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

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The EU Referendum: “We will burn it all down” – War, Blackmail and the Case for the European Union

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


Our next guest contributor to the EU forum is Philip Cunliffe. Philip is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent and editor-in-chief of the journal International Peacekeeping. He is co-editor, with Chris Bickerton and Alex Gourevitch, of Politics Without Sovereignty (UCL Press, 2007), and author of Legions of Peace: UN Peacekeepers from the Global South (Hurst, 2014).  His most recent book, co-edited with Kai Michael Kenkel, is Brazil as a Rising Power: Intervention Norms and the Contestation of Global Order (Routledge, 2016).


It’s often heard that the European Union (EU) is a peace project – an institution engineered to bring peace, prosperity and stability to a war-torn continent that was at the core of global conflict over the last century. This was the animus behind UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on 9 May 2016, in which he claimed that Britain leaving the EU could lead to renewed rivalries, geopolitical tension and ultimately war in Europe. It is one of the most powerful, popular and enduring claims given in defence of the EU and one that drastically raises the political stakes in the debate over Brexit.

Given that this claim comes from our political leaders, it is a remarkably menacing way of eliciting popular support: Vote for us, they seem to be saying, vote for the European Union, or war will be the result ... That political elites could threaten voters so brazenly while implying their own powerlessness to control the course of events at the same time speaks to the strength of popular (mis)conceptions about the origins of conflict in Europe.

A screenshot from "Paxman in Brussels" (BBC), shot in the EU visitors' centre (h/t Ben Pile)

A screenshot from “Paxman in Brussels” (BBC), shot in the EU visitors’ centre (h/t Ben Pile)

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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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The Futures Past of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

"What are you doing for Peace?" Launch Event

UN Secretariat staff mark the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. 17 September 2015. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

This essay is a much abridged and lightly edited version of an article of the same name by Paul Kirby and Laura J. Shepherd published on 8 March 2016 in International Affairs.

UNSCR 1325, the foundational resolution of the eight that form the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) policy architecture, has strikingly few critics – or, at least, few who would openly dispute its headline ambition: to achieve global gender equality. It seems particularly appropriate to celebrate the WPS agenda on International Women’s Day, adopted by the United Nations in recognition of the ongoing global struggle for women’s rights. Our modest contribution to IWD celebrations this year is the launch of a special issue of International Affairs, which documents the advances and limits of the WPS agenda. These are traced in the various articles across multiple registers, from the implementation of WPS principles and provisions by regional organizations to the heteronormative dynamics of participation, prevention and protection. And yet, as the contributors show, the much-noted gap between WPS ambitions and current realities is not merely a report on imperfect implementation: rather, it takes us to the heart of what the WPS agenda is, and what it might become.

In our article, we discuss various elements, or ‘pillars’ of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, to evaluate where gains have been made under the auspices of this architecture. The ‘pillars’ are generally identified as ‘protection’, ‘participation’, ‘prevention’ and ‘relief and recovery’, with a fifth – the normative dimension – sometimes included. WPS principles govern activity in each of these domains. Women’s participation in peace agreements, for example, is somewhat more consistent than it was before the WPS agenda was inaugurated, and yet remains disappointing given initial ambitions. From 2005 onwards, there has been a notable increase in the number of peace agreements dealing with multiple aspects of gender security and participation.  The 2015 global study on the implementation of Resolution 1325 found that the proportion of peace agreements since 2000 making reference to women was 27 per cent, more than double the level over the period 1990–2000.  Given the emphasis in the WPS agenda on women as both makers and beneficiaries of peace, this trend towards inclusion is clearly welcome. Yet, as Radhika Coomaraswamy and her colleagues observed: ‘The present programmes put forward by the international community tend to be extremely narrow: just to bring a female body to the table’. Continue reading

Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech (A Black History Month Perspective)

Truman and Churchill in Missouri

Churchill’s Westminster College audience, March 5, 1946 (Life/Getty Images)

This year is the seventieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, a.k.a. “Sinews of Peace,” a.k.a., the Fulton address, which means that we will soon be hearing all about it once again. The speech is central to the iconography of the Cold War, of anti-communism, and of Anglo-American specialness. Countless historians, biographers and rhetoreticians have examined almost every aspect of it: when and where it was written, whether it was pre-approved by others, including President Truman, and, indeed, how it was received. On the last point, we know that the speech was met with a mixture of cheers and boos. The reactions tended to be politically and ideologically determined. Conservative politicians and the media praised the speech for its realism about the nature of the postwar settlement: at last someone had the courage to publicly say that the victor nations could not forever be friends.  In contrast, most liberals, socialists, and communists condemned the speech as inflammatory. With so many hopes pinned to the newly created United Nations Organization (UNO), the last thing the world needed was geopolitical tension between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, they argued. But that was not all. Some leftists went further still. Churchill’s notion the Anglo-American “special relationship” and “fraternal association” constituted the ultimate sinew of world peace smacked of racial supremacism, they said.

