From Devolution to Brexit: Lessons from the Citizens’ Assembly Experiments in the UK

By Prof. Graham Smith, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster.

Over two weekends in September 2017, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit brought together 50 randomly selected citizens who reflected the diversity of the UK electorate. The Assembly aimed to, first, provide much needed robust public input into the Brexit process and, second, show the value of deliberative public engagement on controversial areas of public policy.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was an opportunity for this diverse group of UK voters to learn about the issues of trade and migration from a variety of experts and politicians, deliberate with each other and come to recommendations on the form that Brexit should take. The Assembly reflected the socio-demographic characteristics of the broader population and their vote in the Brexit referendum in 2016, so included more Leave than Remain supporters.

The main recommendations of the Assembly are:

  • On trade, it preferred a bespoke UK/EU trade deal and a customs union that would allow the UK to conduct its own international trade policy while maintaining a frictionless UK/EU border.
  • On migration, it voted to retain free movement of labour, but with the UK government exercising all available controls to prevent abuse of the system.
  • If a deal cannot be reached in negotiations on trade, the Assembly prefered to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union to no deal at all.

The Assembly was organised by an independent group of academics and civil society organisations and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its UK in a Changing Europe programme.

This is the second time that members of this consortium have been involved in running and promoting citizens’ assemblies in the UK. In 2015, the Democracy Matters project organised two-pilot assemblies on English devolution. One of the aims of the project was to investigate the effect of including politicians as members of the assembly, inspired by the practice of the Irish Constitutional Convention. As such the assembly in Sheffield was constituted by randomly selected citizens only; the assembly in Southampton had politicians working alongside the citizens as members. Analysis of survey results suggests that politicians were particularly influential in shaping the thinking of citizens in the mixed assembly, raising questions about the value of this approach to assembly design.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit and Democracy Matters projects can be seen as part of the wider movement aimed at promoting more deliberative forms of public engagement in the UK: unlike Ireland and Canada, there is little high level political support for establishing Citizens’ Assemblies in the UK. Both projects have also generated important insights into the processes of organizing citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ perspectives on two significant areas of public policy.

Further details of both assemblies can be found at


Graham Smith is Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster. His main research interests are in democratic theory and practice (particularly participatory democratic institutions), climate politics and the third sector/social economy. Graham is currently involved in a number of research projects, including Scholio, Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit and Participedia.

SPIRe Seminar Series

This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series.  Prof Smith’s seminar “From Devolution to Brexit: Lessons from the Citizens’ Assembly Experiments in the UK” (Discussant: Prof. David Farrell) will take place Wednesday, Nov. 8th, 14:00-15:15 in Room G316, Newman Building.

The full schedule for the SPIRe seminar series semester 1 can be found on our website.


Posted in SPIRe seminars | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What it is really to secure a right to someone? Understanding how Rights-Based Approaches to Development can be operationalised

by Nita Mishra, PhD Candidate at Food Business and Development, UCC

In this paper, I examine the major aspects of the concepts of rights and development, separately, and then how the two concepts are linked in the discourse on rights and development. Through my examination of selected concepts of key political philosophers, I aim to provide a theoretical basis to the idea of a rights-based approach to development. Theoretical linkages between the concepts of rights and development are explored along with their links with other important ideas such as capabilities, empowerment, and agency.

I have framed my analysis of the linkages between rights and development using Martha Nussbaum’s query on “what it is really to secure a right to someone” (2003:38). Through Nussbaum’s query, I have deliberated upon the goal of rights, the types of rights, the duty-bearers of rights, and the different elements of the concept of rights, and through this examination, I have highlighted arguments of key scholars, with examples from NGOs in India.

The paper is divided into two sections. The first section examines the concept of rights, and the second section, discusses development, and its links with rights. It begins with a historical overview of the concept of rights followed by an examination of what constitutes human rights. I have alluded to various aspects of rights debated upon centuries instead of an in-depth analysis of each aspect with an aim to situate the idea of rights-based approaches to development within the discourse of rights historically. My contention is that the current discourse on RBAs did not arise in a vacuum, and it is important to draw upon this vast discourse, and give due recognition to its antecedents. I have, then, focused on the main goal of the human rights’ agenda which, as delineated by eminent political philosophers, is poverty eradication.


Nita Mishra has recently submitted her PhD thesis on “Operationalising Rights-Based Approaches to Development: a study of state and non-state duty-bearers in Odisha, India” to the Department of Food Business and Development, at UCC. Her main interests lie in rights-based approaches to development, governance, poverty, and women’s rights. She is currently the Convenor for Academics Stand Against Poverty- Irish Network, and has had been a Steering Committee member for Development Studies Association Ireland, and on the Board of Directors for Comhlamh NGO. She has extensive work experience with funding organisations, research organisations, and NGOs in India, and has been a volunteer in various development activities in the Global North. She has published in peer reviewed journals, and is actively engaged in academic and development activities. Her poetry speaks of women’s lives across continents, and has been categorised under the future of Irish feminism.

Dublin Political Theory Workshop
This blog was written to accompany a workshop by Nita Mishra for The Dublin Political Theory Workshop. This is hosted by UCD School of Politics and International Relations and brings together political theorists located in or visiting Dublin. We discuss work in progress in the area of political theory widely understood including debates on applied ethics and social and legal philosophy.

Nita Mishra’s workshop is on Friday, 3. November 2017, 12:30 – 14:00, on the topic ‘What is it really to secure a right to someone?’ in G316, Newman Building.

Full schedule for Dublin Political Theory Workshop series.


Posted in Dublin Political Theory Workshop | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Garrison State Project: Tracking the Growth of Consensus on National Security

by David Sylvan

Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

In the three years since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, it has become clear in one country after another that such surveillance is carried out by each country’s own agencies, that the surveillance has been going on for some time, and that it is on a wider scale than had previously been suspected. In spite of this realization, the majority reaction among political elites has been that although some correctives may be needed, the world is simply too dangerous to forgo these tools. Thus, in the after-Snowden period, surveillance powers have been maintained or expanded in the US, France, the UK, Germany, Japan, and even Switzerland.

