A Global International Relations Take on the ‘Immigrant Crisis’
This article is part of the TRAFO series “Doing Global International Relations”.
By Pinar Bilgin
Global International Relations (IR) has become shorthand for the culmination of decades’ efforts into addressing IR’s Eurocentric limitations. Over the years, Critical IR as well as Postcolonial Studies scholars have contributed to discussions on IR’s limitations, seeking to offer amendments in some cases and alternatives in others (see, Bilgin, 2016c). Amitav Acharya’s presidential address to the 2014 convention of the International Studies Association introduced Global IR as “not a theory but an aspiration for greater inclusiveness and diversity in our discipline” (Acharya, 2014: 649; see also his blog post in this series). In this blog post, I want to make the case for studying Global IR through the lens of Edward Said’s ‘contrapuntal reading’ and I will illustrate what this perspective means by reference to the so-called ‘immigrant crisis’.
‘Contrapuntal reading’ and IR
In a piece published earlier in 2016, I followed Acharya’s lead and pointed to Edward Said’s (1975) approach to “contrapuntal reading” as one way of approaching Global IR that embraces diversity and “reflects the voices, experiences, interests and identities of humankind” (Acharya, 2014: 657). More specifically, I suggested that “contrapuntal reading” offers students of IR a method of studying world politics that focuses on our “intertwined and overlapping histories”, past and present; an ethos for approaching IR through raising the “contrapuntal awareness” of its students and offering an anchor for those who translate the findings of different perspectives; and a metaphor for thinking about Global IR as regional and global, one and many (Bilgin, 2016a).
While there is now a somewhat broader consensus regarding the need for producing non-Eurocentric accounts of world history (see, for example, (Buzan and Lawson, 2015; Bilgin, 2016b), there is, as yet, little consensus as to how to study contemporary phenomena from a Global IR perspective. How is it that we go about in addressing IR’s Eurocentric limitations? Is it about studying worlds outside North America and Western Europe? Does focusing on the ‘Third World’ constitute a panacea for addressing IR’s Eurocentric limitations? What if we are studying European Union’s foreign policy? Can we avoid Eurocentrism while studying the European Union?
Giving satisfactory answers to these questions demand more space than a blog post would allow. In its place, I will focus on the so-called ‘immigrant crisis’ to suggest one possibility for students of world politics who seek to study ‘subject X’ from a Global IR perspective.
Interrogating the ‘immigrant crisis’
I say the so-called ‘immigrant crisis’, because what we are currently witnessing does not qualify as a crisis that has emerged out of the blue (as everyday understanding of ‘crisis’ suggests); it has been in the making for decades. Since the 1970s, various European Community/Union (EC/EU) bodies have sought different ways of addressing the challenge of human mobility from the South of the Mediterranean to the North. It is mostly Mediterranean littoral members of the EU that has borne the brunt of this flow until 2015. That is to say, if the most recent inflow of migrants comes across as a crisis to some members of the EU, this is because they have not always paid attention when, in the 1990s, Spain took the lead in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP, a.k.a. the Barcelona Process, see below), seeking to alter human mobility dynamics across the Mediterranean; or when, in the 2000s, Italy and Greece mobilized meager resources to prevent a human catastrophe caused by human smugglers taking more and more dangerous routes across the Mediterranean.
Interrogating the construction of South-to-North human mobility in the Mediterranean as a ‘crisis’ is characteristic of critical IR approaches, and not unique to Global IR. It does, however, make a good first step for a Global IR analysis; asking what is it that renders the so-called ‘immigrant crisis’ a crisis?
As a second step, we could consider whether those who are arriving on EU borders are immigrants. Such consideration would likely involve historicizing EU policies toward South-to-North human mobility in the Mediterranean. After all, through the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership process (EMP), the EU did attempt to address South-to-North human mobility in a comprehensive manner, seeking to transform the South of the Mediterranean so that immigration to the North would slow down. The assumption behind the EMP was that South-to-North mobility was about people seeking better life chances for themselves and their families, mostly in economic terms.
