International Relations@SNU: A Note for Aspiring Undergraduates

If you are a prospective student wanting to know the reasons why you should do the BA (Research) in International Relations with the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, then you might want to read the note below. The note is written by Prof. Siddharth Mallavarapu, Head of the Department.

‘Great art has dreadful manners. The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in short to rearrange your sense of reality’ Simon Schama, The Power of Art, The Bodley Head: London, 2009, p.6).

To embark on any new program of study is an adventure at many levels. Curiosity serves as a fine initial motivation. However, following up on these curiosities inevitably entails intellectual commitments of different kinds. These encompass a willingness to learn a new grammar and vocabulary, to feel invited ‘to rearrange your sense of reality’ (as Simon Schama beautifully captures in the context of art) to immerse oneself in ideas hitherto unexplored and to navigate concepts, theories, practices and problem-solving approaches both within and outside the classroom.  

Let me begin by welcoming any of you who remain curious about the study of International Relations (IR) as a field of study. We have a dedicated faculty keen to help you partake of all the best that IR has to offer. In the course of a four-year B.A. (Research) in International Relations, we intend actively nurturing your research curiosities and also offering you an eclectic selection of courses to choose from. If we were to disaggregate this further, it would be possible to identify diverse facets to this fascinating scholarly endeavour.

Traditionally, international as the word suggests is about inter-state relations. This is the classic business of diplomatic practice. It is no accident that many of the early IR scholars were diplomatic historians. They were interested in chronicling contacts between states as also other pre-statist forms of political community. This curiosity persists today with some scholars in IR interested in the evolutionary nature of diplomacy as a human activity. So, quite clearly diplomacy has generated considerable interest for a long time now. It continues to be a mainstay of interest in IR. However, there is substantial variation in the styles of conducting diplomacy depending on the milieu from which it emerges. You could legitimately ask if there is an Indian style of diplomacy or if there is a Chinese style of diplomatic engagement? There are a number of on-going debates about the changing nature of diplomacy in a digital age. The term ‘public diplomacy’ partially captures some of these changes under way, but there is much worth exploring here further.

This traditional interest in diplomacy in IR is often anchored in classical geopolitical concerns. Questions relating to the conditions of war and peace are critical in this connection. How do histories and geographies intersect and determine the manner in which states come to identify some as their allies and others as their adversaries (a special interest of social constructivists in IR). Some scholars in IR (often referred to as structural realists) have been interested in assessing strategic resources both in military and economic terms and postures that states commit to in order to advance their national interests. This often entails an element of bean counting of assorted capabilities.

However, IR is certainly not merely about states and bean counting for that matter. As a discipline, we are interested in non-state actors as well. How does one account for non-governmental organizations, transnational advocacy networks (TANs), social movements, multi-national and trans-national corporations, epistemic or knowledge based communities and a whole range of other actors, including individuals summoned at the International Criminal Court? All of this makes for a complex mix and it is intellectually rewarding to begin by merely tracking what is going on in these different realms. There are considerable variations elsewhere as well that might pique your interest. You could ask if development, security and environmental issue-areas behave similarly when it comes to assessing the role and influence of non-state actors or whether they differ substantially.

Third, like all disciplines IR has a strong interest in theory. What is theory? Theories to invoke another art critic, John Berger provide us with novel ‘ways of seeing’ the world. They offer a means of deciphering what is going on with regard to a particular phenomenon or with regard to behaviour in a specific realm. They are not permanent but provisional human constructs, which shall endure only if they are good enough to explain what they promise to explain. IR as a field of study has a number of contending and sometimes rival explanations that often derive from different theoretical premises. We believe that informed and historically grounded theory could contribute immeasurably to sounder international public policy thinking.

