The Ideal International Institution: A Response

The concluding post from the author herself, drawing our symposium on The Ideal River to a close. Dr Joanne Yao is Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. Previously, Joanne taught at Durham University and the LSE, where she completed her PhD in 2017. Joanne was also one of three editors of Millennium: Journal of International Studies for Volume 43 (2014-2015) and is currently a member of Millennium’s Board of Trustees.Her research centers on environmental history and politics, historical international relations, international hierarchies and orders, and the development of early international organizationsThe Ideal River is her first book; Joanne’s next project focuses on the history of Antarctica and early outer space exploration.

One question that repeatedly comes up from readers of this book is about its disciplinary identity. On the one hand, this is one of the book’s strengths – it seems to shapeshift across disciplinary boundaries and some of the central conclusions, particularly on the desire to control nature as a marker of a Western-led (imposed) modernity, might have been arrived at from a variety of different disciplinary starting points. On the other hand, this question puzzles me since the book is self-consciously situated in International Relations which is a clear path-dependent consequence of the intellectual riverbeds my own thinking has flown through. Perhaps what they wish to know is how did someone who started her academic life with the ‘Great Debates’ of IR end up contemplating the physical and metaphysical river (especially since I might have gotten ‘here’ more quickly and eloquently from elsewhere). But like all aspects of social and political life, we don’t get to re-run the experiment, and so this book is here, with its IR-warts and all. 

But aside from my own intellectually situatedness, this book is a work of IR because, alongside the three rivers, international institutions are also pivotal characters in my story. Perhaps starting from IR, this point is obvious, and I felt the harder sell was to illuminate my three rivers as worthy protagonists in a story about international order. For this, I might have neglected my other characters. 

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Romancing the River

We now approach the end of our symposium on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River.

This last commentary is from Dr Ida Roland Birkvad. Ida is a Fellow in Political Theory in the Department of International Relations at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her research engages with questions related to international political theory, histories of imperialism, and non-Western agency in International Relations.

She previously wrote for us on Judith Butler in Norway.

Two years after laying the foundation stone for the Sardar Sarovar Dam in 1961, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed that hydroelectric dams were the ‘new temples of India, where I worship’ (Yao 2022, 205). Charting the length of the country’s postcolonial history, this infrastructural project of unprecedented scale and ambition was originally conceived of by Nehru’s deputy, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, in the years immediately following independence. In 2017, more than seventy years later, the network of dams horizontally spanning over half of India’s interior landscape, following the Narmada River from the state of Madhya Pradesh to the coast of Gujarat, was finally completed.

The romantic flourishes of Nehru’s characterisation, tying rivers and their taming to the spiritual realm, constitutes my starting point for this book symposium. In the following, I place Joanne Yao’s luminous charting of the emergence of environmental politics through the erection of 19th century river commissions into conversation with Dalit and anti-caste critiques of the collusion between Romantic thought, elite politics, and Brahmanical supremacy in the context of the Sardar Sarovar Dam development. Indeed, while Yao’s The Ideal River might seemingly focus rather exclusively on the role of Enlightenment rationality in the taming of the river, I argue that her book allows us to glean the dynamic relationship, at times mutually constitutive and at times in mutual contestation, between Enlightenment thought and the role of the other intellectual movement of modern history, namely Romanticism, in environmentalist thought. 

Displacing an astounding 245 villages and submerging 37,555 hectares of land, the Sardar Sarovar Dam has caused immense debate and uproar, intensifying especially from the late 1980s onwards when its erection began on a mass scale (Rao 2022). However, the grandiose nature of the size and scope of the dam was from the outset rivalled only by the resistance movement forming to stop it. Taking shape in the late 1980s, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) consisted of a broad coalition of adivasis (India’s indigenous population), farmers, environmentalists, and human rights activists. Organising to both resist the expansion of the dam, as well as to mitigate the consequences for the people whose lives were disturbed and uprooted by it, the NBA constituted one of the largest political resistance movements of its time. Its tactics included rallies, marches, hunger strikes, and perhaps most spectacularly the action of jal samarpan, in which activists stood neck-deep in the river, demonstrating their willingness to drown rather than to leave their lands (ibid.). 

