task. Something else, something very peculiar, is going on here. Calling the pattern in which bombs fall a ‘footprint’ almost seems a wilful distorting process, a playful, perverse refusal of accountability – because to be accountable is to be unable to do this work.

These words also serve to domesticate, to tame the wild and uncontrollable forces…The metaphors minimize; they are a way to make phenomena that are beyond what the mind can encompass smaller and safer, and thus they are a way of gaining mastery over the unmasterable. The fire-breathing dragon under the bed, the one who threatens to incinerate your family, your town, your planet, becomes a bet you can pat.

Carol Cohn, ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’ (1987)

The ways of thinking embodied in institutions govern the way the members of the societies studied by the social scientist behave. The idea of war, for instance, was not simply invented by people who wanted to explain what happens when societies come into armed conflict. It is an idea that provides the criteria of what is appropriate in the behaviour of members of the conflicting societies. Because my country is at war there are certain things which I must do and certain things which I must not do. My behaviour is governed, one could say, by my concept of myself as a member of a belligerent country. The concept of war belongs essentially to my behaviour. But the concept of gravity does not belong essentially to the behaviour of a falling apple in the same way: it belongs rather to the physicist’s explanation of the apple’s behaviour. To recognise this has nothing to do with a belief in ghosts behind the phenomena.

Peter Winch, The Idea Of A Social Science And Its Relation to Philosophy (1958)

Damage, Reincorporated: A Carbon-Based Author Responds

Paul has produced a couple of highly stimulating posts (here and here) reviewing three books concerned with the contemporary interface between war and technology (Manabrata Guha’s Reimagining War in the 21st Century, James Der Derian’s Virtous War and my own The Scientific Way of Warfare) and that involve both pointed comments on the respective texts and some wider considerations of the challenges posed by the study of present transformations in the exercise of collective violence. With so much to reflect upon, a full post is called for in order to respond to the rich lines of thought suggested by Paul and I will attempt to do so here, however incompletely, by taking on specific comments directed at my own work before offering some brief remarks on its relation to the two other books reviewed.

War is War, PERIOD

Paul points to the limitations inherent to the periodisation I propose and I would accept that, for all the caveats and qualifications I have sought to make, the neatness of the technoscientific typology developed inevitably leaves it open to a range of criticisms. It necessarily occludes or minimises the other influences that have impacted military change, it papers over much of the cultural and historical particularities of national military organisations, and it does not really allow for the ebb and flow of different doctrines that cut across different periods. The empirical evidence supporting such a periodisation is likewise obviously selective and, at their weakest, I think the connections I draw between scientific ideas and military practice are more impressionistic than as thoroughly substantiated as I could have wished. Sweeping as it does through four hundred years of history, the work is unabashedly a much more generalising and grand theorising undertaking than the careful and painstakingly detailed studies into the interplay of technoscience and war that have been produced within the field of science and technology studies on topics such as missile guidance or the origins of cybernetics and therefore may well have fallen prey to some of the pitfalls of such a perilous exercise. At the very least though, I would hope the typology is a useful heuristic device for thinking through various tensions inherent to the organisation and application of military force.

In its more forceful defence however, the typology is not intended to imply that in any given period all contemporaneous ideational and social constructs are ruled by the scientific and technological frameworks of the day (something which my use of the term “technoscientific regime” might unfortunately suggest – I remember agonising a long time over the terminology and never settled it to my entire satisfaction). Rather these frameworks act as pregnant sources of meaning among others but with the particularity that they are endowed with the special prestige granted to scientific rationality in modern societies (science in turn being shaped by its wider cultural and institutional settings). In this sense, the notions of metaphor and resonance I employ point to a much more partial and piecemeal role in the shaping of thought than the episteme presented in Foucault’s The Order of Things and in this more limited regard I think the periodisation continues to stand up quite well.

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