Moreover, in spite of the numerous controversies raised about the NSA’s activities in other countries, cooperation between the agency and its foreign counterparts has ended up being either resumed or strengthened. That cooperation was extensive, covering some 38 states with whom the NSA had ongoing relationships. Although comparable data for the present day are of course unavailable, country-specific news stories suggest that the political fracas did not seriously interrupt either bilateral or multilateral forms of signals intelligence cooperation. Of course, this persistence of cooperation in the face of condemnation—to be specific, the apparent surprise at the extent of surveillance, the carefully worded condemnations, the eventual return to the status quo ante, and the legislative thumbs-up to even more extensive and intrusive actions—extends well beyond surveillance to myriad forms of security-related activities. A case in point is drone strikes, which have been acquiesced in by numerous countries, regardless of who is in the White House.

The short-lived controversies over surveillance and drone strikes suggest two things: that security-related activities of this sort are becoming increasingly ubiquitous by states acting both unilaterally and multilaterally; and that those activities are strongly backed by the majority of legislative elites in the countries carrying them out. Indeed, there is a close tie between these two points since it is the support of those elites which makes it possible for legislation to be passed, budgets to grow, and controversies to be avoided or short-circuited. Thus, counterterrorism budgets in Western countries have increased massively over the past 15 years with very little political opposition, and even earlier domestic security agency scandals such as the discovery of COINTELPRO (the FBI), the Finucane affair (MI5), and the Canard Enchaîné bugging (DST) failed to stop the upward trajectory in funding and activity. Arguably, there is a long-term trend toward larger and more active national security apparatuses in a number of democratic countries, with this trend being enabled and strengthened by a growing consensus among legislative elites. This claim is the starting point for the presentation and the research project on which it serves as a progress report.

The structure of the talk is as follows. I begin with a discussion of the central claim, situating the part of that claim about a long-term trend within the scholarly literature, articulating mechanisms which conduce to the trend, and elaborating its theoretical and substantive significance. Since that literature arguably began with Harold Lasswell’s seminal 1941 article, “The Garrison State,” about the way in which democratic countries can gradually come to be marked by an ever greater political role played by “specialists on violence,” the project is thus named after Lasswell’s evocative term. In this regard, it is striking that the creation, growth, and expansion in the scope of activities of security-related agencies is something which considerably antedates the 9/11 attacks. Already the early years of the cold war were marked by such growth, growth which was accelerated by other factors such as decolonization and membership in alliances, and which was only slowed to a slight degree during the post-cold war/pre-9/11 period.

I then turn to the second half of the claim (about growing legislative elite consensus in democratic countries), discussing not only its theoretical import but the way in which it points to a concrete research design through which the trend part of the claim can be assessed (since of course many actions of security-related agencies are secret as are, notoriously, their budgets). The remaining sections of the paper concern a specific methodological issue: how to use speeches in parliamentary debates as indicators of elite consensus. Speeches are arguments of various sorts, and so I address precisely how speeches can be coded in order to abduce those arguments. I then briefly discuss the issue of analyzing arguments in order to determine consensus, and conclude with some preliminary results from earlier debates. Those results, and a less systematic account of other debates in other countries, suggest that, unfortunately, Lasswell was indeed correct, and that Western democracies have for decades gradually been transforming into garrison states.

NB: The Garrison State Project website URL is

David Sylvan is professor of international relations / political science, and director of research, at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. He obtained his Ph.D. at Yale University and before coming to Geneva, taught at Syracuse University and the University of Minnesota. Among his other works, he is the coauthor of U.S. Foreign Policy in Perspective: Clients, Enemies and Empire; and of A Rationalist Methodology for the Social Sciences. In addition to the Garrison State Project, his current research revolves around the development of formal methods for the study of diplomatic conversations and elite interpretations of news items; social relationships, such as conflict, deference, and subordination, between states; and “buddy” relationships between civilian cadres and military officers in authoritarian regimes.

SPIRe Seminar Series
This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series. Dr. David Sylvan (The Graduate Institute, Geneva) on The Garrison State Project: Tracking the Growth of Consensus on National Security (Discussant  Prof. Ben Tonra): Wednesday, Nov. 1st, 14:00-15:15

The full schedule for the SPIRe seminar series semester 1 can be found on our website.




Posted in SPIRe seminars | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Situationism Now – Understanding Guy Debord in a Contemporary Political Context

‘to help create a non-dogmatic, non-religious, non-bullshit Marxism’ (Tariq Ali on Daniel Bensaid, 2013)

by Dr Jones Irwin, Institute of Education, Drumcondra, Dublin City University.

to accompany workshop, details below

1967. 50 years ago this year and it was the year that Guy Debord published his infamous text Society of the Spectacle. This wasn’t exactly the beginning of the Situationist philosophy. Rather, the latter had emerged in disorderly fashion some ten years earlier in a remote north Italian tavern. This wouldn’t be the last time this vision would relocate from France to Italy and back again. Gianfranco Sanguinetti’s ‘The Real Report on the Last Chance to Save Capitalism’, an incendiary satire on Italian politics (influenced by Machiavelli) would see him deported from an unstable and Red Brigade Italy in the 1970s – to where? France of course.

Should we still be reading Guy Debord or encouraging others to read him politically for the first time in a contemporary context?  In popular culture parlance, Debord’s name will always be associated with the political moment of May ’68, the general strike and the student riots which spread from the campus of Nanterre (led by philosophy and sociology lecturers Jean Francois Lyotard and Henri Lefebvre).  And rightfully so. Whereas the much vaunted Marxism of Louis Althusser (alongside his soon to be famous students Rancière, Badiou and Balibar) is left completely behind by the explosion of ’68, Situationism and Debord are right at the heart of it, there at the beginning of its genealogy from 1965 onwards and present in its most acute and radical manifestation in May.

