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Audio Guide: The Next Page - Transcripts

Welcome to the UN Library and Archives Geneva's Audio Research Guide! Here you'll find episodes from our own podcast, The Next Page, as well as podcasts and audio from or on the UN system and multilateralism.

Episide 51 - Professor Alanna O'Malley

by Katrine Knudsen on 2021-05-13T09:00:00+02:00 in Development, United Nations, League of Nations | Comments

Amy Smith: hello and welcome to The Next page. It's the podcast of the Library & Archives here at UN Geneva and I'm here with Alanna O'Malley, chair of the United Nations Study in Peace and Justice at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Professor O'Malley, welcome to The Next Page. 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. 

Amy Smith: You're welcome. You know, you may be new to The Next Page, but I understand that you are no stranger to the library. 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: Yeah, I had the pleasure of being at the library for my research, for my first book, which is on the UN in the Congo crisis in the 60s. And yeah, I mean I had a fantastic experience researching and working with your librarians, just really having a wonderful time in your making facility and also discovering so many UN files and documents that I was using for my research. So, it was a very fruitful time. 

Amy Smith: Thank you, we love having researchers here with us, and so you are a historian and an expert in international relations. So, tell us a bit more about yourself and what led you into this field. 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: Yeah, so thanks a lot I'm so yeah, I'm a historian and I did my PHD in Florence at the European University and after that, I became a Professor in History. What I'm interested in primarily is the history of the United Nations and something I've always been fascinated by. And to a large extent why I found it kind of strange when I set out to do my PHD which was as I mentioned about the Congo crisis in the 60s was that we don't have a lot of big histories of the UN. It's rather an institution that arises when people look at various themes or crises or geopolitical issues, but we don't really have many histories of the UN itself in the kind of standard historiography. So, in recent years we've had a real surge of scholarship in this area and in international institutions in general, I mean if we think about Susan Peterson’s book on the League of Nations and then Mark Mazower and Paul Kennedy who wrote their books about the United Nations. Then there's more and more interest. And so I think I really became part of that emerging scholarship when I was doing my PHD, and then we decided to take the question forward and you know, being at Leiden University with a great opportunity to do that because of course Leiden is also based in The Hague, which is a UN city, the city of Peace and Justice. So, for me, I was very fortunate to be able to acquire special Professorship in UN studies in peace and justice a couple of years ago which was created in the city of The Hague at Leiden University. And so that's been a wonderful opportunity to think more broadly about the UN and its history and its past. The present and future and try to generate a wider network of interdisciplinary scholarship around this issue.  

Amy Smith: This is really interesting, so I understood that this special appointment to the chair is a position between the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University, Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs, and the Faculty of Governance, Law and Safety at The Hague University. So, it really is in between two, but I was interested also to read that along time aim of the chair is to change perceptions about the UN and to make the work of the UN more visible and relevant to the general public. What do you find are some of the challenges with that? 

Professor Alanna O'Malley:  Yeah, so when I acquired a chair and then we were thinking about the research agenda, we wanted to open up questions that were interesting for scholarship, of course, for historians and international relations scholars, but also for the general public because a lot of the kind of emphasis of setting up a special chair was also to think about how to translate academic knowledge into something a bit more interesting, intangible, you know, for the general audience, and also because it was going to be the UN's 75th anniversary, which of course was last October in 2020. And we were thinking about that from the beginning. 

So, we decided to try to think about the way people perceive the UN. What are the common conceptions and perhaps misconceptions about the UN and what it does? And how could we change those. So, two kinds of things that we focused on, you know, with the way its kind of thematic connection to try to connect the different research projects under the chair was to introduce people to this idea that the UN is more than the Security Council, which I think if you are familiar with the UN, of course you know this, nut if you look at any common media, newspapers or TV or Twitter and it's always the great powers relationship and the Security Council that gets the focus, but we wanted to highlight what the UN does really, really well in terms of economic and social development. And so, we started to talk about how to shift the perception from just one organ of the UN to a more holistic overview of what the UN does and then the pandemic kind of gave us a boost with that, because certainly the World Health Organisation was in the news every day and there was a lot more interest and a lot more attention towards the UN's work in international health and, of course, then economic and social development. So that was one of the big things that we wanted to tackle.  

