Representants and International Orders

Alena Drieschova (Postdoc Research Fellow)

How does material culture shape international political dynamics in long-term trends? Can architectural and artistic styles, weapons technologies, dress codes, ceremonial objects and ritual practices influence how international politics is being conducted? I focus on representants – how they affect elites’ and publics’ understandings of which political entities exist in international relations, and how much power these entities hold. The state, the European Union, or the papacy, to name a few examples, are vast units that no individual can experience in their entirety. Yet, most people have a shared sense of what these entities look like. This shared sense, I argue, is the result of representants.

Representants are those practices, artifacts, and language that make present ‘what is not immediately given in a situation’ (Bueger 2013: 340). The gothic cathedral represents the Church, the palace of Versailles absolutist French monarchy, diplomats their states in negotiations, and Cartesian maps the territorial state. Representants stand in for an entity as a whole when that entity can otherwise not be present in its entirety. Representants are crucial in international relations, given that the localities in which international relations take shape (the UN General Assembly, the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Münster and Osnabrück during the Peace of Westphalia, etc.) are to some extent removed from the domestic realm, and that international relations by their very nature deal with a macro realm that can never be fully present. The United States can never be fully present at a negotiation. It needs to be represented. How it is represented matters for international politics.

Representants define how statesmen and diplomats see the world, what they know about the world, and what they think they have to govern. Representants establish collective societal understandings. International order cannot exist without representants. When competing representants emerge, orders are in crisis. How political rule is represented – how rulers stage themselves in ceremonies, artifacts, diplomatic and warfare practices, and texts – explains the dynamics of international order: how political orders reproduce themselves and how they change.

Representants have four interrelated effects: First, they establish shared understandings of what kinds of entities exist in international politics, and what they look like. Second, by doing so they legitimize those international actors. Third, representants endow these actors with differential degrees of power. Fourth, representants are tools with the help of which those actors order and govern their relations. The international order changes if the representants change because the individuals acting in the international sphere will then see and know the world differently and they will have different tools at their disposal to order it.

In the High Middle Ages, there was in Europe a very hierarchical international order with the Pope and/or the Emperor at the top (Bosbach 1988). Specific representants, notably gothic cathedrals, Christian liturgy, and imperial ceremonial maintained this order. The coronation ritual played a special role. Thanks to the coronation, kings could distinguish themselves from other feudal lords (Reynolds 1997: 259–266). Simultaneously they required the pope and/or the emperor’s benediction to perform the act, which ensured the pope’s and the emperor’s position at the top of the hierarchy. With technological progress, and a monetization of the economy, travel increased, direct contact between rulers intensified, the material power basis of rulers grew, and the reach of their power extended. While the Pope and the Emperor sought to further enhance their standing, kings became increasingly less willing to accept papal and imperial superiority. Yet, kings still required the pope’s and/or the emperor’s benediction to distinguish themselves from other feudal lords. Kings sought to modify existing representants to rid themselves from papal and imperial superiority, but simultaneously maintain their position vis-à-vis other lords. However, it was only with the advent of Protestantism that the European hierarchical order with pope and emperor at the top finally collapsed. Two processes were crucial in this regard. First, iconoclasm, the demolition of religious imagery, statues, and architecture, lead to the destruction of Catholic representants that upheld the hierarchical order. Second, kings adapted and repurposed existing Catholic representants for their own needs, to represent their own power, and thus established a territorially constrained hierarchical order with the king at the top. An order based on divine right absolutism emerged as a result of these struggles over representants (Reus-Smit 1999). 

Concomitantly to these developments, in the first half of the fifteenth century, the emergence of perspective in paintings led to numerous interconnected and largely unintentional changes in representants, which in their accumulation brought about the conception of the territorial state as a bounded area inside which power is spread evenly over the entire territory. Geometry intertwined the effects of single-point perspective in painting (Edgerton 1975), Cartesian mapping (Branch 2014), fortification design (Langins 2004), practices of warfare, and garden and palace architecture (Mukerji 1997). The combined consequences in representants generated the imagery of the territorial state.  

The prevalent order in the early eighteenth century in Europe was then a hierarchical order between independent and territorial states. The Austrian emperor, the French king, and the Spanish king could ensure their high standing thanks to the prevailing representants of diplomatic precedence and courtly ceremony that infiltrated even the army and military practices (Anderson 1988, 1993). Yet, several actors were asking for a more dominant role on the European stage—Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia. Statesmen in the European order considered these three powers inferior to France and Austria, despite the formers’ sustained efforts to establish a high position for themselves with the help of the dominant representants. The three powers began to ridicule matters of diplomatic precedence to devalue this representant (Mori 2010; Wolf 1951). Simultaneously they made full use of the emerging developments in the military realm, which allowed rulers to exert a higher degree of control over their armies (Anderson 1988). The territorial balance of power emerged as Europe’s new ordering principle by the time of the Congress of Vienna (Holsti 1991).

The historical insights help with understanding the EU’s governing arrangements. The EU is in a state of flux. Different actors support different ordering arrangements and struggles over representants are related to these questions. For example, the European Parliament continues to develop new EU-level representants that we know from the realm of domestic politics to increase its power and make the EU look more like a federal state. Thus it developed the Spitzenkandidaten-initiative, the idea that each party will have one Spitzenkandidat for the elections to the European Parliament, with the understanding that the Spitzenkandidat who wins the election will become the new President of the European Commission. The initiative occurred against the initial resistance of the Council (composed of member state representatives), and against the stipulations in the Lisbon Treaty (Traynor 2014). Yet, the European Parliament carried the day in 2014 and on the basis of these representative dynamics elected Jean-Claude Juncker as the President of the European Commission with a large majority. In 2019, however, the situation played out differently (Cloos 2019; Gray, Barigazzi, and De La Baume 2019). These are the kinds of ongoing struggles over representants in the EU that will determine the EU’s future shape. 


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