Academic profile: Professor Nick Sitter
When Nick Sitter started at BI in 2000 he was a rising star in regulation of the energy sector and democracy in Eastern Europa. Today, more people know him as one of the main experts in international political economy and terrorism.
You had quite the pan- Scandinavian upbringing.
That’s right. One of my parents worked for the foreign ministry. I started primary school in Denmark, finished compulsory education in Norway and went to an international upper secondary school in Sweden. I was thinking about going to university in Denmark or Norway, but managed to round up just about enough points to be accepted to The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
As a child, did you know that you wanted a career as an academic?
Not really. At school, my main strengths, besides language, were mathematics and history. Two possibilities opened up: political science, history and economics, or mathematics and physics. I chose the former, and I’m glad I did.
Tell us about your time at LSE.
I did my master’s thesis on the European Economic and Monetary Union. I handed it in in September 1991, right when the negotiations were going on. Still, I realized this wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. This was the time when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Berlin wall came down, and Eastern Europe exploded. The monetary union was well and good, but the larger-scale news of the day was even more exciting to me. So eventually I did my PhD on the development of competitive party-systems in post-communist East Central Europe. I wanted to find out how we could utilise our knowledge about states and markets and democracy in Western Europe to analyse what was going on in Eastern Europe. I was interested in integration.
What did you learn?
My main thesis was that the former communists, or people belonging to the left, wanted to adapt to social democratic and Western European policies and markets right away, just like the more liberal-minded people on the right.The conservative contingent, however,looked back to the 1930s. I wanted to understand how it could be that it was the left and centrist people that ended up as market liberals, while the right became market sceptics. When I finished my PhD in 1999, we had gone through a period of optimism – Clinton, Blair, steady oil prize, Russia under Yeltsin, The End of History by Francis Fukuyama.
And then that optimism was curbed?
– 9/11 can be seen as the symbolic end of that era, yes. Somebody once said that history didn’t have a name for the period between 1989 and the late nineties – but that it didn’t matter now, because it was over!
What has the rise of nationalism in Eastern Europe meant for the EU?
I’m part of a new research project at the moment, based at the LSE, in which we will try to find out more about how the EU deals with various crises. There are several. What we call democratic backsliding – the rise of political populism, nationalism and attacks on constitutionalism and rule of law – could turn into a problem.
When it was just Hungary, it was unique. When something comparable happened in Poland as well, it began to look like a pattern. What happens when certain nations start to back away from the EU’s core values, of which a commitment to the open market – the tool for securing democracy, welfare and safety – is one? How hard can the EU push to keep its member states in line? One must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. No one wants to push Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Croatia or Poland into the open arms of Vladimir Putin.
Which leads us to one of your other areas of research.
Yes, energy policy, Russia and the EU. I think the EU is very aware that Putin is on the prowl for allies, and that energy is one of his weapons in this fight. There’s a delicate balance to be struck to keep the EU together, and I think that Angela Merkel, with her cold war baggage, is very adept at calibrating how the union should deal with these issues.
What peaked your interest in energy policy?
I got a job at a small consulting firm in 1994, while I was working on my PhD. The logic was sort of like “hey, you’re from Norway. You must know something about oil and gas.” I didn’t, really, but I was keen to learn. Once again, the timing was fortunate. These were interesting times in the energy sector. The EU commission was working on their proposals for breaking up the monopolies.
Exciting enough for energy policy and regulation to become your main area of research over the years that followed.
Yes, and it was my knowledge in a pretty nerdy sector – the crossroads between the public and the private sector – that eventually got me recruited to BI when Kjell Eliassen started a big research project on telecommunications. I jotted down a few words about telecommunication deregulation on the back of a napkin during a pub lunch in London, and later wrote a chapter on it with the help of a friend of mine who actually knew something about that particular business. That was my ticket in: my knowledge of regulation, specifically in markets that had been monopolised after the Second World War, but were now ripe for liberalization as a consequence of technology, new thinking in economic theory and political changes.
"Terrorism is propaganda. Leaders and governments should be careful how they react in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Acts of terrorism are rarely an existential threat to nations. "
Then there’s your third major research interest.
