FOUR INSIGHT / 13.10.2022 / 10 minutes

“International relations are all about theatre”: interview with Professor Ioannis Tellidis

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Not so long ago we were lucky enough to sit and have a talk with Professor Ioannis Tellidis at Kyung Hee University in South Korea. This interview covers a whole array of topics that concern us as international relations students. What is the goal of international politics, why the Russian 'special military operation' erupted and how the cancel culture reflects on Russian students – these and other issues in our new material.
Ioannis Tellidis
PhD in politics, Professor at College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University, South Korea
What is the main purpose of international relations and what are the goals of its actors from your professional point of view?

When international relations were established as a field at the end of the First World War, the objective was how to avoid that kind of catastrophe again. It was essentially decided that we need to establish scientific knowledge to answer the questions: why this happened and how to avoid this happening again. As a result, everything failed completely, because we had the Second World War. But that gave rise to different theories, paradigms and ways of looking at things of how do people go to war, what do they do to avoid war and was this war avoidable or not.

Thus, that was the prime objective of how it started. Why did it start? I can't really say how it has gone on, especially looking at things nowadays. I can't really say that it has stuck to that. Since then, it hasn't really deviated that much. On the one hand, we still have state interests as we currently see: power politics, nuclear threat, threat of mass extinction and destruction of the planet. On the other hand, diplomacy, negotiations and all behind the scenes. I would say that the truth is, as always, somewhere in the middle.

Did I get it correctly that the main purpose of international relations as a study is the question of war and peace?

That's how it started primarily. At the same time, the outermost drive was international trade, especially collaborations and cooperation. The more trade between partners, the more stable relations, the more interdependence and, as a result, we are talking about peace or, at least, the absence of war. Finally, to what extent peace is the absence of war, and how much more holistic should peace be to establish the real absence of war? But it is another conversation.

Taking into consideration the current conflict, has the era of a liberal world, which was based on cooperation and interdependence, ended?

Very good question. I guess, it depends on who you ask. When I started my academic career, since my student years, I was very much a firm believer in liberal, international order, cooperation and peace.

But, the more I grew up, the more I wondered whether we ever had a liberal order, to what extent that liberal order was really liberal, or to what extent it was just a bit of that rhetoric. When I take a look at the liberal-democratic states during the Cold War, I find it difficult to accept anybody's argument that they were indeed liberal-democratic.

Maybe, they were liberal-democratic in their own countries (domestic politics), but there's another argument to be said. The role of the UK at the Northern Irish conflict and how they treated the Catholic population; the behaviour of the deep states in the United States in the aftermath of the Second World War; McCarthyism; Red Scare, etc. Even much later in the 70s and the 80s, the behaviour towards the minorities was terrifying. I'm not entirely convinced that was a liberal order.

So, the older I grew, the more it appeared to me that this was a facade and definitely coming to the current era, moving forward to contemporary affairs. It was laughable when someone came out and said: “You know, the United States or the European Union members – they are the most liberal of democratic countries”. Maybe, it is a matter of my personal experience of being Greek and having seen how European peripheral states have been treated by Central or North European states during the international crisis, the financial crisis of 2008, 2010. These double standards, countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Cyprus, Ireland were supposed to tighten the belt, took painful measures, etc. Now we have another crisis. But why are Germany, France and others doing their own thing? Because they can.

Yes, pretty much so. Again, I feel awkward saying it. This makes me uneasy about the whole train of thought, when you see this happening... Essentially, you confirm that the realism is correct. It's uneasy, because there's always the idealist inside us. The vast majority of people, who enter international relations, are idealists, because they want to see more stability and peace, something more positive. In the essence, when you come face to face with reality, your whole objective collapses. It's like there's the floor underneath your feet and it's gone.

Immanuel Kant, on of the founding fathers of liberalism in IR
Kind of "tragedy" for all international relations scholars?

Very good point. Considering international relations and taking into account the fact that there is a lot of theatre, as a result, there were tragedies - it is a very good way of putting it.

Let's now move to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. What is the main reason for the beginning of the "special military operation"?

I don't think that there is one isolated reason. Instead, a set of reasons that all emerged simultaneously. The population in the South East of Ukraine has been pro-russian for many years now. Thus, there is a shade of acknowledgment that all of this is being done for their protection. But I would put this at the very bottom, because I think the most important, considering power politics and Putin's realisation, that the South East is the last bastion. If Ukraine goes to the West, Russia's power will be completely eliminated. And on top of that, it's not just power politics, but it has to do with prestige.

