Being part of international relations: academics moving abroad 

The international university campus is a site of relationality, write Ruairidh Brown and Kerstin Tomiak. It is a space of cultural and political interchange, and the creation of co-constituted knowledge. This challenges the traditional view in international relations of higher education as a mere soft power tool

Hard versus soft power 

Under the hegemonic sway of political realism, the ontology of mainstream international relations (IR) holds fast on the prime importance of discrete sovereign states. How states exercise power remains a central focus of the discipline.

Traditionally, the focus here has been on hard power, i.e. military might and action. However, the discipline has begun to focus increasingly on softer forms of power, such as cultural diplomacy. Rather than using force, states exercise power here through influence. 

Education as soft power  

Education systems have long been the means through which states can exercise influence. In the 19th century, for example, British politicians realised that education was a highly effective tool in maintaining their Empire. As Thomas Babington Macauley stressed, the best way to maintain order over the Empire of ‘millions whom we govern’ is to educate the natives as British 'in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect'. 

During the second half of the 20th century, in the so-called Era of Development, US policymakers aimed to hasten the development of countries in the Global South. They initially saw school education as the best tool to initiate social change, but later changed their focus to mass media because it was cheaper and faster.

Joseph Nye claimed that the promotion of liberal values by US higher education was critical to victory in the Cold War.

Today, states frequently initiate educational exchanges as a form of public diplomacy. Prominent examples are the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst), the British Council, Fulbright programmes in the US, and China's Confucius Institute.

The purpose of these institutions to advance state interests is well documented and explicit. For instance, the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group asserts that the British Council is ‘the familiar and enduring face of Britain around the world', fostering ‘influence’ and ‘love’ for the United Kingdom.

Academic migration 

In our work on academic migration, we found this interpretation of international education as a vertical one-directional exercise of power to be very reductive. 

Academics who pursue their vocation abroad rarely do so to act as a standard bearer for their home countries’ values. Instead, they might move for personal reasons such as economic pressure, or simply through a sense of adventure. Some scholars may be prompted to move as a result of disillusionment with one’s own state’s politics. Recent examples include frustration over Brexit or a desire to escape Donald Trump.

Academics do not seek to promote their home values but are open to learning about the culture and norms of their host nation

Thus, academics do not necessarily seek to promote their home values. They are often more open to learning about, even embracing, the culture and norms of their host nation. Academics are also willing to listen to their students' experiences and values, and may allow this experience to challenge or even change their own worldviews.

For example, through engagement with their students, American academics abroad have questioned whether the USA is indeed a force for good in the world. They have also questioned how students' perceptions of the concepts of ‘security’ and ‘danger’ in conflict zones like Iraq differ from the definitions commonly offered by academia.

A space to be challenged

In his recent research, Ruairidh discovered that censorship in China is not only a top-down rigid preset of rules, as the media commonly depicts. Rather, it is a much more fluid phenomenon co-constituted by diverse levels of society. When he worked in China, Ruairidh himself could not avoid being part of this phenomenon.

The university with international staff offers a space where multiple actors can relate and share norms

International higher education is not simply the promotion of a home country's values to a host to increase national influence. Rather, the university with international staff offers a space where multiple actors can relate and share norms. Staff can challenge and rethink their own values. They can also build a perception of the world that is constituted between teacher and students, foreigner and local.

Relational international relations  

This understanding of international education connects to the relational theory of international politics. Relational IR challenges the idea that global politics is exclusively the interactions of states. Instead, this theory argues that everyday encounters and interactions by a multitude of actors produce international understanding.

A recent reinterpretation of the Congress of Vienna, the foundational myth of mainstream IR, is key to this new understanding of international politics. In realist history, the Congress is the epitome of rational negation between leading powers, which reinforced the state system following Napoleon’s defeat.

Relational theorists have highlighted that the Congress – and probably the conduct of international politics in general – was a much messier affair than commonly depicted. In Napoleonic-era Vienna, politicians commonly negotiated agreements in cafés, salons, dancing halls, and boudoirs, where rapport and friendship, rather than rational strategy, carried the day. Non-state actors also played a crucial role. Mainstream IR theories often overlook women, but women could wield considerable influence over negotiations in these informal settings.

Lecturers, support staff, and students share knowledge across multiple everyday encounters and exchanges while navigating their everyday life on campus

We understand the international campus – the university that employs international staff – to be a similar relational space of global politics. In such spaces, staff rarely push national influence by championing the educational norms of 'the homeland’. It is, rather, a messy dance, in which lecturers, support staff, and students share knowledge across multiple everyday encounters and exchanges, while navigating their everyday life on campus.

Should I move?

A central question for us was whether young academics should take the job abroad. We wrote our book, Moving Abroad: Risks and Rewards Searching for an Academic Life Far Away, to help academics make this decision by giving them an opportunity to read about others' experiences.

We advocate for such a move. The cultural exchange it facilitates enriched our world view, improved our pedagogy, and allowed us to learn more about ourselves. We would add that working abroad is not simply a chance to teach and research global relations – but also to be an active part of them.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Ruairidh Brown Ruairidh Brown Head of Politics and International Relations, Forward College, Lisbon More by this author
photograph of Kerstin Tomiak Kerstin Tomiak Assistant Professor of International Studies, University of Nottingham, Ningbo More by this author

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