International Relations Are Acoustic. Let’s Listen!


Frédéric Ramel
Sciences Po, Paris
doi: 10.18278/aia.3.2.1

“Liberals are musicians, Realists are jocks” (Walt 2011). By setting up a link between one of the main general theories in international relations and art, Walt provides a very common interpretation of music as harmony. Any musical performance relies on cooperation between musicians and their sounds. So do international affairs because “for Liberals, world politics is like playing music, and states are just like members of a band or orchestra. Making good music requires teamwork and cooperation, and the quality of the music generally improves the more highly skilled the musicians are” (Walt 2011:n.p.).

As a neo-classical realist, Walt aims at depreciating Liberalism for its utopian nature. In the realist suppositions, anarchy prevails in the world system producing a permanent condition of mutual suspicions among states and a propensity toward war. But Walt’s reference to music is imperfect for two reasons. Firstly, he equates music with peace. As “a tool for understanding” (Attali 2011:4), music could indeed frame representations of peace. They speak “both to the heart and to the brain, to the compassion of the heart and constructions of the brain” (Galtung 2008:60). In the history of European ideas, many philosophers conceived international order based on the music of cosmic spheres in the Middle-Ages for highlighting perpetual peace. The same ideas informed the concert of nations in 1815. But these associations do not cover all the relations between music and representations of International Relations (IR).

Strategic studies also refer to musical ideas for describing war. The French strategist and Army Officer André Beaufre defined every war as a hybrid fact that combines major (regular war) and minor (irregular war) modes (Beaufre 1965). The General has his “keyboard and his musical score” when he fights… In such readings, music does not inspire irenic thoughts.

Walt also mobilizes music as a metaphor for qualifying a theory. The metaphor is taken from the Greek verb metapherein that means ‘to transfer’. This form of rhetoric does not suppose an explicit comparison. It is a more figurative than a literal process. By “likening, comparing, or analogizing” (…) “The maker of a metaphor (or the metaphor itself) likens the primary subject to the secondary subject” (Hills 2012). These transfers help to visualize or explain reality through fresh perspectives. These functions of metaphors have been used for centuries in order to show “how IR works” (Marks 2011:6) and more broadly to “shape the field” (ibid.:8). But again, to integrate music in IR studies goes far beyond the influence of metaphors for designing research and theories.

Walt does not see the genuine aural dimension of International Affairs. It is not a question of presenting a theory with ordinary images that could make sense. The acoustic turn has much bigger promises. What are they and how could they be achieved?

This acoustic turn results from the convergence of three independent movements. First, musicologists not only explore the cultural movements of musicians and musical genres across borders but also the role of music in political and conflictual contexts (O’Connell and Castelo-Branco 2010). Historians have opened a new chapter of American Diplomacy for decades based on a cultural turn that nowadays is extended to other countries. This academic literature sheds light on transnational circulation of conductors, composers, groups…with and beyond Foreign policies of the States (Gienow-Hecht 2009, 2015). The last movement comes from IR where aesthetics have been integrated in several research programs. Aesthetics not only operate as an “amplifier” (Bleiker 2009), they also open up “thinking space” (ibid. 2017). Music takes part in this agenda by “resounding international relations” (Franklin 2005).

To study international relations as an acoustic fact has at least three academic consequences:

  • To describe the aural aspect of International Relations as a continuum from sound to silence. Thanks to the public diplomacy, leaders speak with their government counterparts and also foreign audiences. But, the international arena has more aural aspects than these official voices. Transnational actors and musicians per se make their own voices heard, as Bono illustrates, for instance. This famous rock-star joined the movement Jubilee 2000 for the debt cancellation at the end of the 1990s. He set up his own nongovernmental organization dedicated to development in Africa and has tried to influence political leaders—especially the G7 members—for years concerning global economic issues. Besides, music embodies a way to promote values abroad no matter who the actors in the front line are: the ambassadors of Jazz created by the Department of State in the United States aimed at promoting another image of the country during the Cold War; the dissemination of Chinese operas like Rain of Flowers along the Silk Road shows the diplomatic and cooperative role of China in Asia ; Dag Hammerskjöld as Secretary-General of the United Nations yearned for new symbols in IR and initiated the annual concerts in the General Assembly for suggesting the idea of international harmony inspired by music of the spheres (Hammerskjöld 2005). Acoustic issues became part of international political issues, as the recommendation of the Executive Council of UNESCO on good practices concerning sounds illustrates in 2017 (UNESCO 2017). Analysts must not forget that an acoustic dimension incorporates silence. To keep silent differs from being dominated. Silence has an agency (Cooke and Dingli 2018; Dingli 2015) that reveals numerous examples in the international arena. Diplomats must also learn to listen carefully; their ears can be far more important than their mouths.
  • To shed light on international interactions by other means. Diplomacy is compared to an art, but rarely such comparison has been taken seriously. And yet, classical diplomatic functions include an acoustic aspect (Ahrendt et al. 2014; Bély 2003). For example, music accompanies the rituals of diplomatic conferences from bilateral to multilateral meetings without forgetting the celebration of peace treaties as well. Diplomats promote new artists and genres thanks to their resources and networks. In other words, musical scenes—open or restricted, visible or not—are closely linked to diplomatic scenes (Ramel and Prévost-Thomas 2018). Furthermore, we can also observe a sonic dimension of wars (Daughtry 2015; Jardin 2016) that is not limited to an instrumental conception of music and sounds: the usages of Ipod during warfare for stimulating courage, the acousmatic torture of prisoners in Guantanamo, or the usage of music therapy for tending to the veterans. Understanding the role of music in wars supposes here to take into account emotions, senses, and sensation (Hast 2017).
  • To transcend the “turns” in IR. Music embodies a “supreme mystery” for Human sciences according to Claude Lévi-Strauss in Le cru et le cuit (Lévi-Strauss, 2009). Despite the methodological difficulties, describing musicians, songs, performances in International Affairs, music can be approached as a total social fact to highlight the relations between war, diplomacy, and society. For instance, it takes into account the role of practices (practical turn) and of materiality (materialist turn) as well. Without using a unique perspective inspired by Bourdieu, for instance, this path means to describe musical practices in international relations but also the spaces where music—or sound—resonates that are all but neutral… For example, the concert organized by President Putin in Palmyre during May 2016 is a strong symbolic gesture that sets up a link between strategic practices during war in Syria and music for strengthening the political image of Russia in the Middle-East. Furthermore, the acoustic turn does not exclude a priori modes of thinking or conceptual tools. On the contrary, it gives opportunity to enrich a sociology of International Relations (Albert and Lapid 2016). For instance, how should we understand concerts as a gift in diplomacy? What are the symbolic dimensions of music inside intergovernmental organizations? What are the links between the circulation of music across borders and the constitution of an international society?

