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Centre for Civil-Military Relations
November 4 2009
Filip Ejdus: It is my great pleasure to have with us today at the Centre for Civil Military Relations (CCMR) Professor Iver Neumann from NUPI. Iver is Director of Research at NUPI as well as Professor of Russian studies at the University of Oslo. He holds two doctorates one in Politics from the Oxford University and the other one in Anthropology from the University of Oslo. He published extensively on various issues stretching from diplomacy and security, through Identity and Russia to Harry Potter and popular culture in International Relations. His major publications are Uses of the Other. The 'East' in European Identity Formation (1999), Russia and the Idea of Europe: A Study in Identity and International Relations (1996), Governing the Global Polity: Practice, Agency, Mentality (with Ole Jacob Sending, University of Michigan Press, spring 2010), as well as Meaning, Materiality, Power: the Introduction to Discourse Analysis (2001). The last one has just been translated into Serbian by the CCMR and Alexandria Press which is also one of the reasons why we have this conversation today. Apart from that, Iver Neumann published more than 200 other academic publications which makes him one of the most published and even more importantly one of the most quoted Norwegian social scientists of today.
Before we move on to issues relating the subject of the book I would like to kick off with a more general question. In your opinion what is the relationship between theory and practice of International Relations today?
Iver Neumann: There are two quotes that lead the way. One is by Plato who says “Those who decide do not read, and those who read do not decide”. And there is also a quote by Jan Smuts who was the leader of South Africa before the WW2 who says that advisors “should be on tap but never on top”. They should be available to give advice but having them in position is not necessarily a very good idea. There are a couple of examples of successful academics in politics. I think Masaryk is an example who fits that description. There is something slow about the academics. That is why I am embarrassed when you are talking about all these publications. You know, in Britain if you publish too much you are not a gentlemen. To do something you should take your time and in a political setting you can not do that. So I think it comes down to two rationalities. The phenomenologists talk about two rationalities, they talk about Nachdenken which is sort of thinking after the fact, this is Heidegger. You know something has happened, what was is that happened, we look at the different things, we try to find the pattern. We accept it. It would be athbsolutely stupid to think that that kind of rationality could be applied to politics as such, because during the midst of a chaotic situation within your foreign ministry or defense ministry you have all kinds of different social groups and all kinds of different opponents in the world and you have the time pressure and the need to be efficient. So the goal of the statesman is to make all these things go together in some kind of moment which is a very different thing from what a good academic should do. So there are two distinct things. So your question was how do they interact, right? And when we should be on tap we can clarify how the situation arouse and we can point to other similar situations. Take one example that you have in a number of developing countries, food coming from the country side. In a crisis situation the food will not be coming from the country side, and there will be too many people in the city so there will not be enough food. Then you can point to something like the scissors crisis in the early years of the Soviet Union and say this is similar to what we had in other places, and it tells us something about the long ways forward of how to set this up in a better manner. That information can be good for a politician when he or she has a long perspective but it will be worthless when it comes to taking decisions at the moment. When I give my talks to politicians they always say the same thing, there is a Norwegian expression, “to lift your gaze” the idea being that you have your desk, you are trying to follow what’s happening and sometimes you need to take a longer perspective. They always thank me for trying to lift their gaze but we both know that when they come back to their desk their vision is limited and directed. So it’s probably an important thing, but running politics is a more important thing. My own experience is that I had a lot more room for maneuver and a lot more influence when I was working as a public intellectual, when I was participating in a public debate. Then the politicians had to somehow answer in the press, sort of come back and say this is good or this is bad etc. And when I was inside the Ministry they didn’t have to care, because I was simply an employee. So its much better to be a public intellectual then to be a senior advisor in that sense.
F.E.: But the role of an academic is often stretched between a critic and advisor. Sometimes these two can come together but sometimes they can diverge. And if you are criticizing too much you may become irrelevant or buried inside your ivory tower but if you become too much of an advisor you may come too close too power and stop speaking truth to power but something that they want to hear from your instead. What is your view on it?
