NGOs On The Brain

In a sense, I am a great believer in the concept of naivety. Not in the sense of being uninformed. But in the sense of the value of someone taking an entirely fresh look at things. If there can be value in my approaching a history of international relations, it may be that I have not attempted to do so before. So what may be familiar to many will be entirely new to me and I can perhaps produce a perspective that is valuable because it is entirely original and fresh.

Culturally speaking, however, it seems that in Ireland the amount of interest in international relations in the country from historians of statecraft is far less than the amount of discourse provided by the existence of numerous ‘non-governmental organisation’ (NGO) type groupings. While there are not many, academic writers on international relations in an Irish context tend to reflect this, whether they address questions of humanitarian organisations or even the question of patriotism, where there is a sense that patriotism is a matter for NGOs rather than governments. There are, of course, ‘NGOs’ and NGOs. If one ignores for the moment the notion of a publicly registered charity and the like, this is a concept that can be expanded to include all sorts of phenomenon; perhaps even the history of Irish freemasonry, which, in contrast to reputed experiences elsewhere, evidently served as an instrument of empire far more so than an expression of intellectual diversity or freedom of thought (the fascinating side of freemasonry). The sense of the centrality of ‘NGOs’ to the Irish political experience has also coloured writings on the Irish revolution and the soul-searching of those writers who find it impossible to explain outrages committed, particularly during 1922. Culturally speaking, one could sum up the tenor of such writings by noting that one can find statements such as if a petite nun gives a drink of water to a starving African child she is not merely a good Christian, she is also an Irish patriot. However, if a burly soldier blows the brains out of a man who is attempting to destroy the Irish government, then that soldier is neither a defender of law and order nor a patriot: he is quite simply a murderer.

A lot of these attitudes probably date back to the nineteenth century, when people were taught by supposedly ‘patriotic’ priests that arms-bearing was morally wrong under all circumstances, but they most probably stem from the fact that Ireland’s struggle for independence in the early 20th century involved entirely part-time volunteer forces (another type of ‘NGO’?) standing in moral opposition to highly professional military forces; almost a David and Goliath situation. As a result, when the necessity arose that there should be a highly professional Irish military force, many found this to be a mental adjustment that was too difficult to make. Some memoir writers have indicated, indirectly, that the ongoing existence to this day of a culture of ‘the RA’ is but an expression of this ongoing cultural reality, as is Irish governments’ unwillingness to operate anything more than a meagre defence budget. If so, however, then one might be tempted to judge that professional opinion in the country may be serving only to sustain this situation by an unwillingness to see patriotism as anything more than a cultural issue of identity. One might also be tempted to judge that promoting that identity is considered by the state as a matter for NGOs as much or perhaps even more so than the state itself. Such are the dynamics of Irish political culture, perhaps.

I wonder sometimes if this means that people have NGOs on the brain a little too much; a trend perhaps encouraged by the fact that, reputedly at the insistence of (bfo) academia in Britain, Irish political history is not generally recognised to be a distinct subject outside of Ireland. Economic historians of Ireland usually treat social questions such as fertility rates and the social status of women: they do not generally address the question of national fiscal policy. Cultural historians of Ireland address the constitutional status of the presidency, and then what do political historians do? There is no easy answer to that. But focusing on what they do not do can perhaps be instructive. There are many histories of ‘the RA’. They are little or no histories of the army of the Republic of Ireland. There are articles written on aspects of the history of the Irish department of foreign affairs. However, there is very little written that places the history of Irish foreign affairs in the context of the political history of international relations, which is not the same thing as ‘IR theory’. There are memoirs of civil servants whose contents seem to reflect the fact that very few histories of the Irish civil service exist. The wherewithal to produce anything more than the most fragmentary of narratives must have a root somewhere but, wherever it has been (if it has been), this root has not necessarily produced much fruit. Foreign policies reflect states in all sorts of ways. I have not hitherto been a historian of the twentieth-century Irish state. But it could be that no better synthesis of the history of that state can be achieved than by producing a political history of Irish international relations that actually has a full sense of context. So be it.

