International Relations – Quo Vadis?

Alexander Likhotal

International Relations  –  Quo Vadis?
By Mr. Alexander Likhotal, former President of Green Cross International, Deputy Spokesman and Adviser to the President of the USSR, President Mikhail Gorbachev, and GSD Faculty member

Next semester I will be teaching at GSD the course in IR “World Politics: Trends and Transformations”. The academic discipline of IR is relatively new, the first department and chair of international relations were established only in 1919 – both at the University of Wales in the UK.

However, the IR phenomena go deep into history turning vaguer and vaguer until disappearing in the potestary social cultures of late Bronze age.

Thousands of years, roughly until the XIX century people were more or less expected to die in the same world into which they were born. Later on, the change was in sync with the generational successions. But today change is no longer just an eventuality: it’s a part of the reality, a “conditio sine qua non” of our survival. Due to on-going change and regardless of our acceptance (notice to the “counter-clockwise revolt” supporters!), the world will differ so much in 10 years that we will be surprised with our current concerns. This qualitative change begs the question – where are the big ideas in international relations today?

Back in the 1960s to 1980s, IR studies were driven by fierce theoretical battles between realists, institutionalists and constructivists over the best model to explain world politics. Later on, the end of the Cold War framed the discourse around what the future has in store for us (from Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”), with debates over the meaning of the democratic peace or American hegemony on the side. Just lately, international relations have experienced several important shift points (9/11, 2008 financial crisis, hybrid/cyber wars, post-truth politics etc) that accompanied the emergence of a global polity and society, but there has been no similar outpouring of theory to explain the meaning of these changes.

However, the international system is dramatically changing literally in front of our eyes. Numerous transformations are taking place in the models of social, economic, and political activity, in projections of power and authority. The cultural landscape and its relevant “content structures” (democracy, liberalism, right and left political dichotomy etc.) are changing simultaneously. Human behavioural patterns and their matching mechanisms are acquiring new systemic qualities.

When I was taught history (including IR), there was the idea of narrative. It was mostly related to a grand historical narrative of interstate rivalry. A nation state, as a sole IR actor, has always been constructing relevant “story”: here is how we were founded, this is the “birthday of the nation”, – it is celebrated as a major national holiday, we have certain “geopolitical” interests, that require… and so on and so forth.

But now these narratives sound, in many ways, more and more irrelevant and obsolete. Alongside the process of globalisation, there is another process that receives much less attention – “lateralisation” – the establishment of a vigorous, polyphonic groups of people that use broad access to the IT and communications, financial, organisational, and technological means of post-industrial world.

These “asteroids” of the social universe include various “ambitious” corporations, global diasporas, influential NGOs, various think tanks etc. All of them make up a new flexible Oecumene, without any ‘formalised’ sociological “cartography” but leaving ever-growing footprint on the agenda and vector of the world development.

These new actors are already entering the IR: the state maintains (so far?) a monopoly on certain policies’ areas, but non-state actors play an increasingly important role on the stage of defining the problem, analysing the problem links, and direct execution (eg, data collection, monitoring, work in particular public institutions).

The Danish government recently decided to establish a post of an Ambassador responsible for relationship not with another foreign state but with… corporations. The “digital ambassador” of Denmark will be facilitating relationship between Denmark and (!) Apple, Google and Microsoft. What is this if not a recognition that new actors have already arrived to the international arena and that their impact on the IR grows comparable to that of a state’s.

The changes brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will hopefully be largely positive, but are we prepared for the unintended consequences? To avoid them we will need new governance models that are more effective, accountable, inclusive and reflective of the new paradigm we are entering.

Who can manage complexity of a “plurilateral” world we are stepping in? What kind of political architecture will be needed to support the nascent new multi- or rather “pluripolarity”? How can we sync governance with inevitable digitalisation of politics? How can we enable the decision-making mechanisms at the global level?

These questions need to be answered and what I’m trying to teach, first of all myself and then the others, is to have the feeling that we all live within history, we are part of it, we are shaped by its forces. Understanding the historicity of our own existence is extremely important because people are psychologically inclined to mental simplification of reality– believing that the things to which they are used are natural and God-given.

The ability to see things historically prevents us from making these intellectual mistakes, it allows to see the complexity of things, which is particularly important to understand the international relations of the world in transit.



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