Interview
Public diplomacy is something that can take many different forms
Conversation with Tim Potier
Tim Potier
Invited Professor of International Law, Department of International Law at MGIMO.
British Professor Tim Potier speaks on Russian-British relations, Skripal case and Russian education

Publication date: 29.05.2018
Public diplomacy is very important generally and has been increasingly realized as an important tool in the trade.
PICREADI: What do you think of the British Council in Moscow being shut down? Do you think that this will have a serious impact on relations between the Russian Federation and Britain?

Professor Potier:
I hope it doesn't. I think for the immediate moment it might have a bit of an impact. But, I am hopeful that all of this will settle down very soon. It is regrettable that the British Council has been shut down, but these things happen. I am sure that the educational links between the two countries will recover quite quickly. But, there may be a small hiatus.

PICREADI: Does public diplomacy have the potential to mutually improve relations between Russia and the West?

Professor Potier: I think public diplomacy is very important generally and has been increasingly realized as an important tool in the trade. I think that it will definitely help bilateral relations between the U.K and Russia. It is something that Russia takes very seriously, and it is correct that it does so, as it is one of the soft power ways that Russia can convey an image of itself. An image of itself, which perhaps the wider Western world doesn't always see.

The British are also seeing the benefits of it. I hope that the more interpersonal links between the two countries will not be damaged too much. It is certainly a shame that some of the exchanges that we've had in recent weeks have rather soured relations. But diplomacy is for grown-ups, as you know, and these things can quite swiftly recover. I'm sure that in a few weeks or months much of this will be forgotten. We can't be sure, but let's hope.
PICREADI: How do you perceive public diplomacy and do you think international law has influenced the public diplomacy of states?
Professor Potier: I would say that they are two quite different beasts. I think international law stands sometimes even quite apart from international relations, policy more generally. With the various dynamics that are at work when states are formulating their foreign policy, international law may not always be at the forefront of their mind. It may loom large because of the obligations of that given state, whether bilateral or multilateral.

I think public diplomacy is something that's separate and much more diffuse and can take many different forms. Whether that's putting on a classical music concert, an exhibition or a lecture series. I think that's one of its great advantages. Whereas, the law can sometimes be a rather blunt instrument, whether in domestic law or international law. So, I don't see there being so much crossover between the two. I may be wrong. I don't know. But, instantly they seem to be rather separate to my mind.
PICREADI: Do you believe that the British government overreacted to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal?
Professor Potier: It is very difficult for me to give a good answer to that question. Of course, like any of the other ordinary people on this planet I truthfully don't know what happened. I rely on the media just like everyone else does. It then comes down to whom you believe or trust. I don't see why the British government should lie or create a story out of nothing. But then, on the other hand, I note that the Russian authorities have strenuously denied any involvement, direct or indirect. I'm sure time will give us more information and maybe we will be clear in due course.

But, I've been a bit confused the last few weeks. Confused because I am a British subject, so my natural loyalty, my instinct, is to trust and believe what my government says. But, of course, I live and work here in Russia, and so I have observed the strenuous denials on the part of the government here. Which therefore suggests if you put all of that together the truth must lie somewhere either towards one of those sides or in between. Where it lies, I really don't know because I have no special knowledge of what happened.

The thing that I regret the most is the language that has been used, particularly some of the language that has been used on the British side. It's been a bit unfortunate as I've spent years telling my students that there are many ways you can say the same thing in a different way and that some of these ways can cause considerable hurt and offense. I think, perhaps, it's a shame that some of that language was used, without in any way expecting my government to take a different position. If they are convinced that they are correct, then they would have every right to take that position. But, perhaps, in a slightly different way.
PICREADI: Has the public's opinion of Russia changed dramatically since then?
Professor Potier: I think it's fair to say that U.K-Russian relations have not been great for a long time. U.K-Russian relations for most of the last century at least have been among the more problematic for each country. I can't really give you a very definite reason why that is. There has been no special event or situation which has occurred to justify it. As a result of that, the British perception of Russia for a long time now, I'm talking about the general public, has not been perhaps always the best. So, I think what has happened recently has not helped; it will, of course, make the British public more cautious towards this country (Russia). But, it has never been an easy relationship anyway.
PICREADI: In Russia, on the news, there seems to be a lot of talk about Russophobia. Do you think the idea of Russophobia is accurately portrayed by the media here in Russia? Is there just a growing distrust towards the Russian Federation or have Russians themselves come to be viewed suspiciously among the growing tensions?
Professor Potier: I think to be fair though, sometimes this distinction made by politicians between government and people is a bit of an excuse because when you criticize the government of a country, or when state A's government criticizes the government of country B, inevitably the people of country B will have a certain loyalty to their government and by virtue of the fact that it is their government, even if it is not one that they particularly like, approve of or have voted for, it is natural therefore that the people of the country that is being accused will take some offense. So, it is common, not only in the context of Russia or Russians, for politicians to say, "but of course we have nothing against the people." But, when you of course direct your remarks towards the government of that country you will elicit a reaction amongst its people.

As far as Russophobia is concerned, I can understand now that I live here, and I've lived here for a year, why people in this country feel that there is some kind of hostility towards this country's government. I can well understand why perhaps they may be themselves confused as to why that is the case. I think what we have is what we normally have in international affairs, which is many competing dynamics. When you often put them into the salad bowl many different things and colors emerge from it. I think the attitude in the West towards Russia, where we both come from, in recent times is symptomatic of that. But, I don't think it is only because of the Skripal affair or Russia's involvement in Syria for example. While those are two important factors, there are other reasons as well.

PICREADI: Is there any aspect of Russian soft power that is present in Great Britain?
Professor Potier: I'm not sure that I am the best person to ask because I've lived outside the UK permanently for the last 23 years. I think that Russia does its best in the UK. The country's reputation has been damaged in recent years because it has been seeing London as mainly a financial center in which a lot of not particularly clean people and money have found their way to the UK. I think that has damaged the image of Russia, which is not to its advantage. As far as your question on soft power is concerned, of course, with London being one of the main capitals of the world there are many diplomats and diplomatic missions fighting for attention in the capital. It is hard therefore for any individual presence to make a particular impression.

PICREADI: Given that you are now a professor at MGIMO, what do you view to be the most fundamental differences between Russian and Western education systems? Do you believe that the Russian education system has any advantages over the Western education system in terms of preparing students for the workforce?

Professor Potier: I have worked for two British universities. I've been a dean of one of them, holding a senior management position, so I've been at the very top of one of those universities. I think that there are good points and negative points on both sides. To illustrate, one of the things I like about the Russian university system, and I'm sure here (MGIMO) is reflective of other Russian universities, is that there is a much greater emphasis on oral exams, which I think is a good thing. In the UK university sector, I won't say that we don't have them, we do, but hardly. So, that is one very good thing. I also think that the standard of education is extremely high, certainly at this university, and comparable to some of the most elite universities in the UK.

Is there an area where British universities are ahead of Russian universities? I think the regulatory framework, speaking as a former senior manager, is much better defined in the UK than it is here. I think that that is to the advantage of UK universities. Sometimes, you need some rules in order to then be in a better place to say yes or no to certain things. I'm not saying those don't exist; they do. Mind you, if anything, British universities are becoming overregulated.

Photo: Personal page from Facebook

Conducted by Alexandro Granata, PICREADI intern
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