I suppose the second issue that really confronted us was how do we get young people interested in this question? Because of course you know we're working with university students all the time, but we also wanted to think about reaching constituencies of people who we did not normally get a chance to talk to or who perhaps, you know, wouldn't really have learnt so much about the UN in school or would not confront the UN on a daily basis. And so, we set up a classroom (..) a school programme working with teenagers in The Hague, where they come to the University once a week and they get introduced to the UN and we do lots of games and activities with them to ask them to ask them what they think of the UN and what does the UN mean for their future. And this is really important, and it actually connects quite well to the work with the UN, does itself, on the youth and the 2030 Agenda. And so, what I found was really fascinating about working with younger, younger students like that is that actually in many cases some of them had come as refugees or asylum seekers through the UN system, and some of them have come from UN refugee camps and had found asylum in the Netherlands and so they had very different impressions of what the UN is and some saw us, as in many cases, directly relevant and responsible to their personal security. And then others, second-generation immigrants, perhaps they had different impressions that the UN has helped their parents, but it wasn’t so present for them in their own family lives in The Hague right now. And so, working together with them has been really informative for me in what they think about what the UN is. And this voice of the youth that we talk about capturing all the time but actually what I found is that it's right there, we did not listen to them. 

Amy Smith: Yes, but it's often quite absent. I wanted to ask you know how this does (..) of course mentioned your TedTalk because you have done a TedTalk. I think it's called From Blue Helmets to Blue Skies, and we will be putting that in the resource link but this links up with your work on changing perceptions about the UN and getting information out to the public. But I wondered also how you find it as a is a historian combining this sort of role of advocacy almost for the UN with the critical work of a historian. How do you find this goes together? 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: Yeah, it is a really good question. So, for me, it's quite a natural relationship. So, I think that I find sometimes a lot of the debates about Charter review or the reform of the UN, it's a little bit hollow. Given that in my view we lack a full history of the UN's evolution, and our histories tend to be rather one-sided, and I'll talk a bit more about that in a minute when I mention my current research, so I think that in order to have really well-informed policy discussions about the UN, or in fact to enter into these dialogues about the future of the organisation we really have to have a clear understanding of its past and how the UN has changed over time. It hasn't just been the same organisation that we've had since 1945, which is one of the lines that so often is told about UN - well it has frozen since 1945. No, hasn't actually, it's a quite a different organisation and it is quite dynamic. And so, I think it's very important to actually infuse that public discussion with that critical history. And I would say that I do like to kind of work on this idea of changing public perception, and I would say that I suppose you could call me an advocate for the UN, but it's certainly not only one-sided right? I mean, I think if we're really going to address these fundamental problems with the UN that we have to be quite frank about the things that it hasn't performed well with. But we also have to change the conversation about the UN and that's really what I want to do is to get away from this tired narrative of success or failure, and rather look at the dynamism but also the paralysis of the organisation over time. 

Amy Smith: How interesting! So, I think that's a perfect introduction now into moving on a bit about to talk about a book that you co-edited with Simeon Jackson, who is the Director of the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham. And it's called The Institution of International Order. We have it in the library, and you delve in this book into recovering a fuller picture of the history of internationalism. But first of all, perhaps you could briefly define what you mean by internationalism, and particularly bring in the word “internationalisms” and so what do you mean about that? 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: Yeah, I'm so we had a very exciting conference at the European University in Florence in 2013 and that’s where this volume arose. And I say it was exciting because we brought together a lot of younger, early career researchers who were working on the League of Nations and UN but also on historians who perhaps didn’t traditionally talk about international institutions. And so, we started to think about internationalism and disconnection to liberal internationalism that so often presumed to be one and the same. And what we found in thinking about internationalism is that it's not just the conduct of the interests of states, it's not just a nation state’s mode of conduct, but rather that what emerged within that bracket was the whole formation of International Society. So, the evolution of norms and the development of institutions and practises and the kind of behaviour of states the management of interest, the role of non-state actors, the role of NGOs. And so, we started to see rather kind of a patchwork of really kind of quite different but also inherently connected actors and institutions emerging, as we talked about the League and the UN. These were not just in Geneva or in New York, but actually in every kind of distant places that we hadn't really considered as wellsprings of internationalism, but actually what we found in a lot of the papers and then subsequently in the volume that you know from Portugal to Brazil to the Middle East to Africa, we found internationalisms emerging. And what did we mean by this idea? Will I think what we're trying to get at is that there's a plurality of the ways in which international conduct evolves and you know some actors approach it in different ways and they obviously have different interests and different norms? It's not just a simple game of rule-following that all actors follow international rules in the same way, and what has been most kind of fascinating for us in that volume was looking at the ways in which these actors on a local level or on a national level, sought to re-interpret rules and principles of international order and the international system to their specific content. And what we saw then was coming back from these different regional spaces was different types of internationalism, and so we talked about Internationalism as a way to capture that. 

