A dagger at the heart of varsity study in international relations


Why is it that the two sectors that have gone backwards during my working life, higher education and airline travel, are the two in which I seem to have been most closely involved?

This question occurs to me during a three-hour queue at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport to catch a delayed flight to New Orleans in the United States, where I’m headed for the 56th convention of the International Studies Association (ISA), which took place from February 18 to 21.

There is something distinctly old South African in the echoing, wall-tiled caverns near gates one to six at OR Tambo and, today, everybody seems silenced – or perhaps shell-shocked.

A queuing neighbour tells me she flew from Bloemfontein the previous night to catch our flight to New Orleans, checking in her bags all the way to Atlanta. On arrival in Johannesburg, she was told of the 18-hour delay and was promptly shipped off to a nearby hotel without being able to change her clothes.

As I near the desk, a gentleman at a pop-up counter asks not to see my ticket but my passport. He turns the pages slowly.

“When will you be coming back?” he asks. “Are you the police?” I answer. “No,” he replies, “we are told to ask this question.”

Who wants this information, I wonder.

Finally, the front of queue – with that great travel worry uppermost in my mind: Will the seat allocation go well? Happily, it does.

I ask the check-in clerk how long his training for this job was.

One month, he replies, but then says that this airline has “two systems” and the training was two weeks on each.

Finally in the departure hall, I stop for my ritual preflight ice cream – expensive, but delicious!

At the boarding gate, we’re back to security: I’m earmarked for special security scrutiny (“SSS”, as it reads on the boarding pass). Am I the victim of my question to the pop-up man, I wonder?

SSS treatment involves shoes ’n socks, purse ’n passport, all creature comforts ’n computer!

This goes well, I think – until the moment of boarding the plane, when I’m told I have been “arrested” – their word, not mine – and asked to join a Peruvian and two Americans, who are also presumably under arrest.

We exchange nervous glances, then theories: it seems we were all SSSed. We sit patiently as fellow passengers board and then, all others boarded, we sit in silence.

“What now?” I ask a man talking on a cellphone. “We have to call Atlanta and get permission to board you,” I’m told.

Free to board
After 30-odd minutes, we are freed to board the plane, but only one at a time.

It is certainly true that, although universities and flying have gone backwards for the past 40 years, the security industry has gone from strength to strength. As a result, few facets of life these days are not burdened with one or another tag ­referring, often bizarrely, to “security”.

International relations, a field that organises its ideas around the primacy of state sovereignty, has played a major role in the securitisation of almost every damn thing in life. In both professionalising the field and in its propagation, it is worthy of academic inquiry – and for this, the American-centred ISA is without equal.

More than 5 000 delegates attend its annual gatherings – always held in the US, including Hawaii, or Canada – and the annual programme runs to a tome nearing 500 pages.

As in most fields of study, international relations is a broad church with, especially more recently, interesting critical threads. But its institutionalisation in the US means that it is, as famously described in 1977, “an American social science”.

The theme of this year’s gathering sets out to challenge this idea, by pointing to strains in the field other than the dominant ones.

Jet-lagged and decidedly world-weary after three overnight hours of purported sleep in Atlanta, I report to a preconvention workshop session put together by several of the discipline’s European stars.

The meaning of conflict
It is an interesting group, this selection: our deliberations on the meanings of conflict around the world yield thought-provoking ideas, with the focus falling not on security issues but more on critique and the desirability of emancipation as the way to organise the world.

Arriving late, I sit at the bottom of a U-shaped table, and eventually I strike up a conversation with an Asian colleague. Our conversation flits between the issues at hand and the hassles of travel from distant corners of the world to the US – decidedly, the major key.

At dinner, a full-blooded European – Italian name, German citizenship – and I talk about the European Union, especially Greece. It is difficult to quarrel with his view that the EU is the most successful peace arrangement in the history of the world: more than 60 years of no strife on a continent that for centuries was renowned for it.

He tries to persuade me to attend a conference in Sicily in July. It’s tempting because a new line of theoretical thinking in politics suggests that the origins of the modern state lie in the Sicilian kingdom of Frederick II (1194 to 1250).

The first morning of the convention proper – little sleep and, to add pain to the anxiety of addressing its central theme on an invited panel, the sewers in my hotel room backed up this morning.

Its location is a stone’s throw from the New Orleans Superdome – yes, the place of Hurricane Katrina fame. For a moment in the predawn as I watched the water rising, rather than falling, in my bathroom, I thought of how Katrina demonstrated the failure of modernity and the US model of how the world should be.

Difficult panel
The panel is not an easy one: serving on it with me are several of the discipline’s great and good. Fortunately, I’m the fourth of six – the hard-hitters talk before me.