Yet, closer scrutiny of the dynamics behind South-to-North human mobility has revealed that not all of the people on the move are immigrants who are seeking better life chances. Some are running for their lives from state and/or non-state actors. Some others are after some kind of stability amidst chaos so that they can send their children to school or finish their own training. There are indeed some who are looking to immigrate, but clearly not all. The point being that, what the EU encountered in 2015 is not an immigrant crisis but a complex situation of human mobility from the South to the North of the Mediterranean by people who seek to escape a variety of insecurities. Portraying the latest developments as an ‘immigrant crisis’, i.e. by reducing the issue to an influx of immigrants into the European Union does not allow us to understand the crux of the problem: human beings who are seeking to flee national security regimes in the South.
As above, historicizing EU policies toward the Mediterranean is characteristic of critical IR approaches, and not unique to Global IR. That said, a Global IR take on such historicization would add another layer by studying the emergence and persistence of insecurities in the South through a contrapuntal reading of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. As opposed to, that is, relying on narratives that mourn the way the EMP was ‘betrayed’ by the Southern partners who presumably lacked sincerity, let me elaborate on what is to be gained by a contrapuntal reading of the EMP.
An alternative take on the EMP through ‘contrapuntal reading’
Prevalent narratives on the EMP celebrate it as an unprecedented and innovative scheme that sought to export the EU’s own model to the Mediterranean. The same narratives mourn that the EMP came to an end because the South was not sincerely committed to the process. The South was not committed, it is surmised, because Southern regimes were, at best, not ready for and, at worst, not willing to engage in the kind of openness and interdependence that the EMP required.
A Global IR research framework, in turn, could be set up to consider a number of things: a) whether the model EU sought to export to the South was indeed its own model, or a different one; b) whether approaching the South in a non-Eurocentric perspective, avoiding a culturalist portrayal of the South, could have helped with developing a better model; c) whether considering Southern actors’ understandings of the process, their insecurities and interests would have helped with developing a better model.
Ten years after the end of the EMP, we still do not have satisfactory answers to these questions, for we rely on our own presumptions regarding the end of the process, as opposed to doing research from a non-Eurocentric perspective. A contrapuntal reading of the EMP is likely to offer more comprehensive answers, avoiding falling back on presumptions regarding Southern actors’ lack of sincerity.
A contrapuntal reading of the EMP would also allow greater insight into the persistence of insecurities in the South and the role played by some EU member states in re-producing these very insecurities. In 2004, the EU launched the replacement of the EMP, the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in response to the failures of the former in addressing the challenge of human mobility. The shift from EMP to ENP took place in a climate of insecurity shaped by the 9/11, Madrid and London attacks and the ‘Global War on Terror’. As part of the transition from EMP to ENP, more violent instruments were increasingly used by EU member states in collaboration with Southern regimes often to the detriment of citizens on both shores of the Mediterranean. Such collaboration took the form of the training of military and police in the South, the transfer of surveillance and border control technology, and, at times, unlawful removal of suspects to torturing states (Bilgin, 2016d). Accordingly, some Southern regimes that were otherwise struggling with domestic stability and legitimacy found a new lease of life as they offered their services to some Northern partners who were desperate to curb South-to-North mobility (Nicolaidis and Nicolaidis, 2007). By 2011, when the Arab uprisings began, the legitimacy of Southern regimes and the credibility of their EU-member partners were at an all-time low in the eyes of civil societal actors in the South of the Mediterranean (Bilgin et al., 2011).
