Fantastic Mr President: The Hyperrealities of Putin and Trump

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 21.56.56This is a guest post by Maria Brock. Maria is about to commence a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies and the School of Cultural and Critical Theory at Södertörn University (Stockholm). She has a PhD in Psychosocial Studies from Birkbeck and has perviously published on the role of negative affect in reactions to the case of Pussy Riot, and the status of memory objects and ‘museums of the everyday’ in the proliferation of post-socialist nostalgia.


In July 2016 – more than 15 years into his time in office – Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s approval rating was at 82%, a figure made all the more remarkable by the fact that the country is experiencing a palpable and lengthy economic downturn. Some commentators have favoured an explanation that treats this as proof that a larger-than-life president is more in line with ‘what Russians want’, as Putin “satisfied a yearning for a strong leader who could make the Russian family proud”. However, concretising a Russian ‘national desire’ is less than helpful if we seek to understand the reasons behind Putin’s continued popularity. Equating a historical past with an inherent propensity to follow strong-men is an exercise in oversimplification, as it treats nations and groups as essentially static, prone to repeat the same historical patterns over and over again. Similarly, a focus on the more overt parallels with the earlier ‘Cults of Personality’ neglects the fact that the underlying ‘conditions of possibility’ that produced the two phenomena are different. Such comparisons also fail to explain the appeal of similarly larger-than-life politicians in countries with a longer democratic tradition. Clearly, an emphasis on national psychological propensities is not productive. Instead, an analysis of the appeal of such leader figures that taps into less conscious mechanisms is worthwhile. By simultaneously looking at the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s remarkable rise, a number of parallels pertaining to the creation of their public personae become apparent. In fact, such an analysis can serve to illuminate overarching principles structuring the successful creation of their outsized public personae.

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The popular support these politicians attract demonstrates that they hold a kind of libidinal appeal that should not be underestimated, lest we render a large part, if not the majority, of a country’s population politically incompetent. While one cannot discount the real inequalities, as well as the real and imagined grievances that opened up the space for less established political figures to gain support, it is nevertheveless worthwhile to examine why these particular kinds of candidates hold such appeal. Their reliance on spectacle and well-orchestrated exploits which combine the hypermasculine with the hyperreal enabled them to set in motion processes of identification that transcend the need for a coherent, well articulated political agenda. Instead, while seeming unsubtle to the point of being crass, they simultaneously operate on a more subliminal level, remaining oblique enough to become conduits for the electorate’s personal hopes and grievances. While this piece centres on the representational mechanisms employed by Vladimir Putin and his team of PR advisers, it is possible to identify a number of parallels with other contemporary leader figures – chief among them Donald Trump – each of whom appears to rely on a kind of hypermasculine charisma to suture a political field that is otherwise characterised by cynicism towards established politics.

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White World Order, Black Power Politics: A Symposium

vitalis-e1458738905580This is the first post in the symposium on Robert Vitalis’s, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). Professor Vitalis (who also answers to ‘Bob’) teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt, was published in 1995. His second book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, published in 2005 was named a book of the year by The Guardian. He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2009), Rockefeller Foundation (2003), the International Center for Advanced Study, NYU (2002), the American Council of Learned Societies (2002), and the MacArthur-SSRC International Peace and Security Program (1998). He was a MacArthur Award nominee in 1998. Below is his introduction to our symposium.

*Update*

Naeem’s response is here; Nivi’s is here and Srdjan’s is here.


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White World Order, Black Power Politics may well be the only book discussed in this symposium series that isn’t primarily concerned with theory, or at least the only one by an author who does not self identify as a theorist, teaching in a department that does not recognize what I do as “IR.”  It is also less an intellectual history, which might allow it to pass as theory, than it is an institutional history. So I am grateful for the interest in it here.

28522646._UY1280_SS1280_That said, it is indeed a critical history. The records of professors, schools, research organizations, and foundations in the early twentieth century United States reveal a past that bears scant resemblance to the “practitioner histories” or insider accounts of great debates invented about the discipline of international relations in the second half of the century, which are the ones most specialists tell themselves and their students until now. In fact, the more I learned and labored in the archives the more I came to see the problem as similar to the one I wrestled with in my last book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. The history that U.S. oil companies invented after World War II about their early and unshaken commitment to a “partnership in progress” with the Saudi people, at a moment when criticism of U.S. imperialism was on the rise in the Eastern Province and across the globe, is the one that books repeated uncritically for decades. The firms’ private records though revealed a dramatically different reality. I developed an account of the exploitative order in place in the oil camps, the racial science that justified it in the minds of the American engineers and managers, and the failed efforts of Arab and other workers to bring about its end. I likened what I did in that book to “reverse engineering” particular processes of mythmaking. I’ve done more or less the same thing for a sector of the U.S. academy in White World Order. Continue reading

The EU Referendum: Brexit’s Imperial Delusions

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.


haastrupOur next guest contributor is Toni Haastrup. Toni is Lecturer in International Security and a Deputy Director of the Global Europe Centre at the University of Kent. Her current research focuses on: the gendered dynamics of institutional transformation within regional security institutions especially in Europe and Africa; feminist approaches to IR; and the politics of knowledge production about the subaltern. She is author of Charting Transformation through Security: Contemporary EU-Africa Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and coeditor, with Yong-Soo Eun, of Regionalizing Global Crises (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).


