Statelessness and the Global Political Order. A Conversation with Mira Siegelberg

Ferenc Laczo discusses with Mira Siegelberg her latest book “Statelessness”, the story of a much-contested legal category. You can listen to the podcast or read the edited transcript below.

Ferenc Laczo: Let us begin our conversation with some of the basics. Could you tell us a bit about some of the competing ways to understand the concept of statelessness? How would you sketch a brief history of statelessness? What are some of the key moments in the narrative you develop in the book?

Mira Siegelberg: It is important to appreciate how intrinsically multifarious the meaning of the term statelessness is, and that it is used in a variety of ways. It is a concept that evokes different kinds of political and legal states of being, such as individuals without citizenship, groups that aspire to obtain a state of their own, but also various individual and collective forms of dispossession, exclusion, and exile.  I would say that the concept intuitively retains a connection to ideas about interstate order and its associated ambiguities, the conditions of belonging, who gets to claim statehood and whether the state is actually the best political structure for responding to crises that are not limited to the boundary of any one political community. 

Importantly, statelessness is also a constrained legal concept. It is a concept defined in two main international agreements that were created after the Second World War, which limit the meaning of being a stateless person to those who do not have a national status – nationality being a kind of membership that marks the outward face of the state’s power and its authority. Moreover, in international law, being categorized as a stateless person is different from being categorized as a refugee – the latter is someone who is forced to flee as a result of persecution.

Thus, one could try to write a history of the concept of statelessness in its wider, more varied sense. A Russian Jewish legal scholar who features in the book, named Mark Vishniak, suggested in a 1930 study on the legal status of stateless persons that, beyond the legal particulars, statelessness is really a condition of basic exclusion and dispossession. It could be traced back, in a more philosophical way, to the story of genesis of God casting Adam and Eve out of Eden. However, if we think about it in properly historical terms, it is only after the First World War that massive numbers of people without the security of political membership enter into international politics on a new scale. This is a fact which is marked in language – in English, French, Italian and German – which began to develop new vocabulary to describe people without a national status.

Although I look at some moments before the First World War, and before the 20th century, when such individuals were discussed in relation to ideas about international order and international politics, I wanted to understand how statelessness had been framed as a particular kind of international phenomenon beginning in the period after the First World War, and how this framing has changed over time.

 I did this as a way of approaching the larger history of the big questions about global political order, which many people may already automatically reference when they encounter the term statelessness. 

There are really two main linked stories that run through the book: the first one is about the eventual stabilization of the conceptual boundaries of states, and what the legal frameworks that were established after World War II reveal about the ideological basis of the post-war international political settlement; the second is about how membership in a country has been defined in international law, and why changing ideas about law and its relationship to politics is pivotal to this history.

The book really pivots around these two central moments in the formation of modern international order: the period after World War I, when statelessness was first taken up as an object of intensive intellectual and political scrutiny, most centrally around the League of Nations; and then after World War II, when the legal frameworks that define what it means to be a stateless person took shape. I also touch in the narrative on court cases in which the meaning and significance of statelessness was adjudicated upon, diplomatic conferences that sought to regulate how states set the terms of national membership, and moments of intellectual debate and reflection on the implications of statelessness as a new kind of political reality for broader understandings of politics and the foundations of political order.

Your history of statelessness indeed raises major questions regarding how states organize themselves, how they define their boundaries and how they relate to each other. You approach this history in a productive way and reflect on a host of such fundamental issues. Would you mind speaking to the question of how the history of statelessness might help us develop new perspectives on the 20th century and the creation of the post-war international order? What original insights does such a special prism yield?

The emergence of statelessness as a mass phenomenon in the 20th century has been most typically understood as important historically because it was seen to expose the central tension of the post-Second World War international order: the contradiction between the principle of state sovereignty, as the basis of global order, and the emergence of new norms of human rights that seem to have established the rights of individuals, even in the absence of citizenship. That was one way of thinking about statelessness in relation to the post-war order.

However, if we adopt the perspective found in much of the newer historical scholarship on the transformation from a world dominated by imperial power to one that was formally governed by the norm of sovereign equality, then the history of statelessness invites new insights about the nature of the post-war international order which is not reducible to this tension between the sovereign rights of states, on the one hand, and the human rights of individual persons, on the other. Instead, it introduces the possibility of making sense of what that order really produced and what its legacies are. This is one of the things that I have tried to make sense of in the book.

Thus, when statelessness became a prominent feature of international politics after World War I, most of the world’s people were living under some kind of imperial rule. When the war finally ended, questions about what the state is, who can claim statehood, how membership is determined and the meaning of nationality in the context of international relations, but also the future of empire and international authority, all became the objects of intensive political conflict and struggle. 

