Theater on the Diplomatic Stage


A review of Theatre of State: the Performative Production of International Community, by James R. Ball III.

This study relies on performance studies to analyze global politics at the United Nations (UN), which — as James Ball, the author, puts it — “constitutes the material structure for the playing of diplomatic theatre” (p. 2). The crux of his work grapples with the question of how the identity of an international community is shaped and affected by the performative activities at the UN and its bodies — as well as related institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). He draws on Benedict Anderson’s groundbreaking work (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Revised edition. New York: Verso Book, 2006) to underline the importance of “physical performance and embodied practices” in the creation of a national community (p. 2). To ground the work’s core issues of nuclear nonproliferation, international justice and peacekeeping in the literature, Ball reviews a selection of international relations theory. With his discussion of these concepts — including Stephen Walt, Martha Finnemore, Kathryn Sikkink and Hedley Bull — he showcases the underdeveloped role of performance studies in the field and points to its untapped potential (pp. 5-9) (Stephen Walt. “International Relations: One World, Many Theories.” Foreign Policy, 1998, 29–46; Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International Organization 52, no. 04 (1998): 887–917; Hedley Bull. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. Columbia New York: University Press, 1995). The theoretical framework of his study draws on John Austin’s work on speech act theory, particularly five distinct classes of performative speech, consisting of commissives, verdictives, exercitives, behabitives and expositives (John Langshaw Austin. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975). The latter two classes occur widely in international relations and overlap with the former three classes — “Behabitives treat forms of performative speech that touch on formal social interaction” (p. 12), while expositives “are used in acts of exposition involving the expounding of views, the conducting of arguments, and the clarifying of usages and of references” (p. 13, citing Austin, p. 161). Ball therefore only divides his study into three different parts based on commissive, verdictive and exercitive acts to analyze various problems of international politics the UN faces in different contexts and situations. His work seeks to answer the question of why states perform. The author finds three main reasons: first, states use diplomatic performances at the UN to “enter into relationships with another;” second, states perform “to maintain a particular arrangement power;” and third, states perform “to disrupt existing arrangements of power” (pp. 23-24).

Part 1 of Ball’s study analyzes disarming performances as commissive acts, which “commit the speaker to a certain course of action” (p. 12, citing Austin p. 157). Empirically, the author draws on nuclear non-proliferation, especially the first special session of the General Assembly on disarmament to underwrite the power of nuclear arms. While the material deployment of nuclear weapons epitomizes the annihilation of human kind, they can nonetheless be used as a threat in negotiations at the UN in implicit and explicit speech acts by diplomats and politicians (pp. 31-32). Performance then becomes a tool to undermine the nuclear arms regime through counter performance with the speech act at the core of it (p. 37). The first special session on disarmament in 1978 serves as an example. Despite the initial exclusionary politics practiced by nation-states in possession of the atomic bomb during the debate, the UN eventually became the theatre for the Non-Aligned Movement to perform a response to the nuclear threat. The performance lasted only one month, but the resonance of the event was carried over into the 1980s (pp. 40-41). Referring to Jacques Rancière and Louis Althusser, the author then explores the link between participation and representation at the UN by focusing on the shifting power dynamics on the world stage (p. 43) (Jacques Rancière. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999; Louis Althusser. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001). The first special session on disarmament therefore illustrates that there is a “necessity that power perform and re-perform itself, so as to maintain its hold on the definition of consensus in each iteration, [which] makes power vulnerable to intervention by alternative organizations of the sensible world” (p. 50). Moreover, the UN cannot be seen as a singular theatre, but is the center of many performances that requires participants to make themselves available for “unexpected plays” ( p. 58). As Ball put it, “Theatre at the United Nations remains a tool to be employed in good faith, as a method of bringing parties into dialogue” (p. 61). With respect to the disarmament issue the theatrical ritual thus changed the terms of the debate because the final document helped create a voice for all UN members (p. 68). The author subsequently elaborates on Michael Frayn’s 1998 play Copenhagen, to emphasize the UN’s theatricality (pp. 73-98). Part 1 ends with a section on the 6191st meeting of the UN Security Council centered around a speech by Libyan head of state Muammar Qaddafi. The example illustrates the need of regularly re-performing theatrical performances to claim political participation (p. 104). In this context, Tracy Davis argues that the UN’s theatricality creates opportunities to act by increasing its visibility to a broader public. According to Ball’s analysis, however, the link between theatricality and performativity in diplomacy is more intricate, calling the UN a “theatre of performative utterances” (p. 105).

