Applying the 'Self/Other' Nexus in International Relations
The appearance of these three titles in the same year demonstrates that the theoretical and empirical development of the study of collective identity and its application to contemporary problems in international relations are a promising and vital body of scholarship. The theoretical diversity of these books recommends them to scholars looking for analytic tools to unravel the mysteries of collective societal self-identification, as well as the process and consequences of “othering,” or of generating collective representation of other societies. Three scholars who have learned their trades well treat the reader to applications of diverse methodologies of ethnography and genealogy. Well suited to the disparate tasks to which they are applied, these theoretical frameworks generate indispensable insights.
Genealogy and Discourse Analysis in the Study of Collective Identity
Both Jonathan Bach’s Between Sovereignty and Integration and Iver Neumann’s Uses of the Other generate compelling genealogies, which feature sophisticated discourse analyses designed to trace the historical evolution of discursive practices. These discursive practices are political practices. In Bach’s book, they legitimate major shifts in post–Cold War German foreign policy; in Neumann’s book, they define membership in and exclusion from historical national and regional and emerging “European” collective identities and bodies politic.
Neumann invokes the works of Michel Foucault and Richard Ashley to explain his methodological choice. He examines genealogical discourse to provide an analytic cut into the identity questions that guide his study. What do we mean by the “genealogical method”? In response, Neumann invokes Ashley’s assertion that “a genealogical posture entails a readiness to approach a field of practice historically, as an historically emergent and always contested product of multiple practices, multiple alien interpretations which struggle, clash, deconstruct, and displace one another” (pp. 115–116). Neumann applies these guidelines admirably as he traces the multiple alien interpretations in the historical development of nation building, region building, and all-European region-building discursive practices in forming European collective identity. He also illustrates Jonathan Bach’s insight—gleaned from Bach’s reading of the works of Paul Ricouer, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard—of the importance of the role of narrative in constructing subjective representations of other social actors.
In his second chapter, Neumann’s genealogy traces the historical evolution of Christian European narratives, portraying the Turk as the Other. He illustrates how the highly religiously delimited medieval Saracen buttressed European collective identity by serving as Christendom’s Other. The European representation of the Saracen was transformed in the period between the Renaissance and Westphalia, when Islam forcefully advanced westward toward Vienna. Discursively, the Saracen, in the guise of the “Ottoman Turk,” began to be interpreted as Europe’s “primarily military-political other” (p. 46).
Since 1683, when the Ottoman advance was halted in Westphalia, the Turks have been invited to participate in a European congress. But they still were deemed to be Other due to religious and cultural differences. This led to different interpretations of formal treaties. European representations of the Turk as “barbarian” came to displace Christendom’s representation of the Turk as “infidel.” Still later, as these cultural differences, European technological advances, and Turkish military decline deepened, representation of the Turk as a barbarian was displaced by the representation of him as the “odd-man-out” of Europe. As the weakening Ottoman Empire degenerated into a power vacuum in south-eastern Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, it then became “the sick man of Europe.”
Neumann provides a similar genealogy in exploring the narrative evolution of the Russian as Other. Russia’s Orthodox Christianity eliminated religion as a source of Russia’s othering. But Europeans had represented Russians as backward, uncivil, and barbarians from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Neumann discovers a shift in European representations of Russia from the time of Peter the Great. These representations stemmed partly from Peter’s evident willingness to learn from Europe while he attempted to modernize Russia and from Russia’s burgeoning military power. These “virtues” brought Russia into the political constellation of Europe as an “ally against ‘the Turk.’
“ There is a somewhat positive narrative representation of Peter’s modernizing Russia in the eighteenth century as a “land of the future” (p. 79). But more common are derisive representations of Russia, which overwhelm the positive narrative. The people of Russia are characterized by poor etiquette and high tolerance of exposure to the elements and to alcohol. Moreover, they are “lazy and fatalistic” and “little attached to life.” Thus the dominant representations of Russia in the eighteenth century present Russia as an Asiatic Other.
