Joanne Yao
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The 1884–85 Berlin Conference and the international organization that never was
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If the Rhine and Danube commissions could be considered accomplishments in global governance, then the abortive International Commission of the Congo proposed in the text of the 1885 General Acts of the Berlin Conference was an international disaster. Chapter 7 examines diplomatic efforts to bring European normative and institutional models to the conceptual emptiness of the Congo basin. At first glance, it seemed that diplomats at Berlin faced the same dilemma as their predecessors at Paris in 1856 – whether to tame the river through private sovereign control or as international commons. However, the Congo represented a particular colonial geography in the European imagination – first, as a blank canvas waiting to be filled with European models, and second, in the Congo’s primary importance as a token in European balance of power politics. Combined, these framings led to the imposition of ill-fitting models taken from Europe’s own historical development onto the morally and politically ‘empty’ spaces of the colonial periphery. Hence, European diplomats’ inability to transform the Congo into a peaceful, non-sovereign, and neutral space for the benefit of international commerce reflected failings in the Western European geographical imaginary – both of the conceptually empty Congo as well as its understanding of Europe as a geography of universal and generalizable political possibilities.

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The ideal river

How control of nature shaped the international order


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