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.
Chapter 3 explores how taming the Rhine as an internal European highway translated into the creation of the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Diplomats at Vienna wished to restore a pre-Napoleonic social order, but they also felt the pull of Enlightenment confidence in civilized European society’s ability to control the Rhine and reform centuries of irrational river politics to secure free trade and economic benefits for all European states. To placate the impulse for both reform and restoration, European diplomats struck an awkward compromise between three existing legal interpretations of the transboundary river: the river as the private property of individual sovereigns; the river as shared commons between states; and the river as international commons open to all. While subsequent narratives suggest the third interpretation won out at the Congress of Vienna, an examination of the contingent politics of the Congress shows that the 1815 Rhine Commission was largely a return to pre-Napoleonic interpretations of the river as private property – but with a liberal twist that reflected imaginaries of the Rhine as a trans-European highway. By establishing the Rhine Commission, the Congress of Vienna affirmed freedom of commerce and created a consultative body to implement rational and sensible regulations to maintain the river as an efficient economic highway.
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 Danube as a connecting river represented the flow of European power and civilization outward to command the eastern periphery, but the river as conduit can flow both ways, and in the 1850s, instability at the far reaches of the Danube delta threatened to destabilize European politics. Chapter 5 examines the Paris Peace Conference to end the Crimean War and the creation of the European Commission of the Danube to ensure a civilized and rational authority to control the mouth of the river. At Paris, competing interpretations of the transboundary river as private property versus international commons again took the diplomatic stage, but imaginaries of the Danube delta as an untamed space at the fringe of European civilization moved diplomats, particularly the French and British, to reject the Rhine Commission model as too weak a body to control this untamed geography. Instead, diplomats at Paris created a strong commission with independent authority not only to conduct engineering works to clear shipping channels, but with the policing and judiciary powers to maintain order and the fiscal powers to borrow money on the international market. By the 1930s, the Commission had become such an extraordinary international actor that historian Glen Blackburn even described it as being ‘at the twilight of statehood’.
If the Rhine represented an internal European highway to be tamed for European civilization, and the Danube represented a liminal space between the civilized European self and the semi-familiar other to the east, then in the late nineteenth century the Congo represented an abstract and empty colonial geography waiting to be filled with European ideas, practices, and institutions. Chapter 6 examines the construction of the Congo – by European legal experts, cartographers, and explorers – as a colonial highway that would impose commercial rationality and European civilization onto a conceptually empty space. This imaginary of the river collapsed time and terrestrial space into the same civilizational and developmental continuum that elevated Western Europe as the model of progress. However, I contend that exporting civilization to the Congo basin not only erased indigenous histories and political agency but contorted Europe’s own messy experience with state-building and economic development into a generalizable model applicable across time and space. At the same time as the Congo represented endless possibilities for ambitious colonizers, it also represented a disconnected geography separate from the normal politics of civilized European society and a foreignness that threatened to reverse rationality and uncivilize those Europeans who traveled upriver – a fear made vivid in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I highlight how European imaginaries of the Congo looked inward at European superiority and anxieties about Europe’s own geopolitical and civilizational position in the late nineteenth century.
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.
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.