To recap, a contrapuntal reading of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership process would allow considering the rise and fall of the EMP as the process that evolved on the Southern and Northern shores of the Mediterranean. As opposed to, that is, relying on prevalent narratives regarding a lack of sincerity on the part of Southern regimes as the reason behind the decline and fall of the EMP. More broadly, a contrapuntal reading, I suggested, would allow going beyond everyday portrayal of unfolding events as a ‘crisis’ about ‘immigrants’ but highlight the roles played by some EU members and their Southern Mediterranean partners in the re-production of insecurities in the South.
Finally, a note on the potential implications of relying on humanitarian impulses in responding to the so-called ‘immigrant crisis’. For, some pundits and policy-makers claim that if the EU were to let more immigrants in on humanitarian grounds, this is likely to produce insecurities for women at home. This is because, it is argued, immigrants do not seem to share the same set of ideas about the status of women in the society. Arguably, this is where a contrapuntal reading of the re-production of insecurities in the Mediterranean is most crucial.
In response to such claims that culturalize and de-politicize women’s status in Muslim societies, it is possible to produce a contrapuntal reading of the status of women in the Muslim world in the second half of the 20th century. If it is the case that some/most of the immigrants do not share the same set of ideas about the status of women in the society, the roots of such conditioning need to be searched in those portrayals of Muslim ‘culture’ as existing ‘outside time and politics’. Global IR warns us against treating culture as timeless pre-given, but calls for inquiring into the re-production of what is viewed as ‘cultural’. In this particular context, we could inquire into the emergence and persistence, in Muslim societies, of a set of ideas not entirely respectful of the status of women in society. Such a research could look into not only EU policies or that of Southern Mediterranean regimes but also those Muslim actors who over the years rendered peoples of the Middle East (and women in particular) insecure as they pursued their own regime security.
The case I have in mind is Saudi Arabia’s historical support for conservative Islamist think tanks throughout the Muslim world beginning from the second half of the 20th century. The late Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi (1996) wrote:
“When, in the early twentieth century, the feverishly nationalist Arab World resolutely determined to modernize, secularize and renew itself, no one would have guessed that the Saudis had any role to play on the international scene. Were it not for the discovery of oil and the systematic investment by the West in the region’s Emirs from the 1930s onward, few today would know where on the map to find that kingdom” (Mernissi 1996: 259).
In the first half of the 20th century, commitment to democracy, secularism and women’s rights was neither superficial nor unique to a marginal elite in the Arab World, noted Mernissi—contrary to present day presumptions of many. However, in the second half of the 20th century, democratic and secular ideas and ideals in the Arab World (and beyond) were overshadowed by conservative Islamist ideas and ideals in tandem with the flow of Saudi funds into conservative Islamist think tanks. Saudi practices, in turn, were shaped by their own regime insecurities that were challenged by those very democratic and secular ideas and their appeal to people across the Arab world. Finally, Saudi regime security practices were supported by external actors such as the United States who considered them a bulwark in the fight against socialism and nationalism in the Arab World and beyond. Hence Mernissi’s (1996) characterization of the status of women in the Muslim world as (partly but not wholly) a product of ‘palace fundamentalism’, which symbolizes a coalescence of external actors’ global and Saudi actors’ local security practices.
My point here is that those who portray women’s treatment as second-class citizens as ‘cultural’, serve to depoliticize the status of women in Muslim societies. A contrapuntal reading of women’s status in the Muslim world would likely reveal the international political process through which “liberal democracies’ economic and political strategies titled the balance against civil society in the Arab World,” thereby “making the life of the average Arab citizen in general, and the lives of women and minorities in particular, a terrible field of insecurity” (Mernissi 1996: 261). Lacking such contrapuntal readings that reveal connections that continued beyond the era of colonialism, many inside and outside the Muslim world buy into the aforementioned depoliticizing move. Unthinking acceptance of such portrayal of women’s status as ‘cultural’, in turn, has consequences for human beings on the move insofar as host societies worry about welcoming Muslim men and women in case their arrival constitutes a source of insecurity for women at home by challenging already-fragile gender balances.
