• Sorina I. Crisan, PhD

World Politics & UN Peacebuilding: Interview with Sara Hellmüller, PhD

Updated: Jan 18

How does the emerging multipolar world order influence United Nations peacebuilding approaches? If you are an international relations scholar, a peacebuilding practitioner, or someone who wants to learn about current peace research, then Dr. Hellmüller’s work will greatly appeal to you. In this brief interview you will learn about: Dr. Hellmüller’s strategies to coin her research questions, the methodological approach she’s taking to structure and conduct her work, the unexpected positive outcome that has sprung from her project, and the role of academic research to inform and guide the practices employed by peacebuilding policy-makers and practitioners. The article concludes with the interviewee’s valuable advice to junior scholars interested in following a similar line of academic work as the one discussed in this interview.


Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD


Interview with Sara Hellmüller, PhD, Persuasive Discourse. Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD. Photo by Kyle Glenn, Unsplash.
Photo by Kyle Glenn

Dr. Sara Hellmüller is a Senior Researcher and a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) PRIMA Project Leader at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, for the project: “A child of its time: the impact of world politics on peacebuilding.” Her areas of expertise focus on: Multilateralism, international organizations, peacebuilding and mediation, diversity and local-global interactions, norm diffusion and contestation, knowledge production and science-policy transfer, and qualitative research methods in conflict-affected contexts. Dr. Hellmüller's geographical region of expertise includes Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.



Dr. Hellmüller, thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. Currently, you are leading the project: “A child of its time: the impact of world politics on peacebuilding,” at the Graduate Institute's Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP). Could you briefly describe this project, to those who are not familiar with your work? For instance, it would be interesting to briefly mention: What are the major reasons for conducting this research, what are the main research questions, and what methodological approach(es) do you undertake to analyze your research question(s)?


The motivation for this project is based on a puzzle I observed comparing peacebuilding at the time of my doctoral studies with peacebuilding during my post-doctoral studies. For my PhD, I spent more than a year doing fieldwork in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The United Nations (UN) had deployed a peace mission in the DRC in 1999 with an extensive mandate, including the rebuilding of a liberal state. I witnessed a consensus amongst international actors that peacebuilding should be maximalist and aim at addressing the root causes of the conflict. In my first post-doctoral research project on the peace process in Syria, I observed that this international consensus was waning and different approaches to peacebuilding competed.


Puzzled by what was going on, I designed the “a child of its time”-project in which I argue that we have to understand this change in peacebuilding as part of broader shifts in world politics, and particularly in light of the emerging multipolar world order. The project therefore asks how multipolarity influences UN peacebuilding. It is based on a three-step methodological approach. In the first year (2020), we established a dataset coding the mandate tasks of all UN peace missions (peacekeeping and political missions) between 1991 and 2020 (see www.peacemissions.info) to analyze how the types of missions deployed and their objectives have changed. In the second year of the project (2021), we examined selected UN member states’ conceptualizations of security and sovereignty, arguing that this constitutes the intervening mechanism between world politics and UN peacebuilding. In the upcoming third and fourth year (2022-2023), we will conduct in-depth case studies on the UN peace missions in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Syria, and Yemen. Finally, in the last year of the project (2024), we will do a cross-case analysis to consolidate our findings into a mid-level theory on the link between world politics and UN peacebuilding.


Who is your intended target audience for the aforementioned project and what shall readers/scholars expect to learn from this project?


Our intended audience are scholars and practitioners. On the one hand, we aim to contribute to the literature by linking IR and peace research, arguing that IR theories provide a much-needed understanding of the environment in which UN peacebuilding takes place. On the other hand, we also hope to improve peacebuilding practice by providing detailed insights on changing world politics and their impact on UN peacebuilding, thereby hopefully contributing to more effective practices in the future.


The “a child of its time”-project is scheduled to be conducted during the years 2020 to 2024. Given that you are about to reach the midway (timewise) of this project, it would be interesting to know: What stage are you at now in the research project? What has been one of the biggest challenges that you have encountered thus far and how did you overcome it? Have you encountered an unexpected positive outcome, while conducting this research?


