Legitimacy and Expertise in International Affairs: IR & Ethics Workshop in Review

Author: Kiran Phull

On February 9th, the IR & Ethics research theme of the Department of War Studies convened a full-day workshop (in person, no less!) on “Professionals in International Affairs and Legitimacy: Expertise, Politics and Democracy”. Organized by the IR & Ethics theme leads, Dr. Alvina Hoffmann and PhD student Josh Walmsley, as well as Dr. Frank Foley, the workshop untied scholars from KCL, LSE and Oxford to present and discuss research relating to legitimacy in the context of expertise, human rights, law, violence, objectivity, impartiality, and governance. We were very glad to welcome 20 scholars in total, spanning various research themes in the department.

Legitimacy and legitimisation are shapeshifting concepts; they emerge in the justification of military intervention, the symbolic power of international spokespeople, the creation of border regimes, and the construction of ‘the international’. The far-ranging themes of the workshop carved a productive space for identifying, deconstructing, and reconceptualising legitimacy in a world that seems to increasingly turn against the authority and discourse of expertise. At present time, the unfolding and alarming events and intervention into Ukraine by Russia extend questions of legitimacy and expertise to the territorial[1], the historical[2], and transnational[3]. Increasingly we ask who, what, or where lies legitimacy and the power to (de)legitimise?

The workshop followed an innovative format as scholars, instead of presenting their own papers, were paired up with another participant and presented their paper. We will be using this format in our future workshop as it allowed for in-depth engagement with the papers and deep discussions around central questions.

Part 1 of the workshop on human rights, law, and violence was chaired by Dr. Sarah Perret and discussed by Prof. Mervyn Frost. On this panel, Dr. Frank Foley, asked how human rights professionals and state actors make claims on torture, drawing on the literatures around rhetorical coercion and shaming in the context of Spain and the UK. Dr. Sinja Graf presented from her award-winning book, The Humanity of Universal Crime (2021). The chapter (“Cosmopolitanism and Crimes against Humanity: ‘Global Policing’ and the Legitimacy of Political Violence in the Late Twentieth Century”) critiques the deployment of crimes against humanity in Habermasian thought. Josh Walmsley questioned how some become entitled to speak authoritatively in the field of terrorism and radicalisation, where there is no shared understanding of who the “real” experts are and little control over the very object of their expertise. And Dr. Alvina Hoffmann called into question the making of a spokesperson, analysing how spaces within democracies are animated and articulated by those who claim the authority to speak on behalf of all.

Part 2 of the workshop on objectivity, impartiality, and governance was chaired by Josh Walmsley and discussed by Dr. Alvina Hoffmann. On this panel, Dr. Sarah Perret identified Research and Development (R&D) in EU border security as a space of decisions, contestations, and power, showing how the creation of non-knowledge serves to legitimise border practices. Jan Eijking examined the emergence of ‘the international’ as a distinct phenomenon, looking at the 1865 International Telegraph Conference as a site where notions of the international were constructed by entrepreneurs and experts seeking legitimacy and authority. Finally, Dr. Kiran Phull looked to the interplay of expertise and scientific knowledge production in IR to ask how global opinion polling and pollsters make claims to legitimacy through appeals to objectivity, and further how public opinion knowledge works to structure the landscape of international affairs. In the end, the fruitful discussions around the workshop theme underscored the centrality of legitimacy in international affairs, both today and historically. Unravelling the inner workings of legitimacy – its mechanics, logics, and contestations – opens up a generative space for thinking through the role of the expert in the making of the political world. We look forward to continuing our thinking on questions concerning the relationship between professions and expertise, legitimation and regimes of justification, and how to concretely study the relationship between discourses of legitimation and practice.

Post-workshop drinks and debrief

[1] Keith Darden (2014) “Ukraine’s Crisis of Legitimacy”

[2] Serhii Plokhy in The New Yorker (2022) “Vladimir Putin’s Revisionist History of Russia and Ukraine”

[3] Alvina Hoffmann (2022) “How are local voices and activists in Russia and post-Soviet States responding to the war?”

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