Truth-Subversion and the Liberal International Order: New Article from Dr. Alena Drieschova

Alumni Fellow Dr Alena Drieschova has recently co-authored a penetrating article in International Organization. ‘The Epistemological Challenge of Truth-Subversion to the Liberal International Order’ serves as a prescriptive guide toward better understanding current practices of truth-subversion.

At the core of the article is the notion that knowledge, and what we come to recognize as truth, are increasingly malleable concepts. With the emergence of social media technologies populist leaders have new tools at their disposal to disseminate their messages widely. They have employed truth subversion practices to sow confusion and undermine the enlightenment notion of truth and rational reason. If they succeed in their endeavour they can destroy one of the key foundations on which the predominantly peaceful Liberal International Order rests.

Looking particularly closely at modern populist movements, authors Drieschova and Emanuel Adler carefully delineate their approach from existing research in international relations (IR) by grounding their empirical findings in an historical analysis which seeks to discover the roots of what they call ‘epistemological insecurity’. Furthermore, significant emphasis is placed on the necessity for IR research to look closely at communication and media studies and their varied impact on how individuals ground their knowledge. Social media alone accounts for a massive source of misinformation. The authors stress that these areas have not yet been adequately addressed in the scholarship.

Current and widespread opposition to science is one example that the authors provide. For example, doubt regarding climate change, or the Covid-19 pandemic is in direct opposition to enlightenment ideals of rationality and scientific reasoning which have shaped the structure of modern democracies. With an ever-increasing body of information, individuals find themselves in a state of insecurity and are often left to ascribe truth status to what would normally be recognized as mere opinion.

Epistemological insecurity is created when an individual or collective is bombarded by truth-subversion practices which aim at destabilizing established norms of knowledge production and seeding generalized doubt for the purpose of political domination. One of the article’s main aims is to provide a new vocabulary to address this situation. To this end, the piece contains a taxonomy of these truth-subversion practices, which includes ‘false speak’, ‘double speak’, and ‘flooding’, among others. Each of these tactics is examined in-depth and with reference to developments in international politics since 2016.

This period has seen a massive decline in the political power of reason; Brexit, the presidency of Donald Trump, and Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of Covid-19 response in Brazil are all cited as examples. These powerful disruptions to the Liberal International Order undermine ‘collectively-shared understanding of what is true’ (3), and therefore the possibilities of meaningful communication, coordination, and eventually order. All of these are crucial to maintain the fundamental institutions of the Liberal International Order: democracy, markets, and multilateralism.

The article concludes on a cautiously optimist note; the authors cite the resiliency of the Liberal International Order in dealing with past crises. However, it is pointed out that both governing bodies and those governed need to come to terms with the power of information and truth-production in the formation of political realities.

Adler, Emanuel and Drieschova, Alena (2021). 'The Epistemological Challenge of Truth Subversion to the Liberal International Order,'International Organization,75(2), 359–386. doi:10.1017/S0020818320000533

Dr Alena Drieschova was a Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research from July 2020 to June 2020. Alena is a senior lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on international orders, and how they are shaped by material culture, technology, and practices. She is currently working on her book manuscript, which provides a macro-historical analysis of international order stability and change based on changes in material culture. She was a visiting scholar at the International Water Management Institute based in Sri Lanka, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Oregon State University. Her work has been published among others in Climatic Change, Global Environmental Change, International Theory, and International Studies Quarterly.

Andrew Costigan