The Field of International Relations

International relations touch our lives daily as global markets, the World Wide Web, and foreign travel stimulate a flood of people, products, and ideas across national borders.

We have been shaped by the immigration that brought us to our current homes, ennobled by our efforts to help others through foreign aid and humanitarian missions, enriched by our exposure to foreign foods, music, dress and language, and tantalized by the prospect of traveling, working, studying, and living abroad. But while students of international relations study the processes that promise such enormous benefits, they also confront those that threaten grave destruction. Fast flying, highly accurate nuclear weapons and simple acts of terrorism have breached the state's ability to protect its citizens as never before. Resource depletion, disease and pollution recognize no national boundaries. Businesses face dangerous foreign competition as well as attractive foreign markets. The reality of an interdependent world is brought home to us every day as national economies respond to debt and instability elsewhere.

Both the problems and the prospects are beyond the ability of any one state, no matter how powerful, to address alone. But truly global problems -- planetary warming, economic instability, refugee relief, ethnic violence, international debt, and nuclear proliferation -- require cooperation and coordination not easy to sustain in a world of contrasting cultures, differing political systems and competitive nation states. Once, only a few cared to study these processes and their conflicting effects or to understand the special forces that surround efforts to shape the character of transactions that cross national borders. But international relations is no longer a remote abstraction that educated men and women can afford to ignore.

Today's world is the product of diverse global forces that are historical, political, economic, military, and social in nature. These same forces will shape the world we inhabit in the future -- and our knowledge of them will determine our place within that world. It follows that a systematic understanding of these forces, often summarized by the term "world politics", must be interdisciplinary in approach. The mission of the Department of International Relations is to provide students with the opportunity to investigate these themes. Because the sovereign state is the principal agent in world politics, the study of International Relations emphasizes themes from political science, but students who major in IR will be exposed to knowledge from history, economics, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy as well. While IR courses address these areas, our majors are encouraged to take additional classes in these disciplines.


Subfields of International Relations

The study of international relations can be organized within either geographical or theoretical categories. The approach designated by the term "area studies" focuses upon the foreign policies of individual nations and the interaction patterns that result within geographic regions. Students of Europe, for example, study European political and economic systems, together with the language, culture,and society of that region. The questions that preoccupy scholars who approach International Relations more theoretically are too numerous to list here, but IR students can expect to acquire a detailed knowledge of its major branches: international security, international political economy, international law and organizations and, especially, the international relations theory that holds it all together.

  • Students of international security strive to grasp the causes of war and the conditions of peace. They seek to understand regional, ethnic, and global conflicts by investigating the role of terrorism, ideological movements, ethnic groups, and the interaction of national foreign policies. They also try to prevent them by probing the dynamics of foreign policy decision making, diplomacy, arms control, and alliances.
  • International political economy examines the political dimensions of trade, finance, and development, emphasizing the interaction between business (especially multinational corporations) and government. It also examines the linkages between economic problems (such as poverty and unemployment) and political factors (such as democracy) as well as the ties between domestic and foreign policy.
  • Studying international organizations and law involves the role of international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank as well as non-governmental organizations ranging from the church to the Red Cross.


International Relations at Lehigh

International Relations is taught in most American universities as part of political science. Lehigh is among the few higher educational institutions in the US that has long had a separate department of IR. This means that students with a particular interest in international affairs will benefit from a concentrated program of study that few other schools offer. IR is not part of a larger intellectual enterprise for us -- it is the focal point of our teaching and research.

The expertise of Lehigh's eight-person IR Department covers all of the functional and theoretical areas of the field. The Department also has particular depth in certain geographical areas, namely, the post-Soviet states and the Middle East. By stressing the interplay between the functional and geographical areas, our curriculum offers students an education that combines theoretical sophistication with a substantive understanding of the world.

Our courses are designed to enable students to analyze problems in manner that is theoretically-informed and conceptually rigorous, to place current global problems in historical perspective, and to write, speak, and think with clarity and precision. These intellectual assets are essential to success in careers such as law, business, journalism, diplomacy, public service, and academics. Our majors have gone on to work in each one of these professions.


Career Planning

We are often asked about the employment prospects of student who major in International Relations. We take very seriously their questions regarding career planning.

While a degree in international relations does not lead to a specific career in the way that, for example, accounting or engineering does, a major in international relations, by emphasizing clarity in speech and writing, analytical skills and a detailed knowledge of world politics prepares students for careers in government, journalism, law, non-governmental organizations, international business, and teaching and research. Recent IR graduates currently work in all of these fields.  Some have gone directly into careers upon graduating; others have enrolled in graduate school prior to employment. 

The guide "Careers in International Relations" describes some of these these positions, how best to prepare for them, and the special opportunities avaialable to do so at Lehigh. For further career guidance, don't be afraid to ask questions of the faculty and other professionals such as the people at Career Services. The International Relations Commons Room (Maginnes Hall 203) has many additional sources of information.

Department of International Relations
Lehigh University • Maginnes Hall, 9 West Packer Avenue, Bethlehem, PA 18015 • (610) 758-3390
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