Amy Smith: It sounds like it was quite an exciting conference. and you throw it. I loved that you threw out a challenge to IR scholars in the book to provide a more I think you say granulized historicizing of how institutions work and how they affect change in broader cultures of the international. And I really did find that the book is an exploration of the League of Nations and the United Nations as dynamic forces, and you've mentioned this work dynamic a few times already. But could you say a bit more about these dynamic forces and how it's not just internationalism, just as you say, a product of what the UN did in New York or in Geneva, but how also the League of Nations and the UN affected change? 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: Yeah, so what we want to do with the volume as well was to trace the connections and the differences between the League and the UN. So, we wanted to bring together the two institutions not comparatively side by side, but rather think about them as spaces and vehicles, through which internationalism and internationalisms changed across the 20th century, and so in that way, see them as coming together, rather than always being separated quite deliberately. And we see that in the historiography quite a lot. There's this assumed break between, you know, the League being such a tragic failure and the UN coming in on the moment of the winning of the Second World War and the right to liberal internationalism, and so on and so forth. And we really wanted to problematise that because that's very much a kind of a linear narrative of the development of the international order. And so, we started to think about them as reflective spaces and spaces, in which different actors came in different moments with their various interests and their various aims. But we also started to think about the League and the UN as having forcefields of their own. So, one of the ways to think about this is, you know what happens to an idea when it comes into an international system, and you know, why do some ideas become legitimised? Another is rather delegitimized. The same goes for the actors and issues that are part of that system, and we start to think about how the normative environment was shifted. Not necessary just by the great powers and their politics, but by also other forces. And so that dynamism, we rooted in the organisations and in the platforms, they provided and the spaces. But I know, I was always kind of thinking as well along with Simon and we really worked around this question quite a lot when we first wee writing our introduction:  How to understand what the League and the UN are historically and what they what they do to ideas. So, what happens to actors ideas inside the system? So, we naturally turned towards international relations scholarship for thinking about the theory of institutions and we looked at the work of, of course, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and you know also, Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink and their famous article about norms and institutions and then a little bit further, you know to two others who were a lot more critical of institutions? And so, we really looked at these theories as a way to try to understand the historical process of what was going on at the League and the UN. And of course, we're not dear assists and we don't wish to produce a new theory of international organisations. So, what we call for in the volume was just a greater concern relationship between those two disciplines, in particular, the kind of historicizing, like a lot of the IR scholarship a little bit further. 

Amy Smith:  And you bring out to all of this in sort of three sections. One is that you've spoken about how norms were produced and but also about how expertise is developed and also how there was a global reordering or vampire, and I think you're probably referring to decolonisation and a move and the move to a world composed of nation-states with that. But would you like to share with us some of the wonderful examples of the different forces at play within some of these sections? 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: Yeah, I mean I should get more specific now because I've been talking in the abstract for quite a few minutes, so we brought together a lot of different scholars who worked on very different regions, and that's the real advantage of doing an edited volume, which is that you get to engage with experts from regional spaces that would be very difficult to put together in a book by even by two people. So, one of the really interesting chapters, to give an example, is from Jose Antonio Sanchez Romain. And he talks about the, you know, what happens to economic sovereignty in the norms of economic sovereignty. And this is actually long before the emergence of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is at the UN. And he really shows that in the 1920s and that you know that the League of Nations meetings in Geneva and Brussels and Barcelona, there are new connections made by talking about trade and shipping and international taxation, which really forms the basics and they kind of fundamental motivation, of course as well, for that crusade for economic sovereignty, which is so often connected to the 1960s and 1970s at the UN. So, thinking about the global reordering of nation-states and the transition to a world of nation-states one another chapter that's worth highlighting is that from Migiell Bandera, Geronimo and Jose Pedro Monteiro, and they're really looking at the impact of the League and the UN on the Portuguese Empire and that’s such an interesting question because I think the common perception is that because the Portuguese Empire survived for so long, but obviously the UN and the League had no influence in closing that Empire or encouraging quick end. But actually, what they show is that by focusing on labour ratings and the role of the International Labour Organisation as well, they show that there is really a politics that played out between the League and the UN on what happened inside the Portuguese Empire and the use different case studies to show that the ways in which legally the UN engage with the Portuguese Empire and the role of publicity and NGOs really forces Portugal to rethink and internally scrutinise the policies on forced Labour. And that's an incredibly, you know, new and incredibly important perspective which really shows that the influence as well of these organisations is very subtle sometimes, but very, very effective. I think it tells us a lot about the way that international institutions and the politics of those spaces can deeply impact how nation-states evolve and how, of course, the Imperial project was folded up. 