So the Situationism of Debord has at least this advantage over a lot of other so-called radical political and cultural theory. It was influential on and participant in an actual extraordinary moment of political and social upheaval, although the sustainability of this moment did not last long. For this reason, it should be at least of historic value and interest.

But I would like to claim some more interest too. Since 1968, the terrain of political thinking both on the Left and the Right have been irrevocably marked by the failure of ’68. Therefore, alongside the role of Debord in the lead-in to ’68, there is also the question of the role of Situationism in what Kristin Ross has referred to as the ‘afterlives’ of ’68. For example, there is the emergence of a specific kind of right-wing philosophising in Luc Ferry and Alain Renault which takes as its target precisely the anti-humanism of Debord and others. This strain of thought is very influential on French political life, for example through the influence of the educational policies of the Raffarin government (2002-2004), where Ferry served as Minister of Education. One of the most influential policies introduced at this time was the law on secularity and public rules around religious symbolism and expression, which continues to be highly contentious in 2017.

There is also the converse influence – from Rancière, to Badiou and Balibar, the ideological turning away from Althusser’s Marxism towards a political and educational vision that is far more radically democratic and anti-vanguard elite. This political-philosophical vision owes a significant amount to Debord’s earlier iconoclastic vision of the Left and a renewed Marxism for the times, expressed vehemently in Society of the Spectacle.  Moreover, it is arguable that the current political crisis of meaning, whether it is the post-truth discourse of the Trumpist Right or the sense of internal schism on the Left (most especially concerning questions of religion and multi-culturalism) is one in which Situationism may have also something interesting and unique to contribute. Whither in such a schismatic context the critique of ideology today? It is my sense that Debord’s work as well as the wider Situationist vision (Vaneigem, Lefebvre etc.) has something contemporary to say to us in this debate. To quote a ’68 graffiti adapted (as many of the slogans were) from Debord’s and Situationist texts: ‘the blue in the sky will remain grey as long as it is not reinvented’.

This presentation will focus on Debord’s role in the ’68 events through a reading his Society of the Spectacle text. It will also explore the after-effects of ’68, the seismic fall-out of the so-called ‘failure of May’ and here Debord’s own retrospective understandings will be invoked, for example in his 1988 text Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. In this context, the influential volte-face of Jacques Rancière’s later political and educational thinking post-68 will also be significant.  Rancière’s unequivocal denunciation of Althusserianism and dogmatic Marxism in Althusser’s Lesson (1974) and his later The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1984) are important milestones in Leftist rethinking of the terms of reference of a contemporary Marxism.

Finally, I will look to contemporary examples of Situationist possibility. Here, my own recent work in Irish education (for example, developing a Multi-Belief Values Education curriculum with Community National Schools) will be cited as an example of a kind of Situationist intervention in an overarchingly hegemonic system of dominance by Church and conservative power interests in Ireland.

Nonetheless, and in keeping with Debord’s radically self-questioning spirit, we should also be wary of educational and political complacency in our supposedly ‘liberatory’ projects. As another ’68 graffiti has it, ‘Participation, all the better to eat you with my children’ [‘La Participation, c’est pour mieux vous croquer mes enfants’]. There is always the danger lurking, Debord reminds us incessantly, of complicity with traditionalist forces and the commodification of supposed resistance or revolutionary zeal by the Spectacle.


Jones Irwin is Associate Professor in Philosophy and Education at the Institute of Education, Drumcondra, Dublin City University. Since late 2014, he has also been seconded as Project Officer to develop the first state multi-denominational curriculum, with NCCA. He has written several books in philosophy, including Derrida and the Writing of the Body (Ashgate, 2010), Paulo Freire’s Philosophy of Education (Continuum, 2012) and (with Helena Motoh) Žižek and his Contemporaries (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is currently completing a monograph entitled The Pursuit of Existentialism (Acumen/Taylor Francis 2018).

Dublin Political Theory Workshop
This blog was written to accompany a workshop by Dr Irwin for The Dublin Political Theory Workshop. This is hosted by UCD School of Politics and International Relations and brings together political theorists located in or visiting Dublin. We discuss work in progress in the area of political theory widely understood including debates on applied ethics and social and legal philosophy.

Dr Irwin’s workshop  is on Friday, 27. October, 12:30 – 14:00
Title: Situationist Possibles: Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle Then and Now

Full schedule for Dublin Political Theory Workshop series.

Posted in Dublin Political Theory Workshop | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Islam, Oil and the Middle East: What Explains Religious Intolerance?

by Dr Indra de Soysa, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

to accompany workshop, details below

Popular and academic discourse, prompted by Islamist violence and terrorism, debates the true nature of Islam in politics. By an accident of history and geology, a large portion of the oil-producing states are also largely Muslim. Could it be that the oil-curse can explain much of the political phenomena we assign to religion? We examine the effects of oil, Islam, and the Middle Eastern (MENA) region on religious repression. Rather than the cultural effects of religion, we argue that oil-wealthy rulers use religious monopoly to control dissent. Rulers with access to oil wealth entertain a small selectorate, and religious organization can be a useful source of regime legitimacy and social control. Our results show that oil wealth increases religious repression above the effects of Muslim dominance and sundry controls, regardless of geographic location. However, Muslim dominance also shows some independent effects, except that the MENA region seems to matter more than Islam per se. We suggest that religious repression in the MENA region is driven by the fear of Islamism and the influence of geopolitical factors, although some salience of Ottoman legacies may also matter. Interestingly, the conditional effect of oil and the MENA region is positive on religious freedom. The data suggest that several Gulf monarchies have more religious freedoms than other Muslim dominant states, such as Saudi and Iran, or even Israel. The worst oil producers are elsewhere, such as in Central Asia. Oil, however, trumps Islam in many alternative tests, including cultural and academic freedom, ethnic group exclusion from state power, and discrimination of ethnic minorities. Our results suggest that contingent factors might be important when assessing how oil and Islam affect political outcomes. The results are robust to a host of intervening variables, different measures of oil wealth, alternative data on religious freedom, and estimating method.


