Diplomacy in translation: British foreign policy as a techno-cultural assemblage

Diplomacy in translation: British foreign policy as a techno-cultural assemblage

In late November, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with University College London geographer Professor Jason Dittmer to discuss his work on Diplomacy in translation: British foreign policy as a techno-cultural assemblage. This project was funded by the AHRC. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision. 

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about your research background, and how you came to work in this area? 

Professor Jason Dittmer: I am a political geographer by training, and for a long time I was interested in thinking about pop culture and everyday notions of geopolitics. Rather than thinking about things that happen in governments, I was interested in how we experience and talk about politics. So, for example, I had done work on how the Captain America comics narrate change in America and explore the legitimate use of force in America.  

I eventually decided to try to tack back to what we might think of as the traditional areas of political geography, like diplomacy and geopolitics, however, I wanted to bring into it the insights from the everyday politics and pop culture that I had been thinking about for so long. What does it mean to be in the ‘everyday’ of geopolitics? So, I started working on this area through an AHRC research networking grant with a colleague of mine, Fiona McConnell. That project, called Diplomatic Cultures, tried to explore the cultural dimensions of diplomacy as practitioners did it. That project helped to build up my network in a new area and gave me the idea to do the AHRC leadership fellowship project on diplomacy in translation, which we’re talking about today! 

What were some of the overall aims of the Diplomacy in Translation project, and what was the thought process that shaped this project? 

Often, if you are studying politics, you are studying ideologies, or something like vote counts. However, I had gotten really into assemblage theory, which emphasizes materiality and the tangible elements of politics. Assemblage tries to take the agency of materials seriously and focuses on relations between things rather than things themselves. During this project, I kept going back to the idea that diplomacy is about relations – states are assemblages composed of bodies, things and ideas which exist in relation to each other. If you imagine an assemblage of states, then you could try to think about the implications of that for politics. And so, this fellowship and the book which emerged from it became focused on the question of what it means to imagine states in relationship to other states while being affected by them all the time. 

We often think about states as making internal decisions and then going out into the world with a foreign policy, but in practice, the state is making policy that is already meshed in these relations. When people meet and come together in conversation, they are already each meshed into relationships with other people and organizations which in turn shape the type of conversations these people can have together. We also all exist in environments which shape who we are – maybe you skipped lunch by accident today and you are now in a hurry to get this interview over with so that you can go eat, for example. That would shape the way our conversation unfolds. Normally when we think about what the UK wants, or Russia wants, we expect them to negotiate in brainy, cognitive ways. But in practice, it’s always material – the negotiators are actual people in actual places and are shaped by those environments. I found that idea fascinating.  

How did you go about conducting the research? 

I focused on the UK and being in London made it easy for me to go out, visit archives, and explore the material contexts in which diplomacy was happening. I drew upon sources including the National Archives, the NATO archives, and the US National Security Archive. Archives also don’t include the type of thing I was interested in though – when you record events, you probably are not going to talk about the design of the office that meeting happened in. So, I had to scavenge bits and pieces where I could find it.  

One of my favorite pieces of the project emerged from an accidental find. I was looking for the historic records from the creation of the Foreign Office, and I couldn’t find them. Instead, I happened upon a debate in the 1800’s about moving the Foreign Office from one building to another. This parliamentary committee spent a lot of time talking about what diplomacy was like, what the future of diplomacy was going to look like, and how they could build a structure that could efficiently house diplomacy for many years to come.  

I also conducted a lot of interviews with people who currently work in diplomacy, intelligence, or the military. I was trying to widen the notion of what is considered diplomacy, so, for example, my definition of diplomacy included people like permanent military attaches, and places like NATO where military officers go to serve as diplomats for their countries. I explored the web of relations wherever I could find them.  

Were there any key takeaways from this project that surprised you, or that you think would be of particular interest to the policymaking or academic communities? 

Practitioners are often not surprised by my findings. If you are a diplomat, you want to know the room where the meeting is going to happen, and you shape that space – seating certain people next to one another for example. There is an intimate geography – the same way as when you throw a dinner party you will seat certain people next to each other because they have something in common, a diplomat may seat someone to ensure that that person can be the center of attention.  

