The conclusion reflects on how the history of transboundary river cooperation and the creation of the first international organizations is largely absent from IR literature and theorizing, but how despite this absence, the river and its sociopolitical importance permeates IR in the way we privilege the sovereign territorial state, the way we are bound by global hierarchies, and the way we trust in IOs to resolve the collective dilemmas of the twenty-first century. I conclude by contemplating the challenges of the Anthropocene, and in particular, how perpetual economic growth continues to be the modern benchmark for moral and political progress. This standard leads us, as Amitav Ghosh eloquently warns, to a ‘great derangement’. It is my hope that understanding how the standards and desires of modern life emerged from a global history of entanglement between international society and the natural world will allow us to recognize the power and politics behind modern standards of progress – but also, in looking to the future, to challenge the myth that these standards are somehow natural and immovable.
In the mid-nineteenth century Europeans envisioned the Danube as a commercial highway for a quickly industrializing Europe. However, if the Rhine represented an internal European highway, the Danube signified a connecting river that emanated from the heart of European civilization to the near periphery. Chapter 4 draws out this distinction between the two rivers and argues that taming the Danube’s physical and metaphysical dangers not only reflected legitimate authority along its banks but also signified control over this conduit to the east, so that free trade and civilization could flow from Europe outward. Controlling the connecting Danube also signified control over temporal dynamics and guarded against reversing the river, and therefore reversing the progressive flow of history and European civilization and allowing instability to flow from the east back upriver. Most famously, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula represents this haunting possibility of invasion from the east, and civilizational norms upended. If taming the Danube signified legitimate political authority, then Russian unwillingness or inability to control the river’s mouth during the mid-nineteenth century threw Russia’s civilizational status into question and set the stage for the establishment of the 1856 European Commission of the Danube.
The taming of nature into the twenty-first century
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.
Environmental politics has traditionally been a peripheral concern for IR theory, but increasing alarm over global environmental challenges has elevated international society’s relationship with the natural world into the theoretical limelight. IR theory’s engagement with environmental politics, however, has largely focused on interstate cooperation in the late twentieth century, with few works exploring the longstanding historical links between the management of natural resources and the foundations of the modern international order. This book examines nineteenth-century efforts to establish international commissions on three transboundary rivers – the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo. It charts how the ambition to tame nature (both the natural world and human nature) became an international standard of rational and civilized authority and informed our geographical imagination of the international. This notion of domination over nature was central to the emergence of the early international order in the way it shaped three core IR concepts: the territorial sovereign state, imperial hierarchies, and international organizations. The book contributes to environmental politics and IR by highlighting how the relationship between society and nature, rather than being a peripheral concern, has always lain at the heart of international politics.
This chapter introduces the ideal river as a rational and reliable highway for the seamless movement of goods, people, and ideas. The ideal river enriches the state, enlightens the populace, and brings liberal progress along the metaphorical river of history. The book’s main narrative, then, examines the construction of that ideal river in the European geographical imagination and the ensuing political projects to actualize that vision through the creation of the first international organizations (IOs). The chapter then outlines the book’s key aims.
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.
Chapter 2 examines the taming of the Rhine in the European geographical imaginary and contends that the early nineteenth-century ambition to transform the Rhine into a frictionless commercial highway reveals the double moral and economic logics behind the political project to tame nature. Controlling the river’s unruly flows would bring both economic and moral gains – a straightened and disciplined river would minimize economic loss from flooding, reclaim swamps for agricultural production, and create the ideal highway for local and international trade – but it also represented a moral conquest from the barbarity of swampy disuse. This double economic and moral logic not only informed the development of legitimate state authority along the Rhine; due to its position as an important transnational geography, this double logic extended to international politics. Here, taming the Rhine created both a reliable economic highway for European commerce while eliminating the fractious ‘Teutonic insanity’ that had hindered Rhine prosperity for centuries. The chapter also explores the Romantic counterpoint to this framing of the Rhine, and how the river as high Romantic fantasy only amplified the need to tame it as steamboats of tourists flooded the river and the Rhine became a different kind of economic commodity.
The second chapter addresses the demands and struggle of the labour movement during the post-war period of reconstruction. The chapter examines the tools and strategies to which the state elite resorted during critical periods to capture the labour movement. This chapter considers labour relations from 1992 – the year billed as the start of the reconstruction period – until the last wage rise in 2012. This salary increase poignantly exemplifies the total co-optation and breakdown of the labour movement. The period witnessed an active movement between 1992 and 1997, followed by fragmentation and total deactivation from the early 2000s onwards. How and why did the labour movement fall apart, and what were the implications for Lebanon’s sectarian-liberal model? The labour movement’s type of demands and actions during the post-war period was largely a continuation of the existing state of affairs before and during the war. What is often perceived as a fall after the civil war was merely exacerbated state intervention and co-optation, the influence of political parties and the effects of liberal economic policies, which had already been in place since independence. The result was a divided movement, and an overall cautious and moderate attitude and action towards the Government. The times of a supposed labour movement revival, such as the 1992–97 period, were mostly fuelled by feuds among members of the elite – one section of the elite managing to manipulate the GCWL to fight one or other of Lebanon’s elite groups.
The chapter explores the implications of a muted labour movement for the present and future struggle for change. The trials and tribulations of the labour movement in Lebanon reveal how the struggle of labour against capital deepens when governed by a sectarian power-sharing system. Labour organising is perceived as a potential vehicle for rebellion against the sectarian-liberal system of rule, which put the regime at odds with any ambitious attempts of labour organising. Instead of resorting to repression and persecution, the state co-opted the labour movement and distorted the confederation of unions into a mouthpiece for the ruling elite and bargaining tool in their feuds over the sectarian allocation of privileges and resources. Retelling the story of the labour movement in Lebanon is not about the downfall and defeat of labour. On the contrary, the history of traditional unionism reveals the fear and trepidation of the sectarian liberal system. The state elite’s continuous attempts to undermine the labour movement are evidence that a resilient and vigorous labour movement constitutes an all-important threat to the political system in place. The decline of the organised labour movement does not imply that class struggle is no longer relevant. Rather, it means that, up to now, capital and the state have been winning this struggle. While the labour movement faces enormous hurdles, contemporary forms of a workers’ struggle that appeal to class solidarity and show a different kind of unionism can provide an alternative vision and counteract the Lebanese sectarian-liberal system.
The Beirut explosion on 4 August 2020 was a poignant manifestation of a dysfunctional political system marred by high levels of corruption, incompetence and neglect. Prior to the explosion, the system’s dysfunction and resulting social and economic grievances had already culminated in social unrest in 2019, referred to as the October Revolution. The Lebanese uprising has, however, brought to the fore the conspicuous absence of Lebanon’s labour movement in political dissent. The General Confederation of Workers in Lebanon (GCWL) did not call for any strikes or demonstrations in support of the popular protests. Why was the labour movement absent from the Lebanese uprising? What does this reveal about the economic and political systems in Lebanon? How does this absence impact the uprising? The book addresses the trajectory of the workers’ movement in Lebanon by answering two questions. What are the impediments that shaped the trajectory and scope of the labour movement? And what is the impact of the state’s co-optation of the labour movement on the political and economic system in the post-war period and today’s protests against Lebanon’s sectarian-liberal model? The argument of the book grows out of extensive fieldwork in Lebanon, beginning with a three-year period between 2013 and 2016, and supplemented by follow-up fieldwork in 2019. The research design relies on the review of Arab-language archival and secondary sources plus semi-structured interviews with pivotal actors in trade-union politics.