Disassembling Binaries in International relation’s CorE


Perspectives on Global Issues, Winter 2016

By DeLaine Mayer

How has traditional International Relations (IR) adapted to global trends, and in what ways could Queer Theory open IR up to new interpretations of global events? What core concepts in IR are unstable, how does Queer Theory seek to queer those concepts, and what can IR gain from the process?

Given new global trends including the rise of non-state actors, expansion of borders through trade, and greater emphasis on human rights, International Relations (IR) is ripe for a reexamination of the discipline’s conceptual cores. Queer Theory is a developing field of theory that can contribute to traditional IR by reframing traditional IR concepts in a number of significant ways. Markus Thiel, in LGBT Politics, Queer Theory, and International Relations writes, “[Queer Theory contests] prevalent dualistic binaries in mainstream IR, such as state/system, modern liberalism/premodern homophobia, West/Rest, etc.” By undertaking the queering, or disassembling, of the binaries on which IR is built, IR theorists can focus on more flexible interpretations of changing trends and political predictions, and respond with more inclusive understanding of global processes.

Consider the traditional basis for sovereignty within IR’s state-centric core. The definition of the state is predicated by several distinct binaries: borders (Our Land/Your Land), legalized conceptions of nationality (Citizen/Foreigner), and security (National Security/Insecurity Caused by Others.) These binaries have been historically significant for upholding states’ geopolitical ambitions. A centralized government controlling spaces identified through territorial borders, then, could, at least in part, define sovereignty. This in turn grants a population a legalized nationality and offers state-sponsored security. However, these conceptual binaries have grown weak in the face of the major global issues of the 21st century, especially the global refugee crisis, climate change, and digital technology and cybernetics. Further, the rise of nonstate actors, a universalization of human rights, and expansion of borders through free trade threatens IR’s traditional state system. Thiel writes, “Political tensions in the ‘real world’ should prompt the queer IR theorist to question established conceptions of governance” (Thiel). For the remainder of this paper, I will examine the three aforementioned binaries I believe are crucial to traditional IRs definitions of statehood and sovereignty and identify how IR stands to benefit from a queering of its core tenants.

Borders (Our Land/Your Land) as a conceptual and physical state marking have conveyed sovereignty in two ways. “Internal sovereignty means that the government exercises jurisdiction over the people in a given territory. External sovereignty confers on states and governments the right to represent the national population in international transactions and negotiations” (Steans). Increasingly, however, groups are able to transcend the traditional state role and represent themselves nationally, be it as part of a broader social movement for legal and political rights, like feminist or LGBTIQ movements supported or led by NGOs, or as decentralized networks seeking to replace the state system altogether, like ISIS. Traditional borders signify less in a digital world, and as human behavior is increasingly expressed through digital forms, traditional notions of sovereignty dissolve. Power in the 21st century is as rooted in information as it is to physical territory. Traditional IR theories on states gaining comparative advantage over its neighbors or regional states dealing with a would-be hegemon to balance power are complicated by the existence and accessibility of the Internet. The spread of digital social platforms, that are accessible to rural farmers and sophisticated hacktivists alike presents a digitized democratic landscape unimaginable just a few decades ago. This technological democratization, along with universalized human rights standards, coincides with issues of nationality and identity, as well.

The construction of nationality within a state produces the Citizen/Foreigner binary. Nationalism, incubated in “bounded, exclusionary communities,” enables the state to grant certain rights to the Citizen that it does not grant the Foreigner. Nationalism justifies violence against the Foreigner for the good of the Citizen, and nationalism-expressed-as-oppression justifies violence against citizens who do not conform to state-expected norms or desires. However, globalized conceptions of human rights, and access to global platforms for dialogue and action, force an adjustment in what traditional IR can explain about state responsibility and responsiveness. Thiel writes, “The emergence of numerous Western-organized NGOs, but also locally hybridized LGBT movements with the significant publicity they generate – be it positive or negative – pluralizes transnational politics to a previously unknown degree, and chips away at the centrality of the state in regulating and protecting its citizens” (Thiel). Citizens and Foreigners have more opportunities than ever to find shared interests and ways of identifying that are not based on nationality.

Despite many similarities, people and states express fear and insecurity oftentimes through violence. Although traditional IR is well-versed in power and war, security in IR focuses on harm to the state rather than state failure to respond to violence of marginalized groups. Further, to Cynthia Weber, traditional IR would consider structural systems that perpetuate inequality or violence of disempowered communities, too “low-theory.” However, many of today’s conflicts have deep roots in sectarianism, poverty, and unequal access to resource and opportunities – all issues that fall into the too low-theory for IR category. The sheer number of civil wars, not interstate wars, in the 21st century should give traditional IR theorists pause, however. Queering security studies in IR would lead to a more holistic, inclusive understanding of what it means for individuals and communities to feel secure, and what local, national, and global predictions and solutions are available.

By accepting the disassembly of IR’s conceptual cores’ binaries, IR is opened up to new forms of thinking about statehood in a universalizing system. Queer Theory’s goal is not to overhaul traditional IR but to create a more reflexive theoretical system within which to understand and predict global behavior and encourage more inclusive methodologies for identifying what actors matter and are represented in global theory.

Works Cited

Steans, Jill. Gender and International Relations: Theory, Practice, Policy. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. 
Thiel, Markus. "LGBT Politics, Queer Theory, and International Relations." E-International Relations. 31 Oct. 2014. <http://www.e-ir.info/2014/10/31/lgbt-politics-queer-theory-and-international-relations/>.

Keywords: international relations, IR, queer theory, non-state actors, human rights, neoliberalism, borders, nationality, security, sovereignty, power

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