I.N.: Good summing up of a dilemma in Western history. If you look at the Western tradition there are two ways intellectuals can play a role. They can be the court favorite - the advisor. Today’s advisors are definitely informed by the court favorites. The fool in Shakespeare, if you remember for example in King Lear, I feel very close to him. Because his job is to tell the King what’s going on and the King’s reaction can either be to listen or it can be “watch out or else I will find the whip”. This is a very realistic description of the job of the advisor. And the critic can also be, today with more differentiated society the critic has a bit more distance. For the critic there is always something at stake. You could always end up in jail or be fined or be taxed, whatever, the state is a nice apparatus when it comes to taking revenge on people. And my feeling is that the critic is often pointing to what shouldn’t be done, you know like we shouldn’t do this or that. And this is a kind of advice, not a positive, but a negative advice. Some times its a more serious business than the advisor’s. And the other thing that a critic does is point out that there is always a downside to any decision, and in particular in a democratic system. You always present decisions being the panacea, being sort of yes to everything, best thing possible. But that’s always wrong. Any decision will always have certain downsides, certain groups who will lose and that’s were ethics comes in. Pointing to which those groups are and what the consequences are is of importance, even if you don’t have a positive answer to what you should do instead. So the worst thing I know as a critic is when someone says “Well so what’s the alternative”. My answer then is “ok we should try to find an alternative” but you know criticizing and demonstrating where work has to be done is already a contribution.
F.E.: So in a sense showing that there are no silver bullets in international politics and foreign policy would be one definition of what a critic should do. Let’s now move to the second question. What do you think is the main direction of IR theory today and are there any contours of the so called “fifth debate”. We are talking about the “fourth debate” between positivists and post-positivists and some authors even talk about the fifth one. What is your impression of it?
I.N.: Let me first say what is happening and then I could say what I think should be happening, because these are of course two different things. What is happening is that we have a division. During the Cold war the division was you had a Realist thinking and you had the Liberal thinking and it was usually a done deal. It often turned on the question on the role of ideas in International Relations and underneath it was the great 19th century theme of where is history going. Realists would say, history doesn’t change, it’s the same kind of conflict. We have certain perennial things, human nature for example, and you know people are seeking interests. Liberals would say, and this is something they share with Marxists who are always criticized for this but liberals are equal on this, that history is on its way somewhere to some kind of universal goal and the job was somehow to help history move along. This is the point on which I would like to put a word in for the Marxists because they have got all the blame for this, but the liberals have exactly the same trait, they come from the same historical era thinking in the same way. With the end of the Cold War questions arose whether this was a rich enough debate and you had the so called constructivists coming and demonstrating not where history was going at large but rather what was happening now and how did we end up where we are. How did the parties to the Afghan conflict, for example, emerged historically and how does that impinge on how they are seeing the world and what effects does that have on what they are doing. It was a hard one to take particularly for the older generations, because they thought it was pure idealism, that materiality was just forgotten about which was not the point. The point was to say that we have all these material things but when we experience them in the social world they will have some kind of social thing not as a material thing. So if you forget about the material side you are a very bad social scientist. As the philosophers say, thinking it does not make it so. What I am trying to do in this book is to sort of present the methods that can take into consideration both materiality and meaning. But for the last 15 years the key divide in International Relations was the realists starting with material factors on the one hand and Constructivist starting with ideas on the other hand. You could go to Gramsci, the old Italian communist. He talks about the war of position and the war of movement. The struggle today between constructivists and rationalists would be that first you have the dominant position and than you have the challenger position, that would have to sort of create some kind of historical block, he is thinking in terms of classes, we don’t have to do that here. But some kind of building up of an attack on the leading position. And then once the new position is built up, the war of movement starts, where you decide what should be the dominant way of thinking. So I think we have come to the point where the war of position between the rationalists and constructivists is over and the war of movement is on. One of the most interesting things I am doing these days is participate in this project in Canada where rationalists and constructivists are trying to edit a book together on practices in International Relations. And sure it is possible to have a dialogue and it would be strange to avoid it, right? So I am pretty optimistic about what is happening in the theoretical landscape and what I like most is that all that empty theorizing is not so prevalent anymore. I mean people are interested in doing empirical work on real world happenings and that for me is absolutely crucial. I have a lot of time for theory but if there was only theory we should be in philosophy or history of ideas. Our job as social scientists is to look at specific lived sequences and if you stay away from that you didn’t do the job of a social scientist. So I am pretty happy with the situation in IR theory as it is now.
