Engaging the Contested and Material Politics of Private Military and Security Service Governance from a Pragmatist Perspective

Deborah Avant’s article is a welcome contribution to a topic that is surely one of the most politically salient and theoretically challenging in contemporary international relations. It makes a range of points I wholeheartedly agree with, it does so relying on theories I am interested in and I share its preoccupation with practical policy relevance. Perhaps I should just confirm the arguments, expanding some of the points made? That (boring) exercise is fortunately unnecessary. I have many questions. Below I briefly discuss three central ones.

1)    The Issue at Stake: Missing the Problem?

My first question revolves around the issues at stake. Avant’s argument is resolutely positive and optimistic. Her core claim is that pragmatic networks have generated effective transnational governance of the private military and security industry (PMSI). The Montreux Document (MD) she claims is now “an agreed upon framework” that has triggered the developments of standards (ICoC and PSC) that governments have written “into legal requirements in ways that promised enforcement.”  Avant underlines that “many concerns remain.” But the thrust of her article is to explore the MD success as a case of “effective transnational governance” created by “pragmatic networks.” While I fully share the view that governance of PMSI has evolved and the MD has been an important part of this development, presenting the MD as having solved the problem of PMSI governance in this way is problematic for many reasons. I will highlight two.[1]

First, it vastly overstates the significance of the MD and hence its capacity to solve “the problem” of governance. Regulatory arrangements, in the form of Codes of Conduct, Best Practices, Benchmarks and Standards have been mushrooming. Certifications for all and any aspect of the activities in the sector are also increasingly central. This makes for a fragmented regulatory landscape where hierarchies of rules are unclear and contested (e.g. DeWinter-Schmitt 2015; Krahmann 2016). In the resulting regulatory competition about which of these rules should count most, the MD is but one rule among many and not necessarily always the most central one. Second, disregarding the continuing regulatory competition makes it impossible to capture its role in the expansion of the sector. Regulations generate new legitimate areas of activity and roles for the industry. It also gives rise to a “secondary industry” of certifiers, trainers, and experts dealing with and promoting the burgeoning transnational regulation. From my perspective, the regulatory competition and the related expansion of the sector are the main issues at stake in governance (Leander 2010; Leander 2011; Leander 2016c). Exploring their political and legal implications, asking what they entail for security professionals and organizations, rights, the rule of law, politics and militarism, as well as what the alternatives might be, are core tasks for research on which much more work is needed.

The presentation of the MD as an effective solution to the problem of PMSI governance pre-empts these questions. Like Abraham, I have the sense that politics may be lost. My first question is therefore if Avant may not be missing the problem of transnational governance that she claims pragmatic networks are the solution to.

2)    The Theories Mobilized: Obscuring the Processes?

My second question revolves around theories. I share Avant’s interest in “relational pragmatism” and “network theory” (henceforth REPaNT).  Like Laffey, I also welcome her emphasis on the importance of recognizing the significance of creativity and the capacity of generating something new. Yet, for a number of reasons (of which I bring up two[2]), I wonder if Avant’s selective mobilization of REPaNT does not hinder rather than help our understanding of the processes of transnational governance and the creativity at work in them.

First, Avant’s reading of REPaNT emphasizes agreement, consensus and open minds while blocking out tensions, disagreement and contestation. Yet, enrolling and excluding actors/actants, shifting terms of the debate/action, turning “facts into matters of concern” and “making things public” are crucial parts of the conceptual vocabularies of REPaNT (e.g. Latour 2004; Schouten 2014). Drawing on these vocabularies would be helpful for understanding the processes of PMSI governance (Magnon-Pujo 2015). The MD grew out of a contestation of the existing governance, the MD shortcoming led to the development of ICoC that is currently developing a grievance mechanism and debating effective remedy in response to contestation. All along, critics have been proposing and developing alternative forms of regulation, or distancing themselves from the process because they found the process flawed or difficult to engage (Joachim and Schneiker 2012). Second, and along similar lines, Avant does not mobilize the REPaNT theorization of materiality. She does not work with anything resembling a “symmetrical ontology” in which both people and objects are part of relations/networks and cause things to happen in them. Yet, this theorization of materiality is important for capturing PMSI governance processes. It directs the processes of PMSI governance involving both a wide range of actors and an equally wide range of objects such as regulations, codes or standards, databases, lists or surveillance technologies (e.g. Abrahamsen and Williams 2009; Leander and Aalberts 2013). Indeed from my perspective, these objects (I have developed the arguments with regards to lists) do important regulatory work that profoundly shapes governance processes (Leander 2016b).

