Decolonising International Relations – some Pedagogical Reflections

This is a guest post by Maïa Pal and Doerthe Rosenow, Senior Lecturers in International Relations, Department of Social Sciences at Oxford Brookes University.  Maïa is working on a co-edited volume for Routledge on The Extraterritoriality of Law: History, Theory, Politics and on a monograph for Cambridge University Press on Jurisdictional Accumulation: An Early Modern History of Law, Empires, and Capital. She is also an editor for the journal Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory. Doerthe has recently published the book Un-making Environmental Activism: Beyond Modern/Colonial Binaries in the GMO Controversy and a series of articles about critique and its limits. 

On 22 February 2018, Dr Meera Sabaratnam, Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at SOAS appeared on the BBC Radio4 Today programme [2.53 onwards] to discuss ‘What is decolonisation?’ and what it means to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. She faced David Aaronovitch, columnist at the Times, who complained about the problem with the word ‘decolonise’, stating it was ‘not the job of university studies to decolonise or recolonise’. Instead, he suggested, universities should ‘think critically’ and not look ‘like a political project’ that imposes a particular view on students. In other words, Aaronovitch claims that a university education should – and can – consist in a neutral, open, apolitical transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the student, and definitely not the other way round. He is shocked at ‘this business of’ students participating in the elaboration of curricula – no pun apparently intended, but Aaronovitch is obviously a natural. His sentiment is amplified by the current 9K fee system because if students are paying so much, they should expect to get a service delivered exclusively by teachers.

The underlying scandal here is that Aaronovitch is actually complaining about teachers whom he thinks are asking students to do their jobs for them – in spite of Sabaratnam reminding him in her introduction that most of university teachers and other professional staff are currently on strike to defend their pensions from being made dependent on the fluctuations of the stock market, which could result in a 25% pay cut. So behind a poorly constructed and intentionally naïve critique of decolonial education as a political project (which surely Aaronovitch himself does not believe in, since he must be well versed in debates about the objectivity and/or neutrality of epistemology stretching back to ancient philosophies, Western and non-Western) is the old conservative refrain of counter-establishment or radical projects being the product of lazy lefties, in this case teachers skiving by getting students to write their syllabi. Continue reading


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.


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 Ecological Indian” and the History of Environmental Ideas

A guest post from Philip Conway, a PhD candidate in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University. His thesis is titled “The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics.” He blogs at Circling Squares and micro-blogs @PhilipRConway.

Cosmological questioning

‘But what about indigenous cosmologies?’ This kind of question is becoming more and more common in debates in International Relations, human geography and other fields. Whether articulated in terms of decolonisation, worlding, ontology, lifeways, cosmopolitics or pluriversality (other terminologies are available), there is a strong and growing conviction that making space for modes of collective existence beyond, besides and despite the hegemonic naturalism of the West is a pressing intellectual and political priority.

Indeed, this is a question that I am asked (and ask myself) on a regular basis. However, it is a more conceptually, ethically and politically complicated question than it may first appear. This essay explores some of these complications in relation to the research project that I am currently embarked upon – namely, a history of how ‘environment’ became a conceptual commonplace of Euro-American scientific, literary and political conversation by around about 1910.

The project investigates how this everyday expression – ‘environment’ – came to be taken for granted and, more to the point, what this tells us about the ways in which we think (or don’t think) about ourselves, the world around us and, in short, how our conceptions contrive to carve things up (and stitch them back together).

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Critique In Hysterical Times

This is a slightly edited version of an essay that was published in The Black Book of FYTA, ed. Athanasios Anagnostopoulos & FYTA (Athens: Nefeli, 2017), 34-40, a collection marking the fifth anniversary of the conceptual audiotextual performance duo FYTA. It was written in February 2017 and revised in April. Think of it as bits of the year gone by. Thanks to FYTA for the invitation to write this, and to Jordan Osserman for useful chats.

