23 Jun 2020

MGIMO University Rector Anatoly Torkunov: The study of international relations needs digital technologies

Anatoly Torkunov

Anatoly Torkunov
Courtesy photo

MGIMO University Rector, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Anatoly Torkunov discusses in an interview with Interfax how artificial intelligence will help improve relations between Russia and the United States and solve the Middle East issue.

Question: Russia has vast expertise in natural sciences and high technologies. Demand for biological and medical sciences has grown amid the pandemic. President Vladimir Putin has compared genetics to the space program. Particular attention is paid to artificial intelligence. Does this mean it is time for social sciences and the humanities to go into honorary retirement?

Answer: This is not so. Naturally, Russian mathematicians and natural scientists occupy more solid positions in global science than social scientists and humanities scholars, although this is not true for all - Russian international relations specialists are without doubt among the best in the world. But only the most naïve techno-optimists believe that social studies and humanities are of less importance.

People create and apply technologies, and people should live in international and civil harmony and should be confident about the future and the welfare of their families. In the end, social scientists and humanities scholars answer the question about how society should be organized, how to deal with social forces, which, when they go out of control, may be no less dangerous and lethal than the forces of nature. And we have seen a lot of such examples over the past years and decades.

Social sciences and humanities enable societal reflection, which is needed to make the right political and administrative decisions. In general, social scientists and humanities scholars create, develop and maintain a culture of thought, the intellectual environment that allows us to make thoughtful decisions.

Moreover - and most importantly - there is no insurmountable barrier between natural and social scientists. It would be a mistake to think that there is no room for high technologies in social sciences.

Q.: Digital technologies in social studies?

A.: Of course. Let me give an example. In the late 1970s, complicated negotiations were ongoing that moved slowly towards the Madrid meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. At the request of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's Directorate for Planning of Foreign Political Events the Madrid 80 negotiations were modelled. Scientists of the MGIMO's Problems Laboratory came up with a way to quantify texts of the debates, to mathematically describe the information brought about by the negotiations. This allowed the perspective to be seen. Analysis of the mass of negotiations which led to the signing of the Helsinki Final Act revealed that a compromise regarding two essential points - the inviolability of borders and human rights – had finally yielded a positive result. The report prepared at the Foreign Ministry actually stated that the West was ready to trade its stance on strategic issues for Soviet concessions in the field of human rights. That model was made on a leased computer at a secret research and development institute in the building of a church on Pokrovka [street in central Moscow].

The same team of scientists led by Professor Viktor Sergeyev which analyzed the negotiations, implemented a project of analyzing political thinking, which was a pioneering project for the USSR. Two subjects were analyzed: the first was the retrospective analysis of the thinking of the German establishment during the Franco-Prussian War and the second was a closed analysis of the political thinking of John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Forty years later Professor Sergeyev is still working with the same Problems Laboratory, but under a different name: the MGIMO Institute of International Studies.

Q.: What are the prospects of this approach? What present-day problems can artificial intelligence solve?

A.: Machine text analysis ensures precise interpretation, makes it possible to see the structure of international dialogue, and helps us understand our allies and opponents better. We are able to track their train of thought, which means we can predict their actions in particular circumstances to a certain degree. The precise interpretation of texts helps get rid of the problem of quotes taken out context and the subjective reading of documents.

Speaking of current problems, we can take the example of nuclear security. The existing arms control system is in crisis. Everyone agrees that it needs to be changed. But how are these problems and adjustments seen by the nuclear states? There is need for a precise, detailed, and profound analysis of their political thinking. There is also need for conclusions to rely on an evidence-based analysis of all available material. I think it's time to repeat – naturally at a new technical level – the studies that our colleagues carried out based on materials from the negotiations on security in Europe that took place long ago.

It is also necessary to answer the question whether it is possible to find a resultant in the approaches of various actors, despite obvious disagreements. Not just of Russia and the United States, but also of U.S. allies from the nuclear club, as well as of China, India, Pakistan, and other countries that possess or may possess the technology to build a nuclear weapon. The use of artificial intelligence and machine text analysis in this area will eventually make the international dialogue, including that with partners from the United States and Europe, more open and productive.

Q.: And the same applies to Ukraine as well?

