Air strikes as public relations


So, there we go. Just one month after having covered Yemen with air strikes that killed more than 35 civilians, among them at least 12 children (not the first to kill civilians in Yemen, by the way), the oh-so sensitive President Agent Orange gets all worked up over pictures of dying Syrian babies and decides ‘to do something’. In America speak ‘to do something’ means bombing a preferably Muslim country from a safe position and giving sentimental speeches which necessarily contain the words ‘freedom’, ‘American values’ and ‘God bless America’. There is nothing really astonishing or new here. Making America Great Again traditionally involves bombing a poor and colored nation to sh**. And it traditionally works. Like Pavlov’s dog, Americans across the spectrum jump unthinkingly into ‘patriotic’ mode as soon as missile fireworks glitter on CNN (or Fox) and the ‘OUR NAVY’ sign lightens up. Never mind all those beautiful babies that die from American bombs and drones; America is defending freedom in the world. Ta! Take this!

What is different this time is that this bombing seems to be entirely due to the capricious and extravagant TV binge watching of an entirely unhinged president. There has been absolutely no recognizable logic in any foreign policy decisions of this administration; the Secretary of State What’s-His-Name shines through his absence; the UN ambassador to the UN is still grappling with understanding basic UN procedures; the National Security Council just got reshuffled hours before the strikes; and whatever any of those who should be in the know have said in the days before the strike pointed in a completely different direction. Like with everything else, T seems to have acted on a whim, without any plan whatsoever and without consulting with anyone competent and knowledgeable.

The incompetence of this administration is out of doubt. But this incompetence is not a fault in the design of this administration but the design itself. If we look for any logic in his foreign policy, we fall foul to a fundamental mistake, namely to believe that any decision of this President is about the policy matter at stake. Puzzling about the motives of the air strikes and its possible effects and potential ‘after’-politics is all assuming that the air strikes are, indeed, about Syria, Assad or chemical weapons. But they are not.

There is only one constant in all policy decision of the T administration, whether on health care or Syria, and that is he and himself. If we want to understand the rational of any decision we simply need to ask what benefits T himself garners from it. Forget the ‘beautiful babies’.

First benefit: approval ratings. As said bombing a foreign country always works and if there are little babies, hunger-bloated children or victim women to save all the better. T’s approval ratings were the lowest of any president at any time since these are polled. They are certainly much better since yesterday (see Pavlov’s effect above). The rally-around-the-flag effect will also benefit his daughter and son-in-law whose involvement in foreign policy decisions has come under hefty criticism recently.

Second benefit: Did you notice, too, that there was some, uhm, let’s call it dissatisfaction among Republicans with T’s politics recently? Well, that’s done for. No Republican who doesn’t love a good military campaign! And then to save ‘beautiful babies’! How lovely!

Third benefit: Let’s stay a moment with the Republicans. They just changed rules to the Senate which are pretty fundamental for the good functioning of checks-and-balances of American democratic institutions. But, yeah, somehow that vote to change the rules got a bit lost with all this cruise missile hype….


Fourth benefit: whatever there is as Russia connection, it is getting hotter and hotter for T. Now that Republican Devin Nunes has stepped down as chair, the Russia investigation of the House intelligence committee will get seriously going. What a better way of showing that T is not a Russian puppet than bombing some of their military advisors in Syria? With proper warning of course because, hey, we don’t really want to kill them, just ‘sending a message’

Fifth benefit: remember who T was dining with when the air strikes took place? Yeah, right! The Chinese president! The same one who is overseeing the construction of air bases in the South China Sea which are by now almost completed; the same one who is supposed to calm down a hyperactive North Korea. How handy it must have come to give Xi Jinping a real-time demonstration of the US’s military prowess. Tomahawk missiles which were used in the Syria air strike, are short-range missiles just like the ones that would be likely to be used in the South China Sea as they do not require pilots (and fixed air bases) and can be used as sea-to-sea weapons; they are flexible in the bombs they are carrying and, hence, can be equipped to destroy ‘soft infrastructure’ (such as planes but not runways). And wouldn’t it be nice if this flexing of muscles would quite simply impress Xi so much that he’d happily agree to make Walmart not buy cheap goods in China anymore? And to bring back those plastic toy factories to the Apalachias. Oh wait, that’s nothing Xi or T can actually do coz you know that are private companies…well, whatever, at least T has shown those pesky Chinese who the boss is in the world!

Sixth benefit: remember that T said that NATO is obsolete? Remember that T said that they will slash funds to UN peacekeeping (and humanitarian aid, and development aid)? And some dared to say that this was not a good idea? Well, the air strikes just proved again how little the US have to care about multi-lateral agreements, international organizations or, simply, international law. In case you though he was just a bit tired when he didn’t think it necessary or polite to shake Angela Merkel’s hand.

The air strikes make absolutely no sense other than being a public relations strategy of someone who sincerely believes that life is nothing else than a TV reality show about him and himself The administration says itself that they just wanted to send out a message. And so they did, not to Assad or, beware, the Syrian population who are still banned for taking refuge in the USA. But to others, many others, those who are useful to T’s very narrow, very personal, very narcissistic view of himself. It is as cynical and simple as that. And yeah, it is f*** dangerous; not everyone likes playing T show…


Why I’m not at ISA this year


Today opens the International Studies Association Annual Convention in Baltimore in USA. The ISA convention is the largest international conference in international relations and regularly draws more than two thousand scholars from the world…or to be more precise from the USA (mainly), Europe & Australia (a lot) and the rest of the world (a bit). This will be the first ISA in the Trump era and I am not the only one who was incited by Agent Orange’s presidency not to participate. I took this decision after T’s travel ban as I saw this and his other executive orders as clear expressions of his quasi-fascist politics which I did not wish to acknowledge in any way through the fact that I participate in what is, at the end of the day, an annual pilgrimage to the USA.