I don't know if this is how Mr. Putin sees himself or how Mr. Putin sees all things, he didn't say much when NATO expanded to Poland, East European countries or to the North. He didn't react as it was a lost opportunity when things first started heating up in the Ukraine. Of course, before Ukraine, there was Georgia. Therefore, there was a series of episodes where Putin really didn't react in the way that others would expect him to react. Essentially, it is the entire establishment, where Putin has reached his red line.

All of this is pretty evident in the statements he made a few days ago after the annexation of the territories into Russia, which is a very interesting statement. As I said earlier, the truth is always somewhere in the middle. There were few things that he described explaining the role of the West these past few decades, which I completely agree with. It is said that everything they're doing is for the best for the world. Let's not kid ourselves. The dilemma is that this kind of statement was expressed on the other side, which also speaks out half-truths and half-lies. So, essentially everybody's playing the same game.
History of NATO's enlargement
As you said in the "theatre".

Yes, international relations are all about theatre. The easiest explanation of that is what was said openly in conferences or meetings, but when the microphones and the cameras are gone it is completely different. When everybody goes back home from Geneva or Davos, they change course without any hesitation. Thus, there is a lot of theatre, adding to the dimension that international relations are very hypocritical. It goes back to what we were discussing about liberal democracies, but doing all these things is neither liberal nor democratic.

Going back to the original question, there is a set of reasons why this has happened. To summarise what I said, I don't think the protection of the population in these particular territories was the top priority. In other words, Mr. Putin said: "This was my red line, you've done enough. It's time for me to respond. And, unless I respond, you're never going to stop pushing." So, it's amalgamation of what Mr. Putin is trying to achieve and Russia's role in the current international system.

How did the current military operation-conflict affect the security in Asian region? We have, for example, conflicts between India and China, India and Pakistan. Should we expect the escalation of the regional conflicts?

Very good question. Although, none of these conflicts is an outcome of what happened between Russia and Ukraine. Indian-Chinese conflict has been going on for a long time, when tensions between India and Pakistan have been existing for even longer. But I'm pretty sure that there is an inherent risk of conflict escalation everywhere. We've seen it in Russia's backyard, in Kazakhstan, Armenia and Tajikistan.

What started in Greece and Turkey for the last few months - there's a lot of bickering and provocation. Especially, from the Turkish side with statements like: “We'll come suddenly at night”, but these kinds of statements go from amateurish politicians and very extremist radical politicians. So, it's almost what is happening between China and Taiwan, the US and China with regards to Taiwan. People actively seek to provoke each other. Nobody is like: "Okay, Russia and Ukraine are taking place right now." What is happening is the opposite: "Russia and Ukraine happening. Okay, what else can we start? What else can we have made dead and destroyed", - this is the reason why I am worried about what is coming. On top of that are economics. Historically speaking, we do have cases, where such economic situations and crises have been resolved with war. Whether we are going to repeat this, or whether the nuclear threat is too high to prevent us from escalating everything else, I don't know. But, hopefully, we will manage even if it is at the very last moment.

Considering Asia and three countries - Russia, China, and India. It's not so much the war in Ukraine that brought them closer, but the whole confrontation with the traditional liberal western system by the Western powers. India always behaved as a non-ally. China was always opposed to a greater or lesser degree. They see it as the opportunity to bother us in a more effective way. The power that the West is trying to increase with an excuse of what is happening in Ukraine. This is what leads or, at least, increases the risk of global conflict or the Third World War.

But, at the local levels, I don't see that much change. For example, there is no escalation between North Korea and South Korea. We don't see any instances of the Chinese trying to get even more involved in stirring up any situation between them. In that regard, I think these conflicts have their own dynamics, but, at the same time, they haven't been affected that much. I don't see a lot of spillover effects of what is going on between Russia and the Ukraine on the other Asian conflicts.
On the 38 parallel border
The next question is more about you not just as a professional, but as a human. We often hear typical slogans from elsewhere that education, music, culture is outside of politics. However, today, for example, American and European universities are ceasing their cooperation with Russian ones. Is it appropriate for them in such a situation not allowing people from Russia to study abroad, to participate in research? Shouldn't such an issue be outside of politics?

