Hello everyone! Welcome to Episode 25 of Fully Automated. This week we are joined by Dr Philip Cunliffe, Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent. Phil has been a guest on the show before actually. He joined us in Episode 16, for our “What the Brexit?” debate, at the 2019 ISA Convention, in Toronto. And listeners may also be familiar with his voice from the podcast Aufhebunbga Bunga, which he records with Alex Hochuli and George Hoare.
Today we are going to talk with Dr. Cunliffe about his new book, Cosmopolitan Dystopia (Manchester Press, 2020), which is a detailed study of the negative impact of human rights discourse on global politics since the end of the Cold War. Now, for many on the left, this will be a controversial point. As he notes in the book, many see human rights discourse as a cover for US imperial ambitions. Yet, says Cunliffe, we can’t explain the popularity of global human rights discourse, or the extent to which it is invoked even by European powers, solely through the lens of American hegemony. You need a more nuanced account. And this is where Cunliffe brings in the idea of reading human rights discourse as a counter-utopian, or anti-political, symptom of the neoliberal era.
On the surface, this argument might appear paradoxical. How can human rights be anti-utopian? But I think any listeners who might have watched the Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalization will already have an insight into where Phil is taking this argument. As he notes, a key value at the heart of contemporary liberalism is an aversion to the so-called “fate of utopians.” Human rights violations happen, according to this schematic, because people want to change the status quo.
In this interview, we cover a range of issues. For me though, one of the highlights is our discussion about the complete lack of critical self-awareness of people like Juergen Habermas and, more recently, Samantha Power. In their support for interventions in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, liberals invoked the idea of the ‘just’ liberal war, and paved the way for the liberal justification of future American wars, from Iraq to Libya and Syria. But this book is not just a critique of American wars — it also examines the bloody interventions of the British and the French, in Africa. The common element to all these cases is the fervent belief among cosmopolitan liberals that the world is better disposed to their ideals than it really is (which is not to say the world isn’t oriented to cosmopolitan ideals — just that they might not be liberal cosmopolitan ideals!).
Now, I’ll say that I don’t know that I fully agree with all of Phil’s positions here. On the one hand, I do think he makes a compelling case that there’s been a substantive “restructuring” of world order going on, as a result of what he terms the “cumulative weight” of interventions since the Cold War. But I am just not sure I am as persuaded as he, that self-determination and sovereignty are necessarily the solution to the problems of contemporary capitalist order. I may be wrong about this, and certainly I think the left would be foolish not to try to leverage the power of the state as much as possible, to achieve its goals. But I think there’s a risk of maybe fetishizing the benefits of what some call ‘delinking’ at the expense of engaging on the terrain of international and transnational institutions. For more on this, listeners might want to revisit Episode 14, where we talked about this a bit with Lee Jones.
Anyway, that all said, I think this is a magnificent and politically important book. And I think Phil has made a real contribution with it. It should be widely read, and discussed.
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