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International Affairs Forum

Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

The Complicated Task of Educating Future Leaders

By Alina Khasabova

Fully sharing the literary aversion to clichés, I cannot help but start by revoking an old theme: political science students today are potential world leaders tomorrow. It is in this light that correctly educating the younger generation becomes particularly important for the civil society and existing political elites. And it is in this light that I am compelled to say: tomorrow’s leaders are likely to be naïve idealists and uncompromising utopians, unable to effectively and legitimately promote their country’s interests in the emerging world order.

The existing IR education system teaches students to approach international relations analysis by dichotomizing actors into mutually opposing and exclusive groups, and categorizing action motivations only according to values, with rare inferences to pragmatic interests. This framework eliminates the need for students to grapple with the intricacies of international conflicts and instead, encourages them to simplify the complexities of modern world order into defective representations of the moral good guys and malicious cartoonish villains.

In the academic environment, most common approach to IR takes the form of a simple narrative construction, providing students with dichotomies of “good” and “bad,” and simplifying issues to fit them into abridged classification schemas. When students examine conflicts and ponder on possible problem resolutions, they are trained to immediately focus on associating actors with single identities and engage in single-factor analysis only, ignoring most externalities and overlooking the possibility of identity overlap or internal identity conflict.

As the education system embraced diversity of voices, it has mistakenly confined this diversity to only two ends of the spectrum that represent extreme, uncompromising perspectives. Analyses of international conflicts inevitably focus on identifying parties as either pure aggressors or victims without leaving any space for intermediary interpretations. Moderation and compromise have become unpopular among IR students; gray areas are deemed uninteresting; and consensus becomes impossible.

One of the reasons for the rise of such intemperance among students is that the existing education system has been overwhelmingly focused on nurturing morale and values, rather than pragmatically defining interests. The scope of today’s education is limited to cultivating respect towards the ideals of democracy, pluralism, equality and individual freedoms. The disproportionate emphasis on these principles, however, has caused students to evaluate international actors according to their perceived conformity with the conventional morale. Any divergence is classified as villainous behavior, and students are taught to immediately search for ways to “punish” and “fix” the non-conformists and transform them into supporters of our values.

Today’s students are taught to recognize the obligation of modern actors to be responsible and ethical players in the international arena. While in general, this quality of modern IR education positively reflects the development of our society, the focus on values must be a compliment, not substitute, to a more practical and pragmatic instruction. As students progress in their studies, resources available to them focus overwhelmingly on nurturing idealistic values and supporting them with general principles that offer little insight into real policy-making. As a result, students are unable to understand how values can correlate with the interests, how they can be practically incorporated in policies and how they can be balanced with the interests and values of other actors. In fact, students see no need to balance anything, as according to our constructed dichotomy, the Good must never compromise with the Bad. And as long as we define the Good within the value and morale framework, we will never be able to understand and cooperate with the the Bad, which often appears to be the majority of the world.

The continuation of IR education along dichotomized simplifications will produce world leaders that are only capable of radically assessing issues and thus, would greatly diminish the potential to achieve international accord and reduce world tensions. The concepts of moderation, compromise and consensus are rarely represented in the academic environment, so that many students graduate as immoderate idealists judgmentally evaluating the world through the lenses of our exclusive values.

Realism – as crude and blunt as it may be – is the key element missing in today’s IR education system. A strong realist background would allow students to be dedicated to the ethical and legitimate advancement of their nation’s interests, rather than to speciously endeavor to promote values and moralize the international community. Students’ dichotomized perception of world order, immoderate value judgments and lack of understanding of policy-formation processes are likely to impede international cooperation and make the future leadership generation a risky choice.

I strongly encourage IR and political science professors to teach their students real politics. There is no need to hide behind ostentatious claims that carry little meaning in actual policy formulation. There is no need to engage students through dramatization and simplification techniques that are more suitable to a mass television audience. Political education should focus on identifying a country’s national interests, even those that apparently have little connection to advocated values, and discussing possible ways of legitimately pursuing these interests in the international arena. Political education should focus on helping students orient themselves among the complex net of international actors, and not dichotomize and abridge them to fit cartoonish labels.

As potential world leaders, and simply as students genuinely interested in tackling the true intricacies of international relations, we will greatly appreciate the inception of a new dialogue in IR and political science classes that reflects the full complexity of issues and effectively balances idealist and realist approaches for a better understanding of foreign policy-making. Society will thank you for educating moderate politicians that are capable of legitimately and ethically pursuing their nation’s interests and respecting fundamental human values.

Comments in Chronological order (4 total comments)

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neosd - United States
Sun, March 08, 2009 04:18 PM (about 120491 hours ago)
this is a test
neosd - United States
Sun, March 08, 2009 04:54 PM (about 120490 hours ago)
this is a comment with carriage returns.

Line 2

line 3

isn't that nice
Mon, January 24, 2011 02:11 PM (about 104005 hours ago)
Alina--an insightful and trenchant criticism of education beyond the IR arena. It's good to see you are writing and thinking as clearly as ever! Drop me a note if you get a chance
Ms. Dahlin
Mon, January 24, 2011 02:12 PM (about 104005 hours ago)
Alina--an insightful and trenchant criticism of education beyond the IR arena. It's good to see you are writing and thinking as clearly as ever! Drop me a note if you get a chance
Ms. Dahlin
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