Many argued that they are refusing to go to Baltimore out of solidarity with colleagues who are directly affected by the travel ban (i.e. everyone born in any of these countries, including colleagues holding dual citizenship or green cards). I think that this is an entirely legitimate and ethical argument to make; yet, I believe that the travel ban and the other executive orders are only the tip of the iceberg of much more fundamental political and ethical conundrum. The hatred, xenophobia, retro-nationalism and racism that have come to the open with T’s election and also the Leave vote in the UK feed on a much deeper crisis of our societies and they throw up much more fundamental questions about how we, academics, want to understand our role and work in these societies.

Although I was deeply shocked about the frank abrasiveness with which the T administration exposed their islamophobia, their ignorance and racism, my unease with going to this year’s ISA had settled in before this happened; actually, I started weighing the question whether I should go immediately when it became clear that he won the electoral college. There are many ways his election win can be interpreted but I, for one, saw this resulting from a model of society that has deeply ingrained individual competition, careerism, jealousy, envy and atomism into all social relations and all our institutions.

We know all the books that document and analyse these processes how we have all become individual fighters for our careers, with our portable skills and knowledge, our modular fitness-to-purpose attitudes and our performance indicator literacy. Richard Sennett’s ‘The Corrosion of Character’, for instance, takes apart various job categories and dissects slowly and cruelly how in each sector careers have become individualized, how individuals are constantly pitched against each other and exposed to perpetual uncertainty, and how these neoliberal ways of working have eroded social trust, communities and seriously undermined our capacity to talk to each other, to understand each other and, in short, to live together. The corrosion of character occurs because in our golden neoliberal cage a person’s worth is no longer the being she is but the career she was able to have. Our work value determines our being and all other human beings are nothing more than potential obstacles or means to our perfect career; additional risk factors in an anyway uncertain and arbitrary life trajectory which we try to rule in by co-optation or conflict.

One professional category Sennett does not look at, however, is academia. Yet, the greatly impoverished vision of a person’s worth that the new spirit of capitalism has promoted has since long expanded into universities. As intellectual work is often sui generis individualistic (the argument that only I can write my ideas) most academics have easily bought into the fatal logic of neoliberal careerism. New public management techniques like performance reviews have merely institutionalized the self-exploitative, auto-reproductive precariousness of university careers. The quality of an academic life is determined by ‘products’; creation and dissemination of knowledge as well as education (understood in the broad sense of ‘Bildung’) of the young are only so much of interest as they can be manufactured in quantifiable, individualized and marketable forms. This has not only tremendously reduced the space for creativity, innovation, bold thinking and fun, it has also had the extreme impact of insulating academics from each other, destroying professional solidarity and depriving collective spaces from deliberation, discussion, dissent and exchange (see for instance our university unions whose sole function nowadays is to negotiate salaries and provide legal assistance where they could have been spaces of thinking broadly and boldly about higher education). Furthermore, there is little doubt that the metrification of academia has led to an intellectual impoverishment of research where ‘sure and simple’ research is strongly prioritized over innovative, explorative and out-of-the-box research. The focus on performance indicators privileges snapshot metrics and creates its own loops of conservatism: a high-impact journal is a journal one has to submit to, a high number of submissions (and consequently rejections) makes it a highly competitive journal, a highly competitive journal is a high-impact journal, a high-impact journal…

Such dynamics of auto-reproduction obviously reinforce pre-existing boundaries of exclusion and create new barriers of access. Where individual careerism and competitiveness are the royal pathways to success, personalized networks, gatekeeping and orthodoxy become essential and fiercely defended by the ‘haves’ against ‘have-not-yet’s. To be fair, professoral colleges with their century-old traditions of elite selectivity (remember ‘graduation’ does not mean that you are released from your status as student but that you are accepted into the guild of studiosi) did not need a lot of pushing to integrate those neoliberal new public administration instruments of recreating their power positions.  The confidence that there is only me who can think so brilliantly as to deserve the chair of Whateverstudies at Whereeverland  university has always been a condition-sine-qua-non of academia. Neoliberal governance only amplified manifold the individualism of academia and introduced an existential nastiness into the competition through the hugely increased casualization of work and the direct connection created between measurable ‘success’ (grants, publications, impact factors etc.) and our lives (no success, no money, no love!). Professional organizations like ISA have been instrumental in these changes. And although there is no lack of critical self-examination and awareness of the detrimental effects of new public managed universities in these organizations, their inaction to counter these developments is again and again stunning.

The T administration’s travel ban hits exactly on this spot. It concerns mainly scholars from countries who are to a large extent already excluded from international studies. Who knows a scholar from an Iranian university who wanted to come to ISA? I don’t. The colleagues I know who would have been banned from travelling to the USA (had the ban remained in place) were all educated in the USA, Australia or Europe and all working for a ‘western’ university. In the 12 years I am going to ISA I had exactly 2 scholars from the Global South on any of my panels.

But what more is: the travel ban emanates from a president who is himself a caricature of the neoliberal self and whose program is a page out of the devil’s companion to neo-capitalist managerialism. T’s presidency is a parabol of the atomisation and commodification of our societies; and it can only exist because careerism and competitiveness have so fully and naturally become part of our lives on so many levels. It is this that I would expect ISA to address at exactly this moment in time. How have we, the academics, contributed to the rise of this neo-fascist right by simply playing the neoliberal game of ‘performance’? A game where ‘employability’ of students is more important than teaching them poetry, where my career depends on playing along in power games that are detrimental to my mental and physical health, the academic community and my social and natural environment? How is the way our professional careers are currently organized reproducing patterns of powerful exclusions, marginalizations and atomisation?

