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Brent Steele

Title: Professor
College: Social & Behavioral Science
School / Department: Political Science
Mentoring Philosophy:

While my research has migrated and transformed a bit over the years, most of my work has engaged debates within the field of International Relations (‘IR’). My more recent work is increasingly in dialogue with theoretical and practical concerns treated in political theory and US politics as well. My interdisciplinary research program has explored how the identities and ethical considerations of international actors (states, individuals, groups, regions, as well as the scholarly communities and institutions who study all of these), relate to conceptions of security, security interests, and foreign policies. Thus, my work can be considered a focus on the ways in which ethics impacts security and foreign policy, and vice-versa, and the role of International Relations as a field in grappling with those intersections.

Under this broad umbrella, my work can be loosely placed into four overlapping research fields: international security and foreign policy, international ethics, the making of IR ‘theory’, and history, political memory and international relations.

As my research has been both broad and interdisciplinary, I have employed a variety of methods. Because of the research questions I have more recently pursued, I have tended to use case studies, textual and historical methods (including discourse and narrative analysis), and interpretive methods.  While I continue to employ these methods in my current and future work (and now run an interpretive ‘Methods café’ pitched to graduate students and junior scholars at the Western Political Science Association annual meeting), my earlier work also utilized a variety of quantitative methods.  I continue to believe that regardless of the methods we use in our work, it is incumbent to be as versatile as possible to stay engaged within our own disciplines and, ultimately, with our colleagues as well.


International Security: Ontological Security, Aesthetics, and Micropolitics


Much of my graduate work, including my dissertation, and then my first book and a few follow-up studies thereafter sought to bring a concept extracted from the field of social-psychology, ontological security, into International Relations.  Ontological security refers to the securing of the self (and thus identity) through time and space – the striving for continuity and predictability in social life. I attempted to apply this concept to International Relations through a series of investigations. For instance, the initial article I published in Review of International Studies(2005) used ontological security to understand the British decision to remain neutral during the U.S. civil war, and the impact Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had upon that decision.  I further developed this approach in my book,Ontological Security in International Relations(2008, Routledge, in the ‘New International Relations’ series),which assessed ontological security’s manifestation in international relations as a whole.


For whatever reason, the concept and topic of ontological security has recently garnered quite a bit of interest in International Relations, and I’ve been a part of numerous working groups, workshops, panels and roundtables on the topic, culminating in a number of papers including one forthcoming article in Cooperation and Conflict applying the concept to the CIA and its pursuit (and narrated defense) of torture in the 2000s.  A funded workshop at the 2017 ISA meeting in Baltimore focused on bringing ontological security into conversation with work on the ‘Everyday politics’ of IR. From the ISA workshop, we (with Alexander Homolar of Warwick) successfully proposed and are now editing a special issue,  ‘Populism, ontological insecurity and International Relations’, of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs. The manuscripts are in final review, and my own paper that is part of this special issue, titled ‘Welcome home! Routines, Ontological Insecurity, and the Politics of US Military Reunion Videos’, is now accepted forthcoming in that special issue after several rounds of peer review.With another co-authored paper under review, and one of my research focal points now and going forward (and likely for the rest of my career) remains ontological security in International Relations.


My second book, Defacing Power (University of Michigan Press, 2010) investigated how great powers, and especially the United States, protect and promote self-identities through aesthetics.  It posited how these identities can be and have been manipulated to counter this power.  I used this framework to investigate examples of this ‘aesthetics of insecurity’ in US foreign policy, including the My Lai massacre and the Fall of Saigon, al-Qaeda communiqués, the atrocities at Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, and the U.S. response to the Asian tsunami of December 2004.   These cases demonstrated how a nation-state—even one as ‘powerful’ as the United States— faces insecurity from unexpected events that challenge its self-constructed images.


