The Institution of International Order: An Interview with Simon Jackson and Alanna O’Malley

With some people becoming increasingly concerned about the attacks on the liberal international order and others questioning whether such a thing actually exists or has ever existed, the publication of The Institution of International Order: from the League of Nations to the United Nations in 2018 is a timely and welcome intervention. This edited volume sheds light on the historical dimensions of internationalism, by examining the League of Nations and the United Nations (UN) from the 1920s to the 1970s. Not only does it connect scholarship historicizing internationalism, but it also explicitly decenters the history of internationalism by bringing in people, organizations, and places not generally associated with the levers of international order. I sat down with the editors of this volume, Simon Jackson and Alanna O’Malley.

Simon is a lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Birmingham, while Alanna is based at Leiden University and The Hague University of Applied Science, where she has recently taken up the newly created position of Chair of United Nations Studies in Peace and Justice. Both are deeply invested in the history of internationalism. Simon came to work on the League of Nations through his analysis of the politics of development in the French League of Nations mandates of Syria and Lebanon; Alanna began researching the UN through her doctoral studies on the role of the UN during the Congo crisis in the early 1960s. Both were influenced by the then emerging field of the history of internationalism led by Susan Pedersen, Glenda Sluga, and Patricia Clavin, among others. They met when they were based at the European University Institute in Florence, where they organized a conference in 2013. There, the idea for their volume came into being, as they explain.

Sam de Schutter

Alanna O’Malley: We were both in Florence, where we decided to do a conference on the League and the UN, co-organizing it with Natasha Wheatley (Princeton University). Other colleagues there were also closely involved—Antara Haldar, Dirk Moses, and Konrad Lawson. We had an initial idea about the conference, but our thinking on the book was greatly shaped by the papers that were presented there. What the contributors really showed us was the value of a local perspective as something that was empirically extremely rich and intellectually very rigorous, while also being a really new contribution to the field. Susan Pedersen has obviously set the course for work on international institutions in the twentieth century with her book The Guardians and she was the one who emphasized, as a keynote speaker at the conference, the importance of a ‘multi-local approach.’ It is also important to note that a number of the contributors to the volume are not from the Anglophone world, so they were able to connect non-Anglophone literature on the League and the UN to more commonly known works, such as Mark Mazower’s Governing the World and Paul Kennedy’s The Parliament of Man. That is another interesting contribution of this volume to the field.

Simon Jackson: As we developed the volume in the wake of the Florence conference we had the opportunity to present a draft of the introduction at a wonderful workshop on Internationalism and Empire, held in Lisbon in 2015. There we got some really helpful feedback and suggestions, notably from Sandrine Kott, confirming that we needed to try to root the volume as much as possible in historiographies in multiple languages and to push back against the narrowing effects of English as a hegemonic language of historiography. When it comes to the League, the archives in Geneva are such an interesting location in that regard. It is a place where scholars from lots of different countries and historiographical backgrounds come together, working in Spanish, French, or English. They convene around those archives in Geneva and bring not only different linguistic skills to bear upon their holdings, but also different conceptual lineages and methodological approaches to international history. The League’s archives can serve as a place to build a historiographical intervention that brings lots of people together from beyond the usual Anglophone locations. Hopefully the ongoing digitization of the League archives will reinforce that.

Q: That immediately brings us to one of the main themes of the volume, which is the decentering of the history of the League and the UN or of the history of internationalism in general. You already mentioned the term that Susan Pedersen introduces in her foreword to the volume, which is the concept of a ‘multi-local history.’ Could you explain a bit more what that approach entails with regard to histories of internationalism?

