George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Ideology, politics thwart creation of Russian school of international relations

Tue, 09/20/2016

LAWRENCE — Despite post-Cold War aspirations to create a distinct national school of international relations in Russia, political and ideological influences from the Kremlin have thwarted these efforts, according to University of Kansas researchers.

"Russian social science is not free of ideology and not free of the political goal of directing and guiding Russian foreign policy," said Mariya Omelicheva, associate professor of political science. "There are some historical reasons for this, including 70 years of Soviet rule when social science was highly ideologized. And especially under Putin's rule, there is this increasing level of interference of the state into Russian academia."

Omelicheva recently co-authored an article in the journal New Perspectives with Lidiya Zubytska, a KU doctoral student in political science, that analyzed the study and practice of international relations from a Russian perspective. The research stemmed from discussions surrounding the theme of the 2015 annual meeting of the International Studies Association.

It's a valuable question right now because International relations scholars are examining and discussing the state of the discipline on many fronts, including whether Western schools of thought have too much influence and cloud the understanding of national and international politics in Russia and other parts of the world, Omelicheva said.

"The broader concern is: How do we know what we know?" she said. "Can we can gain a good understanding of what's going on in the world today by applying constructs and theory developed in the West? Or would it not be better to have national scholars explain their states' foreign policy and international relations through the nationally specific theoretical lens?"

In Russian academia, many tend to embrace the uniqueness of Russia's place in the world. It operates according to a set of different and unique rules of engagement, and therefore, it calls for Russia's own social theory to explain the specificity of the Russian situation, she added.

"On the surface, the theoretical perspectives developed by Russian social scientists account for Russian foreign policy really well," Omelicheva said. "Upon a closer examination, however, Russian theoretical perspectives have been deeply ideologized."

This means Russian scholars have come to share with the Russian government the goal of resenting Western hegemony in social science and international politics. Russian theory, therefore, has focused on the topics of Russia's great power state, resistance to U.S. dominance and the "just" and "fair" world order. The Russian government has borrowed these ideas to justify its foreign policy, she said.

The practice of writing theory in support of foreign policy is not unique to Russia. However, in the United States, for example, when theory enters the policymaking arena and public debate, it loses much of its theoretical sophistication and becomes sort of "intellectual window dressing." Furthermore, the dominant methodological perspectives in American social science tend to help reduce the influence of ideology on research.

As for Russian social science, the obstacles for developing a national social theory are plenty, Omelicheva said. Many Russian international relations scholars of the Soviet generation have been unable to rid themselves of the style of research practices that are closely tied to the Soviet scientific enterprise.

Also, many in Russian foreign policy establishments have tried to add academic rank and degree to their government portfolios, but this can lead them to disseminate their political views under the guise of academic publication, the researchers said.

"Many Russian academics are united by the goal of making sure that Russia is a great power with global reach," Omelicheva said.

Russian scholars under Vladimir Putin's rule have also faced an increasing level of state interference into academia, such as legislation in 2012 that targeted "foreign agents" and required any Russian organization receiving foreign aid and participating in a loose definition of "political activity" to register as foreign agents.

The major conclusion of the article is to reach an understanding of Moscow's foreign policy, scholars ought to take Russian local forms of knowledge more seriously, Omelicheva said. But a broader implication is that there are multiple — at times, conflicting — readings of global politics, and this diversity of global scripts, which may be articulated through the language of familiar concepts, cannot be reduced to Western experiences, she added.

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