International Relations 101
June 28, 2010 12:46 PM   Subscribe

I read the news (BBC) daily and pick up The Economist once in awhile (it's expensive!). I'm curious and want to know what is going on in the world, but most of the time I can't put anything into perspective and understand what this means for the rest of the world or the possible impact on my life. For example, I'm not really sure why Bush started a war in Afghanistan, or the repercussions of the Gaza flotilla attack. I like how The Economist will analyze issues and say "X happened. This is bad because Y might happen now." or "A is mad because B did this in the past." in short, up front sentences. When I try to look people/events up on Wikipedia or Google, it's overwhelming because there is TOO much information to read, and I'm constantly having to look up more and more and this easily turns into hours of reading and 60 tabs open on my browser. How can I get a general grasp of international relations?

Side note: I'm in college in the U.S., studying abroad in Europe this next school year (which I'm hoping will help open my eyes to the rest of the world), and don't have any international relations classes I can take because I'm attending an art school.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (39 answers total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, The Economist is expensive. One trick is to use some frequent flier miles. You can often get a year for around 3200 miles, which is a pretty worthless amount of miles otherwise.
posted by smackfu at 1:04 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I found that the book Who Hates Whom was a good start.
posted by Melismata at 1:04 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have the same issue but no real solution. I was seriously considering watching kids TV news, because those explain this stuff. I'm also pretty sure that most people do not understand these interrelations well or at all by watching regular news.
posted by oxit at 1:06 PM on June 28, 2010

There's a special offer at to get 12 issues of The Economist for $12.
posted by vickyverky at 1:09 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've found Global Research to be a good source of information on the subject of globalization.
posted by torquemaniac at 1:11 PM on June 28, 2010

You can read the Economist online for free - they even have RSS feeds, it's great.
posted by ripley_ at 1:11 PM on June 28, 2010

The blogs written by the Foreign Policy staff are good.
posted by dfriedman at 1:18 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Foreign Affairs. It's a lot better than the Economist for this kind of thing.

The Economist will give you a LOT of articles every week on a LOT of countries. Frankly, I usually end up mostly reading the United States ones and telling myself I'll get around to reading about lots of Asian and African countries but never doing it. Foreign Affairs is much more inviting because it's not just "We're going to tell you about a whole lot of countries this week -- and you better read quick because we'll have a whole lot more next week!" It's "Here are some of the most important issues in the world right now, and here's how it all fits into the big picture from an international perspective."

Many FA articles are subscription only ($30 for 6 big issues a year). Many that aren't subscription-only still require free registration.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:21 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sometimes what people lack is a basic understanding of world history.
You might try brushing up on basic history.

Here is one possible book
posted by Flood at 1:25 PM on June 28, 2010

Getting into some key blogs will help. Trying for intelligence and a wide breadth of opinions is best. I would recommend:

Andrew Sullivan
Matt Yglesias
Glenn Greenwald
David Frum
Talking Points Memo (it's mostly political news, but I think it should be a part of everyone's daily news diet)

Here you will find thoughtful analysis and discussion of all the important issues. You may not always agree with all of them, but why would anyone want to only read those with whom they agree?

Also, if you want something to watch I would go straight to the Bill Moyers Journal (now, sadly, off the air) and go through his archives. His interviews about a whole range of issues are second to none.
posted by fso at 1:46 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

The BBC web site is a bit superficial when it comes to analysis, but their radio can get into more depth, much, if not all, of which is available as podcasts.
posted by idb at 1:47 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yes, I just came here to suggest the World Service. Also, keep an eye on selected Radio 4 programmes. Also, I would suggest Newsnight, but I think that assumes a bit of knowledge and may be hard for you to pick up in the US.

As someone raised on the BBC, the idea of Fox News being balanced is absolutely laughable. It is very right leaning, which is fine if you can handle that, but you would do well to balance it with a 'liberal' station. Also, try some of what we call 'broadsheets' over here (The Times, the Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph) as they often have opinion pieces and articles that will help.
posted by mippy at 1:56 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding idb with the BBC World Service: you have the news from a (Newshour), regional digests (Focus on Africa, Europe Today, etc.), personal reflections (From Our Own Correspondent) and various documentaries and special reports for background. There's a house style and perspective, and it's always good to diversify, but you'll find plenty of decent listening in the archives.
posted by holgate at 1:58 PM on June 28, 2010

There's no shortcut to figuring out how this stuff ties together. I barely tread water myself. Read multiple newspapers, read multiple blogs, and read many books, especially books on history - not only history books which tell you "what happened," but also books which tell you how to read history books. Look up lists on Amazon and pick what looks interesting.

