Thursday, September 18, 2008

A student of international relations

I recently got in touch with a childhood friend. She asked me a question that turned out to be surprisingly difficult to answer:
“International studies sounds very interesting and cool. I don't know much about what it entails, could you let me know?”
The dictionary says:
a branch of political science dealing with the relations between nations.
But that is not a satisfying definition. It is too short and outdated. After a bit of thought, this is approximately what I wrote (slightly edited for identifying details):
Let me try to answer your question about international relations. Many places international relations is treated as a sub-specialty within political science, but increasingly it is seen separately as its own subject. Nonetheless, it is very much interdisciplinary, involving aspects of political science, history, economics, sociology, and area/cultural studies.

Basically it is the study of how countries, societies, and people interact across borders. Traditionally this meant the understanding of how and why countries conduct foreign policy (both diplomacy and military action). Today this also entails how transnational organizations work (be they inter-governmental organizations like the UN, multi-national corporations, or international non-governmental organizations), and how transnational forces work (the flow of people, ideas, and goods across borders).

When studying international relations people generally choose a specialty to focus on – either regional, topical (functional), or both. For example, people may focus on international security, international law, international organizations, international trade, international economics, mediation and conflict resolution, international environmental policy, or any of a myriad of other sub-specialties.
Later, thinking about how long and winding my explanation was I decided to look up some other definitions. What I found made me feel much better about my descriptive definition. Compare my off-the-top-of-my-head explanation with the intro to wikipedia entry on international relations:
International relations (IR) is a branch of political science. It represents the study of foreign affairs and global issues among states within the international system, including the roles of states, inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and multinational corporations (MNCs). It is both an academic and public policy field, and can be either positive or normative as it both seeks to analyze as well as formulate the foreign policy of particular states.

Apart from political science, IR draws upon such diverse fields as economics, history, law, philosophy, geography, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and cultural studies. It involves a diverse range of issues, from globalization and its impacts on societies and state sovereignty to ecological sustainability, nuclear proliferation, nationalism, economic development, terrorism, organized crime, human security, foreign interventionism and human rights.
I also looked it up in my handy-dandy Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, which came up with similar ideas. I will not replicate it here.

I guess I did alright after all. It was kind of an interesting exercise.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Purpose of Government

In his inaugural address President Kennedy famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." It was inspirational and expressed an important concept about giving back to society. However, in a political environment that tends to question the efficacy of government writ large and to deride "insiders" and "bureaucrats", I think it is also important to remember what your country can do for you.

What is the purpose of government? It is to allow us to act collectively in ways that we are incapable of acting individually. This is what President Lincoln wrote on the subject so many years ago, and it is still relevant today:
The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves - in their separate, and individual capacities.

In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.

The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.

The first - that in relation to wrongs - embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and nonperformance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.

From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need for government.

~ Abraham Lincoln

Of course, in this highly imperfect world, there are only too many ways in which government is needed to help us collectively reach towards our potential.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Foreign Policy Experience

To all my friends and neighbors who are going around proclaiming “I have more foreign policy experience than Sarah Palin” (which, among other things, is the name of a group on facebook)…

I do not believe that Sarah Palin is qualified to be Vice President. Moreover, I do not believe that Sarah Palin should be Vice President because I wholly disagree with her policy stances. However, I believe that criticism should be justly and accurately applied.

Most of you do not have more foreign policy experience than Sarah Palin. Perhaps you have equal foreign policy experience to Sarah Palin, because you have none. But there is no value of less than zero for foreign policy experience.

Take it from me. I actually do have more foreign policy experience than Sarah Palin. But that is a statement I make as a person who has been studying and working in international relations for the past 9+ years. I do not expect most politicians to have that. I don’t even expect most presidential candidates to have that. Yes, I would like them to have more foreign poicy experience than our current President did upon taking office, or than Sarah Palin currently has, but that does not mean that I believe that you have any more relevant experience than she does. I know that life is not fair, but I can try to be. Thanks for trying with me.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Summer Reading

Empire Falls, Richard Russo
The Grass Is Singing, Doris Lessing
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson
Ines del Alma Mía, Isabel Allende
People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Currently reading:
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards

Wait! Free time? Reading literature? What's that?! Oh yeah. Summer vacation. What an amazing concept. It is, of course, over now. But I read some good stuff. And a nice mixture of just-for-fun and good-for-me. The good for me category included the Isabel Allende because I read it in the original spanish which is good practice so I don't get rusty, and Les Misérables because it is was on my list of books-I-ought-to-have-read. Also, about 1/2 the books were gifts from my Bubby, who is the #1 person keeping me apprised of interesting literature.

Now I have to get back into the swing of school. Eek! Luckily I only have a few unread (fiction) books left on my shelf to distract me, which is fine since I only have time to read on shabbos and chag. Still if you have any ideas of what should be on my future list, I'm always taking suggestions. I keep a very long list which I will not replicate here.

Still on my shelf:
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
La Sombra del Viento, Carlos Ruiz Zafón