On Feminist Curiosity and International Relations

Curiosity is often unwanted. Curiosity is often discouraged. Curiosity is often an initial practice to holding accountable those who seek impunity for their actions. As such, curiosity is itself a political practice. It is a mental faculty-as-practice that is a precondition to establishing a firm ground upon which one may cast judgement. Although perhaps flawed in her incomplete articulation of judgement itself, as Hannah Arendt teaches us, judgement is always directly interconnected to, or inside the orbit of, political action within the public realm as politics par excellence. (Arendt, 2009; Steinberger, 1999; D’entrèves, 2000)  Hence, as an act of seeking to ‘dig’ so as to ‘know’, through judgement, curiosity is endowed with an innately political character.

To many Feminists and Queer Theorists, the political character of curiosity is not novel. Indeed, feminist curiosity has been well documented and in has certainly contributed to the epistemological discourse, exploring ‘how we know what we know’ when thinking about International Relations. (Enloe, 2004) In her most recent work Twelve Feminist Lessons of War, Cynthia Enloe unpacks a series of observations about the manner in which women experience war. (Enloe, 2023) A certain feminist curiosity, Enloe states, allows us to “make realistic sense of the women’s experience of War”, keep track of the priorities and practices of prosecutors, “weigh who is worth listening to during wartime,” observe how fighting forces operate in relation to women, “slow down even militarization,” and much more. (Enloe, 2023: 83-84)

One finding from such curiosity concerns the temporal demarcation of war’s end. The ending to a conflict is often thought to be an event, temporally delineated to a given time and date. One does not have to go far to find illustrations of this, wherein representatives or emissaries of sovereign bodies (usually men, but not always) meet to negotiate the terms of a conflict’s conclusion. Matthais Erzberger met with Ferdinand Foch, Napoleon Bonaparte capitulated to Frederick Lewis Maitland, and Mamoru Shigemitsu and Douglas MacArthur formally brought the Second World War to a close. One could go on; formalised inter-state conflict is usually brought to a close with such events. The Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War, the Dayton Agreement the Bosnian War, the Kumanovo Agreement the Kosovo War, or even the Pretoria Agreement, which in November 2022 brought the Tigray War in Ethiopia to an end.

 Through too many numerous examples to count, it is the evental-act of signature that brings an end to a conflict. Gallons of blood, Rankean history tells us, are halted in their flow by just one drop of ink. In these cases, the activity of treaty-signing is supposed to be a performative one. With the flick of a pen and the scribbling of the right names on the right piece of paper, the bullets, the shells, the gas, the drone-strikes, the rape, the theft, the fear, the suffering, the trauma-production, everything, all of it, is supposed to halt – ushering in the new-beginning of a ‘secure’ age.

The same can be said of failed campaigns of militarisation and ‘humanitarian’ military activity, be that in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Mali, Syria, Haiti, Afghanistan again, and too many other cases to mention. Here, the conflict comes to a formal close with the event of the formal retreat, usually ossified into memory as visual evidence that emasculates the military, revealing its incompetence – the last helicopter out of Saigon, the disregard for Afghanis waiting on the tarmac of Kabul’s remaining airstrip, the termination of Operation Barkhane, the final vehicle column crossing the Hairatan Bridge into Uzbekistan. This too is sovereign performativity in the manner of traditional Austinian speech-acts. (Austin, 1962) Be they a civilian leader, a monarch enshrined by the divine, or a military commander, the sovereign entity with whom ultimate decision-making power over the state’s forces rest comes to decide the conflict shall be no more. The utterance of this sovereign speech-act has the legitimate illocutionary and perlocutionary force of bringing a conflict to a close with the command of withdrawal. Once again, the sovereign utterance brings an end to a conflict. Feminist and Queer curiosity reveals to us that this is but one of the many necessary fictions we construct for our own adherence to. 

Time as inside/outside – ‘post’ demarcates the formalisation of this following the sovereign decision to end fighting. Nonetheless, the experience of war continues and can itself re-militarise so to create future dilemmas of security, what Hugh Gusterson describes as a ‘perpetual motion mechanism’. (Gusterson, 2016; Kaldor, 2018: 37) ‘Post-War’ for many (who care, who hold state-sanctioned expectations, who harbour trauma, who hold scars both material and immaterial) is still ‘Per-War’. Indeed, it is only the experience from the perspective of the sovereign that war truly ever becomes ‘Post’ and in this way, the Realist is perhaps correct, that peace itself always entails conflict. Nonetheless, Enloe reminds us to hold our curiosity steadfast, and ask where are the women in such a 'peace'?


Arendt, Hannah (2009) Responsibility and Judgment. New York: Schoken Books

Austin, John L. (1962) How To Do Things With Words. London: Penguin.

D’entrèves, Maurizio Passerin (2000) “Arendt’s theory of judgment”. In Danna Villa (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 245-260.

Enloe, Cynthia (2004) The Curious Feminist: Searching For Women in a New Age of Empire. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Enloe, Cynthia (2023) Twelve Feminist Lessons of War. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kaldor, Mary (2018) Global Security Cultures. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Gusterson, Hugh (2016) Drone: Remote Control Warfare. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Steinberger, Peter J. (1999) ‘Hannah Arendt on Judgment’. American Journal of Political Science, 34(3): 803-821.