James Ker-Lindsay’s YouTube channel
By James Ker-Lindsay
YouTube, since 2019
The COVID-19 pandemic has led many of us to try our hand at teaching and learning online. However, some scholars were ahead of the game when it came to foreseeing the potential for unrestricted knowledge sharing through popular video platforms like YouTube. This is the case with Professor James Ker-Lindsay, whose broadcaster recently celebrated its first anniversary. In the past year, this channel, which deals with “international relations, independence, statehood and the origins of countries”, collected around 60 videos and over 6,000 subscribers. In about 10 to 15 minutes, the videos examine easily accessible key concepts such as state, state recognition, self-determination, remedial action, UN membership and de facto States as well as a multitude of cases of secessionism, controversial states and state conflicts from (Southeast) Europe, the post-Soviet area, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania. Happy endings on particularly complicated paths to independence – from Belgium to Eritrea to Bangladesh – are also discussed in a separate section.
The videos are clearly scripted, concise and provided with a helpful summary. They are mainly based on Ker-Lindsay’s camera language. This means that while they include useful graphical support (e.g., maps, flags, pictures of political figures, screenshots of headlines, websites, primary documents, and academic articles), they can also be easily listened to as podcasts – as I did myself got some of them. In both formats, James Ker-Lindsay’s channel appears to be an incredibly valuable educational and dissemination resource. The discussion of all topics and cases benefits from authoritative voice, accuracy and effectiveness. A wealth of factual information is presented combining insights from history, law, and politics, often a welcome effort to clear up misunderstandings. This gives the viewer / listener a sense of satisfaction and a solid basic understanding. In that regard, the station’s goals and style are largely in line with the direction of Ker-Lindsay’s recently co-authored book Secession and State Building: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Mikulas Fabry). More analytical depth and clearer original arguments can be found in the videos that build on previous ones on the same topic, especially when it comes to current affairs. Some of the analysis on current affairs sounds like media commentary at its best.
The channel is not only a kind of introductory audiovisual textbook on statehood and secession, but also a practical companion for understanding a surprising amount of international news. For example, if you just look at the events from September to October 2020, a video on the channel talks about the historical background in the context of the decolonization of the “unfortunate union” that marks the origin of the secessionist uprising currently underway in western Togoland – where the referendum of 1956, which led to the integration into the soon to be independent Ghana, did not resolve all grievances. Another video deals with the debate over whether a secession dispute with a de facto state can be legally resolved by military means – by an attack by the mother state on the reconquest and forcible reintegration of breakaway territory – as was apparently aimed at by the most recent Azerbaijani offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Ker-Lindsay, the answer to international law is mixed, as the established right of states to territorial integrity in general and the UN Security Council resolutions calling for a peaceful settlement of this conflict in particular are tense. And the fine print is even more relevant in the area of legitimacy, where the international community’s double standards on the use of force are accompanied by increased control of war crimes and serious human rights abuses.
Finally, a third video sheds light on the recent US-sponsored agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, including the strange triangle created by the inclusion of Israel as an unexpected guest in the “final point”. Ker-Lindsay asserts that the strictly bilateral agreement is not the announced “big breakthrough” and adds only a minor value to the already ongoing EU-led economic normalization process. The only novelty is the commitment of Serbia and Kosovo to suspend the fight for international recognition / write-off for one year. However, the actual goal of the Trump administration would have been to advance Israeli interests by ensuring mutual recognition between Israel and Kosovo and the (re-) settlement of the Kosovar and Serbian embassies in Israel in the city of Jerusalem.
As these examples show, Ker-Lindsay offers many instructive answers. If this is at a disadvantage, some outstanding question marks seem to fade into the background. Unsurprisingly, this is consistent with the positivist approach that dominates the statehood and state recognition literature in IR. While this area can naturally only be state-centered – and for Ker-Lindsay states actually remain the “basic building block of the international system” – critical IR science and statehood are still strange bedfellows. In the case of this channel, without changing the author’s own epistemological position, some key concepts could be further problematized, if only to reflect the fact that the intense politics that surround them are not just a matter of conceptual or factual misunderstandings. A typical example is “the importance of self-determination”, which is referred to as if this were a regulated problem, as if the restrictive legal interpretation of such a right (compared to the principle of territorial integrity of the state) and its prioritization The so-called internal Self-determination “within established states”, which prevailed after decolonization, was no longer controversial and open to debate.
In fact, spotting the confusion can be the most accurate approach. This emerges from the discussion of the liminal political creatures that exist in “strange limbo” de facto Conditions. According to Ker-Lindsay, the term is de facto States is “very subjective” and the issue is “clouded in confusion and disagreement”. “Just as there are profound differences in terminology,” he explains, “there are also fundamental differences in which areas are to be understood de facto States and which are not. “While the starting point in the video on state recognition resembles the conventional, dualistic legal view of this concept, the subsequent review of its practice results in highlighting the” surprising number of ways “on which such recognition can be signaled bilaterally and multilaterally, including significant gray areas and “room for confusion”.
In other words, when it comes to international politics of statehood and state recognition, one doesn’t have to be wholly post-positive to admit that some of our basic parameters have always been a little shaky. At the same time, striving to unsettle assumptions and consider issues of position does not free us from getting the facts right and striving for accuracy and clarity, as Ker-Lindsay does masterfully.
Further reading on E-International Relations