The stateless became the touchstone for these fundamental but also destabilizing political quandaries about the nature of democratic politics and the basis for political organization that emerged in the war’s aftermath. 

Thus, the status of stateless persons in the international society was bound up, for example, with the question of what it means for a new state to come into being, and the relationship of successor states to a former empire and the foundations of new political communities.

In sum, the main puzzle that I try to work out is how the international political settlement after World War II ultimately neutralized statelessness as a problem that is fundamentally linked to the prospects of world order and how, in doing so, it established the conceptual legal and moral boundaries that continue to define international politics. Therefore, the first implication of looking at the history of statelessness as a prism, as you say, is that we see how the legal frameworks became a central part of the creation of the international order, rather than a way to mitigate its consequences. The problem of statelessness as it was defined by the post-war agreements became quite marginal. It was a much smaller part of the larger international regime of refugee protection and oversight that, until fairly recently, has been neglected by lawyers, political theorists and aid workers.

However, rather than seeing this marginalization in terms of the unwillingness of countries to assume responsibility for non-citizens within their borders, I look at how the legal frameworks shape the expectation that the global political order consists of a largely stable set of political entities, and covered up the dynamic process of state dissolution and formation that did in fact make the creation of stateless people or non-citizens a significant feature of global politics. Hence, the real question, I believe, is how the post-war order stabilized or bracketed the fundamental issues that you have mentioned and that we might think are intrinsically fundamental to the problem of statelessness, such as how states organize themselves, how they define their boundaries, and how they relate to one another.  

In sum, I wanted to understand how the terms of arguments about the meaning of statelessness authorized a particular settlement that obscured the fact that the changing boundaries of global order in the second half of the 20th century were profoundly connected to forced migration and the proliferation of stateless people. In the book, I link the broad turn in the post-war era to conceptualizing law as fundamentally political and instrumental, and as reflective of social reality, rather than as a way to shape politics and society, to this marginalization of statelessness – its marginalization was a problem intrinsically connected to the problem of collective political organization.

Let us discuss your approach and the kind of history you write a bit more. Your book may be viewed as a major contribution to international political thought that draws on political philosophy, legal theory as well as intellectual and conceptual history, among other fields. You are clearly a versatile scholar who studies diverse sources and employs various methods. Would you be willing to discuss how you see your book in relation to recent and ongoing trends in the writing of international political thought? Are there perhaps authors whom your book engages in a direct dialogue and whom you would like to highlight here?

Perhaps I should start by just noting that the study of international political thought, at least in its most recent guise, can really be traced to a moment when scholars across the social sciences saw a need to revisit and challenge the dominant representations of international politics. New studies of the history of empires, of international law and of global order motivated a reorientation in understanding the history of the concepts that, up until recently, have defined the domain of the international – concepts such as state, the state system, international law and, as the historian David Armitage has discussed, the historical origins of the distinction that we make between matters that are domestic and those that are international.

Some of these works have involved looking with fresh eyes at theorists that have long been part of a canon of political thought, as well as reinterpreting these texts in the light of novel historical perspectives on the recent newness of a world dominated by states and the imperial origins of international law. Other scholarship in this broad field advocates a more expansive sense of what kinds of actors and institutions should count as the subjects of international political thought, and looks at professional international lawyers, Eurocrats, administrators, policy intellectuals and other figures that perhaps have not traditionally been the study of political thought per se.

My research has sought to expand the range of actors, institutions, and discourses that we study in order to understand the conceptual, intellectual and institutional formation of the modern international order. I have been particularly interested in the history of legal thought and in debates about the nature of law. I have been thinking about why debates among legal philosophers, rather than jurists, are actually critical to the study of international political thought and the history of international order. 

I became particularly concerned in the course of my research with how debates about legal theory—especially debates over what it means to be a person in the eyes of the law—provided a critical backdrop for the establishment of a global norm of citizenship in the mid-20th century.

However, my main methodological claim does not really concern the subjects of international political thought per se, although that is an implicit dimension of the method, but the relationship between this broad area of study and the dynamics of international and global history. I argue that, to make sense of how the boundaries of international order were stabilized after the Second World War, we have to appreciate the intellectual justifications that reframe the problem of statelessness as a moral problem for states to solve due to its effects on the individual rather than a problem of world order as such.

Writing the history of statelessness also meant connecting bodies of thought that are not generally brought together. It meant reading systematic critical reflections by legal scholars and political theorists together with sources from the more traditional archives of international and diplomatic history. It meant reading these sources alongside text from court cases, letters, and petitions from stateless people to international organizations as well as works of fiction and memoirs to illuminate the meaning of statelessness in international legal, administrative, and popular thought.

