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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Rebels without a Cause? Safeguarding, Risk and Banality in the Prevent Strategy

A guest post from Charlotte Heath-Kelly, Charlotte Heath-KellyAssociate Professor in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. Charlotte is author, most recently, of Death and Security: Memory and Mortality at the Bombsite, and ‘Survivor Trees and Memorial Groves’ in Political Geography. She is the author of very many other publications on terrorism, counter-terrorism, memory politics and critical security studies, and is currently both an ESRC Future Research Leader and Principal Investigator on a Wellcome Trust project on counterterrorism in the UK National Health Service.


Prevent is a significant part of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy. It focuses on the early detection of radicalisation. The Counterterrorism and Security Act 2015 placed a statutory duty on the public sector (schools, colleges, doctor’s surgeries, hospitals, social services, probation services, prisons) to train staff to notice signs of radicalisation, and make referrals to the authorities. On the 13th December 2018, the third annual instalment of Home Office statistics for Prevent referrals was made public. 7,318 people were referred to Local Authority Prevent boards in 2017/18.[1] Much in the bulletin replicated statistical reports for previous years.  The education sector still refers most people to Prevent (2,426 referrals in 2017/18), and 95% of people referred do not receive deradicalisation mentoring known as Channel support. Yearly reports show us that the vast majority of people referred to Prevent are not judged to actually follow an extreme political or religious ideology, raising serious questions about the quality of referrals.

For those familiar with the Home Office’s statistical reporting, this all made for familiar reading. But, something new was introduced in the December 2018 statistics. A new category was added to describe the ‘type of concern’ presented by each referred person. Alongside commonplace descriptors of ‘right wing extremism’, ‘Islamist extremism’ and ‘left wing extremism’, a new category of ‘mixed, unstable or unclear ideology’ appeared. The Home Office explain that this category has been introduced to reflect those persons which ‘don’t meet the existing categories of right wing or Islamist extremism’. Instead, it reflects the growing number of referred persons whose ‘ideology draws from mixed sources, fluctuates’, or where the individual ‘does not present a coherent ideology, but may still pose a terrorism risk’. Up to 38% of referrals in 2017/18 were grouped as ‘mixed, unstable or unclear ideology’.[2]

At this moment, we reached a threshold in the history of terrorism and counterterrorism. By endorsing a conception of radicalisation without ideology, the Prevent Strategy has jettisoned a major component within almost all definitions of terrorism: its ideological motivation and political character. The ‘politicality’ of terrorism is seldom adequately defined, but provides the boundary which separates political violence from criminal or pathological violence. Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman analysed 109 definitions of terrorism used by officials and academics. They found that its ‘political’ nature appeared in 65% of those definitions – making it the second most common feature in terrorism definitions, after the quality of ‘violence/force’. The ideological motivation of militants is thought to be an important component of terrorism because violence is deployed with communicative intent. Interviews with ex-militants have shown that they deliberately use violence alongside propaganda to threaten the state’s monopoly on force – weakening the Leviathan image of the state and encouraging societal rebellion. Continue reading

A Faustian Special Relationship

Donald Trump has a thing for rebuking America’s democratic allies and their leaders—his latest target being Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. The UK appears to be an exception to this trend. In his first interview with the British press as president-elect, Trump explained that the UK has a “special place” in his half-Scottish heart and pledged to support a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal. Reportedly a big fan of Winston Churchill—and of Boris Johnson’s Churchill Factor—he also asked the UK government to loan him a Churchill bust that his Republican predecessor George W. Bush kept in the Oval Office.

