Here’s a shout-out to the college students starting the semester using my textbook International Relations. You will learn about many complex issues, trends, and theories. But keep your eye on some Big Issues that matter most. Here are five of them:
1. Global Warming. It is for your generation the greatest threat to humanity, a catalyst of international conflicts, and an issue that the international system has proven utterly incapable of solving so far. Global warming is the very model of a “collective goods problem” in that all countries will share the outcome but each one’s contribution to that outcome is made independently. If China and the United States keep burning coal (and they do), Europe, Southeast Asia, and others will pay the price even if they themselves act responsibly.
Within countries, where there is a government with coercive powers, the solution to problems like this is to force people to follow a solution, just like we make cars get smog inspections and repairs. The international system (a.k.a. “anarchy”) does not have that option. So we’re left with cooperative arrangements based on reciprocity, like the Kyoto treaty — you cut x amount of carbon, we cut y amount… Without enforcement, and with long-term benefits but short-term costs, it hasn’t worked.
For decades, scientists have warned that global warming would lead to bigger storms, floods, droughts, and fires as the world’s weather system became unbalanced. Hurricane Katrina came and went, and lately we seem to have lots of these weather disasters. But a rising number of Americans, now about half, think the effects of global warming have been exaggerated. Congress certainly doesn’t want to pay to address it. And China still wants to keep growing at 10 percent a year.
As you learn about world order and the many structures of the international system, state-based and nonstate, think about this question: What would need to happen in order for the world to respond effectively to the problem of global warming?
2. The Decline of Armed Conflict: Another huge and underappreciated trend is the decrease in warfare in recent decades. The world’s states have not only joined the UN and agreed to work out their problems peacefully, they’ve actually stopped fighting. The remaining wars of the world, civil wars, are being gradually dampened, with greater effectiveness, by international peacekeeping.
What is it about the international system that has let countries deal with one of the worst, oldest problems of the human race, war, so much better than it deals with global warming? This issue is so important, it’s the subject of my new book, Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.
3. The Arab Spring: Nobody knows quite why it happened — presumably the huge “youth bulge” in Arab countries’ demographics had a role, as did the spread of information technologies, and the poor economic performance of the Arab world. And nobody knows quite where it’s going — perhaps a democratic transformation of the entire region, or perhaps a bloody Shi’ite-Sunni war. But everyone knows that It’s Big!
This is the latest of the waves of democratization that have swept the world over several decades, touching Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Military governments are becoming rare, and authoritarianism seems to be endangered. Stay tuned for breaking developments this semester!
4. Palestine: Speaking of the Middle East, the Israel-Palestine conflict can seem like just part of the background music in world politics, but it’s actually moving toward a breakthrough or breakdown. The world’s longest-running major armed conflict (60+ years), Palestine holds tremendous emotional resonance for Arabs and Muslims whose countries are not even remotely affected by the conflict directly. It also shapes America’s standing in a world region where a lot of oil comes from.
Later this month, Palestine may bring its case to the United Nations. That has set off a flurry of activity either to support that option or come up with an alternative. In effect, the idea of a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security) is on the line, with support eroding on both sides.
5. The Euro Zone: Many of the benefits that countries enjoy in the international system come from trade and prosperity, no where more so than in Europe. The economic crisis that began in 2008, and has never really resolved, threatens those benefits. China faces the loss of export markets. The United States faces paralyzing stagnation. Most importantly, Europe faces the greatest test ever of its experiment in economic integration.
In particular, the euro currency — the world’s boldest financial experiment in history — is on the line. When it created the euro, the EU let individual countries control their own fiscal policies (taxation, spending), while centralizing monetary policy (how much currency to print). Right away it became clear that some countries, notably Greece but including big players like France, had cheated on the requirements of fiscal discipline needed before adopting the euro. Now Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and even Italy are facing debt crises because they spend too much and don’t take in enough revenue. Cutting government spending in the middle of a stagnant economic period is politically unpopular and may not make much sense economically either. But that leaves Germany and other stronger, more responsible EU members holding the bag for the problems of Greece & Co. The Germans don’t want to pay for others’ problems, but don’t want to let the euro be destroyed either. Again, stay tuned.
So, there you have it — five big issues to keep in mind, ranging from environmental politics to conflict to political economy. If you are a student studying IR this semester, you will have a great seat to watch the concepts in your textbook unfold in the real world in real-time.