In the nineteenth century, Neumann argues, Europeans recognized tsarist Russia as a great power en route to world hegemony. Coupled with the persistent severity of its autocracy, the “despotic” tsarist regime is seen as a “barbarian at the gates” of Europe (pp. 89–90). Neumann provides an interesting breakdown of the representational narrative. Liberals perceived Russia as a reactionary laggard, while radicals viewed it as a socially and economically backward power, but conservatives saw Russia as a blessed bastion of the ancien régime, which they wished to see restored elsewhere in Europe. Similarly, in the interwar period of the twentieth century, Soviet Russia is represented in the narrative of radical chic again as the “land of the future.”
During the Cold War, the dominant representations of Soviet Russia were colored by the perception of Russia as both a political and military threat to Western Europe. Neumann argues that the “dominant version was of an Asiatic/barbarian political power that had availed itself of the opportunity offered by the Second World War to intrude into Europe by military means” (p. 102). In the Cold War narrative, Central Europe was seen as “a part of the West occupied by Russians,” who were considered “barbarians” due to their authoritarian political and economic system. They were discursively relegated to the same “totalitarian” category as the Nazis (p. 103). Neumann thus depicts Russia as “Europe’s pangolin” (referring to an animal with contradictory attributes). He argues powerfully that “Russia stands out for its five hundred year history of always just having been tamed, civil, civilized; just having begun to participate in European politics, just having become a part of Europe” (p. 110).
Note how each new representation or narrative reconstructs (re-represents) the relationship between the European and the Turkish Other or the Russian Other. In other words, each new representation re-represents the object of discourse as a new subject. Also note in each case how the representation of the Other implies an opposing representation of the European self.
Both Bach and Neumann share an appreciation of these dualisms. Bach looks at the discourses generated in the German Bundestag debates regarding “out-of-area” deployment of German troops in support of NATO peacekeeping operations. He argues, “the prevailing discourse acquires its form by the discourse it opposes” (p. 159). Discourse analysis is “useful in highlighting the dualisms inherent but often hidden in the relation between the narratives” (p. 160).
Neumann’s explication of these hidden dualisms helps us see why the discursive construction of the Other is essential in generating counterrepresentations of the self in the process of collective identity formation. Unstated in these narratives representing the Other are counternarratives of the self. Thus if the Other is an “infidel,” then “we” are “the faithful.” If the Other is a “barbarian,” then we must be “civilized.” If the Other is a “sick man,” then we have “healthy” and “robust” regimes and societies. If the Other is “backward,”
“despotic,” or a “laggard,” then we are “modern,”
“liberal,” and “progressive.” If the Other is “Asiatic” and “Eastern,” then we are “European” and “Western.” As Neumann puts it, the notion of Europe is “tied to the idea of the Russian Other. Since exclusion [of the Other] is a necessary ingredient of integration [among ourselves]” (p. 111). In his concluding chapter, Neumann claims specifically that it is not a question of whether but how the East will be used in forging new European identities.
Moreover, Neumann demonstrates how these discursive strategies constitute regional and national collective identities, as well as an all-European identity. He argues that the literature neglects the fact that regions are no less “imagined communities” than are nations. All discursive borders are historical contingencies, and thus, he judges, all are equally amenable to a genealogical approach. Elsewhere he argues that the “main aim of the book is to demonstrate how the self/Other nexus is operative on all levels of European identity formation” (p. 161). In developing his “region-building approach,” Neumann develops the importance of narratives based on both the “inside-out” factors that focus on cultural integration within a region and “outside-in” factors that focus on geopolitics.
Neumann analyzes region-building discourses on Northern and Central Europe in this context. In Northern Europe, he devotes a chapter to elaborating a Scandinavianist region-building project as direct competition for ongoing nation-building projects. He speculates on the prospects of what he sees as an emergent Baltic region-building project. He devotes another chapter to analyzing a Central European region-building project—as it emerged during the Cold War—as a “metaphor of protest” against both “Soviet rule and Western consumerism” (p. 149). Since the end of the Cold War, this project has become “a moral appeal to Western Europe on behalf of an imagined community born of frustration with the [former] Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe” (p. 158). As was the case with the all-European narratives, Russia serves as Central Europe’s “out group” in this discourse.
