When Politics Isn’t Simple Anymore
We’re living in a new era of conflict, says Professor Andrea Ruggeri, Tutorial Fellow in Politics at BNC, and Associate Professor of Quantitative Methods in International Relations at Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations.
Interview by Olivia Gordon, Oxford Today
You could say that a researcher needs an open and diplomatic personality to get to the bottom of complex, violent wars. Political scientist Professor Andrea Ruggeri, a world expert on conflict, is just such a man.
The Italian from Liguria arrived in Oxford in 2014 from the University of Amsterdam, having done his PhD in Government at the University of Essex. Essex was his first experience of England, and ‘very different from Oxford!’, Ruggeri smiles. During his studies there, it struck him how civil wars are not a domestic issue but an international one. A civil war in one country has an effect on other countries and vice versa – just look at Syria and its interrelationships with the USA, Libya, Russia and the whole Middle East.
Ruggeri’s work then moved onto researching how United Nations peacekeeping missions – typically composed of soldiers from a wide range of nationalities - affect civilians’ safety. To take the relatively new state of South Sudan as an example, the mission there is made up of soldiers from 66 different countries. ‘How do they communicate?’ Ruggeri asks. ‘What is their training? What are their norms; capabilities? And how do these differences affect the way they stop the fighting and protect civilians? We find that diversity can protect civilians, but where the leader of the mission comes from, and how often they change, can jeopardise the conflict resolution dynamics.’
His attention focuses mostly on the currently raging conflicts of Africa and much of Asia – and other areas which suffered in the 1990s, in Latin America and the former Yugoslavia. Which is the most egregious conflict? The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ruggeri says. ‘It’s one of the longest-running peacekeeping missions and usually used as an example of a failure of peacekeeping.’ Another is that of South Sudan, where a military commander in charge of peacekeeping was sacked by Ban Ki-moon, an unprecedented move by the UN.
This year, with colleagues, Ruggeri created a brand new Oxford undergraduate Politics course: International Conflict and Security. ‘Politics is about conflict,’ says Ruggeri. ‘If we didn’t have conflict, politics would not exist. I believe the core of how we organise society is about conflict, though it can be in a violent or a non-violent fashion. I prefer the non-violent.’ His grandfather fought the Nazi occupation as a member of the Italian Resistance. And, growing up, he was active in politics – a far more formative part of a high school student’s identity in Italy than in Britain, he says – here, he senses, identity seems to be constructed more by social class.
But politics, of course, is changing dramatically, as are conflicts. ‘When I was growing up it was still the classic left/right divide,’ Ruggeri says. ‘Easy; simple. Now, I don’t think it’s so simple. There are issues about inequality and marginalisation, but we can’t understand the Brexit vote in terms of left and right wing politics.’
So how can we understand Brexit – and Trump? ‘We see puzzles and paradoxes. Marginalised, poor people vote for a very rich white man; unemployed people vote indirectly against EU labour laws that protected minimum wages…I think we should look at the role of emotions, particularly indignation, and resentment. Resentment of whom and what? People who feel under-represented perceiving an unfair redistribution.’ In other words, a misplaced sense that others – immigrants, say - are taking too much; the perception from under-represented part of our societies that there’s too much political correctness. Or indignation making a British citizen join Isis. But although he does not agree with this new politics of anger, Ruggeri insists: ‘We should not blame the voters – it’s shortsighted to say they shouldn’t have voted that way. If they voted that way, it means they felt that way. We should our best to understand why they voted that way.’
In his cosy college room, his hundreds of books on politics are ordered on the shelves with a logic only the professor can make sense of. ‘I have even more in storage,’ he tells me. He and his wife and son live in Oxford. When not researching or teaching, you’ll find Prof. Ruggeri playing his trumpet – he was once ‘almost’ a professional musician. In true Italian style, his other passion is cooking – ‘cooking is like doing research,’ he laughs. ‘Most people think playing the trumpet, or cooking, or research, is about creativity. But most of the time it’s about preparation, training, making mistakes and trying again. That’s why I use the recipe of how to make risotto in my graduate class as an example of how to do research. Step by step, you define the ingredients, put them together, experiment, and eventually you make a decent product.’