In their performance/situation entitled ‘nEUROlogy’, presented at Geneva’s Bâtiment d’Art Contemporain in October 2015, FYTA attempted a far-right medico-theological resuscitation of the European project. The performance was staged in a confined room that FYTA describe as ‘something between the basement of a cult and Clockwork Orange’s reform clinic’—perhaps as apt a description as any of the contemporary European Union as seen from the perspective of its more disgruntled members. In Part I of this triptych, entitled ‘Eden’, FYTA assume the role of the high priests of the European right. Dressed in the red robes of cardinals, they stand before the altar of ‘Europe’, performing the rituals and incantations on which its very sustenance seems to depend. The soundscape of the performance in this segment is revealing in the way FYTA give voice to the utterly banal sentiments of xenophobic nationalists (‘Our environment is our home, our blood is what connects us to the soil, earth is our blood; when we defend our land we defend our blood’) against a disorienting musical backdrop of what sounds like Mongolian throat singing—as if to draw attention to the naturalisation of the arbitrary that is constitutive of all nationalisms. In Part II (‘The Garden’), Europe lies prostrate on a stretcher, covered by her flag. She might be dead, although the beep of machinery suggests life support. Here FYTA appear in the garb of medics who, even as they mill around the patient to no great effect, intone ‘we must remain free’. On the wall hangs a sign that reads ‘Rester Frei!’, the unfamiliar linguistic mashup seeming to gesture at the discontents of Franco-German alliance (or maybe this is just how the Swiss speak). Who killed Europe? On this question the cardinals are unambiguous: barbarians, cultural relativism, immigrants (‘how many people can you fit in the smallest of all continents!’), Islam. On the ground lies a pile of blood spattered posters—mass-produced, as if for a large protest—that read ‘Je suis Voltaire’. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the Anthem of Europe, ushers in Part III (‘Hell’). One thinks of the orchestra of the Titanic playing music to calm the passengers as the ship sinks.

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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

The Whole and Its Parts

This is the third comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Yale Ferguson. Yale is a Professorial Fellow in the Rutgers University-Newark Division of Global Affairs and Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Global and International Affairs.  His publications include 12 books and over 60 book chapters and articles. Among his latest books with Richard W. Mansbach (Iowa State) are Globalization: The Return of Borders to a Borderless World?; A World of Polities: Essays in Global Politics; and Remapping Global Politics: History’s Revenge and Future Shock. He and Mansbach have a new book in progress, War and Political Evolution in the Ancient Mediterranean.

The other posts for this forum are available here.

It is a pleasure for me to take part in this symposium on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History (hereafter IIWH), as it was to read his thoughtful and provocative book. Reviewers are always saying that some study is a must-read or should be on every scholar’s and serious student’s bookshelf. Well, occasionally such accolades are merited, and for those of us interested in IR theory and history, they certainly are in the case of Laust’s book. His is indeed a landmark study, and I not only enjoyed but profited from reading it, not least in considering Laust’s observations about my own work with Richard Mansbach on Polities. Laust has read essentially everything relevant to his concerns, set forth other authors’ positions with care and respect, and then explained how he begs to differ. In this little piece, I hope to do the same for Laust.

There are so many things I like about IIWH that I cannot begin to mention them all, so I will simply list a few specifics and then move on to what I see as central issues in the book as a whole. First, the list:

  1. Laust’s focus is on social institutions seen as “made up of patterned practices, ideas and norms” (emphasis in original). Social institutions are what they do on a regular basis, what ideas sustain them (and they convey), and what they regard (and do not regard) as legitimate behavior.
  2. He looks at social institutions from a multi-disciplinary perspective, including IR, anthropology, archaeology, and historical sociology. He weighs their respective contributions to his subject, mixes and matches what he can from them, and then advances his own distinct theoretical position.
  3. His approach in IIWH is also proudly and even militantly cross-cultural and trans-historical.
  4. The empirical second section of the book is a broad study of “three extreme or marginal historical cases: nomad Central Asia, the Central African rainforest and Polynesia.” Laust has the audacity to suggest that he has gone to those extremes or margins to highlight the “universality” of his four functional categories versus the “limitations” of the “state-based framework” he attributes to almost everyone else, including those advancing “stage” models.
  5. Laust insists, quite rightly, that there is no useful or reasonable basis for labeling the likes of his case-study societies and their institutions as “primitive.”
  6. He boldly maintains that we can and should view “the functional activities relevant to corporate social actors or polities” and their “interactions” as falling into only four basic categories: legitimacy and membership, regulating conflicts, trade, and governance.
  7. Last in this list, I have special reasons for liking Laust’s observations about war in his discussion of “regulating conflict.” He notes that war is often viewed as a “social evil” or at best (like Bull) a “necessary evil” to help maintain order. However, Laust comments: “In many past societies, including the three [that are his cases], war did not always carry a “negative connotation.” “On the contrary, it was often celebrated. Hence, we are “allowed to consider the possibility that war might be the dominant mode of social interaction, so to speak.” In fact, Mansbach and I are currently writing a book focusing on war and polities in the ancient Mediterranean that argues war was the primary driver of political evolution for thousands of years and speculates about how far one can push that connection into the present and future.

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