The Study of International Relations

This is a summary of my notes from 12th October 2018 in Major Approaches to the Study of International Relations at Lancaster University.

International Relations – IR – is the name of both the practice and the academic discipline.  It started after The Great War an an attempt to use reasoned debate to develop common interests.  The original IR scholars were liberal internationalists.

Sometimes it is about relations between actors, sometimes the processes.  It is transdisciplinary.  It is eclectic.

The theories help, but can always be criticised in their coverage or assumptions.  The theories let you see better, but also distort part of reality.  All the theories have merits, all have weaknesses.  One needs to be able to criticise them all.  It is a contested discipline. The theories are commensurable: they allow one to see the same world differently and explain different aspects.

Questions posed by IR:

  • Are humans egoist (devoted to their own interests and advancement) or perfectible (capable of being made perfect, improvable)?
  • Is the international system anarchical or an international society?

There are no political opinions in IR.


Reflections on Diplomacy

I wrote this short essay on 4th September 2022 as part of my work on the University of London’s Coursera course Global Diplomacy – Diplomacy in the Modern World.

This essay argues that diplomacy is even more a key part of our world today than it was in the past.  This will be substantiated with claims that diplomacy occurs on more levels than before, that it is active locally and even within society both at home and abroad.  It uses arguments from Brown, Laffey and Rudin who say diplomats work ceaselessly, that their role has expended to include international development and that it has become more complicated.  It concludes by speculating about challenges for diplomacy in the future.

Diplomacy is, in part, discussions between states to form international agreements, such as the European Union, the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations.  These organisations are an increasing part of our world, so diplomatic interaction with them is ongoing.

Diplomacy has a mediation role, maintaining relations with other states whether an outcome is achieved or not.  As nation states continue to be the structure we have in the world, so diplomacy between states will continue to be needed.

Diplomacy occurs in multi-national organisations such as continents (African Union), regional (League of Arab States), global market (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries – OPEC), religious (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), military (NATO), pacifist (Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons), research (International Space Station), health (World Health Organisation).  As we go from nation states interacting to these multiple layers of interaction, so the need for diplomacy is increasing.

In addition to international relations, diplomacy can produce and maintain global agreements such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the Geneva Conventions, and the International Standard Book Number (ISBN).  It ensures USB plugs go into USB ports and that passports are recognised around the world.  It gives a means to negotiate the protection of endangered species, reductions in carbon dioxide production and the sharing of Covid-19 vaccines and other medication.  As greater awareness of issues arises in the public globally, so there is greater need for collaboration on these issues, thereby increasing the demand for diplomacy.

It is assumed that when violent conflict breaks out that diplomacy has failed.  What is rarely appreciated is that every conflict ends when the participants talk and listen to one another: every conflict ends in diplomacy.  As long as conflict continues, there is a need for diplomacy.  And since good diplomacy is invisible, just because it is not apparent does not mean it is not not happening.  So much current diplomacy is invisible while it is happening; it continues to be a key part of our world.

There are major conflicts going on in the world.  Some are violent such as that between Russia & Ukraine.  Others are cold but high risk, such as that regarding North and South Korea.  Diplomacy is vital in managing the situation around these encounters, either by stopping them getting worse or keeping a door open for talks.

One can also ask if diplomacy is a key part of our world today locally?  In the UK we have Brexit causing issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol and risking sectarian unrest and potentially either new outbreaks of The Troubles or serious problems with the relationship with the EU.  The UK is part of the united response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  It has also recently hosted a convention regarding the international agreements to reduce CO2 before we kill all life on the planet.  Diplomacy is vital to the well-being of the UK in the near and long terms.

Dr Martin Brown refers to how, when communication with Iran was difficult, discussing sport such as weight-lifting and wrestling gave a way to allow the communication to continue.  It is important that diplomats keep open the lines of communication despite it appearing that there are irreconcilable differences between states.

We still have nation states which are concerned with their own agenda and these differ by nation.  As long as this situation continues, there will be a need for diplomacy.

Diplomacy can also be applied be within society, as expressed by Omah Salha whose interest is the integration of Moslems into British society.

As Dr Mark Laffey says, “diplomacy’s about maintaining communications and contact in the midst of on-going disagreements”.  He says diplomacy is increasingly about trade and economics relations.  Indeed, in the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (created in 1782 as the Foreign Office) has in 2020 been merged with the Department for International Development to become the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.  This is very relevant in the UK as it renegotiates trade deals with the rest of the world post-Brexit.

Public diplomacy is where a state tries to influence the view of people in another state; it is not dissimilar from propaganda.  As shown in the Middle East about the USA, the behaviour of a state on the world stage – how it implements its foreign policy – has a huge impact on how that state is perceived, despite efforts to give an impression to the contrary.