But those, like Russia, who are othered do not take it lying down. They respond to it in their own discursive work, by which they sort out their own national collective identity. Neumann demonstrates how Russian discourse contemporarily and historically pits Russian Westernizers against Russian nationalists in an internal debate on Russia’s relationship with the West. Westernizers chide their compatriots with the derisive European representations of Russia, which they have internalized. The nationalists, by contrast, designate Jews as the “internal Other” and generate a counternarrative based on hostility to the West, to globalization and consumerism, and to the “disease of Europeanism.” Neumann notes that the Westernizers have not prevailed in this latest version of this Russian discursive battle.
Neumann concludes in a refreshing if unorthodox fashion with some thoughtful reflection on the limits of the self-Other approach to the study of identity politics. He pensively critiques both poststructuralism and constructivism as the two major contending schools of thought that are capable of generating an analytic cut into identity politics in international relations (IR) theory. Post-structuralism has failed to “have an intersubjective take on the process of identification.” Neumann asserts that “post-structuralism remains structuralism in as much as it reads intentionality out of its analysis” (p. 208). He forecasts a dim future for poststructuralism until it generates insights that transcend constant reminders of the problematic relationship of subject to object in the social realm.
In Neumann’s view, constructivism has some merit because it “does have a take on intentionality, and by identification not only as an affair between the self and an order ...but also as an affair between the self and an other, understood as subjects” (p. 209). He insists that his position is not that of a structural determinist and argues that constructivism might overstate the causal significance of intention.
Jonathan Bach generates a similarly sophisticated theoretical discussion of the impact of narratives on social reality. He illustrates the discussion with a masterful discursive analysis of the debates attending recent shifts in the foreign policy of a reunified Germany. Bach’s analysis is drawn almost exclusively from primary sources in German-language archival materials. His analysis is also genealogical in the sense that he traces this new discursive practice back to the long-standing self-representations by which changing notions of German national collective identity have been mediated. He contrasts his methods with those of strictly representationalist and positivist foreign policy analyses more self-consciously than does Neumann, and we benefit from his effort.
Narrative, argues Bach, is constitutive of collective identity and has four “dialectically related” primary functions that pertain to the construction of social reality, which he stipulates as “ordering,”
“perpetuating,” and “challenging” (p. 45). Ordering is an ontological function that orders and organizes temporality through narrative and thus “endows meaning to events” (p. 46). The delimiting function of narrative is the epistemological function of a “master narrative” that creates “ a system of intelligibility” (pp. 47–48). Perpetuation is the hegemonic function of narrative. This functions similarly to Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony by creating a consensual rather than a coercive social order. Bach argues that having been delimited, a discourse must be perpetuated and reproduced to continue to exist. Perpetrators of a discourse seek to establish its message as self-evident through repetition, among other devices. Once this has been accomplished, the message of the discourse is generally accepted as normal. Challenging is the counterhegemonic function of narrative.
These functions are normally manifested as marginalized narratives that fail to successfully challenge the dominant narrative. Bach creates a plausible defense for the “scientific” status of elements of discourse analysis as part of a falsifiable research program. He establishes a Lakatosian function for the challenges of marginalized narrative. The marginalized discourses permit “the dominant discourse to create auxiliary hypotheses to defend the [discursive] system’s hard core” (p. 53), thereby emulating the satisfaction of Lakatos’s criterion of a “falsifiable research program.”
Bach reminds us that in representationalist, positivist analysis of foreign policy the “truth” is something “out there.” But in Bach’s view of the discursive construction of collective identity and social reality, narrative truth is located at the discourse level, as is the social structure of normativeness, which circumscribes legitimate social action. Bach argues that discursive practices generate the rules of the social order. Thus “the ordering function of narratives constructs social reality [and] the delimiting function of discourse regulates social relations” (p. 49). In short, “narratives are the linguistic architecture of existence” (p. 54).
