The Top 10 Things That Would-Be Foreign-Policy Wonks Should Study

It’s August, which means that students in America (and plenty of other places) are heading off to college for the first time. Some of them are undoubtedly thinking about preparing for careers in international affairs. As a public service to those eager future secretaries of state (and the parents worrying about their college choices), here’s ...


It’s August, which means that students in America (and plenty of other places) are heading off to college for the first time. Some of them are undoubtedly thinking about preparing for careers in international affairs. As a public service to those eager future secretaries of state (and the parents worrying about their college choices), here’s my top 10 things that future international policy wonks should learn.

1. History. Trying to understand international affairs without knowing history is like trying to cook without knowing the difference between flour and flounder. Not only does history provide the laboratory in which our basic theories must be tested, it shapes the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances and how they regard their relationship to others. How could one hope to understand the Middle East without knowing about the Ottoman Empire, the impact of colonialism, the role of Islam, the influence of European anti-Semitism and Zionism, or the part played by the Cold War? Similarly, how could one grasp the current complexities in Asia without understanding the prior relations between these nations and the different ways that Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Pashtuns, Hindus, Muslims, and others understand and explain past events

But don’t just memorize a lot of names and dates: Seek out teachers who can help you think about the past in sophisticated ways. Among other things, it’s useful to know how other societies see the past even if you don’t agree with their interpretation, so make sure you read histories written by citizens of other countries. And if you’re studying in the United States, don’t just study “Western Civilization.” The world is a lot bigger than that.

2. Statistics. Most high schoolers have to learn a certain amount of math, but unless you’re going into a technical field, a lot of it won’t be directly relevant to a career in international affairs. But statistics is part of the language of policy discourse, and if you don’t understand the basics, you won’t be a discerning consumer of quantitative information and others will be able to dazzle you with data that may not be right. You can avoid this fate with a little study.

3. Foreign language. If you grew up outside the United States and are headed for college, you probably already speak more than one language. If you’re an American, alas, you probably don’t. You should. I know that everyone is learning English these days, but learning at least one foreign language provides a window into another culture that you can’t get any other way, and also provides a sense of mastery and insight that is hard to achieve otherwise. I’m not particularly good at languages, but I’d gladly trade my mediocre abilities in French and German for real fluency in one of them (or many others). Don’t make my mistake: Get to the language lab and acquire some real skills.

4. Economics. Economists aren’t the wizards they think they are (see under: 1929, 2007-08), but you can’t understand world affairs these days if you don’t have a basic grasp of the key principles of international trade and finance and some idea how the world economy actually works. I might add that some forms of economics (e.g., game theory) can provide some useful ways of thinking about strategic interaction, provided you don’t push it too far. So take enough economics to be able to read the Wall Street Journal op-ed page and know when they are BS-ing you.

5. International law. You might think that a realist like me would dismiss international law completely, but I took a course in the subject as an undergraduate and have always been grateful that I did. Among other things, it reaffirmed my suspicion that international law is a pretty weak instrument, especially when dealing with great powers. Nonetheless, states and other international actors use international law all of the time, and they certainly invoke it to try advance their own particular interests. So it’s good to have some idea what international law is, how it works, and what it can and cannot do.

6. Geography. We often hear that we live in “one world,” but it’s divided up into lots of regions, countries, areas, and physical configurations, and these variations matter a lot. I don’t know when or why we stopped teaching geography, but it is an important part of the world affairs tool kit. I might not go so far as to say “geography is destiny,” but just look at all the international issues that you couldn’t begin to understand without a detailed knowledge of the physical characteristics of the region in question. South China Sea? The West Bank? The new sea routes in the Arctic? The list is endless, yet I’m often struck by how little geography most students seem to know these days. Here’s a good test: If you were given a map of the world with all the country names removed, how many could you fill in? If you can’t get at least 75%, time to get out that atlas and start brushing up. The exercise will also tell you which regions you may know well and which ones you need to learn a bit more about. If you’re still not convinced that geography matters, check out Robert Kaplan’s new book.

7. Get some culture. Education in international affairs tends toward the technocratic, as the previous items on this list suggest. But some appreciation for art and culture is essential. The music, literature, and visual arts of different societies are where their collective souls reside, and more people have been inspired by poetry, art, and music than by the most compelling regression equations. If you don’t know why Picasso, Kurosawa, Shakespeare, Solzhenitsyn, Austen, Ellington, Rushdie, Shankar, etc. matter, then you’ve missed out an enormous part of the human experience and your ability to understand what makes other societies tick will be impoverished.

 8. Learn to communicate. Based on some of the graduate students I see, I’m not sure this is something most colleges teach anymore. But not matter what path you end up taking in life, being able to write clearly, quickly, and without enormous effort is a huge advantage. I’m not saying you have to aspire to be a prose stylist on the order of George Kennan, Joan Didion, or Paul Krugman, but overcoming the fear of the blank page or screen and developing the ability to write a clear, well-organized argument is an enormous force-multiplier.

While you’re at it, hone your ability to speak effectively and persuasively. Regardless of what sort of career you pursue, being able to present your ideas orally will be very valuable. And I’m not just talking about formal lecturing or giving a keynote speech, I also mean knowing how to brief your boss in five minutes or less, and how to ask a good question. I go to lots of public lectures and seminars, and I’m often struck by how few people know how to ask a clear, sharp and penetrating question. If you master that skill, you’ll stand out.

Formal training and activities like debate can enhance these abilities, but mostly they come from practice. Repetition also helps overcome stage fright, and being relaxed while you’re speaking is easily worth 10 or 20 IQ points.

9. What about science? Most of us had to take a lot of science in high school, and some of us continued to do so in college. Although in-depth knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, etc., is not directly relevant to many aspects of international affairs, it is powerfully linked to a host of important political phenomena. How can one understand cyber-security, climate change, global pandemics, economic development, and a host of other issues without understanding the scientific knowledge that lies at their core? More importantly, a clear understanding of the scientific method helps protect you from the proud know-nothingism that is increasingly a badge of honor among some politicians. So stick with some science too. And by the way: If you happen to interested in topics where science is central (such as arms control or the environment), you’d probably be better off majoring in a relevant scientific field rather than politics or history.

10. Find your ethical foundation. Universities teach classes on ethics, but apart from favoring free speech and opposing academic fraud, they don’t endorse any particular ethical stance. So don’t expect your college to teach you what is right or moral. Nonetheless, if you haven’t figured these things out for yourself yet, college is a good time to get cracking on it. You’ll meet lots of people with different views on this subject, and engaging with them will help you sort out where you stand. What’s your view of the good or virtuous life? Where are the lines that shouldn’t be crossed? How do you propose to handle the ethical tradeoffs that will inevitably greet you as you advance through life? And as you study, keep a sharp eye out for role models: Which people strike you as admirable and worthy of emulation and which seem morally challenged? And on what basis did you decide?

Alert readers will have noticed that my list looks a lot like the classic liberal arts education. True enough: In world that is both diverse and changing rapidly, a broad portfolio of knowledge is almost certainly the best preparation for a long career in the field. My list also leaves out various extracurricular activities that may be every bit as important as what you do in class, such as living for an extended period in a foreign country. But a solid knowledge of these fields and a serious effort to develop some key skills would serve you in good stead in a wide variety of global professions. And if you end up doing something entirely different, they certainly won’t hurt.

And if you’re just starting your freshman year, I hope you find the next four years challenging and inspiring. Learn as much as you can, because there will be plenty of tough problems for you to work on as soon as you graduate.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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