Rising to the Challenge: Critical IR in the Corbyn Moment

David WearingA new post in our loose series on left foreign policy, this time from David Wearing. David is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he specialises in UK foreign relations in the Middle East. David is author most recently of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters To Britain (Polity, 2018), reviewed in a recent issue of the LRB, and of many interventions on the arms trade, the war in Yemen, and the Gulf monarchies. He is also a frequent commentator at The Guardian.


In the academic field of international relations, up until recently, the division of labour was pretty clear. Some of us were engaged in ‘problem solving theory’ and others in ‘critical theory’, as per the distinction famously drawn by Robert Cox.[1] Here, I want to address those friends and colleagues who count themselves in the latter group, arguing that the current historical moment presents us with a unique (perhaps fleeting) opportunity to have a significant impact on British politics and international relations, but one which also demands a willingness to recognise the urgency of that moment, and adapt.

According to Cox’s distinction, problem solving theory ‘takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships’, and looks for patterns or regularities within those parameters. It is a small-c conservative, technocratic approach, suited to advising policymakers on how best to manage the status quo. Therefore, notwithstanding claims made by those who fall under this heading to be apolitical, objective and scientific, problem solving theory has an inescapably political character, attracting those on the right and centre of the political spectrum, and primarily serving those who benefit most from the ‘prevailing social and power relationships’.

Critical theory, by contrast, ‘does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing’. As such it attracts those further to the left on the political spectrum, for whom the point of interpreting the world is not to manage it better but to change it in fundamental and transformative ways. Under the hitherto familiar division of labour in IR, our task was not to advise policymakers, but step back from and critique the historical conditions within which policymaking takes place: shedding light on what is taken for granted, looking for moments of disruption and crisis in the established patterns, and engaging with those civil society actors who shared our commitment to challenge the ‘prevailing social and power relationships’ head on.

I say ‘the hitherto familiar division of labour’ because we in the UK are now living through precisely one of those moments of disruption and crisis that much of our analysis seeks to identify. Call it ‘the Corbyn moment’, for want of a better term. And if our focus and activities as scholars are defined by our ‘position in…social and political time and space’, as Cox says, and if the present moment is different from the familiar norm, then our focus and activities must surely be different as well.

What is the nature of that moment?
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The Internationalist Disposition and US Grand Strategy

img_3010A guest post from Stephen Pampinella, continuing our occasional series on left/progressive foreign policy in the 21st century. Stephenis Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz. His research interests include US state building interventions, hierarchy in international relations, race and postcolonialism, US grand strategy, and national security narratives. He is on leave from SUNY New Paltz during Spring 2019 and is conducting research on the practice of diplomacy in the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry in Quito, Ecuador.


Alex Colás’ “The Internationalist Disposition” provides an excellent framework for evaluating foreign policy debates in the Democratic Party. The failures of the War on Terror combined with the emergence of economic and environmental threats have led many to engage in a far-reaching reappraisal of US foreign relations based on left critiques. This new approach toward foreign affairs is called progressive internationalism. It attempts to resolve the tension between adopting greater military restraint and remaining engaged in global governance.

But in recent weeks, establishment voices have sought to reassert their control over foreign policy debates by arguing for the necessity of US hegemony and classic liberal internationalist forms of cooperation. Colás’ methodological internationalism illustrates why traditional US foreign policy approaches will fail to provide actual security for ordinary Americans. It also suggests (somewhat counterintuitively) what kinds of grand strategies could do so. A great power concert strategy, in which the United States pursues a balance of power among its rivals while committing to more democratic forms of international cooperation, can best resolve the non-state threats to US democracy generated by its own liberal order.

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The Internationalist Disposition

A guest post, the second in our occasional series on left and progressive foreign policy, from Alex Colás. Alex is Reader in International Relations at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of many pieces on empire and imperialism, social movements, global governance, and piracy. Most recently he is author, with Jason Edwards, Jane Levi and Sami Zubaida, of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System (University of California Press) and, with Liam Campling, of ‘Capitalism and the Sea: Sovereignty, Territory and Appropriation in the Global Ocean’, in Environment and Planning D.


