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Work In Progress

WIP Seminar with Dr Simone Tholens – “Knowledge Production in 21st Century Interventions: Security Assistance as a Global Assemblage” 13.03.2019

26 March 2019

On the 13th of March, Dr Simone Tholens presented her Work-In-Progress paper ‘Knowledge Production in 21st Century Interventions: Security Assistance as a Global Assemblage” at the ISRU WIP seminar. 

Dr Tholens is a lecturer in International Relations at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University. Among various other academic positions, prior to joining Cardiff Dr Tholens worked as a Research Associate at the ERC funded ‘Borderlands’ project, hosted at the European University Institute, where she had completed her PhD. Her research interests include the diffusion of norms and practices in security governance with a particular interest in the Middle East and North Africa, South-East Asia and the Western Balkans. Dr Tholens’ article ‘Winning the Post-War: Norm Localisation and Small Arms Control in Kosovo and Cambodia’ was published in the Journal of International Relations and Development earlier this year.

In this paper, Dr Tholens seeks to conceptualise the evolving world of security interventions in the 21st century. Invoking the desire to cut costs and pursue security objectives at arms-length without placing boots on the ground in a risk-averse political environment, many scholars have noted the emergence of a new form of intervention. In this article, Dr Tholens focuses on the emerging and yet largely unofficial doctrine of Security Force Assistance (SFA). She defines SFA as a ‘deep intervention into the armed forces and security institutions of a foreign state. It is considered beneficial, both in economic and political terms, and it is in line with the broader trend of constructing local resilience and capacity to deal with local problems rather than the imposition of Western state-building principles’. However, for Dr Tholens, this desire to reconfigure security intervention as SFA, rather than more traditional interventions, has significant consequences on the process of knowledge production. 

Dr Tholens wishes to move beyond existing frameworks of analysis concerning SFA, believing that Actor-Network Assemblage Theory, associated with Bruno Latour, enables the researcher to best understand knowledge production in contemporary SFA interventions. Existing literature on SFA, sometimes referred to as Security Assistance or Security Cooperation, can be identified into two broad strands. 

The first of this body of literature is concerned with questions of sovereignty and ownership in interventions. In the 1990s and 2000s, such scholarship focused on state-building in interventions, linking security and development and reflecting the optimistic discourses of a new liberal world order at this time. However, these interventions and their specific prescriptions of governance models were subject to increasing levels of criticism often described as a form of neo-colonialism. Moving away from this developmentalist perspective, research on ‘peacebuilding’ concerned with questions of sovereignty and ownership is perceived to have taken a ‘local-turn’, emphasising the agency of domestic actors. More recently, researchers including Dr Tholens herself have mobilised the idea of hybrid peace, to move away from global/local dichotomies in security intervention research. 

However, for Dr Tholens this body of literature fails to reflect how contemporary SFA interventions seem to be defined by contingent relations of exteriority and the interactions of the component parts of the assemblage. 

Equally, Dr Tholens suggests that the second body of literature, associated with norm diffusion, fails to provide a convincing account of knowledge production in these contemporary SFA interventions. Although there has been a vast evolution of this scholarship, researchers within this area have tended to focus on the way in which norms travel from one context to another and seek to understand how some norms travel in different ways to others. Recent work has tended to move away from a developmentalist perspective of norm diffusion as socialisation to certain inherently ‘good’ norms. Here too, there has been a ‘local turn’ that looks at how global norms are translated and reconfigured in the local context. 

However, for Dr Tholens, this body of work is unable to capture the way in which, often, norms are not present in international relations, particularly in contemporary SFA interventions. She claims that when we look at interventions today, they often appear to be devoid of norms or defined by broad vacuumous terms such a ‘capacity building’. What this means is that formal politics is almost side-lined. According to Dr Tholens, at the implementation stage the aims and realities of the intervention are often renegotiated by securocratic practitioners on the ground. 

