International Relations Starter Pack

By Alexandros Sainidis

The world is a big place and studying it can be hard. It is easy to be discouraged at the beginning as instead of gaining one specialisation, you are acquainted with the sheer breadth of International Studies. What can you do to help yourself in such a situation? 

Make maps your everyday advisor.
International Studies require that you keep up to date with the news and read history. Most of the IR approaches heavily rely on history primarily because there is no feasible way to conduct a valid experiment. With this in mind, there will be a lot of overwhelming data. Without a mental structure, this data will collapse when stored in your mind. You will keep forgetting. However, if you use geography as a point of reference for every event, you are using your brain’s correlation muscles. In fact, you will start noticing that certain regions are prone to certain recurring events, such as Afghanistan being “the graveyard of empires.” Essentially, this is a great chance to study geopolitics, a popular subject or unit in International Studies curricula.

Make a Twitter account for a broad range of news 
Create a twitter list with news websites, research centres, universities, experts, professors, embassies and companies. Twitter is better than RSS feeds because a significant amount of intel is first revealed on Twitter before becoming news. Plus, you will be able to see what all the above share, finding more things to follow or explore. Even better if you interact with genuine interest. This way you might even get noticed by relevant people or institutions.

Find a few media outlets to explore in detail 
You will scan twitter. It is impossible to spend more than a few seconds on every tweet. You will, however, be required to meticulously study 2-3 media outlets you consider trustworthy. Search which media outlets are usually used as sources, even just for images, by smaller ones and consider each country’s journalistic culture. French journalism, for instance, is great.

Locate the things in International Studies which don’t change that often and read the classics 
In this broad science there are many things that change and even more that remain relatively stable. For example, the legal developments in International Law happen all the time, and sometimes the International Court of Justice can seem irrational, as this occurs with all known courts. Geography, on the other hand, is relatively stable. A forest might be burnt, an island may drown in rising water levels but these are events which one will miss only if they live under a rock. The same is true about national interest. Based and framed by geography, national interest dictates the reactions of states to developments which are faster than the slow nature of the state itself. 

From an intellectual point of view, too many scholars are reinventing the wheel. It might seem, at first, too much of a trouble to read the classics. In class you will be recommended to read a few textbooks which sum up all of the main theories in International Relations, which is tempting, certainly, as it provides an easier ‘solution’. However, the best practice is to read all the classics, as they are mentioned all the time in books and papers. If you have not studied the classic which is being referred to, you will be intimidated by the idea that you will have to open a new tab in your mental browser every time. If you have read the classics, however, you can simply skip that part. Problem solved and repeat-fatigue prevented. Why can this cause fatigue? Because the way they are written by the author is not with the benefit of the reader in mind. The author simply defends against themselves competitors. Give a man a Graham Alison and you will feed him for today. Teach a man Thucydides and you feed him for a lifetime.

Participate in an MUN (Model United Nations). But preferably in other role-playing simulations too. 
You will make friends, meet colleagues who want to get out of their comfort zone, learn about your future competitors and meet older students who may have some tips to share. You will discover what makes someone sound idiotic and rude, using a surplus of meaningless words, interrupting and counter-attacking. You will also discover that, surprisingly, the same people, who have the audacity to use inaccurate data and fabricated numbers will usually win at these; we live in an attention economy. I once adopted a Donald Trump persona. It is the only one that ever “won”. At some point when I was ripping apart a copy of my opponent’s legislation proposal, all of the participants started clapping ecstatically. You will not learn about how United Nations work. You will learn more about human behaviour, which is more important.

The best role-playing simulation to try out is Jessup or Telders Moot court. It is okay to participate even if you do not like International Law, as it equips you with neat tools for other sub-disciplines. If you manage to build a good team there, you, as peers, will be helping each other way beyond the moot court. Five years later, Jessup has been a defining factor for my professional career so far. It had taught teamwork, dedication and competition.

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Alexandros Sainidis

I am an International Relations Analyst and the creator of the blog Pecunia et Bellum. I have studied International, European and Area Studies at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece. I am a bilingual Russian speaker and I am currently learning Mandarin in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current International Affairs in Eurasia.

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