A: It entails two things. Firstly, it relates to the fact that we have to start thinking about the history of these institutions as emanating from places and from people to whom the work of the institutions was directed. You can’t really write a history of the League, the UN, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or whatever it is, simply from Geneva or New York. The hypothesis that we were working with was that the policies, practices, and programs that these institutions roll out and the politics surrounding them are very much affected by the people to whom they are directed. Take for example what Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo and José Pedro Monteiro wrote in their chapter in the volume about the question of ‘native labor’ in the Portuguese empire. They show that it was not just a story about Portuguese labor between Portugal and its colonies, but that this history was very much affected by the politics of imperial questions at the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the ways in which resistance was able to emanate towards the empire through this institution. What we are really trying to show with the volume is that the history of these institutions is rooted in these different contexts that are far from the traditional centers. That is the geographical part. Intellectually, what became very obvious in connecting the different chapters was that these local voices were very new and that they showed very different perspectives on what these international institutions meant at various moments to different states and different peoples. This provides for a new view of, for example, the utility of an organization like the ILO to Portuguese colonial subjects. The ILO was very important, because it gave them a platform for resisting Portuguese empire. It was therefore important to capture these local voices that often have not really been told as part of the traditional history of the UN and the League, which is often all about the elite and about states.

S: As we say in the introduction, we very much see this historiography as a dynamic one that is moving forward. We do not claim that the volume is the last word on this history. One thing however that the concept of a global, multi-local history can do is to help international history and the historiography on the League and the UN move even further forward. If you read the volume you will still necessarily find lots of archives sourced from Geneva or New York, but hopefully too, all the way through the volume, you will see an insistence on the fact that the League was just as present as a political or cultural phenomenon in, for example, late colonial West Africa or post-1945 Japan, as it was in the classic locations like Geneva or New York.

Q: That brings us to an issue that you also mention in the introduction, which is the use of archives and specifically the problem of doing more global archival research, beyond archives in Geneva and New York, which hasn’t happened all that much so far. Do you think there are structural issues that prevent historians from doing this kind of research?

A: I think you are entirely right. The problem with working with archives in far-flung places is that it is very expensive and time consuming; it is an investment of time and resources. They are, however, incredibly rich. You find things there that are not available or missing from the record in the official archives of the UN. It is like a treasure hunt and you really do turn out a lot of gems. I think that now there is more and more interest in going. This is important, because as long as there is more interest in going to these archives, there is a better argument to the states and municipalities who own these archives to keep them open and to keep their own historical records available, so that they can become part of mainstream scholarship.

S: I would add a couple of points, one on the sociology of historical knowledge production and one on experiences in the archives themselves.

On the first point, the sociology of historical knowledge production—in particular on the institutional sociology of the fields of international and global history—we obviously operate in a profoundly unequal and hierarchical institutional landscapes, where scholars from the Global South don’t enjoy nearly the same resources that scholars from the wealthiest institutions in the Global North have. Individual monograph projects that require substantial amounts of long-distance, carbon-intensive travel to ten or more archival locations, sometimes risk becoming emblems of a certain kind of privilege. We have to be reflexive and critical about that and in particular I think where a volume like ours can make an intellectual contribution and offer a practical model, is by insisting on the value of collaboration between scholars spread out around the world. All of them bring their own archival and linguistic expertise to bear, which produces this kind of rich stew that we have tried to concoct and that overcomes some of that hierarchy. I also think that we operate in a scholarly publishing landscape where edited volumes are often not valued highly enough because of the different metric systems that are out there and that are imposed on historians, fostering competitive individualism. I hope that this volume is a testament to the enduring value and importance of collaboration through edited volumes of this kind.

On the other point, about the archives, it makes me think of working in the League of Nations archives. I worked on petitions coming from Syria and Lebanon and they contained lots of petitions generated by Arab and Syrian nationalists and petitions by Armenians. Many of those petitions were not translated by the League or handled in an official way, simply because they did not put the resources into translating. They didn’t have an Armenian translator for many years in the 1920s. These petitions, notably those raising individual cases or claims for restitution of property, were therefore more or less at the margins of even that archive of petitioning material. I think that is a good example of how the ‘central’ archives of Geneva and New York have within them their own peripheries and their own margins that have to be explored, even as we absolutely have to combine those archives with the range of ‘local’ sources Alanna evokes.

Q: The volume does a tremendous job in diversifying the history of internationalism, by bringing in these lesser known stories of people like Charles Malik, Carlos Tornquist, or Ozaki Yukio. While reading these stories however, you come to realize that they still have very elite protagonists. Would you agree that histories of internationalism are still mostly histories where elite actors are the protagonists of the story, and are there ways to also decenter the history of the League and the UN in that respect?