In 1956, an article by Harry R Rudin in Political Science Quarterly lists a number of reasons why diplomacy in the 20th century was far harder than in the 19th century.  In the 21st century technology is moving even faster, communication is faster, easier and far less controlled and there are multiple strata in the communication layers between people, groups, states and whatever cross-sections of society one might care to imagine.  Trade has become more globalised.  International corporations are more powerful and wealthy.  New factions have arisen in global society such as religious extremists using terrorism, a global drugs trade, ecoterrorism starting to appear and organised crime being able to use the Dark Web and cryptocurrencies to operate globally but beneath the radar.  Meanwhile demand for finite resources such as fossil fuels, cash crops, rare minerals for high tech good production, water and even land to live on mean increasing conflict between states and societies.  Diplomacy has become exponentially more complicated since the early Cold War years.

Not only is diplomacy as important now with regard to international relations as it was in the past, it now is more broad and deep in how societies interact, both within nations and at supranational levels.  It is a key part of our global economy, especially now as states are less self-reliant and more dependent upon trade with one another for their essential food, energy and goods.  The global impact of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has made this clear with rising prices globally and the many negotiations being conducted internationally to manage food stocks and energy distribution.

As everything becomes more interconnected over time within nations and societies, the role of diplomacy can only increase in the foreseeable future.  Whether existing institutions such as the United Nations and trade cartels will be sufficient to provide the infrastructure for diplomats needs to be seen, and whether diplomacy needs to become a formal profession.

(1,150 words)

References omitted to hinder plagiarism.

Understanding International Relations Theory

I’ve just completed and passed a 12 week course “Understanding International Relations Theory” on Coursera run by the HSE University, Moscow.  It was written four years ago, so well before the invasion of Ukraine. It has been on my To Do list since I completed my Masters in Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies, essentially an international relations course, but I wanted the perspective of a Russian university on the subject.  I got round to doing it when I did because a small number of people were saying the invasion of Ukraine was inevitable and were predicting the nation of its escalation of not addressed.   I also felt it was predictable and based on Russia feeling unheard in its objections to Eastward NATO expansion, not being heard on the world stage beyond its power of veto at the UN and its objections to how regime change was being conducted by the West.

Anyway, the theory is just the same: Realist, Liberalist and Marxist paradigms of interpreting international relations, with their modern neo- versions to accommodate their failings, and the special theories like Democratic Peace Theory, Regime Theory and the delightfully named Liberal Transnationalism or Complex Interdependence Theory.  Also, the critical theories of Constructivism, Postmodernism and Feminism. As expected, it starts with the Peloponnesian Wars, goes through the philosophers like Hobbes and Locke and the Westphalian view of state sovereignty, the League of Nations, the Great War, WW2, the United Nations, the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and almost up to the present day.  All as expected.

But the interesting bit was toward the end: the analysis of Russian foreign policy.  It is entirely a Realist policy, so very different from how the West operates.  And using the Realist paradigm of a desire to balance power, of great powers operating in a ‘concert of nations’ and Russia expecting to be the most influential state in its region, the behaviour of Russia was indeed entirely predictable.

While many were saying Putin is mad, that he intends to invade and conquer Europe, that it is all to do with internal Russian politics, had got it wrong.  The invasion of Ukraine is – like most violence at any scale – all about humiliation.  Russia resents being treated as insignificant on the world stage, resents the encroachment by NATO and the EU into its sphere of influence, resents not being involved in decision-making about world issues such as the Arab Spring (hence its involvement in propping up the Syrian regime to show that it can) and that it was not defeated and eliminated when the Soviet Union collapsed.  Russia wants to be seen as what it sees itself as and has been for centuries: one of the great powers in the Eurasian zone.

All conflicts end with communication.  And communication starts with listening.  We need to stop treating Russia as a defeated opponent or an enemy to be crushed by an ongoing unofficial Cold War and try listening.

Ukraine – prevention

I feel that if there were more money and effort spent on building international relations and conflict prevention, this (the invasion not just of disputed territories but the whole of the Ukraine by Russia) need not have happened.

The criticism of NATO’s continued existence as an offensive military organisation (as opposed to a mutual defence treaty) once the Warsaw Pact had collapsed is not a new one. I can understand Russia’s concern about it. And I have seen many suggestions being made for diplomatic solutions which could have addressed or at least challenged Russia’s demands for not having NATO on their borders. For example, a buffer alliance of East European states not in NATO or Ukraine joining an alliance of neutral states.

Our own national posturing and feeble threats did nothing to prevent what has happened. Nor have our sanctions spread to a whole list of things that any geezer down the boozer could come up with: impounding their ships and aircraft; expelling the 900 Russians who bought an express UK citizenship; banning all trade with Russia; confiscating any containers or goods bound for Russia; instructing every investment house to freeze the assets of every Russian investor or risk being struck off. I’m sure there are many more people with more knowledge can think of, especially for dealing with the Russian supply chain.

Photos of UK politicians wandering around Kiev wearing a furry hat (on a day when it was warmer than Manchester) might get votes but has absolutely zero impact on reality.

It’s another case of a country with some demands (going back 30 years) being ignored and challenged as if to say “We dare you”. But Russia has a cultural tradition of strong and brave leadership: they would respond with a strong and brave response. Which they have. Big surprise. Not.