We are well on track with the project as outlined in the schedule above. What has been a challenge, but a positive one, I would say is that we did not really foresee the interest the UNPMM would generate and the manifold ways in which it can be used. While we initially foresaw to produce and work only with the raw data, we ended up also developing a user-friendly dataset as well as a website with straightforward search functions to make it easily accessible to a broader audience. We are now thinking of developing a mobile app based on the dataset, inspired by the success of the SanctionsApp that was also created at the Graduate Institute by Prof. Thomas Biersteker.


Besides working on the aforementioned project, you are a visiting lecturer at the Graduate Institute, a lecturer at the University of Basel, and you have worked as a senior researcher with swisspeace. According to your Institute’s profile page, while at swisspeace, you have built up their Syria program (including direct support to the UN office of the Special Envoy for Syria) and have been involved in several peace processes, such as in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, and Darfur. In retrospect, how have these practical experiences influenced your current research choices and your work as a lecturer?


I think that particularly in the field of IR and peace research, it is indispensable that real-life events inform our research questions and that we aim to disseminate findings and make our knowledge available to policy-makers and practitioners. In the work I did with the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, namely co-managing an institutionalized mechanism for civil society inclusion (the Civil Society Support Room, CSSR), I drew on my academic background but was also inspired for new research ideas and questions. I do believe that such mandates have improved both my research and teaching. For one, they have made my research more relevant and have facilitated access to respondents and research sites. Moreover, they have rendered my teaching more insightful and enabled me to invite highly interesting guest speakers drawing on my practitioners’ network.


Would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for young scholars interested in following a similar line of research?


I find the academic world fascinating and to be a researcher a privilege, but the path leading to it is neither linear nor pre-paved. So if you go for it, be prepared to lead the way, to find your own place, and make sure that you always enjoy what you are doing.




Thank you for reading.




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Sannia Abdullah Close, PhD. Interview for Persuasive Discourse, by Sorina I. Crisan PhD. Photo from the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) webpage.

Sara Hellmüller, PhD


Senior Researcher & Project Leader

A child of its time: the impact of world politics on peacebuilding


Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding

Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

Geneva | Switzerland



Are you inspired by this interview and would like to learn more about Dr. Hellmüller's research?


You may follow Dr. Hellmüller’s work on Twitter and LinkedIn. To learn more about the topics covered in this interview, please consult Dr. Hellmüller’s publications by accessing her profile pages on Google Scholar and on the Graduate Institute website.


For a quick view, here are some of Dr. Hellmüller's latest publications.


Hellmüller, Sara, “A Trans-Scalar Approach to Peacebuilding and Transitional Justice: Insights from the Democratic Republic of Congo”, Cooperation and Conflict, online first. Available online here.


Hellmüller, Sara, 2021, “The Challenge of Forging Consent to UN Mediation Processes in Internationalized Civil Wars - The Case of Syria”, International Negotiation, online first. Available online here.


Hellmüller, Sara, Jamie Pring, and Oliver Richmond, 2020, “How Norms Matter in Mediation: An Introduction”, Swiss Political Science Review, Vol. 26 (4), 345-363. Available online here.


Hellmüller, Sara, 2020, “Meaning-Making in Peace-Making: The Inclusion Norm at the Interplay between the United Nations and Civil Society in the Syrian Peace Process”, Swiss Political Science Review, Vol. 26 (4), 407-428. Available online here.

Hellmüller, Sara, 2020, “Civil society inclusion in peace processes”, In: The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Peace and Conflict Studies, Oliver Richmond and Gëzim Visoka (eds.), Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. Available online here.

Hellmüller, Sara; Marie-Joëlle Zahar, 2019, “UN-led mediation in Syria and civil society”, Accord Issue on “Navigating Inclusion in Peace Processes”, London: Conciliation Resources. Available online here.


Hellmüller, Sara, 2018, “The Interaction between Local and International Actors in Peacebuilding: Partners for Peace”, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. Available online here.




Illustrations by: The main article photo is by Kyle Glenn, downloaded from Unsplash, courtesy of Wix.com photo gallery. Dr. Hellmüller’s profile photo is made available on her Graduate Institute profile page.




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