A: I think that there is certainly a push to interrogate the institutional archives. Simon made a very good point when he was talking about the archives being rich themselves, but that they also have peripheral actors within them. That is what is so interesting about the League and the UN archives to me: they are an incredibly rich resource, because they really did manage to capture a lot of non-elite perspectives, from petitions that came from outside, but also from letters of redress that came from ordinary people. A lot of local activists or provincial actors also sought to connect their local ideas, campaigns, or problems with global issues, because this was a way to give them more power, more voice, and more agency. It is therefore also important to think about internationalism as something which is very much reflected and refracted through the archives of these institutions.

S: There are certainly elite protagonists in the volume, as well as some subaltern protagonists, but our intent was not to organize a subaltern history of the League and the UN, as valuable as that would be, but to track interactions and dynamics between groups of people engaging with the League and UN from all around the world. I keep saying the same thing, but I think when you can publish a volume like this one, where you can bring together people working at different scales, on different groups of people and out of different archives and languages, it is tremendously helpful. It helps us get past a focus on one particular constellation of people, in ways that are naturally harder for individual scholars. Take for example Quinn Slobodian with his terrific recent book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. It is a kind of global intellectual history focused on a set of economists for the most part, whom he tracks from the 1920s through the 1970s. It is a tremendously valuable intervention, as it helps us to understand the developments of neoliberalism in the twentieth century and how those developments connected to international organizations like the WTO or indeed the League itself. But it is available to that critique that you made, in that it is focused on these elite economists, mostly men in Geneva. Equally, you have work from somebody like Meredith Terretta, who has looked at the way that West African lawyers and legal activists tried to mobilize international law around UN trusteeships, using internationalism or international law in an incredibly local way. Terretta’s is more a sort of global social history of Africa, or a multi-local global social history. Both of these approaches are incredibly valuable and fortunately we needn’t choose one or the other; we have to bring them together. Again, that is where I think scholarly collaboration in a volume can be really helpful.

Q: Speaking of global intellectual histories: it seems like a lot of the history of internationalism is about how ideas were discussed and articulated at the level of international institutions, and how people lobbied with these institutions. Some chapters in your book however try to reverse this perspective and analyze how the League, the UN or international organizations in general had an impact on the ground. That to me seems like a very valuable contribution, but how can we better study and understand the history of how these institutions had an impact on the ground?

S: Let me cite a chapter from the volume to get into this question. Florian Hannig in his chapter focuses on the 1971 East Pakistan crisis and the origins of humanitarian aid. He makes a couple of interventions. He is interested in the way that the UN for the first time in the early 1970s becomes a permanent global humanitarian intervener and actor, but he is also interested in how that transformation was motivated by very contingent local political dynamics in South Asia. He does a great job of splicing together the long run chronology of internationalism at the UN (and indeed at the League) with the ways that political dynamics in 1970-1971 served to motivate and to pull the UN into that new role. This is a good example of somebody who is able to show how, on the one hand, international organizations were having this very clear impact on the refugee crisis on the ground, while, on the other hand, also pointing to the reverse stream—that in a contingent way what was happening on the ground shaped the institutional evolution of the UN in New York.

A: I think that is exactly how we both understood the UN’s role. It is important to emphasize that the UN has been a very dynamic institution which has changed over time. It does not simply roll out policies with no regard for local context—although it could do better in many cases—but also takes back a lot of the local experiences in the reports of the Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSG) or the agencies that are on the ground. Those reports are then deliberated at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) or at the committees of the General Assembly. Often we look for the impact of these organizations in a very material way: how much aid goes here or what kind of educational programs are developed there or so on and so forth. It is not simply about what comes out of these institutions, however. It is also about how they react to the experiences of those programs by the people who carry them out, and who benefits—or sometimes doesn’t benefit—from them. To me, that is also what is very interesting in the chapters by Nova Robinson, by Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo and José Pedro Monteiro, and by Mats Ingulstad and Lucas Lixinski. They are thinking about institutions in a slightly different way: not just as static entities rolling out programs, but also as absorbing experiences. The institutions themselves are not very good at learning from those experiences; that is a different question. I do think, however, that the internal process of how policies adapt and change, and how politics are shaped around them, are part of the League and the UN’s contributions to local actors, as well.

