There are two primary reasons why empires are central to our understanding of International Relations (IR). First, the empire has been replaced by juridically equal sovereign territorial states over the past century. Formal empires no longer exist, and only one head of state retains the title of Emperor—Akihito of Japan. The second reason why the study of empire matters to IR is that much of the conventional distinction between hierarchy and anarchy has been subject to various criticisms from a wide array of methodological and political perspectives. In particular, International Political Sociology (IPS) has offered a framework for critical analyses of phenomena such as systemic transformation, international unevenness, and global inequality, or war, violence, and racism in international politics. Since the end of the Cold War, new theorizations of empire have placed empire and imperialism at the center of debates in IR. Contemporary investigations of empire in IR, and IPS in particular, have dwelled on a number of political debates and methodological issues, including the nature of American imperialism, the link between IR and global history, and the relationship between empire and globalization. The category “empire” continues to both illuminate the pertinence of IR to social theory more generally and at the same time highlights the shortcomings of the discipline in addressing the causes and dynamics of global inequality, violence, and uneven development.
Sovereignty has been variously understood as the given principle of international relations, an institution, a social construct, a performative discourse subject to historical transformation, or a particular practice of power. The “articulations” of sovereignty refer to sovereignty as a practice that is worked on and in turn works with and against other practices. Alongside territory and supreme authority, sovereignty is characterized by the capacity to make and enforce laws. Sovereignty has also been defined in opposition to rights, as the spatiotemporal limits it instantiates are also the limits of rights. Another conceptualization of sovereignty has been revived in international relations, partly in response to the question of exclusions and limits that sovereign practices enacted. In addition, sovereignty is not inextricably tied up with the state but is articulated with heterogeneous and contradictory discourses and practices that create meaning about the international, and has consequences for the kind of community, politics, and agency that are possible. There are three effects of the logic of sovereignty in the international system: the ordering of the domestic and the international, the spatio-temporal limits to politics, and the exclusions from agency. In addition, there are three renditions of the international as a “thick” social space: those of globalization theories, of biopolitics, and of empire.
The political economy of violent conflict is a body of literature that investigates how economic issues and interests shape the dynamics associated to violent conflict after the Cold War. The literature covers an area of research focusing on civil wars—the predominant type of conflict in the 1990s and early 2000s—and an area of research focusing on other types of violent conflict within states, such as permanent emergencies, criminal violence, and political violence associated to turbulent transitions. The first area involves four themes that have come to characterize discussions on the political economy of civil wars, including research on the role of greed and grievance in conflict onset, on economic interests in civil wars, on the nature of conflict economies, and on conflict financing. The second area responds to the evolution of violent conflict beyond the categories of “interstate” or “civil” war and shows how political economy research adapted to new types of violent conflict within states as it moved beyond the “post-Cold War” era. Overall, the literature on the political economy of violence conflict emphasizes the role of informal systems behind power, profits and violence, and the economic interests and functions of violence underlying to violent conflict. It has also become a conceptual laboratory for scholars who after years of field research tried to make sense of the realities of authoritarian, violent or war-affected countries. By extending the boundaries of the literature beyond the study of civil wars after the Cold War, political economy research can serve as an important analytical lens to better understand the constantly evolving nature of violent conflict and to inform sober judgment on the possible policy responses to them.
Carl T. Dahlman
Extreme political violence, i.e., genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes, can be examined within three explanatory frameworks important to geographical thought: nature and society; spatial identities; and geopolitics. Extreme violence is often closely associated with humanity’s failure to overcome human nature. These are fundamentally geographical concerns in the sense that they relate to geography’s central interest in humans and their environment. Scholarly works abound with Hobbesian images, often presenting primitive violence as a pervasive social condition in the absence of an effective ruler. The literature on state failure presumes the same contradiction between nature and the social-political order, but in reverse: without a conventional sovereign, social conflict emerges over basic resources. These theories suggest that the causes of extreme political violence can be identified at the intersection of nature and society, where human behavior cannot be extricated from its biological and environmental condition. Identity is understood primarily as cultural difference. Identities are an important element in any explanation of extreme political violence given that it stems from conflict between sociopolitical groups that are defined by some degree of cultural difference. Classical geopolitical analysis of extreme political violence has retained environmental and biological factors as ultimate causes. They assume that scarcity of resources and population growth drive culture, territorialism, and conflict. In contrast, contemporary and critical approaches focus on the language and action of politics, such as statecraft, diplomacy, and popular mobilization.
