Tell me what to read so I can understand international relations.
July 30, 2008 3:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a book that can summarize/explain different schools of thought in international relations/foreign policy.

I read a lot of articles about foreign policy and international relations, but I have only a very vague understanding of what people are talking about when they say certain politicians seem to have realist leanings on foreign policy, for example, but I don't really know anything beyond a very shallow understanding. Ideally, I would hope for a book that would have (comparative) explanations (or maybe even Blair-reader-type articles from different theorists) for a lot of different schools of thought regarding American foreign policy and international relations so I can understand the theoretical underpinnings of both mainstream and perhaps more critical or radical schools of thought. Any book that will help me understand these things would be fantastic, however.

If anyone can recommend journal articles or anything along those lines, too, that'd be great. I'm a student and have access to a great library, so I can probably get whatever it is you recommend.

posted by dismas to Law & Government (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The Oxford "very short introduction" series is very good. I'm familiar with the Globalization one more than the International Relations, but it might be good to check out. I think other publishers also use this format, if I'm not mistaken.

Here's one for example
posted by kch at 3:27 PM on July 30, 2008

I recommend the first third of Buzan and Little, International Systems in World History.
posted by nasreddin at 3:47 PM on July 30, 2008

Best answer: This is a good primer on the subject. You should also read Foreign Affairs, just to get an idea of how these schools of thought manifest themselves in current foreign policy debates.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:10 PM on July 30, 2008

I have not read it myself, but everything I've heard is that this book is superb.
America is perceived as not having a foreign policy tradition, contends Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In fact, Mead contends, there are actually four contrasting schools of foreign policy: a "Hamiltonian" concern with U.S. economic well-being at home and abroad; a "Wilsonian" impulse to promulgate U.S. values throughout the world; a "Jeffersonian" focus on protecting American democracy in a perilous world; and a bellicose, populist "Jacksonian" commitment to preserving U.S. interests and honor in the world. As Mead's detailed historical analysis of the origin and development of these schools shows, each has its strengths and faults if Wilsonians are too idealistic, Jacksonians are too suspicious of the world but each keeps the other in check, assuring no single school will dominate and that a basic consensus among them will be achieved, as was the case during the Cold War. As the Cold War ended, however, and the world became more complex, consensus ended. Hamiltonians and Wilsonians saw the opportunity to mold the economy and morality of the world in the U.S. image, but Jeffersonian doubt about foreign action in places like Bosnia, and Jacksonian popular suspicions of organizations like the WTO soon challenged such grandiose plans. Mead worries that U.S. foreign policy is too unfocused today and suggests we could learn much from the interactions in the past of the four schools, a complex history he ably unfolds.
posted by Class Goat at 6:26 PM on July 30, 2008

Most anything by Vandana Shiva is interesting from an international perspective. She concerns herself with agricultural patents and free trade, and gives a grassroots perspective on the consequences of global policy. Water Wars is a good example of how scarcity of water has affected India.

Chomsky is maybe too obvious to mention, but still excellent to read parallel with current news.

Both Kropotkins and Goldmans memoirs give insights into historical events that still shape how we understand the western world, especially looking at labour struggle and reasons given for war.

Except Shiva, the books above offer an anarchist analysis of international relations and are good to have read since the ideological debate today is exceptionally narrow. The memoirs are also beautifully written.
posted by monocultured at 3:05 AM on July 31, 2008

I did a degree in international relations a few years ago and I can't think of any text that really explains this stuff very well. With any of these introductory texts it's difficult to translate from descriptions of different ways of thinking about IR to what the actual practice looks like.

So I'd suggest forgetting about finding a primer and just reading a selection of papers on things that interest you in various international relations journals. You'll get a great feel for the kind of things each school of thought is concerned with. If you do a literature search for international relations journals (it's a very balkanised subject so there's plenty). Take a look at the Wikipedia page on International Relations for some terms you might want to throw into your searches.
posted by xchmp at 4:44 AM on July 31, 2008

Best answer: I'd suggest that the two key schools of thought to understand are

(1) realism, the main US foreign policy tradition since the end of the Second World War;

(2) neo-conservatism, a very different way of thinking about foreign policy (some might call it "crazy"), which has been put in practice by the George W. Bush administration, and which continues to be the dominant school of thought in today's Republican party.

E. H. Carr defines realism in The Twenty Years' Crisis 1919-1939 in contrast to utopianism, which sets goals (e.g. the prevention of war) without first determining whether they are feasible.
Like other infant sciences, the science of international politics has been markedly and frankly utopian. It has been in the initial stage in which wishing prevails over thinking, generalisation over observation, and in which little attempt is made at a critical analysis of existing facts or available means. In this stage, attention is concentrated almost exclusively on the end to be achieved. The end has seemed so important that analytical criticism of the means proposed has too often been branded as destructive and unhelpful. When President Wilson, on his way to the Peace Conference, was asked by some of his advisers whether he thought his plan of a League of Nations would work, he replied briefly: "If it won't work, it must be made to work."
In contrast, realism emphasizes constraints on foreign policy: the limited availability of means, the power available to one's opponents, the difficulty of intervening in other countries' affairs, the impossibility of controlling outcomes. The focus tends to be on maintaining a stable balance of power, similar to the European historical tradition of foreign policy.

Given the American tendency towards optimism, and the belief that any problem can be solved, realists tend to spend a lot of time explaining why certain goals are unachievable.

For a more in-depth description of political realism than Carr's, see Hans Morgenthau's classic Politics Among Nations. Excerpt. Commentary.

For political realism in practice, see George F. Kennan. Kennan was a U.S. policymaker during the early Cold War.

From a realist point of view, neo-conservatism is a particular form of utopianism. Neo-conservatism includes "moral clarity", i.e. a good guys vs. bad guys view of the world; a belief in the ultimate effectiveness of force, e.g. to bring about sweeping change in the Middle East through war, and a corresponding disdain for diplomacy; a visceral opposition to constraints on U.S. power, whether it's the UN or the Geneva Conventions; and finally, a fair amount of populist chauvinism (Jonah Goldberg's "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" is a good example).

Note that this strongly resembles the world-view of a typical Hollywood action movie. Indeed, neo-conservative opponents of arms control often use the analogy that you don't make disarmament agreements between cops and robbers.

There are several recent books about the neo-conservatives, their way of thinking, and the Bush administration's disastrous foreign policy. Rise of the Vulcans, by James Mann; America Alone, by Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke; America Unbound, by Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay.
posted by russilwvong at 4:31 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow! These answers are fantastic! Thank you so much, everybody!
posted by dismas at 1:24 PM on August 6, 2008

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