S: On the point about failing to learn, another chapter that is really helpful here is Sarah Shields’s chapter on consociationalism in the Middle East. Sarah shows really clearly how the ethnicizing, nationalizing logic of the League and its commissioners in Mosul in the late 1920s and early 1930s is taken up and developed by national political entrepreneurs as well as by imperial officials in ways that conflict with the realities of political affiliation and political practices that existed prior to that. League officials go back to Geneva or send back reports to Geneva, pointing out that it is very difficult to split people into Iraqis, Arabs, or Turks, and those reports get more or less ignored, which in turn has consequences both in Geneva and back in Mosul as well as at points in between and far beyond. This chapter also emphasizes the importance of tracking these histories along global circuits and spaces, from place to place to place. Recently Karen Gram-Skjoldager and Haakon Ikonomou published their book, The League of Nations: Perspectives from the Present, and they have this really terrific sociological, Bourdieusian take on the Secretariat, and the way in which different forms of intellectual capital served to entrench certain forms of expertise as more or less dominant at the Secretariat. If you can read that approach alongside more geographically expansive work like Sarah Shields’s chapter in our volume, then you can get both that kind of delicate sociological take on different forms of intellectual capital in Geneva, but also the importance of how expertise is defined as it moves back and forth between, say, Mosul, Bagdad, Beirut and Geneva, along different networks. That is where the global multi-local approach that we used is helpful: the institutional field of the League or UN as a site of analysis is stretched, and the historiographical field of international history is enriched.

Q: Let’s move on to another aspect that is central to the book, which is in the subtitle: from the League of Nations to the United Nations. This concerns the rethinking of the transition from the League to the UN and the supposed rupture between these two institutions. What would you say were the main continuities between the two organizations?

A: In an institutional way, you obviously have the ILO, which is a continuity, because it stays in existence from the League to the UN. You also have the work of the League on economic and social questions, which immediately becomes adopted into the ECOSOC; the Mandates Commission becomes the Trusteeship Council, which has different kinds of powers but nonetheless the structure is basically the same; and the Security Council, different in power but somewhat similar in structure to what was at the League. These kinds of institutional features remain. It is, however, more interesting to think about the fact that, intellectually and in terms of emphasis, the League—although it was more representative—became somewhat a forum for empires. The UN, on the other hand, was in fact more global, because each member had the same weight, but it was also more difficult to operationalize, because it was very imbalanced in terms of power. In that regard there was a real discontinuity in the way in which the founders envisaged these organizations. The work of the Secretariat does however remains broadly similar between the two, and I think that is something that has been increasingly emphasized in recent scholarship. Something that we were keen to point out is that there hasn’t really been this fundamental break between the two institutions. Our introduction lays out nicely that image of how, when the UN was being launched in San Francisco and the Charter was being signed, the remaining League delegates were ushered in the back door and were given seats in the back, because there really was a kind of political propaganda at work to emphasize a discontinuity. In practice, however, this wasn’t really accurate.

S: I was going to say the nation state. Alanna talked about the importance of empire, but I think one reason we were also interested in this period from the 1920s to the 1970s, as we say in the introduction, is that you can see it as a long moment of the rise of the nation state as the dominant political form worldwide. This is something that starts to come to an end arguably in the 1970s, with the start of the neoliberal conjuncture. So that was another trail of bread crumbs throughout the period that helped us to get across that watershed of 1945. We were thinking of colleagues in international relations (IR), for example, who often have a very strong organizing commitment to the post-Word War II order as very distinctly segregated from what came before. We were keen to try to reach some readers in IR, particularly those working with historical and qualitative approaches, and to put this case to them as well.

Q: When you say that you want to reach scholars in IR and have them rethink their chronology, why do you think that is important? How, in your opinion, would it make them rethink the UN if they were able to see more continuity with the interwar period?

