Business As Usual: Donald Trump and American Empire

This is a guest post by Jeanne Morefield, Professor of Politics at Whitman College and a Professorial Fellow at the Institute for Social Justice, Australian Catholic University. unnamed Her scholarship works primarily at the intersection of political theory, history, and international relations with a particular focus on the political discourses of British and American imperialism. She is the author of Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politics of Deflection(Oxford, 2014) and Covenants Without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire (Princeton, 2005) and has published articles in journals such asPolitical Theory, History of Political Thought, Theory and Event as well as numerous chapters for edited volumes on the history of international and imperial thought. Jeanne is currently Co-President of the Association for Political Theory and is writing a book on the political thought of Edward Said.

Although it seems like an eternity, it was actually just over a month ago that those legions of Republican and Democratic pundits and professors of International Relations associated with the foreign policy establishment – in all the overlapping, echo-chamberish, reinforcing glory that Ben Rhodes termed “The Blob” – were busy issuing dire warnings about a Trump foreign policy. From realists, to liberal internationalists, to neoconservative ranters, a huge swath of foreign policy regulars committed themselves to the idea that Trump demonstrated “a predisposition to strategic recklessness” and that his espoused policies amounted to “a de facto withdrawal from the liberal world order.” Words like “crackpot,” “temperamentally unsuited,” and “the Islamic State’s dream candidate” came pouring out of a seemingly crestless wave of professorial and think-tank generated articles, op-eds, and open letters while journalists took to the Twittersphere to proclaim Trump’s foreign policy vision “dangerous,” “unprecedented,” and “terrifying.”

In Robert Kagan’s words, if elected, Trump’s “ultimately self-destructive tendencies would play out on the biggest stage in the world, with consequences at home and abroad that one can barely begin to imagine.” The mood was perhaps best captured by Jeffrey Isaac in his last ditch attempt before the election to convince the – largely fictional but rhetorically useful – hordes of leftist hold-outs to vote Democratic.  While his concern was domestic, the ultimatum he presented beautifully reflected the broad sentiments of the foreign policy establishment. The choice before us was simple: “Clinton or barbarism.”

Then Trump won, the barbarians entered the gates, and in a matter of days many of these same harbingers-of-doom were confidently assuring us that, while they still had a few doubts, all would be well on the foreign policy front.

Not surprisingly, Western Civilization’s most dogged empire-whisperer Niall Ferguson – crowing with satisfaction at his prescient decision not to couch his pre-election warnings about Trump as support for Clinton – jumped quickly on the Trump-possibility bandwagon.  Not only, he argued, did it appear that Trump’s foreign policy limned more closely to that of Ferguson’s outsized hero (Henry Kissinger), it could potentially shore up liberalism’s core principles by more forcefully opposing the oppression of women, gays, and people of different faiths in the name of Islam.

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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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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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“Not My President”: Trumpocracy and Dissent

This is a guest post by Eric Grynaviski, an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of Constructive Illusions (Cornell, 2014). He studies sociological approaches to cooperation and conflict, and international ethics.


In the wake of the election, people are rejecting the idea that Trump represents them in office. Academics and journalists are calling attention to what loyalty and patriotism mean in the context of such a divisive election. President Obama has called for everyone to rally to Trump, and he asked Trump to make everyone feel included in his America. Protestors oppose this view with the simple message that “Trump is not my president.”

A lot is being written on the subject of national unity, but I want to reflect on what this means. Calls to national unity suppose that Trump is the legitimate representative of the public. But, the idea of being representative and legitimate in this election is more ambiguous than at any moment in American history since I’ve been alive.

Surprisingly, the idea that “Trump is not my president” has been criticized by political scientists and some Democratic politicians. I want to describe some differences between three criticisms of the view that “Trump is not my president.” To do so, I am going to turn to Carl Schmitt. Schmitt was a legal thinker and philosopher during the Weimar-era who ended up supporting the Nazi party. Why turn to Schmitt now? Unfortunately, we are facing some of the same dilemmas Weimar-era Germany did. Deeply racist politicians are entering the White House, the public is divided, and the stakes are quite high for minorities living in the United States. Writing in the 1920s and 1930s, Schmitt faced the question about what it means to say someone is not “their” president head-on during a period of political bitterness and acrimony. Much of the rhetoric against “Trump is not my president” could come straight from Weimar Germany.

One way of thinking about the question about whether Trump is not my president focuses on whether Trump represents people, even when his policies and rhetoric diverge from their preferences and beliefs. Schmitt replied yes. Trump represents you even if you disagree with him in every respect, even if we transition from a Trumpocracy to a Trumpikatorship (a Trump Dictatorship). The president is the only person who is elected by all voters, so he is the only person to represent all voters. Schmitt’s idea is that there is some homogeneity within a country (something held in common) that can, and should, be represented by a single person.

Unfortunately, I worry that some of the people calling for unity are coming from this perspective. When people say we need to pull together because we are all Americans and our strength is in unity—and thus we need to endorse Trump’s representation of us—they are making this argument. The question is “what is unity?” Some interpretations of Schmitt focus on his anti-Semitism: all Germans have in common a natural aversion to being prey to the Jews. I do not think this was his original meaning (though it changed over time). In the 1920s, I think he meant that all Germans are Germans, which marks them as different from the French, the Poles, or any other group. And whatever differences Germans have with one another, they are still special because they are different from non-Germans. In other words, Schmitt did not have any content within his calls for unity: it was an empty message appealing to the unity of the nation without giving the nation any content.

