global politics, relationally

23 Jul 2017
by Laura Sjoberg

The Dangers of Reclaiming Violence?

This post is a response to Helen Kinsella’s article and summary in The International Origins of Political and Social Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. 

Both in her contribution to The International Origins collection and in her blog post, Helen Kinsella makes a powerful case that the development of the prohibitions against superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering marked a sea-change for the laws of war, where the partisans of national wars of liberation were able to push back against imperialism and make claims as to the justice of their quests against colonialism and imperialism. Kinsella makes the case in rich, detailed analysis paired with original detail and argumentation in a way that makes it not only important but also nearly irreproachably argued. Kinsella strikes a careful but difficult balance of looking for justice in claims to war legitimation without looking to give credence to the legitimacy of any war. Kinsella celebrates the positive distributive aspects of the development of this principle without ignoring either the shortcomings of the individual principle or the shortcomings of the laws of war more generally.

Still, as I read the post especially, I feel again as I have before that threshold arguments for the acceptability of violence leave something to be desired, both theoretically and in practice. I am not arguing against threshold arguments for pacifist reasons – I don’t believe that non-violence is necessarily possible, let alone the answer to the problems that plague war ethics debates. At the same time, I have always been concerned that normative and practical measures that normatively condemn some violence while not condemning all violence implicitly and practically valorize the violence that remains not condemned.

It is this position (among others) that Kinsella is taking issue with when she suggests that the laws of war do not only reify and facilitate acts of war, but also transgress against them, particularly in the situation of this principle. While, in many ways, Kinsella’s argument is well-taken (and I too see no absolutes, especially in the reification/transgression debate in theorizing about the laws of war), I see two fairly well-rehearsed problems, and then potentially a new one.

The first well-rehearsed problem is the fact the spirit of the law and the letter of the law are not mutually-binding: while the law against superfluous violence may have originated and been intended as a principle that protected the just in wars of liberation from the unjust who perpetrated horrors on them, the idea of what constitutes “enough” violence (and therefore what is superfluous) could imaginably be deployed in favor of the imperial against the recently decolonized, e.g., when used to support the reasoning for particular counterterrorism strategies, where the word ‘enough’ does not seem to have a consistent signification.

The second well-rehearsed problem is that we do not have a great tool with which to approach the cost-benefit analysis of the reification in the laws of war other authors note and Kinsella acknowledges against the anti-imperial, anti-colonial implications of this particular principle. Is more reified than transgressed? Does the transgressive potential of the principle have the chance to make real change in the future, either on drones or in some other way? Should the judgment, as such, be made in whole or on the parts, consequentially or deontologically? If there is not a judgment to be had, how is this contextualization to be read or signified?

My third problem is currently underdeveloped, but somewhat related. I agree with Kinsella’s argument that this principle is, at least in some ways, a ‘win’ for the ‘good guys’ – but, as briefly hinted at above, think that the normative categories of unjustified/unjustifiable violence and justified/justifiable violence are themselves permissive. While it seems like a semantic distinction, I think that there is something important to calling, and understanding, even justified/justifiable violence wrong. Its not that the violence in these categories is morally clean or good or even acceptable because it meets the criteria laid out in the laws of war. Instead (I contend), it remains morally wrong – simply less wrong than the violence or injustice that inspired it. In a world where the laws of war make the justified/unjustified distinction instead of something more morally (or even legally) nuanced, the prohibition against superfluous violence and unnecessary suffering constitutes progress balancing the scales that equate power and justice in the international arena. At the same time, this principle suggests yet another reason why that dichotomy is a bad idea: in my view, it is important to recognize the relative justice of the violence of the oppressed against the oppressor, while maintaining a clear understanding of its absolute injustice.

19 Jul 2017
by Laura Sjoberg


This is a guest post by Helen M. Kinsella, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, as a part of our series on the International Origins of Social and Political Thought. A reply will be posted soon! 

“Does it not seem excessive to authorize the use of infernal machines which seem to fall from the sky? I know well that when one is obliged to wage war one must wage it as energetically as possible, but this does not mean all means are permissible.” (Representative from Portugal, 1899 Hague Convention)

“A historically meaningful imperialism is not only essentially military and maritime panoply, not only economic and financial prosperity, but also the ability to determine in and of itself the content of political and legal concepts.” (Carl Schmitt,  The Nomos of the Earth, 19)

In my essay, I broadly set forth three things: 1) that the laws of war can be usefully analyzed as an archive of the relations of history and theory, with especial regard to what Ann Stoler calls the “rubrics of rule” generated in and by imperial contexts; 2) that paying attention to attempts to define and regulate particular categories and concepts of law illuminates not only the indeterminacy and ambiguity of the law, but also brings to the fore the shifting  notions of power and authority to define the law itself and; 3) that this exercise offers us resources otherwise overlooked or ignored by which to both apprehend and judge our present moment.

