5 Reasons You Should Have Stayed Awake in Your Foreign Policy 101 Class


As a former grad student, fledgling writer, and relentless consumer of all things foreign policy, I can say with 90% positivity that the majority of people who write/talk/scream about policy but have never studied it academically are despicably clueless.

Let’s play a game (NO CHEATING): 

I’ll throw out some basic, terms that are essential to understanding how the U.S. and other nations calculate their foreign policy, and you define them in the comments section or in your head:

1. Realism

2. Liberalism (this one is tricky, I admit)

3. Economic Interdependence

4. Balance of power 

5. Non-state actor

How’d you do? While this list isn’t even close to exhaustive, it gives you a base to work from and will immediately rocket you light years ahead of pundits you see on TV who spit vitriolic nonsense about the way the U.S. handles its business abroad. Now that the test is over, here and here are the only two books you will need to read to understand foreign policy on a basic level.

Why should you learn more about foreign policy? I can think of five reasons off the top of my head …

1. As An American, You Owe It to the World

The U.S. military industrial complex is one of the most incredible displays of power the world has ever known. If you don’t believe me, or just want a glimpse of what I’m talking about, watch NOVA’s recent documentary on drone technology.

The decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 was one of the most ridiculous foreign policy blunders in memory. Foreign fighters aside, between 110,000-120,000 documented Iraqi civilians have lost their lives since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the region is now far more volatile than it was before.

The lesson? Although almost nobody could have stopped the U.S. from this war, avoiding future perilous entanglements will require an informed citizenry that can adequately assess the cost/benefit ratio not only for ourselves, but for those that may have their lives shattered as a result of kinetic U.S. power. 

2. To Reduce the Shear Magnitude Of Misinformation

Spouting off your dogma about war with Iran, Israel/Palestine, and intervention in Syria without learning the ways in which leaders calculate will only increase the amount of baseless noise that fills the minds of those who are all too quick to piggyback their opinions on someone else’s.

While not everyone can be an expert – I’m not suggesting I am - and a healthy variance of opinions are essential in a democracy, those opinions must be based on sound theories that have stood the test of time in order to add something of value. Otherwise, you my friend, are a boob. 

3. To Sort Through the Horsesh*t

I direct you to said horsesh*t here, here, and here

These people wouldn’t be on the air if they weren’t putting up big ratings numbers, which means that a whole lot of Americans tune in on a daily basis. If you’re a viewer, I hate to tell you this, but they’re some of the most ill equipped people on the planet to inform you of anything. They’re entertainers, and they should be taken as such.

Instead, I highly suggest you pick up a copy of the Economist, head over to Foreign Policy, or peruse the pages of The Atlantic or the Huffington Post. If you want to get really wonky, I suggest Foreign Affairs journal. Most of these publications have student subscriptions, which significantly decreases your financial burden.

And yes, policy experts that you’ll find in these publications can be funny, brilliant, and downright nasty too. Don’t believe me? Check out esteemed Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner’s blog over at Foreign Policy.

4. To Distinguish Your Enemy From Your “Enemy” … And Even Your “Friends”

Believe it or not, Hezbollah and Hamas have little interest in attacking the U.S., Iran’s threat to the homeland is effectively zero, and Islamists are not always synonymous with terrorism.

Since 9/11, Americans seem to have developed a xenophobic complex in which anyone who isn’t an American must be an enemy. When this type of paranoia reaches a national level, we get the war in Iraq, a strike on Iran, or the “terrorist blanket” that we’ve used to cover the entire Arab world. 

Being able to discern where the true threats lie is essential to our own national security. Wasting valuable assets on imagined boogiemen takes a huge toll on our country economically, psychologically, and diplomatically.

To really mess with you, think about this: do our “allies” always have our best interests in mind? Only foreign policy can help you answer that … and this article.

5. Interconnection 

As the saying goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If you’ve tackled the first four reasons to study foreign policy, you’re ready for the next step: understanding that sworn enemies often times work in harmony to advance underlying mutual interests.

Most reading this may think, for instance, that the U.S. should intervene in the horrendous civil war taking place in Syria. As the theory goes, we must keep chemical weapons out of terrorist hands, stop the violence, make sure the next government is agreeable to U.S. interests, and be sure Syria doesn’t become a breeding ground for anti-Western extremists.

However, a deeper understanding of the powers at play in Syria paints a different picture. Virtually all of the nearby countries to Syria have a considerable stake in what happens there, Iran especially. Deploying Marines in Iran’s backyard makes them a target, and it wasn’t long ago that Iran made our foray into Iraq a living hell. Further, U.S. troops are terrorist magnets, and whatever the number of extremists in Syria now would almost certainly multiply many times over. This leads to more fighting, which leads to a higher body count and a much worse situation for Syrians.

The point? Deeper connections between countries often paint vivid portraits of the future that are crucial in determining the best course of action, and although it may seem counterintuitive, how to ultimately keep the damage level as low as possible.