The World Has Changed and IR Schools Need to Adapt


Bologna: The world felt like a different place in the latter years of the Obama administration. In May 2016, Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippines presidential election. Britain voted to leave the European Union in June. Terrorists attacked time after time in Brussels, Nice, Orlando, Berlin, and around the globe. Police clashed with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. throughout the summer. Populist leaders in the Netherlands, Austria, and France became viable candidates for president. In November 2016, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.

The world as I knew it, or thought I knew, no longer existed. Societies seemed to be rejecting the status quo. In fact, many countries were intentionally reversing policies grounded in the postwar liberal consensus. I had applied to study American Foreign Policy in graduate school that year, but that knowledge did not seem to matter anymore. I struggled to understand it all.

This the perspective from which I read Harvard Kennedy School Professor Stephen Walt and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Professor Francis Gavin’s separate assessments of IR schools. Walt argues that IR schools are failing to produce better policy outcomes in the world. Gavin, on the other hand, asserts that while there is room for improvement, IR experts understand today’s problems best. Essentially, these perspectives are not mutually exclusive. As an IR student, I experience both sentiments every day. An IR education is vital to producing solutions to complex issues, but the field needs to be revamped.

From Walt’s perspective IR schools have not developed in the past 50 years, even as the world has fundamentally changed. The field began with people like George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and John McCloy — the “old Eastern Establishment” who constructed much of the postwar order without any graduate education in foreign policy. Then the U.S. took over the world stage, and international affairs required more specialized expertise. By the 1960’s, the IR field shifted to a new professional elite who dedicated their full-time career to foreign policy, which still dominates today. Instead of relying on professionals from the corporate world, IR experts focus on topics such as economics, military affairs, history, diplomacy, and regional studies. However, this expanded expertise has not produced more intelligent, successful policies. Walt explains that IR schools can better inform students to create effective solutions. He proposes five possible improvements, including better connecting theory and policy, teaching a more useful economics, emphasizing history, promoting coherent strategic planning, and breaking the tendency to reinforce the need for U.S. leadership and liberal hegemony.

Gavin sees it a little differently. While he too realizes the new challenges we face today, he says that an IR education offers a vital perspective to solving them. Students should not be discouraged from entering the field, despite today’s divisive political climate. Gavin recognizes that IR schools face high scrutiny with questioned intellectual insight, but many overlook their strengthens today. This is an exciting, innovative time to study IR for three major reasons. First, an IR education is better suited than other disciplines to develop solutions to global problems. Second, policy schools can serve as advocates for change throughout higher education to reform the way we teach. Third, IR programs attract a diverse group of students, connecting different disciplines, communities, sectors, and generations. While Gavin concedes that the IR field tends to be more static than the world we live in, the interdisciplinary coursework is still useful to confronting pressing issues. He concludes, short term trends may create uncertainty, but IR education remains transformative.

Walt and Gavin may appear to be living in two separate realities. Walt sees the current IR curriculum as insufficient, whereas Gavin views it as a dynamic necessity. However, Walt’s somewhat pessimistic view of IR school’s is incomplete without recognizing the invaluable aspects of the field that hold great potential. Meanwhile, Gavin’s perspective is lacking a critical evaluation of the efficacy of an IR education, but his argument complements Walt’s by outlining IR schools’ strengths. Thus, these perceptions are of the same coin.

First, the lack of more fruitful policy outcomes could be attributed to the fact that IR professions are innately political. A degree does not guarantee anyone a job shaping foreign policy, just as a person without an IR degree can be appointed to a high up government job. The political world may not recognize the value of an IR skill set. Instead of listening to foreign policy experts, political leaders appoint supporters and cast the experts aside. Ultimately, politicians who may be disjointed from reality determine the policy agenda. As a student, I write and read about foreign policy every day, yet I would need to be recognized as a political ally first and foremost for a job. There is no bar equivalent to prove competency in international affairs, and a foreign policy profession may be treated as such.

However, there are inherent downfalls in IR schools today that need to be addressed. One of my first impressions of graduate school was that the institutions are composed of privileged elite who want to solve global problems they have not directly experienced. The IR field is naturally predisposed to selecting well-travelled, young professionals — in other words, people who have money. This is a problem. It is not that IR schools need to accept people based on the difficulty of their life, but it is more challenging to understand world problems from afar. This is why travel and work experience are so important. They allow students to enhance regional or thematic knowledge, but both are expensive. Many student internships in the public sector, NGOs, or civil society organizations are also unpaid. This puts the upper class at an advantage automatically.