Academics, on the other hand, are so used to thinking in abstract terms that we tend to forget about the material contexts which are so ordinary to practitioners. I told someone from the Foreign Office that I would have loved to have spent six months volunteering, and he looked at me aghast, saying ‘why would you want to do that?’. For him, it’s a boring office building, just like working in an office anywhere. He was trying to demonstrate how boring it was by telling me about how there are so many diplomatic cables that nobody reads them all, and that they are often badly written. The Foreign Office instituted a five-star rating system – like how you might rate a purchase on Amazon – for diplomatic cables. The ratings were thought to incentivize good writing, and to give people a reason to read them to the end. He thought this was an example of how boring their office was, but I thought that story provided fascinating insight into how technology is shaping diplomacy – and we should be studying this more. But people are more interested in studying summits and the big drama – things like COP26 – rather than the everyday environments where so much of this stuff is happening. That’s my real takeaway from this project – we need to think about diplomacy as being about more than the big red-carpet events. Diplomacy happens around us all the time. 

You wrote a book based on your fellowship work on diplomacy. Would you mind telling me a little bit about that? 

The book – which is the thing that I’m most proud of that I’ve ever done probably – is called Diplomatic Material. It came out in 2017, and it imagines a set of forces that act through states, rather than just states simply acting in the world. If you can imagine a crowd of people, when a stampede happens people lose their individual agency in that moment – you either run, or you get run on. It’s a morbid metaphor, but it is helpful for imagining states like that – when states interact with each other, that sense of individuality can get lost. Instead, people are acting, and forces from some states can force other states to move in a direction – so then what happens to the rest of the states? So, the book explores international relations through the lens of a stampede through which forces work, rather than as a chess game. This reframing of diplomatic material allows us to explore how countries are enmeshed with each other. In the book, I play with the invasion of Iraq as one of those things where afterward, many thought it was a terrible idea, yet many countries stampeded in there. Ultimately, the book asks – what if it’s a question of action, forces, or effect, rather than thought? What if people are stuck in ‘reaction’ mode rather than planning policy? The key takeaway is that kind of comparison between a mob and a chess game. 

How has this project influenced the work that you have done since? Have you continued to explore the same set of themes? 

My current project is a follow-on from the fellowship project, and it explores the web of relations Gibraltar has, exploring Gibraltar as a site of geopolitics and materiality. It was historically a node in the empire, and I am currently exploring how we think about today’s Gibraltar. Everyone talks about the great siege of Gibraltar and the history of empire, but today Gibraltar is this incredible, small, quasi-independent place. It’s still a British Overseas Territory, but they run their own affairs and are making their way in the global economy, while doing so in a tiny territory that is essentially a holdover from the colonial period. They have stone walls, cannons, and a tourism industry, which exist alongside a high-tech sector and a finance and services sector – all of which are based on the legacies of empire. So, my current work explores how Gibraltar is a place of assemblage, with connections to London, Spain, the EU, and North Africa. How is this place charting a transition from one kind of empire to the empire of capitalism? So, it’s a very different project, but it plays with the same themes of assemblage, materiality, and British foreign policy.  

You approach geopolitical issues from a particular disciplinary lens, but a lot of the topics you engage with are also explored in other spaces such as political studies and history departments. What is it like working at the nexus of these interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary issues? 

I definitely conceived of my work as in some ways being about taking ideas from cultural geography and bringing it in to international relations, which does not have the same reputation for being avant garde in its formulations. For me, IR is one of the last groups to catch a wave that has gone through the other social sciences and humanities, so I thought I could translate this into a thing that they might find interesting. IN my work, I tried to engage with some of the debates in IR around civilizational thinking, and arguments for why countries form blocks that seem to persist in time. I argued that it’s not about everyone speaking English or whatever. Instead, it’s about material connections which were built up in specific moments in history. Publishing across disciplines was more challenging – trying to publish in IR journals had mixed results, so I think there are still some real challenges to interdisciplinary work. However, that was also what was fun about it – trying to translate ideas from one place to a new audience and trying to explore how they might think about it, understand it, or at least try to make sense of it. 

You can learn more about Professor Dittmer’s book Diplomatic Material here.