Sovereignty, Sexuality And The Will To Trump: A Queer IR Analysis And Response

In this final post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge, Cynthia responds to her interlocutors. You can read the other posts in the symposium here.


On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States of America. His campaign was marked by extreme racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, and homo/bi/trans*phobias. In light of this election result, I will depart from the usual format for a symposium conclusion, in which I would engage point-by-point with the generous, insightful, critical commentaries of Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh, and Dianne Otto. Instead, I will put the analysis I developed in Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power and the correctives to it offered by the commentators in this symposium to work to address two urgent questions: ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘What is to be done?’.

The argument I make in Queer IR is that sovereignty, sexuality and all political scales from the intimate to the international are inseparable. So, too, are the intersectional ways sex, gender and sexuality function in relation to and through, for example, race, class, ability, religion, ‘civilization’ and colonialities. One cannot understand sovereignty without understanding how sexuality functions intersectionally at every scale, and one cannot understand sexuality without understanding how sovereignty functions intersectionally at every scale. This means my queer IR analysis is never fully distinct from those found in Critical Race Studies, Black Studies, CRIP Studies, and Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies. Yet it always insists on focusing its analytic lens on the function of sex, gender and sexuality, which is not necessarily the case with other critical traditions. As Antke Engel points out in this symposium, my idiosyncratic formulation and articulation of a queer IR has its pitfalls. But, as she and Cyril Ghosh discuss, these choices are what allow me to mobilize queer strategically, especially in relation to the Discipline of International Relations that has long ignored queer scholarship. This neglect of queer scholarship is as much because of how Disciplinary IR conceives of proper contributions to the Discipline as it is to how Disciplinary IR fetishizes particular kinds of IR methods.

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Queer International Relations (V)

The fifth post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is from Dianne Otto. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and responses to it hereimage001

Dianne Otto holds the Francine V. McNiff Chair in Human Rights Law at Melbourne Law School and was Director of the Institute for International Law and the Humanities (IILAH) 2012-2015. Her research, in the field of public international law and human rights law, aims to meld critical legal theory with transformative practice. Dianne’s research covers a broad field including addressing gender, sexuality and race inequalities in the context of international human rights law, the UN Security Council’s peacekeeping work, the technologies of global ‘crisis governance’, threats to economic, social and cultural rights, and the transformative potential of people’s tribunals and other NGO initiatives. She is editor of the forthcoming collection, Queering International Law: Possibilities, Alliances, Complicities, Risks (Routledge 2017). Recent publications include Rethinking Peacekeeping, Gender Equality and Collective Security (co-edited with Gina Heathcote, Palgrave-Macmillan 2014); three edited volumes, Gender Issues and Human Rights (Edward Elgar Publishing, Human Rights Law Series, 2013); and ‘Feminist Approaches to International Law’ in Anne Orford and Florian Hoffman (eds), The Oxford Handbook of The Theory of International Law  (2016).


Cynthia Weber’s ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ takes the reader on a journey of discovery that uncovers the manifold ways that tropes of (homo)sexuality have helped to institute, legitimate, authorize and sustain white, western, civilized, capitalist, (neo)liberal ‘statecraft as mancraft’.[1] She sets out to reveal what happens to our understanding of international politics, and in particular its constructions of state sovereignty, when the variable of sexuality is included in mappings of its relations of power. Along the way, she makes a powerful case for the importance of conversations between queer theory and international relations theory by showing how sexuality works as a fundamental organizing principle in international politics (and, I would argue, in international law as well).

Cynthia searches for, and finds, proliferating figurations of the ‘homosexual’ in international affairs and asks what work these figures are doing, especially in relation to sexualizing sovereign subjectivities, which invest the modern state with authority and legitimacy. Drawing on a somewhat dizzying selection of queer/postmodern theoretical and methodological approaches (beautifully explicated in chapter 2), she shows how these figurations also do work beyond the state to sexualize the formal and informal ways that international relations are arranged, including in regional organizations like the European Union and global security campaigns like the ‘war on terror’.

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Queer International Relations (IV): Queer As Method

The fourth post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is from Cyril Ghosh. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and responses to it here.

Cyril Ghosh is Assistant Professor of Government & Politics at Wagner College and Part-Time Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the Julien J. Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School. He is the author of The Politics of the American Dream: Democratic Inclusion in Contemporary American Political Culture (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013). He is currently working on a book manuscript (with Elizabeth F. Cohen): Key Concepts: Citizenship (under contract with Polity Press, UK).


Cynthia Weber has written a very compelling contribution to the study of queer international relations. In this symposium entry, I intend to identify what – to my mind – are the three biggest achievements of the book. Here, I want to specifically offer some reflections on two figures discussed by Weber: one is the neoliberal, docile, gay, homonationalist patriot – in other words, the ‘good gay’. The second is the figure of Tom Neuwirth/Conchita Wurst, whom Weber sees as a destabilizing persona that lends itself beautifully to reading sexuality and/or the queer into international relations. I will conclude the post with a few remarks on some of the questions the book raises and invites further discussions about.

