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How to Get a B.A. in International Relations in 5 Minutes

Skip the seminars and the student debt: Here's everything you'd actually remember after four years.


Skip the seminars and the student debt: Here's everything you'd actually remember after four years.

It’s late spring here in New England, which means it is also commencement time for the latest round of graduates from the region’s many colleges and universities. As the proud parents and relieved graduates are busy celebrating, I worry that many of them are secretly filled with regret. Why? Obviously, because many of them didn’t take enough courses in international relations. Computer science, Biology, Economics, Applied Mathematics, or Mechanical Engineering are all fine subjects, and History, English Literature, or Sociology can be fascinating, but how much will any of these subjects teach you about the intricacies of world affairs, globalization, foreign policy, and the really cool stuff that people like me get to study?

Never fear: I have a solution. A few decades ago, Saturday Night Live’s Father Guido Sarducci (a.k.a. Don Novello) created the concept of the “Five Minute University.” It was brilliantly simple: in five minutes he promised to teach you everything you’d actually remember five years after you graduated. For example: Economics? Easy: “supply and demand.” That’s it. Theology? “God Loves You.” And so forth.

So if you’re ruing the day that you got a finance degree and didn’t take any courses that were actually interesting, I offer here the Five Minute University program in International Relations. It consists of five basic concepts that teach you all you really need to know about the fascinating world of international affairs. Unless you are a very slow reader, this shouldn’t take more than five minutes.

No. 1: Anarchy

You don’t have to be a realist to recognize that what makes international politics different from domestic politics is that it takes place in the absence of central authority. There’s no cop on the beat, no authoritative judge or courts to which states can appeal, and no 9-1-1 to call if you get into trouble. (Just ask the Ukrainians, Lebanese, or Rwandans about this little problem). In the absence of a central authority that can protect states from each other, major powers have to provide security for themselves and remain on the lookout for trouble down the road. This situation doesn’t preclude cooperation or even occasional minor acts of altruism, but it means security is usually at a premium and fear casts a long shadow over the entirety of world affairs. Anarchy may be “what states make of it,” but mostly what they make of it is trouble.

No. 2: The Balance of Power (or for extra credit, the balance of threats)

Given anarchy (see above), states worry about who is stronger, who is catching up or falling behind, and what steps can each take to avoid permanent inferiority. The balance of power tells you a lot about how states identify potential allies, and whether war is becoming more or less likely. Big shifts in the balance of power are usually dangerous, either because rising powers challenge the status quo, or lagging powers launch preventive wars, or simply because shifts make it hard to know who is presently stronger and thus make miscalculation more likely. Although the precise meaning of the term has been debated for a long time, trying to understand IR without any reference to balance of power is like trying to play baseball without a bat, or play the blues without a backbeat.

No. 3: Comparative Advantage (a.k.a. “gains from trade”)

If you never took a course in international economics, then you need to grasp the basic notion of comparative advantage, which underlies the entire liberal theory of free trade. The idea is simple: states will be better off if they all specialize in producing items in which they have some relative advantage, and then exchange these goods with the good produced by others whose relative advantage lies in producing something else. Even if one country was superior at producing all goods (i.e., had an absolute advantage in everything), everyone would still be better off if they produced the good(s) where their relative efficiency was greatest. The logic of this argument is irrefutable, but it took a couple of centuries for it to become widely accepted. The (partial) rejection of mercantilism and the embrace of more open trade is the root of contemporary globalization and a key reason why the world is more prosperous today than it was two centuries ago, and it is impossible to understand the vast and remarkable web of international commerce if you don’t grasp this basic reality.

No. 4: Misperception and Miscalculation

A wise friend of mine likes to say that most of international politics can be summed up in three words: fear, greed, and stupidity. We’ve already covered the first two (anarchy and the balance of power are about fear, and free trade is about the benevolent effects of greed). But the third one — stupidity — is equally important: you can’t really understand international politics and foreign policy without recognizing that national leaders (and sometimes whole countries) frequently misunderstand each other and often do remarkably stupid things. One country feels threatened and reacts defensively, leading other countries to falsely conclude that it has vast and dangerous ambitions that must be countered. Sometimes it works the other way, however, and a relentless aggressor manages to fool others into believing that its aims are limited. Or states tell themselves self-serving, sanitized narratives about the past — one where they never did anything bad to anyone and their opponents are always at fault — and then they get surprised when other states don’t see the historical record in the same way.

Any qualified IR graduate also needs to know that national leaders often do dumb things, even when surrounded by hordes of well-trained advisors and backed up by vast government agencies and intelligence services. Why? Because information is imperfect, other states sometimes bluff or lie, and because bureaucrats and policy advisors are subject to the usual human foibles (including cowardice, careerism, and imperfect rationality). You won’t remember all these details five years from now, but keep this lesson firmly in mind: the people in charge usually don’t know what they are doing.

No. 5: Social Construction

I’m not a constructivist, but even I acknowledge that the interactions of states and other human institutions are often shaped by changing norms and identities, and that these norms and identities are themselves are neither divinely ordained nor fixed. On the contrary, they are themselves the product of human interaction: what we do on a daily basis but also how we talk or write and how our ideas and beliefs evolve over time. One cannot understand nationalism, the end of slavery, the laws of war, the rise and collapse of Marxism-Leninism, changing attitudes toward gay marriage, and a host of other important global phenomena without understanding that social reality is not like the physical world; it is made and remade by what humans do and say and think. Although we can’t predict how attitudes, norms, identities, and beliefs will evolve, being aware of this aspect of world society will keep you from being completely blindsided when seemingly unchallenged orthodoxies are suddenly swept away.

This concludes the Five Minute University program in International Relations. There’s a lot more to say about this whole subject, but I’m afraid our time is up. If you understand these five concepts well, you now know what most IR undergraduates will remember five years after receiving their diploma, unless they end up doing this sort of work for a living.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that these five concepts exhaust the whole of the field. To be a real expert, you’d need to know something about deterrence and coercion, institutions, selection effects, democratic peace theory, international finance, and a number of other key ideas. A good working knowledge of international history would surely help as well, plus a lot of detailed expertise in specific policy areas.

But acquiring this level of knowledge means you’d have to think seriously about graduate training, and that would take at least another five minutes. In any case, if you (or your child) are a member of the Class of 2014, please accept my heartiest congratulations. And if you did get an IR degree and plan to work in this field, don’t worry: my generation has left you plenty of thorny problems on which to work — and you can hardly do worse than we did.

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