So what is international relations anyway?

Dr. Barry Ryan
Lecturer in International Relations – SPIRE


People often go quiet when you tell them you study international relations. It seems something vast and impossible. Bad enough they think trying to work out the politics of the country but the politics of the entire world!  A taxi driver in Dublin once asked if I knew the names of the prime minister and president in every country. He then proceeded to name out as many as he could remember. Taxi drivers in Dublin spend a lot of time on their own listening to the news and are famous for being garrulous know-alls. When he had finally exhausted his list – it included Stalin, Ronald Reagan, Maggie Thatcher and George Bush Jr. – I admitted that he did far better than I would have done. Not only did he do better by being able to name more statesmen and women than I but he also gave the exercise a degree of absurdity that I would never have thought of including.

Those who study international relations are constantly faced with trying to understand the absurdity of the world. It is a tragic absurdity but nevertheless world politics confounds rational analysis. It happens in a vast deep wide space and it distorts time, plays with logic and haunts our dreams of the future. In short, international relations is a great drama. Had I the opportunity to relive that Dublin taxi ride and have the perfect retort to his famous list I would tell him that international relations is the study of real drama. War, death, disease, genocide and raw power are the celebrities in the big brother we watch when we read our books and evaluate its episodes in our discussions. But the true absurdity of it all comes in the way we try to deny the fact that we are the big brother; that we are participants in the show that we are watching, We are picking our winners and losers, empathizing with some and not with others. We are distant observers but we are also politically a part of the drama, And so international relations is not only about so called ISIS, Cameron and Putin and Assad, it’s truly about everything and how every human on earth experiences this everything, Absurd, as I said.

Prior to being a lecturer in IR I worked for a number of years in Namibia as a development worker. Namibia made me fascinated by international relations. It gave me the necessary curiosity. And, as though in a film, this fascination happened on the very first day I landed. Besides the tangible heat and the gorgeously alien smell of desert, the most striking memory of Namibia occurred during a meal on my first night in a village called Omaruru. The mayor had invited me to dinner but not in an official capacity – she was a friend of a friend. It was September 1997, and Lady Diana the Princess of Wales was being buried on live TV. There was I thousands of miles from home, on the edge of Namib Desert, south western Africa, and my hosts were utterly transfixed by the images on the television coming from London. Here I stood amongst them, wanting to learn about Africa and all I could see was it staring back at my culture. In the mayor’s sitting room, with her husband and children I stood watching the drama and taking part at the same time. This then is what international relations is all about. It’s the sifting through the most extreme, banal and ridiculous events that are never as distant as they appear. It’s the realization that these events are specific and unique, and that the patterns we draw to give them sense come from our own experiences and expectations. If international relations asks us to do anything, it asks that we try to expand our horizons, to think in a way we haven’t tried before in order to try to understand what is happening. It’s about much more than presidents and prime ministers.

Today I am rewriting last years lecture notes.  Looking at them I marvel at how much has changed in a year. Who knows what’s going to happen in the next? Who knows what events will anger us or make us feel sad? What’s going to happen? What wars revolutions, natural disasters or peace treaties are going to attract our attention, change our lives, change the way we see our lives?

Most probably, only a Dublin taxi driver could tell.


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