But I begin with the achievements: first, the book clarifies queer IR as a method in a way that is both urgent and welcome. In doing so, it secures a solid foundation for both future and contemporary scholarship on queer IR. The specific discussions of tropes from Foucault, Sedgwick, Haraway, Butler, Barthes, and others is fascinating to me – especially as a combination of lenses that can be used to refract and pluralize analyses of contemporary IR.

For some time now, we have had a feminist IR movement within the field of IR. But, at the present time, only a handful of scholars examine tropes of sexuality. As Weber correctly identifies, this is because IR scholars and Queer Studies scholars rarely converse with each other. And, in doing so, they leave unexplored much fertile ground of inquiry.

Discourses surrounding despised sexualities of various kinds present themselves in international affairs. In fact, they are ubiquitous. Thus, as Jasbir Puar, Lily Ling, Anna Agathangelou, and others have shown, ‘political’ rivals are routinely presented/depicted using imagery and language predicated on despised sexualities. These depictions can range from the figure of a highly sexualized violent rapist to emasculation (and defeat?) through anal penetration. Analyses of these tropes obviously transcend the field of IR (I am thinking here of Edward Said or Jack Shaheen), but they remain particularly relevant for it.

So, in offering a systematic and yet not reified methodological approach to queer IR, Weber has done, I think, a great service to this nascent subfield. Hers is not the final word on the subject, as she would herself acknowledge. However, the book represents a bold step forward in this line of inquiry.

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Queer International Relations (III)

The third post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge comes to us from Antke Engel. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and responses to it here. engel_72dpi_small_tiller

Antke Engel is director of the Institute for Queer Theory in Berlin, a site where academic debate meets political activism and artistic/cultural practice. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy at Potsdam University and works as an independent scholar in the fields of queer, feminist and poststructuralist theory, political philosophy and visual cultural studies. She has held visiting professorships at Hamburg University (2003/2005), Vienna University (2011), and Alice Salomon University Berlin (2016), as well as a research fellowship at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry Berlin (2007-2009). She has published numerous essays (some of them available at e-flux journal) and two monographs, Wider die Eindeutigkeit (2002) and Bilder von Sexualität und Ökonomie (2009). She has also co-edited Global Justice and Desire: Queering Economy (Routledge 2015) and Hegemony and Heteronormativity: Revisiting ‘The Political’ in Queer Politics (Ashgate 2011).


Reading Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations has been a great pleasure for me, since I strongly agree with her desire expressed in the introduction and elaborated in the last part of the book to carve out a space for plural logoi in queer theory as well as political thinking and international relations. Plural logoi depend on the ability to uphold the simultaneity of and/or (rather than either/or) in understanding social realities as social complexities. Gender, for example, does not necessarily follow the pattern of either female or male, but might come along as female and/or male. You might like to call this transgender; yet, if you prefer to avoid another label (which would, anyway, only return to an either/logic – either female or male or trans), you would instead claim simultaneity or undecidability: ‘both either one thing or another or possibly another while…simultaneously…one thing and another and possibly another’ (196). For Weber this kind of thinking is what undermines the illusionary figure of ‘sovereign man’, which still successfully claims authority in international relations as the basis of all politics.

The argument is by far not as abstract as it may sound. Weber extracts it from a concrete study of figurations of homosexuality in recent political discourses. Her thesis is that two unacknowledged figures, namely the ‘perverse’ and the ‘normal homosexual’ underlie these discourses. These figures matter not only on the level of sexual politics (that is, the way gendered and sexualized subjectivities as well as intimate relations are socially organized, state regulated, and politically contested), but provide the foil against which ‘sovereign man’ legitimates himself as the guarantor of statecraft and international governance. The argument gets even more thrilling when she argues that currently a third figure turns up on the hegemonic political floor, a figure which is simultaneously perverse and normal. The reader gets to know this figure by accompanying Weber in her subtle and most convincing reading of the phenomenon of Conchita Wurst (Tom Neuwirth) winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014, which in its aftermath provoked some of the most interesting, highly contradictory reactions by European journalists, politicians and religious representatives.

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Queer International Relations: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Cynthia Weber’s new book Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge. We kick off the symposium with an inaugural post from Cynthia, followed by replies over the next few days from Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh and Dianne Otto. We will conclude the symposium with a reply from Cynthia. cw-headshot

Cynthia Weber is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.  She has written extensively on sovereignty, intervention, and US foreign policy, as well as on feminist, gendered and sexualized understandings and organizations of international relations.

UPDATE (22/11/2016): a response from Joan Cocks.

UPDATE (23/11/2016): a response from Antke Engel.

UPDATE (24/11/2016): a response from Cyril Ghosh.

UPDATE (25/11/2016): a response from Dianne Otto.

UPDATE (27/11/2016): a response from Cynthia Weber.


What is ‘homosexuality’? Who is ‘the homosexual’? Queer Studies scholars have long engaged with these questions, as well as with a vast array of additional questions about gender variant, gender non-conforming and gender expanding people. They have done so not to answer these questions but to trace how what Michel Foucault calls the will to knowledge about ‘homosexuality’ and ‘the homosexual’ drives various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, techniques of medicalization, psychologization, and (self)disciplinization, Queer Studies scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ subjectivities are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sexes, genders and sexualities, which they read intersectionally through (amongst other things) race, class and ability. What Queer Studies scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sexualities is a specifically sovereign will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see, for example, Berlant’s work on sovereignty).