Any credible political movement, the late Peter Gowan used to say, needs to have a programme, a strategy and a tactical arsenal. Progressive or leftist internationalism, in all its diverse expressions, is no exception. But it is precisely this rich variety that advises against associating emancipatory internationalism to a fixed programme or a single strategy, and instead talking of a more general disposition: a standpoint on how the world is, and an outlook on how it might be transformed. For radical internationalists – ranging from Karl Marx to Frantz Fanon; Emma Goldman to Ho Chi Minh –  these include a rejection of transhistorical or naturalised claims to cultural or territorial identity; a focus on the universalising contradictions of modern capitalism; harnessing the democratic potential of the cosmopolitan admixture of peoples, languages, religions and customs, particularly though not exclusively in cities; an unwavering commitment to racial justice and minority rights; an insistence on the need to ‘think globally, and act locally’, and to always chase the avenues of solidarity opened up by the everyday, transnational experience of workers on the factory shop floor,  the ship’s lower decks, the contemporary call centre, the processing plant or fast-food restaurant kitchen.

An internationalist disposition is acquired through political education and mobilised collectively in very different contexts – often in unsatisfactory, weak or marginal ways. It is not an intrinsic quality of this or that class, ideological tendency, cultural community or political organisation; nor is the history of left internationalism everywhere bathed in glory. There are, however, some characteristics to the internationalist disposition, its present expressions and historical trajectory that make it an indispensable component of any democratic response to the global national-populist involution we are currently witnessing.

Reality Bites

Our world is still very much the product of the dual revolutions of the eighteenth-century which saw the advent of industrial capitalism and the consolidation of the national sovereign-territorial state. Internationalism today continues to adopt liberal, hegemonic and revolutionary forms first essayed during that period, and the aspirations to liberty, equality and solidarity still resonate (albeit plainly with different ideological, geographical and cultural inflections) among emancipatory struggles across the world. One of the distinguishing features of left internationalism is that it dreams with sober senses: its cosmopolitan projection is grounded in the practical routines of household, workplace, neighbourhood or community. It has been built on grassroots solidarity campaigns, secondary strike action, international volunteering, refugee support networks and mass boycotts coordinated by explicitly internationalist organisations. Liberal internationalism in contrast has mainly been the product of elite efforts at institutionalising multilateral cooperation; it has never had a broad social base (unless, at a push, one includes more recent and generally passive NGO membership). Hegemonic internationalism for its part has found expression in clearly hierarchical or paternalistic traditions of imperial patronage (like those which brought millions of colonial peoples into Europe’s world wars), or in transnational religious charity. Of course, there has been some overlap between these three forms of internationalism – hegemonic internationalism in particular has adopted both a revolutionary and liberal garb, and the defence of universal human rights for instance has sometimes bound the latter two. But the fact remains that the only genuinely democratic forms of internationalism have historically been of a leftist persuasion – feminist, anarchist, communist, socialist, anti-colonial.  

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Radicals for a Sensible Foreign Policy

James Gillray - Promised Horrors of the French Invasion - Burke, French Revolution, caricature, Gillray

Authoritarianism is globally resurgent. Of that there can be no doubt. The demagoguery club welcomes its latest initiate in the person of Jair Bolsonaro, who promises a “cleansing never seen before in the history of Brazil” against left activists and the ‘communists’ of the Workers’ Party. On social media, a factoid circulates: over half the world’s population now lives under far-right or reactionary regimes.[1] The electoral pattern is by turns terrifying, stupefying, and paralysing. Observers link the new authoritarian populism to anxieties over open borders and open markets, commonly translating into a virulent hatred of migrants and minorities. The limits of socio-economic ‘legitimate concerns’ are discernible not only in the bloody trail of political assassination and domestic terrorism, but in the paranoid fantasies of fascism’s new fanbase: Lula is a certified paedophile, Hillary Clinton is a sex-trafficker, George Soros is a trans rights master-puppeteer, gender theory is Ebola dispatched by Brussels, that sort of thing. It becomes harder with each day to dismiss aficionados of Infowars and Stormfront as mere gadflies on the conservative rump. Are they not more like its ideological engine? Under such conditions, the melancholy science of Theodor Adorno and company retains a certain appeal.

It seems obvious that the new authoritarians are nativist, nationalist, and isolationist. Their ad hoc collaboration predicts the end of liberal global governance (the reputed ‘rules-based international order’), the better to return to 19th century categories. But as Quinn Slobodian has succinctly argued, the current coalitions of the right do not favour direct retreat so much as a new kind of segregated interdependence: territorialised identity politics married to an international division of labour:

“Like Hong Kong and Singapore, these zones would not be isolated but hyper-connected, nodes for the flow of finance and trade ruled not by democracy (which would cease to exist) but market power with disputes settled through private arbitration. No human rights would exist beyond the private rights codified in contract and policed through private security forces… The maxim would be: separate but global.”

