Simon Reid-Henry: Global Science, Development Ethics, Humanitarianism, Guantanamo

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Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (December 2012) Tags: Global Science Development Ethics Humanitarianism Guantanamo Public Memory Cuba National Security Archive

Simon Reid-Henry

Simon Reid-Henry

Simon Reid-Henry is Reader in Geography at Queen Mary, University of London and a Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo.

He obtained his BA and PhD in Geography from the University of Cambridge. Since 2004 he has taught at Queen Mary, University of London, where in 2009 he was the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Global Security and Development.

His teaching and research have engaged with issues of global science and public health (such as his final-year undergraduate course “The Geography of HIV/AIDS: Science, Politics and Inequality” and the book “The Cuban Cure: Reason and Resistance in Global Science”) and Cold War and post-Cold War geopolitics (including another final-year course, “Geopolitics Post 9/11: War, Security and Economy” and a forthcoming book on democracy and capitalism in the Post-Cold War era).

Please have a look at this page for more information about his work:

University page of Simon Reid-Henry

The ‘Geopolitical Passport’ series offers visitors to ExploringGeopolitics a unique opportunity to find out more about the enormous variety of views within the geopolitical traditions. The floor has been given to scholars from several countries and various disciplines. The questions address issues all people with an interest in geopolitics grapple with. How should we define it? What are the most fascinating geopolitical ideas? And how will the geopolitical future look like?

Your relationship with geopolitics

At what age did you discover geopolitics and what attracted you to it?

Like most of the things I end up devoting a good deal of time to, I came to geopolitics late and by a somewhat roundabout route.

I studied geography as an undergraduate but I can’t say that geopolitics as such really came onto my radar then. It was not until I was carrying out graduate research in Cuba, and I got a sense of what an embargo means, of what the Cold War meant (and still means) in different parts of the world, and of how different ideologies construct vastly different worlds that it hit me.

The significance of problematising the geographical logics deployed to ensure that some visions of the world overwrite others hit me at about the same time.

Which geopolitical topics have your focus and why did you choose especially these?

In terms of geopolitics, my research to date has focused on a number of related issues:

First, Geopolitics and Science: the pricing barriers to the benefits of the medical sciences ensure that advancements in our basic knowledge of living processes are monopolised for the benefit of the few. The global disparity in life chances this contributes to strikes me as a fundamental injustice that needs studying and rectifying.

I find the work (and practice) of Thomas Pogge inspiring in this regard and in my current work, I am trying to address some of these relationships between right and might from a geographical point of view. At present I am particularly interested in the struggles being waged over pharmaceutical production in India: something that brings not only big pharma but the EU into play as well.

Second, Geopolitics and Development: the practice of development is one of the most intriguing ways in which geopolitical issues are engaged with today, I think. There is an overt dimension to this, as in the security-development nexus. But I am probably most interested in the less readily acknowledged ways that geopolitical claims are raised and contested in the process of ‘doing development’.

As part of this I am trying at the moment to construct a genealogy of dominant understandings of ‘global poverty’, in part so as to problematise some of these claims, but also to make space for alternative approaches that may have more to do with what, in the 19th century west, would more likely have been discussed as part of ‘the social question’.

Third, Geopolitics and Humanitarianism: I am also interested in studying what we take to be our progressive contributions to the relationships between different people in different places. In particular I am interested here in the way that the contemporary humanitarian system articulates certain (always geographically enframed) ethical imperatives alongside the political realities of the international state system (and such underlying norms as the doctrine of sovereignty). I would rather live in a world with humanitarianism than without it, but I think we also need to be clear-headed about what is at play in humanitarian interventions.

What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics?

Without a doubt my teaching of it: I have otherwise been much more a consumer than a producer of geopolitical argument. By way of addressing that, I’m currently working on a book that seeks to get to grips with the way that our post-Cold War world has been shaped by the relationship between liberal democracy and capitalism. In the meantime I hope that my earlier book on Cuban science found a way to open up some questions about the geopolitics of knowledge production: not just discourses but factual knowledge too.

As is apparent from a book like “The Social History of the Modern Fact” by Mary Poovey, not to mention the work of geographers like David Livingstone, geography has always been central to what is taken as ‘truth’ in sciences of wealth and society. The same is true of global science today, though we have to remove our geopolitical blinkers to see it. I hope that some of my articles likewise broaden the range of things we might consider as relevant to geopolitics.

Your geopolitical preferences

What is your favourite definition of geopolitics?

I always use Gerry Kearns’ “The geopolitical gaze is never innocent: it is always a wish posing as an analysis” in my teaching, because it is short and, as ever with Gerry, cuts to the point.

But really I don’t think it’s something that reduces to a single definition. In any case, since you have most of the sensible candidates already, perhaps you’ll allow me to turn the question around: what comes after the definition? What do we do with it? This is by no means straightforward, and I have only groped – often ungainly – towards an answer in my own work.

Nonetheless, I find it helpful in doing so to remember what Gramsci said: that we should “live without illusions [but] without being disillusioned” (or something to that effect). The study of geopolitics, if it is to add more than just critique, ought to sit around about here. I think recent work in progressive and pacific geopolitics is taking us in important directions here.

Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most?

I’m not sure I’d call those whose work I admire ‘geopolitical scientists’, but we all owe a huge debt to the founders of critical geopolitics: Gerard Toal, Simon Dalby and others.

