Why international relations is the key to all our futures

Mike Sheehan,Helen Brocklehurst
Saturday 29 July 2006 00:00 BST

It was said a few years ago that if the human race is wiped out in the next 50 years it will not be because of disease or an asteroid hitting the earth, but because of foreign policy and international relations. In a world where thousands of nuclear weapons exist and more countries are trying to acquire them, where suicide terrorist strikes come without warning and thousands die each day from poverty caused by the way the international system operates, we need to know about and understand international relations.

This is what makes international relations such an exciting and interesting - not to mention important - subject to study. It is not usually taught at school, but is a subject that you already know something about. Do you remember where you were on 9/11? How you felt? You are already part of international relations because of the choices you make, such as whether you buy fairtrade, or fast food; because of your identity, religion and cultural background; because of the news you watch (whether that's Sky News, News at Ten or Big Brother's Little Brother); because of the resources you possess, the place you live and so on. Put simply, international relations is about war and peace, conflict and cooperation, wealth and poverty, power and change, and understanding patterns of behaviour between the actors in the world - from states, to presidents, to corporations.

There is no "ideal" type of international relations student. Many issues may inspire your interest in international relations. You may have studied politics or citizenship, history, geography, or sociology for example. You might even be studying science and have now changed direction. You do not need to have the answers to the world's problems, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, debt, climate change, bird flu, and Aids. But you may have lots of questions. Why is international relations important? Is it all about war? Is it really about poverty and big business? Is the United States all powerful or are other states, institutions (like the World Bank and the EU), or even ideas (religious or political) crucial in deciding what happens in the world? How should we cope with global issues? Does it really make a difference to have Angelina Jolie as a United Nations goodwill ambassador? Courses in international relations look behind the headlines to the key players in world politics, asking what are the important ideas and how can we solve conflict or achieve cooperation. Your application or interview for an international relations degree will give you an opportunity to demonstrate your curiosity about global affairs.

Acceptance on international relations degrees does not depend on having particular subject qualifications. Departments usually treat applications individually and consider many AS and A2 subjects, as well as Scottish Highers, the Irish Leaving Certificate, Access and International Baccalaureate or Welsh Baccalaureate qualifications. And the departments assess you on your merits and enthusiasm.

There are many varied and interesting careers open to graduates of international relations, particularly involving overseas travel; these include the diplomatic corps, the armed forces, intelligence and risk analysis, relief and humanitarian work, the United Nations and international business for example. Most international relations degrees are social science or arts degrees which provide you with essential transferable skills, including writing, presentation, research and analysis skills. Equally importantly, a degree in international relations will provide you with the tools to make sense of the complex world around us, to think on your feet and consider international issues and events from a wide variety of perspectives.

Some international relations degrees will offer you the opportunity to take part in parliamentary placements, exchange schemes (including studying abroad at an English language university for a semester or year) or teamwork modules. These can often be a valuable stepping stone in helping you decide on your future and develop new skills. It may also be possible to combine your international relations degree with the study of a language or a related humanities or social science subject, with joint three- and four-year degrees available (both with or without a gap year abroad). This may expand your career opportunities in an increasingly globalised world.

You may think you can ignore international relations - but international relations won't ignore you!

The rights stuff

Julia Bale, 21, studies international relations with modern history at the University of Wales, Swansea. She has A-levels in history (B), politics (D), French (C) and media studies (B) from Plymstock School in Plymouth.

"International relations was not a well-known degree subject when I was at school and I didn't know what the course entailed until I read about it in the Swansea University prospectus online. Originally, I planned to do history and French, but later changed my mind when I read about the subjects and topics covered within international relations.

My course covers very contemporary subject matters, giving you an understanding of world politics, foreign affairs and international security. Also, the various theories of international relations allow you to explore different views throughout history and give you a means of comparison.

I have enjoyed most of my course and at the same time often irritated my friends by telling them the interesting things I had studied that day. In particular, I enjoyed studying the Middle East, war and peace in a nuclear age and the concept of Globalisation.

The final year of my course provides the opportunity for much more independent study with the dissertation and a module called researching politics. This was a group work module for which we were assigned a specific research topic. Mine was humanitarian intervention in the Balkans and I had to produce reports and give presentations.

This independent study provided a chance to really specialise in a subject. My researching politics topic, along with my dissertation about North Korean and US relations, deepened my interest in the issues of human rights and international organisations, such as the United Nations.

I have been accepted onto the international relations MA course here at Swansea, which looks very interesting, with one module that appeals to me particularly, on human rights, humanitarian intervention and global justice. After that, I'm not definitely sure what I'll go on to do - but I would be interested in working within the area of human rights, possibly for an international aid agency or political body."

Which Course magazine is now available online at www.independentezines.co.uk/whichcourse/. Contact Joshua Gilbert - tel: 020 7005 2283; fax: 020 7005 2292.

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