The motivation for the essay was my dissatisfaction with the treatment of the laws of war and drone warfare which, to my mind, too quickly accepted that the law of war only reified violence insofar as it  “privileges, channels, structures,

legitimates, and facilitates acts of war.”   Yet, this stance, albeit one with which I am also highly sympathetic, paradoxically reifies the law as always already determined or preordained in form and outcome.  But, as  Nietzsche reminds us only “something which has no history” can be so cleanly and ably defined, while  the very citability or iterability  of the law suggests it can never be regulated or systematized in advance.  Therefore, the very mutability and repeated deployment of the law offers precisely the possibility that the laws of war may indeed be used in unexpected and unpredictable ways and not always in the service of a violent imperialism.

In my essay, I turned to one of the fundamental dictates of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war; namely, the prohibition against superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering to explore what might the law have to offer regarding our current predicament. Accepted as both customary and positive law, this prohibition is codified in the 1977 Protocol Additional I to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and girds the regulation and moderation of war and limits the use of certain means and methods of warfare.   One way of understanding it is as a prohibition on the use of force in a way “that is more than enough.” Yet, as many have discussed, the exact or precise meanings of superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering—much less what is more than enough— are “the most unclear and controversial rules of warfare.”

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22 Jun 2017
by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson
1 Comment

On not overcoming divides

This post by PTJ is part of the RI feature series on The International Origins of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. It is a response to Beate Jahn’s post “Modern social and political thought has its origins in imperialism — and perpetuates it.” Page number references are to Jahn’s published piece in the edited volume.

Beate Jahn’s paper makes a clear and provocative claim: the division between History and the social science disciplines participates in and perpetuates imperialism. It does so because it masks and obscures fundamental connections between entities in favor of a focus on, from the History side, an analysis of entities in constitutive isolation from one another, and from the social science side, an analysis of patterns of what remain accidental or inessential second-order interactions between those pre-constituted entities. This in turn allows “political actors to endorse the universal principle of freedom even while they engaged in imperialist power politics” (p. 28), attributing empirically-measurable inequalities (between people, between polities, between ethnic groups) to internal characteristics of entities and thus absolving themselves of any implication in the ongoing (re)production of those inequalities. We scholars of international affairs thus inhabit a cage with disciplinary bars that prevent us from seeing the whole and correct picture.

While broadly sympathetic to the project of embedding our conceptual inheritances in the broader political and social environment from which they grew, I am not convinced that examining what a conceptual architecture was used for, or which situations it was developed in response to, tells us much about what the architecture can be used for in the future. Continue Reading →

20 Jun 2017
by Laura Sjoberg

Modern social and political thought has its origins in imperialism – and perpetuates it

This is a guest post by Beate Jahn, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. It is part of the RI feature series on The International Origins of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. It describes her piece in that collection. 

We know that history and international relations are intimately related in reality. Why, then, are they pursued in different disciplines in academia? And why do attempts to bridge this gap tend to fail?

The gap between history and theory is detrimental for both disciplines. Historians borrow theoretical concepts from the social sciences, including IR. But they rarely engage in theoretical debates and thus leave these concepts unexamined. IR scholars, meanwhile, use historical data as building blocks or evidence for theories but overlook their contested nature. Their theories thus resemble castles built on sand.

Attempts to overcome this divide – including in International Origins of Social and Political Theory – take two forms. One is to build on common interests and methods – such as bringing military historians and IR security scholars together or to adopt process tracing. It turns out, however, that historians use such methods in order to explain particular cases while IR scholars use them to test generalizable theories. This suggests that the separation between history and theory occurs at a much more fundamental level.

The second approach to bridging this gap lies in reconceptualizing history and theory themselves. History is then not understood as providing ‘facts’ but contested narratives, and theory not as a rigid system of causal laws but as open contemplation and speculation. Yet, such conceptions do not overcome the history-theory divide. Our vision of the social world has not radically changed since the time of Marx, Freud, Weber or Durkheim. It appears, then, as if disciplinary fragmentation is itself very much a historical phenomenon that cannot be resolved through theoretical exercises.

