A Decolonial View

By students in the Colonial and Postcolonial Master

Mythical Casus Belli


Ejner Pedersen Trenter

The Westphalian state system is very much alive and kicking, at least as a meta-theoretical lens through which we observe the world. However, and here I quote one of Marx’s perhaps most famous lines ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’ Is this not also the foundation upon which the very idea of decolonisation rests? Not just to observe the effects on colonialism in a postcolonial society, to actively decolonise it! In a sense this is an ongoing academical debate, and to anyone who follows it, it is clearly a heated debate. However, as I write this, there is philosophical current which has been incredibly efficient in not just describing the political world, but to shape it through discursive means. It is the state-oriented Realist school within International Relations.

Allegory of the Peace of Westphalia, by Jacob Jordaens from Wikipedia

The idea that the state-system is one of constant, and often deadly, competition is an old one which rests on centuries of Enlightenment ideals of rationality. It has reigned supreme in its ideologically hegemonic position for so long that we even call it ‘realism’, for they do after all call it the way they see it. And what they see in today’s international system, is a return to the old idea of power-balance and the threat of war. I am of course referring to both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing genocide in Gaza. While no school of thought can change the atrocities taking place, the way in which they become codified and articulated by international actors do very much shape the way in which actions become legitimised. I will briefly look at two cases of perceived justifications of violence.

Firstly, the invasion of Ukraine in 2021 greatly helped the former realist concept of balance-of-power to re-enter the mainstream discourse, both in academic terms but also in general media coverage. Consider the way in which NATO has become one of the main political topics of discussion in Europe, and especially Sweden. According to NOVUS which conducts regular surveys on political opinion in Sweden, the support for NATO has increased drastically, with a record of 54% for joining the military alliance and 23% against, measured in May 2022 (Novus, 2022). At the time of writing, the Turkish parliament has voted for Swedish membership, while Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the last remaining obstacle, expected to do the same.

What does this mean? Well, Orbán, who’s no stranger to bellicose rhetoric, is also one of the few European leaders to maintain a relatively good relation with Russia after the invasion, raising questions of whether the obstruction in the Swedish NATO-matter is a political game (The Guardian, 2024). As has been covered in literature, Orbán’s discourse is often based on the notion of an ethnic Hungarian state which is under threat from a Muslim ‘invasion’ (Kovacs, 2020; Washington Post, 2015). So while the political (Westphalian, if you will) principal of self-defence is applied with regards to Sweden, there is also speculation about whether this is just power-politics and stone-cold state diplomacy. Of course, that would fit very well into the Enlightenment rationale which permeates the international state system based on the ‘realist’ school of thought.

On the other hand, the same rationale, albeit with a twist, is applied to Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Amidst heated UN debate on how to end the ongoing ‘conflict’, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stressed the importance for a two-state solution, while US spokesperson ‘emphasized Hamas’ role in unleashing the conflict’ (UN, 2024). By now, the utter destruction of Gaza has been widely reported and many call for, if not ceasefire, at least precaution on Israel’s part to avoid humanitarian casualties. What is rarely questioned, however, is the reason for invasion. It is accepted as politically legitimate in a Westphalian state-system, to defend one’s borders. Despite occupying Gaza since 1948, Israel’s response to the October 7 attack is legitimate insofar as it corresponds to a Westphalian rational reaction to transgression of state sovereignty. That the invasion descended into what is widely recognised as genocide is not the important issue here (however harsh that may sound). The issue is that the ontological state-system with ingrained rights and responsibilities is allowed to invade from the very beginning. The October 7 attack is condemned by international actors on almost every level, and so is the horrors perpetrated by Israel, with the difference that the initial invasion by the latter is justified.

Sweden, who’s neutrality as served as a cornerstone of its international identity, now stands to join as a fully-fledged member of NATO. The decision to do so was made on rational grounds, as part of a larger geopolitical logic, in which states seek to protect themselves. Like Sweden, Israel’s to invade Gaza was a fully rational one, after all, their sovereignty was under attack. However, the decision to attack Israel by Hamas is repeatedly seen as an act of terror. Hamas is, in other words, an Other to the state system itself, an actor external but contingent to it. It serves as the irrational Other which, through its difference points to what is rational.

 My aim is not to debate what constitutes acts of ‘legitimate state violence’ and ‘acts of terror’, but to hint at the link between the difference between the two being linked to the production of knowledge attributed to a ‘realist’ school of thought within academia. What scholars have called the meta-theoretical myth of Westphalia which has permeated IR discourse since the field’s conception continues to define the legitimacy of casus belli, well beyond the borders of Europe itself.


