Trump, Russia, and the Global Right: IR’s Difficulty with the Political Present

Christopher McIntosh is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Political Studies at Bard College whose published research examines the concept of war, “terrorism,” and the intersection of time and temporality in international politics. He most recently co-edited a volume called Time, Temporality, and Global Politics, and he is currently completing a book project entitled, Theorizing the Interim: IR as Study of the Present.

Given recent events in the United States and Europe, it appears IR scholars have fallen victim, in the words of Robert F. Kennedy (among others), to an ancient “Chinese curse”: “may [you] live in interesting times.” From my position as an American citizen writing in the United States, American politics—both foreign and domestic—appears completely consumed by Trump’s actions, the moves of his “administration,” and the role of Russia in the 2016 election and potentially beyond. Nationally televised Congressional hearings during the day and seemingly daily “bombshell” news stories breaking at night have made it appear as if the US polity is in a unique, ongoing crisis. As overwhelming as it sometimes appears, as IR scholars we cannot afford to look away, as much as we might like to do so. By all accounts, these are, indeed, “interesting times.” Trump’s rise and the rise of the global right potentially upends much of what we think we know and could create a series of natural experiments that confirm or disconfirm our theories.

This new “curse”, however, is a somewhat familiar one, as the end of the Cold War and the 2001 attacks on the United States posed similar challenges and precipitated parallel crises. I want to suggest that our collective reaction evidences something constitutive to the discipline and is not simply a reflection of the “interesting times” we find ourselves in. Building on this observation, this essay makes two moves—first, it makes the case for IR scholars to take the present seriously as a concept and an imaginary and scholarly position. Second, it sketches out how this temporal critique of IR’s dominant temporal representations reveals important aspects of the discursive framing of Russia’s operations against the United States—and what it potentially enables as an “appropriate” American response.

ISA’s most recent conference theme centered on the concept of “change” in international politics. Obviously, change can be understood in a variety of ways, but central to its constitution is a temporal relationship: at one point in time, things are one way, at another point in time, things become different. Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, to study change is to think seriously about temporality, timing, time, and the way we understand temporal relationships.[1] Part of my own work argues for the importance of “foregrounding temporality” in IR scholarship, so while I will admit to a bias up front, I think that there are important lessons that emerge from these recent changes if we think explicitly about temporality and how we relate ourselves, our scholarship, and our politics to the present. The emergence of Trump and others like him, combined with Russia’s interventions abroad, may be a warning that we are in for changes far more rapid and profound than our scholarship is typically capable of accommodating. Yet, even as these types of crises and seismic shifts recur with relative frequency—and I would add are always already constitutive of even those times we represent as stable—we rarely change our epistemological assumptions or our foundational understanding of the way the future (and present) relate to the past.

To use a cliché, I think this is a feature, not a bug. How we relate to contemporary politics—the political present—reflects central commitments in how we understand and relate issues and events across time, or to use Hom’s formulation, the way we go about “timing” events. While largely scholar-generated and a vestige of positivist and scientific epistemologies, these commitments also reflect the temporal dynamics of the politics we study, such as the supposed “timelessness” of strategy in war or the enduring dominance of the Westphalian state. Brought together, academic commitments and political practices deemphasize inquiry directed toward the present. The present is messy, unfinished, and contingent, but also just a difficult idea to wrap one’s mind around. On the one hand, the present seems to be liminal, ever-escaping, and never to be fully captured—the moment of “now” disappears prior to our representing or understanding it. Alternatively, it is viewed as something ethereal that lacks discrete borders or boundaries—where does the past end and the present begin? How does it vary? Who gets to decide? In eliding these challenges by treating time as unproblematically neutral and linear, however, we make it difficult to anticipate events that deviate widely from what we might expect, particularly while these events are still unfolding and, as is the case right now, have not “concluded.”

Part of what accounts for this difficulty is that IR scholarship centers on inquiry into the past as the best way of engaging the future. Regardless of whether one uses critical theory, quantitative methods, hypothesis testing, mid-range theory, Bayesian approaches, or something else entirely, we focus on the past for future use. The result of this Janus-faced approach, however, is that the present of politics is substantively and theoretically underrepresented. This is a sweeping claim to be sure, but one that others have made in philosophy of science, time studies, social theory, and the like. If we take it seriously, even if only provisionally, I think it exposes three important aspects of IR scholarship as generally practiced, particularly in the American academy.

