Topic 1: Introduction


Professor Last.


Why do we study social sciences, political science, and international relations?  There’s a long history of teaching young military leaders to understand the world around them, but the actual practice of teaching international relations at RMC has varied in the seven decades over which RMC has offered degrees.  From its beginnings, before RMC granted degrees, up to the 1960s, international relations were taught largely as an application of diplomatic history.  This stream continued, and picked up as a specialized branch of political science (following British rather than American traditions) in the 1970s. If you are interested in its evolution, you can find a paper about it here, and a list of course descriptions here. I mention this because whatever you learn is a function of the time and context in which it is taught.  Worry about North Korean nuclear missiles rekindles old Cold War fears, perhaps even for those not born at the time. What we study is influenced by our motivation for teaching and studying it.  How we study–the sources and methods applied to understanding a problem, event, or issue–shape what we think we know, and what we think it means.  This is true in every discipline, but particularly true for the social sciences, and fields of study related to power, human motivations, and collective action.

The context of studying international relations at a military college is especially significant, because it affects both the empirical descriptions of issues and events (with a tendency to focus on military events and security issues) and the normative implications (with a tendency to focus on what it means to us in uniform). We can put it into the context of a particular kind of state and international system at a certain point in historical time (See Bobbitt, 2002). We can also think about how the mental models of military professionals influence national reactions to events, and how those reactions shape events in turn. This is an application of systems thinking, and we can conceive system models that link thinking about IR to reactions to events, to influences on the evolution of those events (see one example in Last, Breede, and Dizboni, 2015). We are, in effect, part of the phenomenon that we study.

Our discussions this week will explore who we are, what we want to know, how we will organize it, and where it fits in the larger body of social science knowledge.

As an opening case study, I’d like you to think about the stories you have heard about how the world got to be the way it is today.  Think about the industrial revolution, British Empire, First World War, depression, communism and fascism, Second World War, Cold War, 9/11, America’s global war on terror, and stuff in the news today: environment, migration, energy, trade, extremism and social unrest. How do you explain the state of the world?

Now, read Rise and Decline: Trying to see the big picture of states and world orders.

Learning objectives

  • Identify social science, political science, and international relations within academic disciplines and fields
  • Identify the levels of analysis at which international relations can be studied
  • Understand the approach that will be used in this course
  • Describe for your purposes what is expected of you in this course
  • Explain what is meant by an ‘actor’ in international relations
  • Explain what is meant by an ‘event’ in international relations (a range of meanings)
  • Identify major issues in the study of IR, relevant to your future
  • Differentiate between state and nation
  • Identify sources of information relevant to the study of IR


Skim the pages and attachments of this web site, and identify your specific roles. Pay particular attention to the pages on learningorganization, and the written assignment. Note any questions that you have about how we will approach the class.

Read Sharaev, Chapter 1

Last, D. (2019) “Rise and Decline: Trying to see the big picture of states and world orders,”

Reus-Smit and Snidal (2008) “Between Utopia and Reality: The Practical Discourses of International Relations,” in the Oxford Handbook of International Relations, 3-40. Copy available on Moodle.

Activities before class

  • check your flow of information – what’s going on in the world now?
  • Review the course web site – know what is included and linked
  • Identify your specific roles in the course
  • Think about your choice of subject for the written assignment
  • Confirm you can work with your assigned writing partners
  • Do you have questions about the course?

Activities during class

  • Introductions: who are we, what’s our learning style, what do we know, how do we organize what we know, what do we want to know, and why?
  • Current events: what’s going on in the world? (overview, plus one significant event)
  • Discussion: academic disciplines and subjects of study
  • discuss actors in IR (5D, 60s)
  • discuss events (5D, 60s)
  • discuss issues (5D, 60s)
  • discuss the state-nation distinction (5D, 60s)
  • discuss non-state actors (5D, 60s)

Activities after class

  • plot tasks and timings
  • decide how you will organize notes and studying for this course
  • review readings
  • prepare for next class

Additional resources

Page updated, August, 2019, contact  Home