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Economy of Force: A Reply

In which Patricia Owens responds to our four commentaries (on patriarchy, colonial counterinsurgency, biopolitics and social theory) on her Economy of Force.


I’m extremely grateful to Pablo K, Elke Schwarz, Jairus Grove, and Andrew Davenport for their serious engagements with Economy of ForceAs noted in the original post, the book is a new history and theory of counterinsurgency with what I think are significant implications for social, political and international thought. It is based on a study of late-colonial British military campaigns in Malaya and Kenya; the US war on Vietnam; and US-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq against the background of the high colonial wars in the American Philippines and nineteenth-century French campaigns in Tonkin, Morocco and Algeria. Probably the emblematic case for the book is Britain’s colonial state terror against Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army and civilians in the 1950s, a campaign that was closer to annihilation than ‘rehabilitation’. Although the so-called ‘hearts and minds’ campaign in Malaya is held up by generations of counterinsurgents as the model for emulation, the assault on Kikuyu civilians shows the real face of Britain’s late-colonial wars. It also points to some profound truths about the so-called ‘population-centric’ character of more recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though offering new readings of some better-known counterinsurgency cases, Jairus Grove suggests that this choice perpetuates an erasure of America’s ‘Indian Wars’.

Mau-Mau

Researching Economy of Force, I certainly became aware of the general significance of these wars, including through Andrew J. Birtle’s and Laleh Khalili’s histories of counterinsurgency. However, Grove draws attention to something more relevant to Economy of Force than appreciated before: “one of the first federal bureaucracies with jurisdiction over the home and social issues”, he writes, “was created by and administered by the War Department”. Decades before the distinctly ‘social’ engineering during the Philippines campaign (1899-1902), the Bureau of Indian Affairs was administering indigenous populations on the mainland. In focusing on overseas imperial wars, Economy of Force surely neglects settler colonialism, its genocides, and how “warfare, pacification, and progressivism were an assemblage in the US context from the outset”. While the book was not centrally focussed on US state making, I’m grateful to Grove for insisting that settler colonialism is necessarily a form of counterinsurgency. To be sure, the Philippines campaign was examined not as the founding moment of American counterinsurgency, but because it was explicitly conceived by contemporaries as a form of overseas housekeeping; to problematize progressive social policy; and to challenge the effort to separate good (domestic) social engineering at home from bad social engineering (overseas). I would hesitate to wholly assimilate the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) into earlier Indian Wars, though its ‘social reforms’ shaped indigenous administration. But these are quibbles. Grove is right that I have neglected something of significance in the ‘historical trajectory from Thanksgiving to Waziristan’. I hope to be able to rectify this in future work.

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All Means, No End? Economies of Life Management

The fourth piece in our forum on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force. One more to follow before Patricia’s rejoinder this weekend.


Economy of Force provides an insightful and provocative re-reading of Anglo-American imperialism and counterinsurgency. Unlike conventional accounts, which for the most part remain trapped within the hermeneutic limits of political theory, Owens undertakes a historical sociology of ‘the social’ itself, tracing out its attendant mechanisms of political rule over time. Central to her account is the notion of ‘the household’, which, she suggests, functions as a dominant form of administration and rule within both modern and contemporary imperialisms. ‘Despotism’, ‘governance’, ‘ruler-ship’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘administration’, ‘life processes’, ‘violence’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘pacification’, ‘domestication’, ‘domesticity’ – this language of household rule is crucial in order to better understand the politics that underpin different forms of imperial practice. For this, we must also understand that it is the oikos, and not politics, that stands at the heart of imperial and counter-insurgency campaigns. Indeed, for Owens, such campaigns are best grasped as “armed social work”.

One clear target of this argument is mainstream IR, which all too often works with an ahistorical conception of society. Owens firmly rejects this approach by identifying: (1) the origins of ‘the social’ in a concept of household rule; (2) the transformation of household rule over time; and (3) the historically-specific influence that different forms of household rule exert over political practices in the present. In so doing she also rejects the folk wisdom that household rule and management has been eliminated or pushed to the margins of politics through various processes of modernisation. Rather, she argues, household rule is sozialpolitik rendered as politics, and that IR scholars would do well to engage with the changing logics of household rule if they want any purchase on the political world.

Afghan National Policemen participating in an interactive exercise during Counter Insurgency Training

Afghan National Policemen participating in an interactive exercise during Counter Insurgency Training

Owens grounds this bold claim in the close relation between the social and an ancient modality of household rule: oikonomia. This is an important move and I, for one, am convinced that an engagement with household management can provide a powerful lens through which to understand the entwinement of the social and the international. Such a lens resonates with Hannah Arendt’s insight that, in modernity, “we see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping” (The Human Condition, p.28). And for Arendt too, ‘the social’ is infused with the logic of household management, turning modern ‘society’ into a mode of government based on specific and historically situated relations of reproduction. In fact, I would argue that Arendt’s proto-biopolitical argument has much to offer to Owens’ project.

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