Amy Smith: Fascinating. Yes, it sounds like there's been a lot of uncovering, recovering of history, of stories and your current work is on invisible histories, it sounds absolutely intriguing. What histories are you researching? Why are they hidden? What's important for bringing these back to the light? 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: So, as we were doing this volume and we were kind of thinking more broadly about the role of these institutions in 20th-century history, it became very clear that we really lack a lot of perspectives of those institutions that are non-Western. So, this is kind of what I mentioned a little bit earlier on is that our histories of the UN and the League as well tend to be from a Western perspective, really focused on Western motivations and Western actor ISM based in Western archives. But, for me, then I was thinking a bit more about the history of the UN, then how can this be the case? If since 1962 thirds of the UN’s members are from the Global South? 

So, this really got me into the question of into why don't we have more non-Western histories of the UN or of issues at the UN and of the really big questions of the time, which were of course around decolonisation and economic sovereignty and human right. 

So, my new project, which is entitled Challenging the Liberal world order and the invisible history of the UN Global South, is trying to get at that problem and looking at firstly, what is the role of Global South actors overtime at the UN, and how has that history been rendered invisible by the historiography and in certain cases by the institution itself and so the project tries to understand the relationship between the Global South and when the UN. The UN really at moments facilitating the agency of Global Cyber actors, but also at other times inhibiting it. And consequences for the order between Global South actors, but also the international order more generally. That word, then invisible, doesn't mean that those histories aren't there. It simply means that there's been a process of invisiblization that has taken place and I'm really interested in an unravelling the contributions, the mirror contributions of Global South actors by tracing their agency at the UN over time.  And the project really kind of is focused on how the actor then uses that agency to challenge the liberal world order in to change it from within rather than just to be the recipient of that order, which is another kind of perspective that we have really developed over time. 

Amy Smith: Yeah, and of course some the Global South has been such a factor and the evolution of the international systems in the UN. And do you feel that this sort of covering of history, hiding of this is also part of the reason why the Global South still invisible today despite the changes brought about by decolonization? 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: Yeah, I think so. I think that we still, in thinking about the UN, even in a current sense, we still tend to anticipate in many cases that the Global South recipient of UN policy, the recipient of UN aid but after you know actually what I've seen just in starting the project and ready for a year is that the Global South are more active at the UN than Western countries. It’s actually Western countries that tried to inhibit and to prevent change because the UN system is set up in 45 to serve their interests and they don't really want it to change over time. But in fact, there is enormously fascinating examples of Global South agency, but also collaboration. So actors, even those who are not yet state actors, are collaborating in transnational networks, anti-Imperial, anti-colonial networks to remake this global order that is so inaccessible and if so, really it's not liberal, allows for them, it's not liberating. So there's a great project of resistance and of solidarity, but also of concrete order building that's going on by the Global South at this time, and I think that if we had a fuller grasp of that dynamic history, it tells us a lot about the UN, of course. But it also tells us a lot about the historic role of global science actors and the ways in which their agency has been both thwarted but also facilitated, and that's important in order to think about their role now in shaping the UN and shaping the global system. 

Amy Smith: Exactly and we're back to these dynamic forces at play now. So final thoughts from you and going back to the book on the Institution of International Order. I notice that the Associate Professor of History and the University of Albany State University at New York, Ryan Irvine suggests that your book answers the riddle: How did we get here? But we'd like to ask where are we going? And do you think that internationalism has a future? What's your hope around this? 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: I actually think that at the current moment of the pandemic highlights that the importance of internationalism, because anybody who had doubts about the efficacy and the importance of global governance until this year, I think it's very hard to argue now that we don't need global governance and we don't need the UN, because the challenge that we're facing is inherently global, it's not just international, its global because it's really kind of inherently connected to each other and how we manage the pandemic. So, I actually would feel quite positive about the opportunities that this might create. This crisis might lead to an opening of opportunities to really re-engage with the UN, and I also think that you know, as long as we have these very important conversations as scholars, but also as individuals about the role of the UN over time but also currently then it keeps the institution alive in our public consciousness and in our repertoires. And I think it can be done with that. So, you know, there’s still a real problem with the way that people perceive the organisation and that the organisation kind of in some ways portrayed itself. And I think that we need a closer engagement with the UN's successes and failures even after this moment of crisis, to really think about its future possibilities. And to me, that lies very much in producing a more full, more accurate and frankly more interesting history of the UN over time. 

Amy Smith: Well, this conversation has certainly been very interesting, so thank you very much, Professor Alanna O'Malley. Thank you for joining us. 

Professor Alanna O'Malley: Thank you for having me.


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