Whereas the previous part dealt with commissive performatives mainly at the Security Council, part 2 addresses legal performances as verdictive acts, which “consist in the delivering of a finding, official or unofficial, upon evidence or reasons as to value or fact” (p. 131, citing Austin p. 153). In addition to examining the role of the ICC in international relations, the author refers to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical The King and I and a MoMA performance about the military prison in Guantanamo Bay (pp. 127-138) (Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Six Plays of Rodgers and Hammerstein. New York: Modern Library, 1953 and Sabine Breitwieser and Jennifer Schlenzka. Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954–003064: A Public Reading. MoMA. Performed 2011). He emphasizes that trials are performative acts that advance norms on the international and national level. Moreover, these verdictives define the Court’s deterrent function to keep future perpetrators from committing human rights violations (pp. 132-134). While commissives are aimed at large communities, such as nation-states, the ICC “addresses individual perpetrators, victims, and witnesses from a global perspective and in so doing interpellates the global civil society it serves into its scene of justice” (p. 140). Citing William Schabas, Ball underlines the exceptional role of the ICC for the link between society and international law: “One of the great innovations in the Rome Statute is the place it creates for victims to participate … at any stage of the proceedings” (p. 148, citing Schabas, p. 328) (William Schabas. An Introduction to the International Criminal Court. Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2011). In this context, the author also analyzes the role of witnesses in international trials, concluding that the theatre scene between the perpetrator and victim — often times serving in the capacity as a witness — is deemphasized in the courtroom. These conditions result in “a procedural drama of writing and fixing an historical record” (p. 150). With the creation of history in the hands of the participating parties, Jacques Derrida explains how words such as “crimes against humanity” are the product of the international community, referring to events such as the Nuremberg trials. Ball argues even further that “whatever might be identified as an international community exists only in such performative gestures” (p. 153, citing Derrida, p. 29) (Jacques Derrida. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. London: Routledge, 2001). The disruption or creation of a community hinges upon emitting and receiving information to communicate. Due to the international nature of the human rights trials at the ICC, the Court relies heavily on translations. The importance of translation services in the courtroom does not escape Ball, as he notes:

“The act of translation holds in it both the moment of doubt that could disrupt clear commitments … and the requirement for a radical faith … to traverse that doubt. Translation holds a privileged place for the establishment of an equitable international community and international politics” (p. 162).

Getting a message across, however, does not necessarily always occur inside the Court’s walls. Protests and collective action at the Court’s doorsteps, for instance, shows how performance activism outside the courtroom can draw attention to other problem situations and potential cases for the ICC (pp. 170-174). The author concludes this part with a dichotomous observation. Comparing the performatives at the Court to a TV series called Battlestar Galactica, he argues that the ICC’s optimism can end in sentimental corniness or possible limits. The notion of forgiveness especially highlights this conundrum, because it “is most impossible in the place where a liberal internationalist conscience might most want it: in international criminal tribunals” (p. 182) (Mark Verheiden. Battlestar Galactica. Universal City, CA: Universal Studies Home Entertainment, 2008).

