Keynotes & Round Table

The keynotes by Cecelia Lynch and Riccardo Bavaj as well as the Round Table entitled “The future of the local in the era of the global” hosted by Marie-Josée Lavallée and participated by Antero Holmila, Hae Seong Jang, Cecelia Lynch, Abhilash Thadathil, and Xenia Zeiler will be streamed live [click here].

All video recordings will be available here after the conference. See below for keynote abstracts. The conference booklet with program, keynotes and extended abstracts can be downloaded here. Participants will get their printed copy at the conference.

Cecelia Lynch: Banish “the local”!: Towards… the pluriverse, globalectics? De-centering “the west” in international politics

In this talk, I discuss how working on religion, ethics, and humanitarianism has pushed me to address race, decoloniality, and indigeneity, and understand something of the persistence, power and contributions of “non-western” knowledge and practices. Intersecting fields, including that of international relations, are increasingly addressing these sites for interrogating knowledge claims and processes of knowledge construction. Two parallel moves are also in process: a) the resort to “the local” in contemporary work, for example on humanitarianism and transitional justice, as important sites of knowledge and practice, and 2) the crafting of new terminology (the pluriverse; globalectics) to conceptualize the rich contributions of the “non-west” as well as their interconnections with dominant western ones. Drawing on my own research on religion and humanitarianism in different parts of the world, I assert that these moves are, in the end, incompatible, that we need to banish the anthropological distinctions of “local/global”, and push forward conceptualizations that challenge the ongoing power of western hegemony.

The field of international relations (IR) has increasingly addressed issues of race and religion. Studies of knowledge claims, histories, traditions, and politics from non-European and non-North American parts of the world are increasing; while studies of the racialized Eurocentric origins and development of the field are also on the rise. IR scholars of decoloniality are also actively reconceptualizing the importance of numerous aspects of indigeneity to challenge dominant forms of knowledge claims. These works are crucial for any ongoing decentering of the west. Relatedly, a group of decolonial scholars in other fields have crafted and are debating the term “pluriverse” to acknowledge the multiplicity of cosmologies and forms of knowledge as a challenge to western (and some non-western) universalizing claims, and eminent writer Ngūgī wa Thiong’o has put forth the term “globalectics” to encompass the interconnections in the production of knowledge between oral and written cultures.

Engaging in research on humanitarianism, ethics, and religion in different parts of Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. entails analyzing the dominance of ongoing “western” power structures of aid, and imaginaries of aid recipients. But it also demonstrates the persistence and power of multiple religious traditions and religio-cultural syncretisms that both reinforce and resist such structures and imaginaries. It has been too tempting to relegate these resistances to “the local.” What happens if we instead seek their implicit and explicit interconnections? What knowledge claims are disturbed; what other claims are advanced? What are the implications for humanitarianism, aid, and the representation of the “aid beneficiary” as subject?

Cecelia Lynch is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine and a Fulbright Scholar (2019) at Tampere University. Her books include Beyond Appeasement: Interpreting Interwar Peace Movements in World Politics (Cornell University Press 1999, winner of the 1999 Furniss Award for best book in international security studies and co-winner of the 1998-99 Myrna Bernath Book Award of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations), Law and Moral Action in World Politics (co-edited with Michael Loriaux, University of Minnesota Press, 2000), Strategies for Research in Constructivist International Relations (with Audie Klotz, M.E. Sharpe, 2007; published in Korean in 2010), the co-edited On Rules, Knowledge, and Politics: Friedrich Kratochwil and the Study of International Relations (Palgrave 2010), and Interpreting International Politics (Routledge 2014).

Her newest book, Wrestling with God: Christian Ethical Tensions in Modern International Politics, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, and she is completing another co-edited book (with Cilas Kemedjio), Always Giving? Africa in the Humanitarian Imaginary. She was recognized as the 2019 Distinguished Scholar for the International Political Sociology section of the International Studies Association, and was co-winner of the 2014 J. Ann Tickner Award of the ISA, in recognition for “bravery in pursuing high-quality, pioneering scholarship… with a deep commitment to service, especially teaching and mentoring,” and received fellowships from the Social Science Research Council, MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and her articles on IR theory, law, religion and social movements have appeared in International Studies Quarterly, Globalizations, Millenium, Ethics & International Relations, International Theory, International Journal, Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, and numerous edited volumes. She edits the blog, “Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa,” or The CIHA Blog, at


Riccardo Bavaj: Between evolutionary and container concept: Western self-assertions, German Westernizers, and the spatialization of political thought