But I cannot see that such a debate is happening at ISA on an institutional and general level; it is happening among many colleagues who are wonderfully fierce opponents of these neoliberal ways and in many different forums. But these remain rather marginalized at ISA; so much that the ISA programmers renamed, without the consent of its organizers, a panel series that explicitly called out exploitation and harassment of junior scholars giving it a far more benign title in order not to appear provocative.

The general ISA reaction appears to me well summarized in the response of an US American junior scholar to the request that ISA be held outside the USA in the future: but, but, but then we American junior scholars have to pay a lot of money for airfares and our careers might get slowed down! Individual career chances are gauged against questions of collective solidarity and common weal, and this is considered a valid argument. But it is not, neither for ISA’s problem of US-centeredness and neoliberal complicity, nor for being against the travel ban or for discussing career paths in US academia.

Of course, one can legitimately argue, staying away as I am doing is also not very helpful for advancing this discussion. That is right. It is again a very individualized, personal decision to withdraw temporarily and selectively from what I see being a cruel parody of the neoliberal image of the disposable knowledge production that academia has become in our times. There are amazing protests going on in the USA against T and also against this commodification of all aspects of our lives; many colleagues who are going to ISA are part of these protests and have dedicated their research to their advancement. It is their attendance at ISA that has, in ‘normal’ years, been my main motivation to go there. But not this time; this time I feel that voicing our outrage in esoteric panels, debating our views in hotel rooms and late-night/jet-lag ranting in pubs is not enough. It is our career focus that is keeping the machine alive so I think the best way to protest the machine is precisely not to play this move in the career game.

This decision is, in fact, an avowal of a weakness, namely the weakness of the global citizen to act meaningfully locally. If I were American, or if I were at least engaged in the US for a longer time period, I could indeed try to meaningfully interact with that America that made T possible. However, if I only fly in for three days to a conference I cannot do anything sensible locally (and not the least because I will be completely jetlagged). The US is not my context of action and ISA does not offer the adequate frame for spontaneous, on-the-spot activism. I do not have any decision-making role in ISA either that would allow me to initiate or, at least, meaningfully participate in any general debate over its outlook, identity and future. Additionally, my academic standing is not in any way powerful enough to shape any debate about US politics. Who am I to pretend otherwise? So if there is no real opportunity to constructively shape this debate, than the best is to acknowledge that there is no space for me at ISA right now.


This the letter I wrote to the panelists on my refusal to go to ISA this year:

“So, I have decided to cancel my participation in this year’s ISA convention in Baltimore. It was not an easy decision to take. I have organized two panels with now 8 participants and I had to weigh my consciousness against my responsibility toward these colleagues who might have not come if it hadn’t been for my initiative. I have even, in the past weeks, persuaded two colleagues to come even though they wanted to withdraw. I do feel that I am letting them down and this is why I need to explain why I finally decided that I do not want to travel to the US and pretend that these are normal times where I am just doing my job.

I maybe have to start with the banal statement that I am German. I am of the generation who still could talk to the people who lived through Nazism. I, or better we, this generation, was almost constantly discussing Nazism in school and among friends and, to some extent, in my family. Very early on in these discussions the question for me changed from the quasi utopian ‘what would I have done?’ to the much more realistic ‘how would I have contributed to Nazism just by living my life?’.  This question has dominated my life, my professional choices, my choices of friends, my studies and my interest in politics. Like many other youngsters I asked my grand-father and my grand-uncle what they had done and how they had coped. My grand-father never answered. My grand-uncle did with the common disavowal which was: “I just got on with my life (passed exams, got a job, founded a family etc.) and did not really notice what was going on.” (He also admitted that he, a Chemist working for BASF, was evacuated from Dresden before the heavy bombings started which still leaves me wondering whether German military actually knew of the RAF’s plans – but that is another story). As a child I believed him because I loved him; as an adult I know that he was in denial.

But the scariest normalization of Nazism had not been my grandparents but my great-grandfather, Fritz Heiligenstädt, who was „Leiter der Reichsstelle für Volksbüchereiwesen ins Reichsministerium für Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung“ which translates as Director of the Reich Agency for Public Libraries at the Ministry for Science and Education (there is an American historian who has worked on his activities, Margaret Stieg Dalton, and a short Wikipedia). The family story told me that he had accepted this role because it always had been his ambition to develop a nation-wide network of public libraries. Historians tell me that he actively participated in the burning of books in Hannover and that he quite busily anticipated and implemented the various censorship waves in public libraries (Lenin in with Hitler-Stalin Pact, Lenin out with attack on Soviet Union, for instance). One story does not exclude the other. He was simply going on with his life, with his job, his career. Just like Eichmann, maybe even without the anti-semitism.

Now, the USA is not Nazi Germany (yet). But I strongly feel that it is quickly on its way of becoming a fundamentally anti-democratic, anti-pluralist and fascist state and it has been standard to brutally and cruelly discriminate people on the grounds of their skin colour or religion for a long, long time now. I also feel that this anti-enlightenment is not caused by that man in the white house but he’s just a sort of caricature of white American middle class society as it has existed since a long time. What is much more disquieting for me is not T’s non-sense spluttering but the huge mass of Eichmanns, the banal collaborators of daily life. Of course, in all societies there is a certain percentage of people who are clear about their exacerbated nationalism, their extremist Christian bigotry, their obscurantism, their vulgar hatred, and their ordinary prejudices. But these are usually a minority and no political regime could exist only with them. What it needs are Eichmanns or Fritz Heiligenstädts. Those who just want to get on with their lives and their careers.