There’s also the cultural issues in the region which go back a thousand years. The history is really complex and we learned during the Paris Peace Conference a century ago that self determination is really important. If people in a region feel they do not want to be governed by a different peoples, then that needs to be listened to or it will eventually escalate. Since then, and especially in the past 30 or so years, we have learned an awful lot about conflict de-escalation and how to create societies with imbalanced powers that actually work. Instead of waiting for this to go horribly pear-shaped, like we did when Yugoslavia fell to bits, we (European states, mostly, but also the UN) could have done more to help resolve the Ukraine / Crimea / Russia situation by thinking of the people, power structures, how to reorganise society and the history instead of nation state politics.

I don’t think international politics or relations is easy. Well, it is if you ignore it and wait for it to go belly up and wait for it to be a military problem, I suppose, rather than dealing with it. I don’t suppose it is any easier for a national politician in the UK to go and say “Can we help?” than it is to get involved when the neighbours are shouting at one another in the street. It’s easier to draw the curtains and hope it goes away.

But I thought the point of the United Nations was to stop this sort of thing, to create a safe environment to settle issues. Maybe that is where to look for the failure here. In what way does the UN need to change?

And where the heck were the UN peacekeepers? Instead of NATO posturing and behaving like a belligerent nation itself with its leader making threats and demands on the world stage (did you vote for him? I didn’t.), NATO could have offered to provide the peacekeeping force to the UN. To protect the border, from invasion, not as a NATO attack force but a UN peacekeeping force. They have the resources and money for a war, surely they have the resources and money for not a war?

Yes, it’s sad. Unimaginative and weak leadership, more concerned in posturing and local votes than making the world a better place. But then, isn’t that politicians the world over? Me, me, me, me, me.

It does not take a strong person to start a fight. It takes a strong one to stop one. And that strength could come from investment into further research into conflict management, raising awareness of the methods, publicising success when it works and promoting its application when the neighbours are having a falling out. Hmm. I wonder where the money could come from to pay for that?

How about starting with the management of NATO. Scrap NATO as an organisation – but leave the sensible mutual defence pact Treaty in place – and use the money saved for managing international relations in a peaceful way?

Nobody talks about peace

A recurring theme when studying international relations and diplomacy is the need for secret talks between parties in conflict.  This allows concessions to be discussed without the leaders on either side losing face.  So we do not hear about moves made toward peace-making, what the methods are, how many are involved, how much work gets done and how successful it may or may not be.  This gives us the impression that there is no peace-making going on, merely a cessation of hostilities.

It also came up when I was researching The Troubles in Northern Ireland.  The ‘politics of research’ means information on security matters is not researched, not talked about, not documented and not publicised.  So we do not hear about the successes and achievements toward peace making.

I am now going through a list of case studies called ‘War Prevention Works’ published by the Oxford Research Group.  They say in their book that finding out about interventions in conflict is hard because they are kept quiet.

It is no wonder the general public think peace is an impossibility, war is inevitable and that peace-making does now work.  It receives no publicity for multiple reasons, whereas war is newsworthy every day.  And if you don’t talk about something, it does not exist.  There needs to be evidence for people to learn from and believe in.  If you don’t study your history, you can’t learn from it.  Keeping peace-making secret may be a short-term requirement, but it is a medium and long term hindrance.

We need to publicise methods and successes somehow, somewhere.  Which takes me back to where I started in 2012: where is the manual on how to do peace as a practitioner?  What are the methodologies?  What is the learned journal for peace?  What is the code of conduct?  What is the professional body?

Annan: “The State is the servant of its people”

Kofi Annan in his UN Secretary-General’s 1999 annual report:

The State is now widely understood to be the servant of its people, and not vice versa. At the same time, individual sovereignty — and by this I mean the human rights and fundamental freedoms of each and every individual as enshrined in our Charter — has been enhanced by a renewed consciousness of the right of every individual to control his or her own destiny.

This was a call for a ‘responsibility to protect’, meaning going in to prevent a new Holocaust.  Other said it should be used to intervene in natural disasters if the government won’t.  Tony Blair took it to mean sovereignty no longer mattered, so it is OK to go to war with Iraq.

Talk by a diplomat to North Korea

Yesterday evening I attended a presentation organised by the Lancaster University Politics Society.  It was a talk by James Hoare – a retired diplomat who has worked as chargé d’affaires in North Korea – about his experience of working in diplomacy and foreign affairs.

While doing a PhDin Japnese studies he was recruited by the FCO and was duly sent off to cover for someone in North Korea, and that was that.

We learned about the history of Korea, especially since 1910 and what it was like living there.  He confirmed what we were told about the theoretical practice: that there is a pre-diplomacy stage before formal international relations are acknowledged.  During these occasional and factious meetings, there was one he said that went very well when the British representatives talked about bent coppers, thug-like prison officers and corruption in the UK.  The honesty thawed the previously difficult communication.

He said we should go as tourists; communication is always good.