CARC in Conversation: Hannes Cerny

CARC intern Adriana Jones Lima had the chance to meet with Mr. Cerny to discuss his experience at the University of Kent, fieldwork, writing a PhD, and Trump politics.

The School of Politics and International Relations’ Conflict Analysis Research Centre, hosted Hannes Černy, Visiting Professor, CEU and former International Conflict Analysis student to the University. He is the author of Iraqi Kurdistan, the PKK, and International Relations: Theory and Ethnic Conflict (Routledge 2017). The talk looked to demonstrate that the discourse on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan in particular in the wake of the ISIS war is more ambiguous and complex than the reductionist representations in the pertinent literature purport, where scholars write Iraqi Kurdish statehood into existence before even Iraqi Kurdish ethno-nationalist elites are actively pursuing it.

CARC intern Adriana Jones Lima had the chance to meet with Mr. Cerny to discuss his experience at the University of Kent, fieldwork, writing a PhD, and Trump politics.  

Q: So you are Kent Alumni? What made you choose the International Conflict Analysis MA here over other programs?

A: I think that this was pretty much what I was interested in early on.  Originally I started out in Vienna as a historian.  I looked into the relationships between MNCs (Multinational Corporations) and the US government in the late 19th and 20th century and how they collaborated in intervening in Latin American countries.  International conflict was my main interest and I also wanted to go abroad.

Q: What were you initial conflict interests?

A: My research interest was in Latin America.  Back then my work was focused on the civil war in Colombia and the Clinton sponsored plan there.  This included fighting the drug war in Columbia and the peace initiative of Pastrana government with the FARC.   I ended up becoming interested in the Middle East completely by chance.  

Q: How has conflict changed since you were in the program?  What were the conflicts your course focused on?  I know right now for us we are talking a lot about Brexit, terrorism, nationalism, and President Trump.

A: As a discipline I would say that when I did this in 2002 there was hope that what is considered constitutive theory would finally break the glass ceiling and break the Neorealist and Neoliberal paradigms  The 90s were the heyday of post structuralism, that has not happened.  Even though we do focus on post structuralism and theory, the main theory is still positivist theory.  You could say that maybe not that much has changed as a discipline.  There are many more books published, many more journals in post positivist critical theory than back then but in terms of  an impact.  It still has a niche existence.  

Politically in terms of how things have developed a lot has changed in the past two or three years, certainly not for the better.  We have the far right wing parties in Europe gaining ground on a daily basis.  Britain has shot itself in the foot by prioritizing Britishness over European identity.

Q:  How do you think Europe should handle the new US President Trump?

For Germany as for any other country in Europe and Canada, it is difficult to deal with that.  On the one hand there is half a century of positive relationship and they are a bedrock for the Germany economy and European Union.  Pandering to autocratic regimes will inevitably turn against you even if we prioritize economic interests. You cannot prioritize material interests over ideological differences. Lets just see where this is going and not over dramatize things.

Q:  Did you enjoy your time here? What is your favorite memory from the University of Kent?

A: Generally I had a really good time,  it was a very good year for my scholarly pursuits, and I personally made many friends here.  Perhaps the one thing that the university could have done better was in the area of career advice and setting graduates on a professional track, and helping they get out in the field. Out of 20 who went through the program less than a handful went into the field and most went to different fields. While I was here I made professional contacts that I still have today.

Q: What was life like after graduating from the MA program?  

A: To be honest it was a struggle immediately after graduating from here.  I was lucky as I got to work for the Carter Center in Atlanta and was involved in an initiative to mend differences between US and Cuba.  But after that I was struggling for two years to find a job in my chosen field.  I had no intentions of continuing academia and wanted to go into policy analysis.  I was less interested in theory.  For two years I was making ends meet and doing odd jobs. I wrote a novel and that made me decide that I should get back to academia and applied for a job in Exeter and from there things took off.  The middle period was quite tough though.

Q: You started writing political science novels how did you transition from novel writing to writing a PhD?

A: Writing a PhD, for the most part is an entirely different process than a novel.  I don’t know how other people go about writing a novel but I found completing my  Phd was a completely different venture into the unknown.  You start out with an idea and the perceptions you start out with are completely challenged.  You find new theories that you did not think of.  The entire process is completely different.  Both writing a novel and Phd both are a pretty lonely affair.  You spend a lot of your time in the library and become quite isolated.  They both require a great deal of determination.  Other than that the two are entirely different.  The novel was loaded with too much information.  One of the key rules in fiction writing is show, don’t tell.  In academic writing it is the opposite, you are supposed to tell and elaborate on theories you are not supposed to have scenes and characters.  

Q: How did your perception change from the beginning of your Phd to the end?

A: Initially I believed that the Iraqi leadership would take on the struggle of Kurds in Turkey and Syria.  Then I looked at the relationship between the Iraqi Kurdish party the PKK more seriously.  It was much more antagonistic than I assumed.  Those movements were actually rivals.  I looked into representations in IR of the international of ethnic conflicts, ethnic alliance model. If in one country group A is oppressed by the government and in another country group A is in power they will come to the assistance of group A in the country they are oppressed in.  That squared with my original conception, but it contradicted the actual PKK and other Kurdish groups. It made me question why it is portrayed this way, if the actual data on the ground contradicted that.  It was a long intellectual journey.

Q: Did your research involve field work? How would you suggest students looking to pursue  prepare for fieldwork?

Fieldwork is completely unpredictable. In terms of advice you need to prepare for it as much as you can before you go into the field.  I had the advantage of working in an institute that had excellent contacts in Iraqi Kurdistan and was taken in by one of the founders in Iraqi Kurdistan and he invited me to a conference.  It was successful.  If you follow snowball method.  You run the risk of adopting their biases.  What I did not succeed in *(in Iraqi kurdistan) was gaining access to the PKK headquarters.  I tried three times and the security situation did not allow that.  Twice Turkish forces were bombing the area, which limited my interviews with the PKK mostly to their representatives in Europe and former members that lived in Iraqi Kurdistan.  That is one of the things that could have worked out better, but if you go into a war zone things are unpredictable.  

Q: Those are all the questions I have for you.  My last question is an important one: If you were able to give  President Donald Trump on piece of advice what would it be?

It is a million dollar question. But I would find it difficult to advise the Trump administration but given now that this is the admin that is in power in the US you have to deal with what you’ve got. One of the major errors that we see in the middle east is that the US as much as Europe think that they can intervene there that they can get what they want but do these interventions via a proxy but they have in their power the ability to control the proxy.  To some extent ISIS has never been a proxy there is the approach that they can control ti.  For way too long the US has let the regional players control things with the hope that they can control this.  This has proven to be a mistake of radical proportions.


If you want to deal a severe blow to radicalism in the middle east you need to address the issues that have created them.  Empower the civil societies in the region and not the autocratic regimes.  Cute support for the gulf states and turkey. Instead empower voices of the opposition general civil society groups and islamist groups but this is a wide spectrum.  Empower civil society rather than regimes and radical Islam.