The Dramaturgy of International Conferences

Yes, I know, all generalizations are bad. But some stereotypes appear so frequently in this microcosm of panel debates, round-tables and consultations, they can be considered archetypes of all-too-human behavior: the overly self-confident fifty-something who boasts that “he’s the man behind resolution A/RES/42/39 [B]” when quietly asked about his work. The young, ambitious MFA employee who hands out his business-cards to everyone who could potentially be important to his career, while being blissfully unaware that anybody who really wanted something from him could find his contact details within two minutes of internet-search. Or the desperate ph.D.-student who anxiously tries to convince senior researchers and practitioners alike of the relevance of her thesis.

All the world’s a stage and the stage during these oh-so-important gatherings is not only the actual dais from which world-leaders and experts share their wisdom. It is also the last row in the auditorium where participants try to outdo one another with witty remarks, pseudo-cynicism and an occasional round of bullshit-bingo. It is the networking-event at the bar, the dinner at this fancy restaurant or the lunch-break in the cafeteria. Much like actors in a theator play, the characters roaming the convention centers in D.C., Paris, or the like, are acutely aware of the watchful eyes of an audience which observes their every move. The International Security Forum (ISF) recently held in Geneva was no exception; neither was the NPT Prep Com session that took place across the street. The cast may change, depending on the conference-topic, the stereotypes are essentially the same. At the ISF, participants were predominantly former military men, finding their perfect prey in a young girl arguing for nuclear disarmament and world peace.


 “-We need nuclear weapons as deterrence” they would say.
“-Deterrence only works when you believe in states as rational actors” I would respond.
“-They ensure the balance of power.”
“-The balance of power is already sk(r)ewed” (I did mind my language. Afterall, I was talking to a gentleman)
“-States have strong control over their nuclear warheads”
“-What if they fall in the hands of terrorists”

On and on did I continue this 101 in IR-theory with this perfectly polite yet slightly condescending NATO Ambassador until, eventually, he was called away by some equally important looking man in uniform.

In all fairness, not all conference guests were as self-rightous or pompous as those I just introduced. The self-proclaimed “low-level government consultant” turned out to be the brain behind a nation-wide social policy reform in Africa; the professor from GWU was genuinely interested in what others had to say, and even the NATO Ambassador proved to be an honest-to-god public servant. These people know they’re playing a farce but as long as they still show up to the show, such a conference can be more than just theater.


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