IPCS Discussion

Diplomacy and the Politics of Language

10 Apr, 2017    ·   5261

Derek Verbakel reports on the proceedings of the discussion held on 31 March 2017

An overview of the remarks made at 'Diplomacy and the Politics of Language', the first discussion in IPCS' 2017 series, 'Evolving Discourses of Security in International Politics'. 

Deconstructing Anti-Islamic Discourses of International Security
Dr Sanjeev Kumar
Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi

International Relations theorising on national and global security has always been concerned with questions of order, welfare, and law. The dominant neorealist paradigm of security studies views anarchy as a threat to these aspects of state security. Anarchy is regarded as an unavoidable structural issue which the state must confront through maximising its power and security.  

Constructivist critiques maintain that 'anarchy is what states make of it', and the English School insists there can be order within anarchy if international society takes a particular form. However, when anarchy, insecurity, or disorder is presumed to be constructed (rather than inherently structural) there is some actor or agent who is also constructed as the source of that instability. After the end of the Cold War, 'Islam' was constructed as a threat causing global disorder. 

To understand how this threat perception is created, it is necessary to consider how knowledge is produced not in a vacuum but in a given environment shaped by power relations. The US has long had a permanent war economy where the defence industry has played a vital role in contributing to policy, and academic capitalism has been rife. These dynamics have shaped understandings of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the US invasion of Afghanistan, for instance. 

Another significant factor is the 'Islamic world' itself, in which there have been efforts to spread one particular brand of Islam. Due to the spectacular self-promotion of  radical jihadi groups who actively espouse millenarian visions and eschew cosmopolitanism, it has been easy for the US to construct Islam as a threat. 

Talking Gender at the UN Security Council
Dr Soumita Basu
Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, South Asian University

Since the passage of Resolution 1325 in 2000, which became an impetus for it to discuss gender issues, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has adopted eight resolutions on 'Women, Peace and Security' (collectively known as the WPS agenda). While there have been some limited concrete developments, implementation of these resolutions has been halting, and the council has talked little about women in other resolutions. 

The WPS agenda has been unable to change the dominant conceptions of peace and security in the UNSC. Phrasing in the title of the resolutions,‘Women and Peace and Security’, suggests women have been added to the council's existing peace and security mandate as opposed to recognising women’s agency and experiences to change the understanding of international peace and security itself. The prevalent thinking is that socio-economic factors come under the mandate of other UN organs and boundaries should be maintained.

The WPS resolutions have also been unable to adequately explain what a gender perspective means as the text refers to ‘women’ rather than ‘gender’. 

The provisions of resolutions have been traditionally referred to in terms of 'participation, protection, and prevention'. The 'protection' agenda has received the most attention - it lends itself most easily to the generally accepted humanitarian language of protecting vulnerable populations. A significant reason is the role of the US in particular supporting this aspect of the WPS agenda.

'Participation' has seen some successes, such as increasing numbers of women in UN peacekeeping operations, but they are still extremely low despite a strong case for inclusion of women on the basis of operational effectiveness.

The UNSC's record on 'prevention' is lacking. The idea has never been to make war safer for women, but rather to regulate military expenditure, availability of armaments, etc.
The ways in which the language of gender have evolved has much to do with internal politics within the council between member states as well as civil society, which has broadly pushed for much of the talk on gender at the UNSC. 


There are many liturgical and ritualistic differentiations within Islam. However, Islam it has been problematically constructed as a monolithic religion in security discourses in a very monolithic way. While it is a macro-social identity, it should be viewed in a micro-social way: a given act of violence does not connote universal acceptance; textual interpretations cannot be blamed for the acts of some.

There are many types of Islamic movements and pan-Islamism is one particular form. The Islamic State's (IS) appeal has not only been on the basis of pan-Islamism. It has cut across the modern notion of nationalism and the notion of an 'ummah'.

IS represents a narrow version of Islam, but has drawn on a legacy of academic capitalism in the Islamic world. It cannot be destroyed because it is an idea, but if resources used to propagate Wahhabism were devoted to instead to promoting peace, tables would turn.

When 'the West' needed a new enemy after the Cold War, it was convenient that radical jihadi organisations were violating supposed norms of international relations such as the sanctity of borders and prohibitions on violence against civilians.  

We should be circumspect about assuming that gender equality necessarily comes with development.

Many actors in the 'global south' do not want socio-economic issues - inseparable from questions of gender equality - considered at the UNSC because it is seen as an undemocratic institution.

It can be argued that the UNSC may not be the best platform for the WPS agenda, but despite all its problems, it is a very valuable institution as it can bring significant money and attention to these issues. Yet the UNSC is not and cannot be the only answer because of its institutional framework.

The WPS agenda was sidelined after 9/11, but some attempts were made to co-opt it - for instance, as pretext for the US 'emancipating' Afghan women and girls through its military intervention.

Women's representation in high-level UN roles may be incremental and tokenistic, but it can still serve as a symbol for some positive change.

The involvement of women in peacemaking processes is low, but the evidence suggests that their increased involvement is efficacious.

Although there are disagreements, many civil society actors have sought to resist disciplining and open up the dominant interpretation of the WPS agenda which focuses heavily on 'protection'. In South Asia, there is resistance to aspects of the WPS agenda by those who have been working for decades on issues concerning the gendered nature of armed conflict. 

If the US increasingly turns inward, what impact would this have on the global security agenda?
Rapporteured by Derek Verbakel, Researcher, IPCS