Moreover, Dr Tholens argues that assemblage theory provides a unique and pertinent conceptual framework to better grasp knowledge production in SFA interventions. Assemblage theory, particularly the Network-Actor variety, enables the researcher to map out the actors, interactions and complex web of relations of exteriority and emergence that define policy assemblages. With regard to interventions, assemblage theory facilitates an understanding of knowledge production as simultaneously defined by ordering dynamics and endogenous elements, while also bringing in the material of what is happening on the ground. 


Even if this idea of remote warfare is something that we can trace back decades, the actual terminology of SFA seems to be just emerging in official discourse? Do you think SFA is something we are going to see increasingly in security interventions?


SFA in its many guises has been around for a while, but it is a term that we are seeing used more and more in security literature and I think SFA is in the process of becoming the official terminology that will define these ‘light footprints’ interventions. Since 2001, the amount the US military spends in SFA interventions has tripled. We are seeing the emergence of specialist SFA forces in militaries. For example, over the last couple of years, the US military has launched the Security Force Assistance Brigade – dedicated to “advise and assist partner forces”. Similarly, the British Military is currently completing the rollout of its own Specialised Infantry Group with a similar purpose. Also international organisations are getting in, and NATO for example is about to launch a Defence Capacity Building (DCB) mission in Iraq, comprised of 300 troops. 


So, beyond the terminology, what is the novel aspect of these kinds of interventions? 


It is very much about responding to a more shadowy and risk-averse political environment. The modus operandi is about building resilience and working with local partners. An US policymaker once described the US intervention in Syria as one of the best value for money interventions of all time. There is a sense that this reliance on local forces and the emphasis on capacity building is, in part, fuelled by a cost/benefit analysis. However, it is a lot more complex than this. 

The nature of these interventions demand that we beg the question, have policymakers lost control? When we are talking about SFA interventions broadly defined as ‘capacity building’ or ‘defensive resilience’, what we see is assistance provided under broadly vacuumous umbrella terms and that local and international actors fill this vacuum with domestic and local priorities. 

Therefore, even if these interventions are perceived to be pursued in the name of certain well-established norms in international relations, there is a complete reconfiguration and renegotiation of these projects and their aims as practitioners implement SFA interventions on the ground. This makes the evaluation of SFA incredibly challenging. How does one determine impact, efficiency or correlations between aims, interests or consequences? 


Given the novel aspect of SFA interventions that you have just explained, what is it about the existing literature, therefore, that you feel fails to conceptualise knowledge production associated with SFA interventions? 


The existing literature looks at these interventions as a form of patron/client relationship. This does not capture the complexity of these interventions. Rather than taking an almost hierarchical patron/client approach, the Network/Actor assemblage model reflects the way in which SFA interventions are not initiated by predetermined norms or principles as well as how the ways of doing SFA are determined by the interactions of different actors and their priorities. 

For example, if we look at the case of the Integrated Border Management (IBM) programs on the Lebanese border, what we see is that the meaning IBM on the ground does not reflect the norms as conceptualised by the international community. This model seeks to bring in the material aspects of what is happening on the ground such as political, economic dynamics or the struggle between national domestic and international actors. 


One thing that struck me from the paper was a sense that policymakers seem to have very little control over not only the implementation of these interventions but also how knowledge is produced in these interventions. Are policymakers taking a risk here?


We are simply not yet aware of the potential consequences or impacts of some of these SFA interventions. One of the dynamics we can note relatively easily is the militarisation of local security forces. Often, SFA interventions incorporate massive equipment programs and the export of military hardware. 

Countries such as the US and the UK, but also organisations such as NATO, are arming local ‘securocrats’. Often policy makers are relatively unaware of the long-term strategic interests of these domestic actors such as the Free Syrian Army. This raises questions about the questions of responsibility.

Another huge and yet unanswered question is how these interventions will change public and foreign expectations on local security forces. For example, since the massive levels of SFA in Lebanese borderlands, especially in terms of military equipment, there is a sense among the population that security forces have been strengthened and reinforced. What remains to be seen is whether these expectations can be met and the consequences of increased expectations. 


Thank you for presenting your research for the ISRU. I think we all agreed that this an exciting project and we look forward to seeing its development. Also, thank you for taking the time to sit down with me and answer some questions about your research.