Stathis N. Kalyvas and Paul D. Kenny
A civil war, also known as intrastate war, is a war between organized groups within the same state or country. It is a high-intensity conflict that often involves regular armed forces. One of the reasons for the lack of consensus in the study of civil war is disagreement over what exactly civil war means. Theoretically, civil war overlaps with other categories of armed conflict, particularly revolution, political violence, ethnic conflict, and terrorism. Civil wars since the end of World War II have lasted for over four years on average, a considerable rise from the one-and-a-half-year average of the 1900–1944 period. While the rate of emergence of new civil wars has been relatively steady since the mid-19th century, the increasing length of those wars has resulted in increasing numbers of wars ongoing at any one time. Since 1945, civil wars have resulted in the deaths of over 25 million people, as well as the forced displacement of millions more, along with economic collapse. According to scholars of civil war research, the causes of civil war include economic motivations or greed, and political or social grievances. Greed-based explanations focus on individuals’ desire to maximize their profits, while grievance-based explanations center on conflict as a response to socioeconomic or political injustice. A third concept, opportunity-based explanations, talks about factors that make it easier to engage in violent mobilization.
Caron E. Gentry
The public/private divide assumes that men are the (public sphere) actors gendered toward the possibility of violent action, specifically as soldiers, combatants, guerrillas, or revolutionaries, whereas “proper” women within the private sphere are gendered to be non-violent or peaceful actors. Women who engage in the political sphere are condemned for deviating from the private, and more so when they are involved in violence. Indeed, women who operate as agents of political violence are accused of transgressing both gender norms and the normative conceptualization of a state’s monopoly on violence. Feminists have challenged the veracity of this public/private circumscription through their evaluation of women as agents of political violence. Earlier feminist work dehumanizes politically violent women, making their violence more damaging and mental health more damaged than men who commit the same violence. Feminists later moved away from this dehumanization and instead portrayed women as helpmates to the politically violent organization and its male members. Some or most mainstream approaches refer to women involved in sub-state political violence as “terrorists,” and women terrorists are socially constructed as doubly illegitimate actors. Instead of focusing on what must be wrong with the women who engage in political violence, research should identify the reasons behind their actions, such as perceived injustices against them, their community, and/or political and civil rights.
Laura J. Shepherd
In challenging conventional conceptualizations of the human subject, the state, and the international system, early feminist security studies (FSS) offered new ways to think about security from inside and outside the disciplinary boundaries of international relations (IR). Indeed, FSS scholars illustrate that security not only means different things in different contexts but also functions in different ways to constitute particular social/political realities. Politicizing the everyday, or rather, demanding that the everyday be recognized as political, is a core assumption of FSS. Further contributions of early FSS to the replacement of the human subject in matters of security include a form of engagement with the very language used in speaking of security matters. Moreover, FSS scholars argue that insecurities permeate the very condition of human existence, bringing FSS insights to bear on economic processes, technological development, state building, and reconstruction. Ranging from analysis of violent conflict and political violence using a gendered framework to critiques of the policies and practices governing post-conflict reconstruction, and encompassing strong and vital interjections on debates over securitizing development, migration, health, human rights, and peace, FSS scholarship is accessible, innovative, and by no means limited to “women and war.” Relocating FSS scholarship from the margins to the center and listening to the voices of those human subjects erased from the academic study of security brings new challenges but also new opportunities for collaboration, with the sighting and citing of FSS by other critical scholars.
Truth commissions are temporary institutions that are tasked with investigating patterns of political violence under a prior regime as part of a process of political change. In the past, truth commissions were generally seen as a “second best” alternative in contexts where prosecuting past abuses was deemed unrealistic. Today, they are regarded as important tools for pursuing a wide array of goals, from democratization and reconciliation to human rights protection and individual healing. Early scholarship on the development of truth commissions focused on comparative democratization and on typologies that could be used to predict various transitional justice outcomes. More recently, scholars in the field of international relations have undertaken qualitative and quantitative studies in hopes of understanding what is driving the development of truth commissions. However, opinions differ as to the causes, consequences, and moral implications of truth commissions. Some attribute the proliferation of truth commissions to the growing strength of human rights norms and advocacy, whereas others argue that they merely function to manage the balance of power in transitional contexts, or serve as a basis for advancing values such as justice, democracy, and peace. These debates seem to have only intensified as truth commission scholarship continues to grow. One interesting pattern is that a number of scholars, have questioned the effectiveness of truth commissions in satisfying their own claims to investigate the “truth” about past abuses.
The theoretical and empirical literature on the reciprocal topics of economy and war have developed a fertile debate. Most contributions examine the liberal hope that growing economic bonds between or within nations reduce the risk of violent conflict, while an increasing number of studies also examine the destructive and redistributive effect of war, terrorism, and genocides. The article argues that most studies in the field do not provide clear microfoundations for the opportunity-cost arguments that are typically made to justify the deterring effects of increased economic interactions. To move the field forward, contributions need to focus more on how the relationship between business leaders and the government shapes decision making in periods of crisis. Recent advances have been made to understand the economic impact of massive political violence that can only be fully understood through the use of temporally disaggregated data.