Belgrade University PHOTO: Cagla Demirel

Belgrade University PHOTO: Cagla Demirel

Conference reports international relations in the age of anxiety

In June 2019, scholars came together in Belgrade for the CEEISA-ISA Joint Conference to discuss international relations in the age of anxiety. The current increase in international populist discourse and far-right movements and the democratic regression in Central and Eastern Europe were the focal point of the discussion. Questions that arose revolved around whether there are any prospects for reconciliation as a way to de-escalate the violence in the world.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 39-40
Published on on December 30, 2019

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The CEEISA-ISA Joint Conference in Belgrade, 16–19 June, 2019, organized by the Faculty of Political Sciences of Belgrade University.

In June 2019, scholars came together in Belgrade for the CEEISA-ISA Joint Conference to discuss international relations in the age of anxiety. The current increase in international populist discourse and far-right movements and the democratic regression in Central and Eastern Europe were the focal point of the discussion. There was also time to reflect on the difficulties in bridging the divided histories of societies in Europe and the difficulties in implementing the international politics of memory and commemoration. Questions that arose revolved around whether there are any prospects for reconciliation as a way to de-escalate the violence in the world.


The keynote speaker Associate Professor Bahar Rumelili, Jean Monnet Chair at the Department of International Relations at Koc University, addressed how “the age of anxiety” became a key reference point after World War I in philosophy, literature, and the arts. Rumelili dwelled upon the conceptualization of anxiety and how anxiety as a concept has a prominent place in political, philosophical, and psychological thought and provides a theoretical point of view for understanding the socio-psychological dimensions of not only domestic and foreign policy of governments, but also individuals’ mass-mobilization and agency. Both on the state and group levels the shared uncertainties such as rising populism and fundamentalism could be discussed in light of the existentialist concept of anxiety. The existential conceptions of anxiety seen in relation to fear, certitude, and authenticity highlight the characteristics of nationalist and religious ideologies and authoritarianism that serve the containment of anxiety. Even though we do not live in a relatively more dangerous world today, the line between known and unknown uncertainties creates a political sphere in which political leaders use the fear of the future to manipulate their constituencies. Such fears and uncertainties create the terminology of risk calculation and subsequent feelings of anxiety. At this point, by looking at pre-modern times, we can see that religion stimulated uncontested knowledge about the unknown and provided control over the unknown future. Thus, it decreased feelings of anxiety. In modern times, with the growth of secularism, national communities were described as symbols of immortality and as the materialization of an anticipated future for subsequent generations. However, in our current post-modern period, uncertainty, risk, and anxiety are not only related to the future, but also to the present. In addition, the production of anxiety emerges as a political technique because of the use of hard uncertainty. Ideas, discourses, narratives, governance strategies based on emergency planning, prevention, and pre-emptive strategies are the tools by which international anxiety is propagated and in turn shapes political actors’ behaviors.

Rumelili also touched upon how international relations scholars who study international anxiety focus on the known unknowns in international relations, namely states’ intentions and possible actions, and how states manage these uncertainties. Realists think they can manage uncertainty with power, while liberals think they can control it with rules and institutions, and constructivists believe in identities and norms. Authoritarian leaders build their governments on the political production of anxiety. For example, the leadership of the Trump administration in the US makes other states anxious because an international arena where alliances can be easily broken, and agreements can be arbitrarily withdrawn creates unpredictability and a feeling that nothing is certain.

Despite all this, Rumelili challenged the negative understanding of anxiety by claiming that anxiety can be revealing, encouraging, and emancipating if one learns how deal with it properly. Rumelili stated that in existentialist thought there is a link between anxiety and freedom, and its implications on agency can be liberating for societies for the sake of changing current structures and political institutions. Accordingly, the positive implications of anxiety could increase the initiation of peace processes, deliberative decision-making, and so on. Thus, discovering the role of anxiety in revolution, social movements, and the politics of climate change (as seen in the example of Greta Thunberg’s climate activism, which resulted in raising global awareness about the climate crisis all around the world) can broaden the understanding of the term. As a result, Rumelili highlighted the positive and revolutionary potential of anxiety that could serve as a facilitator of emancipatory agency in international relations.


In light of the theoretical background introduced by the keynote speaker, the conference presented very valuable discussions on legitimacy, authority, and order in relation to the age of anxiety. It also included many interesting panel debates on various issues surrounding the concept of international anxiety, ranging from the crises of liberal democracies to energy security and from challenges of EU normative power in the enlargement process to migration and human security. Beyond the general theoretical discussions, there were respected panels on regional studies for scholars interested in Central and Eastern Europe, covering a broad range of issues such as the EU’s eastern enlargement, peace-building attempts, and memory challenges in the Balkans. The dissolution of Yugoslavia, Yugo-nostalgia, and Serbia’s political past and future were vital topics and were discussed in most of the panels. Furthermore, a special film screening event was included in the conference program.


The film The Other Side of Everything directed by Mila Turajlic, depicting a broad picture of Serbia’s tumultuous political inheritance, was well worth watching. The documentary starts with the story of the apartment where the director grew up and sheds light on Serbia’s political history through the leading figure in the film, her activist mother Srbijanka. Srbijanka narrates the story of how the apartment was confiscated after the Communist Revolution. Srbijanka’s personal and family history is entangled with significant moments in the country’s political past through peculiar events. For example, her then-government minister grandfather was one of the signatories of the union agreement that created Yugoslavia in 1918. And Mila Turajlic herself played a remarkable role in the October Revolution (the overthrowing of Milosevic) by standing by and giving inspiration to the activist students. The clear message that has been given by Srbijanka’s voice highlighted the general problems all regional countries are still struggling with, such as the fight against oppression, far-right nationalism, and the younger generation’s pessimism towards the future.

Apart from the panels and film screening, one of the progressive steps provided by the conference for the participants was the opportunity to develop methodological guidance.


The methods café was designed especially for PhD students and fellow scholars who wanted to discuss the different methodologies they work on in an informal setting. Scholars, divided into small groups with the guidance of a nominated mentor, held discussions on varied topics ranging from process tracing to postcolonial methodology. I myself was very much interested in the topic of interviewing strategies. Notwithstanding the limited validity of interviews for scientific truth seeking, the importance of their practical and performative value was emphasized. The roundtable discussions were very fruitful, and every participant had an opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences and the challenges they have faced. Possible tactics for overcoming such challenges were also collectively discussed. For example, the institutional limitations of a study in which the focus group is Kosovar and Serbian policemen raised broader questions in relation to finding interviewees, expected and unexpected responses, and ethical considerations. The methods café not only provided mentoring support for the participants, but also enabled an occasion for networking with scholars working with similar methodological approaches.

Last but not least, the conference was also innovative because the provision of support and mentoring opportunities for female scholars. This valuable occasion for developing and strengthening a female academic network started with a mentoring lunch and was followed up by a mentoring café and a roundtable discussion on “Survival Strategies for (Female) Scholars” with the guidance of Annick T. R. Wibben. ≈


  • by Cagla Demirel

    PhD-Candidate in Political Science at BEEGS, Södertörn University. Graduated in International Relations at Karadeniz Technical University in 2010. Her research interests are peace and conflict research, collective and competitive victimhood, identity politics, and reconciliation processes. She was also a PhD representative at Peace Research in Sweden (PRIS) from 2020 to 2022.

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