As regular readers of critical geopolitics will know, Nigel Thrift penned a short essay called ‘Its the little things’ for a book I co-edited on Geopolitical Traditions with David Atkinson. At the time, it took me completely by surprise as, on the face of it, it had little to do with the kind of subject matter we were all evaluating namely national and trans-national conversations and encounters with geopolitical ideas and practices. But as we discovered, this intervention by Sir Nigel (as he now is) was rather prescient because it challenged those of us wedded to a representational view of geopolitics. In his view, critical geopolitical scholars needed to be far more attentive to matters beyond the representational – the non-textual, the material, the affectual and what he considered to be the micro-details of people’s lives – their routines, encounters, rituals and so on.
I was thinking about this much-cited essay as we entered into the foyer of the UN agency, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), located a short walk away from the Houses of Parliament in central London. It is an attractive building and as a visitor you are struck by the array of model ships that are housed in display cabinets throughout the visitors’ area. Accompanied by two of our PhD students and the MSc Geopolitics and Security class, we were treated to a packed and informative programme detailing the work of the IMO and in particular the negotiations leading up to the Polar Code, which is designed to improve and standardise matters for shipping passing through polar waters, both north and south. As the IMO notes, “The Polar Code is intended to cover the full range of shipping-related matters relevant to navigation in waters surrounding the two poles – ship design, construction and equipment; operational and training concerns; search and rescue; and, equally important, the protection of the unique environment and eco-systems of the polar regions”.
While we were not there to reflect explicitly on ‘little things’, it became clear from listening to IMO staff how important such matters were to the working of this international agency with 170 member states. Housed in London since the late 1950s, the current building was opened by the Queen in 1983. It is a busy place and when the various committees are in session not to mention the assembly itself, the building is packed with hundreds of national delegates and observers from non governmental organisations and international organisations. Our IMO hosts conveyed well how the reception areas are ‘buzzing’ as delegates trade stories and build alliances with one another. The work of the IMO is not straight forward – while everyone can be superficially committed to safe and secure shipping there are very real divergences at play as flag states, coastal states, shipping owning states, trading states negotiate their way around the costs and implications of delivering on such things.
We were told how the thee working languages of the IMO (English, French and Spanish) alongside the official languages of the IMO (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) generate their own set of challenges. Words like security and safety prove particularly challenging when translated from one language to another, and packed with possibility of mis-interpretation as the IMO works with ‘hot topics’ such as terrorism, piracy and port state security, all of which has magnified in importance post 9/11. And when you speak on such topics in the public forums of the IMO, delegates however animated about a subject matter will find themselves urged to slow down their speaking modes if the hard-pressed translators are struggling to keep up in their work. Experienced delegates, however, are easily recognisable because of their ability to speak slowly (but not too slowly as to spoil their delivery) and evenly. As other international organisations such as the EU have noted, the use of multiple working languages has real cost and procedural implications.
While gathered in the impressive assembly room, the IMO staff accompanying us provided a wonderful overview of how international meetings work in practice – with delegates being assigned tables in alphabetical manner (Algeria is always first) and the secretary-general being armed with a ship’s bell – considered vital for bringing delegations to order. As the order is alphabetical, maritime states such as the UK and US find themselves, perhaps uncharacteristically for permanent member states of the United Nations, at the back of the room close to the observers. Interestingly, observers are allowed to contribute to debates and discussions once the delegates have been heard. At the start of the meeting, as per convention, the IMO secretary-general reads out the list of observers and you need to be on ‘the list’ in order to be present. The current post holder is Koji Sekimizu from Japan who maintains his own official blog.
So even in this short visit to the IMO, we were given a hint as to how international agencies are made and re-made through performative practice. Things happen because of an array of rituals and activities – from being accredited as a delegate and observer (state and non-state) to gossiping in queues for coffee and negotiating quietly in the corner of the assembly room. IMO meetings are profoundly affectual – delegate speeches, committee chairing and the production of working papers can ‘move’ fellow delegates, and contribute to the overall atmospherics of a body which is an intense negotiating site. The IMO is a place where things matter – model ships become objects of discussion and even expressions of pride for the national delegations who provide such things, archival papers held at the IMO’s Maritime Knowledge Centre record the earliest history of the IMO, and of course, every visitor much wear their security pass and make sure that it is visible to security staff throughout.
It was a wonderful day culminating for me in being able to sit in the assembly room and even ring the ship’s bell. And I think we all benefited from the insightful presentations on the work of this UN agency and specifically the work leading to the Polar Code. Our grateful thanks to Berty Nanya, Natasha Brown and former Royal Holloway graduate and IMO staff member, Shaun Ottway.