While Neumann’s genealogies were predominantly concerned with othering, or narrative construction of representations of the out-group side of the self/Other nexus, Bach’s genealogy is focused on the contemporary salience of historical German self-representations. These were resurrected in response to the new discourses that challenge European integration. This challenge was engendered by the apparent conflict in the goals of simultaneous national integration (unification with the former German Democratic Republic [GDR]) and supranational integration (treaty of the European Union [EU]). The language of the nation was invoked in talk of “restoring the German fatherland.” Concerns about the enhancement of German influence on the continent, the future role of the German military, and German self-estimations as a “normal” nation and a “great Western power” appeared to challenge the roles of NATO and the EU as restraints on the reemergence of an historically destructive German nationalism.
Bach’s genealogy of the German narrative uncovers how contemporary Germans have reminded themselves that their first unification in 1871 resulted from war under the auspices of Prussian autocracy, rather than from a democratic revolution. Germany’s first unification was followed by persistent failure to establish a successful liberal state. The dominant narrative guiding the foreign policy of this kaiserliche (imperial) state was a Weltpolitik (world politics) narrative that employed Britain as a model for German imperialism and at once constituted “an ideology of modernity and modernization” (pp. 27–28). Matters did not improve, argues Bach, when the Weltpolitik narrative gave way to a later narrative of Lebensraum (living space for Germany), derived from the geopolitics of Karl Haushofer. The Lebensraum narrative was designed to “protect and enhance ‘Germanness”’ and engendered “an ideology of cultural displacement” (p. 30). Bach insists that today “Weltpolitik and Lebensraum are the traditions of German foreign policy, which form the background of the identity-defining debates of the postwar era” (p. 33). German identity questions, informed by this dismal background, are “at the heart of the ongoing post war German identity crisis: what caused National Socialism to triumph in Germany? ...What is the ‘normal’ to which war-weary Germany sought to return? ...[And was] National Socialism a significant break with or an extension of German history?” (p. 33). With the benefit of Bach’s genealogy, we gain a fascinating portrait of the excruciating self-examination of a talented and powerful reunified nation that appears not to trust itself to reclaim the status of a “normal great power.”
Bach develops two competing narratives that have been employed to contest the direction of the foreign policy of a unified Germany. The first is the narrative of “normalcy,” which “sees Germany becoming a ‘normal’ country in the guise of a great power” (p. 63). The counternarrative here is the “liberal” narrative, which “sees Germany’s role as motor for global governance” (p. 63). Bach argues that the normalist narrative is elaborated by Christian Hacke and his colleagues. Derived from the classical realist tradition, the normalizing discourse argues that the limits of supranational integration have been reached. The realities of the power of a unified Germany also imply great power responsibilities that Germany must not shirk. But the discursive strategy of the narratives also entails substituting the moral term “responsibility” for the less palatable amorality of the realist emphasis on “power.” The normalist narrative makes a virtue of a necessity in that “only by becoming more self-interested can Germany become ‘normal”’ (p. 77).
Normalist representations of the liberal counternarrative draw from realist hegemonic stability theory. In the terms of the normalist narrative, Germany must become a benign regional hegemonic power to avoid the threat of isolationist sentiment from “pacifistic weakness.” It views “crypto-pacifistic” attitudes of the internal liberal Other as “obstacles to progress.” It is a narrative that is “self assured, proud, sober, firm,” where “self-criticism ...is viewed as weakness,” and in which national identity must be “based on ‘objective’ factors” (pp. 83–84). Moreover, it sees Germany as “a historic bulwark against western decadence ...to save it [the West] from itself” (p. 86).
The liberal counternarrative is founded on a civil nationalism opposed to the organic nationalism of the narrative of normalcy. It features commitments to a liberal foreign policy, to the notion of common security, and to European integration and identity, and it is rooted in theories of international regimes. Proponents of this narrative are scholars like Jürgen Habermas and Ernst-Otto Czempiel. This narrative seeks a “societal” and “confederal” world, which reduces state sovereignty and promotes collective security and transnational domestic policy coordination. Policy initiatives generated within the liberal narrative look very different than those demanded by the normalcy narrative. The liberal narrative sees democratization as paramount and, to this end, interference in the internal affairs of other states as legitimate and even a moral imperative. The narrative of normalcy employs the language of responsibility to legitimate the use of German power in the service of the narrative’s notion of German national interests. Conversely, the liberal narrative employs the language of responsibility to orient German foreign policy to the construction of a liberal, societal world.
