A Student's Guide to International Relations

A Student's Guide to International Relations

by Angelo M Codevilla

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A concise journey through geopolitics and the continuing debate about America’s role in the world.

Terrorist attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of China, and the decline of Europe have underscored the necessity of understanding the world around us. But how should we approach this crucial but often misunderstood topic? What do we need to know about the international order and America’s role in it?

A Student’s Guide to International Relations provides a vital introduction to the geography, culture, and politics that make up the global environment. Angelo Codevilla, who has taught international relations at some of America’s most prestigious universities, explains the history of the international system, the dominant schools of American statecraft, the instruments of power, contemporary geopolitics, and more. The content of international relations, he demonstrates, flows from the differences between our global village’s peculiar neighborhoods.

This witty and wise book helps make sense of a complex world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497645059
Publisher: ISI Books
Publication date: 07/29/2014
Series: ISI Guides to the Major Disciplines , #4
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 112
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and has taught political theory and international relations at Princeton and Georgetown. A former Foreign Service officer and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, he is the author of many books, including Advice to War Presidents and The Character of Nations, and a translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Read an Excerpt

A Students's Guide to International Relations

By Angelo M. Codevilla

ISI Books

Copyright © 2010 Angelo M. Codevilla
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-4505-9



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Understanding one's own country is the indispensable prerequisite for dealing with others. Necessarily, the way we deal with foreigners follows from how we understand what America itself is about, and generally how we believe we should relate to the rest of the world. How professors and books present international relations reflects their understanding of America implicitly. But because no IR curriculum teaches American history or institutions explicitly, serious students are well advised to read about and to understand America independently. Samuel P. Huntington's Who Are We? (2004) is a good place to start. The first two volumes of Walter McDougall's history of the United States—Freedom Just Around the Corner (2004) and Throes of Democracy (2008)—are indispensable.

The Stage

Ultimately, IR is about peoples and places that are very different. You must learn how deeply the global village's many neighborhoods differ from one another. Moreover, the maps that show the world divided into distinct states should not be taken to imply that the entities represented in the United Nations are nations in the dictionary meaning of the term, or that they are equivalent in any way. While no government can make "Bosnia" out of a place containing at least three warring tribes, the word "Japan" describes an entity that exists regardless of government.

Geography makes a difference. What are the soil and climate like? Is the topography steep or smooth, accessible by land or water? How numerous are the people? How young or old? What are their measurable characteristics? How many of them do what? What is in the people's heads, and what does that dispose them to do or not do? What do they worship, love, and hate? What is acceptable and unacceptable among them? How are they governed, what kinds of people among them set the tone for life, and what do they want? What is it like to make a living there and get ahead? What are their collective fears, hopes, and interests? What is their international agenda, if any? What "comparative advantages" do they have? What do they have to give and need to receive? What kind of power can they generate—how much, and for what purpose?

A good place to begin this tour of our planet is Sir Halford Mackinder's Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), which shows geography's influence on politics. As you go through this classic introduction, refer often to a historical atlas as well as to specialized studies of individual regions.

Geography and Demography

Start from what Mackinder calls the "World Island"—namely, the Eurasian land mass plus Africa—beginning with its heartland, central Asia and Russia.

East of the Ural Mountains, Siberia's low ground, impassably wet and mosquito-infested in summer and frozen solid most of the rest of the year, slopes northward to the Arctic Ocean. Flowing from south to north, the Lena, Ob, and Yenisey rivers inhibit east-west traffic and are useful mainly as ice roads in the winter and for supply runs from the Arctic Ocean in the summer. Farming is inconceivable. Russia has long since overwhelmed northern Siberia's native nomadic tribes and has always used either slave labor or extraordinary incentives to exploit the region's vast timber and minerals. Oil and gas produced in self-contained camps flow out by pipeline. Siberia's southern edge is a gentle arc of higher ground that, in the west, touches the lower Volga valley and the Ukrainian plains, and that reaches eastward to the Amur River valley of the Pacific. This was the route by which Russia conquered central Asia and established itself on the North Pacific. Here, along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, are Russia's major eastern outposts: Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, and Vladivostok, as well as its intercontinental missile bases. This is also the route by which the Mongol peoples near its northeastern end conquered Russia, eastern Europe, and Asia in the thirteenth century.

Southward, east of the Caspian Sea, are the central Asian steppes and foothills of the great mountains, beyond which are China and the Indian subcontinent. Along the mountains' northern edge in today's Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan runs the Silk Road that once connected China with the Western world. Along this road came Tamerlane, the fourteenth-century Persian-Turkic successor to Genghis Khan, who conquered much of the area from Syria and Persia to the Volga River and India. The area's peoples—the Azeris, Kazakhs, Turkmen, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz—retained their identity under Russian and Soviet rule, and have mixed Russian ways into their own. Because they are reproducing vigorously, unlike the Russians, they may well regain primacy in the region. Ted Rall's Silk Road to Ruin (2006) and Rene Grousset's Empire of the Steppes (1970) give tours of the area in our time.