One key aspect of the EU referendum debate has been the rise of competing narratives about Britain’s role in the world inside and outside of the EU. On the Brexit side, campaigners argue that escaping the EU would revive Britain’s standing, allowing it to reconfigure relations with Europe, strengthen existing non-European partnerships, and forge new ones. These claims rest on a series of self-delusions about Britain’s capacity to unilaterally set the terms of its international partnerships. Brexiteers willfully ignore those prospective partners who say that a post-Brexit UK would be a less attractive partner. Their narrative seems to rest more on imperial delusions than solid ground – and it is hardly a narrative appropriate for a truly democratic, internationalist country.

A Part of Europe, Apart from the EU: What is Possible?

Pro-Brexit campaigners often suggest that if the UK were to leave the EU, it could fashion a new kind of relationship with Europe similar to the one Norway enjoys. Norway is viewed as a country that has maintained its sovereignty while remaining a close partner of the EU.

But of course, Norway is different. It is a thriving smaller country that is dependent on oil reserves that are much larger than the UK’s. Further, Norway negotiated a very specific entry into the European Economic Association (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). If the UK was to depart, a relationship with the rest of western Europe especially in the context of EFTA is possible, but it is not automatic. Further, a relationship between the UK and other countries that currently exists only in the context of a regional EU relationship will have to be renegotiated, with no guarantee that the UK will indeed be better off outside the EU.

Those in favour of staying within the EU, or Bremain, thus rightly question this narrative as one that is based on uncertainty and the UK’s self-imagining, rather than the realities of the international environment. The idea that Britain would regain its sovereignty way from the EU is a myth whose consequence even the Norwegians warn against.

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Twilight of the Journal Vampire Squid

This was in someone's open access slide show someplace, but the name, and therefore the credit, escapes me.

This was in someone’s open access slide show someplace, but the name, and therefore the credit, escapes me.

I have a piece up at e-IR today returning to the question of open access. It is partly an introduction to the issues, partly a manifesto on why academics should take the digital commons more seriously. But it is mainly intended as a provocation for the discipline (proto-discipline, non-discipline, borg-discipline, what you will) of IR, and a challenge to the in my view excessive resistance to open access that characterises its upper echelons. To wit:

What is IR’s contribution to the open access movement? Almost nothing, arguable less than nothing. There is no IR equivalent of ArXiV  – the hugely successful online repository favoured by physicists and mathematicians. Nor of PLOS  – the gigantic open access mega-journal suite favoured by hard scientists, which sustains itself on low relative processing charges. Nor of Cultural Anthropology – a learned society journal gone fully open access. No experiment like the Open Library of the Humanities – a new platform-cum-mega-journal funded by a conglomerate of libraries. No appetite for something like Sociological Science – an open access journal with quick review times and low, means-tested article publishing costs. There are a handful of open access IR journals, like Ethics & Global Politics (not to be confused with Ethics & International Affairs), the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and the Journal of Narrative Politics, run largely on goodwill, but they are sadly lacking a disciplinary presence. Publishing in them will not make a career, and is unlikely to impress hiring committees which have an eye to bankrupt measures of quality like the journal impact factor.

Worse still, the discipline of IR has missed opportunities to make itself more open and relevant, all the while fretting over its introversion and lack of relevance. Some of our responses to the open access movement have been sadly conservative and dismissive. New journals like the European Journal of International Security and the Journal of Global Security Studies are run on the standard closed model. Neither the leadership of the British International Studies Association nor the International Studies Association have followed the innovations carved out by colleagues in anthropology, sociology or STEM subjects. And young journals that position themselves as disrupting orthodoxy (such as Critical Studies on Security) have nevertheless emerged under the imprint of familiar publishing houses. While Editorial Boards in other disciplines are considering resignation and boycott to force change on the system, IR scholars are joining an ever-growing list of titles that promote business as usual. Closed journal publishing has become common sense: unquestioned despite its manifest failings.

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Humble/Brag

'Make A Sad Painting Happy', by Karl Habegger,

‘Make A Sad Painting Happy’, by Karl Habegger.

The Disorder Of Things is five. Five years old. Very almost 780,000 views from over 326,000 visitors. 12,000-odd email subscribers (surely some of whom are not bots). Two plastic ducks. An accelerating series of book symposia, the new aural assault of podcasts, a gang of regular contributors (finger-clicking their way, West Side Story-like, through a conference corridor near you), 81 guest spots, and even some official and really real academic products. Along with all our, ya know, blog posts. Popular ones on tele-fantasy politics, bullshit jobs, left solidarity, open access, and bad dissertations. Lesser read ones on Blairite exculpation, humane indexing, and Barry O in Ohio. Everything in between. But then we’re also established cynics on the possibility of capturing the ephemera of quality with the crude tools of quantity, so take that all with a fist of salt.