A Schmitt-like claim that Trump represents “us” and is therefore “my president” also seems a bit hollow. The normal rhetoric we use to give substance to being American is based in ideals, such as tolerance and liberty. Trumpocracy clearly does not connect with those ideals. Calling for unity because we have something in common does not work when the person we are supposed to rally to does not share that something. In this sense, one can easily say “Trump is not my president” because I am not racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc.


The second argument Schmitt emphasizes is the danger of refusing to accept a new leader as president. Andrew Sabl reaches this conclusion on the Monkey Cage, when he writes, “people are likely to disagree over who is the best leader, especially in diverse societies divided by religion, culture and ethnic identity. Indeed, these disagreements may easily lead to war between different factions, each with its own preferred leader or petty warlord.” In other words, the only alternative to accepting an election outcome is civil war. Schmitt echoes this view. For him, the alternative to accepting the government is declaring war on the government; there is no middle ground. Therefore, the rhetoric that “Trump is not my president” is dangerous, inviting chaos.

This stability argument is wrong because it distorts what people mean when they claim “Trump is not my president.” I do not think that most people on the streets mean “Trump is not the president-elect of the United States,” at least that is not what they mean yet (see below). Instead, it is a claim about representation. People are saying that Trump does not represent their views, and his views are so repugnant that they will oppose his presidency at every opportunity. The Trump-picketers—the Women’s March on Washington, for example—will not initiate events that will end with tanks rolling down D.C. streets. These protestors pose no genuine threat to the American constitutional system, just as there was no genuine threat during the Civil Rights March or during demonstrations against abortion rights.

There is also a giant leap in this argument. Sabl argues that “we must accept the authority of leaders we thoroughly hate.” This gives me the most pause because of the connection to Schmitt. For Schmitt, the danger of civil war is so real that we need to pass a great deal of authority into the hands of the president. With the growth of executive powers in the United States, Trump, with a flick of a pen, can wipe out an incredible amount of our national environmental protections, begin a war, dramatically expand Guantanamo Bay, and in the modern world, even assassinate American citizens abroad (e.g., following precedents set in the War on Terror). Unlike Nazi Germany, the American political system historically allows citizens to fight as hard as possible to limit the authority of hated leaders. We can accept someone as president, but still fight as hard as possible to narrow their authority and constrain their choices. Congress, the Court, and the public (through voice) can undermine presidential authority, and doing so is part and parcel of the American experience. [Spoiler: We almost always fail. Today I bet we regret creating such a strong presidency.]

Saying “Trump is not my president” and refusing to accept Trump’s authority therefore strike me as reasonable, if people mean Trump does not represent their views and they refuse to be complacent when he uses his authority to do things they find disastrous. Raising the specter of civil war does not seem helpful.


A third view is that “Trump is not the president.” This claim is the most radical. This perspective would say something like the following: Trump is so morally repugnant, and would be such a disaster of a leader, that he is ineligible to be president. One might give this a constitutional interpretation. The Constitution requires people to be 35 to enter office, hoping that this will lead to mature and sensible office-holders. It is a maturity test rather than an age test per se. Because Trump is less qualified for office then most 34-year-olds, his election ignores the founders’ intentions in writing the Constitution (see (gated) Spann’s argument, sure it may not be the best argument but good enough for many).

This is the most dangerous version, and one that I suspect at least some people in this country are considering. This view of how to oppose Trump is also Schmittian in a sense. One reason why Schmitt favored the growth of executive powers is that sometimes you need to break the rules in order to save the rules. In exceptional moments—when the Communists are at the gates—having one’s hands tied by constitutional processes prevents decisions that need to be made to save those the society. Rejecting Trump along these lines does not need to be violent. We could resurrect the idea of a “general strike,” in which people simply refuse to go to work until he resigns.

I never thought I would say this in my lifetime, but I can imagine a scenario for the next four years in which the public wants to pursue this route (see Nexon’s post). Trump may overstep the bounds of his constitutional powers when in office. In the debates, he already said that he may not respect the norms of constitutional rule and respect the outcome of the election. Beyond constitutional norms, if Trump follows through on just some of his campaign rhetoric, the first 100 days of his term may see irreparable damage to the global environment, racists in the White House, deportation of millions of immigrants, and the FBI investigating political opponents. His campaign and its surrogates are describing protesters as communists, paid plants, and so on.

In this case, the claim that “Trump is not the president” is the most politically important because it denies that Trump has a legitimate claim on his office. The difference from Schmitt is that instead of turning to the president to suspend the constitution, it turns to the public to save the constitution from Trump.

At the moment, these seem like dark times. Looking to Weimar may be the best analogy because it is the period of time in which an imperial presidential system appeared the most necessary and the most dangerous. Protestors have figured this out (and the importance of hair jokes).


The question is if people move from the idea that Trump does not represent them to the view that political action needs to be taken to remove Trump. Unlike others, I find that “Trump is not my president” is a BEAUTIFUL expression of what people mean.



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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