Interview: Mervyn Frost on Practice Theory and unexpectedly teaching IR

In this episode, Lynda Iroulo talks to Mervyn Frost, Professor of International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King´s College London. If you want to find out more about the debates and authors in International Relations (IR) that influenced Mervyn´s career most, his first unexpected teaching experience and why he thinks traffic in Berlin is much more civilized than in London, we’ve got your back!

Find a short transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

Iroulo: What brought you to the WZB and for how long will you be here?

Frost: Well, I used to be a Professor at the University of Kent, and I came here in 1999 for the first time. Professor Dieter Rucht had organized a seminar on global citizenship, and I remember being very impressed with the institution and of course with Berlin. I have always had in mind that I would like to spend a sabbatical leave here and now I am doing exactly that. So, that is kind of the background of it, but as you said in your introduction, I have been interested in ethics in IR for many years now, I think it is over 40 years. The Global Governance Unit has got an interest, not only in the technicalities of Governance, but also in the normative aspect and the ethical aspect, so I thought this would be a nice home for me to work with sympathetic scholars who are all working in the same field.

Iroulo: What will you be working on during your stay at the WZB?

Frost: Well, a colleague of mine, who lives in Leipzig, Dr. Silviya Lechner, and I have just recently finished the manuscript called “Practice Theory and International Relations,” which is to be published by Cambridge soon. Later this week, I will be working on the Index. In this book, we outlined a theory which I think is quite radically different from most other theories in IR and in particular it is different from practice theory as it is normally interpreted. So, my aim now and for the next year or two is to find out how this might be productive, so we have an overall vision, about which I will be talking in a moment but we, independently and together, want to apply it to different cases. In my case, I am interested in is private military and security companies; Global Governance in general; failed states and diplomacy in the modern world of social media. Given that I am in the Department of War Studies at King´s College, I am also interested in applying our insights to warfare and in particular, to asymmetrical warfare. In this kind of warfare, what we have, is a superpower and its allies on the one side, and on the other side, a group  of really not more than a few thousand people who certainly do not have legions of people behind them or vast military machines and who  do not have any natural assets like gold mines or oil,  and yet such small groups (AQ or ISIS)  have managed to exert power over the superpower. The question then is; in what does the power of these small groups consist? I think this practice theory of ours can throw a lot of light on the power relations within asymmetric warfare. The insights are surprising and profound.

Iroulo: Before you became a Professor of IR, you studied political philosophy, and a little bird told me that you came to the University of Kent and then you were told to teach a class?

Frost: Oh, the story relates to an earlier time. So, I read Law at the University of Stellenbosch and got interested in political philosophy, and then went up to Oxford and read some more politics but focusing on political philosophy. When I went down from Oxford and got my first job in South Africa, I arrived, and the head of the department said to me “Young Frost, you are the new boy here, I am afraid plans have changed, we suddenly have a need for someone to teach International Relations”. And I said, “What’s IR?”  I really hadn’t a clue. So, I had to learn it fast. I sent telegrams to a bunch of friends around the world asking for advice and reading lists.   I got into the subject that way, I learned IR and, I have never left the subject.. But what I found then, and this has guided my whole career, was that here was a discipline, in which ethical theories had no place and in which there was very little political philosophy. It was preoccupied with deterrence, nuclear warfare, game theory and so on. So, it seemed to me that it was obvious that we had to ask some ethical questions. And that is what I have been doing ever since.

Iroulo: Talking about your transition into IR, what were the debates and authors that influenced your thinking?

Frost: Well, the ones that influenced me then, are still the ones that influence me now. I would say the two authors who influenced me most profoundly were, on the one hand, the German idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel who lived here in Berlin between 1829 and 1832, I believe, and in particular his book ´Philosophy of Right`. Secondly, the language philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein who worked at Cambridge initially and thought that he had solved all the philosophical problems and retired to Austria. But then Bertrand Russell raised a few problems that brought doubt into Wittgenstein´s mind. So he came back into academia and wrote this very influential work, which was then taken up, most importantly for us I think, by Peter Winch who was in the 1950s a lecturer at King´s College, and he wrote the “The Idea of a Social Science” a short little book, written for Anthropologists, but of immense significance to anybody with an interest in social sciences. Wittgenstein was also taken up by Richard Rorty who was hugely influential in my life.

Iroulo: If you had the chance to have tea with any early political theorist who would you choose?

Frost: Well the problem with having tea with Hegel is that I do not speak German and I always had to read his work in translations. Having tea with him would be very difficult. Having tea with Wittgenstein, I would be delighted to do that, but I am told that he was very difficult to get on with. If you showed any sign of not cottoning on to the argument or being slightly behind the curve, he would simply chuck you out of the room. So, he did not have time for slow learning students, and I might find myself to be a slow learning student. Maybe the one I really would like to have tea with, would be Hannah Arendt. I would really much like to do that.

Iroulo: How do you find Berlin so far?

Frost: Oh well, let me first say I have only been here for two weeks, but it has been packed with interest and academic joy. I have met a wonderful group of young people working here, and I have had interesting conversations every lunch-time when we all meet together. I find it a very congenial place to study.  I am a newcomer here in Berlin, but I think it is the most wonderful city. There are several things to highlight. One is that it is bicycle-friendly. I mean, even in the winter I am cycling to work, and the roads are marked properly. The drivers in vehicles and trucks are courteous. It is not a fight. In London, the fight between the motorists and the cyclists is a vicious one. Here it is much more civilized. It is wonderful. Above all, though, I have enjoyed the art galleries both large and small.

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