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 It is too short and outdated.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.

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