I feel going to the USA now, going to ISA now, would be doing exactly that, normalizing an absolutely abnormal situation and ignoring the cruelty and ugliness of T’s junta regime. I would be setting my unease, my abhorrence, my consciousness aside because I just want to get on with my job. I have tried hard in the past weeks to convince myself that there might be good reasons that this is not so. That I’m having a responsibility toward the colleagues who are presenting on the panels I’ve organized, that American colleagues are under pressure and that I’m showing solidarity, that I maybe could even participate in some protests or vigils; that I’m being pathetic for taking all this spectacle too seriously; that I’m doing more good by going than by staying away… but no. By travelling to the USA and to a US-dominated conference additionally I feel that I am paying tribute to the USA as country in general and as the alleged site of academic excellence in particular. Whether I then whine about the yucky feeling I had when I received my ESTA ‘approved’ stamp or hold a candle in the Hilton Lobby is absolutely and entirely irrelevant. I would have accepted that I am going there as if everything would be okay and normal (and, being European, white and blond, it would be okay!).  And this I do not want to do. I simply do not want to set foot into this country and spend one single cent on American companies (especially not the Hilton).

I sincerely apologize to my panellists for the inconvenience I’m causing.”




Trump’s USA and the United Nations


Reacting to the UN’s recent resolution condemning Israel for its continued occupation and settlements in the West Bank, Mr. Trump immediately tweeted his rather reduced view of the United Nations, calling it a ‘club where people talk’. If that were not enough to show once again his utter ignorance of the world he lives in, T apparently also thought that the idea to ‘leave’ the UN was not an entirely bad one. Nobody seems to have told him that there is one major problem with this idea: The USA cannot leave the UN. Nope. They can’t. No, not after January 20th. No, not even with a referendum. No, not even if California secedes and the US descend into civil war. No. Simply: no.

Imagine UN membership like citizenship of a country. You can rail against the state, you can jump up and down, you can crash your explosive loaded truck into a government building like Tim McVeigh did and be hanged for it, but you will remain a US citizen. Well, the UN is the same: the US can jump up and down, they can rail against the UN, they can smash their most vicious right-winger against its edifices… the USA will remain member of the UN.  Their seat in the UN would remain empty, if they chose not to attend meetings, yes, but nobody would screw the chair from the General Assembly or Security Council floor. Every sovereign state of this world is automatically member of the United Nations. And the United Nations, someone should tell T, was actually founded by the USA. With an international treaty. Signed, ratified, done…a long, long time ago.

Of course, the USA can decide  to stay away. No representative, no attendance at General Assembly or Security Council sessions. But even T might understand that that’s not really a smart thing to do. The Soviet Union tried that in 1949. They thought ‘Hey, that’s just a club where capitalists talk, let’s not bother going there’ and then the General Assembly voted a resolution authorizing military action in Korea in its absence. The Soviet Union paid a high political and economic price for the Korea War. And guess what? The Soviet Union never again missed one single day of General Assembly or Security Council meetings.

The USA can also stop paying for its membership and maybe, if it is too outrageous in its snobbery, get its voting rights suspended — although to be fair that never happened even when Republican dominated Congress voted for years and years not to pay their dues to the UN. But then the US will still be member of the UN. Because the UN is exactly not some club where non-paying members get expelled. And of course, the outstanding membership fees remain on tab until a more reasonable Congress votes to pay them, or part of them at least.

So, no, sorry T, the USA cannot leave the UN. And that might be a greater pity for the world than for the USA.


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Mr. Trump


By coincidence, the UN and the USA came to ‘elect’ their respective leaders, Antonio Guterres and Donald Trump, at the same time. In both cases, there was not much of an election if the term is meant to designate the selection of a political person through the means of fair competition and general elections in which the will of all the people is properly translated into votes. In the USA, many voters, especially African Americans and from minorities, were disenfranchised on more than hollow grounds before the elections with the effect of low voter turnout in poor areas, and the popular vote was, to say the least, in blatant contradiction to the electoral college vote. The problem with the popular vs. electoral college vote is not so much that there are two electoral mechanisms, for this is, actually, quite common in many democracies; the problem is that these two institutions are not linked to each other or even coordinated in any way. The electoral college vote does not reflect the demographics of present-day USA and its demographic bias reduces particularly the vote of African Americans, and there is no obligation whatsoever for Great Electors to take the popular vote into account. Additionally, the election took place in a highly loaded atmosphere with incessant threats of violence from the Trump side, and a continuous flow of fake news, propaganda and extremely aggressive trolling.  The US elections did not only reflect the deep divisions running through the country but also the fragility of institutions that rely heavily on unwritten norms of civility, respect and dialogue.

Compared to the spectacle of the US elections, Antonio Guterres’ appointment as Secretary-General of the United Nations appeared as a rather civilized yet highly staged, hypocritical and fundamentally undemocratic process. But then, the UN does not pretend to be the oldest modern democracy. It actually not even pretends to be democratic, at least not in the modern sense of the word. The Secretary-General is chosen by a mixture of backroom bargaining and ballot by the Security Council members. It effectively represents the smallest common denominator of the preferences of the five permanent members of the Council because preferences, choices and rankings of all selectors will never match up, and it is mathematically impossible that any candidate would ever get a clear majority (especially not if there are more candidates than selectors; this is called the Condorcet voting paradox and is also behind the IOC’s absurd choices of Olympic cities).