International Relations (IR) scholars, in contrast, regard sovereignty as among their core concerns. This leads them to pose an alternative set of questions in their research, including: What is ‘sovereignty’?; Who is (the always presumptively male, masculinely-engendered) ‘sovereign man’?; and What arrangements of national and international politics does ‘sovereign man’ authorize? Foucauldian and other social constructivist and poststructuralist IR scholars ask these questions not to answer them but to trace how the will to knowledge about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sovereign man’ drive various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, the social construction of nation-states as sovereign, justifications for intervention in the name of sovereignty, and sovereignly-authorized international economic distributions of wealth, these IR scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ international subjectivities and international orders are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sovereignty. What IR scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sovereignty is a specifically sexualized will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see Peterson’s work).

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Trumped: Beyond the Whitelash

The election of a manifestly incompetent, billionaire bigot as president of the USA has come as a shock to many people, as indeed it should, and a vigorous debate has emerged over the causes. Many progressives, rightly horrified by the vile, nativist and sexist rhetoric of Trump’s campaign, seem to be concluding that it is this rhetoric that explains his success. Trump’s victory – enabled above all by white men – exposes the appeal of retrograde sentiment on gender – because voters rejected a highly-qualified woman for a self-declared ‘pussy-grabber’ – and race – since his supporters endorsed or at least disregarded his intensely racist rhetoric and policy pledges. Trump’s win thus expresses a ‘whitelash’ – a vile defence of threatened, white, male privilege. However, while sexists and racists undoubtedly supported Trump en masse, this thesis cannot explain how he was able to win. Indeed, it distracts attention from the most glaring cause of the outcome: the rot at the heart of America’s democratic system in general and of the Democratic Party in particular.

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When White Men Rule The World

A shorter version of this post appears at the Oxford University Press blog. It was invited – if that’s the right word – some months ago as a tie-in with the new edition of The Globalization of World Politics. Obviously, I was planning on writing about questions of imperial feminism and intersectionality. Things didn’t turn out that way. Apologies for repetition of good sense already promulgated elsewhere, and for the inevitable commentary fatigue.


Donald Trump

If Hillary Rodham Clinton had triumphed in last Tuesday’s presidential election, it would have been a milestone for women’s political representation: a shattering of the hardest glass ceiling, as her supporters liked to say. Clinton’s defeat in the electoral college (but not the popular ballot, where she narrowly triumphed by about 640,000 votes at last count) is also the failure of a certain feminist stratagem: namely, the cultivation of a highly qualified, centrist, establishment (and comparatively hawkish) female candidate, measured in speech and reassuringly moderate in her politics. But the victory of Donald Trump tells us just as much about the global politics of gender, and how it is being remade.

The election itself was predicted to be the most divided by sex in US history. Polls from a few weeks before the election had Clinton’s lead among women at the highest level for a presidential candidate since records began in 1952. A widely shared meme celebrated the trend and declared that “women’s suffrage is saving the world”. Activists from the ‘alt-right’ (a conglomerate of neo-Nazis, xenophobes, men’s rights types, lapsed libertarians and professional agitators) trolled in response that the 19th amendment should be repealed. Time called the election a ‘referendum on gender’; The New Yorker a question of ‘manifest misogyny’.

if-just-men-and-women-voted-meme

In the end, the politics of race mediated the politics of gender: white women were by many leagues more comfortable with Trump’s candidacy than women of colour. As Kimberlé Crenshaw pointed out on Wednesday morning, the claim for a singular female worldview – one that could be mobilised to ordain Clinton ‘Madame President’ – collapses under the pressure of other cross-cutting histories, interests, and ideologies (the idea that women share a common political perspective has of course been under attack within feminist theory for many decades). As has now been much rehearsed, NBC’s exit polls measured a 10% lead for Trump among white women, and an almost 20% lead amongst white women between the ages of 45 and 64. By contrast, CNN data indicated that 94% of black women voted for Clinton. Opinions now vary on how much blame to apportion suburban white women, or what have been called ‘Ivanka voters’, for the result. Somewhat confoundingly, Pew Research finds that the overall gender gap was indeed larger than in the last presidential elections (with women leaning Democrat). In either case the most significant shifts took place within the cohort of white voters (in favour of the Republicans).

And yet the power of race and racism in deciding the election should not be taken to mean that gender is irrelevant after all. As predicted, it was white men who voted for Trump in the greatest numbers. Trump is moreover symbolic of, and personally implicated in, a resurgent strain of misogynistic thinking: regularly dismissive of the intelligence and professionalism of women, speaking about them as sex objects or harridans, and fuelling conspiracy theories and denialism over sexual assault. And although the collapse in the predicted female vote for Clinton is surprising, it is at the same time no novelty to observe that women may also disqualify a politician on the basis of her sex – for example, in setting higher standards for female than male candidates, in believing that only men are aggressive enough for politics, or in judging women more harshly on their appearance and demeanour.  Continue reading