Can Academic Study and Research Contribute to the Conduct of International Relations?

By Fonseca, Gelson | UN Chronicle, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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Can Academic Study and Research Contribute to the Conduct of International Relations?

Fonseca, Gelson, UN Chronicle

To answer the question, a few preliminary remarks are necessary. A diplomat in a modern Chancery is no longer a self-sufficient actor, taking his cue from an abstract definition of raison d'Etat as he negotiates his way through complex security issues involving neighbouring States. In dealing with "new themes", such as the environment, transnational corporations, human rights, international crimes and so on, the contemporary diplomat must be more directly responsive to social needs and demands. The present international agenda reflects the decisive influence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), social and economic groups and the scientific community in shaping the formulation of foreign policy. The methods and the actors involved are different for each subject. And barriers that used to exist between national and international questions have almost entirely vanished.

The classical approach of the realist school in the study of international relations, while still important for the analysis of strategic problems, has shown itself less relevant in tackling the difficult and pressing choices concerning humanitarian assistance, human rights violations or the depletion of the ozone level that confront us today. However, the feeling shared by practitioners of international relations that theory in this field is somehow "underdeveloped", compared to other areas such as economics, cannot be entirely accounted for by the shortcomings of the traditional realist school. Even when we deal with more sophisticated models (the neo-realist variant, the liberal or neo-liberal approaches, the institutionalist analysis), we are often left with an after-taste of disappointment.

Thus, for example, the concept of globalization seeks to encompass the multiple aspects of these new international realities. Yet, from an analytical perspective and despite its interesting descriptive virtues, this concept remains too unfocused to provide an all-embracing tool for understanding this novel scenario. The same is true, although in a different way, of "interdependence", "regimes" and other notions that are usually associated with the effort to provide alternative theoretical approaches to hard-boiled realism. We are forced to acknowledge that theoretical solutions for the interpretation of our complex contemporary intemational world have yet to find adequate roots in practical reality.

But does this mean that academic research is irrelevant to the conduct of foreign relations?

Of course, not.

Academic research is a line of activity devoted to the treatment of information: how to systematically collect facts, how to organize correlations between these facts, how to derive hypotheses about them as a means of explaining events on the ground. And diplomacy is an activity that depends fundamentally on information. It is not by chance that the heart of any Chancery is its communications centre. But academics and politicians treat information differently. For the researcher, the accuracy of information is a value in itself. The search for the truth, striving for objectivity, is a value that dictates his or her work, and determines the time frame guiding academic labour. Ideally, his or her task only ends--if it ever does--when a proposed hypothesis about a given aspect of reality has been adequately established (within the rigorous methodological parameters determined by the intellectual community).

The politician or diplomat, by contrast, is constrained by the need to act (there is no choice of moment when a conflict that he or she has to mediate erupts). There is, however, a "stock of academic information" the diplomat may refer to in specific situations. He may, for example, derive important policy insights concerning the Balkans from the history of the origins of regional and ethnic conflict in that part of the world. And there is a second category of assistance that occurs when scientific discoveries, such as those concerning the consequences of global warming, lead to diplomatic action-for example, the convening of international conferences to coordinate global initiatives on the environment.

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