S: There is a chapter in the volume that I always think of in relation to what an IR scholar might get from it, which is Nathan Kurz’s wonderful chapter on petitioning, looking at Jewish NGOs in the orbit of the UN in the late 1940s and 1950s in New York City. He analyzes the way in which they are pitching a certain vision of international law to UN officials, trying to get that vision, as it relates to petitioning, embedded in the UN architecture. I think that typically—and legitimately in some ways—an IR scholar might take international law at the UN in the 1940s and 1950s and study its constitution in that moment by reference to great power politics or by reference to anticolonial nationalism, or even by reference to broad accounts of the League’s ‘failures.’ But what I think Nathan might help them to do is to grasp the importance and the diversity of imaginaries and narratives of international law that drew really powerfully on the interwar period. So in a way, breaching 1945 is also about paying more attention to the plural and contending cultural, narrative, and imaginative constructions of the past as they played out in the given present. By paying attention to the interplay between past and present we can help IR scholars to think in new ways about what an institution is in a given present moment.

Q: That also broadens up the question of continuity. Some chapters in the book do really draw lines between the past and present, and try to think about how these histories can inform our thinking about the present conjuncture. What are your views on how this historical research can inform our current understanding of the UN and the place of the UN in world politics?

A: For me it is really clear that we are in a situation with the UN at the moment where it is highly problematic, it is considered as almost irrelevant for most people and even for many states. It has a huge image problem. It is also seen as gray, bureaucratic, and distant, and something that is very archaic—something of the 1945 world. The problem is that there is no way to challenge these views unless we have different kinds of histories of what the UN is and where it came from, and how actually there has been a great continuity with the League from the 1920s. Until we have different views of the UN coming from historians—showing how differently we can think about the UN over time, how changeable it is, how activist it was, and how it has direct influence not just on the state or the world system but on the lives of ordinary peoples—it is very difficult to change the image or perception of the UN, or to increase its relevance. Part of increasing the importance of the UN is precisely to historicize it in different ways and to show how fascinating that history can be for all kinds of different people. What is really great is that working on the UN, the League, or other international institutions gives you a position between different fields. This book has appealed a lot to international lawyers too, for example, because they are interested in the evolution of ideas and the intellectual prominence of these institutions over time.

Q: When we think about the UN today—and this also becomes clear throughout the book, which focuses on such a wide variety of actors, institutions, and organizations—one issue is that the League or the UN becomes difficult to define. I came across this piece that you wrote for The Conversation where at one point you noted that ‘the UN is not a unified whole,’ but ‘a highly complex system.’ So what are we talking about when we are talking about the League or the UN?

A: That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Firstly, do you want to define these institutions in narrow terms, when you are trying to get away from the traditional, conventional views of what they are? On the other hand, you have to have some kind of conception of what they are in order to really be able to study them, and to be able to understand their role. There are all kinds of inventive and different terms that come out of new scholarship, but the one that I really like is this idea that these institutions are force fields. To a certain extent, they operate on their own axis. They have agency that is performative in certain moments, but they also are reactive to and reflective of the interests of the members. Those members are not just states. In many cases it is nations and NGOs who create the most noise at these institutions, because they are on a crusade for one thing or the other.

S: I think that is well put. To push on the metaphor for a bit, I think that this ‘force’ in the force field can be syphoned or pulled into other projects as well. One of the discussions that we often had in the process of editing the volume was about other kinds of internationalism, whether fascist internationalism, socialist and communist internationalism, or forms of indigenous internationalism. How do you accommodate those? I think that notion of the force field that Alanna alludes to is helpful in the sense that it doesn’t have to be exclusive. There are overlaps between these forms of internationalism. The political, social, or cultural energy of this force field at the League and at the UN can be borrowed and syphoned into other forms of internationalism and other projects—and often was. Sometimes this was done positively, in the sense of an aspirational or an appropriating claim, sometimes negatively through very hostile critique, for example by communist internationalists. It is a force that was available—and by focusing on it analytically and interpretatively you can tell a lot of different stories in ways that decenter existing accounts. I think one good example from the volume would be the chapter by Mats Ingulstad and Lucas Lixinski, in which they show that pan-Americanism and pan-Americanists, these regionalist thinkers of various stripes, were incredibly routinely skeptical of the League and the UN, but they were also engaging with it, trying to push the nascent UN in a certain direction in the early 1940s. They are a good example of people that were part of a project (Pan-Americanism) that was borrowing some of that force from the force field of the League and the UN and using it in different ways.