One point of dialogue that I think is worth mentioning in relation to this more methodological point is that historians of global political and legal order have argued that systematic intellectual reflection on international politics, or what these scholars call “inter-political order”, may codify existing practices of social and political activity, but they are not the determinants of global norms and expectations and practices. 

Two of the inspiring works that I had in mind in developing my own argument were Identifying with Nationality: Europeans, Ottomans, and Egyptians in Alexandria by the historian Will Hanley, which is a study about how ordinary people in the late Ottoman Empire began to identify with nationality. Secondly, just as an example of the kind of new work I do engage with – and you can read this via the footnotes – I should mention Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford’s book Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800–1850 on the administrative origins of international law in the early 19th-century British Empire that argues that international law needs to be understood as arising from administrative concerns and practices rather than out of metropolitan discourses about the principles that govern the legal relations between states.

My approach to the history of statelessness has allowed me to think a bit more deeply about the role of ideas, arguments, and justifications in the formation of the law and the institutions that govern the relationship between states and their nationals. Therefore, the goal of the work is historical explanation. It is to make sense of what happened, why it happened and how it happened, but also in keeping with the traditional motivation in the study of the history of political thought, the goal is to recover some conceptual and normative resources to subject the ideas and institutions that we have inherited to critical evaluation.

Your book indeed greatly adds to our understanding of the international order that was created after WWII when the debate around statelessness was first stabilized and, as you argue, was increasingly marginalized. Your book also emphasizes developments beforehand. Some of the key actors on its pages are in fact émigrés who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution while others had experienced the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Would you mind discussing how the consequences of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Habsburg collapse shaped the key ideas of such protagonists of yours in Statelessness? Or, to put it more generally, what impact did these two seminal events come to exert and why did they prove so consequential when it comes to the history of statelessness?

The Bolshevik Revolution and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire indeed feature quite prominently in the book. Both were events that greatly contributed to the new numbers of people in the interwar period that began to be defined, and to define themselves, as stateless persons. In the case of people who fled the former Russian Empire during or immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution, the League of Nations established a new organization, the High Commission for Refugees, to provide innovative legal identification and some limited protection for people who were designated as part of this group. These individuals became eligible for something called a Nansen passport, which in theory allowed people without the security of national citizenship and without a passport to cross borders and to potentially find work, which was a major issue in the decade after the First World War.

In contrast, the formation of new successor states out of the former Habsburg Empire in Central Europe excluded a great number of people from the new regimes of citizenship in these new states. But the League did not extend international identification and protection to these individuals, and therefore this group became the object of an international campaign to extend international protections to stateless people in the successor states, and they were often described as the Heimatlosen, rather than by the newer terms that were being articulated to describe stateless persons like stateless or staatenlos.

Jurists from both the former Habsburg Empire and the former Russian Empire became some of the most prominent figures to confront the consequences of imperial dissolution in the 20th century. These individuals produced some of the most pivotal theoretical and legal sources on statelessness. Moreover, some of these people mentioned in the book, such as Mark Vishniak, André Mandelstam or Hans Kelsen, have quite historically significant biographies not just because they were personally affected by revolution and imperial collapse – all of these figures were eventually forced to leave Europe and faced statelessness themselves – but also because of how they drew on their earlier approaches to understanding the state, law, and non-state forms of political organization and order that were nurtured in these earlier imperial contexts. They brought this kind of knowledge and practice to bear when they were interpreting the meaning of the new mass phenomenon of statelessness in the inter-war period and thinking about how to advocate for these populations.

Mark Vishniak, for instance, had been a revolutionary democratic socialist who drew on his experience with non-state forms of democratic association that were developed during the 1905 revolution in Russia to envision the possibility of political representation and political status for the stateless after World War I. The post-Habsburg imperial context, as you say, is an essential European context and carries particular weight in the book. It was in this setting that Kelsen and his students, who are also known as the Vienna school of law, developed an important approach to this phenomenon that ultimately reverberated across the 20th century. They applied a very particular theoretical perspective on law and the state to interpret the legal boundaries of citizenship in the successor states. In doing so, they sought to clarify the intrinsic connection that they saw between the national status of post-imperial subjects and urgent debates that were staged after World War I about the meaning of sovereignty and the boundaries of international law.

This historical and biographical context, the context of place, is critical. It is critical to the story as well as fascinating and I would not want to minimize it at all. However, I think it is also important to say that the larger narrative or argument of the book is rather about how a bigger transformation of legal consciousness, not limited to the Russian or Central European context, shaped the post-war legal frameworks. 