Indra de Soysa (PhD) obtained his PhD in political science and international relations from the University of Alabama, USA. He is a Professor of Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He teaches international political economy, international relations, and development. He is particularly interested in the political, economic and social outcomes of economic liberalization, the effects of institutions, and the causes of peace and prosperity. He has published widely on the subject of Foreign Direct Investment, the causes of civil and political violence, the natural resource curse, globalization, and environmental politics. His various publications appear in the American Sociological Review, World Development, Social Science and Medicine, International Organization, Journal of Peace Research, Journal of Conflict Resolution, International Studies Quarterly among others. He is a member of the Royal Norwegian Academy.

SPIRe Seminar Series
This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series. Prof. de Soysa’s seminar ‘Islam, Oil and the Middle East: What Explains Religious Intolerance?’ (discussant: Dr. Jos Elkink) will take place on Thursday, Oct. 26th, 14:00-15:15.

The full schedule for the SPIRe seminar series semester 1 can be found on our website.

Posted in SPIRe seminars | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Brexit and the constitution

By Prof Michael Keating

In the last twenty years, the United Kingdom has undertaken a massive programme of constitutional change. It has transformed form a formally unitary state into a plurinational, quasi-federal union associated in complex ways with the neighbouring state of Ireland. This is an evolutionary process, leaving many issues in abeyance and evolving over time. It has happened entirely during UK membership of the European Union and the two constitutional transformations have been deeply entwined.

It is often thought that the European Union, with its principles of supranationality, underpinned by its own system of law and courts, is at odds with the UK constitution, based as it is on unitary authority and parliamentary sovereignty and supremacy. That is perhaps so if we take the ‘Westminster view’ of the constitution, as expounded by Dicey and Blackstone. Certainly, a driving motive of the Leave campaign was to restore parliamentary sovereignty. After the referendum, of course, some Brexiters shifted to a defence of popular sovereignty, if need be against Parliament but this is not germane to the present argument. Popular sovereignty was still based upon the notion of a unitary people.

Taking a different view of our emerging constitution, however, the United Kingdom and the EU are rather a good fit. Both are plurinational unions, lacking both a single and unitary people or demos, and a shared telos, or end point in their development. Both can be understood as being based on post-sovereign principles of shared authority, which cannot be reduced to a single principle that over-rides all others. Neither is a federation in the traditional sense, but both have federal elements.

This is most clearly seen in the Northern Ireland settlement, which suspends Westminster understandings of the state. It introduces creative ideas about sovereignty, multiple identities, borders and citizenship and brings in a neighbouring state into the politics of part of the United Kingdom. There is also an effect in Scotland, where a shared commitment to Europe has opened up a discursive space for post-sovereigntist ideas and attenuated the effects of a possible move to independence. Wales, too, has recognized a European element in its constitutional development towards self-government.

Brexit puts this emerging constitutionalism at risk. Let us look at three examples.

The first is the Supreme Court judgment in the Miller case. Certainly, the Court did stipulate that Parliamentary approval was needed to trigger Article 50, but it summarily dismissed the argument that the devolved legislatures should have a role. That claim was based on the Sewel Convention, to which the UK Government had recommitted after the Scottish independence referendum, to the point of writing it into the Scotland Act (2016) and the Wales Act (2017). In its narrower sense, the Sewel Convention stipulates that Westminster will not normally legislate in devolved matters without the consent of the relevant devolved legislature; its broader sense extends this to changing the powers of the devolved bodies. The Court might have rejected the application of Sewel on narrow grounds, either that the matter concerned foreign affairs or that the circumstances were not ‘normal’. Instead it chose to pronounce an orbiter dictum to the effect that Sewel was only a ‘political’ understanding and not binding in any circumstances. In fact, nobody really expected it to say that Sewel was enforceable by the courts as a matter of hard law, but their dismissal of its relevance betrays a misunderstanding of the role of conventions in general and the spirit and purpose of Sewel in particular. In the absence of written constitution, conventions are really all we have.  The contrast with the sophisticated jurisprudence of the Canadian Supreme Court is glaring.

A second issue concerns the possibility of a differentiated settlement for Scotland. Within the United Kingdom, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have highly differentiated settlements. The Scottish Government proposed that this kind of differentiation and flexibility be applied to Brexit. There is no space here to discuss how far these proposals were practical. The point is that they were rejected on principle and not even negotiated politically (although there appear to have been discussions at political level). There is a shared commitment among the UK, Ireland and the EU to avoid creating a hard border across the island of Ireland but, without some differentiation similar to that proposed for Scotland, it difficult to see what this could mean.

The third issue is the repatriation of competences. The EU framework allowed for a more expansive devolution settlement than might otherwise have been possible, by assuring a single market within the UK itself. After Brexit, there is a case for saying that some common frameworks will be needed to deal with externalities, competition, overspills and links between devolved competences and foreign affairs, including trade policy. The issue is not about whether but about how this is done.

The UK Government claims that, were those powers now shared between the devolved governments and the EU to come back to Westminster, this would not represent a loss of decision-making power, as the devolved bodies not make policy in these fields but only administer European policy; indeed any policy-making power they may get would represent an enhancement of devolution. The devolved governments do not agree. They further argue that, as these matters (notably agriculture, fisheries and the environment) are not reserved, they will default to the devolved territories unless the settlement is changed. The Welsh Government has argued for common frameworks negotiated among four nations. The Withdrawal Bill takes the opposite tack, reserving all ‘retained EU competences’, but allowing selective ‘release’ of powers back to the devolveds. There is an issue of constitutional principle at stake here and the Scottish and Welsh Government have stated that they will not recommend legislative consent to the relevant clauses.