The Secretary-General is also not the leader of a world government despite conspiracy theories that claim the contrary. The Secretary General of the United Nations is the ‘chief administrative officer’ of the UN yet with large leeway for advocacy and the potential of an important diplomatic role in the world. Whether the Secretary-General really takes up this later role, for instance by independently bringing matters of world peace onto the agenda of the Security Council, depends entirely on his stature. Secretary-Generals like Dag Hammarskjöld, Xavier Perez de Cuellar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali or Kofi Annan interpreted their role largely and widely and engaged in numerous initiatives to bolster the role of the UN as peacemaker in the world; others like U Thant, Kurt Waldheim or Ban Ki-Moon made the UN almost entirely disappear from the world political scene.

It remains to be seen in whose footsteps Guterres will step, Moon’s or Annan’s.

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Why it is important to decolonize and feminize reading lists


This post was written before the passing of Thomas Schelling on 12 December 2016. It is not an obituary.

When I was an undergraduate student I took a political economy class in which we read exclusively white, male, mostly US American scholars. One of them was Thomas Schelling. Remembering my two childhood years in a mixed Philadelphia suburb I was particularly intrigued by his model of neighbourhood segregation. According to Schelling, not one group in a society wants to be a minority and hence, once a neighbourhood becomes predominantly ‘red’ or ‘green’ the minority neighbours will move away…to a neighbourhood where their group is strong and likely to become a majority, hence, pushing out the other group that is becoming a minority. Obviously enough, this model is easy to criticize from within its own thinking, most particularly with respect to the presumption that clearly delineated groups exist, that people think in racial/ethnic patterns and that what is supposed to be an autonomous ‘rational’ choice is, in fact, an intersubjective and socially constructed reaction to social dynamics…

Yet, Schelling also missed (or ‘forgot’) that a pretty hard materialist political economy that makes racial segregation possible in the first place, especially in the USA, as Keeanga-Yamattha Taylor’s research shows. Before the 1960s, ethnic minorities in the US, and in particular African Americans, were barred in various ways of buying houses, either because they were simply denied the right to move out of their designated neighbourhoods (Chinatown!), or  because they had no access to mortgages. In many places, public authorities in the 1960s set up public-private partnerships to offer finance for low-income house buyers, most notably from ethnic minorities — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for example, two key actors of the 2008 financial crisis were such organizations, were transformed from entirely federal public institutions into public-private enterprises which needed to produce profit. This had at least two effects on the housing market: first, these mortgage companies had a huge influence on where lenders could buy, hence, playing on the market value of neighbourhoods; second, many of these organizations became deeply marred in corruption and speculation, hence, creating repeated mini-crises which led to default and dispossession, again dragging down the housing market in those neighbourhoods where these occurred (think The Wire).

Schelling’s assumption that moving in and out of a neighbourhood based on ethnic preferences (birds of a feather flock together) is an example of rational choice is, in the light of the political economy of the segregated market for mortgage lending and house buying, not tenable. Of course, one can argue that the individual decision of a white houseowner to sell their houses in those neighbourhoods where filthy financed new homeowners move in might be rational in the indivdualistic and utilitarian sense of rational choice theory. However, that the market is segregated, i.e. the structural precondition of this kind of market, and that, a priori, black home ownership (or Asian or Italian or…) devalues a neighbourhood is the result of the political institutions of excluding ethnic minorities and its associated political economy of finance.

That someone like Schelling would have not taken racial segregation into account can only be explained by either ignorance or arrogance. He either didn’t know about the political economy of segregation, or he decided that it was simply not relevant to his thinking. In either case, Schelling could develop his argument about rational choice house buying only because he moved intellectually (and personally) in a white, male bubble (we can make the same argument about the political economy of housebuying for female home owners, by the way, as women’s right to own property in their own name is relatively recent, yet earlier than for ethnic minorities in the US). We can only imagine that he would have thought differently if he had been exposed to colourful reading lists which take racial and gendered political economies into account.




Decolonizing and feminizing reading lists


In summer 2009 Stephen Walt published in Foreign Policy Magazine a reading list “My ‘top ten’ books every student of international relations should read” which only contained books of white American men. As shocking his narrowness of mind is he arrogantly asks at the end of his list is he has missed anything. Well, he has! He has missed contintental, women’s, feminist (not the same thing, mind you), queer, post-colonial, de-colonial, critical, Critical, IPE, sociological and post-structuralist books of international relations, and that’s HUGE! Basically Walt has ignored every single scholar who is not white, male and American, and everyone who cannot agree with US foreign policy as practiced by the Kissingers and Bushs. That’s pretty much the rest of the world.

If we want our students to be critical, empathic and interested in the rest of the world we need to propose other reading lists. On this blog I propose a couple of books I would put on my ‘top ten’ books every student of international relations should read. More importantly I will publish suggestions of colleagues so that we can collectively put together a reading list that reflects the multiplicity and colourfulness of the world we live in.

So this will be hopefully the first of a series of posts. To start, my top twelve books every students of international relations should read would look like this:

Dezalay, Y. and B. G. Garth (2011) Lawyers and the rule of law in an era of globalization, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, Routledge.

Enloe, C. H. (2014) Bananas, beaches and bases : making feminist sense of international politics, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.

Grovogui, S. N. Z. (1996) Sovereigns, quasi sovereigns, and Africans : race and self-determination in international law, Minneapolis, Mn, University of Minnesota Press.