To complement the commissives and verdictives, part 3 examines peacekeeping performances as exercitive acts, which is “the giving of a decision in favour of or against a certain course of action, or advocacy of it” (p. 200, citing Austin, p. 151). For his analysis of several peacekeeping operations, Ball draws on a couple of plays. As a case in point, Karen Sunde’s In a Kingdom by the Sea is used in conjunction with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFL) and Lynn Nottage’s Ruined focuses on the issue of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (p. 192-193). Employing these theatrical works, Ball shines light on a number of different issues in peacekeeping operations, including the failure of a mandate, the impact of observation missions, the lessons learned from interventions, the power to reform entire societies and the question of wide-ranging applicability of UN missions. Indeed, there are many peacekeeping failures and “success was an exception” (p. 195, citing Sitkowski, p. 1) (Andrzej Sitkowski. UN Peacekeeping: Myth and Reality. Westport, CN: Praeger Security International, 2006). But even if a UN peacekeeping mission is successful, “there remains the possibility for the performative disappointment of the audience placing its hope in that mission” (p. 199). Local hopes and expectations are not always met, especially when peacekeeping missions promote a certain production of knowledge as well as a specific social and economic organization that goes with it. Notwithstanding, Ball criticizes François Debrix’s democratic liberalism argument about the ideological manipulation power of peacekeeping missions as too simplistic (p. 203) (François Debrix. Re-Envisioning Peacekeeping: The United Nations and the Mobilization of Ideology. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). Instead, he advocates for “peacekeeping as a practice of spatialization” (p. 207). In other words, he looks at the link between performance and space. Here his argument relies on work by Paul Henry and Marsha Higate, who discuss for instance the role of peacekeeping in Haiti, where the mission “performatively produces security and insecurity via processes of naming” (p. 206) (Paul Higate and Marsha Henry. Insecure Spaces: Peacekeeping, Power and Performance in Haiti, Kosovo and Liberia. London: Zed Books, 2009). When it comes to observation missions, Ball notes that from a performance studies perspectives, the peacekeepers engage in a form of spectatorship. The premise of these UN missions is based on the idea that a comprehensive understanding of the international community about a conflict enhances the chances for sustainable peace. Yet, these mechanisms are anything but stable and predictable (pp. 220-221). Furthermore, “Peacekeeping ultimately produces knowledge about the other without capturing the knowledge of the other” (p. 224). Ironically, some of the UN missions become a veritable mission civilisatrice, such as the UNIFL that deployed Ghanian forces to keep them from overthrowing the government in their home country. The case of Fiji, on the contrary, casts a serious doubt on the pedagogical value of training domestic soldiers in international peacekeeping missions. Upon the Fiji peacekeepers’ return at home, they staged a coup d’etat that shook the country (p. 231). As a result, Ball views peacekeeping as a “machine combining forms of spectatorship and pedagogy in order to exert a governmentalizing force – to regulate bodies and souls, flows and circulations – in specific territories and on specific populations” (p. 233). While this form of high modernism is questionable in his eyes, he nonetheless does not argue “for the abandonment of peacekeeping as a mechanism, but rather to recognize where the project of performatively producing international community reaches a limit that requires more thought and less action” (p. 245).

The author concludes his study with Colin Powell’s address at the UN Security Council for a military intervention in Iraq. He describes the value of performance studies for analyzing international politics as follows:

“I knew that theatre was not just a synonym for dissembling, but that it offered a process by which the contentions of cultural and national others could be staged in view of an audience, and in their encounter begin to find common ground” (p. 250).

In the end, for Ball the diplomatic performatives at the UN do not have to live up to a new “Vatican on the East River” (p. 269). Rather, he argues, the UN theatre illustrates how an international community is a dynamic force that is constantly reshaped and molded by the performative activities of its members across the bodies and regimes that comprise the international system. Ball therefore successfully integrates performance studies within the field of international relations and points to the crucial role theatre studies play in order to understand intrinsic problems in international politics.

Arnaud Kurze, PhD
Visiting Scholar
Center for Global Studies, George Mason University

Primary Sources
United Nations Archives

Plays and Performances, including among others:
Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954–003064: A Public Reading. Sabine Breitwieser and Jennifer Schlenzka. MoMA. Performed 2011.
Ruined. Lynn Nottage. Manhattan Theatre Club. Performed 2009.

Films and TV series, including among others:
Battlestar Galactica. Mark Verheiden. 2008.
Copenhagen. BBC Film. 2002.

Trial hearings at the International Criminal Court, including:
The Case of the Prosecutor v. Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo
The Case of the Prosecutor v. Katanga and Ngudjolo

Interviews with staff at the International Criminal Court

Dissertation Information
New York University. 2012. 290 pp. Primary Advisor: Karen Shimakawa.

Image: Photograph by the author of the United Nations Headquarters in New York and the “Non-Violence” statue by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd.

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