To be sure, the alt-reich do not wholly share this ‘free trade’ agenda, but here too paradoxical forms of internationalism are at work. Even in the 1930s, fascists believed in exporting domestic policy, aiming at the establishment of an organicist world order – what the Italian corporatist philosopher Arnaldo Volpicelli called “an internationalist doctrine after so many assertions and celebrations of ultra-nationalism”. Today, identitarian movements coordinate across borders: Nigel Farage lectures to the Alternative for Germany; the professional troll Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (with the faux-everyman ‘Tommy Robinson’ as his alias) enjoys the largesse of America’s extreme conservatives; sieg-heiling half-wit Richard Spencer flounders in his own attempt at a grand European tour. The extent to which xenophobes and neo-fascists desire a new ordering principal for the world is a matter for debate. But the otherwise unstable and provisional national coalitions of the right are strikingly aligned on several fronts, from an indistinct and wildly ahistorical ‘western chauvinism’ to the preeminence afforded to the heterosexual family and its unreconstructed father figure to a penchant for anti-semitic conspiracy tropes. Reactionary international theory is back. Continue reading

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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Living on the Wrong Side of the Redline

On Valentine’s day 2018, Admiral Harry Harris revealed that an evacuation plan for Non-essential personnel and military dependents was being developed for South Korea. A few weeks earlier the public was given a brief preview of this policy when almost-U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, announced that he was dismissed by the Trump administration in part because of his resistance to undertaking an evacuation.  In his words, an evacuation would provoke North Korea and hasten the pace of invasion plans by the White House. Admiral Harris’ testimony before congress confirmed Cha’s incredulity regarding such a plan as he described the unrealistic logistics of moving thousands of American military dependents and potentially hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens residing primarily in Seoul. Adm. Harris’ testimony is not encouraging, particularly in light of Trump’s ominous foreshadowing of a worldthreatening “phase II” if another round of sanctions do not produce complete nuclear disarmament on the part of North Korea.

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From the island of Oahu the response is: what about us? Seoul is 5 to 10 minutes from North Korean retaliation but Honolulu is only 15 minutes further away by ICBM. Where is our evacuation plan? The already unimpressive track record of U.S. nuclear interceptors has been joined by another very public failure of an interceptor test here in Hawai’i. Add to this the lingering collective dread after our mistaken missile alert on January 13th of this year, and we want to know where our militaryassisted evacuation plans are. Unlike South Korea which has thousands of bomb shelters, Honolulu has no approved public bomb shelters. This is a fact reinforced by recent statements by state civil defense authorities recommending that we all shelter in place despite the fact that most Honolulu homes are of wooden construction and do not have basements. We have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, and we have received a taste of what it is like to wait for unstoppable death with those we love most.

What makes our collective vulnerability all the more terrifying is the palpable panic on the faces of our active duty service personnel in our communities, classrooms, and families. They are being told to prepare themselves to die for their country in Korea, are being issued a new generation of body armor, trained for tunnel warfare, and tasked to move the last of the necessary tactical equipment to South Korea. States move B-2 bombers to Guam to send a signal to North Korea. They move body armor to Seoul to prepare for invasion. Here in Hawai`i, we take the Trump administration at its word when they say there is no ‘bloody nose strike’ in the works. That is because we can see a full scale attack is being planned. If this seems unthinkable on the mainland, consider how often you have said Donald Trump’s behavior was unthinkable just before he proved you wrong.

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The End of The Hague Yugoslavia

The Hague campus of Leiden University today hosted the “Final Reflections” symposium of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Everyone from the institution showed up: current and past presidents, current and past judges as well as ad hoc judges, current and past prosecutors, media officers and archivists, plus a bunch of guests—gender advisors, professors, judges from other courts, and so on. Even the president of the International Criminal Court (ICC) spoke at the last panel. This was not a mere stock-taking exercise “between a variety of stakeholders,” says the agenda.  Rather, it was an opportunity for said stakeholders to reflect on the ICTY’s legacy, ideally via a set of “short but emphatic statement[s] on the importance of international criminal courts and tribunals – particularly in today’s political climate.”

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