Joanne Yao
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The taming of nature, legitimate authority, and international order
in The ideal river
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This chapter sets the scene with quotes from two international thinkers from opposing ends of the theoretical spectrum: Hans Morgenthau and Timothy Mitchell. Both made astute observations about how a certain way of thinking inherited from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries continues to frame and constrain the way we approach international politics into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. With this as a starting point, this chapter explores how this prevailing confidence in society’s ability to tame nature and usher in social progress informed the development of the modern international order. Rooted in the European Enlightenment, this way of thinking sees both the messy natural and social world around us as a barrier to human progress, and places trust in scientific and technocratic governance to transform this natural messiness into rational sites of social improvement. Taming nature, then, legitimizes the people and institutions in power by securing increased economic growth as well as moral progress for the community. The immense staying power of this ideational frame in the international order derives from its embeddedness in key international norms, hierarchies, and institutions, which gained global prominence in the nineteenth century and continue to hold sway over international politics. By examining how society’s ambition to control nature shaped three core IR concepts – the territorial sovereign state, imperial and global hierarchy, and international organizations – this chapter outlines the key theoretical contributions that frame the historical narratives to follow.

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The ideal river

How control of nature shaped the international order


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