F.E.: Let’s turn now to your theoretical commitments. Post structuralism entered the discipline at the beginning of 1980s and so far it has produced plenty of interesting work. How could you sum up the state of poststructuralist studies in IR 30 years after?
I.N.: The trick was to answer questions at a different level than before. So if you wanted to write a book about diplomacy you asked how diplomacy emerged historically. And if you wanted to do a book on sovereignty you did the same things - you asked what were the historical preconditions for it. Traditional researchers are pretty dissatisfied with this because they felt that it told us nothing about the situation today. But the value of it was to bring themes to International Relations from a historical perspective. Why is that important? Because I believe that looking now at deep transformation of global politics at large, we see not that the state disappears. It is pretty much with us. As you in this part of the world know better than anybody else. Every new contender had the same goal: getting themselves a state. Only 10-20 years ago liberals said that states are losing importance and that there are so many other actors. But if that were true why would actors who want to have a say in international relations all want to be states? There is a reason why we are still state-centric. The state system is changing, and I am not saying that there are no other actors. But the way states are doing things have changed tremendously. For example states are acting through international organizations. International organizations are more than arena for states because when states have to work through international organization what they do is different. But to talk of international organization as actors and forgetting that their members are states would be silly. So it is the question of how the states are changing. I think the most important contribution of post structural theorizing right now is to try and have a look at it. Instead of doing the liberal thing and say that states are disappearing and instead of doing the realist thing and say the states are always there and they will always be there you are focusing empirically on how the states are changing. The state used to be a lot of staff. Directly, it would say do this, this, this, this and this. They would have command. I think what is going on now is that states are trying to do as much as possible indirectly. They are setting up agencies such as international organizations to do the job for them so that they are not directly involved. The cost of that to states is that they don’t have immediate control but the advantage is that they could be so many places at once and do so much more at the same time. But in order to do that the state has to be secured in its relationship with society. In Russia you find a state that cannot do this simply because it doesn’t trust society to do the job. Actually they have no trust in society at all. Whereas in certain other states, the Norwegian state is an example, state and society are so intermeshed that the state doesn’t have to do all that much. They can give some money and say it might be a good idea to look at this or that and the job is almost done. Of course there is a downside to that, which is that it’s very hard for society and for the groups in society to take up a position against the state. Because the state is everywhere. But the advantage is that you have a pretty strong social contract. The theoretical contribution of post structuralism is to take the question of power seriously. I will explain what I mean by that. Power is more than power of the sword. Power can be to make other people do what you want them to do without using the sword, which is a much more effective way of doing it. If I wanted you to produce, the stupidest thing I could do is to cut of your head. It would be pretty hard for you to produce anything after that. It’s not that realists are wrong on power, I think that Realists are very right on power. Power is important, material forces are important, military factors are important, but power is so much more. Power is authority. Power is what Max Weber was very clear about, it’s the social peace, the symbols to use to get people to work etc. The meaning that is produced in a society that tells you what to do. If you have that in control you have a big power resource. That is why I have done things that used to be totally foreign to international relations like looking at how international relations are presented in popular culture for example because I think that if people are looking at the representations of popular culture on their TV screens, in novels, wherever, in different places of their life, they will think “Ah this is a normal affair”. So looking at those representations can tell us something about how easy it is for the states to do their things. We can say something about whether it is likely or not that a new move will be taken seriously. So my argument would be that post-structuralists take power more seriously than realists.
F.E.: But it’s only recent. During the 1980 it seems to be that poststructuralist study of IR was somehow alienated from power analysis. In spite of the fact that most post-structualist philosophers dealt with power in the first place like Michel Foucault. Instead of dealing with power, this first generation of post-structuralist IR scholars dealt with questions of identity instead. And the good thing that is taking place now or in the past few years is that poststructuralist take power seriously again.
