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Constructing the ideal river: the 19th century origins of the first international organizations

Yao, Yuan (2016) Constructing the ideal river: the 19th century origins of the first international organizations. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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For decades, International Relations scholars have debated the role and efficacy of international institutions in advancing international cooperation. However, scholarship that takes institutions seriously often adopts the functionalist assumption that international organizations are created as technocratic bodies to facilitate the division of economic goods. My dissertation examines the first international organizations created in the 19th century to manage international rivers (specifically the Rhine, the Danube and the Congo Rivers) and puts forward two strands of argumentation that challenges this functionalist, rationalist and technocratic view of institutional creation. First, I examine the broad social construction of the international river as an untamed space to be disciplined and redefined as a useful economic entity. In the mid-18th century, Frederick the Great wrote in a letter to Voltaire, “whoever improves the soil, cultivates land lying waste and drains swamps is making conquests from barbarism”. Here, Fredrick declared war against the barbarism and chaos of untamed nature; his battles were fought by cartographers, surveyors, engineers and statisticians to establish control over the wild world of reeds and marshes. Following from this conception of nature, 19th century international cooperation along transboundary rivers also aimed to maximize the economic utility of the river—to straighten and deepen the river to create a more efficient economic highway—which also tamed the anarchic dangers of unregulated river politics. Second, I investigate the construction the international river’s meaning at three 19th century critical junctures in European politics—the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the 1856 Peace of Paris, and the 1885 Berlin Conference. I trace how competing meanings of the transboundary river coexisted at each juncture to complicate cooperation and shape the institutional beginnings of each river commission. In doing so, I contend that these international river commissions should be seen as contingent political formations born of specific European configurations of power, rather than as a straightforward progression towards a generalizable model institution that would eventually banish international conflict.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2016 Yuan Yao
Library of Congress subject classification: J Political Science > JZ International relations
Sets: Departments > International Relations
Supervisor: Wilson, Peter

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