New world disorder: the academy’s role in upholding internationalism

Rachel Kyte’s previous roles in supra-national bodies make the new dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of international relations determined to see the academy play its part in rescuing multilateralism and addressing climate change, writes John Gill

一月 2, 2020
Rachel Kyte
Source: Reuters

As dean of the oldest graduate school of international relations in the US, Rachel Kyte is acutely aware of her institution’s foundation in the run-up to the Second World War and the echoes of that past today.

As a former executive and adviser on climate change for the United Nations and the World Bank, she is equally aware of the new dangers facing the world as we start a new decade, in which action to address the emerging environmental catastrophe will be crucial for all of our futures.

The two issues are, of course, inextricably linked.

“If you’re interviewing me in 2029 and we haven’t got more traction than we have today on decarbonising our economy then we are in big trouble,” says Kyte, who took over as dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, just outside Boston, in October. “How we will…overcome or put to bed politics which makes people look inside rather than outside is going to be the biggest challenge.”

After a career she likens to an “international merry-go-round” of the supra-national organisations that dominated global governance in the 20th century, Kyte’s move into academia comes at a time when we “may be about to break into a [separate] Chinese sphere, a US sphere [and] a European sphere”.

And she is clear about the additional responsibility that this puts on universities. In the face of numerous challenges, many driven by climate change, “having an academy that is able to collaborate will be essential – these issues are resolvable only at a global level”.

Equally important, if universities are to rise to the exceptional challenges we face, is ensuring that there is diversity of every sort in the academy – but most vitally, for Kyte, diversity of perspective.

“The preciousness of a multiplicity of view must be understood,” she says. “We are at a moment when anything that’s elite can be branded as of no value or dangerous, and there’s a definite echo to earlier in the 20th century. As a school of international relations, I think it’s particularly important for us to stand back and understand what’s going on. We were founded in the 1930s for this precise reason. So it does really matter that your faculty is diverse, not just in…race and gender but in its perspectives.”

A couple of months into her new position, it is natural that Kyte reaches for examples from her previous incarnations to make her point. But it helps that there are clear parallels.

“That was the same at the World Bank,” she explains. “If every economist is from one of four schools of economics, then do we have a diversity of opinion? From the right or the left, we need those perspectives.”

For universities to fulfil their role in helping society to “look around corners”, Kyte continues, it is not viable for them to continue to “look at the world from the perspective of mid-20th-century European man, which is how the whole construct of international relations has been taught”.

And the pressure to change is coming not only from the global agenda but from students too: “This generation of students are intersectional in the way they think about themselves and the world,” Kyte says. “And graduate students are surgical in their analysis of whether we are giving them what they want, and whether we are able to give them what they want.

“Over the last 15 years we have been able to build a very strong female cohort within the faculty at Fletcher, but we now have to travel that distance on other issues of diversity as well. We also have the issue of decolonisation of international relations as a discipline, and the students are saying to us that this just has to get done. There are nuances about exactly how you achieve that, but for them it is a sine qua non. This is not a phase. It’s not going to snap back to where we were. For this generation, this is a baseline.”

Extinction Rebellion protest

Kyte, who grew up in England, is also a strong advocate of interdisciplinarity, observing that “having walked through the back of the wardrobe” from organisations such as the World Bank into academia, “I can see that when we do that well that’s when we attract resources and students”.

She is also impressed by the learning environment to be found in a graduate school in which students come to their studies with considerable life experience. “There’s something very powerful about being in a team of four people talking about some aspect of human security when you have a guy who has done three tours of Afghanistan sitting next to you,” she says.

As for the specific responsibilities of a school of international relations at a time when international relations are more strained than they have been perhaps in living memory, Kyte is clear that it is up to institutions such as hers not only to evolve but also to hold their ground.

“We have three responsibilities,” she says. “We are based in the US, but we are a globalist institution in our views, and we have a responsibility to remain globalist and not get sucked in to the US view of the world to the extent that we can’t represent how things look from other parts of the world.”

A related responsibility responds to the fact that the process of getting a US visa is “more important and expensive than it used to be. So, along with the rest of the academy, we must try to ensure that the US is still a place where scholars can come and exchange their views.”

And a third responsibility reflects the Fletcher School’s history of “studying, influencing [and] feeding people in and out of a set of global institutions which are on the ropes at the moment. And so rescuing multilateralism, or understanding the future international order, is very important. And being open to very different ways of organising the world is important.”