In the absence of a written and codified constitution, the politics of Brexit has been marked by claim and counter-claim. This will continue but there will be critical moments at which some claims will prevail and be incorporated into future constitutional understandings. The evidence from the first year is that this will not play to the advantage of the devolved authorities.


Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change. He is currently visiting professor at UCD.

Posted in SPIRe seminars | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

From George W Bush to Donald Trump: The Exceptional Resilience of Democracy Promotion in US Political Discourse

John Ikenberry recently wrote: “the relationship between American grand strategy, democracy promotion and international security has been debated with great intensity ever since the unexpected collapse of Soviet power between 1989 and 1991.” According to Ikenberry, this is “a debate that shows no sign of vanishing off the political agenda any time soon.” Oz Hassan and Jason Ralph went even further arguing that the concept of democracy promotion and its place in US foreign policy have “been the subject of fierce debate since the founding fathers based the United States on principles that they believed to be universal and therefore exportable.”

In this context, Tony Smith’s book, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century, represents a seminal work. In America’s Mission Smith significantly broke with the traditional research on US foreign policy. While authors like Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, William Appleman Williams, and Noam Chomsky had based their explanations of US international behavior on either power or profit (or both), Smith identified the idea of democracy promotion as an indispensable variable to understanding US foreign policy. Within the more recent literature, two books reflect the current state of the art in the academic debate on the relationship between democracy promotion and US foreign policy. Both are collections of essays and include the work of some of the major experts in the field.

One book is The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century by John Ikenberry, Tony Smith, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Thomas Knock. The Crisis of American Foreign Policy tackles questions of enduring importance. First, is US foreign policy really about the spread of freedom and democracy? Or is democracy promotion a sort of fig leaf used to cover more pragmatic geopolitical ambitions? Second, what role does democracy promotion play in the broader tradition of US liberal internationalism, also known as Wilsonianism? Third, what can we make of the complex dynamics existing among the concepts of democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, state sovereignty, and liberal imperialism? Finally, is the Wilsonian tradition still relevant in the twenty-first century?

One of the many strengths of The Crisis of American Foreign Policy is that it does not put forward a single answer to these critical questions but instead each essay offers different, and sometimes diametrically opposed, views on the issue.

The other book is US Foreign Policy and Democracy Promotion: From Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama edited by Michael Cox, Timothy Lynch, and Nicholas Bouchet. US Foreign Policy and Democracy Promotion provides an up-to-date overview of the evolution of the US policy of promoting democracy abroad from the early twentieth century to present day. The authors especially explore the difficult foreign policy decisions US leaders must face when national material interests conflict with their country’s ideal values. Since each chapter discusses the democracy promotion record of a specific US administration, the book also advances the “fairly self-evident fact that American presidents matter a great deal when it comes to determining the country’s foreign policy.”

This article contributes to this consequential debate in at least two significant ways. First, it explores an important aspect of the relationship between democracy promotion and US foreign policy that the existent literature has not sufficiently analyzed –namely the rhetoric of democracy promotion. As noted by Guy Emerson and others, the rhetorical aspect of democracy promotion has been generally dismissed as merely a “cover for maintaining US control and the continuation of its long history of intervention.” However, I contend that the role of the rhetoric of democracy promotion in US politics is much more complex than its critics have been ready to acknowledge. In this article, I specifically investigate the causes behind democracy promotion’s enduring presence in US political discourse in the face of repeated announcements of its imminent demise. Proclamations of the end of democracy promotion in US foreign policy have been frequent in recent US history. Tellingly, they accompanied the election of all the last three presidents: George W. Bush in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008, and Donald Trump in 2016. In the cases of Bush and Obama concerns about the demise of democracy promotion were eventually proved wrong. As for Trump, I argue that there is reason to believe that the rhetoric of democracy promotion will outlast also his presidency. I maintain that the especially resilient nature of US democracy promotion can be explained by the fact that the rhetoric of championing democracy has an instrumental value even for those US leaders who do not share the Wilsonian belief that promoting liberal democratic values abroad increases US national security and improves the chances for a more peaceful world. The second contribution of this article is a study of the possibility of change in the place occupied by democracy promotion in US political discourse. Without dismissing the importance of the agency of distinct US presidents in defining US foreign policies, I suggest that the election of a new leadership alone is insufficient to significantly alter the status of democracy promotion within US political discourse. Instead, structural change in the values associated with US national identity and/or in the international distribution of power is more likely to do so.


Speaker bio 
I am Lecturer and Coordinator of the Masters Program in American Politics and Foreign Policy, at the Clinton Institute, University College Dublin. My research has primarily focused on issues of US foreign policy, the Middle East, terrorism, and democracy promotion.

Previously, I lectured at King’s College London, UK, (2015-16), at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, part of the UK Defence Academy (2011-13), and at John Cabot University in Rome (2016). I was also Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at City University London (2015-16).

From 2014 to 2016 I was the founding chairperson of King’s College London’s US Foreign Policy Research Group. Moreover, I contribute to media outlets such as Al-Jazeera and The Telegraph. I also peer review book proposals on US foreign policy and international affairs for Routledge and SAGE.

Twitter @EugenioLilli

Personal Blog “Web Agora”
Check out my new book New Beginning in US-Muslim Relations: President Obama and the Arab Awakening Palgrave Macmillan.


SPIRe Seminar Series
This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series. Eugenio’s seminar ‘Investigating the Resilience of Democracy Promotion in U.S. Political Discourse’, discussant Dr. Vincent Duracm will be on Wednesday, Oct. 4th, 14:00-15:15.

The full schedule for the SPIRe seminar series semester 1 can be found on our website.

Posted in SPIRe seminars | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Realist Disobedience: Protest, coercion and the limits of an appeal to justice

by Dr Guy Aitchison, School of Politics and International Relations, UCD.

This paper addresses a very specific question regarding the ethics of civil disobedience and political resistance in liberal states: When (if ever) is it legitimate for political actors to use coercion to advance their aims?