Many articles of Arts and International Affairs have already provided some directions in previous issues from the idea of performance (Volume 2, Issue 1) to cultural conversations (Volume 2, Issue 2). This current issue is composed of two Longform articles, two brushstrokes and one multimodal. The two Longform articles deal with classical music in different political contexts by focusing on the connections between music and politics. Mario Dunkel explores the tensions in West German cultural diplomacy, especially during the Cold War period. Far from the promotion of intercultural dialogue, this paper shows that prestige and superiority of German music are the pillars of cultural actions abroad, especially concerning South Vietnam in the 1960s. The second article analyzes the role of Maestro Daniel Barenboim in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. More precisely, it aims at embedding the actions of a musician in diplomatic studies. With his friend Edward Said, Barenboim created “The East–West Divan Orchestra,” a very well-known structure that was performed in several countries and even in the United Nations. This second article distances itself from the diplomacy of celebrity (Cooper 2007) as a relevant category for understanding Barenboim’s action. It also clarifies the ambiguous nature of a musician “who is not a politician” in the international arena. In the first brushstroke, Corentin Cohen comes back to Brazilian funk that embodies the soul of favelas. Thanks to its promotion abroad, this musical genre has global legitimacy. The second brushstroke deals with the role of music in the Balkans and more specifically in Bosnia–Herzegovina. Emilie Aussems reflects on the musical actions and performances supported by intergovernmental organizations for strengthening the reconciliation process between ethnicities. Based on several field missions, this research leads to call into question the famous idea of music as a source of harmony and peace. The first aim of these initiatives is ultimately located at the private sphere more than the public space. This ambiguity of music must be born in mind. And finally, are we demanding too much of music?

In the Multimodal Section, Luis Velasco Pufleau underlines the paradox of humanitarian songs. If they help to bring distant foreigners closer and open our eyes toward their pain and distress, these songs rely on a depoliticization process. By listening to them or buying them, western peoples show compassion. But these feelings of pity transform citizens to consumers of poverty without, at times, leading to any transformation or emancipation. Luis Velasco Pufleau also points out that connecting artists and scholars to create performance and new artistic pieces provides paths to deconstruct these representations. It confirms the idea that “art can also emancipate the mind from stereotypes, prejudices, and narrow horizons. It repeatedly generates new and useful ways of seeing the world around us” (Edelman 1995:12). And we could add: of “singing” the world around us.

This issue does not intend to exhaust the possibilities provided by the acoustic turn in IR. It aims at making a contribution focused on a plurality of sites where music resonates and unfolds its effects. The acoustic dimension of IR exceeds the research on soft-power that focus on States’ policies for improving their influence toward peoples abroad. This perspective relies on an instrumental conception of music that considers arts only as tool box for political leaders. Similarly, it cannot be confined in cultural issues considered as marginal in the international realm by numerous rationalists, i.e. to describe the presence of culture in International Relations and integrate new empirical dimensions in this academic field. Let’s listen IR means to take into account the role—never written in advance—of musical practices and aural phenomena in different arenas: from diplomatic negotiation to armed conflicts, from hope for peace to war contexts. All these perspectives lead to another way for describing actors in world politics that should be adopted at some point by IR scholars. Sensitivity to silence, noises, and above all the acoustic aspects in the international realm enrich our understanding of interactions wherever they take place, because IR exceed the logic of calculation and of a so-called Raison d’Etat… It is also a sensory reality.


Frédéric Ramel is a full professor in Political Science and the Head of Political Science Department at Sciences Po, Paris, France. After his Ph.D., he became a postdoctoral fellow at the Raoul Dandurand Chair (University of Quebec at Montréal). As tenured Professor, he taught at the Jean Monnet Faculty of Paris Sud XI and participated in the creation of the Institute of Strategic Research at the Military School (IRSEM), of which he had been the scientific director between 2009 and 2013. He deals with international security, intergovernmental organizations, and normative issues in IR. One of his current research programs is dedicated to the relations between aesthetics and international relations. More specifically, he analyzes the role of music in diplomacy and armed conflicts conceptually and historically. For instance, he studied the idea of Concert as a philosophical convention in the perpetual peace tradition during the eighteenth century. He also focuses on current musical experiences of reconciliation thanks to music and especially the East–West Divan Orchestra initiated by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim. Among his last publications: International Relations, Music and Diplomacy (as editor with Cecile Prévost-Thomas, Palgrave MacMillan, 2018), “Teaching IR through Arts: some lessons learned” (International Studies Perspectives, 19 (4), November 2018) and in Presses de Sciences Po: L’Enjeu mondial 2018. Guerres et conflits armés au XXIème siècle (with Benoit Pélopidas), L’Attraction mondiale (Alfred Thibaudet Award 2013).



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