Cutting Another Slice of the Unknown? Rethinking Concept Cakes in Transatlantic Relations

Felix Berenskoetter writes in his book Concepts in World Politics, that there is no single recipe for ‘unpacking a concept, its meaning, function or performances’. Using the metaphor of a ‘concept cake’ he argues that different layers are always at work as we try to make sense of the world. While this metaphor may seem superfluous, it connects to the central argument developed in this piece. To give the conclusions away early, I argue that we need to embrace the unknown as a creative space of endless possibility rather than a habitual site of fear, insecurity, and threat.

The promise of this embrace is twofold. First, it allows us to look more closely at the ingredients we use to make concept cakes. Sure, the unknown can be scary. Maybe you are following the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Sure, fake news can generate unease, anxiety and hatred. Perhaps you saw the widely circulated photograph and the following islamophobic memes of a woman wearing a hijab and talking on the phone after the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge. Sure, big data can be misused. Maybe you are still trying to come to grips with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. What we tend to forget, however, is that the unknown can also be empowering. It is this forgotten ingredient that I want to recall here.

Second, given that any ‘concept cake’ must have multiple layers, it is impossible to view transatlantic relations in a singular way. It is also hard to maintain that transatlantic relations are ever fully formed. Technically, anything can happen. If this argument holds then missing pieces and unknowns must be incorporated into any concept cake that we make or consume. In short, the goal is not to run away from the omnipresence of the unknown.

Concept Cake of the Unknown: Recipe 1: Insecurity + Threat + Fear

It is not uncommon to hear that we are living in times of dramatic upheaval and danger. Jef Huysmans writes in his book Security Unbound: Enacting Democratic Limits that ‘language and images of insecurity are everywhere’. The nuclear standoff between North Korea and the United States of America (US) certainly illustrated that global security can be jeopardised by a single tweet. Global financial markets also appear to be at the mercy of Twitter. As Patti Waldmeir notes, ‘No company can predict when it will be hit with a tweet from President Trump, insisting it scrap a factory in Mexico or cut the price of an aircraft’. Alas, the unknown may have become the dominant mantra guiding transatlantic relations since Donald J. Trump became president. The unpredictability of this actor and his flair for unscripted speech acts have certainly fuelled fears about transatlantic relations. For example, in December 2017, he officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This speech act served to undermine decades of US foreign policy in the region. It also generated violent protests and controversy. A prominent example is that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, formally rejected the US as a mediator in the ongoing peace process. Despite the growing tensions, Trump subsequently announced that the US embassy will be moved to this city from Tel Aviv. Since then, the Trump Administration announced in August 2018 that it will cut all US funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the main UN programme for Palestinian refugees.

Elsewhere his public rebukes of Prime Minister Theresa May have raised concerns about the longevity of the ‘special relationship’. These are not isolated diplomatic faux pas. At the time of writing a trade war looms large. Indeed Lily Kuo argues that Trump’s, ‘announcement of tariffs on $60 bn worth of Chinese imports threatens to engulf the global economy’. More significantly, Juliet Kaarbo suggests that under the Trump administration, ‘loyalty, secrecy, self-serving interpretations, and emotional tirades will likely dominate policy-making processes’. The ongoing FBI investigation into a potential collusion between Trump officials and the Kremlin during the 2016 elections adds weight to these claims. At first sight, these snapshots appear to make insecurity, threats and fear commonsensical ingredients for any ‘concept cake’ of the unknown. The goal of the next section is to show that this is not the case.

Adding another Layer to Recipe 1: Try a Little Experiment

Faced with mushrooming unknowns and insecurities it is easy to become scared. In many contexts, we do not want unknowns. As Wayne W. Dyer notes in Your Erroneous Zones: Escaping Negative Thinking and Take Control of Your Life, ‘early training in our society tends to encourage caution over the expense of curiosity, safety at the expense of adventure’. Try this short exercise. Ask yourself – would I ever vote for someone who admitted that they do not know how to defeat terrorism? The answer is likely to be a firm ‘no’. In reality, however, there is no guaranteed method of defeating terrorism. When all is said and done, terrorism thrives on surprise.  As such, chasing after choreographed certainties from political actors appears to be a futile exercise.  So what else can we do?

Creating a New Recipe?

A lot of possibilities open up when we conceptualise the unknown as a site of endless possibility rather than a recipe of insecurity, threat and fear. Technically, unknowns provide us with reflection points and moments of pause. We should all use these moments wisely. Summon your bravery. Drop your doubts. Give it a try. It is actually quite liberating to admit that we do not know everything. Yet these steps are not for the fainthearted. Failure may become your constant companion. However, as Colum McCann states in Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice, ‘in the end there is only one failure – and that’s the failure to be able to fail’.

Once we embrace unknowns as sites of possibility another reward awaits. We may be pointed in the way of new discoveries. If we do not know everything, there is always something for us to learn. In the process, we may become more attune to alternative voices that are often marginalised, silenced or erased in transatlantic relations. What would happen, for instance, if we asked Syrian people for their opinions on the airstrikes before declaring ‘mission accomplished’? What would happen if we felt the direct consequences of withdrawing aid from the White Helmets group?

Starting to be more self-reflective about the limits of our knowledge nudges us once again into unknown territory. In the process, we may begin to view conventional security issues from unconventional angles.  Is it really possible to use of mindfulness to tackle climate change? Does firepower really hold new answers for understanding environmental security and the Anthropocene? Do trees have a hidden life that we can learn from? My answer to each question is yes. Indeed, after reading Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees, I was left with the unshakable impression that there is a whole world that I needed to (re)discover. I suppose that is the beauty of being brave enough to create your own recipes. You have the agency to experiment and mess around with different ingredients lists and pluralistic methods. In the end, I believe it to be impossible to understand anything that happens in transatlantic relations without considering the unknown as a layered ‘concept cake’ that can have multiple meanings, functions and performances. The question is when will you be ready to give it a try?

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