Kovács, K (2020) ‘People, sovereignty and citizenship: the ethnonational populists’ constitutional vocabulary’ Statelessness & Citizenship Review, (2:2), p. 389-394

Novus (2022) ‘Majoritet för NATO’, Novus https://novus.se/egnaundersokningar-arkiv/majoritet-for-nato/ 
[Last Accessed: 25-01-2024]

The Guardian (2024) ‘Orbán reaffirms backing for Swedish Nato bid as allies’ patience runs Low’ The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/jan/24/orban-reaffirms-backing-for-swedish-nato-bid-as-allies-patience-runs-low  https://press.un.org/en/2024/sc15569.doc.htm      
[Last Accessed: 25-01-2024]

UN (2024) ‘Secretary-General Underscores Two-State Solution Only Way to End Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, One-State Formula Inconceivable, in Day-Long Debate’, United Nations Meetings Coverage and Press Release https://press.un.org/en/2024/sc15569.doc.htm      
[Last Accessed: 25-01-2024]

Washington Post (2015) ‘Hungary’s Orbán invokes Ottoman invasion to justify keeping refugees out’, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/04/hungarys-orban-invokes-ottoman-invasion-to-justify-keeping-refugees-out/  
[Last Accessed: 25-01-2024]

National culture canon in Sweden as a “unifying force” in a “polarized” society


On September 11 this year, Sweden had a general election to the national parliament (Riksdagen), the 21 regional councils and the 290 municipal councils. The right-wing coalition between the Sweden Democrats, the Moderate Party, the Christian Democrats, and the Liberal Party obtained a majority in the Riksdag, leading to Ulf Kristersson as new Prime Minister and a new government in Sweden in October 18 (based on the Tidö agreement, which was presented on a press conference in October 14).

One of the new ministers in Kristersson’s cabinet was the relatively unknown Parisa Liljestrand, former municipal councilor in Vallentuna between 2018-2022, as Minister of Culture.

Parisa Liljestrand, the Minister of Culture in Sweden.Photo: Ninni Andersson/Government Office

Parisa Liljestrand, the Minister of Culture in Sweden.
Photo: Ninni Andersson/Government Office

One of her tasks will be to appoint an “independent expert committee” with the aim of developing proposals for a Swedish cultural canon, in accordance with the Tidö agreement. Nevertheless, nowhere in the text of the Tidö agreement does it say what Sweden should have such a cultural canon for. The inspiration is though said to come from the Danish model, which since 2006 has introduced a national cultural canon. However, one of the key arguments, according to an interview with Liljestrand in SVT, is that culture could become a “unifying force” in a “polarized” society.

Among scholars and intellectuals, this is a highly controversial statement that engages. In Sweden, there has been a long-standing tradition of the principle of keeping politics at arm’s length from culture, which means that politics can create basic conditions for culture to be brought to life (for example through budgets and legislation), but not get directly involved in the culture’s content. The proposal to introduce a national cultural canon breaks with this tradition.

As a student of postcolonial studies, I find the “unifying force” argument not only deeply problematic but also suspect, downright unpleasant. Constructing a national cultural canon rather contributes to hiding the societal conflicts and contradictions that art in its various forms aims to make observable. That in turn contributes to the risk of maintaining a false notion of an united “we” as well as an artificial consensus about Sweden. To put a label on an individual profile and let that person be presented as representative of that label is to take an interpretive priority over their artistic efforts. Would, for example, August Strindberg, Karin Boye, and Vilhelm Moberg appreciate being part of such a national canon? That is not certain. Would artists like Lars Vilks and Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin contribute to a desirable “unifying force”? That is extremely doubtful. In any way, the political canonization had meant that all their works would have been read/seen in a completely new context. In other words, it means that politics in practice seizes artistic works.

Regardless of what the “expert committee” presents for works to might be included in this canon, there are no objective measures of quality. Valuation and taste regarding cultural expressions is always subjective. Moreover, the inclusion of some in a culture canonization implies that others will be excluded, which can definitely be analyzed from postcolonial perspectives.

Something that even becomes more worrying is that Culture Minister Parisa Liljestrand does not exclude the idea of letting knowledge of the cultural canon be used in citizenship tests for immigrants. The same demand does not seem to apply to Swedish citizens. This means that Swedes can move freely with their lack of knowledge about famous cultural figures, while immigrants can be denied citizenship if they have a lack of knowledge about the same famous cultural figures. This discriminatory approach creates an “us” and a “them”.