Furthermore, it is time we successfully connected theory to the real world. Many IR professors start off the semester saying their course will attempt to apply theory practically. Many of them fall short. While theory does provide important foundation to understanding the real world, it is necessary to do more than simply point out its restrictions. How do trade negotiations really work? Why do some international norms cascade down to influence communities and others do not? Then there is the classic economics phrase, “This only holds in perfect competition,” and we move to another flawed theory. IR professors must incorporate more real situations into their teaching to demonstrate a theory’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than idealize it. I realize the optimal balance between theory and practicality is difficult to find, and this balance may be a matter of subjectivity at times. However, as a field that prizes itself on its practicality, IR schools can do better.

Let’s not be mistaken though, there are some things the IR field does well. IR by nature is a challenging, interdisciplinary field. It combines languages, economics, politics, and regional studies to solve specific problems, while considering the big picture. Students may also dig deeper and study other topics such as international law, sustainability, technology and sciences, among others. I am often amazed when I sit in the student lounge during exam period. It is like an innovation incubator for foreign policy. In one corner, I see groups completing a project to make a country sustainable in the next 15 years. In another corner, students are preparing materials for a debate discussing whether the U.S. should negotiate a new Iran Nuclear Deal. Across the room, there are students practicing for a Russian exam. All the while, the walls are covered in economic models and international law statues. IR curriculum pushes students to develop solutions to current problems by equipping them with a diverse skill set. It is truly a dynamic field. While this may be a strength, we need to build on it and continue to develop interdisciplinary skills for more contextualized, effective policies.

Another strength is the IR field’s inspiring student body. I can learn about as much talking to a fellow student as I can in class. My peers’ worldly experiences and extensive curiosity challenge my thinking. This also makes my courses more demanding and practically-focused. Additionally, the motivated student body sustains a variety of extracurriculars. With students from all around the world, I can easily find an interesting student-led event to attend, whether it is a movie showing about Bitcoin or a night of West African dancing lessons. While the student body can always be more diverse, my thoughtful classmates never fail to inspire me. They want to change the world, and I am confident they can.  

History can confirm IR school graduates’ ability to change the world. Notable policymakers have walked the halls before me. Madeline Albright, the first woman to serve as the U.S. Secretary of State; Timothy Geithner, the Federal Reserve’s mastermind behind the U.S. recovery from the Great Recession; and John McLaughlin, the former head of the CIA in the wake of counterterrorism, all attended my same IR institution, just to name a few. They each commanded decisive solutions to the troubles of their time that will be remembered for years to come. My classmates and I are confronted with new challenges and hope to bring the same efficacy to the world. Thus, IR institutions attract ambitious future leaders and can equip them with the mindset necessary for change.

In these ways, other disciplines can learn from the IR field. The field fosters an interdisciplinary education that prepares students to tackle complex and transformative problems around the globe. IR students have the regional knowledge, language skills, and economic perspective that other fields can draw upon to make more sense of their work. The benefits of an IR perspective range from learning how to adapt a business plan to the local culture, understanding the macro impacts of an election, to more effectively implementing engineering projects in a foreign country. Other fields can draw from IR experts’ international knowledge to contextualize their work. We just need to bridge the gap between the academic fields to more effectively solve the problems of today and prepare for the problems of tomorrow.

Walt and Gavin describe an IR field that is faced with uncertainty. In this new stage of history, the world order is in flux, and society is revolting against inevitable globalization. However, both professors come to different conclusions. Walt believes IR schools have failed to produce better solutions, while Gavin argues they are necessary to confront today’s challenges. As an IR student, I see it both ways. The world needs a better IR. One that is socioeconomically diverse and not easily dismissed by the political world; one that uses real events to understand theory; and one that is incorporated into other disciplines.

We have a lot of the necessary tools before us, but the field needs to build upon its strengths and change its known downfalls. Without introspection, we cannot adequately understand how to bring about better policy outcomes. Then adapt the curriculum accordingly. Meanwhile, it is time to reassert the dynamic knowledge IR experts bring to the table. Other disciplines can also work with IR professionals to ensure our future entails progress. Ultimately, if we want to change the world, we need to change the way we study it.

Caitlin O’Grady is the News Editor for the Bologna Bureau and a first-year MA student concentrating in American Foreign Policy.