IR scholarship doesn’t seem to “fit” contemporary politics

First, the observation that IR theories and hypotheses have difficulty matching up with the present moment is relatively uncontroversial and well accepted. But this is not necessarily a fault of scholars or scholarship, but rather because we are always operating in an interim—the “games” we are analyzing have yet to conclude. Scholars writing during the “inter-war” period, for instance, could not know that they were doing so, unaware as they were that World War II was yet to come. Those theorizing bipolar stability in 1986 could not know for certain that the world was about to systemically change. I have read articles from last summer (2016) whose claims and assumptions about American foreign policy and the American-led world order already appear out of place and incongruent with the new normal of politics. Only with the benefit of hindsight, once emergent processes have concluded, can we know what we’re looking at with the certainty scholars prefer. Once we reach that point, we can then go about the process of comparing it with the long narratives of history. For the most part, this is to the good and the historian’s admonition against “presentism”  is a valuable one. To be sure, many “new” things aren’t quite so new or impressive when seen against the backdrop of history. But IR scholarship is expressly not history and there will be times where we observe events occurring, crises erupting, and warning shots that become the first shot in a war, rather than a forgotten shot across the bow or yet another near-miss.

The irony of making this claim on a site dedicated to emphasizing criticality, contingency, and representational politics is not lost on me. And I don’t endorse the tired claim that IR scholars have no meaningful political knowledge/impact/relevance regarding contemporary politics, which occasionally gets trotted out as a general critique of academic work. IR scholarship has much to say in terms of envisioning radical alternatives, identifying different ways of being in the world of global politics, and reassessing the very questions that seem to define its practices, as well as the more traditional claims and studies regarding mechanisms and empirical regularities. The distinction I’m drawing is that (some) IR scholars are indeed quite good at this, yet IR scholarship itself is not built for it. What needs to be made more visible and expanded is a willingness to fundamentally rethink what role IR scholarship plays, who it is for, and what it does in the world—all of which is currently happening in various areas of the discipline. However, this needs to be amplified and coupled with a generalized willingness to put these insights into widespread practice at all levels and in all areas of the discipline. Reflexive debates about decolonization and difference, epistemological assumptions regarding generalizability, prediction, and the value of narrow, context-based claims may be seen by some as divergent from “actual” international politics, but they directly implicate how our work responds to times like these. If we really are in a time of “change” and “crisis” in international politics and we’re having difficulty applying extant IR knowledge to the present—particularly knowledge that authors like Weber refer to as “disciplinary IR”—IR should seriously consider adapting some of the ways in which it frames, represents, and relates events and practices across time to be more in line with those issues under investigation.

We need more IR scholarship that gets it wrong, so that more can get it right

Most of the disciplinary incentives surrounding scholarship are tilted toward advancing knowledge claims or providing scholarly interventions that are enduring, lasting, and explain more of the past (and presumably the future) than those previously generated. Take, for instance, a hypothetical article or post that argued American IR scholars are already living in a time of authoritarian governance and should adjust their intellectual and pedagogical values accordingly, before it is too late. It offers specific recommendations for individual and collective actions and orientations so that the production of knowledge in IR responds most effectively to the current environment, rather than uncritically presuming it is operating in a liberal democratic civil society. It might turn out to be entirely correct and original, but the author accrues little disciplinary value for that intervention until well into the future when we’ve established a consensus regarding what times we are currently living in. More appropriately, once we’ve established what times we were living in, at which point, the claim is no longer as valuable. More traditionally, one could make a singularly important prediction about the future of international institutions; e.g., the WTO will collapse within ten years, but only if the trends toward nationalism continue in the United States and Britain, as well as take hold in continental Europe. The work may be scholarly, rigorous, and most importantly, directly relevant to the contemporary moment, but if a couple of future events go in a different direction (e.g., impeachment and removal of Trump, electoral shifts in Europe) these predictions will fail and fail spectacularly. In a time like this, taking these positions publicly—presuming one could get them published—would accrue social/professional costs, constitute a risky claim based on a potentially temporary environment, and lack any professional benefit in terms of making an “enduring” intellectual contribution. They each have a self-professed intellectual shelf-life and expiration date. Even if they’re right, once we know enough to confirm that, it’s no longer (as) useful as an intervention and it’s unclear what its “enduring contribution” would be.