Since you're in college, you owe it to yourself to take history and IR courses. You may not get another chance to have an expert teach you about such topics.

Much of what you're dealing with comes not only from your lack of expertise in history, but also from the daunting task of researching *any* topic. Whenever you come across something you wish to learn more about, draw up an outline of what questions you'd like to ask about it.

For example, in your question, you ask why Bush invaded Afghanistan - this is not so a simple question, and while I'm sure you realize that, it's even less simple than you think. Think about the different topics you'll have to research in order to understand the issues here. Bush invaded Afghanistan principally because 9/11 happened and Osama bin Laden is supposedly the top person in Al Qaeda, so he was the biggest fish to catch, and at the time he was being protected by the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Of course you know what 9/11 is and who OBL is, but really research those topics. Why did Atta et al. do what they did? Why does OBL fund and support such activity? Why does OBL have the support that he does - who is his "audience"? What is Al Qaeda - who came up with the term "Al Qaeda", and what, if anything, does it mean to be the top person in it? Who are the Taliban? Why weren't they recognized by the vast majority of countries even before 9/11?

Also read up on the history of how Bush managed the Afghanistan invasion. What were his goals? Did he achieve them? Obviously, we didn't find OBL there. So, why is America still there? What natural resources do they have there? What deals have been struck or not struck with the Afghan government? Why did Bush stick around, try to kick out the Taliban, and try to install democracy? What would be the advantage for the US to do this - especially since Bush had run on a "no nation building platform"? Don't settle for easy answers like "Bush was a hypocrite" - ask yourself why did Bush decided that Afghanistan and Iraq would be good places to install democracies. Here is where you need to research the ideology neoconservatism and the Project for the New American Century.

I loathe Bush et al. as much as the next MeFite, but you'll never understand what happened unless you take their points of view seriously enough to research them. Facile answers like "he only did it for gas/oil/etc." seem wrong, and they seem wrong for a reason.

I hope me asking a barrage of questions makes some sense. If you have an outline of what you want to know about what you're reading, then it will be easier to find whatever answers may exist.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:17 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thirding La Monde diplomatique.
posted by nangar at 2:19 PM on June 28, 2010

I would also recommend:

- The Real News which was founded by Paul Jay.
- France24, the French (government!) answer to CNN and BBC World. In English, French and Arab.
- Adam Curtis blog on the BBC web site. His documentaries are available here.

Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, John Pilger and Naomi Klein are also authors who often contribute in a better understanding of current events.
posted by surrendering monkey at 2:32 PM on June 28, 2010

I am pretty much a lefty but I have come to find those you note as so biased as to be often full of beans. Example: Chomsky, telling us over and over how evil his (our) govt is, got caught on YouTube (not generally known around these parts) meeting and shaking hand with top Hezbollah people and telling them that they are no more terrorist than is the US.

In my opinion you are looking for a source or two that you can cling to as a security blanket. Rather, read many diverse sources and then form your own opinion.
posted by Postroad at 2:49 PM on June 28, 2010

I disagree that Foreign Affairs is better for general knowledge of the world than the Economist. Foreign Affairs articles are significantly longer and therefore harder to digest, and focused on American foreign policy. It's the journal for the Washington foreign-policy establishment. The Economist is the best-informed news magazine in the world, and if you can get something out of it each week, that's good. Don't feel that you have to read the whole thing - very few people have that kind of time, or the interest in every topic. It's definitely pro-free-market, but that doesn't stop it from having better reporting on international politics than any other English-language publication.

The best way to get a grasp of international affairs is to read good newspapers and magazines over a relatively long period of time, like a few years. Give yourself time and people, places and topics start to make sense to you - you've seen them before, and you start to understand the broader context. Don't believe the first interpretation of something you read, but don't necessarily think that just because some source is being contrarian or "independent" that they're reliable. They may have as much of an axe to grind as Fox News or Al Jazeera. Wikipedia can actually be fairly useless, depending on who last edited it. I've edited articles (not related to international relations) that are simply factually incorrect, and some idiot edits them back to the way they were because they didn't like having their work changed. It's not authoritative, though it can give a useful high-level overview of issues.

The other great way to learn about international relations is to make friends with people who like to talk about it, who have differing views, or who are at least willing and able to give you both sides of an issue so you can make up your own mind. This can be a lot more fun than just reading stuff online. Unfortunately, a lot of people who are interested in international politics get so invested in a viewpoint that they can't fairly articulate the arguments for the other side, or even understand their version of events (reading about the Middle East will give you the perfect demonstration of how one side is able to tell a long, complex story while completely ignoring facts relevant to the other side's experience).