With the background of the above-mentioned critical objections in mind, what remains as the real reasons for establishing a national cultural canon? It is probably one of many concessions to the Sweden Democrats from the Moderate Party, the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party. The Sweden Democrats are a political party with ideological roots in Nazism, who addresses their ideology in all substantive political areas. A cultural canon is thus a far-reaching ideological project with nationalist overtones, which aims to win the struggle over historiography and thereby define “Swedishness”. At the end of the day, it is about defining who “we” are and what “we” are not.

Before I finish this text, I would like to quote the Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “A great writer is, one might say, the second government of his country. And therefore no regime has ever loved great writers, only the less important ones.”


Filip Hallbäck

Nya kulturministern Parisa Liljestrand (M): ”Kulturkanon kan vara en enande kraft” | SVT Nyheter (2022-11-23)

Who’s afraid of speaking about Elizabeth II’s colonial legacy?


Royalty - Queen Elizabeth II Visit to Jamaica - Kingston

Troops parade for Queen Elizabeth II as she arrives in Kingston. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived in Jamaica at the start of a three-day Golden Jubilee visit. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

On September 8, Queen Elizabeth II of United Kingdom died at the age of 96. She reigned longer than anyone else in British history, from 1952 until her death (which is 70 years). She was Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and head of state not only in Great Britain, but also in 14 other countries that are part of the Commonwealth realm (including Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Grenada, and Canada).

The news of her passing caused grief among many in the Western world for Britain’s regent, but it has also sparked debate about permissions for discussions of the system of which the Queen was a part and its legacy of colonialism. The resulting debate has been about whether the colonized are allowed to speak about their colonizers’ abuses, at the time of the colonizer’s death. If yes, can it be considered ethically and morally right to do so? If no, then when is it ever the right time to discuss the colonizer’s abuse?

For many in the countries that have been and/or are still part of the Commonwealth realm, the British monarchy is strongly associated with colonial violence, oppression, and murder. For example, Uju Anya (who is an associate professor of second language acquisition at Carnegie Mellon University) tweeted the following:

“If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star,”[1]

Another voice, Zoé Samudzi, a Zimbabwean American assistant professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, tweeted:

“As the first generation of my family not born in a British colony, I would dance on the graves of every member of the royal family if given the opportunity, especially hers.”[2]

Even when Elizabeth II was alive, she was subject to colonial presence. Indigenous senator Lidia Thorpe was due to repeat the oath of allegiance to members of Australia’s parliament at the beginning of August this year. During the repeat, she raised her fist in the air and called the Queen a “colonizer”.[3]

From a Swedish perspective, my experience is that the traditional media coverage here of Queen Elizabeth II has been relatively one-sided. Often one uncritical perspective is raised, and it is about the Queen’s leadership of her institution. How she has dealt with “difficult” situations. She is often portrayed as an innocent matriarch with style, class, and a sense of duty, when in fact she in other parts of the world is seen as an active participant in the preservation of British colonialism. The wealth of the British Royal House, for instance, is largely plundered from the resources of colonizing countries worldwide.

Perhaps Swedish media are influenced by the dramaturgy of popular cultural productions, for example the Netflix series The Crown. Perhaps because Great Britain never in history attacked Sweden militarily? Or perhaps the monarchy in Sweden, as in Great Britain, is seen as a fundamental part of the national identity? Perhaps this is yet another clear example of what is commonly referred to as “white innocence” (in this context, meaning that justifying colonial actions by establishing the notion that the colonizers and their heirs meant no harm). Perhaps this constitutes a school example of the need and relevance for a decolonizing look at media reporting? To paraphrase the title of Edward Albee’s most famous play: Who’s afraid of speaking about Elizabeth II’s colonial legacy?

Unfortunately, I am not sure. What I do know, however, is that one of the Swedish public service media’s most important tasks is comprehensive reporting. That means you must zoom out, watch the whole picture, and dare to see its complexity. In this case, it is about including the voices that live with the aftermath of British colonialism. Inconvenient as it may be for the white, Western majority population, this needs to be told. As for now, these voices are found almost exclusively on social media.

Filip Hallbäck


[1] https://twitter.com/UjuAnya/status/1567933661114429441?cxt=HHwWgsDT4fDWtcIrAAAA (2022-09-11)

[2] https://twitter.com/ztsamudzi/status/1567888385347297281?cxt=HHwWgoCxgb6LocIrAAAA (2022-09-11)

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/aug/01/australian-greens-senator-lidia-thorpe-calls-queen-coloniser-while-being-sworn-into-parliament (2022-09-11)