Southwest of the Urals lie the vast lower valleys of the rivers Ural, Volga, Dnieper, and Don. In this fertile land, Russians mix with Ukrainians and Cossacks. Farther south, between the Caspian and Black seas, mountains divide the Caucasian Peninsula into climatically different valleys that separate peoples of different ethnicity, religion, and culture, among whom are the Christian Armenians, Muslim Azeris, Orthodox Georgians, Muslim Chechens, and countless other groups and subgroups. Since the sixteenth century, all of the above have been subjects of Russia's empire, from time to time, more or less. Vicken Chetarian's War and Peace in the Caucasus (2008) charts this historical labyrinth.

European Russia runs westward from the Urals as far as the Russian people have displaced others on the fertile northern European plain that reaches the Atlantic. On these western borders, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, and many others mingle with and dispute Russians, as do Finns in the north. Just as Russia's continental climate is known for polar cold and torrid heat, the Russian people are known for geniuses, peasants, and tyrants. But the land, the weather, and even the people's capacities cannot fully explain why Russia has dominated Eurasia under some regimes and merely become one of its parts under others, or why at one time it was one of the world's breadbaskets and has since become dependent on imported food. In our time, Russia's population is shrinking rapidly because fewer families are being formed and fewer children are born. Astolphe de Custine's Journey for Our Time (1839) is a good introduction to perennial Russia.

Russians have always looked hungrily at the Iranian plateau, and beyond the Caucasus and Anatolian highland to where the land falls steeply to the Persian Gulf and the warm Mediterranean Sea. In this junction of Asia, Europe, and Africa live the Persians, who mingled with and challenged Western civilization in its Greek and Jewish cradles, and the Turks, who have played a role in world affairs since they ended the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453 and thereafter ruled nearly all Arabs and many eastern Europeans. Teetering between East and West, they remain strategically located atop the sources of the Middle East's scarce water supplies. The Iranians, too, have a history of dominating the Arabs, who live downhill from them, and an attitude to match. Rich in oil and gas, the Iranians live astride the routes by which the oil and gas of the landlocked Turkmen and Kazakhs must go to market. The substantial difference between the Iranians' and Turks' practice of Islam and that of most Arabs also shapes their complex relations with the Middle East. The Middle East and North Africa: A Political Geography (1985) by Gerald H. Blake and Alasdair Drysdale gives a good introduction to the region.

The Turkish-Iranian plateau feeds the streams that water the Middle East's Fertile Crescent—the irrigated areas that run northwest through desert from the Persian Gulf along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers through Mesopotamia (presentday Iraq) to northern Syria, and then south along smaller streams from Turkey and the Lebanese mountains into the Jordan Valley and Israel's coastal plain. The delta of the Mesopotamian rivers, the traditional home of the Marsh Arabs who practice Shia Islam, is rich in oil. In the Baghdad area between the rivers, the population includes some of the Sunni Arabs of Syrian or Bedouin heritage from the dry, western-northwestern flatlands. In the northern-northeastern mountains live the Kurds, whom Xenophon described in the fourth century B.C. and whose oil-rich territory includes parts of present-day Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The clash of empires has been the history of this land, which once was agriculturally productive but whose growing population now eats mostly what it does not produce. Bernard Lewis's The Shaping of the Modern Middle East (1994) is essential.

In the Arabian Peninsula's vast desert between the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf, the European winners of World War I established the kingdom of Jordan to accommodate the Hashemite Arab princes—descendants of Muhammad and lords of the Hejaz (along the Red Sea where Mecca and Medina are located) who helped the Allies defeat the Turks but were themselves defeated by the Wahhabi tribes of the central Nejd valley under the Saud family. Since 1740, this family intermarried with and adopted the teachings of Abd-al-Wahhab, according to whom any perceived accretion to Islam's core monotheism disqualifies one as a Muslim and makes one lawful prey for true Muslims. Thus justified, the Saudi tribes have since controlled all but the northern part of the peninsula except for some British-protected emirates along the gulf coast and the primitive Yemeni tribes on the southern mountainous coast. Prior to the discovery of oil in the places dominated by Saudis, the Red Sea coast had been by far the peninsula's most economically viable area. For the Saudi kingdom's fast-growing population, however, prosperity relates directly to proximity to the royal family, whose custody of Islam's cradle—plus oil money—also lets it define Islam in Wahhabi terms for much of the Muslim world.

