It’s not so long since renowned political academic Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”. In his thesis, he suggested that western-style liberal democracies would become the dominant strain of political organization, leading to peace and a rules-based international order. Shortly after, the 9/11 attacks took place. In today’s world, with conflict in the east of Europe and the rise of China, the concept of history being at its end seems absurd. If you’re interested in how international relations are changing – and how you might get involved in the field to find peace and prosperity for the world – this guide is for you. 

Introduction to International Relations 

So, what exactly is the field of international relations? It’s just as it sounds: it’s about the relationships between nation-states, their allies, and their adversaries. The aim is for all nation-states is to advance their own interests without treading too heavily on the toes of neighbors, allies, or enemies. This is most often fulfilled through diplomacy: the talking of expert communicators and negotiators at summits and meetings across the world. It’s only in the bleakest moments that war is considered an option.

You could say that international relations is also a field that attempts to understand the balance of power between groups of allies and their opponents. In the Cold War, for instance, international relations was a field at the forefront of the minds of governments worldwide. Some chose to side with the US-led international order, while others sided with the Soviet Union. Others still wanted to stay out of it, declaring themselves “non-aligned”. Such constellations of alliances represent another crucial element of what people call international relations. 

Why is International Relations Important?

As mentioned above, the field of international relations covers everything from the balance of power and world order to the particular relationships between two nation-states. Often, the field is regarded as a set of institutions and theories that aims to maintain world peace through compromise and diplomacy. That’s why it’s so important, especially in a modern world where the belligerence of Russia and the rise of China represent real conundrums for “the west”.

International relations is also important because of how it explains your own country’s foreign policy. It’s only by looking through the lens of international relations that people can understand less than savory allies or the fact that some states are seen as adversaries despite their close relations with their own country. Making sense of the diplomatic relationships, alliances, pacts, groupings, and stances of countries across the world means making sense of your own government’s actions at home and abroad. 

Getting into International Relations

There are several routes into international relations. If you’d like to learn more about the world, how it’s ordered, and what we might expect from future conflicts and disagreements, you might be best off finding relevant books and lectures online. There are hundreds of history books that pick through the failure of international relations when it comes to large-scale wars, like the First World War and the Second World War. Some books also address contemporary politics and international affairs, and these are enlightening for those interested in understanding Russia and China in today’s world. 

Elsewhere, you could always make more of your newfound passion by enrolling in an online course. If this suits you and you enjoy what you learn, you could accelerate your learning further by enrolling in a university or college course in international relations, which will put you in touch with expert tutors and the up-to-date readings that they recommend. Such a course may make you eligible for some of the most interesting and exciting jobs in politics: traveling the world in order to make deals and pacts with countries, avoiding conflict and disagreement. 

Objectives of International Relations

As you’ll likely be reading this from a democratic country, the objective of your nation’s international relations scholarship will be to uphold and defend democracies around the world. Democracies tend to be allies because they give birth to similar strains of political opinion, theory, and practice. Liberality and libertarianism are two key tenants of democracy, and most democracies enshrine values such as the freedom of speech and the freedom to protest in their constitutions. 

Defending democracy is a constant battle that is unlikely to be decisively won. Each generation, in turn, needs to find ways of fighting to defend their values in the face of hostile states and ideologies. This is something that Clifford D. May understands fully, having set up the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) in 2001 following the attacks on the Twin Towers in Manhattan. Using research, reporting, and other democratic mechanisms, such organizations aim to share information that’ll support the flourishing of democracy worldwide. 

Current International Relations Issues

The past decade has been a fascinating one in terms of international relations. What might have seemed like a static world order, with the US reigning supreme over the world, has now changed dramatically. Below are just some of the sea-change moments we’ve experienced in the past handful of years:

  • Brexit: the exit of the UK from the European Union has been viewed by many as an earthquake in the European project, challenging the legitimacy of a “United States of Europe”. It remains to be seen whether the EU will continue to disintegrate following the UK’s exit, weakening Europe in the eyes of Russia. 
  • Iran Nuclear Deal: this has been an on-and-off rollercoaster for years. Subsequent US administrations have reversed the position of the previous administration, meaning that the deal to restrict Iran from ever developing a nuclear arsenal is on the rocks. President Biden is reportedly making efforts to revive the deal, which will bring comfort to states such as Israel.
  • Russian aggression: the invasion of Ukraine is just the latest and most appalling chapter in a pattern of Russian aggression over the past decade. From Georgia to the Crimea, Russia has exhibited imperial ambitions that some say is in response to the growth of NATO. Expect this story to dominate the news throughout 2022. 
  • China’s rise: having used its growing power with panache and style, China now looks set to become a serious adversary to the US. Political scientists would say we’re moving towards a “multipolar” world, with different global powers vying for supremacy. This is another international relations story that’s sure to captivate the world in the coming years.

With so many issues rearing their heads at the same time, it’s clear that a sound understanding of international relations is more important than ever before. The more people who become involved in this field, the more minds will be focused on maintaining peace and shared prosperity worldwide. 

Jobs in International Relations

The field of international relations possesses several exciting and interesting jobs. You might choose to be a journalist, for instance, covering world affairs. Or you might instead feel comfortable working in a think-tank, using research expertise and in-country contacts to generate an understanding of the issues facing different countries. Diplomatic jobs are, of course, in abundance in this field, as are military intelligence positions and other postings representing the state to which you belong. 

Academia is full of International relations specialists who, despite competing theories of how certain countries should act at any given moment, tend to inform their governments about important developments across the world. Such posts can be reached through a sustained period in academia: moving from your undergraduate degree through to a master’s degree and eventually a PhD of your choosing. This path is open to all but is chosen by those who become obsessed with the way that the world interacts on a diplomatic and soft-power basis. 

How to Learn More Today

If this article’s got you curious about the field of international relations, there are several stops that you can make immediately to continue your journey towards an understanding of the world as it operates today and as it operated in the past. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Head over to YouTube to find an “introduction to international relations” lecture, which will usually outline how the field works and what’s exciting about this area of study.
  • Find a short e-book or PDF that explains international relations to the newcomer.
  • Contact an international relations expert in your local university, and see if you can ask them questions that could lead you to study a course in the field.
  • Subscribe to one of the main international relations magazines and journals, which are often quarterly and can be deeply informative.

These are all smart steps to take if you’re wanting to dip more than a toe into the fascinating world of international relations – whether that’s to defend democracy during threatening moments or simply to understand the structure of world power in today’s world.

However you continue your journey in international relations, it’s worth learning in mind that this is a field that can help explain why certain countries are the focus of domestic foreign policy, taking up newspaper inches and featuring in politicians’ speeches. This is a field that aims to explain, which is something the curious mind will certainly appreciate.