I.N.: Identity is shot through with power. Again, in this part of the world, that should be quite obvious. I mean if you can manipulate a set of national symbols, and if you can get a group of people to act as one, now that is power. There is a political theorist outside our tradition, Ibn Khaldun. a big Arab political theorists. He is very good on this. The key political thing is to try and forge a collective that will act as one. That is the power of identity. Why is it so important for political agencies that you have a we-feeling? Because, if you have a big We feeling you have similar narratives about what to do, you have enormous social pressure about what will happen if you don’t do what you are supposed to do. It means that the collective will act as one. And that is the key power resource for politics. And also particularly when they act like that even if you are not sort of standing above them. My wife and I have 7 kids, so I know about this. The job with the kid, is when you are not there, the kids will act the way you will like them to act. That’s power, how do you set that up. The whip may not be the best way to do that. It’s the mind question.
F.E.: Ok, we can now move on to our fourth issue of today’s discussion and this is the book you wrote a few years ago about discourse analysis and which is intended not only for students of international relations but for students of social sciences more generally. Can you tell us something about the relevance of discourse analysis in IR studies today?
I.N.: Any science needs some idea about how to proceed. Which questions to look at. What data would be interesting for what questions? How to get that data? How to order that data? And how to write that up? How to do the narrative about what you want to tell and also about sort of presenting it? This is the handicraft of research. When I was a student very little heed was paid to it. Within sociology and anthropology they have big methods literatures. In political science we have something about counting, which was important if you wanted to count. There are a number of situations where it’s good to count. But if you did what they called qualitative work like I do, then there was very little in terms of methods. So I wrote this book because when I examined students who wanted to do this kind of thing, they had no method, they had just “Ta, taaa” reading a little bit of here and there and somehow stumbling along. So this is an attempt to get some rigor in there. And the reception of the book in Norway was extremely interesting, because people didn’t know what to do with this book. It was assigned for first year students in sociology and it was also assigned as doctoral course reading in political sciences. It’s a typical example of when something arrives and you don’t know what to do with it. But it’s a very low-key book in the sense that the thing I wanted that book to do is to give people some ideas on how to proceed with their own work. So it’s really a sensitizing book, maybe you can look at the world this way, and than it’s a cook book.
F.E: Increasing attention is being paid to the so called practice turn in international relations, and the practice analysis. Is your book relevant for this as well?
I.N.: The idea of discourse is that you have some societal rules on how to form sentences, and what you can say and what you cannot say and be taken seriously. You can say certain things and people will immediately say “oh of course”, right? Take sort for example “women can do whatever” and the answer would be “of course”. Its a pretty straight sentence to produce in a number of discourses in Europe in 2009. But there would be certain discourses where you cannot say it, religious for example, and if you try and say it in other parts of the world, people would think that you are mad. Because everyone knows that women can do this and males can do that. Historically, there are huge changes in what you can say and be taken seriously and what the chances are to be taken seriously. So, discourse is simply a way of trying to get at those rules, get the grammar of what it’s possible to say. But it means that discourse analysis is all about the preconditions of action, how the world looks to us. What the world looks like when we want to act in it. But you never get to the point of looking at the action itself. So if I were to do a discourse analysis of Serb national identity for example, I would look at all those struggles of what Serbia should be historically and today and the result would be a number of different struggling representations of Serbia. So I could say very little about the effects of those identities. How that would impinge on specific foreign policy decisions, for example going to war, or not going to war. So in my work I wanted to look at action. The thing with theories, is that certain theories can do this for you and other theories can do that for you. The hunt for the theory that can do everything is, in my world, silly. Because the point of theory is to say these things in the world are important and let’s see what happens if we blow them up - not blow them up like boom - but if we magnify them. So criticizing a theory for being a partial view of the world is silly because that’s what a theory can do for you. I simply wanted a theory that could look at action and then practice theory would be an interesting thing because it would look at action as sequences of socially recognized action that could be done well or badly. For example how to command an army would be a bundle of practices. How to assemble your gun would be a specific practice. To take an example from my own work, how to conduct diplomacy would mean that you would have a number of preconditions that could actually be analyzed in terms of discourse analysis. Diplomacy is a discourse. Hence if you look at the practice analysis you would say, given that you have a world like that, then how can you act. So I am very fond of the quote of Marx and Engels who say in the Communist Manifesto I think “ man makes his own history but not on the preconditions that he has himself has chosen”. So if you want to look at the preconditions, that’s one story, then I use discourse analysis. But if you look at how man makes his own history the actions, then I use practice analysis.