Gruffydd Jones, B. (2006) Decolonizing international relations, Lanham, Md. ; Plymouth, Rowman & Littlefield.

Jahn, B. (2013) Liberal internationalism : theory, history, practice, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan.

Li, T. (2007) The will to improve : governmentality, development, and the practice of politics, Durham, Duke University Press.

Mazower, M. (2009) No enchanted palace: the end of empire and the ideological origins of the United Nations, Princeton university press.

Mudimbe, V. Y. (1988) The invention of Africa : gnosis, philosophy, and the order of knowledge, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Sassen, S. (2006) Territory, Authority, Rights. From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton, Princeton U.P.

Teschke, B. (2002) The Myth of 1648. Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations, London/ New York, Verso.

Vitalis, R. (2015) White world order, black power politics : the birth of American international relations, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Weber, C. (2014) International relations theory : a critical introduction, London ; New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. (actually I haven’t finished reading Queer International Relations, yet but I guess when I will have I’ll replace the International relations theory book with the Queer one).


I have chosen twelve because I didn’t quite know which two to throw out of this list…and I still have missed masses. All suggestions welcome this list is meant to grow!

And first wonderful suggestion:

Sjoberg, L. and C. E. Gentry (2007) Mothers, monsters, whores : women’s violence in global politics, London ; New York; New York, Zed Books; Palgrave Macmillan.


That fabulous politician recycling machine that is the United Nations (example #1): Philippe Douste-Blazy


In 2001, a local social movement in Toulouse called ‘Les Motivé-e-s’ won four seats in the French municipal council elections. Their campaign song ‘Allez Ouste! (Douste-Blazy)’ became a national hit and made the movement known across France. The target of the song and campaign was Toulouse’s mayor Philippe Douste-Blazy who was accused of managing the pink city’s fortunes in all too obscure fashion. Douste-Blazy managed to stay in power in these elections but he gave up his position as mayor three years later when he became, first, Minister of health and family under Jean-Pierre Raffarin, then Foreign Minister under Dominque de Villepin and Jacques Chirac. Like others who were close to Jacques Chirac he has disappeared from France’s political scene after Chirac’s fiercest rival Nicolas Sarkozy was elected French president in 2007. He didn’t fall hard, though. Since 2008 he is Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development at the United Nations, at the rank of an Under-Secretary-General, and Chairman of UNITAID. The innovative financing in question is a levy on airline tickets to finance HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis drugs in developing countries. UNITAID sees itself as facilitator. It does not have own projects but supports programs of other organizations. The creation of the organization goes back to an initiative of Jacques Chirac — does someone else hear the bells ringing?

In 2011, Jacques Chirac has been, by the way, sentenced to two years of prison (on parole) for the creation of feigned employments at the City Hall of Paris when he was mayor of Paris from 1977 until 1995. The scandal of ’emplois fictifs de la mairie de Paris’ is only one of several financial scandals involving Chirac and his closest aides; the obscure financing of his party and electoral campaigns, on national, regional and municipal level, have also been since long in the eye of the prosecutors of the French republic. There is no doubt that Chirac and his ‘clan’ (as his close party mates were often called) have solid experience in ‘innovative financing’… honi soit qui mal y pense…


Women at the UN: what is at stake?


Since Helen Clark is in the race for the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, everyone talks about gender equality at the UN (and international organizations more generally). The UN is certainly one of the places in the world where the discrepancy between the discourse of equality and its reality of gender and race based marginalization is absurd. Indeed, it needs a white woman from a high-income OECD country to make a female UN Secretary General imaginable. In 2016, the UN is still far, far away from what has become possible at the British National Student Union, namely the election of dark skinned woman of ‘Muslim’ origin (inverted commas as the category ‘Muslim’ is a really silly rubbish bin category to squeez all those people in who have not been to Brownies). Helen Clark’s female competitors (Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, Susana Malcorra from Argentina, Maria Angela Holguin from Colomba) have received much less attention from Western media even though their track record as workers for humanity is at least as good as Clark’s if not better; one wonders why…

Apart from the fact that she is from a rich country, one reason Helen Clark is so spoilt by many Western media is that she is considered to be able to promote women’s issues and equality at the UN. She herself plays the women card very loudly in her campaign by claiming that women are a force of peace or that by giving TED talks about women and leadership. She emphasises how much she has done herself to promote women in government while she was New Zealand’s prime minister and chair of the World Council of Women Leaders.

But being a woman and woman senior leader does not automatically lead to greater gender equality in an organization. The UN is a particularly stubborn place when it comes to the promotion of women. This article on the opendemocracy website has some really uncomfortable charts to show this. As the article says: “At the current rate of increase [of women in senior positions] during the current Secretary General’s tenure—from 20 percent in 2007 to 22 percent in 2015—it would take another 112 years to reach 50/50 gender parity in the UN’s senior leadership.”

In peace missions, however, the share of women has noticeably risen. In 2006, not one single mission was led by a woman. Today, the UN misisons in Haiti (Sandra Honoré), Lebanon (Sigrid Kaag), Côte d’Ivoire (Aïchatou Mindaoudou), South Sudan (Margaret Løj) and Burundi (Karen Lindgren) are headed by women. Before this there had been only one mission that had been led by a woman, the first UN peace mission in Angola under Margaret Joan Anstee (a vivid account can be found in her memoirs and Marrack Goulding’s).