Yes, I do agree. Going back to the conversation of how liberal democracies make decisions. There was a Western study about how free Soviet citizens, went back in the 70s and in the 80s, or even earlier, and they did have access to BBC radio, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. We know how harsh the Soviet regime was at times, but at no point did they make any excuse to shut down. There were blockages and interjections of sorts, but there were quite long periods, when citizens of the Soviet Union had access to these radio stations, irrespective of the fact how believable it was. As far as I remember, in the study they were trying to get a balanced view, because you have the Soviet media telling you one thing, which is one and only. But then they would also listen to what the West is saying about this situation and they would be "more informed" about what is going on.

To juxtapose the past and present, consider what is happening in Europe now, when anything coming from Russia is blocked. How liberal and democratic are they? Perhaps, it's only "they" are doing propaganda, whereas "we don't do any propaganda". Going back to invasions to Iraq and Afghanistan - pretty much everything in those two episodes was about propaganda. We also were fed up with propaganda prior to the decision to invade, when the thing was being discussed. We had a lot of people who were very suspicious once you had all these protests and manifestations in Europe against it. It seems now that they have a good reason insofar as what you were saying about - Russian students, Russian sportspeople are blocked and prohibited from taking part in.

Considering how active the Russian intelligence agencies are, Russian citizens or former citizens were attacked with all sorts of poisons - all sorts of operations took place. There is an argument that European or Western authorities have good enough reason to suspect them, because if they don't stop that, there will be chaos. Moreover, the more escalation in Ukraine and between Russia and the West - the harder it is to stop something like that. But when you make such a decision, you are essentially saying that all students are potentially spies, or students can have a potentially devastating effect on our Western security.
At the moment it happened, I felt very awkward. First of all, I'm pretty sure that not everybody agrees with Putin's initiatives and what is happening - the same situation in the West. Not everybody agrees what is going on, when policy decisions are taken and implemented. So, in that sense, there's nothing different. It's very sad, when we see the construction of "THEY". Again, we're moving into the frameworks that we used for communists back in the 60s, and now terrorists.

Get the example of Nelson Mandela. A few generations ago, he was the biggest terrorist in the world, but your generation thinks of him as the biggest peace idol. Thus, a framework of constructing the "OTHER" is a very simplifying process. If you are bulldozing every nuance, which is very much useful in preventing these kinds of conflicts from escalating to the point of no return. On the other hand, it doesn't make a lot of sense, especially when we're talking about academia, about Russian students joining universities outside Russia. Attitude of the West about Russian citizens: "They blindly follow their establishment, their government and their leader. Nowadays there's a top-quality opportunity for them that once they get to European universities - they are exposed to the opposite side."

We are talking about some kind of subversion. It leads to a confirmation, so far as Europe is concerned, we are just shooting ourselves in the foot, because we blindly follow whatever the US is doing and saying, and that's fine. But there has been no serious conversation, and, especially, in the beginning of the conflict in 2022 - not talking about 2014. You couldn't come out and say: "You shouldn't be surprised with what is happening, considering everything that has happened since 2014". So, if you sit down and look at what has been happening since 2014 in those territories, and also in Ukraine in general, you couldn't have a more balanced view about everything and everyone involved. But, when you said that in March 2022, if you came out in Europe and you said anything like that, you would immediately be termed as "Putin's agents", "Russian spy" or "russophile". Again, this is kind of an oversimplified process. Essentially, it's a cancel culture. How do we cancel somebody: because they said something, or what? They didn't say anything for Russia, but they just said: "Okay, let's take a broader look at this thing." And, yeah, the reaction was: "How did you dare not condemn?" Which, again, is kind of a very bullshit understanding... You're either with us or against us. There was nothing in the middle, right? Which is the death of a dialogue. It's the death of truth-seeking efforts. That is only detrimental in my eyes.

As we said, the truth is always somewhere in the middle. When you have two sides both of them trying to be fair, that's what superpowers do. That's what all sides of a conflict do. You know, they want their view to dominate the other side's view. But that's precisely, when it comes to conflict resolution, diplomacy, and peace building - it's rule number one when you are intervening in another conflict. Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia. So, why don't we do it for us? Why don't we do it about us? Why do we automatically assume that "we are standards, we never do anything wrong, we are always the good guys". History has shown that we haven't really been that good guys. And the same is true about the other side as well. There are no top kind guys. Well, what does that leave us? Well, here's a more balanced view, a more nuanced perspective, because you can't really oversimplify things. But, instead of that, we are moving into, as I said, "either with us or against us". If you say anything remotely nuanced and complex, that means that you're supporting "the OTHERS".

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