Writing international relations

This week, as part of our authors series, Dr Christine Cheng shares her experience of writing a book on extralegal groups in post-conflict Liberia.

I have a confession to make: I never imagined that I would grow up to be a politics scholar. It was absolutely not what my parents expected of me. Doctor, lawyer, accountant, business owner— yes. Scientist or engineer— perhaps, with some convincing. But international relations expert— no way. Not a viable career path. Yet here I am, a Chinese-Canadian from Toronto, teaching War Studies in London.
It’s strange to think about how I ended up researching politics for a living. If you had told me twenty years ago that I would one day become so immersed in the Liberian civil war that I would end up writing 384 pages about it, I would’ve probably laughed and rolled my eyes. Yet writing this book has been one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done— but not for the reasons you might think.
The truth is that when I first began work on this project as a DPhil student in Oxford, many of my foreign policy views were the polar opposite of the views that I hold today. After reading and reading some more, conducting fieldwork, and then listening, teaching, presenting, and empathizing, my understanding of the world, of Africa, of the UN, and of human behavior all changed profoundly. Unexpectedly, doing this research and writing this book shook me to my core.  
To give you a sense of this, I grew up with the notion of “peace, order, and good government”. I had always just assumed that states were inherently benevolent because for me, they always had been. When I started my project, my mental model of what all states should aspire to resembled the countries that I was most familiar with: rich, Western democracies. It made intuitive sense to me that after war, the goal should be for more and deeper statebuilding.

But living in a post-conflict country turned all of my thinking upside-down and inside-out. The harsh reality of life after civil war forced me to rethink everything from corruption to infrastructure problems to election violence to having outsiders tell you how to run your country. Under these conditions, a stronger and deeper state was not always a good thing. After a while, it became obvious to me that imposing Western norms and expectations on a society with very different basic social building blocks was not going to turn out the way we expected it to. And yet we persisted without stopping to question.

I lost faith that we, in the international community, genuinely intended to do good for others. This nagging doubt made writing the book a painful process because I had to reckon with my own values and beliefs. Did everything I thought I believed in still hold?  

This is all to say that writing a book isn’t just about understanding the subject matter and then figuring out how to convey that understanding to the reader. On the face of it, I wrote a book about ex-combatant groups that formed out of Liberia’s civil war. But the book was also a giant mea culpa. Writing a book— especially an international relations book—can also force you to actively take stock of your beliefs, values, and your identity. If you leave yourself open to the possibility, you might end up in a very different place than where you started.

Dr Christine Cheng is the author of Extralegal Groups in Post-Conflict Liberia—How Trade Makes the State (Oxford University Press, 2018). She is Lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London and a member of WiFP’s Advisory Board. She tweets @cheng_christine
Read WiFP’s 
interview with Christine