Course Description

Course Name

Introduction to International Relations

Session: VSOU1522

Hours & Credits

3 Credits

Prerequisites & Language Level

Taught In English

  • There is no language prerequisite for courses at this language level.


The Course:

This course is an introduction to the study of international politics. It is designed to improve students’ ability to analyse the relations between sovereign states and the role that non-state actors play in international affairs. The course addresses a number of salient questions in international politics: What is the international system? How does it function? How do states relate to one another in the system, and why? What role do power, ethics, international law and institutions play? In this course we probe fundamental political issues including the causes and possible prevention of war, intervention, and conflict. We also examine competing approaches to these, and other, questions. Above all, the course is designed to enhance students’ ability to think clearly and critically assess a number of international political issues.

This course is organised topically. It begins by presenting the various approaches to the study of international politics. It then considers the two major dimensions of the international system: security and international political economy. It finishes by focusing on several of the most pressing issues today.

Course Format:

This course will meet four times each week for 100 minutes. Each meeting will include some lecture and some discussion. The particular balance struck will depend on the nature of the issues to be covered, the number of students enrolled, and the dynamics within our group.

While both lectures and discussions are designed to complement the assigned readings, some of the readings may not be addressed explicitly in class. Students are responsible for ensuring they understand all of these course elements (readings, lectures, and discussions). And they should not hesitate to ask questions if they do not.

Lectures: Lectures will action-packed–and (hopefully!) delivered in a lively manner. In addition to using PowerPoint slides to display charts, graphics, and tables, I also include the bulk of the lecture’s important points (including pivotal transitions) in prose form on these slides. I have evolved this system of lecture delivery in an attempt to meet different learning styles--and to help students revise for exams.

I will post each complete lecture on the Reading List the evening before the lecture. Students are encouraged to download these slides before arriving to class to aid their note-taking. In the past, students have taken notes directly on the slides using the “Commenting” feature in MS PowerPoint.

Discussions: I will vary my role and influence in the discussion based on the material and topics at hand. At points, I may provide some preliminary exegesis or background to set the stage for our discussion. At other points, I will take a less active role, encouraging students to take the discussion in the directions they find most interesting. The direction of discussions will largely depend on the questions and interests developed by the discussion’s participants.

Course Design:

Negotiating the relationship between theory and empirics presents one of the greatest challenges in teaching an introduction to the study of international politics. We use theories to understand and explain the interactions that occur in the international system; and we use these interactions as empirical “cases” to “test” our theories. The principal question is: where do we begin? For those who are new to the subject, the theories are sure to appear abstract and esoteric when studied in isolation from the cases. Likewise, the interactions are sure to appear far simpler than they really are without the power of theory to illuminate their nuances.

Teachers of international politics have negotiated this relationship in all the conceivable ways. The classic approach is to march through the history of the international system developing the relevant theories along the way. The “schools” approach develops the major theories and then alternatively applies them to various interactions from the past. And the newest wave couples individual theories with particularly appropriate cases. Clearly, each approach presents its own advantages and disadvantages.

This course adopts the second approach. We will begin by considering the major approaches to, and theories of, international politics. While we will use illustrative cases to explicate the theories, our first order of business will be to develop a working understanding of these theories themselves. We will then apply these theories to cases in the three major issue areas of international politics: international security, international political economy, and international organisation.

The disadvantage of this approach is that students may find the introduction to theories initially bewildering. After all, grappling with six or seven different, reasonable approaches to the international system is no easy task! The advantage, however, is that mastering the theories before turning to the cases allows students to study politics social-scientifically. Armed with a toolbox of theories, students will use these theories to understand the observed interactions and use the cases to test the theories. This is the approach taken by scholars of international politics today. Learning it now will serve students as they enter into more advanced courses.

In this sense, students should consider this course more akin to a mathematics course than a course in literature. The material we cover in Unit 1 will have persistent relevance throughout the remainder of the course. Students should expect to frequently refer back to their previous notes as the term progresses.

Course Content:

This course is intended to introduce students to the study of international politics. It seeks to provide coverage in several key areas.

First, it will introduce students to the “canon” of international politics. The study of international politics has a rich intellectual history that includes virtually every major thinker since at least Thucydides. This course will attempt to introduce students to some of the classic perspectives from this tradition, with “classic” understood as both rich and influential. From Clausewitz to Keohane, these are perspectives any student of international politics ought to know.

Second, it will introduce students to the major subfields in the field of international politics. These areas follow from the major issue areas: international security (war & peace), international political economy (trade, money, & migration), and international organisation (law & order). This course should help students understand the workings of these different types of issues and the relationship between these areas.

Third, it will introduce students to the ways in which we study international politics. Students of international politics grapple with both positive and normative questions. The former concern facts, which have no moral valence. (e.g. What is the role of the distribution of power in determining the likelihood of war and peace?) The latter concern ideals—standards of “right” and “wrong”—and will challenge students to consider what they think “ought” to be. (e.g. Should countries sacrifice their sovereignty to international regimes?) I will thus try to balance between ensuring the requisite comprehension of the positive issues and allowing sufficient exploration of the intriguing and important normative matters related to international politics. More of the emphasis of this course, however, will be on the positive issues.

*Course content subject to change