Blogs are dead, yet we persist, zombie-like, refusing to just let it go. We’ll be eating jelly and ice cream until we throw up to celebrate. Maybe you should too.

The Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and Its Critics

I have a piece out in the latest International Affairs on the UK government’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), better recognised as that thing William Hague did with Angelina Jolie(-Pitt) when he was still Foreign Secretary. As well as an important project in its own right, the Initiative might be read as signalling a new front in ethical foreign policy, and another success story in feminist activism around sexual violence (alongside the rise of ‘governance feminism’ and what have been called ‘femocrats’ in the UN and elsewhere). The role of the UK as a diplomatic and political presence becomes more important still against the background of rising attention to gender in global policy discourse in recent decades (conventionally referred to as the ‘Women, Peace and Security’, or WPS, agenda). Alternatively, the PSVI might be understood as a cause without demonstrable success, already fading from the scene along with Hague, its main advocate. And from either a conventionally Realist or a more radical activist perspective, the chances of a Foreign Office-led policy initiative making any feminist ground would seem slim.

Against this background, and building on a few years of following the Initiative’s progress, I stake out a preliminary analysis of three planks of the PSVI’s work. First, its wholesome embrace of ‘weapon of war’ thesis. Second, the great emphasis on ending impunity as the most effective means to reduce atrocity. And third, the repeated foregrounding of men and boys as ignored victims of sexual and gender-based violence. The headline conclusion is that, despite its promise, the initiative has thus far achieved little on its own technical terms, and its underlying approach to gender violence in conflict is in important senses limited. The conceptual bases of this relative failure lie in an unduly simplistic account of where and why such violence happens and an inability to reckon with the lack of evidence for strong deterrence effects or the significant resource challenges involved in supporting local and national justice programmes. By contrast, the PSVI stands as an important moment in the opening out of policy understandings of gender violence, although there nevertheless remain important ambiguities over ‘gender neutrality’ in practice, and therefore a likelihood of disputes over resources.

Missouri Emancipation Ordinance

The arrival of the Hague-Jolie Initiative onto the WPS scene was unexpected. The Conservative manifesto for the 2010 general election made no mention of wartime sexual atrocity, and was utterly conventional in its references to human rights. UK support for Security Council resolutions aside, activities on sexual violence have historically come from the Department for International Development (DFID), and with the exception of the attention generated during the London summit, the UK government has not made much of the initiative in its public relations since. The PSVI is thus heavily identified with William Hague personally, and can be traced to his epiphany over the role of genocidal rape in Bosnia. Hague, who is also the biographer of William Wilberforce, has framed war rape as similar to slavery in its immorality and argued for the role of the UK as an abolitionist force, repurposing standard diplomatic practice to progressive ends. This is to seek nothing less, in his words, than “the eradication of rape as a weapon of war, through a global campaign to end impunity for perpetrators, to deter and prevent sexual violence, to support and recognise survivors, and to change global attitudes that fuel these crimes”.

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Confronting the Global Colour Line

Race and Racism in IR

Our edited volume Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line has now been published. We asked some of the contributors to give us their thoughts on what has been (both deliberately and unwittingly) overlooked by the discipline of International Relations with regard to questions of race and racism; the challenges posed by (re)centring these vital questions; and how IR may atone for its implication in empire. At your service, Sankaran Krishna, Debra Thompson, Srdjan Vucetic and John Hobson.

What has been the least investigated aspect of race and racism in IR?

Sankaran Krishna

The question makes me want to laugh because to me mainstream IR is all about how not to talk about race and racism while constantly appearing to talk about the relations between different kinds of peoples and countries. I came to IR only at the PhD level. My masters in modern history had acquainted me with the history of colonialism, racism, genocide, man-made holocausts like the Great Bengal famine, the slave trade, and other such events, on a world-scale in the post-Columbian (ie; post-1492) era. In my first IR courses in the United States the focus seemed to be on how can we understand the social world through models that pretend humans are unthinking molecules or inanimate entities. Stuff like Bueno de Mesquita’s War Trap (I kept waiting for someone to tell me that was a joke, like they do on Candid Camera.) It was a few years later that I realized that the penchant for abstract theorization, distaste for historical specificity and woolly stuff like ideology, and fetish for numbers – all voiced in deep manly intonations about analytical rigor – were nothing but an assiduous refusal to face the world in all its racial violence and splendor. In other words it’s the absence of considerations of race and racism that coheres the discipline.

When you widen the frame beyond mainstream IR and include those at the margins – thinkers like DuBois immediately come to mind – and especially take into account writings over the last few decades, the picture is a lot better. From my point of view, there has been a tendency in self-proclaimed dissident literatures to be inadequately critical of the racial conditions of their own emergence: invocations of the Global South or postcoloniality or marginality or the colour line can themselves become fetishized and serve as screens preempting a closer inquiry into racial difference and the consequences of othering. Continually calling out the protean forms in which race and racism manifest themselves historically and contemporarily seems, to me at any rate, a worthwhile vocation.

What is the most important theoretical challenge to IR posed by an engagement with race and racism?

Debra Thompson Continue reading