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What Difference Does a River Make?

Post #5 in our symposium on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River, from Dr Giulia Carabelli. Giulia is a lecturer in Sociology and Social Theory in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. She is interested in affect theory, nonhuman agencies, and social justice. Her current research project, Care for Plants, explores the shaping of affective and intimate relationships between humans and houseplants during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are three protagonists in The Ideal River: the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo. We meet them at different times in history when they become crucial agents in the (re)making of international orders. These three rivers illustrate different yet analogous processes of intervention aimed at domesticating what escapes human control (nature) to establish order as a matter of “progress”. As Yao argues, the taming of rivers exemplifies the “fulfilment of the Enlightenment promise that humanity stood together as masters over nature”, which is rooted in an unquestioned “optimism toward international progress” (186). The Rhine is the “internal European highway”, the Danube “the connecting river from Europe to the near periphery” and the Congo “the imperial river of commerce” (10). From the outset, the book sets expectations for nonhuman actors to take centre-stage in the recounting of history and to reveal their obscured roles in the development of global (human) politics. My reflections thus aim to discuss how the book foregrounds nonhuman agencies and to advance an argument for centring care and love to appreciate the potentially disrupting roles of rivers in reshaping political imaginaries, which become more and more urgent as that optimism towards human control flails.

1. The image of the river

I start from the cover of this book; an image taken by NASA/USGS Landsat 8 depicting the Mackenzie River in Canada. From above, this river is rendered through solid shades of blues, browns, and greens. This river does not flow. Similarly, when we imagine rivers on a two-dimensional map, they appear as homogeneous streams, whose ability to connect and serve human settlements we value. Such rivers become boundaries, obstacles, or opportunities to facilitate the movement of people, goods and capital, while ignoring their much more complex life as eco-systems in a constant process of change. These static representations of rivers, so instrumental to human life and its “progress”, become protagonists of the historical conferences discussed in the book. These rivers are ideals of what a river can become when understood as precious, yet disposable, resource.

Rivers on maps are what humans have long attempted to tame, because, as Yao discusses, to exercise control over nature ultimately proves, and provides, human progress. It drives and tests advancement in technology whilst gratifying the assertion of moral superiority. Clearly, this perspective results from thinking “human” and “nature” as dramatically different whereby the former is always standing above the ‘Other’; and to tame the Other for the sake of progress. The history of global politics, as shown vividly in this book, can be framed as the history of taming rivers. This is also the history of human faith in science and technology as the desperate attempt to prove that rationality is what sets us above all other species. It is the history of “transform[ing] irrational nature and society into economically productive and morally progressive units of governance” (200). 

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Unmaking Property: The River as Amniotechnics

Day four in the Disorder symposium on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River, where we are joined by Dr Ida Danewid, who has visited with us before.

Ida is Lecturer in Gender and Global Political Economy at the University of Sussex. Her first monograph, Resisting Racial Capitalism: An Antipolitical Theory of Refusal, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. Ida’s research interests are in anticolonial political thought, Marxism, and intellectual history. Her work has previously appeared in Third World Quarterly, Millennium, European Journal of International Relations, International Political Sociology, Security Dialogue and with the Black Mediterranean Collective.

Lake Kariba would soon become a river. The dam would become a waterfall. And miles away, the Lusaka plateau… would become an island.

In The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell writes about the history of colonialism in southern Africa and its global ripples in the present. Told as a story about three families (European, African, and Indian) and spanning three generations, the novel centers around the Zambezi river and the adjacent Kariba dam that transforms the currents of the river (its “drift”) into hydropower. Originally commissioned by the British controlled Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi) in the 1950s, the dam was built at a place well known to Dr. Livingstone and countless other colonial explorers. (As Serpell notes, “This is the story of a nation—not a kingdom or people—so it begins, of course, with a white man.”) Throughout the novel, Serpell cleverly uses the dam as a symbol of empire, enclosure, and extraction. When the book finally ends, the dam has burst and flooded its surroundings. As the great Zambezi flows freely again, Victoria Falls in more than one way. 