One of the biggest geopolitical tensions of the final years of the last decade, and very much carrying over into the new one, is the increasing dominance of China in a number of spheres: a phenomenon that is often depicted as an inconvenience and a threat to the West. But Kyte believes that maintaining scholarly engagement is essential – and notes that China is not the only nation that is potentially problematic to work with.

“In my previous jobs, there were moments when we were involved in collaborative work between international organisations, thinktanks and academic institutions, and [the question was often]: ‘Are we going to be OK with China?’” she recalls. “But in the last couple of years – particularly in the area where I was working, which was on climate – it became the US that was the problem. It was the US that was saying: ‘This is not going to get published.’”

She also contends that without deep relationships with Chinese institutions and scholars, and a true understanding of China, there is too often a “naivety about who you’re dealing with and how they are going to react. There is often a tendency to paint China as if it is a monolith, and it isn’t. You’ve got reformers and conservatives within central government in Beijing; you’ve got different tendencies among provincial leaders, in state-owned and private enterprises; there’s a bit of naivety here.”


Given her previous roles, as special representative of the UN secretary-general, chief executive of the non-profit Sustainable Energy for All and vice-president and special envoy for climate change at the World Bank, Kyte has thought deeply about how institutions can best respond to the climate crisis.

In the case of universities, she suggests that individual campuses can do their bit locally by enacting divestment policies, cutting down on air travel (which she says is a subject of “robust debate” in a sector that remains addicted to long-haul travel for academic conferences and collaborations), and ensuring that their estates become as sustainable as possible. “But even more important is what and how we teach,” she adds.

Researchers’ contribution to the understanding of the science of climate change is clear, Kyte adds – even if the reliability of the science was still being seriously debated as recently as the start of the last decade. And Kyte says that, as dean, she will aim to further strengthen the work that is done in Fletcher’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy.

“But I also want our work in international security studies to have climate built in, because Nato is struggling with what climate means for military installations,” she says, adding that global warming is also relevant to security because of its anticipated role in enhancing the number of refugees on the move as parts of the world become increasingly uninhabitable.

“So, for me, [climate change] is a threat intensifier and an existential risk, and I want to teach it across our curriculum – that’s where I think the academy can really help,” Kyte says.

She adds, as an aside, that she finds it “astonishing” that business schools still do not teach in this way, despite the work by pioneering scholars such as Lord Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, who was “the first person to bluntly point out that [climate change] is an economic risk”.

It is only by understanding and teaching the ways in which the climate crisis affects everything, Kyte suggests, that universities will maximise their ability to bring about the change the world needs. But she cautions that this has to be done as part of a “symbiotic” effort with industry and government – with each understanding the role they fulfil.

“When it works well, those three are pulling together,” she concludes. “In a world where facts are being thrown back in our faces, when to be elite or an expert is bad, the academy has to have the chops to hold the space.”

As for the argument that politics is too short-termist to deal with the climate crisis, she dismisses it by pointing to the politically toxic impact of intensifying wildfires and flows of refugees.

Not that the path from crisis to action is always straightforward. A case in point is Australia, which holds general elections every three years and whose government continues to resist serious measures to address climate change even as unprecedentedly intense bushfires choke the air in Sydney and other eastern cities. The country’s energy minister, Angus Taylor, is reportedly fighting to keep open a loophole that allows Australia to meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement via what thinktank The Australia Institute has dismissed as “clever accounting” rather than genuine emissions reductions.

But Kyte suspects that a change of heart is only a matter of time.

“Tomorrow came today,” Kyte says, reflecting on Taylor’s presence at the UN’s COP25 climate talks in Madrid in December. “The entire eastern seaboard of Australia is on fire and he is going to try and persuade them that there is some accounting trick he can play to avoid hitting any aggressive targets.

“Time just ran out on that kind of thing. Because when he took off from Canberra, I am assuming he saw the smoke.”


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Reader's comments (1)

Einstein, Newton, Copernicus etc did not talk about "Climate Change" so why is it at the forefront of discussions and political agendas so often? The climate of the Earth has always been changing - daytime temperatures and higher than nightime, summer is hotter than winter, and the Earth was once a boiling mass of lava, but then cooled into the Ice Age, and became warmer after that. This has all been known for Centuries, but the proponents of so-called "Climate Change" have either ignored or forgotten our history. Most "Climate Change" arguments focus on changes that have been recorded for between 25 and 150 years ago, but they conveniently ignore the changes over millions of years. Maybe the planet is just reverting to its origins, which could take millions of years?