Each political scientist becomes a soldier of his country, and the space for relatively impartial analysis disappears – even those who claim to be impartial inevitably finds themselves within the framework of an interpretation that serves the interests of one of the warring parties, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
When the guns roar, the muses are silent, an ancient Latin proverb tells us. This aptly describes how convincing our attempts to explain what is happening in international politics are, from the point of view of the existing apparatus of its rational understanding. For those who try to pretend to understand how international relations evolve, the saddest casualty of current events is the practice of interaction between states, which jettisons all the pre-existing notions at our disposal.
This applies to both academic scholars and those who approach the assessment of political reality from a purely intuitive point of view. Any intuition inevitably fits into the framework of our own worldview, which, in turn, has long been systematised in one way or another within the framework of the science of international relations. Namely, it suffers the greatest defeat of all social disciplines at moments when states and leaders base their actions in feelings, purely individual ideas and moral character. Individuals enter the historical arena, making decisions within the framework of a subjective understanding of the world around them, intellectual abilities or corporate interests.
Conceptualisation, at least on an analytical or on an intuitive level, will be possible later – when the dust of battles has somewhat settled, and the theorists will have firm support in the person of the winners, whose interests will become the basis of a new international order. It has always been like this – the science of international relations has consistently followed practice, guided by only one goal – to understand why this or that power, in the end, benefitted the most from the consequences of a general tragedy. In our case, however, this won’t happen, or at least not soon. Until then, any aspirations to understand what is really happening in international politics will end up with rather monotonous judgments, the only difference between which is how open is the attempt to interpret reality in favour of the interests of one of the fighting parties.
Each political scientist becomes a soldier of his country, and the space for relatively impartial analysis disappears – even those who claim to be impartial inevitably finds themselves within the framework of an interpretation that serves the interests of one of the warring parties. The chroniclers would be relatively independent amid modern conditions, however, the facts now are a very relative thing, easily amenable to extremely convincing falsification. Even playing the role of a holy fool is impossible – in conditions where shells whistle overhead, his innocent bleating always turns out to promote the advantages of one of the opponents. Like the light of the sun or the direction of the wind.
In fact, any of our reasoning that purports to reflect an abstract “understanding of reality” becomes like this. The fact is that we still find examples for comparison in the historical experience which are also the most comfortable for one of the parties participating in the current conflict. Regrets about the collapsed world order or globalization are, of course, humanly understandable. However, they first inevitably send us in the direction of searching for ways to restore something like the lost era, and its illusion of relatively evenly distributed prosperity. This, we agree, fully reflects the interests of the Western countries and is somewhat inconsistent with the way Russia, China and most developing countries would like to see the world. Second, even our conceptual apparatus and categories, which technically have the possibility to construct so-called ideal schemes of the future, were formed within the framework of the international order, where for 500 years a rather narrow group of powers occupied the leading positions. Therefore, when speaking of the need to restore order, we are already at risk of becoming defenders of the interests of status quo powers – our categorical apparatus is still practically undeveloped in terms of a different, more just, from our point of view, international order.
It is not surprising that in a situation where thinking about foreign policy and international relations is a more common and ancient profession, fellow intellectuals have overnight turned into mouthpieces of information warfare. It is sad to read the comments of colleagues representing the realist direction of the science of international politics in the United States: the overwhelming majority of their opponents have completely lost the ability to take any critical view of the behaviour of their homeland and its closest allies. In other words, American, and Western in general, political science has clearly defined which side of the front it is fighting on and will be able to return to a more balanced discussion only after the active phase of the confrontation between the powers is over.
The use of the existing theoretical apparatus for assessing the international reality resembles a funny anachronism, no matter which of the theories we turn to. The reason is that they are also the product, first and foremost, of a specific and geographically localised historical experience, and only secondly of attempts to subordinate social activity to some ideal schemes based on our ideas about universal morality. Powers representing such a variety of political civilizations have now entered a world arena that one cannot rely on, including a systematic understanding of the nature of relations between them. All existing theories were created in a very simple world, where it was always easy to understand the basis of the position of a state within the framework of social relations of its kind.
Each of the nation-specific ways of interpretation cannot claim to be more than a systematisation of worldviews inherent in an individual, rather unique, culture. It is, of course, useful to create, for example, a Russian theory of international relations amid such conditions. First, it will somewhat reduce our dependence on Western concepts, which is extremely good in itself. Second, moving along this path will allow one to understand yourself a little more. This is especially important for Russia, since awareness of self-worth for our political culture is much more important than external recognition. However, in terms of being able to understand international politics in general, we still will not get very far – we will just become the authors of another original view.
Finally, practically all powers whose capabilities are sufficient to pose a potential threat to life on the planet, do not now even have a relatively formed idea of their own ideal future. The Americans are trying to pretend that the return of hegemony over the world will solve their internal development problems. However, this approach causes concern in principle, since moving forward while looking behind you is liable to lead to a fall. Russia is also in search of a state where it can feel self-worth, and the conflict with the West is, in addition to eliminating military-political imbalances, the basis for a better understanding of itself, outlining the image of the future in conditions where it is no longer possible to continue life in the old way. Of all the great powers, only China confidently says that it knows what future it is aiming for. But here, too, we have reason to think that the Celestial Empire is only approaching the need to provide answers to questions about a suitable position for it in world politics and economics.
The position of Europe is dramatic. It is aware of its rapidly declining strength and is increasingly choosing the lesser of two geostrategic evils, from the point of view of the modern European elite. Such behaviour poses a challenge to diplomats, since the choice of the European elite consists of a conscious rejection of international agency of their countries. Under such conditions, not only our ability to discuss international politics seriously in an academic audience freezes, this politics is itself entering a peculiar and very static mode of operation. In fact, it only seems to us that now history is developing rapidly – in fact, it has stopped, and its millstones continue to idle, grinding tens of thousands of human lives.