Armenia to Aotearoa via global diplomacy

Professor Rouben Azizian

He has come from one of the world’s oldest nations to one of the newest. Armenian-born Professor Rouben Azizian has hopscotched across diplomatic, strategic and teaching posts to his appointment as director of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies

Professor Azizian’s new Manawatū campus base seems a far cry from tougher, tension-filled centres of international diplomacy where he has has previously worked. He honed his skills and knowledge as an astute analyst of people, politics and power in places such as Moscow, Sri Lanka, Nepal and recently at the United States’ Defence Department’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Hawaii, where he spent the past 13 years.

Yet he sees his new role – and physical location – as a return to the country he now feels most at home, and the ideal next step in a lifetime of embracing new cultures, climates, languages and geopolitical frameworks.

Honolulu base for Asia-Pacific security

Professor Azizian fell in love with New Zealand when he first visited in 1989 to attend a foreign policy conference in Dunedin. He later taught at the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland from 1994 to 2001 before moving to the Honolulu-based centre. There, he lectured, conducted research and facilitated workshops on Asia-Pacific regional security architecture, diplomacy and confidence building, security sector development as well as United States, Russian, Asian and Oceanic security issues.

He took pride in bringing together regional groups – from the likes of Fiji, PNG, Timor Leste – and helping break through hierarchy or tribal and interagency barriers that often blocked constructive communication and progress on internal and regional security issues.

The Hawaiian centre offers possible templates and directions for Massey’s Centre of Defence and Security Studies, he says, in the area of executive education, promotion of national and regional security dialogues and bridging gaps between academia, civil society and the security sector agencies.  

Diplomatic Studies programme in sight for Massey

In that vein, he hopes to see the development of a Diplomatic Studies programme at Massey. This multidisciplinary field exists in some larger centres, and brings together a range of humanities and social sciences subjects – from psychology, sociology and media studies to history, politics, religion and languages.

However, much of diplomatic life is learned on the job. His observations are drawn from a diverse career working for both Russia (the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and the United States- once bitter adversaries during the height of the Cold War period.

End of Soviet era and Cold War

Professor Azizian made headlines in New Zealand as the Soviet Union’s acting ambassador in Wellington at the time the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. An Evening Post article featured a photo of him next to the new Russian flag replacing the Soviet hammer and sickle flag at the embassy in Karori. A replica had been made by a local flag-making business, as the embassy did not have one.

“That was a very powerful symbolic end of Soviet presence in New Zealand, which opened new opportunities for much friendlier and more constructive New Zealand-Russia relations,” he says.

Born and educated in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, he was like many of his and current generations in viewing a job in diplomacy as an exciting, fascinating way of life. He studied at Moscow’s prominent University for International Relations majoring in diplomacy and Asian studies (Armenia was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union from 1922 until 1991) and spent 12 years in South Asia, including missions to Nepal and Sri Lanka. “Not easy places,” he confirms, referring to extreme heat and health risks of dengue fever and other tropical diseases.

Frontline diplomacy tales for first year students

Professor Azizian is looking forward to sharing his experiences in security and diplomacy when he teaches a first year Introduction to Security Studies paper this semester. His students will hear more from the frontline realities of diplomatic and crisis management than textbook theories.

His scholarly work will inform his teaching too. He is the author of numerous book chapters and books, including Regionalism, Security and Cooperation in Oceania (2015); From APEC 2011 to APEC 2012: American and Russian Perspectives on Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (2012); Islam, Oil and Geopolitics: Central Asia after September 11 (2007); Nuclear Developments in South Asia and the Future of Global Arms Control (2001); and Russia in Asia: An Unwelcome Intruder or Accommodating Player? (2000).

Armenia might be far away, but the views of Manawatū’s sun-baked Ruahine ranges evoke memories of Ararat – the famous peak where Noah’s Ark is said to have landed and that he once admired from Yerevan, one of the world’s most ancient cities at 2500 years old and among the earliest Christian civilisations. This observation captures the art of diplomacy – a capacity to make connections wherever you are.

For Professor Azizian being based in an agricultural region resonates not only with the fact his mother was a professor of agricultural studies, but with broader geopolitical security issues related to agri-food and agri-business. The proximity of a sizable military community to a multi-campus, forward-thinking university concerned with preparing students for rapid change in an increasingly globalised, complex world makes, he says, for the ideal base for this truly global citizen.

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