Joanne Yao
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History is a river
The taming of nature into the twenty-first century
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Chapter 8 examines international society’s efforts to construct the ideal river in the twentieth century. I begin with World War I and the 1919 Paris Peace Conference which finally seemed to affirm that Europe’s transboundary rivers are unequivocally international commons. Standing at 1919, it would seem that a century of international cooperation had finally culminated in victory for liberalism, free trade, and progress. However, I challenge this narrative by showing how 1919 could be understood otherwise and argue that narratives of institutional success and failure depend very much on where in history we stand and the thickness and orientation of our analytical blinders. This chapter traces the continuation of Enlightenment confidence in science’s ability to tame the river for economic and moral progress. Control of the river continued to define a state’s legitimacy, first as a sign of imperial power, and then, after the mid-twentieth century, as a mantra adopted by newly independent states to showcase their rising status and self-sufficiency. I focus on megadams as a monumental symbol that illustrates how our efforts to create the ideal river continued throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

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The ideal river

How control of nature shaped the international order


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