Most of these women are in sort of mid-career stages and it is probable that their current position as special representative will lead to further advancement. Even though overall the share of women has not increased in UN senior management in recent years, there is a little hope that in peacebuilding, at least, women’s presence might well be just taking off. Having a female secretary general, whether Helen Clark or someone else, does intuitively make believe that the careers of these female Heads of Missions would not be stalled in the same way Anstee’s career came to an end after the Angola experience and Boutros-Ghali’s installation as Secretary General.

However, the problem is that we don’t know. Having a woman at the top of the UN might as well have no effect whatsoever on the gender gap in international organizations. To start with, the UN is not doing particularly worse than any other socio-professional or political sector; it is actually doing better than many countries, including advanced industrial countries. Worldwide women hold only 12% of seats on executive boards of major business corporations (same page). Men still earn about twice as much income as women. According to the World Bank, worldwide parliamentary representation of women has increased to 23%, however it is a bit puzzling to see particularly high representation of women in parliaments that are utterly dysfunctional (e.g. Cuba or Iran). One explanation is that some countries generously count in these statistics female representatives in parliamentary chambers that have not direct legislative powers (e.g. Bolivia which has about 50% women in its lower chamber but none in its higher parliamentary chamber). Having a female head of state or government has not had any direct impact on women’s representation in parliament as the case of Germany for instance shows. According to the UN women programme, 11 women served as Head of State and 10 served as Head of Government as of August 2015 and only 17% of ministers worldwide were women.

Compared to this, the UN is actually doing ok with its 22% of women in senior leadership positions. But this also means that there will be a hell of resistance to take active measures to further increase women’s representation at the UN. For many male-dominated organizations, one woman in a room represents already parity. The best means to increase women’s representation has been up to now the introduction of quota. However, in an organization like the UN that is already riddled and divided up by numerous formal and informal quota it is unlikely that such a proposition would get anywhere even if it were seriously on the table. There are, of course, numerous other ways of supporting promotion of women in organizations like flexible working times, child care support (which in the case of the UN should include family friendly expatriate arrangements) and active support for promotion for instance through mentoring and gender sensitive promotion structures.

It’s in this last respect that much is expected from a female UN Secretary General. However, simply having a woman at the top cannot by itself lead to better support for female colleagues; on the contrary, single women leaders have shown a tendency to frustrate junior female careers rather than to support them. This has become known as ‘queen bee’ phenomenon and a well-known plot of Hollywood films. In mild forms the queen bee effect can be seen in female leaders’ refusal to support any kind of active policies to reduce gender gaps (‘we do the same work as men’), whereas more aggressive forms can take the form of active obstruction, for instance by precisely asking more effort and better results from women colleagues. The reasons for queen bee’s existence have been explained in various forms but some research argues that it is, actually, a result of gender inequality, and not a cause.

Researchers point to two factors that determine the severity of the queen bee phenomenon: the ‘maleness’ of the organizational culture and the socio-cultural socialization of the female leaders. Simply said the more sexist an organization is the more it is likely that a woman has complied with and assimilated gender stereotypes. She will apply these sexist standards to female junior staff in order to get her own achievements acknowledged. From other contexts, we know that an organization is the more sexist and gender discriminating the more it is dominated by men only. There is, hence, a vicious circle between male dominated organizational cultures and queen bee syndrome. Unnecessary to emphasize that sexist organizational cultures are more likely to exist in settings in which gender equality is less developed and where women generally participate less in the workforce.

Consequently, one of the surest ways of breaking through the vicious circle of queen bees and male organizational culture is female leaders’ awareness of this and other stereotyping phenomena. If female senior leaders lend active support to end gender discrimination, the effect on the organization is overall positive (not only for women!). Women who come from gender egalitarian backgrounds show less incidence of the queen bee syndrome than women who were socialized in gender discriminating cultures (whether national cultures or sector-specific cultures).

Hence, when looking for a UN Secretary General who will promote female careers, the actual fact of being a woman does not by itself promise change. Rather it is necessary that this woman is committed to promote junior women and that she actively engages in combatting discriminatory culture, policies and practices. This is easier in an environment in which women are already well represented and on the rise (as it is the case of the UN in the past decade). That means, however, that women like Irina Bokova from Bulgaria where the employment rate of women is high and the income gap comparable to New Zealand (13.5% in Bulgaria, 11.8% in New Zealand), and who has two children of her own (unlikely Helen Clarke who is childless) might even be a better choice to promote women in the UN. But then, Helen Clarke is not the candidate supported by Russia…


The lazy bugger myth


The Guardian just published a list of 11 tips how to make a career in the UN, most of them giving advice on how not to work. Of course, the list is a satiric take on the myth of the UN’s lazy buggers who only pretend to save the world when they are actually playing minecraft or hanging out at the pool, or even worse, abusing the power they have. There are many such lists and articles (here and here); ineffectiveness or stupidity is also commonly laughed at on the very popular blog ‘Stuff expat aidworkers like’ (which has seriously lost speed in the past years); and there have been a number of books written on the UN’s ineptitude (see for instance the highly tainted and disputed memoirs of Pedro Sanjuan).

But the laziness of UN staff thus decried is a myth. UN workers do work their bottom off. Especially in field missions Un staff usually does not have 9 to 5 working hours or a four-day working week. On the contrary, stress is a major problem of UN work. In my 2012 survey of civilian staff in peacebuilding missions which I did for my book project, a third of the respondents said that they felt extremely or very often stressed. More than 40% of the respondents found it very difficult to balance family and work life.

