In Defense of the International Studies Degree

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I went to business school. There we were supposed to believe that the world is flat and borderless. With globalization, multinational corporations and global investment banks would soon replace the state as the major actor on the international stage. While I always wanted to double-major in international relations (IR), many people told me not to take something “amorphous” as IR, but rather study “tangible” and “practical” things as accounting or finance. I followed their advice, which unfortunately never interested me. My undergraduate academic performance was not great – meaning I may not have made it to a top notch investment bank – but at any rate I had to join the army immediately after graduation.

Our views are shaped, more than anything, by our experience. My world view was also greatly affected by my military service. In the army, I had the privilege of being engaged in various missions, from marching 40 km of rugged terrain a day in full gear to traveling across the Pacific in a packed small military aircraft to attending meetings at posh reception room with foreign officials. The world I saw was now no more “flat” or “borderless,” and quantitative models only existed in excel sheets. What is more, I realized how un-nuanced an opinion I had on many international issues. Those “practical” courses never taught me the complexity of the world. After all, modeling is all about building a parsimonious framework based upon a set of sometimes unrealistic assumptions, whereas the reality is not.

To me, SAIS was a dream school. It not only boasts a solid alumni community in South Korea – where I’m from – but also has a reputation for combining both economics and IR education. Notwithstanding my initial excitements, I soon found myself disappointed by the small number of genuine IR courses offered, as opposed to a myriad of economics or finance courses. Given one can only take a few electives, there was perhaps more than I could chew. Also, I came to learn that political science, to which the discipline of IR belongs, has become increasingly laboratorized, focusing on minute questions and quantitative methodology. However, what really demoralized me was the alleged tendency of SAIS becoming like an MBA program.

I have no intention of derogating any specific disciplines or courses. For sure, many SAIS graduates will work in the private sector. It is also true that one needs a job to pursue whatsoever he or she envisions from a realistic vantage point. However, even corporate executives, not to mention of career diplomats and IMF employees, need to understand that the world is not a billiard table. Steve Jobs didn’t study something quanty. Even George Soros, one of the world’s foremost financiers, studied philosophy. What they understood was people and ideas. In that sense, it is striking that most popular courses at this institution are actually equivalent to MBA courses. As such, I do intend to urge that SAIS, as a school dedicated to fostering the next generation of global leaders, focus more on IR education as much as it does on “practical” one.

Ironically, we have become less international as we indulge more into the byproduct of globalization. As we learn from the lessons of the early 20th century, however, globalization is not in and of itself the end of history. Rather, it is a phenomenon predicated upon the existing international order and, as such, is what should be managed and defended. To this end, we need more of those who understand cultures, ideas, and history of different peoples and civilizations. This, I believe, is only possible through the promotion of genuine international studies.

At the height of World War II, Paul H. Nitze founded SAIS to educate and train young professionals who would contribute to rebuilding the world in ruins. In so doing, Nitze correctly understood the importance of international studies education. Since then, as we proudly say, the school has been a cradle to many leaders and top-class thinkers as well as a venue for major foreign policy debates throughout the century. We inherited this great tradition, and thereby are obliged to bequeath it to the next generation. Now, it’s about the time we reflect upon our founder’s legacy and uphold international studies.

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