The “end of Western hegemonies” goes hand-in-hand with a remarkable resilience if not resurgence of ‘the West’ as a socio-political concept: firstly, “the West” continues to be a highly popular and effective framing device, and secondly, there is a perseverance of hegemonic notions of ‘the West’ that have a long tradition, with origins in the early nineteenth century (and what the German historian Reinhart Koselleck called the Sattelzeit). ‘Western hegemonies’ may have ended in various areas of life, but “the West” as a rhetorical pattern is very much alive. What current debates show, in fact, is that the concept of ‘the West’ proves useful even, and perhaps especially, when commentators lament its “crisis”, “decline”, “twilight”, or “end”. Indeed, one could argue that the greatest threat to “the West” as a socio-political concept is the lack of any threat – it does tend to be in fashion when confronted with “internal” or “external” threats that are considered anti-“Western”.

The lecture first provides a brief overview of examples of Western self-assertion, and attempts to stabilize “Western identity”, as well as examples of self-positionings “beyond the West”, and attempts to dismantle the “Western paradigm”. Second, it outlines an analytical framework, and explores two main semantic dimensions of the concept of the West: an open-ended evolutionary concept and a spatially-confined container concept. It also examines the function, appeal and usefulness of the concept: “The West” is not only a cipher for political values, cultural norms, and religious traditions; it is also an effective rhetorical tool to mobilize people for a cause, and to forge national, as well as transnational, identities. This part of the lecture refers repeatedly to the work of the most prominent advocate of “the West” in Germany, Heinrich August Winkler, esp. The History of the West and Germany’s Long Road West.

Third, and finally, the lecture explores the ‘Westernization’ of the political thought of two rémigré thinkers (i.e. scholars who emigrated from Germany in the 1930s and returned to Germany after the war), who proved highly influential for the formation of Winkler’s historical and political thinking: Ernst Fraenkel and Richard Löwenthal. This final part seeks to explore the rationale behind the spatialization of political thought, and addresses the question of when, how and why these two scholars appropriated the spatio-political concept of the West.

The lecture makes the following points:

1) In the discourse on “the West”, there is often a tension at play between an open-ended evolutionary concept and a spatially confined container concept. The evolutionary concept implies a universal trajectory and a standard of civilizational progress (in terms of social norms, technical advance, economic development, and political values) that, in principle, is attainable by every part of the world. The underlying assumption is the existence of one single universal civilization that originates in the West, with a special emphasis on the “Atlantic revolutions” of the late eighteenth century, and a cluster of norms and ideas centred on human rights, the rule of law, separation of powers, and parliamentary democracy. The container concept, instead, is largely defined along cultural, religious, linguistic and also ethnic lines; it is, therefore, constituted by features that, even in principle, are much less universalizable. This concept implies a plurality of civilizations with different trajectories and only a limited degree of convergence. The classic example would be the notion of a “historical West”, or “the Occident” (Abendland in German), as an area dominated by Latin Christianity, as opposed to the world of Eastern Orthodoxy.

2) Both conceptual variants – evolutionary concept / container concept – are not mutually exclusive but often coexist in varying degrees of conflation, which create tensions between “the West’s” universality and “Western” particularities, typically limiting the universalizability of “Western ideas”. Sometimes, the drawing of civilizational boundaries remains implicit and works more like an unspoken assumption; sometimes it is made explicit – for instance, when commenting on the war in eastern Ukraine or Russian politics in general; the question of Turkey’s accession to the EU would be another example.

3) When exploring the question of why historical actors have found the concept of the West so useful and effective to articulate their political views, one needs to consider the spatiality of the concept. Spatial concepts – once they metamorphose into socio-political ones (for “the West”, that happened in the early nineteenth century) – are distinct from non-spatial ones in their specific ability, namely by homogenizing space, to reduce complexity, create orientation, and shape identities. They evoke an “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson), and create a sense of cultural, historical and ideological cohesion, which is attached to a certain geographical area. Sometimes, the boundaries of this area are defined very clearly; often, they are amorphous, and they also tend to shift over time.