I also think that Flood is right that reading about history in your free time will help. Search the internet for book reviews on a given topic to see what the most useful books are.

I would also note that you mention two specific things that you want to know about that are really quite different. No one knows what the long-term implications of the Gaza flotilla attack might be (but if you're looking for some background on Hamas and Israel/Palestine, I would start with this excellent New Yorker article on Hamas from a few years ago (interesting to see predictions of war that came true), and for Middle East history, here are some good overviews from writers [review] with very different viewpoints), but why Bush went to war in Afghanistan is hardly a secret. (Short answer: to deny al Qaeda continued safe haven under the Taliban, from where they could plot attacks against the U.S. In fact, I would say that saying Bush "started" the war is really rather misleading; the Taliban hosted an organization they knew were dedicated to mass-casualty terror attack in the U.S. In so doing they assumed responsibility - legally and morally - for those attacks. Bush was responding to an act of aggression. Hell, NATO invoked Article 5 of its Charter for the first time in history, and the U.N. Security Council authorized the International Security Assistance Force, which continues today under NATO command. NOTE: This is intended to respond to the OP's question, not to start an argument about the war in Afghanistan.) Read Bob Woodward's Bush At War for an inside-the-administration account. For background on Al Qaeda, read Ghost Wars, The Looming Tower, and two of Michael Scheuer's books, Through Our Enemies' Eyes and Imperial Hubris. (Scheuer, formerly Anonymous when he was still at the CIA, is a fascinating character - he's quite critical of U.S. foreign policy, but at the same time devoted a considerable part of his career to killing bin Laden.)
posted by Dasein at 3:02 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

Sorry, I wasn't paying close enough attention - that New Yorker article I linked was about Hezbollah, not Hamas. I just remembered it being great - and it is a useful overview of another part of the Middle East. I'll try to find the article on Hamas I was thinking of.
posted by Dasein at 3:28 PM on June 28, 2010

I had, for reasons unknown, conflated in my mind the New Yorker article about Hezbollah that I linked to with this Atlantic article on Yasser Arafat's reign, which may give you some useful background on the rise of Hamas. Hopefully being responsive to your question, here are links to a very interesting article on Hamas from not too long ago, and two somewhat sobering articles on the Israel/Palestine quandary generally, which I remember as being some of the more interesting I've read in the last few years.
posted by Dasein at 3:51 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I disagree that Foreign Affairs is better for general knowledge of the world than the Economist. Foreign Affairs articles are significantly longer and therefore harder to digest, and focused on American foreign policy. It's the journal for the Washington foreign-policy establishment. The Economist is the best-informed news magazine in the world

I find myself consistently getting drawn in by FA's long articles because they provide an intellectually stimulating background and analysis on global issues. It's not just about the word count; I prefer FA's selectiveness in what to write about, so I'll have an easier time reading 10,000 words in FA than 10,000 words in the Economist.

You're absolutely right that it's US-centric -- this is part of why I'm drawn to it. I have an easier time focusing on international articles when they're put in a "why Americans should care about this" context (which is what FA tends to do) than the Economist's format of "here's the weekly Asia section with lots of articles about individual Asian countries" (and so on for each continent).

If the OP had said, "I want a magazine that will teach me as much as possible, as often as possible, about as many countries as possible, with as little slant toward any particular country as possible," then the answer would clearly be the Economist and nothing else. But the OP is a U.S. college student and asked for "International Relations 101." OP, if your experience is like mine, you will have a better experience and learn more by reading Foreign Affairs than the Economist.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:13 PM on June 28, 2010

I feel deluged by information. I read BBC news, NYTimes online, MeFi as a filter for news, fun, etc., and subscribe to The New Yorker. I keep considering subscribing to the Economist, maybe those links will help. I hate the way many writers assume you already have context. But, really, just dive in. And watch the occasional Sunday morning news show, the guests often give great perspective.
posted by theora55 at 4:15 PM on June 28, 2010

The Guardian Weekly has good coverage and background for international events, is not too expensive and has articles from a number of leading international newspapers.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:29 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you go the dead tree route, a bit of Googling can usually find you heavily discounted subscriptions to publications. If you want to get The Guardian Weekly for example you can save a fair amount here.
posted by jonesor at 4:44 PM on June 28, 2010

posted by Carius at 4:57 PM on June 28, 2010

Great recommendations already, here's a few more:

National Geographic magazine isn't just about parks, there's a lot of cultural and political stuff in there, and they put it all up on their website for free.'s blog passport is their best, alas their articles have been getting progressively worse and worse over the last couple of years.