A.: Of course, it applies to Ukraine as well. By the way, MGIMO specialists forecast Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory in the 2019 election as part of the Mapping the Future project led by Andrei Bezrukov. We have always had a strong school of scenario analysis and this project takes that further. The idea is to analyze, collectively and inter-connectedly, both inertial, 'slow' trends that can easily be forecast, for example, demographic ones, and rapidly changing and volatile political dynamics.

Special software to make the expert analysis of scenarios easier is being developed. Several forecasts were prepared as part of this project. They are all published under the title 'International Threats.' Apart from Zelensky's victory, the escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016 was forecast within its framework.

A group led by political geographer Igor Okunev is carrying out interesting work dealing with Donbas as well. Alexei Tokarev together with his young colleagues has conducted research into strategies of the Ukrainian political elite towards Donbas based on the analysis of the Ukrainian segment of Facebook. Machine text analysis methods have been used. The result is quite convincing, but disappointing: on the whole, Ukrainian political elites do not view Donbas residents as their own people and have no strategy for settling the conflict in the country's east. Now even our MGIMO students are writing master's dissertations using text analysis software.

Q.: Is similar work being carried out using text analysis regarding the United States?

A.: Yes, of course. There is a group of specialists led by Andrei Sushentsov, an [MGIMO] Institute for International Studies director and distinguished expert on the U.S. They are analyzing the foreign political strategy of the U.S. in international crises.

The idea is to estimate the degree to which Washington's policy in an acute international situation is determined by the long-term strategy and to decide whether this strategy includes an escalation scenario or whether this is a situational response to a sudden crisis. The U.S. behavior is described by a number of qualitative parameters, such as the tone and the level of unanimity of political statements, diplomatic activity, and military preparations. The crises involving the U.S. are being looked into - the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Arab Spring in Egypt in 2011, and the strategy for the 2014 crisis in Ukraine. Patterns indicating whether the U.S. course was strategic or situational are determined. In the future, it will be possible to detect those patterns during the early stages of new international crises and to predict the U.S. course.

Q.: The pandemic will also influence the balance of power in the world. And as far as I understand there is room for action?

A.: Of course, international relations experts can have their say here. This topic has two important aspects. The first one is that the pandemic shows us what academics, including MGIMO researchers, have been talking about for a long time: the modern world sometimes makes challenges on the international scale that influence global politics, but at the same time they are beyond the traditional field of observation. By the way, environmental aspects are of the same nature. We should study how such situations are influencing the international environment.

The second aspect is how states react to such crises. What is happening to institutions and decision-making mechanisms? How are anti-crisis strategies being developed? How is a new balance between state agencies, businesses, and civil society found?

In general, mankind produces an unimaginable volume of texts. One day of political life in a large country results in trillions of words, especially if we take into account social networks. A person cannot physically read all this in a reasonable amount of time and software helps us here. Political leaders act in conditions of greater or lesser uncertainty. We are used to thinking that uncertainty is brought about by the lack of information. In fact, it is brought about by its excess if there's no key to extracting knowledge from an enormous dataflow.

Today it is as important as ever to use information technologies in the humanities. This requires cooperation between specialists on information technologies and social scientists and humanities scholars.

Q.: You are speaking mainly about applied sciences. What about fundamental science?

A.: Of course, the applied aspect of knowledge is coming to the forefront, especially when it comes to scientific research plans amid the pandemic. But only fundamental research is capable of forming a comprehensive and cohesive perception of reality, including in social sciences.

When we speak about the crisis in relations between Russia and the global West or crisis of the world order in general, the complexity is often overlooked. At the same time as traditional institutions and leaders are being weakened, new ones are emerging and the global situation is changing. We have to know what the political and institutional environment and the balance of powers and interests in the region is. No matter whether it is Europe or the East, where the unprecedented rapprochement of Russia and China can be seen.

There is yet another issue, another aspect of the development of the modern world. A lot is being said, including in the West, about sort of 'a demise of the West' and the loss of its dominance in global politics. And what is happening in the global movement of economic assets: capital, commodities, and the labor force? What are the opportunities and threats for Russia?

These issues need to be studied, especially due to the increasing politicization of the global economy. In an increasing number of cases, leading states make strategic economic decisions guided not by long-term benefit but by political considerations. So, fundamental and applied research can help change the vector, navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, and find a way which will allow us to maintain peace, stability, and security.