I was reminded of Serpell’s novel when I read Joanne Yao’s breathtaking new book The Ideal River: How Control of Nature Shaped International Order. Straddling historical sociology, international theory, and environmental politics, Yao explores the relationship between empire and the control of nature, or what some scholars have recently termed hydrocolonialism. Focusing on the 19th century projects to domesticate three different rivers—the Rhine, Danube, and Congo—Yao examines how the mastery of wilderness was central to the rise and development of the modern/colonial world system. The dream of the ideal river, it here turns out, drifts straight through the heart of empire.

Yao’s immediate focus is on how and why this desire to domesticate the wild became such a central tenet of the imperial standard of civilization. She frames this as a story about the Enlightenment and its commitment to ideas of linear progress, order, rationality, and science. By following the river upstream, she demonstrates how European empires saw the “failure” to conquer, improve, and control nature as a sign of “barbarism” and, thus, as “being too close to nature.” Colonialism, Yao explains, unfolded as a project of eliminating “the barbarity of swampy disuse.” Over time, this mission would come to engulf the globe, ranging from “the floodplains of the Arno River… to the wetlands of the Danube delta and the megadams of the Indian subcontinent and American West.” This desire to master nature has remained a central tenet of coloniality, despite the formal end of empire. In the mid mid-20th century, many newly independent states in the global South chose to showcase their rising power and status precisely through the control of rivers and construction of megadams. Today, the quest for green and renewable energy forms part of yet another attempt to plunder and domesticate the wild.

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In Praise of Undisciplined Knowledge: The Epistemic Entanglements of the River

The third post in our series on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River, today brought to you by Dr Kiran Phull. Kiran is a Lecturer in International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research centres on the politics of global knowledge production and the rise of opinion polling. She takes a critical and interdisciplinary approach to the study of public opinion, focusing on the ways that epistemic technologies (polls, surveys, population data) create and shape the conditions for governing social and political life. Previously, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics, where she received her PhD in IR exploring the history of scientific inquiry into Middle Eastern publics and the emergence of local emancipatory methods practices. 

What does it mean to know a river? In its investigation of the taming of nature in the service of the modern international order, Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River reveals how international history is coursed by rivers. Yao’s meticulous weaving of institutional and imperial histories of the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo offers a view of global governance that is both novel and necessary. By underscoring the co-conspiratorial relationship between science and empire, we learn how the construction of the ideal river was sustained by imperial infrastructures acting in concert with western scientific knowledge and practices. In exploring the development and institutionalization of these complex European river commissions as the first international organizations, The Ideal River asks us to contend with the centrality of scientific knowledge in configuring modern hydrological power relations. With a focus on cartographic representations, investigative commissions, scientific measurements, and industrial techniques of control, Yao deftly traces the epistemic drive that propelled empire ever-further downstream.

A core tension explored in the book is the unsettled dualism between science and nature. Here, Yao shows how the disciplining of nature’s waterways was implicated in the architecting of a global standard of sovereign rule and political legitimacy from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the context of Europe’s colonial ambitions, to know the river was to tame and lay claim to it. This reductionist view of progress through conquest was rooted in a Baconian scientific understanding of the world that sanctioned domination over nature in the service of human development. The discursive moves that allowed for modern scientific techniques and practices “to ‘force’, ‘compel’, ‘shackle’, and ‘tame’ the river” in pursuit of civilizational superiority reshaped these waterways into conduits for political power. Through Yao’s careful study of the disciplining of the “disorderly” Rhine and civilizing of the “mighty” Danube, it becomes clear how the construction of “the ideal river” was anchored in forms of knowledge that drained the river of its agentic lifeforce.

But how can we know a river if a river is never one thing?

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Engineers Rule the World

The second post in our symposium on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River.

This one is from Dr. Cameron Harrington, an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. His research centres on the shifting contours of security in the Anthropocene, with a particular focus on the concept and practices of water security. His work has appeared in journals such as Millennium, Global Environmental Politics, Environment and Planning E, Critical Studies on Security, and Water International. He is the co-author of Security in the Anthropocene: Reflections on Safety and Care (2017, Transcript), and is a co-editor of Climate Security in the Anthropocene: Exploring the Approaches of United Nations Security Council Member-States (forthcoming 2023, Springer).

