Beyond Realism and Idealism in Foreign Affairs

By Riegg, Natalya Tovmasyan | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Beyond Realism and Idealism in Foreign Affairs


Riegg, Natalya Tovmasyan, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Beyond Realism and Idealism in Foreign Affairs

"The empires of the future will be empires of the mind. "

Winston Churchill

My intention was to start writing a normally organized academic paper on the topic of Realism versus Idealism in foreign affairs. However, while researching the subject, my thoughts kept wandering, in a stream-of-consciousness manner of continental modernism. I recalled a conversation I had with my next door, American neighbor ... another conversation I had on Skype with a long-time Armenian friend ... I thought about the Chinese proverb 'May you live in interesting times'... and about Plato's concept that those who tell the story also rule society ... Finally, I decided to give in and incorporate personal material into this paper on international relations.

'May You Live in Interesting Times'

This Chinese proverb implies the difficult, if rewarding, experience of those who happen to live in times of significant societal transformations. All of us who lived through the end of the 20th century can testify to its truth. To a greater or lesser degree, the transformative international and global events of our lifetime--particularly from the end of the Cold War to the onset of globalization--had implications for everyone. And this social and political context is reflected in our academic texts, transcending the boundaries of the personal and the political. My own personal history seems like an illustration of the idea of the 'patchwork 'and 'dialogic' identities, a' la Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva.

During my career as a scholar and a professor of social and political philosophy, I have been expected to be an insider of three very different socio-political and intellectual systems, in fact to pledge allegiance to three very different nations, shifting between languages and identities. I started to teach Western political thought in the late Soviet Union, in the Russian language and within the limiting framework of Marxist orthodoxy. Gorbachev's perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union brought along hopes for intellectual freedom and liberation from the dead hand of authoritarianism. However, the hopes for intellectual liberation did not come true.

In 1991, without ever having changed the physical residence in which I was living or the physical classroom in which I was teaching, I suddenly found myself living in a different country, that of newly independent Armenia. While teaching social and political philosophy in independent Armenia, in the Armenian language, I was confined by a different set of restrictions: i.e., the spirit of strong ethno-nationalism dominated by a limited cultural and intellectual life.

Finally, after entering U.S. academia as a Fulbright scholar in 1998, I started to teach in English, within a liberal-democratic social, political and intellectual context.

Most of the time my internal 'inter-national relations' are peaceful and I perceive my mismatched experiences more as enriching than as fragmenting ones. There are, however, those moments when there is a 'clash of civilizations.' Some time ago I mentioned to our next door neighbor that I was impressed by my then teenage son's adjustment to life in the US as an immigrant. The neighbor thought that my son was, probably, ecstatic to move to the best and the freest country of the world. She never thought for an instant of the difficulties my son had of leaving behind his friends and extended family and moving to a place where he barely knew the language! The normative hegemonic narrative of the American Dream silenced considerations of other narratives and attachments.

Recently a long-time friend of mine in Armenia made a comment that Americans are lonely, selfish and greedy people. I felt almost insulted and murmured something about the generous economic aid provided by the U.S. to so many countries in the world. She insisted: Well, the aid constitutes just a small percentage of their GDP, they are rich, they can afford it; but look at their health care debate; it appears that Americans don't want to have universal health coverage, because they don't want to share their incomes even with those in need in their own country! …

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