Defacing Powergenerated two further research avenues – one on generations and another on aesthetics and representation. The interest in generational analysis resulted in a co-edited volume, Theory and Application of the ‘generation’ in international relations and politics (with Jon Acuff). The focus on aesthetics led to several recent studies appraising the ‘aesthetic turn’ in International Relations, including a chapter recently published in a volume edited by one of the icons of that turn, Roland Bleiker, as well as an article in a forum on ‘the aesthetic turn at 15’ in the journal Millennium,published last year.  I continue to pursue both of these research avenues in my current work on restraint, which investigates how particular types of generations in the US have proved to be a (rare) restraining ‘check’ on US foreign policy over the past two hundred years, and how aesthetics and the politics of late modern representation (like the ISIS beheading videos) overwhelm restraint especially in democratic communities.


My co-authored manuscript (with Jelena Subotic) explores the concept of ‘moral injury’ and anxiety in International Relations that has been accepted and is forthcoming at the Journal of Global Security Studies. A related study is forthcoming with the Cambridge Review of International Affairs. This study, part of a special issue of that journal I am co-editing, uses ontological security to examine the affective, spatial, and temporal features of military ‘reunion’ videos that proliferated social media and video sites throughout the United States in the late 2000s and early 2010s.


That forthcoming study is also an extension of a broader and more recent focus of mine on the ‘micropolitics’ of security. This interest centralizes the small spaces and places where security practices are reinforced, reversed, or otherwise transformed (including ‘everyday’ settings where security narratives proliferate). This included studies published in 2011 in the Journal of International Political Theory and a chapter of an edited volume examining Heifer International’s peacebuilding efforts. Most recently, this interest in micropolitics led to a co-authored article (with Ty Solomon) in the European Journal of International Relationsappraising the wider trend of scholarly studies ‘moving’ to the micro in International Relations.


Following the ‘first view’ publication of our that article, my co-author and I were approached by the editors of a new series for Oxford University Press, titled ‘Global Diacritics: Rethinking Critical Engagements in World Politics’, to develop the ideas from that article into a possible book project. It has been accepted for review whenever we deliver the manuscript. Although this project has proceeded a bit more slowly than the others I’m currently pursuing, Ty and I made some progress in the past year on it. I presented draft chapters for this book at the University of Glasgow in June of 2017 (on the micropolitics of prison networks for mobilizing groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS), and at the ISA-South regional meeting in Orlando in October (on the micropolitics of coexistence camps). Ty and I are presenting a revised version of our theoretical frameworks at the upcoming (November 2018) ISA-Northeast conference, and we hope to submit a manuscript for Oxford University Press’s review in 2019.


I am working on another book manuscript, Vicarious Identity and International Relations,with colleagues from the University of Warwick (UK) and the University of Tampere (Finland). After sending the advance materials including a proposal to Oxford University Press in April 2017, they agreed to review the manuscript when it is finished. We expect to deliver the manuscript for review this December (2018).


International Ethics, Intervention, and Just War


My work in the field of international ethics began by investigating issues surrounding humanitarian response, and has migrated to a more recent focus on the Just War tradition, accountability, and the justification and increasing popularity of torture in the United States. These studies include the volume Ethics, Authority and War: Non-State Actors and the Just War Tradition (Palgrave, 2009), that I co-edited with a colleague from the University of Oklahoma, Eric Heinze.  The volume examined Just War theory as it pertains to the increased prevalence of non-state actors in armed conflict.


My work on ethics and accountability culminated in my third book Alternative Accountabilities in Global Politics: the Scars of Violence, which included historical and field work on the town of Lidice in the Czech Republic that was demolished by the Nazis during World War II.  Complemented by case illustrations from the 2009 Iranian revolution, the 2009 Gaza War, and the 2011 Arab Spring, that book put forth the argument that the scars of violence found on humans, buildings, and landscapes are their own form of accountability.