While studying at my alma mater, Western University, in Canada, I would frequently run into the same graffiti scribbled across bathrooms, classroom desks, library walls, and study spaces. 


It wasn’t a secret code or the mark of an exclusive academic society. In fact, you could see it emblazoned on the back of t-shirts handed out to hundreds of freshman students every year.

Engineers Rule the World

The idea that engineers – and by extension engineering – are, in fact, responsible for holding society together, is a powerful boast. It certainly helped young undergraduate engineering students construct an image of their studies as immensely important. While the rest of us spent our days studying the words of long-dead philosophers or burrowing deeper into arcane debates about “the international order,” these intrepid future engineers would learn to do the real work of building the world that we all inhabit. No engineers, no world. 

I was reminded of this slogan – ERTW – as I read through Joanne Yao’s book, The Ideal River: how control of nature shaped the international order. Yao’s book is a richly detailed examination of the various imaginaries, schemes, and tools that propelled European efforts across the nineteenth century to tame – to engineer – nature. Yao argues that the desire to control nature reflected and refracted a larger modernist “faith in science and rationality to conquer the messiness of entwined social and natural worlds…” (pg. 36). This ability to control a wild and unpredictable nature was one key standard by which civilization could be judged. Her account focuses on the social and material construction of three specific rivers: the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo. Though each river was imagined uniquely, they all became embedded within a larger modernist political project of world-building. From these rivers emerged the first modern manifestations of what we now term international organizations. 

This is, then, another story of Enlightenment-bred confidence in the ability to overcome nature’s “limits”.

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The Ideal River: An Introduction

The Disorder of Things is back, and with a symposium too. Over the next week we’ll feature a succession of posts on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River: How Control of Nature Shaped the International Order, followed by a rejoinder from Joanne herself (the full set of posts will be available in one easy spot here). The first post is an introduction to the book and commentaries from George Lawson. George is Professor of International Relations at the Australian National University. He is a global historical sociologist who works primarily on revolutions. His most recent books are: On Revolutions: Unruly Politics in the Contemporary World (with Colin Beck, Mlada Bukovansky, Erica Chenoweth, Sharon Nepstad and Daniel Ritter) (Oxford, 2022), and Anatomies of Revolution (Cambridge, 2019).

Mackenzie River

Writing from the frontline of anthropogenic climate change, in Australia, I don’t need any convincing about the co-implication of nature and politics. I live in Canberra – Australia’s ‘Bush Capital’ – a planned city in the Scottian mould, nestled amidst nature reserves, organised around an artificial lake supported by a major dam project, and home to a large number of predators, both human and otherwise. When I moved to Canberra nearly three years ago, the major (non-artificial) lake that welcomes visitors to and from Sydney, Lake George, was empty – the result of decades of low rainfall generated by human-induced climate change. Following three years of La Nina weather patterns, which has brought persistent rain that locals never tire of telling our family we brought with us from Britain, Lake George looks more like an inland sea. But not for long, it seems. Models suggest that this year will see a return to dry conditions, perhaps even a drought. So: no more Lake George. 

Outside Canberra’s old Parliament House, which was replaced by a snazzy, environmentally friendly upgrade in 1988, can be found the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the oldest continuous protest site in the world. Some of the demands made by aboriginal Australian groups, including those who people the Embassy, as well as those involved in discussions around the Uluru Statement from the Heart and current debates about a First Nations Voice to Parliament, begin by acknowledging the co-implication of land, custodianship and sovereignty. Understandings of citizenship in Australia are intimately tied up with claims about the relationship between nature and political authority. 

These entanglements between nature and politics are found not only in Australia, of course. As Giulia Carabelli points out in her essay in this symposium, they animate protests in North Dakota and India, have been part of legal debates in Ecuador and Bolivia, and can be found in disputes over the rights of natural objects, including rivers

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