Big Softies

Can buzzwords tell one everything one needs to know? Generalisations in the use of language can certainly create handy mental shortcuts, but what if one ends up speaking and thinking only in terms of generalisations, like a fool in search of “a theory of everything”? The historian in me says that this is a pitfall of sociologists although historical research projects often adopt similar terminologies. For instance, the concepts of Harvard sociologist Joseph Nye of trans-nationalism and soft power can now be found “everywhere”, serving as the glue that binds the discourse of the latest history book with the latest media opinion columns with the same uniformity as the smartphone user friendly interfaces that now form the front-page of every government office, university and business. Is the business of business turning us all into “big softies”, where market forces determine everything and become the reality of “soft power”?

Every politician has a Twitter account for the exact same reason as every rock band eager for money and power: the power of advertising. In the face of this business reality of the media, the voice of an individual is supposedly as meaningless as the operations of a dysfunctional family where antagonistic attitudes of a mother towards her own children ends up being reciprocated and everyone is locked into their own mental isolation chamber. Who, therefore, needs writers, let alone the old concept that an individual can serve as “a sword of light”, highlighting a clearer mental path towards progress? Let us make our Twitter account feeds our mediators of reality instead, where the open-armed, priestly, pose for photographers of a speaker at a World Economic Conference and the latest photo-shoot of a teen pop star or movie trailer are but manifestations of the same reality. The banking operations of a world economy is making all our lives inherently better and all we have to do let our minds be taken along on the same mental trip by believing that pristine interfaces of a satellite TV channel and a company’s web presence must point to a brighter reality where all surfaces are bright and shiny. If it looks good, go with the flow and feed the greed in your heart to fill another’s pockets in the hope that you will be rewarded with a return.

To be perfectly honest, these are the type of thoughts that I have never been inclined to either adopt or entertain. I remember coming to the conclusion nearly twenty years ago on examining Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes that old “Marxist intellectual” historians like Hobsbawm were victims of this brand of mental confusion in a manner akin to no other. This indicated to me that if a historian is what I was then my defining trait as a historian would be that the root of my thought would never rest upon the same form of obscurantism as the likes of Hobsbawm, even if the latter was the most famous and celebrated historian of the day and I was but a kid who, despite his best efforts, was practically being told that I was unemployable by being contrary: as a historian, you cannot go around expressing the opinion that Hobsbawm and his kin within Anglophone academia had their heads up their own arse without being told by your employers that you are the culprit instead. So, “whoop de do” and hope for the best…

Now that I am turning my mind towards addressing the question of international relations, I am inclined, however, to speculate whether or not there is a danger that I end up cultivating my own brand of “Hobsbawmitis”. Without letting the cat entirely out of the bag, let me say that I have found good reason for believing that one cannot reasonably address the question of Ireland’s place in international relations historically without also attempting to find an answer to the question of what relevance expatriate Irish people had, if any, to Ireland’s history. On a “soft power” level today, this is evident in the field of the tourism industry and the uses made of history within the same. But, in the past, before it became a practical matter of business, it was a question that was directly related to the idea that Irish nationalists were, in effect, living and thinking like the inhabitants of a ship in a bottle whenever they imagined that an expatriate Irish population and the Irish population itself were inhabitants of the same political world. Were they or were they not? An answer to that question will be suggested in my next book, I believe, amongst other things to suggest that geopolitics can have surprising meanings that are not inherently related to military power. Are they then related to the world of business and notions of a world economy that, contrary to a frequent consensus, were perhaps alive and kicking for about as long as individuals first inclined to conceive of the existence of a world in itself? Perhaps the existence of that idea is the ultimate expression of soft power: whether it is expressed in the 1860s language of Karl Marx or the 2010s language of Mark Zuckerberg it amounts to the same thing. Regardless, of course, the writings of another penniless writer will have no greater consequence than to very slightly enhance the profit margins of another book publisher. And so… “Life goes on, as usual”, he said, while telling himself that if there is any victim of soft power out there it is surely not I. But is there an “I”? And is it career suicide to say “Aye”? The outline of the circle disappears before your very eyes and the haunting spectre of a blank page shall be filled. Amen.