The theoretical roots of this separation between history and international relations lie in the modern episteme. This modern structure of thought defines particular phenomena in terms of their internal nature. Each individual thing – plants, animals, human beings, nations, genders – develops in accordance with its own organic nature, following its own laws, in its own time. This way of thinking led to the development of the modern discipline of history in the 19th century. According to Herder, for example, each nation followed its own developmental path. Yet, nations so conceived were not any longer subject to the same pressures, the same laws, a common time. And so each phenomenon required its own historical analysis leading to the fragmentation of the discipline of history into national, social, military, diplomatic, economic, legal, art and a myriad of other histories.

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15 Jun 2017
by Laura Sjoberg

On History and Fear, Then and Now

This is a guest post by Piki Ish-Shalom, A. Ephraim and Shirley Diamond Family Chair in International Relations and Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is part of our series on The International History of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. It is in response to the article that Daniel Levine describes in his post earlier this week

On one level this article is an exemplar of Daniel Levine’s writing. Levine is probably the most voracious reader among IR scholars and his work is simply a carnival of knowledge and intellectualism offering a display of learning of unsurpassable breadth. His numerous areas of expertise cover IR theory, critical theory, Judaism, Zionism, and Middle East politics and history. And indeed this article is no exception while adding European history and historiography to Levine’s areas of expertise. The article is a trove of knowledge just like all Levine’s articles and its pages present us with such familiar and forgotten names as Zalman Rubashov (the third President of Israel), Friedrich Meinecke, Jakob Burckhardt, Jürgen Habermas, Hayden White, Theodor Herzl, Leopold von Ranke, Edward Said, Raymond Williams, Judith Butler, and Walter Benjamin. These and many others are part of the colorful mosaic which Levine assembles for his readers. And then there is the epistemological and ethical bottom-line which I could not agree with more. As Levine concludes,

one cannot properly speak of history or theory as isolates; theory is always in history and predicated upon it. If that is so, the appropriate questions are less about epistemology than ethics: what modes of critical self-reflection are necessary, and sufficient, for the student of international politics who wishes to be something other than a partisan actor within history?

A noble question, no doubt. But on another level his article exemplifies the inherent problems that such a perspective raises; it raises questions I keep struggling with when I consider these issues: how to moralize the academic endeavor of theorizing without politicizing it? Which criteria distinguish the academic from the political and the moral from the ideological?

The article left me feeling unsure that there can be adequate answers to these questions, and not only because Levine offers no answers. I surfaced from my reading bothered that he had failed profoundly in this article and had blundered into a moral (or is it political and/or ideological?) morass. I kept wondering about the aims of his comparisons and the criteria that guided his choice of whom and what to compare. Were there any moral/political/ideological intentions behind his choices, and were those choices conscious? Levine’s reference to the historian Hayden White wasn’t much help in allaying my worries: “What matters less than the factual basis of claims made by particular historians is what White (1975) has called their figurative content: their ability to artfully and compellingly summon up a world that coheres morally, ontologically, and aesthetically. Factual and procedural-methodological disagreements are of course possible; but they are also, at least partly, beside the point (104).” And here ostensibly, Levine assumes the historian’s role of locating the origins of social and political theory.

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12 Jun 2017
by Laura Sjoberg

On Writing ‘These Days of Shoah’: History and Fear, Then and Now

This is a post in the series on The International Origins of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. This post is by Daniel Levine, Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama, discussing his contribution. A response will be posted on Wednesday. 

How did these soft people, with no word for military tactic, start bulldozing Palestinian houses?

Sarah Schulman: Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, 12.

This paper emerged as I started working through the archival sources for my current book project, tentatively entitled Israel, Palestine, and the Politics of Jewish Fear (PJF).  Over the past two years, I have been reading the early issues of a Hebrew-language strategic studies journal called Ma’arakhot (“mih-ah-rah-KHOT” – ‘campaigns/operations,’ in the military sense).  Later to become the in-house journal of Israel’s Armed Forces – the rough equivalent of publications like Parameters or Infantry JournalMa’arakhot first appeared in September 1939 as a quasi-underground publication for the Haganah, the largest of the Zionist paramilitaries then operating in mandatory Palestine.

Ma’arakhot’s timing was propitious, and not merely because its first issue coincided with Germany’s invasion of Poland. The rise of European anti-Semitism, and tightened immigration quotas in the US and Western Europe, had produced a sharp spike in Jewish migration to Palestine.  Between 1922 and 1939, its Jewish community – the Yishuv – had grown more than fivefold, from 84,000 to almost 450,000.  Though still very much a minority, the Yishuv looked increasingly like a polity, one capable of sovereign self-determination.