Which started purely as an interest. Things were going relatively smoothly in the countries that I was looking at, but everything was breaking down in Yugoslavia. A friend of mine was studying the early Twentieth Century civil wars in Finland and Ireland. Civil wars are nothing new in Europe, and we wanted to analyze what was happening there in relation to other civil wars, like the ones in Italy and Spain. What causes political systems to break down and civil wars to break out? That led to an interest in terrorism – and how to best handle it.
And then terrorism became one of the biggest issues facing Europe and the world at large.
It became a hot-button issue at BI too, especially after the attack on the gas plant in In Amenas in 2013 and the Russian occupation of the Crimea. With my knowledge of both energy and terrorism, I found myself in the middle of all this.
That’s quite a way from where you started.
Yes! I came to BI as an expert on markets and democracy in Eastern Europe and regulation in the energy sector. That’s what I taught – regulation. After a while it became my job to teach everything that had anything to do with Britain: Norway looked to Britain when it came to reforming big government areas like education and health.
Then events conspired, and I’ve spent the last couple of years teaching and studying almost nothing but international political economy, energy and security. That terrorism has become such a big issue is of course unfortunate for the world. I would have much preferred that it had remained a small interest I had on the side.
Tell us about your research in this field.
Terrorism is propaganda. Leaders and governments should be careful how they react in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Acts of terrorism are rarely an existential threat to nations. By acting like they are, for instance by passing new laws in a hurry, one runs the risk of playing into the terrorists’ hands. Drastic measures can have an adverse effect – laws can be hard to repeal. Terrorists understand this: one of the main goals of terrorism is to provoke politicians to overreact.
Not overreacting requires bold politicians?
Yes, and any political scientist will tell you that if there’s one thing politicians want, it is to be re-elected. If you’re François Hollande, you’re going to worry about Marine Le Pen. Choosing a more sensible anti-terrorism policy will open you up to attacks from your political opponents. However, all terrorist experts will say that it is sensible to do so.
Has BI given you a lot of freedom to pursue your many and varied interests?
They have, and I am very grateful. One thing I like about this institution is that they’re very clear about what they want from you. It is expected that you teach and do relevant research, and if you want to do something else besides, you’re welcome to do so, even if that research might not have immediate relevance to the institution. As I said, I’ve been very lucky, in that all my interests have sort of converged – and have become relevant to BI. There’s a pragmatic demand dynamic, and as a lecturer and researcher you’re expected to keep up with those demands. At the same time you’re encouraged to follow your more obscure interests.
Reference: Advantage #2/2016 – The magazine for members of BI Alumni
MORE ABOUT NICK SITTER
- AGE: 46 years.
- FAMILY: Married with two children.
- LIVES: Divides his time between Oslo and Budapest.
- WORKS AS: Professor at Institutt for rettvitenskap.
- ACADEMIC DEGREES: 1990, London School of Economics Bachelor. 1991, London School of economics Master of Science. 1999, London School of Economics Political Science Ph.D.
- WORK EXPERIENCE:
- 2009–Present LSE Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation: research associate
- 2008–Present Central European University, professor
- 2005–Present BI Norwegian Business School, professor
- 2000–2004 BI Norwegian Business School, associate professor
- 1999–2000 Central European University, assistant professor
- 1997–1999 American University, London Semester Programme, lecturer
- 1996–1997 Kingston University, Dep of History, lecturer 1995–1996 University of Reading, Dep of International Relations, lecturer.
- 1993 –1997 The London School of Economics and Political Science, part-time teacher
- Comparative european Politics
- Political economy and regulation
- International political economy
- European Union public policy
- Terrorism and counter terrorism
- EU competition policy and law
- Comparative European politics
- Political parties, party systems, elections, party strategy and coalition politics, Euroscepticism
- Comparative European politics (Scandinavia, Italy, the UK, East Central Europe)
- Democratisation, nationalism, terrorism and political violence
- European Union politics and policy
- Theories of European integration, European institutions
- The single market: competition policy, regulation, liberalisation, utilities
- The EU and non-member states: Norway, the European Economic Area
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