To recap, thinking differently about the plight of the people on the move calls on us to study contrapuntally the trajectory of EU policies, the trajectory of Southern regimes’ policies, and the trajectory of practices by those who have sought to shape regional dynamics away from democracy and secularism toward conservative Islamism in the attempt to serve their respective insecurities.
It is about how we study, not what we study
I know fully well that the dynamics surrounding the issue of human mobility are more complex than what I presented in a blog post. Yet, in a post-truth world, it is often presumptions that shape our thinking as opposed to scholarly studies. I did not seek to offer fresh scholarly findings. Rather, I sought to encourage Global IR research into human mobility. In doing so, I underscored the need to study the issue contrapuntally, as opposed to flattening human mobility into a search for better life chances and/or a source of insecurity for ‘us’.
Studying ‘subject X’ from a Global IR perspective need not come across as a daunting exercise. Engaging in contrapuntal readings of ‘subject X’ is easier than ever, thanks to the revolution in communications technology, which allowed peoples in different parts of the world to get their voices heard—although with varying degrees of ease and intensity. Global IR is about research design, not about choice of topic. Avoiding Eurocentrism is not about avoiding studying the EU, but about how we study the EU. Engaging with the perspectives of multiple actors in the South and North of the Mediterranean as we study the trajectory of the EMP or the status of the women in Muslim societies would constitute a beginning. After all, our subject matter is ‘the international’.
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BILGIN, P. 2016a. Edward Said’s ‘contrapuntal reading’ as a method, an ethos and a metaphor for Global IR. International Studies Review, 18, 134-46.
BILGIN, P. 2016b. How to remedy Eurocentrism in IR? A complement and a challenge for The Global Transformation. International Theory, 8, 492-501.
BILGIN, P. 2016c. The International in Security, Security in the International, London, Routledge.
BILGIN, P. 2016d. Temporalizing Security: Securing the Citizen, Insecuring the Immigrant in the Mediterranean. In: AGATHANGELOU, A. M. & KILLIAN, K. D. (eds.) Time, Temporality and Violence in International Relations: (De) Fatalizing the Present, Forging Radical Alternatives. London: Routledge.
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MERNISSI, F. 1996. Palace Fundamentalism and Liberal Democracy: Oil, Arms and Irrationality, Development and Change, 27(2): 255-66.
NICOLAIDIS, K. A. & NICOLAIDIS, D. 2007. Europe in the Mirror of the Mediterranean. In: FABRE, T. & PAUL, S. C. (eds.) Between Europe and the Mediterranean: The Challenge and the Fears. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
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Pinar Bilgin is a professor of International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara. She is the author of Regional Security in the Middle East: A Critical Perspective (2005) and The International in Security, Security in the International (2016). For a full list of publications, see www.bilkent.edu.tr/~pbilgin.
Further Readings on TRAFO:
Antonia Witt, Felix Anderl, Stefan Kroll, Philip Wallmeier (2016), Clues, Careers, and Curricula – Doing Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Amitav Acharya (2016), Developing Global International Relations: What, Who, and How?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Anthoni van Nieuwkerk (2016), Reflections on (not so) International Relations … and what scholars from the Global South can do about it, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Frank Mattheis (2016), New metres for a wider world: interregionalism and Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Catherine Baker (2016), South-East European Studies in the ‘House of International Relations’, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Amaya Querejazu (2016), Andean Cosmovision and Global Governanc, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Tim Rühlig (2016), Is there a Chinese understanding of International Relations?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Jochen Kleinschmidt (2016), Global IR and Academic Authorship in Latin America: Why Inclusion Is Not a Panacea, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Anna Grindle (2016), Global Learning in Northern Ireland: Challenges, Successes and Opportunities, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Study Abroad: You don’t always get what you paid for – Interview with Natalia Lombana, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Citation: Pinar Bilgin, A Global International Relations Take on the ‘Immigrant Crisis’, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.01.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/5699