In the face of such rapid growth – and in no small measure because of it – Palestine’s Arab population had by 1939 been in open revolt for some three years.  To suppress that revolt, British counterinsurgency forces would at their height include two full army divisions (some 25,000 servicemen) as well as expanded police and Jewish supernumerary forces.  Some 5,000 Palestinian Arabs (and by most counts, several hundred Jews) would be killed in clashes with British and Zionist forces, and in intra-communal violence as well.  In 1917, and again in 1922, Britain had promised to develop Palestine for the joint benefit of both Jews and Arabs. That policy, called ‘dual obligation’, was now plainly in tatters. London found itself facing the prospect of a costly, unpopular, and open-ended occupation; and this just as political tensions in Europe reached their peak.  In May 1939 – some four months before the first issue of Ma’arakhot went to press – Britain announced that it would quit Palestine within ten years, and sharply curtailed both Jewish immigration and land transfers between Palestinian Jews and Arabs. Continue Reading →

31 May 2017
by Laura Sjoberg

The International Origins of Social and Political Theory

This is a post by Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson, introducing their edited collection, The International Origins of Social and Political Theory 

What is the relationship between history and theory? Most of the time, theory stands outside history. Social scientists tend to apply theories to historical events, seeing history as a testing bed or as a site of “operationalization” for their theoretical schemas. Others, among them historians of thought, see theory as speech acts either rooted in their particular time and place, or, alternately, as reflections of broader social forces. On either account, theory (as intellectual systems) and history (as events, experiences and practices) appear as distinct domains.

Our opening into the wider project that Relations International is exploring is the idea that the relations between history and theory are better conceived as co-constitutive. Theory is made in history, and it helps to make history. Understanding theory, and understanding history, requires inquiry attuned to the entwinement of theory and history.

But what does it mean to say that theory is made in history, and that it helps to make history? It means that theories arise historically, formed amid encounters between theorists and the events and practices they experience and take part in.

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18 May 2017
by Laura Sjoberg

RelationsInternational Back; Forum announcement

Dear RelationsInternational Readers,

It has been a long month here at RelationsInternational – many of you know that we got hacked so badly that we had to rebuild the site from the ground up. It looks like we are secure now, so we thank you for your patience – through this, and through RI’s sporadic year this year.

Looking forward, we’re happy to announce that the revived RI will be doing a forum on Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson’s edited volume in the Political Power and Social Theory series on The International Origins of Social and Political Theory. The  editors and many of the authors will provide RI a blog post summary of their work, and RI’s interlocutors will engage in commentary and discussion. The first post, by Tarak and George, will be coming on Monday, so be ready!

Thanks again, and welcome back to RI,

Laura Sjoberg

8 May 2017
by Milos Popovic

Russia sponsors right-wing parties, but Soviets did it too

As the FBI investigates Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 Presidential elections, the Kremlin continues to bankroll European far-right and neo-Nazi parties to destabilize governments from France and Germany to Scandinavia. Under President Putin, Russia offers money, cooperation, and propaganda support to a wide variety of movements from Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party to Le Pen’s Front National to Hungarian neo-Nazis.

For a country that boasts of being the successor of the Soviet Union, the former beacon of proletarian internationalism, Russia, and European far-right parties would appear to be strange bedfellows. Historians have long studied how the Soviet Union both overtly and covertly supported Western-European communist parties in order to destabilize post-war democratic regimes throughout the region. It had been long thought, however, that the brutal war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany would preclude any Soviet collaboration with surviving Nazi elements.

Recently declassified archives from CIA and the Russian State Archive offer compelling evidence that Moscow deliberately established ties with Austrian National League in the 1950s, a party they well understood was made up of former Nazis.

After World War II, the four Allied Powers occupied Austria and divided the country and its capital Vienna into zones of control. As the shadow of the Iron Curtain descended over the old continent, the Soviets threw their support behind their ideological ally, the Communist Party of Austria (CPA), in hope that communism would triumph in the country. But the 1945 general election dealt a serious blow to the Soviet hopes as the CPA received a meager 5% of the vote. Soviet concerns about its influence in Western Europe increased sharply when in 1948 the United States launched the Marshall Plan to decrease Europe’s economic hardships. Only a year later, CPA suffered another staggering election defeat causing alarm within the Kremlin.

Moscow blamed the CPA’s election failure on their inability to win over the countryside, penetrate unions and, most importantly, attract Christian voters. The Kremlin sought to remedy this situation by linking to alternative partners, who could both attract these voters and penetrate the right-wing in order to weaken the ruling conservative People’s Party.

The CPA, with Soviet support, first tried to infiltrate nationalist Federation of Independents or VdU (a predecessor of Freedom Party of Austria) through a caucus around Josef Heger. But when VdU leadership found out that Heger was a Soviet mole, he was ousted together with his supporters in the aftermath of the 1949 elections. This forced Soviets then to choose a more radical solution after its intelligence services noticed Adolph Slavik and his newly formed right-wing party, the National League (NL). According to the Soviet archives, Adolph Slavik was a former SS officer and Hitler Youth member who established the NL together with 80 former Nazi officers and servicemen in Viennese restaurant “Fuhrer” in January 1950. NL quickly set up its committees in Vienna and Lower Austria, which drew in “quite a crowd” of “workers, peasants, housewives and petty bourgeoisie”. For a party of ex-Nazis, NL nourished a suspiciously pro-Soviet political stance aimed at “cooperation with the Soviet Union, and against turning [Austria] into a satellite or colony of American imperialism”. By 1952, NL had organized more than 500 gatherings and owned a daily newspaper with a circulation of 8 thousand copies (in contrast, the ruling conservatives had no party newspapers). Its tentacles quickly spread to rural areas where CPA had failed to garner strong support in previous elections.

Bizarrely, the Soviet report referred to NL as a “democratic” movement, while simultaneously castigating the then conservative government of Austria as “neo-fascist”. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire. In 1953, the Soviets admitted that there are contacts between CPA and Slavik (in the Soviet’s words he was a “progressive man”). Since Western European communist parties could not enter arrangements with other political parties without Moscow’s blessing, it is almost certain that Soviet officials encouraged this peculiar alliance.

Dozens of recently declassified CIA documents regarding Slavik and NL cast more light on Slavik’s relationship with the Soviets. In one such report, the CIA finds that as early as 1950, NL propagandists were allowed to operate in Soviet-occupied Vienna and Lower Austria in their bid to attract former Nazis to their ranks. Slavik even received funding from the Administration of Soviet Property in Austria (USIA) to publish party newspapers. Similar to present day right-wing pilgrimages in support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NL also sent delegations to Communist-sponsored Peace Council meetings. In 1950, Slavik traveled to East and West Germany to set up an intelligence network for the Soviets in Austria, and he reportedly engaged in cross-border arms smuggling.

The most blatant show of collaboration with the Soviets, which ultimately spelled NL’s political demise, occurred on the eve of 1952 Presidential elections when Slavik openly instructed his party members to cast blank ballots in congruence with Moscow’s position, and called for NL to join the communist People’s Opposition coalition. This created dissension among League members as a number of leaders also found that Slavik had received a monthly contribution of 42,000 shillings from USIA firms to sustain the parties daily. Faced with the brewing discontent, Slavik backtracked on his decision, but it was too late as the NL voted him out of leadership. After the 1953 elections, NL largely fell into political oblivion together with its founding father.

The collapse of the National League suggests a possible strategy that similarly highlighting Russia’s ties with current right-wing parties could also discredit them with their countries electorate. This is especially important given that a few such parties may grow stronger after the elections in Germany, France, and Italy, in 2017. Failure to do so will expose Western societies to more xenophobic, anti-democratic and anti-liberal rhetoric that the weakened ruling conservatives may adopt to remain in office.

22 Apr 2017
by Brandon Valeriano

Respecting the Outsider

Will Moore’s passing is tough to process, not just because he was such a wonderful mentor to so many people, but also because of the conversations he has started or reignited.  Especially the conversation on depression, mainly driven by the Duck of Minerva with posts by Emily Ritter and John Busby.

Even those who do not suffer from clinical depression do get to feel tinges of it given the bipolar nature of our jobs.  One day it is a lecture in front of hundreds of students (or three star generals) paying attention to every word, the next you are at a Starbucks trying to get 500 words in so you can at least feel productive. Another day you might get a journal acceptance email that was five years in the making and then, two hours later, a grant rejection email.  The highs are high and the lows are low, but they come fast and quick in academia.

Yet, there is another conversation we need to have, one about being an outsider in academia.  This is something Will suffered from given his personality. He was would say and do things that some people found shocking. (I was quite heartened to see that one of his last on Facebook posts was about dildos.) He did not hesitate to tell you the worst things about your work or say (and blog) shocking things in public.  In short, he behaved quite the opposite of many in the field.

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