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Citizens Of Nowhere

In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party conference, Theresa May threw down a gauntlet:

…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

For anyone wondering who or what met the cut, May was helpfully expansive, populating this rather arcane placeholder with the figures of the boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after his staff, the international company that eludes the snares of tax law, the ‘household name’ that refuses cooperation with anti-terrorist authorities, and the director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust. Basically, fat cats with the odd public intellectual thrown in. May contrasted the spectre of the rootless cosmopolitan with the ‘spirit of citizenship’, which, in her view, entailed ‘respect [for] the bonds and obligations that make our society work’,theresa-may ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you’, ‘recognizing the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas.’ And perhaps astonishingly, for a Conservative Prime Minister, May promised to deploy the full wherewithal of the state to revitalize that elusive social contract by protecting workers’ rights and cracking down on tax evasion to build ‘an economy that works for everyone’. Picture the Brexit debate as a 2X2 matrix with ideological positions mapped along an x-axis, and Remain/Leave options mapped along a y-axis to yield four possibilities: Right Leave (Brexit), Left Leave (Lexit), Right Remain (things are great) and Left Remain (things are grim, but the alternative is worse). Having been a quiet Right Remainer in the run-up to the referendum, May has now become the Brexit Prime Minister while posing, in parts of this speech, as a Lexiter (Lexiteer?).

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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

Bernie Sanders For Commander-In-Chief

Jesse headshotA timely guest post from Jesse Crane-Seeber. Jesse  grew up in the woods of Ithaca, New York where he graduated from a democratically run public alternative high school. After a BA in “Resisting Hegemony” (a major of his own design) at Ithaca College, he earned a Ph.D. in International Relations at American University.  His dissertation ‘Making War’ analyzed the occupation of Iraq in terms of how U.S. soldiers’  negotiated and made sense of their surroundings, their missions, and the people they tried to help and/or harm. His research involved participant observation, living with military families, analyzing official documents, and sifting through hundreds of hours of soldier-uploaded video content. He teaches at North Carolina State University, and is currently finishing Fifty Shades of Militarism, a study of the fetishization of all things military in the contemporary United States. The views in the post are those of Jesse Crane-Seeber as a private citizen and do not reflect those of North Carolina State University. Obviously.


“coming of age during the plague
of reagan and bush
watching capitalism gun down democracy
it had this funny effect on me
i guess”

– Ani DiFranco, Your Next Bold Move

In recent months, the United States has seen a substantial rebellion against Hillary Clinton’s status as heir-apparent of the Democratic Party. Combined with the contemporary Republican Party’s confusion about whether to embrace regime change, free-trade, or multilateral institutions (even those like NATO that secure US hegemony in the world), the current election cycle offers US voters an unusual set of choices that may not be fully appreciated by those caught in the horse race and name calling of an expensive election.

It is normal to be cynical about what any individual nation can do, never mind a particular leader. Technological change, ecological collapse, international regime complexes, not to mention economic activity, all help explain the limits of what any nation can do. But the President of the United States is not a generic national leader. As the chief architect of the post-World War II political and economic order, the US retains outsized influence, even as we reach peer-peer levels of economic output with the EU and China.

While Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders voted alike 93% of the time they were both in the Senate, the contrast in how they might impact global politics is much, much larger. One oft-repeated critique of Sanders has been his lack of foreign policy experience, knowledge, or, well, policy. As Ignatius put it, “Foreign policy is the hole in Sanders’s political doughnut.” Several enterprising writers reached out to foreign policy and IR scholars sympathetic to Sanders’ campaign for comment, while a few political scientists have directly addressed the nature of a future Sanders Administration’s foreign policy.

As a critic of the Washington/New York policy expert class and the ways that US Political Science reproduces and authorizes it, what I find troubling is not what ‘experts’ have been saying, but what they haven’t. With the exception of Charli Carpenter’s embrace of Sanders’ willingness to acknowledge what he doesn’t know about foreign policy, all of these commentators seem to reduce US foreign policy to positions on which countries to bomb, (and maybe relations with Israel). More than once, he has been characterized as a ‘realist’ against Clinton’s hawkish liberal interventionist instincts. While that is basically fair and correct, even if the meaning of ‘realist’ in policy debates has little resemblance to the theories I teach under that name, this discussion has been far too narrow. Just this week, an open letter by 20 ‘foreign policy experts’ has explicitly endorsed Sanders’ approach to foreign policy. Going beyond the standard arguments (which I detail below), they draw attention to a wider range of issues that Sanders can lead on. While their arguments and my own line up fairly neatly, it’s important to have a bit more of an extended discussion of the issues involved than their short statement allowed.

Yielding to the dominant view, if only for a moment, I turn first to the Democratic candidates’  approaches to national security and armed force.

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