2012 survey of civilian staff in UN peace missions

2012 survey of civilian staff in UN peace missions

So, the problem is not that UN staff doesn’t work. If it is not the real laziness of UN staff that is at stake, then the myth has another foundation. The problem is that their work is not very visible to the outside world. As this graph shows from the same survey, most staff is in regular contact with other UN agencies or international organizations during their working day, however they deal little with, however defined local agencies. They also draw their information and ideas less from locals than from international sources. Even though many read local newspapers or say that they are in regular contact with people living in the country and that they know many since a long time, they still privilege international newspapers and expert advice as information sources.

UN work (and probably also of any other international agency) is highly self-referential. Hence, it might appear irrelevant and remaining aloof of the reality of the goals to be achieved. The world seems to go on very well without the UN. The 2015 Millenium Development Goals for instance were successfully met largely because of China’s formidable economic growth that took place entirely independently from any UN work (and with economic policies which, according to some, defied the development politics’ wisdom).

Yet, this is only part of the story. As it is true for all administrations and bureaucracies the UN is most successful if not seen or heard. Ideally, the UN (and its affiliated organizations) is in the background and provides the conditions of possibilities for other– NGOs, national or local governments, local organizations etc. – to act. The critique that the UN is bunch of lazy buggers, hence, also expresses extreme unease with the organization’s elusiveness. The UN appears unaccountable, byzantine and far removed from the people it is supposed to serve. The contradiction is particularly disturbing where the UN is engaged in ‘empowerment’ or ‘democracy’ projects; whoever is the beneficiary of UN aid is her/himself utterly powerless and excluded from any major decision-making (despite the rhetoric of ‘consultation’) – an impression which is reinforced by the self-referential nature of UN work where the views of headquarter officials are more important than the views of the people on the ground.




What if the template for the Greek crisis would be Yugoslavia?


There are many historical parallels being conjured since the Greek referendum was announced and looking for ‘historical’ lessons is as usual a favourite pastime of media comments. But one historical case has as far as I can see not been mentioned at all: the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) in the 1980s. Clearly, the narrative that the wars in former Yugoslavia were all about ethnic-nationalist hatred still overshadows any political economy analysis. Yet, a closer look at Yugoslavia in its last hours reveals many disquieting parallels to the mess Europe and Greece are in today as the bloody wars of the 1990s were, in fact, triggered by the debt crisis of the FRY in the 1980s.

Like Greece the FRY had been piling up international debt that had been given mainly for geostrategic and ideological reasons and although the political and economic system had become highly dysfunctional, leaving the federal and some (not all!) republican institutions without far lower revenues than their expenses required (for all sorts of reasons that I cannot discuss here but which are well discussed in the very fine edited volume of Nabojsa Popov, or in the analyses of Susan Woodward here and here).

Like for Greece today, creditors at the time (the IMF, the US and the European Communities) became highly intransigent and nasty, requesting neoliberal restructuring and building up more and more pressure to oust the ‘socialist’ governments. And just like in Europe now, all sides fell back into nationalist-aggressive macho rhetoric’s to defend their position. The questions who or what had caused the Yugoslav debt, which republic had to repay just how much and who had to bear the brunt of the burden of restructuring were the key problems to be solved in the Federalist institutions of Yugoslavia; the response, however, was the rise of nationalist populists like Milosevic and Tudjman who, instead of proposing political programmes by which to rebuild one functioning welfare market economy in Yugoslavia, jumped around like a bunch of Kangaroo males sticking their tiny fists into each other faces.

The Yugoslav population was left out of the picture despite all sides claiming to represent ‘the people’. As David Dyker showed, concrete information on the debt burden and on the restructuring plans rarely reached the wider public; and if information did go out, it was clad in such a bureaucratic and technical language that it was perceived as insulting simply by the fact that it was incomprehensible. In last Sunday’s referendum, too, the technical aspects of the question were entirely irrelevant to the debate over the referendum, which became the stage of a highly ideologized confrontation between anti- and pro-neoliberal policies as well as anti- and pro-Europeans. The two cleavages are not congruent and also do not match up well with more classical socialist-conservative divides – again, like in former Yugoslavia where the divisions within the FRY did not follow simple patterns of liberal reformists vs. communists, federalists vs. nationalists or between those who argued for debt relief vs. those who aggressively used the debt question for their nationalist-populist agendas. In the end, the nationalist rethoric crushed all other voices, at gunpoint when needed, so that the multiplicity of voices and interests that these multiple cleavages reflected did not transform into a pluralist democratic debate but into nasty chauvinist warfare.

In the case of Yugoslavia the populists won over the real political debate on the rebuilding of Yugoslavia’s economy and political institutions. They then did exactly what macho nationalists have always done, they made war. In the Manichean logic of populist Kangaroo fighting there is no other way to keep in power. The nationalist boxing suited well the ‘international community’ whose harsh debt repayment conditions had thrown the FRY’s leadership into those ring fights in the first place. The initial question on the table, namely how to reform a failing economy in order to save guard high levels of social justice, i.e. the quarrel between welfare market economies and neoliberal policies, was brushed away by the ethnic-nationalistic bickering over whose great-grandfather had killed whose great-grandfather two or more generations ago or whether strong, concentrated black coffee is to be called ‘Croatian’, ‘Bosnian’ or ‘Serb’ coffee. No need to rethink neoliberalism, it was all ancient ethnic hatred.

Unless last Sunday’s ‘No’ is taken as invitation to think collectively about a common solution to Greece’s debt – and debt relief certainly seems as the solution which makes political and economic sense – and unless all sides drive back the nationalist populist rhetoric of the past weeks the risk is that the parallel with former Yugoslavia becomes ever more real. Varoufakis’ resignation and the toning down of aggressive breast banging it will bring, is a clear Greek step in the latter sense. Now it’s the EU’s turn…