4) When examining the ways in which the political thought of Ernst Fraenkel and Richard Löwenthal spatialized (i.e. incorporated and/or modified spatio-political frameworks), a number of arguments can be put forward: Fraenkel – a left-socialist labour law expert in the Weimar Republic, who had fled Nazi persecution in 1938 and had spent most of his exile in the United States – returned to Germany in 1951 as a vocal advocate of U.S. constitutionalism, but he only became an avowed “Westernizer” in the early 1960s. A conceptual Westernization only occurred in the academic environment of the Free University Berlin, with its direct exposition to the front line of the Cold War. The frequent use of the term “Western democracy” from 1960 onward was part of Fraenkel’s art of persuasion. The conflation of a spatial concept and a key word of political thought allowed him to anchor West Germany’s political culture firmly in the realm of pluralist democracies, effectively making a case for its democratization. Moreover, the question of Germany’s historical relationship to ‘the West’ – usually framed as the question of a German Special Path (Sonderweg) – featured increasingly prominently on the academic agenda in the mid and late 1950s, and it was a logical step for Fraenkel, “primed” by his Weimar background, to engage with the critical Special Path discourse on German anti-“Westernism”. As the notion of a fundamental dichotomy between Germany and “the West” still fuelled what Fraenkel and others saw as a German “special consciousness”, both the term “Western democracies” and Germany’s relationship to that spatio-political construct needed to be redefined, and the imaginary geography of “Western democracies” needed expanding.

Lastly, Fraenkel’s increasing determination to help transform West Germany’s political culture manifested itself, around 1960, in a shift in spatial identity. The self-declared “American in Berlin”, who had sworn never to use the word ‘we’ again because he could never any more identify himself with “the Germans”, suddenly switched to the “we” form again, and this was just around the time he started to avail himself of the language of “Western democracy”. He was still proud of his U.S. citizenship, but from 1960 onward he spoke of “we – the Germans”. The full incorporation of the concept of the West into his rhetorical register allowed Fraenkel to solve an identity dilemma: instead of choosing between two national identities (American or German), he transformed into a German-American “Westerner”.

Fraenkel’s colleague Richard Löwenthal became a “Westerner” as well. He started off as the member of a Communist student association in the Weimar Republic, and found himself signing up, in 1950, as a founding member of the Congress for Cultural Freedom – a decidedly anti-Communist organization, and a major conduit of transatlantic cultural transfer that spread ideas of Cold War liberalism and “Western Civilization”. Three factors stand out when accounting for this intellectual transformation: first, the shock waves sent out by the Soviet Union; second, Löwenthal’s time in exile in London; and third, the emerging spatial logic of the Cold War in 1946-47, which prompted him to discard his previous preference for a socialist Europe as a “third force”. From then on, one of the key characteristics of his spatio-political framework was a container-space rhetoric that distinguished between a dynamic, creative “Western” and a static, “invertebrate” “Eastern civilization”.

Löwenthal’s concept of the West was influenced both by Max Weber and the British historian Arnold Toynbee, who reached the height of his fame in the aftermath of the Second World War – at a time when the frequency of references to “Western civilization” soared. Toynbee’s gargantuan, multi-volume study of world civilizations advanced the theory that “Western civilization”, alongside twenty other civilizations in world history, was an ”intelligible unit of historical study” – a statement that was repeatedly quoted by Löwenthal. When Löwenthal tried to make sense of the rapid transformation of industrially advanced pluralist societies from the mid and late 1960s, he resorted to a political language that was shot through with Toynbeean notions of “rhythms”, “crises”, and “breakdowns” of civilizations. For Löwenthal, the disaffection of the “young Western intelligentsia” with parliamentary democracy in “1968” was merely an epiphenomenon of a “long-term cultural crisis” that undermined the authority of “Western” institutions. Deploying the “Western crisis” rhetoric also as a means to create a sense of urgency, Löwenthal’s main aim was to preserve the status quo through stabilizing an identity “nested” in the narrative community of “Western civilization”.

Key names in order of appearance: Heinrich August Winkler (*1938), Niall Ferguson (*1964), Udo di Fabio (*1954), Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), Kwame Anthony Appiah (*1954), Pankaj Mishra (*1969), Ernst Fraenkel (1898-1975), Richard Löwenthal (1908-91), Franz Borkenau (1900-57).

Riccardo Bavaj is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews, and Director of the Institute for Transnational & Spatial History. His research focuses on the intellectual and spatial history of 20th-century Germany. His most recent publications include Germany and ‘the West’: The History of a Modern Concept (ed. with Martina Steber) (2015; pbk 2017); Civilisational Mappings: ‘The West’ at the Turn of the Century (1880-1930) [Zivilisatorische Verortungen] (ed. with Martina Steber) (2018); A Spatial History of Nazism [Der Nationalsozialismus] (2016). See also his article ‘“The West”: A Conceptual Exploration’, European History Online (2011), URL: