Universiteit Leiden

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Political Science Lunch Research Seminar: Britain and the Renegotiation of the Cold War Pecking Order in the Helsinki CSCE

Wednesday 30 May 2018
Pieter de la Court
Wassenaarseweg 52
2333 AK Leiden
Political Science Lunch Research Seminar

Drawing on novel evidence and new developments in power analysis, this paper re- examines the key theme of UK foreign policy since WWII – the decline of British power. It focuses on major diplomatic processes during the time period that is universally understood as the nadir of London’s power and prestige – the era of Cold War détente in the 1970s. Its main argument is that the multilateralisation of the Cold War in that decade prompted a ‘comeback’ for UK diplomacy despite the country’s ongoing material decline. Both Britain’s standing in the ‘pecking order’ (Vincent Pouliot) of the Cold War and its influence over key diplomatic processes in East-West politics increased while its material resources continued to wane. The paper explains this dynamic with reference to the generative force of multilateral diplomacy. Multilateral frameworks are not simply ‘neutral’ spaces in which pre-existing power dynamics play out, dictating outcomes that reflect the exogenous distribution of power. Rather, they generate idiosyncratic group dynamics and hierarchies of standing that are at least partly autonomous from wider power dynamics in international society. Consequently, it makes little sense to speak of the ‘decline’ of British power in the decontextualized way that is common among scholars and practitioners alike. The paper empirically substantiates these claims with an analysis of Britain’s role in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the key multilateral process of the détente era. Over the course of almost three years of negotiations (1972-1975), the British rose in the diplomatic ‘pecking order’ of the CSCE and played a significant part in the bargaining that produced the Helsinki Accords. In the words of eyewitnesses, the British turned from marginalized ‘lepers of détente’ into ‘fathers of the Final Act’. The paper concludes by fleshing out the wider theoretical implications of its argumentation. It calls on scholars to abandon the dominant nomothetic conception of power in favour of a context-sensitive alternative that understands power as a localized relationship that is generated in and through diplomatic practice at specific sites.

About the speaker

Kai Hebel (DPhil,  Oxford University) is Assistant Professor of International Relations. Dr. Hebel’s research interests include international security, diplomacy, international history, cultural studies and IR theory. He has published on a wide range of topics, including military intervention, the Cold War, transatlantic relations, EU foreign policy, US political culture, systems theory, simulation pedagogy and the cultural representation of evil. Dr. Hebel is currently writing a book on the diplomatic management of intractable inter-state conflict, which is based on extensive interviews and archival research conducted on three continents. He studied Political Science, International Relations, Peace & Conflict Studies and Cultural Studies at the University of California – Berkeley, Philipps-Universität Marburg, Université de Paris – Sorbonne, United Nations University – Tokyo and Oxford University, earning three master's and a doctoral degree.

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