To be clear, I am not articulating a vision of politics or intellectual inquiry where we engage in competitive punditry, uncritically accept extreme claims, or remain hostage to contemporary events. What I am suggesting is that by paying attention to the temporal dimension of scholarship we can better appreciate how the baseline assumptions we make about the political future limits our ability to make rigorous, scholarly claims in times of rapid and profound change. It disincentivizes bold claims and those claims that have a self-professedly short term or context-specific scope—precisely the type of claims that may be warranted in a time of rapid, systemic change.

There is no one, single political present

Finally, paying attention to how IR scholarship represents and relates the past, present, and future exposes that “the” political present is neither neutral, objective, nor unitary. Rather, it is constructed, produced, and reproduced. This runs deeper than issues of history or sociality, but instead operates at the temporal level, how we relate meaning across time. Just as history and/or the past are constructs marked by those in the present, the political present, Hutchings emphasizes, is as much a bounded political construct as those institutions, actors, and behaviors that play central roles in it. It is a meaningful construct, to be clear, as it’s not only IR scholars who think about the “international community”, “world politics” and/or the world-political present, but actors and practitioners as well.

Thinking about “the” present in this way reveals that it has boundaries and divisions where some pasts/futures are shared and some are not—in Hutchings words, it is “heterotemporal.” These massive shifts taking place—the “changes” that are causing such “crisis” are not the same for everyone and this is at least partially because of divergences in social pasts and differentially powerful social and political positions. Think of the different reactions to the rise of Trump—for some, especially those in minority groups in the United States, the emergence of Trump does not represent a seismic shift in American political governance, but a crystallization of extant structures of inequality that differ in visibility depending on social location, but not in material effect. Similarly, at the international level, there are individuals, actors, and institutions in time-spaces where this “crisis” in Europe and America does little to alter their world of international relations. Representing “the past” and “the present” in a unitary way is definitionally conservative—it privileges those entities, structures, and actors already possessing the power to constitute “the past” in the first place. It is a deeply political act that IR employs every time it uncritically accepts assumptions about the time-space(s) of global politics as unitary, natural, and inevitable. While recognizing this alters (but does not erase) generalizability, it also allows us to think the world of IR in a more nuanced, less universalist manner that recognizes the violence this does to those in unprivileged positions. The result are insights that might provide a more effective means of structuring IR that no longer uncritically speaks to “the present” as universal, global experience, but self-consciously limits itself to particular presents, overlapping and intersecting. Doing so denaturalizes our “international” claims and forces us to think carefully about the implications of choosing to focus on one present versus another.

Framing present-day concerns—what did Russia do and how is the US responding?

As is probably clear if you’ve read this far, I think we should take seriously the idea that these recent events represent rapid, potentially ontological, changes in areas IR has long considered essential to its political present. This is particularly true for the Euro-American political space and those areas touched by the so-called American or Western led world order. Some may see the issues outlined above as primarily theoretical or metatheoretical, but the implications are potentially very concrete, particularly when it comes to assessing the present and near-future dynamic between the United States and Russia.

At the most basic level, the United States is currently trying to identify what exactly happened in the last 18 months of politics. Much of that focus revolves around how to frame the ongoing operations by the Russian government in the United States, Europe, and worldwide. One central issue is relatively simple: does Russian interference in the 2016 US election constitute a war—or the beginning of a war—with the United States? How we choose to answer this question while events are still transpiring has profound implications on what we think we are “seeing” take place. Imagine how future political actors and historians might consider it. We know that Russia interfered in the US election and perhaps colluded with the current administration to insure its ascension to power. It is undoubtedly a political act with dramatic impact in the US and the world, but was it an act of war? For most of us, the answer is obviously no, because it does not (yet) involve acts of physical force, violence, or death—although it must be noted that Russia has already shown a willingness to use violence in support of such operations outside its boundaries and within US territory and the territory of American allies. As the US war on drugs demonstrated and the war on terrorism confirms, governments have vast capacities for framing violence in ways that change not just the way they are interpreted, but what they actually are in international politics. This is no longer a hypothetical. US Senators are increasingly referring to the Russian operation(s) as an “attack” on the United States, as well as a part of their cyberwarfare operations, and others in the media are following suit—one Senator even characterized it as the worst attack since September 2001. Experts on Russia characterize the “attack” as part of Russia’s strategy of “hybrid warfare” marrying kinetic operations with information and cyber-maneuvers, as was the case in Ukraine. A former intelligence official characterizes the Russian government’s understanding of its relationship to the United States simply as “war”, pure and simple.