F.E.: But for Marx the preconditions are material. Where does materiality kicks in the discourse analysis. How do you bring the material in? How can you avoid being too textual, too Derridian if I may say, to concentrate only on text as such and also bring materiality into discourse analysis because I think that’s one of the most interesting part of your title.
I.N: I have that title Meaning, materiality, power. You must excuse me for being a little bit philosophical about it. Military power talks. If you have a tank you can use it to shoot with. But there will always be ideas when you can use it, how you can use it, how much you can use it etc. and in order to find those things surrounding the tank you have to look at the social setting. However ferocious fighters are there will be certain ideas about what they would or wouldn’t do. And in certain situations, people can do terrible things, but there will always be ways of thinking of how to use material stuff. And you cannot get to those ideas of how to use it, by simply looking at the material. It is impossible to go directly from the material to what is actually happening. Marxists have tried to do that for years and years and it didn’t work. Anything has a material and it has a social side. The tank is a social fact in addition to being a material fact. And discourse analysis is an attempt to try to make the two go together and answer what is the tank, what is the social role of the tank in politics. Think of the old saying that you can use bayonets for a lot of things but not to sit on. If you want politics, bayonets are extremely important but once you used them, and you have a lot of dead people and you want them to produce then what would you do. Bayonets can not make people produce stuff. To kill you need material stuff and to build you need material stuff, but that stuff must also be understood in certain ways.
F.E.: Napoleon didn’t listen to that advice...
I.N. : And look what happened. The Bible says “he who lives by the sword, shall perish by the sword”. There is definitely use of the sword, and it is absolutely important in international relations. But if you stop at the sword... if the world is a self-help system in the sense that states must have certain political and economic model to be able to hold its own in the world, then having a military state just doesn’t work because you cannot produce enough to maintain the state. So you have to assign certain resources to the military and then you have to assign a lot of resources to other activities. And my experience is that military men are the first to acknowledge this. We can be used for this, we cannot be used for that. I know I am cheating slightly because I moved away from the question of the material, but I think you see why this is relevant from me.
F.E.: How to study materiality with discourse analysis? Discourse analysis is focusing on discourse and the “outside” of things to use the philosopher Charles Renouvier’s term. How do we study the inside of things?
I.N.: If I were interested in the material, and in the role of material in the social I would never go into discourse analysis., I would go to the International Political Economy.
F.E.: But you have the word materiality in the title of your book...
I.N: There is a material side, and there is an ideational side, and you just have to choose how to mix them. You cannot look only at one. Even in the international political economy, which is very tilted towards the material. The whole idea of ideas about economic orders is extremely important. If you have ideas about how you should govern which are of a communist type, a capitalist type, an old liberal vs a neo-liberal type this would make a huge difference, because it would imply the material with other meaning and it would assign different kind of jobs to different kinds of material entities, so you have to study both materialkity and meaning to get the whole picture. If you are interested in specific questions of production that book is not for you.
F.E.: To what extent we can mix methods, say discourse analysis for discourses, practice analyses for practices some other methods for materiality in order to grasp the whole of a phenomenon, both inside and the outside of it...