This issue has provoked public controversy in recent years following an upsurge in vigorous – occasionally violent – forms of street protest and activism. We have seen the occupation of sacred lands to prevent fracking by indigenous activists and environmental protesters; ‘political’ strikes against cuts and labour market reforms; ‘bossnapping’ where workers temporarily restrain their employer to compel negotiations; co-ordinated rent strikes and squatting movements and the forceful obstruction of immigration enforcement measures.

Coercion involves imposing costs on some course of action or making it impossible to pursue by force. Liberal political philosophers have typically argued that while such tactics may be required to oppose an authoritarian regime, they are not legitimate in democratic states with established electoral and constitutional channels for pursuing change. According to liberals, civil disobedience is a wholly communicative act: through dramatic acts of political law-breaking, activists convey their opposition to a particular law or policy they believe to be unjust. Here, civil disobedience is understood as a form of public speech aimed at fellow citizens and law-makers. It functions not by coercing opponents, but by means of rational persuasion. In the words of John Rawls’s influential account, civil disobedience appeals to the ‘sense of justice’ of fellow citizens and law-makers and ‘while it may warn and admonish, it is not itself a threat’.[1] Peter Singer likewise stresses that disobedience is ‘not an attempt to coerce’, but a means of demonstrating the strength of feeling behind an issue and asking a political majority to think again.[2] Jürgen Habermas, too, emphasised the ‘exclusively symbolic character of an act of protest, even when that act oversteps the bounds of the legally permissible’.[3]

For these liberal philosophers, any attempt to coerce governmental action is a form of anti-democratic elitism. It is an attack on the principle of majority rule which requires that the views of citizens as delivered in free and fair elections be treated as sovereign. For these authors, aggressive protest actions undermine the deliberative ideal of politics as a collective process underpinned by reason and a norm of mutual respect among citizens. The adherence to exclusively communicative forms of protest is understood as a sign of respect for the rule of law, distinguishing disobedient actions in liberal states from militant, revolutionary forms of engagement aimed at the overthrow of the state.

This liberal view is criticised by radicals for being overly naive and optimistic given the constraints political movements face in attempting to advance their goals in the context of unresponsive political institutions and intrusive state surveillance and policing.[4] However, this still leaves a number of important ethical questions unanswered. Specifically, how can the use of compulsion be compatible with widely-shared democratic norms? What kinds of costs is it legitimate to impose in pursuit of one’s aims and upon whom? And what ethical considerations should guide and constrain the use of coercive tactics?

My basic contention is that constrained forms of coercion can be justified on democratic, republican grounds as a means to collectively contest certain forms of arbitrary power. The republican understanding of democracy provides a useful framework for thinking about historical and contemporary forms of disobedience since it calls attention to the relative power of different groups, rather than the liberal focus on the defence of individual rights. Under the republican understanding, those subject to political authority – the ‘people – must be suitably empowered to influence and oppose the law to ensure it is not a source of arbitrary power and domination.

It would, I think, go too far so suggest that any instance of arbitrary power justifies the possibility of coercive resistance. Not every case of governmental over-reach is sufficiently objectionable to justify such exceptional measures. Instead, I propose that more robust forms of engagement are justified to contest forms of political domination that are severe (threatening the rights, opportunities and life chances of some group or future group of persons) and entrenched (distorting the conditions under which reason can be relied upon to influence change). While disobedience certainly aims to bring reasons and arguments into the public sphere, it may also involve the imposition of costs upon adversaries. The deployment of popular power here functions as a response to political inequalities stemming from the systematic disadvantage of some social group or class or the monopolisation of power by some private agent or group of agents.

There are three types of case where coercive resistance may be called for. First as a surrogate tool of political action for those who lack effective participation rights. This can be seen in contemporary migrant movements that physically obstruct immigration raids, resist deportation flights, sabotage border fences or else attempt to overwhelm the institutional viability of immigration enforcement with false information. Second, coercion may be legitimate as a remedial tool of political action to counteract the dominating influence of powerful private actors over the process of democratic decision-making. This can be seen in the direct action tactics of environmental activists in the context of the dominating power the extractive industries wield over public debate and the policy process. Third, the use of coercion may also be justified internally within social movement as a mobilisational tool to maintain participation and discipline in collective action. It may, for example, be appropriate to defend the integrity of a strike through the coercive enforcement of a picket line.

There is however good reason to think that the use of more aggressive actions should abide by certain moral norms. It should be proportionate to the measures being opposed, holding out a reasonable prospect of success and not straying into forms of reckless intimidation aimed at spreading fear and panic. Those who undertake such actions should also enjoy a certain degree of representative legitimacy in relation to the groups whose rights and interests are most directly affected.

In sum, the liberal notion of disobedience as a form of speech that functions purely by moral persuasion is overly restrictive. Where political actors confront relations of domination that are severe and entrenched there is the case for the direct exercise of popular power. The aim here is not merely to promote deliberation or to get the government to listen, but to pressure them to yield.

[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Belknap Press, 1999), p. 322.

[2] Peter Singer, Democracy and Disobedience, vol. 82 (Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 84.

[3] Jürgen Habermas, “Civil Disobedience: Litmus Test for the Democratic Constitutional State,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 30 (1985), p. 99.

[4] Celikates, Robin. “Rethinking Civil Disobedience as a Practice of Contestation—Beyond the Liberal Paradigm.” Constellations 23.1 (2016): 37-45, at p. 43


Guy Aitchison is a political theorist and Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin. He specialises in human rights, democratic theory, citizenship and political resistance and is currently conducting research on migrant rights and political activism. This forms part of a wider book project on popular republican citizenship, ‘Citizenship at the Margins’. He was a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence (2015 – 2016) and completed his PhD at University College London in 2015. He has work published, or forthcoming, in Political Studies, European Journal of Political Theory, Social Movement Studies, CRISPP and Raisons Politiques. You can follow him on Twitter @GuyAitchison and read more about his research here. He can be reached at

Dublin Political Theory Workshop
This blog was written to accompany a workshop by Guy Aitchison for The Dublin Political Theory Workshop. This is hosted by UCD School of Politics and International Relations and brings together political theorists located in or visiting Dublin. We discuss work in progress in the area of political theory widely understood including debates on applied ethics and social and legal philosophy.