Place is less significant than the fact that these protagonists brought a particularly legalistic approach to politics that may have taken particular forms in the Russian and the Habsburg empires and the post-imperial successor states. They brought this legalistic approach to the analysis of the significance of statelessness in relation to international order. 

What I am trying to show is how this perspective was eventually eclipsed as skepticism about the power of legal analysis to construct an organized collective life took hold. It is that skepticism that illuminates how nationality and statelessness were eventually recast in the post-world world.

You have alluded to the contemporary stakes of your argument. I wish to return to that to discuss the book in its contemporary context. The interpretation you provide in the book may be linked to ongoing debates concerning environmental threats or mass migration. You have mentioned that your book may be read as an archive of precedents. I was wondering how you would describe the contemporary relevance of your subject and, more specifically, how you see the relationship between your scholarship and recent works on the refugee question or the issue of cosmopolitanism. Is there some kind of specific debate you wish to relaunch with the publication of Statelessness?

One feature about the post-World War II international settlement that I tried to illuminate is how the international framing of the problem of statelessness through the refugee and statelessness conventions encourages a particular perspective on the tension between national sovereignty and the rights of those without citizenship. Political theorists and international lawyers who look to these legal precedents often emphasize the contradiction between cosmopolitan obligations to people beyond the borders of given countries, on the one hand, and obligations that societies have to ensure rights to their own citizens, on the other. 

Against this stylized distinction, which I am not trying to minimize, I try to reconstruct the historical process that successfully neutralized and obscured what is really an inevitably dynamic political relationship between states and the people who exist beyond their borders, or those who are within their borders, but without the rights of citizenship. 

I am really concerned with the institutional conditions that set limits on our political, moral, and legal imagination, and in reframing the way we think about the crisis of refugees and stateless persons today in this narrower binary frame of the tension between cosmopolitanism, on the one hand, and social citizenship, on the other. 

In particular, tracing the history of statelessness in the way I do in the book, as an object of intellectual reflection and international political activity, reveals how bound up the stateless were in the aftermath of the First World War with the essential and ultimately destabilizing uncertainties surrounding the meaning of sovereignty, agency, and legal personality in international society, as well as debates about the basis of international legal order. 

The change that occurs should be explained not only through diplomatic developments that constrained the meaning of statelessness for international affairs, but also as a result of a broader transformation of legal thought that ultimately detached nationality and its absence from these fundamental questions surrounding the basis of political and social order.

I do not think we should go backwards or that there are simplistic precedents we can just reach for. I do not think we should be trying to recover the specific forms of legal thought about personhood or the conditions that enabled a certain perspective on the creative power of juristic creations. Instead, what I want is to introduce how we should be thinking about how the post-war settlement continues to shape normative and political responses to contemporary crises surrounding forced migration and dispossession broadly understood.

Hannah Arendt is very frequently cited for her insights about the plight of statelessness, about the fact that, in the absence of citizenship rights, claims about the rights of people as human beings are not particularly meaningful. The implication that Arendt drew from this insight is that there should be one basic rule of global order, that everyone should have the right to membership somewhere. But when we read her interventions on the subject of statelessness against the background of a longer history of critical reflection on this phenomenon and on international order, we see more clearly how her thought helps us elucidate a critical distinction between governments agreeing to prevent occurrences of statelessness, because of its collective impact due to the structure of the international order, and international agreements that are premised on the idea that statelessness represents a kind of deprivation for individuals that states should not countenance due to its negative impact on particular people.

I do not think these kinds of arguments are necessarily incompatible and you could be moved by both kinds of claims. What I am trying to show in the book is how, as a matter of historical explanation, the weight that was placed on the second justification in post-war debates and in national legal forums about the regulation of nationality worked to undermine the force of the first claim about world order. The result was to make statelessness marginal to international politics.

The alternative that Arendt and others were proposing in theorizing statelessness after World War II was to comprehend it as inextricable from order and collective security. They proposed to theorize it as a problem of political organization. 

This is a position that resonates with the impending mass migration spurred by the climate crisis: it suggests how we might think about this crisis not just as a matter of a moral obligation to strangers, although one could also think about it in that way, but as a condition of global order and collective security.

If there is a sort of major precedent, or a kind of archive, I think it is in recovering this way of thinking about a collective problem that intuitively already exists, albeit in a context where we also have legal frameworks and institutions that have narrowed and set up a way of thinking about displaced refugees and stateless persons. I do think we need to consider critically whether these frameworks are working, what their limitations are, and how they continue to frame or limit the way we think about the possibilities of global order.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Oliver Garner and Giancarlo Grignaschi.

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