Q: It becomes very clear that you are both very much invested in the history of internationalism as researchers, but that you are also informed by the present conjuncture. Does that also translate into your teaching?

A: It is incredibly important to teach this history, because it is not part of our conventional story. If you take a survey course on twentieth century history or a course related to the Cold War or decolonization, the role of the UN is almost absent. It is absolutely essential to reintegrate the UN—and the League before it—into these courses, as something that is an active part of the political landscape across the twentieth century.

S: From my own experience, I see two sometimes conflicting dynamics going on when it comes to teaching the history of internationalism. One is the rising and extremely important range of voices calling for a decolonization of teaching and of the history curriculum. On the other hand, there is a continuing and very well entrenched set of demands and expectations on the part of students, who are being encouraged to think of themselves as neoliberal customers, to be taught national history. This is really strong in the UK, and is also taking place against the backdrop of a neo-nationalism as expressed in Brexit, for example. These are two significant dynamics that are in the room when you are teaching undergraduates. One way to approach those two dynamics is precisely through the approach that we have in the volume, which is a global multi-local approach to international history. This can be a way to decolonize teaching of twentieth century history, where you can show students that things like the Paris peace conferences of 1919 or the founding of the UN at the close of World War II are still landmark moments, but that they have to be understood in a much more global fashion and through a much greater range of protagonists than they are perhaps used to.

Q: To end the interview I have one very open-ended question: Where do we go from here? What kind of research, in terms of themes or methodology, is needed now in the history of internationalism?

A: There is a couple of different features that are coming out. One is the attention to the mechanics of internationalism, with a lot of emphasis on the global history of capitalism and on global economic histories, with authors like Quinn Slobodian or Chris Dietrich leading the field in terms of thinking about the closer relationship between political economy and internationalism. Another trend is thinking more generally about the relationship between international history and international law. You have for example a book like Anthea Roberts’s Is International Law International?, which is really getting at the fact that international law is often written simply with sources in English, French, or Spanish, and it is not really representative. This has a lot to tell us about international history too, because historians have been saying for a while that we need to take off the Cold War lens—as Matthew Connelly put it—and go to archives or engage with Global South historians that are working in different places. I think that is another emphasis that we will see coming out: going beyond the elitist, Western-driven view of internationalism and thinking about precisely those internationalisms that welled up from below and continue to well up, and how to understand their historical contribution to the system more generally.

S: There is a long way to go in terms of more deeply centering the view from the Global South and exploring the politics of anticolonialism at the League and the UN. That is crucial and our volume is a staging point on a journey that is far from complete. Alanna is right that cross-disciplinary work between international law and international history is something that continues to flourish. Additionally, work that picks up on histories of subjectivity is going to be increasingly important. I think that is an approach that could really bear fruit in the research on internationalism, where subjectivity is sometimes moved past too quickly. Equally, work on the history of bodies or work in disability studies, as pioneered by the likes of Monika Baar or Paul Lawrie, will hopefully have a growing impact. I would just make a closing point, which is a point that I have made several times already, but there is such great value in works that is collaborative, that brings groups of scholars together in an institutional context where we are all too often encouraged to act purely individualistically in pursuit of grants and in the publication of articles or monographs. We have found that this project has been such an exciting journey in great part because of the chance to work with a big group of people with various expertise and linguistic skills. I really hope that we as a scholarly community and as a field can continue to fight the good fight in this respect and to insist on the value of collaborative projects and of edited volumes in moving the field forward.

A: We cannot move the field forward unless we have these kinds of broad collaborative projects with all kinds of different partners in different places. For too long we have had a field dominated by one set of voices and one set of actors. It is not simply the case of reaching out and sending Western scholars to archives. If we are going to write truly global international histories and truly global histories of internationalism, then it has to be collaborative. That is the only way.

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