While Avant tells part of the story about contestation and materiality, her mobilization of REPaNT makes her downplay its theoretical and conceptual significance. Instead she privileges “agreement” and “openness” focusing her energy on the agency of states (especially the U.S.). In so doing, the account is not only shying away from the (theoretically and empirically) most challenging sides of grappling with governance processes. It is perpetuating these challenges by reinforcing conventional approaches to the subject. My second question is therefore if the selective mobilization of theory, a REPaNT ‒ excluding contestation/dissent and symmetric ontologies ‒ does not do more to obscure than to clarify how governance works.

3)    The Relevance: Restricting Political Engagement?

My last question concerns practical relevance. Avant concludes her article by marshalling the practical relevance of “pragmatic thinking” as the ultimate proof of its advantages. Again I could not agree more with this point regarding the importance of bridging the gap between academia and practice. However, for Avant the practical relevance of pragmatism appears to be premised on participatory acquiescence with existing governance processes. Indeed, she contrasts the relevance of her pragmatic approach with the irrelevance of the “many [who] write off governance efforts without ‘teeth’ as inconsequential; they push for uncompromising stances, hard decisions, and binding rules.” I wonder if this is not a reductive understanding of the ways in which academic knowledge matters for policy-making. I will limit the discussion to three points commonly made in REPaNT contexts.[3]

While intervention in policy-making processes may require a willingness to speak a language that does not aim at “reversing established sentiment” (Stengers 1995: 25), it is difficult to see why embracing and promoting the processes would be required or even useful. Academics (just as consultants in companies) are often invited precisely because they can pose the disturbing questions and point to more or less obvious flaws (such as the “lack of teeth” of the MD or the absence of effective remedy of the ICoCA). The relevance of the academic expert is therefore less to acquiesce than to question as an insider “agent provocateur” (Bueger 2017). But more fundamentally, intervention is perhaps not the only form of relevance (Leander 2016a)? In REPaNT contexts at least two further forms of relevance that require some distance are often discussed. One is diffraction that is deviating the direction of discussions/practices by introducing something novel and previously overlooked such as gender or race (Haraway 1997) of relevance also to PMSI governance (Chisholm 2014; Eichler 2014). The other is disruption that is the setting of a novel image of the issues at stake often through the creation of a novel imaginary for example through art, humour or ridicule (Ranciere 2006) also of relevance to security governance (Amoore and Hall 2012).

Susan Strange argued that the price to pay for the privilege of academic freedom was a willingness to raise unpopular questions (1989: 430). A very similar stance is taken by many REPaNT theorists as illustrated e.g. by Isabelle Stengers’ many political engagements (e.g. Stengers 1995, Pignarre and Stengers 2011, Stengers 2013a, Stengers 2013b, Stengers and Despret 2014). I wonder if restricting relevance to acquiescent participation is not showing a lack of imagination about what forms academic engagement with politics may take ‒ and hence also about what relevance means.


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[1] I am leaving aside a range of issues linked to the claims Avant makes about the efficiency of the MD and its role as a driver in triggering regulatory initiatives, including government regulation.

[2] Again I am leaving out a host of fundamental important issues pertaining to relationality, agency, affect and rationality for reasons of space.

[3] I leave out points about practices of domination, discursive structures, and reflexivity that are usually not made by REPaNT scholars. Patomäki’s contribution to this discussion delves on these in to some extent.

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