Fourth, IR is also in conversation with two allied specializations – area studies and comparative politics. Area studies as several scholars (like Nicholas Dirks and David Szanton among others) have suggested is tainted by an imperial past. It has a distinct trajectory determined by the United States subsequent to the Second World War. It was not knowledge for knowledge sake but knowledge tethered to serve particular political ends. However, notwithstanding its troubled lineage, Area Studies at its best offers us deep knowledge of different parts of the world. If you were a South East Asianist specializing on Indonesia, you could spend the rest of life accumulating knowledge about different aspects of political life in Indonesia. You could contest theories that generalize and may not be applicable to the specific milieu that you are invested in. Similarly, you could study China and equip yourself to be a Sinologist. This would also involve learning and investing in the language of the part of the world you intend specializing in. IR is not Area Studies but much more than that considering that it is not focused only on one country. However, IR can benefit from some of the knowledge gleaned over time from deeper intellectual investments in understanding particular areas of the world.

The other ally of IR as a discipline is Comparative Politics (CP). IR by its very nature is comparative. It is not confined to the study of only one country. CP is similar. The one great strength that CP brings is that it is focused on domestic institutions, structures, processes and events which again lead to in-depth knowledge of states and societies often in comparison with other actors similarly placed in terms of their global standing across a variety of parameters. In this context, a study of IR would be incomplete without an adequate grounding in CP.

Fifth, the study of IR is also about the study of other axes - race, class and gender. None of these categories are stand alone categories. As IR scholarship has demonstrated they are intertwined with each other in complex ways and manifest differently in different parts of the world. Just to give you a flavour, curious IR scholars would be inclined to pursue the histories of slave trade networks, they would be similarly curious about the collapse of the former Soviet Union as also the universal suffrage movement or the language we use to ‘frame’ issues and represent peoples both consciously and inadvertently within the remits of our discipline. There is excellent on-going research in these and many more such domains in IR.

Sixth, the study of IR can be a lot of fun because it encompasses in its contemporary incarnation, a variety of sites and methods. These include an interest in popular culture – world cinema, literature, theatre and art. Christine Sylvester has written a fine book focused on museums while mulling over what we can learn about IR from observing them carefully. Our study of IR could involve visits to museums with a keen eye on decoding the logic and circulation of global art against the backdrop of colonial histories. We could also consider fieldwork and ethnography that further contributes to our understanding of particular slices of reality. Similarly, you could approach foreign policy as yet another site of performative politics.

IR scholars today are also more reflective about the manner in which we can communicate what is going on in the world. How can we capture with at least partial success what is going on in the various conflict theatres of the world. Graphic novels might come in handy here to elucidate the life-worlds of people caught in the maelstrom of conflict. Normatively, there is interest in thinking about international cooperation and peace in a world marked by economic unevenness and cultural difference. As students of IR, we could ask legitimately, how we can embrace cultural differences and slide away from conflict.

Another continent of knowledge within IR relates to unravelling what global governance as a concept and practice means today when it comes to a wide range of challenges – climate change, refugees, cyber security, sustainable development and global inequality to flag just a few. There are again worthwhile debates to pursue relating to the democratic deficits that characterize the institutional design of formal international organizations. Several questions merit investigation in this context. Is the old Bretton Woods system collapsing? Is G7 rendered increasingly irrelevant? Who are the actors filling in the power vacuum? What does it mean in terms of international structures of governance?

Ultimately, if we believe that context has a bearing on how we view the world, we need to take our study of Asia in the world and in the 21st century rather seriously. It has two of the most populous nations in the world (China and India). It holds the promise of systemic power transitions in the world and its involvement in resolving many of the on-going global challenges is critical to the world at large. We have a particular locational strength of being in Asia at this moment and we could give greater thought to what we can offer the world especially in terms of intellectual legacies. Our interest also extends beyond Asia to the many complexities and intellectual inheritances from different corners of Africa, South America and the Arab world – well beyond Europe and the United States alone as has traditionally been the case.

There is more that could be added to this wish list in terms of possibilities but this is meant only as an opening invitation to whet your appetite. For those of you keen to pursue the course, we are here to welcome you at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies at SNU. I wish each of you great joy in the adventure that lies ahead. We shall collectively strive to ensure that you retain many of your initial curiosities and lively sense of wonder about diverse facets of the world we inhabit. I also wish you the requisite stamina for systematically pursuing and persevering with these curiosities. We hope your repertoire of research interests naturally spills over into an animated conversation with the allied humanities, social and the behavioural sciences, something we would like to consciously encourage at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies at SNU.