Bookforum's omnivore is absolutely frigging terrific; don't feel obliged to read everything in every entry, but it gives truly great coverage.

Arts and Letters Daily does the same thing, from a more stuffy conservative perspective.

Slate is generally not great, but Fred Kaplan's war/strategy columns are top notch.
posted by smoke at 4:59 PM on June 28, 2010

This is a good source of basic facts about all US-recognized countries, via an American lens: CIA World Fact Book

The web site is very well organized, and provides basic facts about any country that you might be reading about - including economic, political, conflict, population and other stats.
posted by seawallrunner at 5:18 PM on June 28, 2010

I feel like The Week does a good overview, but I'm not sure how expensive it is.
posted by sweetkid at 6:29 PM on June 28, 2010

I found this book to be really useful.

50 Things you want to know about world issues... but were too afraid to ask.

I don't know why Amazon only stocks the large print, my edition is a normal paperback.
posted by surenoproblem at 7:42 PM on June 28, 2010

The blogs written by the Foreign Policy staff are good.

In particular, I would recommend Today in the World for the OP.

I would also add the Christian Science Monitor to the daily ping. Yes, it's published by that church, but it's a respected, smart, and politically centrist publication.

Basically, though, I would say that you're probably doing fine -- you just need to slow down some. I used to do the "60 tabs" thing back in the 1980s in the college library with books and magazines. What you want to do is find a source or two that you trust for its point of view and read that fully, and when you get pointed to an issue like the Gaza flotilla, allow yourself to be drawn more deeply into that for a week, reading longer pieces and books. You're letting the infodeluge drown you and learning how to control that is a key life skill (now). At your age you can't be expected to know everything about something, and it sounds like you know more than most, or at least have the appropriate thirst. Be Socratic. Ask questions. Feel free to not know the answer to something (I'm still learning that one).
posted by dhartung at 9:57 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

The two titles that did it for me were

Gearóid Ó Tuathail, Simon Dalby and Paul Routledge (eds.), The Geopolitics Reader
Neil Smith, Uneven Development

Invaluable in helping me grasp and critically examine geopolitics since reading them.
posted by avocet at 10:47 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Pinky Show also unpacks events and discourses in a simple, critical and easy-to-understand manner. Bonus: hosted by cats.
posted by avocet at 10:48 PM on June 28, 2010

Since you can't take an international relations course, I'd recommend that you read Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations. It's a textbook, but far more readable than the average textbook, and it's also extremely important in the history of international relations as a field of study. A few years ago I attempted to summarize it as the FAQ.
posted by russilwvong at 10:56 PM on June 28, 2010

If you like the BBC and the Economist, you should probably get your hands on Prospect Magazine as well.

It's a bit less news and a bit more discussion.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:01 AM on June 29, 2010

I second (third?) the Guardian Weekly. It was invaluable in my year abroad in the States: really good broad and international coverage.
posted by hannahlambda at 4:49 AM on June 29, 2010

You're absolutely right that it's US-centric -- this is part of why I'm drawn to it. I have an easier time focusing on international articles when they're put in a "why Americans should care about this" context (which is what FA tends to do) than the Economist's format of "here's the weekly Asia section with lots of articles about individual Asian countries" (and so on for each continent).

I can understand this, but I really think that for an American studying in Europe, the Economist will be far more useful. It's really not a virtue, when spending a year in Europe, to look at international issues solely through the eyes of the American establishment. The Economist provides lots of articles every week that talk about what's going on in Europe and what matters to Europeans. For this year, at least, it's the better choice for the OP.
posted by Dasein at 9:02 AM on June 29, 2010

The Economist is the perfect source of information if:
1) You love Free Market.
2) You hate the French.
posted by surrendering monkey at 2:44 PM on June 29, 2010

Sidenote, I believe most schools have a subscription to databases like Factiva, LexisNexis and ProQuest that let you read many publications, including The Economist. It's mainly plaintext so it can be a pain to read, I must admit, but it works and is free.
posted by wei at 1:34 AM on June 30, 2010

My means of learning about a country/region these days:

1. Plan a 15-30-day trip the the country/region
2. Buy or borrow a Rough Guide travel guide to the country/region
3. Read their comprehensive "Context" section before I visit the place
4. Buy or borrow and read many of the recommended books in the "Context" section
5. Read as many local English newspapers as I can when I traveling in the country
posted by thaths at 3:30 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

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