My research focus in International Ethics has also been reinforced through my service and teaching interests, especially since joining the U of U in 2013. I served as the chair of the ISA International Ethics section from 2014-2016, and I developed a new course on the topic for my current department (POLS 5625: International Ethics) that I have offered the past two Fall semesters (2016 and 2017). International Ethics remains a field of focus for me going forward. I am currently pursuing a number of projects on Just War as well as co-editing (again with Eric Heinze) the recently published Routledge Handbook on Ethics in International Relations.This was an undertaking, involving the review and editing of seven ‘themes’ and 45 chapters by contributors from 18 countries


Concepts and Practices of International Relations theory


I have explored some general conceptual and theoretical discussions endemic to IR theory through a number of projects.  My interest in constructivist IR theory can be seen in a 2017 edited symposium of the APSA journal PS: Political Science and Politicson the ‘Politics of Constructivist IR in the US academy’, and a 2017 co-edited special issue of the European Review of International Studieson the ‘next generation’ of constructivist research. Another series of articles on ‘reflexive realism’ has sought to characterize the contemporary recovery of important principles of classical realism, including the use of ‘irony’ in IR theory via the work of Reinhold Niebuhr.  I have several chapters in edited volumes that represent further examinations of other ‘isms’ in International Relations, including the relationship between constructivism and feminism in a volume edited by Laura Sjoberg and J. Ann Tickner and another chapter that utilized the ‘English School’ approach to understand the quick response to the Somali pirates in the early 2010s.


A 2016 edited volume examines the role of the scholarin that which they study.  Reflexivity and International Relations (Routledge, co-edited with Jack Amoureux)includes a variety of contributions that together provide an inventory of a concept – reflexivity - that was (and continues to be) often-invoked but rarely categorized in International Relations and Political Science. I have continued to pursue my interest in scholarly responsibilities and vocational purposes in contributions to a 2017 forum in the  International Studies Review (on the ethical quandaries and conflicts of interest that arise in ‘bridge-building’ to the policy world), and in a chapter detailing my approach to teaching and pedagogy for an edited volume (by Jamie Frueh) tentatively titled Journeys in World Politics.


History, political memory and (their use in) International Relations


A more recent focus for my research has been historical – both through examining international relations historically (the events of ‘the past’) as well as how ‘history’ gets politicized in contemporary global political settings (through memory, trauma, and causal narratives). My third book involved archival and field research investigating the circumstances surrounding, and following from, the Nazi massacre at the Czech village of Lidice during World War II, as well as the Children’s War Memorial (honoring the village’s children who were murdered) as it developed from the 1960s through the 2000s. My recent book project, Restraint and International Politicsinvestigates the ways in which discourses have justified the restraining of ‘immoral others’ through practices like intervention, quarantines, eugenics, and policing. I have developed in two articles what I title the ‘critical approach to security history’ (or ‘CSH’). These articles, both appearing in the journal Critical Studies on Security, explored the ways in which the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were narrated into a moral argument of necessity – the atomic bombs forced Japan to surrender and thus ‘saved lives’. However, the narratives of this security history remain important today to justify violence and overwhelming uses of force as part of a causal narrative that disproportionate uses of force are effective. I have continued this line of inquiry in a co-authored paper (with Faye Donnelly of St. Andrews) under revise and resubmit at the European Journal of International Security that further develops Critical Security History.


Last fall, I edited a special issue of the Australian Journal of Politics and History. Titled ‘Centenary International’ the issue and its contributions examined the politics behind the many ‘centennial’ commemorations across the world, distilled in national contexts, stemming from the years leading up to, through, and after the First World War (~1914-1922).


A current project in this area (with Jelena Subotic) is a major research initiative that is examining the relationship between monuments, populism, and political memory as they relate to contemporary politics. This is the basis for an NEH grant proposal Professor Subotic and I will be submitting in December of this year (2018). Professor Subotic has published on the former

Yugoslavia and the politics surrounding the removal of Holocaust memorials and statues in those republics, and specifically how such removal has helped to enable right-wing populism and anti-semitism. I have explored in the past six months the US South/Confederate context, and the contemporary political implications of the recent controversies over Confederate statues. We expect that this project will be involve a number of publication possibilities, including a research monograph, as well as an edited volume or special issue that includes an international group of scholars exploring similar issues over statues, memorials, populism and racial politics.