I.N.: I think you can do that. It is quite often when you look at something political, there will be the question of one concept for example, one thing that is contested. Take the enemy, take some kind of military situation where the situation where the question is why X did what he did. You can do that as some kind of material thing; ”they were after oil”, that kind of thing. If you are really material you will find oil within every war throughout the globe at this stage, because there has to be an “oil thing”. There is quite an oil thing, look at Iraq, there is nothing wrong with looking at the oil motive, right? But there will also often be the question of what does that country that I am moving against, who are they, what kind of entity is that? And then you can do a quick discourse analysis of why decision makers in one state ended up thinking about decision makers in another state the way they did. And this can be very interesting if you are interested for example in peace operations in Africa. Before you launch a peace operation in Chad or Darfur or wherever you would have to think of who are these people. Quite often you will know very little about it. There will be a process whereby decision makers will learn who these people are and that will feed into the question of what they do and in order to analyze that specific part of the decision making process you can use discourse analysis. So in this case, for example, you can take the method of Foreign Policy Analysis and add a little bit of discourse analysis to understand how the enemy or the target is constituted. Why did Serbia deploy exactly in Chad? And of course there will be a number of questions that have nothing to with Chad for example if you want to present as an international citizen, deploying somewhere is a very good idea. I don’t have the cultural competence to discuss Serbian foreign policy but my hunch would be that that would be an important motive. Being there and doing something positive. Then there is this question with whom you went. At some stage you will have to ask the people in the Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry will have to answer where is Chad, what is Chad? Who are these people? And then they will form a representation of Chad. In this case maybe there weren’t so many ideas to find, but that process will be important for the decision making. I cannot resist giving you my favorite example of the importance of popular culture. And this is a great example of how non-material factors can be important. We have a colleague who did his doctorate on US decision making before they began their peace operation in Congo in the 1960s. You will remember that was a pretty tough situation. You had a left leaning leader who was taking over the country and this was not particularly popular in the West. A peace operation was launched and my colleague was looking at the decision making process in the US. How did they discuss it? Who were the Congolese to them? And what struck him was that all of them in the presidential cabinet seemed to have had a very good idea who the Congolese were, the historical setting, the social setting etc. and he couldn’t understand that because there was no reason why the Americans in 1960s would know a lot about the Congo. Because, the Americans are famously ignorant about the world, right? He looked at how each and every one of them was exposed to the Congo before, no one had traveled there, no one had friends there. And then he found out that they had read Edgar Rice Burroughs, who is the author of the Tarzan books, and Hergé, who is the person behind Tin Tin, the Belgian comic. So they used what they had. You may be laughing and say they were uninformed but we all do that. When we have little or no knowledge we draw on the little that we have. And there you have an example of the importance of popular culture, but also of the importance of forming some kind of idea of who the other is before you strike. And that’s in the end the goal of discourse analysis, to understand how repreentations of social facts emerge and why some win and some lose.
F.E.: Before we give the floor to our audience I would like to ask you to give us a few hints about your new book.
Its on global governance, and the point of global governance, where we are trying, my colleague Ole Jacob Sending and I are trying to look at the role of states and different other agencies in global governance. Because in the literature on global governance, which is a very liberal literature, there are lots of celebrations of NGOs, networks etc. We are trying to demonstrate that the state is extremely important to the question of global governance. We are looking at different types of agents, and we are trying to demonstrate that the state is playing a very important role in all the cases. I will give you just an example. You will recall that the Nobel Peace Prize was given to the fight against landmines. And the way this is presented both in the public media and in the academic literature is that you had a coalition of American peaceniks, of disenchanted soldiers around the world, of people who lost their legs because they stepped on a mine, that people were somehow mobilized globally and they were able to abandon and abolish landmines. I though this to be strange, I smelled a rat. Because how would they be able to overturn the enormous resources that states possess? The most important state in this process was Canada, but the second most important was Norway. I think Norway and Serbia are similar in this respect. If you interview 16 people about something, you basically know what is going on. A number of key people are always available if you are an insider, and I interviewed them. And the picture that emerged is that the state funded almost everything that has to do with landmines in exchange for information on what was going on. They have given money to NGOs and to different networks. The NGOs then worked in the field, coming back with information, the state then gave more money. This exchange gave me the impression that the state orchestrated the whole thing. This looks differently in the US. Obviously the activists there had a different relationship to the American state. But my point was that the Norwegian state was able to do what they wanted to do by working through different agencies. It’s not necessarily that the state has thought about some master plan beforehand! I am just talking about that slow process in politics, where states have a finger in most things, simply because they are working through these other agencies. And this can be generalized to global governance at large. We are now talking about the global society. The global society is something in need of being governed. So every time we talk about the global society implicitly we say this is a political thing, so it is in need of governance. They say that “governance is governing without the state” but maybe we should do something about that saying, for I do not think it is true. So these are the questions that we are trying to look at.