In his fifth chapter, Bach analyzes the Bundestag debate on whether to amend the German constitution to permit “out-of-area” deployment of German troops in support of NATO operations. He demonstrates that former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government employed the normalist narrative, so that such amendment was not necessary for legal deployment. The language of responsibility and normalcy permeated the government narrative, which was replete with references to Germany’s moral obligation to avoid free riding or to avoid alarming Germany’s allies that it “will fight to the last Frenchman” (p. 134). Such action, the government argued, would be consistent with support for human rights, and failure to contribute to such action would brand Germany as an unreliable ally. Thus both “moral and practical imperatives” (p. 140) were marshaled in the narrative for the government’s normalist position.
Bach devotes chapter 6 to a similar exercise, looking at the Bundestag’s debate over deploying 4,000 German troops in the former Yugoslavia to support the Dayton Accords’ IFOR peacekeeping force. Again, the prevailing discourse is the center-right, normalist narrative that presents “peacekeeping actions as a response to Hitlerian barbarism” (p. 152). The counterdiscourse insists on only nonviolent means as Germany’s contribution to global society. Here Bach invokes the “dualisms” inherent in the narratives mentioned above. For Bach, they are “moral/immoral,”
“normal/abnormal” (p. 160). He sees five discursive sites of struggle in the opposing narratives—namely, “Who is moral?”; “Who can speak for peace?”; contending “representation of the military”; and disputes about the “nature of the mission” and the “real point of debate” (p. 160).
According to Bach, which narrative prevails is more important than ascribing victory to any side that prevails in its policy preferences. In constructivist terms, which Bach invokes explicitly and often, his “focus is on the linguistic construction of knowledge” (p. 148). Strategies oriented toward achieving the linguistic dominance of a narrative are “necessary for fixing ‘the truth’ in a world that offers competing truths” (p. 171). Bach argues that “if one discourse is able to dominate the naming, referencing, and signification in the debate, then that discourse has solidified control over the denotive and associative meanings of the words which define the debate, and thereby the debate itself” (p. 173).
But what makes one discourse prevail over another? Bach sees three possibilities. Either the prevailing discourse “best reflects the values and beliefs of the actors involved,” or it “relies on interests that are powerful enough to rig the debate,” or it prevails “because it contains elements of ‘truth’ of a correspondence nature, elements of power, and is situated in a larger metanarrative” (p. 174). Bach suggests the third choice best explains the discursive dominance of the narrative of normalcy during the debates over deploying troops in support of the Dayton Accords. This is the book’s singular contribution to the literatures on international relations theory, the politics of identity, and German and comparative foreign policy.
Ethnography in the Study of Collective Identity
Although I have focused mostly on two fine examples of scholarship that employ the genealogical method and discourse analysis, ethnographies such as Daphne Berdahl’s Where the World Ended provide exemplary IR and social theory resources. In such accounts, we hear the authentic voice of the common people as they negotiate changing identity commitments. Berdahl’s study complements Bach’s and Neumann’s studies of the discursive construction of social collective identities.
In this fascinating study of identity formation along borderlands, Berdahl explores identity formation in the context of German reunification. In doing so, she reminds us that group identity and boundaries are both “relational concepts ...constructed largely in relation if not in opposition to social groups” (p. 4). Berdahl focuses on the village of Kella, which was located on the former East German border along the Schutzstreifen (high security zone)—a 500-meterwide strip between two fences. One fence was equipped with electro-optical sensors and alarms, while the other was topped with barbed wire (with the barbs facing eastward).