Guy Aitchison’s workshop is Friday, 29. September 2017, 12:30 – 14:00
Title: Realist disobedience: protest, coercion and the limits of an appeal to justice

Full schedule for Dublin Political Theory Workshop series.

Posted in New SPIRe Research, Opinion/Debate, SPIRe seminars, SPIRe staff | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Solidarity in the (un-)making? Insights from media discourses in the Eurozone crisis

By Stefan Wallaschek

My current research interest starts with a basic question: What does solidarity mean? This concept is used quite often – but in regard to different topics: the welfare state is attributed as a solidarity mechanism, trade unions and NGOs perform solidarity actions, individuals help people in need and after a terrorist attack, we express our solidarity with the effected population (e.g. ‘Je suis Charlie’). This leads to the question: How can we make sense of these rather diverse actions and events with regard to solidarity?

Solidarity is contested
I claim that we have to look at the discursive construction of solidarity. Solidarity is a “contested concept” that is disputed by actors about the proper meaning. Five important influences on the concept of solidarity should be acknowledged:

• in the Roman law the phrase ‘obligatio in solidum’ indicates a liability statement from the member to the group and vice versa,
• the idea of Christian Brotherhood is created through the connection between all believers and God and catholic social teaching was an important factor in the origins of the welfare state in the 19th century,
• in the aftermath of the French revolution fraternity or solidarity was politicised and linked to ideas of republicanism and democratic representation,
• last but not least, the labour movement and socialists have prominently called for solidarity as an emancipatory force to overcome capitalism.

Additionally, the omnipresence of solidarity in the EU Lisbon treaty (mentioned 22 times) and the fact that solidarity is the title of chapter IV of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union demonstrate that solidarity is an important concept in Europe.

Therefore, it is crucial to identify the different meanings of solidarity, understand how they are linked to each other and who is arguing for what type of solidarity. In the following, I provide some insights into the discursive construction of solidarity in the German and Irish mass media. The empirical focus is on the Eurozone crisis, because I assume that during hard times, claims for solidarity are more prominent and thus actors are expected to claim support for or demand support from others.

The discursive construction of solidarity
In order to identify who says what and how, German and Irish newspaper articles from 2010 to 2015 were coded. The discourse network methodology visualises which actors appear in the media and who is talking about which specific concept of solidarity. The two following discourse networks depict the debate between 2010 and 2015, separated into the German and Irish case. The concepts (blue label) were used by actors (black label) in the newspapers during this time period. The size of the labels stands for the centrality of the concept or actor in the network. The bigger the size, the more influential the actor or the concept is. The thickness of the edges illustrates how often an actor refers to a concept. The thicker the line, the more statements of an actor were related to this concept.
Figure 1: Discourse networks in Germany and Ireland 2010-2015

Figure 1: Discourse networks in Germany and Ireland 2010-2015

Note: The discourse network was visualized with the R package igraph. I used the Kleinberg authority algorithm to compute the centrality of the actors and concepts. All statements without a justification by the actor – why s/he is claiming a certain position – were deleted. Otherwise, the code ‘no justification’ would have be included into the network graph without a proper meaning.

Germany: number of nodes – 37 (17 concepts, 20 actor groups); number of edges – 110.
Ireland: number of nodes – 36 (16 concepts, 20 actor groups); number of edges – 94.

Two aspects concerning the actor constellation and the concept prominence can be highlighted. Firstly, government officials and journalists highly dominate the public discourse on solidarity in the Eurozone crisis. In both countries, these two actors are the most visible ones, and thus, also the actors who have the most influence on the discourse. They can set the public agenda and have a huge impact on what solidarity means in times of crisis. The network visualization clearly shows that civil society groups, trade unions and even European institutions (except the European Commission) are less represented in the German and Irish discourse. This corroborates earlier findings that national public spheres are strongly dominated by national executives and that less institutionalised actors are the losers of Europeanised public debates. Secondly, while the actor constellation is similar, the concept visibility differs between both countries. Financial solidity (aka austerity) and monetary solidarity are the most prominent concepts in the German discourse on solidarity while monetary solidarity and responsibility are the most often featured concepts in the Irish discourse. The relevance of claims to monetary solidarity in the Eurozone crisis is hardly surprising. While new institutional arrangements such as the EFSF, ESM or the European Fiscal Compact have put monetary issues at the top of the public debate, alternatives such as a transfer union or a banking union provoked claims of monetary solidarity among the EU member states. The dominance of austerity in the German discourse can be explained by its strong cultural-ideological mindset on price stability and ordoliberalism. The prominence of the responsibility concept in the Irish discourse is related to two different aspects: One the one hand the responsibility refers to other EU member states (e.g. Germany) helping Ireland, because they have dealt with Irish banks which collapsed and caused the bank bailout and high debt rate of Ireland. On the other hand, it refers to citizens who should act more responsible in times of crisis, because they might have lived beyond their means in times of economic prosperity.

Austerity vs. solidarity
So, what are the implications for solidarity in the Eurozone crisis? The discourse network supports study results showing the dominance of austerity frames in the policy arena. The public and the policy arena are highly influenced by this idea. Even if we look more concretely at solidarity, we see that solidarity is justified with fiscal consolidation. This underlines the enormous ideational power which actors such as the German government exhibit in the public debate. However, the Irish discourse and to some extent the German debate show that there were alternative perceptions on how to deal with the Eurozone crisis. The battle of ideas was not won a priori.

Normatively speaking, solidarity has the ideological, societal and political potential to be the leading value and guiding principle of European politics. Perhaps, a new pan-European solidarity movement is needed emphasizing that solidarity is essential for the legitimacy and future of the European Union.

