Climate Change & Social Media: Redefining ‘Realism’


A response to “Unraveling the Enigma: Western Expert Community Seeks to Explain Russian Policy” by Dr. Igor Istomin published April 8, 2015 by the Russian International Affairs Council.

It is no small task to appreciate the enigmatic and emotionally evocative nuances of Russian literature or diplomacy.  It is equally challenging to respond to Dr. Igor Istomin’s meaty assessment of western expert interpretations of Russian foreign policy, including in Ukraine.

Istomin calls for a re-think of Russian foreign policy by western academics, policy makers and expert strategists, among others.  He suggests that “real progress is made in working out compromise positions between Russia and its Western partners.”

At the heart of Istomin’s cool assessment of the “intellectual background against which the United States and its European allies make decisions” is a powerfully poignant call to action.  He references the recent open letters by Robert Berls and Ivan Timofeev and invokes the personal and professional investments made by many to protect and nurture relations between the U.S., Europe and Russia during and after the Cold War.

Importantly, Istomin highlights some of the assumptions of contructivist, liberal and realist theoretical paradigms which have sometimes served as obstacles to effective and productive communications necessary for nuanced and peaceful international diplomacy.  He contends that:

With the constructivist and liberal narratives of interpreting the current crisis in relations
between Russia and the West obviously prevailing in scientific, expert and political
circles, the advocates of the realistic view today have less influence on the decisions
being taken in Washington, Brussels and other European capitals.

In my view, ‘realism’ is alive and well in Washington, D.C. and beyond, despite a slight aversion to the term “the West”, as if several countries with hundreds of cultures and languages can be defined as a single entity, with similar interpretations of geopolitics, let alone effective international relations.

However, U.S. foreign diplomacy appears lost at sea, undirected by bi-partisan purpose and expertise, as demonstrated by post-Cold War America’s reliance on unilateralism, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing Middle East drone war.  Diplomatic bluster such as President Barack Obama’s “red line” in Syria is a hollow tactic, not an effective strategy for creating stability or sustainable peace in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Moreover, are Russia’s newly announced missile sales to Iran designed to undermine U.S., European and Iranian diplomatic resolve and credibility which produced the Lausanne Agreement?  Is this tactic a reaction to U.S. diplomacy in general or a quick revenue generator to counter U.S.-led economic sanctions against Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine?

Either way, these events indicate that there is a ‘new realism’ taking shape in the U.S., Europe and Russia, and is described well by Fiona Hill in her February 11, 2015 article “Toward a strategy for dealing with Russia” in which she concludes:

…dealing with Russia and working toward a solution in Ukraine will require us to throw out all previous playbooks.  Facing up to the realities of Russian’s foreign policy goals are only the first step.  Realism, incrementalism, flexibility, and unity are the pillars for building a new strategy.

An example of ‘new realism’ is expressed through the supranational interests of global corporate entities participating in the ongoing Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.  Global corporates appear to be redefining the very nature of sovereign power and its relation to citizens, particularly in liberal democracies.

I would suggest that like international corporations China’s bi-lateral foreign policy and unapologetic land reclamation in both the East and South China seas are also redefining sovereign power while challenging regional and international institutions, order and stability.  Judging by the emotive responses of several U.S. analysts and geopolitical experts there is widespread concern that China is seeking to redefine international order and the global financial system at the expense of others.  Time will tell if China commits to investing in the current multi-polar international order.  Either way, it appears China, like Russia, has caught the U.S. and Europe flat footed as leaders continue to scramble and adjust to the geopolitical shift east while balancing their economic reliance on trade with China and energy from Russia.

And while some Russian and American leaders and former diplomats continue to argue about whether N.A.T.O. promised not to expand east into the former Soviet Union versus specifically, East Germany, Istomin and others correctly call for a de-coupling of this issue from the conflict in Ukraine.

Importantly, another expression of this ‘new realism’ is seen in the Middle East and Africa.  Despite some analysts’ view that extremist Islamic militarized tribes or groups are not ‘sovereign’ states, the growing coordinated efforts to create a 21st century Islamic caliph indicate that there are non-state actors who view themselves as forces for global change, including the creation of a sovereign ‘caliphate’ state through war, a “legitimate instrument of statecraft”, according to realist John Mearsheimer.

To paraphrase Mearsheimer, ‘realism’ is one of several theoretical paradigms which help interpret international relations and global politics, where states are the primary actors and “no higher authority sits above them” including the United Nations or any other international institution.  Mearsheimer posited in 2002 that the realist paradigm has many theories, sharing several core beliefs, including that “states are sovereign political entities” which may cooperate with each other but ultimately have conflicting interests.

Here’s the rub: global warming, or if one prefers, climate change, is revolutionizing how businesses produce, people consume, domestic politics evolve and state diplomacy is shaped.  The intellectual paradigms for interpreting this new reality must change to include people in global decision-making processes and diplomacy.  Experts from vested political, academic, institutional and corporate entities are not the only people responsible for shaping the future – and our discourse and policies should reflect this new reality.

Climate change is this generation’s “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) and social media is connecting people to this new reality and global paradigm.  Social media may rely on expert academics, analysts, political leaders and others but its credibility and effectiveness as a tool for change and climate action rely on circumventing the vaulted status of “the expert” to connect directly with people.

The nexus between social media, climate change and climate action is often expressed by online and local production and consumption trends.  Local production and trade is rising while global trade is declining, according to Joshua Cooper Ramo in 2012.

Social media is instrumental in raising awareness about the effects of consumption, climate change and related environmental disasters like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 or the radiation contamination of the Pacific Ocean by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in 2011.

Powerful satellite imagery, tweeting astronauts and social media help connect people to space, oceans, freshwater, land and air, including in China, where a recent documentary about air pollution went viral.  The documentary’s global distribution forced Beijing to once again announce plans to implement environmental protection reforms.  For good measure China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection recently released a report warning the government that it must meet rising public demand for a cleaner environment or risk ‘social conflicts’.

Climate change and environmental disasters are already challenging the traditional paradigms of constructivism, liberalism and realism.  With respect to Dr. Istomin, Ukraine is the least of our worries.  Climate action demands a new call for international cooperation and effective use of diplomacy to protect lives, global economies, environments, resources and peace.

As U.S. President John Kennedy said during his American University commencement speech on June 10, 1963, in which he stunned the world by announcing plans for a nuclear test ban treaty with Russia:

What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children – not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women – not merely peace in our time but peace for all time…


For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal… Confident and unafraid, we labor on–not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.

Rachel Cunningham, A.B. Political Science, University of Chicago, is a MA candidate at the University of Western Australia.  Rachel is a former reporter currently based in Hanoi where she researches Vietnamese and Australian contemporary foreign policy within the context of the rise of China. Follow her on Twitter @RCHanoi

This article was republished with editions on 17 April 2015 by the Russian International Affairs Council with permission by the author:

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