Crisis and Response: State Performance in Times of Crises

Top Norwegian political scientist and social anthropologist, Professor Iver B. Neumann, returns to Webster Vienna Private University this fall for a series of private and public lectures focused on trending international relations topics.

In addition to teaching select courses, students and attendees of his lectures, Professor Neumann shared his views on:

Crisis and Response: State Performance in Times of Crises

In International Relations literature, we usually assume that a crisis emerges as a task to be solved by an actor, often the state. The flip side of this is that we stress how the state is expected to solve a crisis. The most famous example of this may be German inter-war lawyer Carl Schmitt’s dictum that he is sovereign who decides over the exception; in other words, that the sovereign state’s very existence hangs on being able to act efficiently in a crisis.

In this lecture, which builds on research that I have been doing jointly with my colleague Ole Jacob Sending, I will try to specify the insight that there is somehow ‘something in it’ for the state when there is a crisis to be solved. Different parts of the state will think differently about the opportunities on offer, and they will perform differently, with different goals in mind. Building on interviews in a state apparatus that we have both worked in, namely the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), we ask, first, how diplomats think about crises.

It turns out that they operate with three different kinds of crises: sovereign, humanitarian and civilian (that is, crises where Norwegian citizens are missing or find themselves in intolerable situations abroad). Furthermore, the MFA has organized itself in three rather different ways in order to deal with these three different kinds of crises. Put technically, there exist three distinct repertoires of practices, developed over time, for handling three different kinds of crises.

In the case of civilian crises, this narrative is squarely centered on moving citizens from the outside of the state to the inside of the state. A minimal version of this narrative is to lend money to the citizens so that they may buy airline tickets to get home. A maximum version may involve the use of coercive power to apprehend nationals abroad and repatriate them under armed guard. Either way, what we may call the state’s performance during crisis culminates not with the enhanced well-being of the citizens in question as such, but with their return to Norwegian territory; the story ends with a plane's touch-down on a Norwegian airport (and perhaps a reuniting with family and friends).

In the case of humanitarian crises, the narrative is about performing international good citizenship and defining the meaning of statehood in terms of benevolence also for distant strangers. Finally, regarding security crises, the leeway for state performance is maximum, allowing for a broad range of configurations between acting on the crisis, on the one hand, and giving meaning to and performing identity, on the other. This, we hypothesize, is because the narrative is grander – organized around sovereignty. The lecture goes into some detail about what this hierarchy of crises tells us about what it means to perform the state so that different audiences – the citizenry at large, groups of citizens, other states, international organizations – confirm the state in question as a serious actor and a sovereign power.

More about author

Professor Iver B. Neumann is Director of NOVA and an adjunct professor of the Museum of Cultural History, Oslo University. From 2012-2017, he was the Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Amongst his twenty books is, with Einar Wigen, the Steppe Tradition in International relations: Russians, Turks and European State Building 4000 BCE-2018 CE (Cambridge University Press, 2018). From 1 January 2020, Neumann will be director of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway. 

This feature lecture will be a part of the undergraduate Introduction to International Relations course that will be taught by Professor Neumann in the 2019/2020 academic year.

Additionally, Prof. Neumann will present his research at the International Relations and Politics Research Seminar Series on September 11: What does a state see as a crisis and how does it turn one to its advantage?