Speaker bio
Stefan Wallaschek is a PhD fellow at the University of Bremen, Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS) in Germany. From April to June and from September to November 2017, he is visiting fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIRe). He is writing his dissertation on The politics of solidarity: Comparing the Eurozone crisis and Europe’s migration crisis. His research interests are European politics, solidarity research, political communication, migration and refugee studies as well as discourse network analysis. Forthcoming publications are: Notions of Solidarity in Europe’s Migration Crisis: The Case of Germany’s Media Discourse. In: EuropeNow Journal (special issue on the ‘refugee crisis in Europe’) and The Politics of Solidarity in Europe’s Migration Crisis: Media Discourses in Germany and Ireland in 2015. In: Jenichen, Anne/Liebert, Ulrike (eds.): Europeanisation and Renationalisation. Learning from Crises for Innovation and Development. Opladen: Barbara Budrich.

Email address:
Institutional homepage:

SPIRe Seminar Series
This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series. Stefan’s seminar ‘Contested Solidarity in the Eurozone Crisis. Comparing the Discourses in Germany and Ireland from 2010 to 2015’, is on Wednesday, September 27, 2pm, in G316 Newman Building.

The full schedule for the SPIRe seminar series semester 1 can be found on our website.

Posted in Opinion/Debate, SPIRe seminars | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What happens to North Koreans who flee their country – and what can they tell us?

Alexander Dukalskis, University College Dublin

There is no shortage of commentary on what should be done about North Korean weapons programmes. Op-eds in major news outlets variously advocate for talks, a strategy of deterrence combined with progress on humanitarian and economic issues, and even regime change.

But while rhetoric about North Korea heats up, the abstract talk about military options, sanctions, and engagement obscures the people at the centre of it all: millions of ordinary North Koreans.

When demonising the “rogue” behaviour of an enemy state, it’s easy to vilify its citizens or tar them all with the same brush. But the reality is more complicated. North Koreans are neither brainwashed robots nor aspiring democracy activists desperate for liberation. Here I want to focus on a small subset of North Koreans: those who have left.

Over the last six years, I have interviewed 60 of these North Koreans about their experiences, and they’ve told me a great deal about life in the north as well as their escape and new lives in the south. I’ve written before about their stories, as have many other authors, and the collective insights from these studies are valuable for understanding North Koreans’ lives.

Like people in any country, North Koreans have aspirations for themselves and their families, and their beliefs are complex and sometimes contradictory. Some support their government; others are apathetic or downright sceptical, and some even leave in search of a better life. Tens of thousands of people have left North Korea in the last 20-plus years, and at the moment, more than 30,000 North Koreans live in South Korea.

Leaving North Korea is not easy. Those who do choose to leave usually pay a broker to smuggle them into China. Once they get there, their status is often precarious: if Chinese authorities catch them, they will be sent home. Some stay in China regardless, or cross the border back and forth to smuggle goods into North Korea to sell. This cross-border smuggling supplies a quasi-legal market that has blossomed in North Korea since the mid-1990s.

Others who make it to China focus on getting to a third country, where they can present themselves at a South Korean embassy or consulate. The next stop is South Korea itself. Once the North Korean authorities discover someone has left, their family is usually subjected to intensified inspections and surveillance.

Breaking in

The North Koreans who make it to the south usually leave the north for economic reasons. They are trying to secure better conditions for themselves and their families. Many remit money back to their families in the north via brokers. They are also often able to share information about their lives in South Korea via clandestine communication channels.

This means that the idea that the North Korean people are hermetically sealed off is outdated. Many ordinary North Koreans know that South Korea is better off, that China has developed significantly, and that their country has fallen behind.

A persistent question is what all this means for the Kim regime’s resilience. If North Koreans in the south can tell their families back home about life in the outside world, could this erode the north’s authoritarian legitimacy? If North Koreans get their daily goods from the grey or black market and not the state rationing system like they were promised, could this foster opposition?

Some who deal with the north directly seem convinced the answer is yes. The likely new US ambassador, Victor Cha, has argued that creeping marketisation will lead North Koreans to develop individualistic values, which will eventually spell the end of the regime. I myself am sceptical of this view, but it’s good to see high-level policymakers like Cha thinking about North Koreans’ everyday lives, not just the behaviour of their government.

Changing minds

A lot of outsiders do seem to think the dictatorship can be brought down by breaking its monopoly on information. Their argument goes like this: once North Koreans encounter information from the outside world, they will know their despotic government has been lying to them. Analysts and defectors themselves often credit South Korean TV shows or movies in particular with the ability to change people’s thinking inside North Korea; some initiatives take great risks to smuggle outside information and entertainment back in, particularly on flash drives. The idea is to erode northerners’ faith in the Kim regime, undermining its legitimacy and paving the way for change.

The problem is that North Korea remains an extraordinarily repressive state, and it seems collective opposition to the government is almost entirely absent. Furthermore, what if watching South Korean dramas encourages people to leave North Korea rather than stay and try to change the government? After all, most of the evidence about the transformative power of South Korean media comes from interviews and surveys with North Koreans who’ve left, not those who still live there.

That makes sense. In the highly repressive context, it’s extremely difficult for people to even imagine taking a collective stand against the government, and if the outside world looks better, a reasonable response is to try to get there.

This is not to say that getting outside information to North Koreans is pointless. Far from it. The north’s system of censorship and social control is repressive and unjustified. The point is that there’s still no sign of any direct relationship between the clandestine dissemination of TV shows and agitation against the government.

The ConversationBut ultimately, that this is even being discussed is the sign of a healthy debate. With geopolitical tensions extremely high, it’s vital that all involved remember North Korea is about more than nuclear weapons, missiles and deterrence. These issues are incredibly important – but they also have implications for the millions of ordinary people under the Kim regime’s control.

Alexander Dukalskis, Assistant Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Posted in Opinion/Debate, SPIRe staff | Tagged , | Leave a comment