Whither our view of the world?

Photo: Facebook/Indian Council of World Affairs  

At this time when every Indian is a self-proclaimed China expert, it is worth tracing the evolution of international relations as a discipline, now 100 years old. Its origin was in the U.K. after World War I as part of the liberal internationalist reaction that also led to the League of Nations. Three University Chairs in Britain were endowed with funds by entrepreneurs who held the view that if dynastic rulers gave way to democracies, hostile alliances and conflict would come to an end.

The subject in the U.S.

The U.S. soon took up the subject of international relations with its characteristic zeal, identifying its solipsistic interests with those of the world. Once it was clear that isolation was no longer a policy option, U.S. administrations looked for professional advice. The presidents needed their Machiavellis, a role filled by George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau and others, establishing the dominance of realism in the field.

Academia in the U.S. post-World War ll came up with concepts like conflict resolution, game theory and area studies, multidisciplinary social research focusing on specific geographic regions or ethnically defined areas, drawing on disciplines such as political science, history, sociology, ethnology, geography, linguistics, literature, and cultural studies. Such research provided a fertile field for the development of databases for use of American academics, and for the ever-expanding U.S. intelligence community.

The American obsession to follow the lead of the natural sciences to create a predictive social science of international relations led to a divide between how the subject developed in the U.S. and elsewhere, where the primary aim was to better understand the complexities of international politics rather than attempt to fashion government policy along scientific lines. However, some new concepts emerged, such as non-interference in domestic jurisdiction and internal affairs of other states, and were incorporated into the UN Charter. The end of World War ll and the Charter gave liberals a second opportunity to assert themselves, though the Charter also subscribed to the realist view by giving the Security Council prime responsibility for maintenance of peace and its five permanent members a veto.

The field of international relations has increasingly become related to international law, and the current salience of human rights law and humanitarian law renders this necessary. The boundaries of definition have pushed international relations to embrace new territories such as the environment, feminism and post-modernism. The basic question, however, remains: is the concept of a world community a realisable goal or a dangerous illusion? Stanley Hoffman’s opinion of 1977 is relevant: rather than pursue certainty or absolute security, “international relations should be the science of uncertainty, the limits of action, of the ways in which states try to manage but never succeed in eliminating their insecurity”.

Think tanks in India

The case for non-American voices in the debates coursing through the study of international relations has never been stronger than now. In India, the field of international relations has a much shorter history than 100 years and The Indian Council of World Affairs was the first independent institution with Indian roots. There are now international relations disciplines in many universities under nomenclatures such as area studies and peace and conflict studies, which are nevertheless far fewer than our think tanks. The Pennsylvania University Diplomatic Courier publishes a league table of think tanks across the world in which the top spot for 2018 is Brookings U.S. While the U.S. tops with 1,871 think tanks, India is second with 509 followed by China with 507. This suggests that in India there is ample funding available for think tanks but not for university departments. When it comes to quality, however, of the first 100 ranked think tanks, the Observer Research Foundation and the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses are in the top 50. Three more are listed in the next 50 and all five are in Delhi. Such ratings are of dubious value but confirm suspicions about the negligible impact of our think tanks on policy. No nation can compete with the spoils system in the U.S. that enables academics and government officials to move in and out of the decision-making circuit, but the Diplomatic Courier ratings reveal the gulf between the Indian government and academic expertise.

Without regard to immediate concerns, the discipline will lose its influence. Raymond Aron and A.J.P Taylor’s impact was due to their public profile. It is important for our international relations specialists to appear regularly in the media to replace the vacuous politicians and the greying tribe of retired diplomats.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 4:19:42 PM |

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