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Retro, not sexy

Not long ago, I presented a paper at a conference, an experience many of the writers and readers of the blogs hosted in this site have probably had at some point.

In my presentation, I defended the main argument of my thesis: that Western European states promote international human rights law insofar as it fits in their idea of international order, not because they believe in human rights as a matter of justice. In this sense, I claimed that representatives of the English School of International Relations of the 1960s and 70s (so-called pluralists) were right when they argued that order is the main driver of the international society.

In her turn, one of my co-panellists made the argument that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is best explained by classical realism, that is, by the idea that the incorrigible human nature predisposes national leaders to mistrust each other, and that countries are forced to maximise their relative power as a result of the anarchic condition of the international system (please, excuse my simplicity). Not that it necessarily matters, but for the sake of full disclosure, she was a Ukrainian citizen.

There was a cocktail at the end of a day full of methods, theories, slides, metaphors, arguments and counterarguments. The Ukrainian co-panellist and I started to exchange some ideas while a thoughtful waiter made sure our glasses were sufficiently wet. As a good classical realist, she believed international law does not matter much. My view, on the other hand, had to be different, since part of my argument is built on the principle of pacta sunt servanda, “promises must kept”.

At some point, one professor from the hosting university got close to us. He wanted to make us feel welcome, which was very nice of him. He asked about the conversation topic, so we summarised our disagreement and explained that she located her argument in classical realism and I located mine (partly) in the first wave of the English School.

He smiled: “You two are quite retro, aren’t you?!”

He left pretty much right away, and we kept talking until the nice waiter decided to carry on with his life and the wine evaporated totally, a clear sign that it was time to leave.

But the professor’s comment did not leave me. I must admit I found it quite funny. And I still do. In fact, I think he picked the right word.

I hereby assert my right to be retro.

I wonder if you feel the way I do, dear reader (if you have got this far! Thanks, by the way), but I feel the pressure to follow a certain academic fashion, either because you are supposed to choose trendy topics, as if your PhD could fit in a tweet, or because you are encouraged to combine mixed methods, or, above all, because impact must drive your research.

I have no problem with any of the above, particularly with the idea of impact, if by it we mean that Academia should try to provide answers to the questions and dilemmas of the world today.

However, it sometimes feels as if that’s all there is in campus nowadays. Theoretical and interpretivist approaches would not be for this time. They were overtaken in the behaviouralist turn of the 1970s, and were left one lap behind by the post-modern, constructivist and critical turns of the 80s and 90s. Previous stuff is retro, not good for the quick and flashy taste of present times.

Well, I just refuse to accept that the interpretivism of classical realists or indeed of English School has been outpaced by other approaches in International Relations.

In university, if I have to choose, I’d rather be retro than sexy.

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