I also admire Gerry Kearns work: he was my PhD supervisor. In Kearns’ work, from his recent Geopolitics and Empire, to the many articles he has written on the subject, there is a trademark use of historical geographical critique as the means to prise alternative truths from out of the assumptions of contemporary discourse.

There is a clear normative sense to this work, then, as with his consideration of the ideas of 19th century geographer and ‘anarchist prince’ Petr Kropotkin. Kropotkin’s ideas on Mutual Aid offer a very different model of social relations that the past century of geopoliticians might have looked to in place of the social Darwinism still beloved of foreign policy hawks the world over. The survival of the fittest is far from the only available model for international relations.

What is your favourite geopolitical book?

The immediate and I see rather popular – how unoriginal of me – response to this would be Derek Gregory’s “The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq” in my case for the way that it demonstrates how the making (and breaking) of geographies is central to the realisation of geopolitical wishes.

In many ways it excels at what the late Neil Smith pointed out: that “reconceiving the geography inherent in the history but hidden in the historical narrative irrevocably transforms the history itself.” There’s as good a rule of thumb for geographically-informed historical research as you could hope for.

But let me find something else that you don’t have listed multiple times already. As a rule, I have a weakness for interdisciplinary works, or those connecting the on-the-ground experiences of actual people to the bigger picture, so Mike Davis’ “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World”, would be a strong candidate here. It combines environmental history, political economy and the historical geography of colonialism in a way that offers a standing rebuke to the broad-brush environmental determinism of writers like Jared Diamond and David Landes.

A similarly impressive work, only this time combining anthropology with history, would be Sidney Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History”. It offers an illuminating study of the complex economic and geopolitical vortices that can be drawn into play around even something so simple as the sugar in our bowl.

Geopolitics isn’t just about politics with a capital ‘P’.

What is your favourite geopolitical website?

Two immediate answers come to mind.

First is this interactive timeline of events at Guantanamo Bay, put together by one of my former students:


In conjunction with other projects (such as the Guantanamo Public Memory site hosted at Columbia) this is doing important work bearing witness: another issue, from my work on humanitarianism and development ethics that I am particularly interested in.

Guantanamo Public Memory site

Second, the National Security Archive at George Washington University (also a real, physical, get-your-hands-dirty archive):

National Security Archive

I found both invaluable when trying to track the movements of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara around the world for my book about their relationship and in particular in trying to put together how each was drawn in different directions within the socialist camp.

With its active FOIA policy, the NSA puts much of the history of Cold War geopolitical art – especially the bits that its practitioners chose not to let you see – at your fingertips. Thoroughly recommended, and would that we had something similar in Britain (the thought has occurred to me, actually).

The geopolitical future

In what direction(s) will geopolitical science be heading the coming decades?

I hope in ways that will genuinely surprise us. I hope also that critical scholars of geopolitics will take on some of the more popular (I’m tempted to say populist) renderings of our world’s problems out there (Robert Kaplan you know who you are). There are pitfalls here, but what is sometimes a rather conservative intellectual mainstream oughtn’t to go unchallenged.

As for topics, one can only sensibly surmise on the basis of what we already see. Inequality is clearly becoming more and more important as a language for addressing injustice on the global, and not just national, scale. But there is a danger that this gets left to those interested in economics primarily. I’m writing something at present provisionally entitled “The Poverty of Elsewhere” that tries to explore the politics, and geopolitics, of inequality at the global scale in an effort to avoid this.

I also think the (geo)politics of climate change (as opposed to the facts of climate change) are going to be more and more central to public and intellectual discourse: Naomi Klein’s next book is on just this, rumour has it. And this is clearly going to intersect with the geopolitics of security and fear. This will involve not just empirical analysis and debate but normative debate too: since as Judith Shklar would say, while fear itself may be dangerous, so too is the absence of fear (or complacency, we might say). Not an easy conundrum that.

At the other end of the scale, I think the changing relationship between states and citizens is going to play out in increasingly cross-scale ways. This needn’t be so black and white as the end of the nation state (not those debates again). But it will mean that certain of the solutions that are found to problems like climate change (pooled sovereignty, say) will involve rethinking the state end of the social contract, while the differences in individual vulnerabilities and capabilities in light of those same basic geopolitical challenges will challenge things from the citizens’ end.

Which geopolitical subject has been too little in the spotlight and needs further research?

I think our vocabulary for talking about democracy, and in particular the relationship between liberal democracy and capitalism, is going to need to be renewed. At present there is some fascinating work going on in this regard from within history and political science. But I think that geographers have much to contribute here too.

What will be the largest geopolitical challenge for the world in the 21st century?

There are so many issues, in fact, that focusing on what really matters and generating the political will to address it would seem to be the major challenge to me. That isn’t always an appropriate task for the scholar but, when it is, critical and effective argument is essential (not just data and research dissemination). More practically it means finding ways to build justice and fairness ‘into’ our solutions to some of the international problems we confront as a single humanity: be it the ongoing urbanization of the world, the uneven impact of climate change, or issues like international migration.

Our political inability to seriously debate these issues internationally, let alone negotiate on them is perhaps the greatest present threat to a humanity worth calling our own. We should not still have to go without binding weapons control, for example. Yet the recent treaty talks in New York were a fiasco (as were the climate talks at Copenhagen for that matter, and let’s not even get started on Gleneagles). The Norwegian (former) Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store recently speculated whether there are too many such international meetings. On some levels he is right. Good governance is all well and good. What is really needed today is good judgment.

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