Berdahl arrived in Kella in December 1990, not long after the Berlin Wall had fallen and the border was opened. Living there allowed her to conduct research while the residents were negotiating the identity shifts, combined with adjusting to life without the border, or the GDR, in a unified Germany. Thus she was well situated to achieve her additional objective, which was to “illuminate how people negotiate rapid social change in a world of increasingly malleable boundaries, where identities crystallize around borders as well as transcend them” (p. 12).
Berdahl provides a fascinating picture of the differences in how individuals obtain social status—so central to individual identity under socialism and capitalism—and how the politics of identity is closely coupled to the politics of consumption in both systems. Under socialism, the Kella villagers emphasized the importance of connections (or “social capital”) in the second economy. Economic preferences were a consequence of positions of power in the bureaucratic apparatus. Berdahl offers a novel interpretation of this arrangement, inspired by the French reflexive sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who extended the Marxist notion of capital to include symbolic and cultural capital.
For Bourdieu, objective power relations are reproduced in symbolic power relations—in this case, the enhanced salience of social and symbolic capital under socialist rule with the abolition of private property. In the economy of shortage (pandemic in most command economies), consumption was highly politicized. Although consumption remained an important signifier of status “constitutive of difference” with the restoration of capitalism, the “social capital of connections” eroded. The new social meanings of money were highly corrosive of social relations among villagers, as was the case with differences in employment status as some fared better and some worse in the new capitalist regime. This engendered a loss of community and the prior communal component of local collective identity. Berdahl records these sentiments as expressed by the villagers in lively terms. She recounts a villager telling her that after the changes, “we can’t even sit at the same table anymore” (p. 135). Another says plainly, “these products are driving us apart” (p. 134). Berdahl sums it up simply: “Thinking and practice in relation to consumption and differentiation had changed” (p. 137).
Another significant contribution of the book is Berdahl’s account of the construction of otherness on each side of the former inter-German border in the discourses accompanying the creation of the terms “Ossis” (East Germans) and “Wessis” (West Germans). The roots of the Wessi narrative of the Ossi lie in a ”systematic devaluation of the East German past that challenged some of the very foundations of easterners’ identity” (p. 163). The West German discourse represents the East Germans as “inferior, backward, and lazy,” and they represent the socialist state of the GDR as totalitarian, on par with the former Nazi regime, in a way that resonates with Neumann’s account of European representations of the Soviet regime during the Cold War.
Berdahl’s ethnography offers one great strength that discourse analysis cannot provide: she argues that the construction of the Other is not merely a discursive practice. It involves many taxonomical devices, such as the “reading of bodies,” in which Wessis can identify Ossis by physical characteristics, body odors, social postures in public places, and social attitudes. The Wessi has visual and social clues to the identity of the Ossi as Other, and vice versa. Thus Wessis say Ossis “tend to be shy and insecure and travel or shop in groups” (p. 167), while Ossis argue that Wessis are “miserly, arrogant, and self assured. They always ‘think they know better’; hence the common label [in Ossi discourse] ‘Besserwessi’ (know-it-alls)” (p. 168).
Perhaps the reader can sympathize with other visual clues to identity that are provided by the uniquely puerile character of globalized consumption. In this brave new world, we can be “read” and “othered” by a lack of expertise in consuming products, which are generated to fulfill what Benjamin Barber calls ”imagined needs.” Berdahl’s discussion in this context is replete with examples, like the fact that two of Berdahl’s Ossi friends, on a visit to western Germany, “did not know what to do at McDonald’s reveals the lack of cultural fluency in consumption that made them easily identifiable as East-Germans” (p. 159). Unfortunately, this demonstrates that as globalization proceeds apace, it provides many new means of “othering.”
Together, these books illustrate well the sophisticated discursive strategies that states and substate actors employ to negotiate their own social identity. We see that the capacity to represent one’s self and “the Other” in a manner that becomes authoritative and that passes into general usage is a political power resource of the first order. We also see the global order “spin doctors,” plying their wares in the high stakes game of transnational politics. At the same time, the books resolve the question of who is “us” and who is “Other,” with the myriad consequences for the subsequent patterns of transnational politics.