This is not merely an inside baseball question for security studies scholars and watchers of American politics—discursive framing matters in concrete ways. How actions are politically constituted largely determine the appropriate response. We have seen how acts of terrorism are increasingly framed as an act of war, virtually necessitating war in response—France’s response to the Paris attacks mirrors in word and deed the US response in 2001. Given the twin focuses of US security policy on cyber operations and terrorism, Russian information operations pose a unique threat. If it becomes commonly accepted that Russia attacked and damaged the self-proclaimed core of American exceptionalism—its commitment to democracy via free and fair elections—one can easily see that being appropriated legally and politically as an “act of war.” If combined with traditional acts of violence in response—such as those the Russian government has utilized in the recent past (e.g., assassinations) in Europe and the United States—the lines could blur. Even worse, political actors on both sides could see it as in their interest to deliberately blur these lines for domestic political gain. It does not take a significant imagination to consider a future United States government responding to such acts of war by the Russian government with a proxy war in Syria, Ukraine, the Baltics, or elsewhere, translating rhetoric into traditional kinetic warfare. This is, after all, the country with which the United States has already once fought a “Cold War,” willingly risking nuclear escalation to contain Russia’s global influence. While this scenario is perhaps somewhat fanciful it is by no means unimaginable. And when compared to what was considered unimaginable three years ago, it is decidedly less so, given the “interesting times” we’ve been “cursed” to live in.

The supposed “curse” of “interesting times” is worth reflecting on. In popular usage, this “curse” has typically been attributed to “ancient China.” Yet, despite the cliché’s lengthy history, no scholar has been able to find evidence to verify this claim. In other words, the “ancient Chinese curse” is only “ancient” and “Chinese” among non-Chinese in the present-day United States. It’s a false past, deployed in a specific present, used to signify something temporally universal—the challenge of living through changing times.

The point I wish to underscore is this: the present is always a time of change and divergence, uncertainty and the new. Regardless of how we choose to define it, whatever borders we draw around it, whoever “our” present includes and more importantly, whoever it excludes, it is a crucial time of politics. Unless IR scholarship learns to take the present more seriously, we will face the same challenges and experience similar dissatisfaction the next time we confront apparently seismic changes in world politics. And when we do, we will once again wonder why it is that we’ve generated so much valuable scholarship, yet have such a hard time using it.

[1] See for instance Kimberly Hutchings, Time and World Politics: Thinking the Present (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), Tom Lundborg, The Politics of the Event: Time, Movement, Becoming (New York: Routledge) 2012, Tom Lundborg, ‘The Limits of Historical Sociology: Temporal Borders and the Reproduction of the Modern Political Present’, European Journal of International Relations, 22:1 (2015), pp 99-121., Ty Solomon, ‘Time and Subjectivity in World Politics’, International Studies Quarterly 58:4 (2013), pp. 671-681, Andrew Hom, ‘Hegemonic Metronome: The Ascendancy of Western Standard Time’, Review of International Studies, 36:4 (2010), pp. 1145-1170, Timothy Stevens, Cybersecurity and the Politics of Time’, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), Liam Stockdale, Taming an Uncertain Future: Temporality, Sovereignty, and the Politics of Anticipatory Governance (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), Francois Debrix, ‘Katechontic Sovereignty: Security Politics and the Overcoming of Time’ International Political Sociology 9:2 (2015), pp. 143-157, Anna Agathanagelou and Kyle Killian (eds.), Time, Temporality, and Violence in International Relations: (De)Fatalizing the Present, Forging Radical Alternatives, (New York: Routledge, 2016)and Kathryn Marie Fisher, ‘Exploring Temporality in/of British Counterterrorism Law and Lawmaking’, Critical Studies on Terrorism 6:1 (2013), pp. 50-72


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