IR Professor Interview Series: Faye Donnelly

For the second instalment of our IR Professor interview series, the FAR’s Elizabeth Mastoris sat down with Lecturer Faye Donnelly.


FAR: Good evening, Dr Donnelly could you start by telling the readers of the Foreign Affairs Review a bit about yourself and your role in the department of International Relations?

FD: I’m a temporary lecturer here at the school. My main research area, I suppose, would be broadly defined as critical security studies, but within that, I look in particular at the role of language, and my research is starting to move towards visual security issues as well – how flags speak security or how art may be part of international relations.

FAR: How does critical security studies differ from more traditional forms of security studies?

FD: Yeah, that’s a big question. It was a big debate especially in the late 1980s and from there it has just sort of grown in strength. The difference really would be this idea that firstly, the state may not be the most important actor and second of all, that we can’t determine what’s going to happen so we can’t hypothesise or predict what’s going to happen. It’s a… different way of thinking about how security is made and re-made through interactions. Language is a very important tool in how security is constructed. I think the idea of emblems and images interacting with language are important, so it’s part of a context in which agents are acting.

FAR: Are there any particular examples you focus on in your own research when it comes to language or certain symbols?

FD: I’ve just finished a piece looking at flags in Northern Ireland so the rioting that took place in December 2012. There I’m trying to highlight why the removal of the flag as well as the presence of a flag was very contentious, but also to highlight that just because it’s contentious doesn’t mean it has to be conflictual… so that’s somewhere I’m looking at, again, the sort of narrative around a particular emblem, there being the flag. I think you can see language games all the time to be perfectly honest… you can pick up a newspaper and… see different parties interacting with each other or speaking security to each other in different kind of ways. I think the Syrian case is very interesting… I’d argue that the ‘red line’ is a language game. So, the construction of a ‘red line’, the inclusion of that within the discourse sort of sets a different sphere of action in place… I would argue originally when Obama made the ‘red line’ comment he didn’t necessarily mean for it to be such a benchmark that it then became.

FAR: Would you say that there are language games pertaining to the Iranian nuclear issue that, and that these are more likely to make Iran more cooperative or make concessions…?

FD: They’re attaching the idea that we have a new leader with the idea that we can have automatic change. The diplomatic moves that have been made around Iran at the moment has been very interesting… I think the interesting thing here is also Israel’s position so in terms of language they’ve argued that it is just a speech act that this is just cheap talk, right that… it’s basically a lie… So here again we can see different agents are speaking security in different kinds of ways and by doing so they’re creating a context in which different kinds of moves become more possible or less possible.

FAR: To focus a bit on Syria… what kind of security issues do you see developing in that area…what do you think of the Western role in Syria?

FD: I think there’s a danger in how we conceptualise Syria and we tend to focus on the chemical weapons as this big red line and for me… one of the things that always hits me when I think about Syria is this mass humanitarian issue that surrounds it… We’re a long time into the conflict now, and those people, while we’re waiting for Syria to decommission [their chemical weapons], are living in a very serious security situation, and they’re in a very sort of vulnerable position… I think we have to be very careful because it’s so multi-layered that we don’t overlook certain issues at the expense of others… Another big security concern for me would be the role of humanitarian organisations and also the ICRC and them being kidnapped a few weeks ago… and also for the people who are undertaking the weapons inspections. I applaud [Obama] for trying to use diplomacy. I suppose my critique would be of what’s happening in the interim.

FAR: Shifting gears for the conclusion, have you read any good books that you could recommend for students?

FD: I think one of the best books I’ve read recently was Simon Dalby’s book… Environment and Security and I think it’s an excellent book for a number of reasonsthe first that’s he’s trying to widen and deepen what security means. I think he also refrains discussion away from the idea that the environment is just climate change.

FAR: Is that one of the major new trends in security studies… qualifying what happens with the climate and how that’s going to lead to issues in the future?

FD: I think one of the paradoxes within the environment is that we all know it’s a problem but we’re not really willing to do anything to fix it… Yes, we have a security threat and we need to manage it, but at the same time there’s not the same sort of mobilisation as there might be around other security priorities… I wonder how if we were to try to take the environment seriously, how that would make us really reframe what we think security is and where we’d put our money, because I think all security policies even in relation to Syria or the Middle East or anywhere in the world are being run on an economic calculus. That’s a lot more overtly present in most foreign policies than it would have been maybe a decade or so ago. So I think to really make environmental security work wouldn’t just be about changing our language or changing our policies, it would also be sort of rethinking the economics behind that.

A very interesting thing that I think is going to happen if Scotland was to become independent is that I think environment might become a lot more of a bigger issue in terms of how it would frame its security agenda. In particular I think the issue of who has control of the oil would be very important. And I also think that there’s also the island versus mainland distinction in Scotland that’s not really… impacting on the discussion so the Shetlands are saying that if Scotland was to become independent well, they might like to get greater devolution. Here, the geographics would start to come into play, so I think that’s where Dalby’s book is very important… he really highlights that it’s not just the climate, that the environment could simply be the space that we’re in.

FAR: Well thank you so much for talking with the Foreign Affairs Review we really appreciate your time.

FD: Thank you very much, and I just want to say I think this is a great project and I’m very excited that students are so engaged in current affairs. Keep up the great work.

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