Course Meeting Times 

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Goals, Requirements, and Expectations

Theory is not separate from the world; it constructs what we see.

The goals of this course are three-fold:

  1. Give you a solid grounding in historically informed International Relations
  2. Introduce the concepts, vocabulary, and theories of International Relations
  3. Use these concepts, vocabulary, and theories to analyze issues facing political leaders and societies. This is a heavily analytical course; critical thinking is required equipment.1

My intent is not to teach you ‘facts’ or measure your ability to commit them to memory by rote. While there are dates and actors that will be of significance, of far more importance will be your ability to take the concepts and theories we discuss in class and use them to analyze issues confronting societies and the policy responses mounted by political leaders. The only exception to this general claim pertains to geography. Where states are located and who their neighbors are (i.e. their geography) is an important aspect of international relations. To this end, I expect you to have a good general idea of which states are located where, and you will be graded on this knowledge.

Many of you are not political science majors and may wonder—aside from satisfying MIT core requirements—what this class has to offer you. In truth, the time when citizens of any country could ignore international relations has long since passed. Decisions of war and peace, the ebb and flow of international trade and finance, global environmental summits—all these elements of international relations shape (with increasing intensity and scope) the everyday lives and careers of people from Cambridge to Cairo to Chennai. Having the tools to understand international relations has never been more important for your role as citizens and your aspirations for your careers.

Claims about the intrinsic or utilitarian importance of international relations not withstanding, the value you derive from the course is directly proportional to the effort you put into it. My goal is to aid you in your efforts and in the process derive the greatest possible intellectual development during this semester. I strongly believe in the importance of college education for ensuring the lifelong intellectual and emotional welfare of students, and take teaching very seriously. During class, my time and expertise are at your disposal, and I urge you to take advantage of them.

This is a lecture-based class with as much question and answer during each class period as possible. While I prefer to structure courses around student engagement and discussion, such a framework is impractical for a class this size. That, however, does not absolve you of your obligations to prepare for class. That means you need to complete the assigned reading before the class date to which it is attached. I will help you keep current on the readings through periodic, in-class reading quizzes. The course texts, particularly the Buzan and Little text, require intensive, sustained focus and engagement. International Relations is not supposed to be easy. If it were, we would have figured it all out a long time ago. The fact that so many problems and issues today can be traced to the relations between states clearly proves that we have not.

Objectives for Students

  • Analyze and understand the major themes of international relations and global politics
  • Develop an appreciation of theory and its utility in the study and practice of International Relations
  • Improve critical thinking and writing skills
  • Demonstrate the ability to describe the social, political, and economic forces that influence social behavior and the global system
  • Use knowledge of international affairs in a practical problem-solving way to address issues of immediate international concern

Course Texts

The course is a primary opportunity to develop a firm foundation in IR theory and concepts. We will be making use of two excellent textbooks:

Buy at Amazon Baylis, John, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens, eds. The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. 7th edition. Oxford University Press, 2017. ISBN: 9780198739852. [Preview with Google Books]

Buy at Amazon Buzan, Barry, and Richard Little. International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations. Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN: 9780198780656. 

We will also regularly incorporate discussion of contemporary events (and exams may reference them), so you should keep up on what is happening in the world by regularly reading a current events news source like the New York Times or the Economist.

For detailed information, see the Readings section.

Course Grading


Discussion section participation

The course has three excellent teaching assistants whose job is to help you better understand the material. Each week you will have an opportunity to bring your questions and insights to your discussion section in a dialogue with the TAs. As the enrollment is too large for participation to be feasible in lecture, you will be assessed on participation in discussion section. The TAs will be primarily interested in your engagement with the material, your fellow students, and the TAs. 

Map quiz 5%
Midterm exam 15%
Final exam (cumulative) 25%
Short policy memos (3 x 5% each) 15%
Final policy memo 20%

For more detail on the activities above, see the Assignments section.


1Professor Jason Enia at Sam Houston State University defines critical thinking in the International Relations context thus:
“Critical thinking is not about blindly accepting the wisdom of the ‘talking heads’ you see on television or the information you get online. It is about admitting and being comfortable with uncertainty. In the complex arena of international politics—where there are almost always multiple and competing assessments of and solutions to international problems—this type of analysis is crucial. It includes the ability to break a problem into its component parts, to question assumptions, to recognize and critically assess multiple and competing sources of information, to evaluate alternative perspectives on problems, and finally to design and evaluate solutions to those problems. The value of the study of the social sciences lies in the development of these critical thinking skills.”