In Africa's northern bulge, the Sahara Desert forces humans to stay within a few moist margins on the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Nile, or within the brush country on the edges of the central African forest. All around the great desert, population is growing faster than the production of food. Each of North Africa's human enclaves is different because each has been shaped by contact with different civilizations. Egypt is special. Orders of magnitude bigger than the others and heir to its own high civilization, Egypt worked its own compromises between Arabia's Islam and the Western world's modernity, thereby influencing northern Africa's whole eastern end. In Sudan in the upper Nile Valley, Muslim Arabs from the Egyptianized North oppress darker Muslims in the dry West, as well as black Christians and animists in the Blue Nile's wet, southern reaches. To the east, in the dry rugged highlands by the White Nile's headwaters, the Nilotic Ethiopians live with an ancient version of Christianity that had once flourished in flatland Egypt. Paul Henze's Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia (2004) is a good place to start.

North Africa's Mediterranean coast, under Roman rule, provided grain and oil to Europe and produced Saint Augustine, arguably Christianity's foundational thinker. First the barbarian invasions, then Islam, returned the area to tribal ways and to poverty. When European powers displaced the Turks' nominal overlordship over present-day Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia in the 1830s, they found the region little changed from centuries past. In the next hundred years, they reoriented North Africa toward Europe. Algeria especially became an integral part of France and a major exporter of wine. France, Germany, and Spain vied for influence in Morocco; France and Italy contended for Tunisia; and Italy sought control of Libya. But when these countries became independent, they stopped producing exports and started exporting refugees from misery. In our time, these lands teeter between secular despotism and Islamist despotism.

Maps of West Africa's muggy coast still carry names such as "Grain Coast," "Gold Coast," "Ivory Coast," and "Slave Coast," which French and British colonists called the enclaves where they built modern cities including Abidjan, Accra, and Lagos. From these cities they spread civilizations that exported tropical products. Dakar, at the mouth of the Senegal River, was one of the world's major ports and had a Parisian cultural life. After the end of colonial rule, the area returned to tribal strife and poverty. Detritus from the decay and warfare of the interior tribes sinks into Africa's cities, where the diseases of modern slums compound the continent's endemic ones. Islam adds fuel to the wars between the interior tribes and the Christian coastal tribes. On the equator, the mighty Congo River cuts through otherwise impenetrable jungle all the way from the Atlantic to the Great Rift Valley, which divides the continent's East and West. But because the Congo falls too steeply and too near the ocean, like most of Africa's rivers, it does not let deep-draft ships into the wild interior valleys where tribal savagery trumps natural wealth. Africa: The Land and the People (1972) by Peter Duignan and Lewis Gann is a good introduction to the subject.

On the Great Rift Valley's eastern side are the cool lakes and fertile highlands of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Malawi. Further down gentle slopes toward the Indian Ocean are the temperate game-filled savannas and plantations of Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia. In these hospitable environments, a mixture of Europeans and East Indians established peace and commerce between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. But independence meant genocide between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in the highlands, while in the foothills it meant the expulsion of the Indians, the marginalization of the whites, and the oppression of smaller tribes such as the Luo by bigger ones such as the Kikuyu. Similarly, the Shona and Ndebele tribes of the Zambezi Valley united to expel the whites from what had been prosperous southern Rhodesia, only for the Shona in turn to tyrannize and starve the Ndebele.

South of the Kalahari Desert, Africa's coastal plain enjoys a maritime climate at the crossroads of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. South Africa's Orange River valley is the continent's California. Above that, the Transvaal is endowed with rich minerals. Africa's southern tip was sparsely inhabited until the sixth century, when the major black Xhosa and Zulu tribes started moving into it from the North. "White tribes" of Portuguese, Dutch, and British rapidly expanded enclaves on the southern coast beginning in the seventeenth century. By the onset of black rule in 1994, four-fifths of South Africa's population was black, over one-tenth was white, and the remaining people were either East Indian or of mixed heritage. One-fifth of the white and East Indian populations emigrated right away, and more continue to do so. Prosperity has declined for all except those persons connected with the rulers. Nevertheless, South Africa's modern infrastructure keeps it, by far, the continent's largest producer of goods and services. Peter Duignan and Lewis Gann's Hope for South Africa? (1991) gives an optimistic but fact-based argument for how South Africa might avoid the rest of the continent's fate.

The ocean defines the sides of the strawberry-shaped Indian subcontinent. The Himalayas are the roof. Its west shoulder is the dry valley of the Indus River, which leads south from the mountains to the Arabian Sea near Karachi. The east shoulder is the soggy valley of the Brahmaputra River, leading south from the mountains to the monsoon-swept Bay of Bengal near Calcutta. In that vast delta also ends the Ganges River, which starts near the Indus and flows eastward under the mountains, along a valley that defines the subcontinent's North. A vast range of hills occupies the subcontinent's middle, intersected by countless smaller valleys. The bulk of the subcontinent's 1.3 billion people live in these valleys and along the coast, where the other major cities are located.


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Table of Contents


The Stage and the Characters,
The International System in History,
The Instruments of Power,
Contemporary Geopolitics,
What Is All This to America—and to the Student of IR?,
Recommended Reading,

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