I raise the field’s diversity and voice – its white-male-centredness, especially. I can see that the audience is sceptical so I ask them to look around the room, if they don’t believe me. I also raise a recent hobby­horse: How can we understand a world with many languages if English is the ­discipline’s lingua franca?

The first point is taken, I think, but the second causes much unhappiness during question time.

A persistent, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hand in the front row finally gets to ask his question in the third and final round. He is not really interested in the topic at hand but I can sense this is the moment for which he has waited his whole graduate career.

He addresses a direct question to one of the discipline’s hard-nosed theorists: awe-struck, the questioner listens to a rambling answer.

The panel done, I stagger from the platform, corroded by fatigue and by a brain that decidedly is in two time zones. But, following Robert Frost, “I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep”.

For most of the 20 years I have attended the ISA, I have been involved with a group of outsiders. We are all sceptical of international relations as a field of study, distrustful of its power, but eager to promote a better world. Over the years, we’ve shared ideas, laughs and family tragedies.

In a room overlooking the mighty Mississippi, this group gathers again. All look a bit older except for two younger folk, whom we captured for our cause a few years back.

This is not a conversation on security, like so many in these gleaming conference halls, but on ways to memorialise conflict. An Australian couple talk about how war, especially World War I, is hard-wired into the DNA of that country. Two Europeans talk about the memorialisation of the Cold War in Romania, a quarter-century after its ending. I talk about the World War I memorial in Brixton’s Kingston Frost Park, which I pass on Johannesburg morning walks.

But the paper that grabs me is by a youthful former army officer who memorialised conflict by pressuring the Australian government to surrender secrets about atrocities committed by the Filipinos during the struggle for East Timor.

Way before the invention of international relations as a discipline, strong criticism of power in international politics was conveyed by cartoons. And, in the corners of the field, even at the edges of ISA conventions, interest in how the cartoon image (and comics) help to make (and remake) the international is growing.

On the second day, I present a talk to a panel with the grand title Aesthetic Visions of International Relations: Comics and the Comic.

It’s a marvellous experience, and I learn how internet cartooning engages the international, about the use of cartoons in the aftermath of 9/11, and about the Mickey Mouse cartoons drawn with extraordinary courage by Horst Rosenthal in the face of the Holocaust.

My co-panellists – all young and smart – are theoretically engaged with these issues and visually literate: against this, my presentation on cartoons and South Africa’s foreign policy seems clunky.

Saved by Zapiro
I’m saved, I think, when I show a 2007 Zapiro cartoon of Thabo Mbeki with Robert Mugabe on his shoulders with the caption: “Speak softly and carry a big prick”.

This, of course, is a parody of one of the most famous lines in foreign policy studies, an influential subfield of international relations: former US president Teddy Roosevelt’s 1901 line: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Some in the audience smile.

Promised labour done, I go to a panel that honours the work of one of my favourite intellectuals, Saskia Sassen. Tributes such as this are regular events at ISA conventions, but this one is unusual because the honoree herself was never trained in international relations.

An impressive panel delivers accolades about her books on cities, globalisation (a word Sassen doesn’t like) and, most recently, on international migration.

Sassen answers by saying that her Chicago doctorate was in sociology and economics, but while writing it, she confesses, she was mostly interested in medieval history. (She adds that the history section of the university library once called asking her to return some of the 1 000 books she had borrowed on this topic.)

She admits that she is not of the international relations discipline, but claims to be certainly in it.

A brutal world
“What kind of a world have we wrought since World War II?” she asks, rhetorically. “It’s brutal: huge unemployment, vanishing welfare, large prison populations, a mad money set and grinding exploitation.”

As a result, we all live in a partial state of security and the power lies with those who make borders.

For me, this statement is the proverbial dagger pointing at the heart of international relations. It’s question time: nervously, I raise my hand and ask what and how we should teach our students.

Master’s categories are unstable, Sassen says, and then draws an analogy with a beam of light. Real knowledge comes from the rim of darkness just beyond where the light falls.

Unsurprisingly, I wish that the good citizens of our own country’s National Research Foundation, and its obsession with specialisation, could have heard one of the great scholars of our time make the case for interdisciplinarity.

On Saturday, I breakfast with a friend of close on four decades. In our salad days, we worked together in London but took very different paths in our work on international relations. After parting, I take a long walk through the French Quarter.

At the Cathedral Square, I hear a rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In, the unofficial anthem of the city they call The Big Easy.

Then, it’s a taxi to the airport and the flight home. Happily, there are no delays.

Will I be at the 57th ISA convention? Before this one, I thought not.

But, as they say, there is no fool like an old fool.

Peter Vale is professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg and director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, a joint project of the UJ and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore

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