Bringing (inter)national history into ‘Introduction to International Relations’

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Author:
Andrew A. SzarejkoDonald R. Beall Defense Fellow, US Naval Postgraduate School and Non-residential fellow, US Military Academy's Modern War Institute andrewszarejko@gmail.com

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Abstract

Many introductory courses in International Relations (IR) dedicate some portion of the class to international history. Such class segments often focus on great-power politics of the twentieth century and related academic debates. In this essay, I argue that these international history segments can better engage students by broadening the histories instructors present and by drawing on especially salient histories such as those of the country in which the course is being taught. To elaborate on how one might do this, I discuss how US-based courses could productively examine the country's rise to great-power status. I outline three reasons to bring this topic into US-based introductory IR courses, and I draw on personal experience to provide a detailed description of the ways one can do so.

Every instructor's Introduction to International Relations (IR) course differs somewhat from other versions of this same course. From the means of student assessment to the assigned readings, there are many ways in which the details of this course vary.1 It is relatively common, however, for introductory IR courses to include a segment on international history. After early sessions that familiarise students with basic concepts and perspectives on IR, there are often multiple class sessions that use aspects of recent world history to demonstrate how IR scholars attempt to explain such events. Such segments – especially in the United States – frequently start with the origins of World War I and continue through the end of the Cold War. A recent study, for example, finds that World War I, World War II, and the Cold War are among the ten ‘most common empirical topics’ listed in a sample of forty-eight introductory syllabi (Knight 2019: 219).2

I argue, however, that academics who teach Introduction to IR courses ought to broaden the scope of these international history segments while tailoring them to the country in which they are teaching. While this could focus on various national histories in their global contexts, I focus here on what this might look like in the United States by outlining my approach to bringing the rise of the United States to great-power status into my own introductory IR classes. That is, if the typical starting point for discussions of international history in US-based Introduction to IR classes is 1898 or 1914, we could productively start much earlier. I begin with an argument as to why instructors ought to incorporate national histories in this way, and I then outline three reasons to bring the rise of the United States into Introduction to IR. Based on my own teaching experience, I then provide a detailed description of the teaching resources, materials, and methods that one might use to do so. I also address two important concerns: (1) that adding more course content focused on US experiences might worsen existing biases; and (2) that the rise of the United States would be better situated in more advanced courses.

Engaging students on their own terms

Engaging our students – fostering their active participation in the classroom rather than treating students as passive recipients of knowledge – is fundamental to their intellectual growth. Indeed, while there remains debate over how to define and assess ‘student engagement,’ many variants of this admonition are evident in the literature on teaching and learning. Such calls for student engagement are manifest in Paulo Freire's ambition to craft a liberatory pedagogy ‘with, not for, the oppressed’ (1970 [2018]: 48) [original emphasis] and in more recent calls for instructors to act as a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’ (Johnson et al. 1991: 81), to give students ‘as much control over their own education as possible’ (Bain 2004: 35), and to provide ‘intellectual and emotional availability’ to our students (Schwartz 2019: 15). This might involve instructor practices like sending a welcome email before the start of the semester, writing a syllabus with inclusive language, providing personalised feedback on assignments, and so on (Damron and Mott 2005; Glazier 2021). Moreover, as I focus on here, the course material itself can promote student engagement by connecting to their past experiences and present concerns (Ettinger 2020, 348–349). All else equal, it will be harder to engage students with readings, lectures and discussions on topics entirely unfamiliar to them or of unclear relevance to their lives, especially if one happens to be teaching amid a pandemic or a similarly disruptive event that presents students with higher levels of stress than usual (Ba 2021; Szarejko forthcoming).

In the interest of student engagement, I posit that it is reasonable to design course content on the assumption that those studying in a given country will have some inherent interest in that country. In some fields, this may not have substantial implications for course design, but in Political Science, the country in which we are teaching can serve as a sort of baseline for the students. Indeed, in many countries, Political Science has an entire subfield oriented around the politics of that country – this is not particular to the United States (Garand et al. 2009). In other subfields, however, there are various ways in which the host country might shape course content. Here I develop my argument by focusing on the subfield in which I have done the most teaching – IR.

What constitutes IR as a discipline or as a subfield of Political Science? This is one of the key questions an instructor faces when teaching Introduction to IR, and for many instructors, three basic elements (in varying proportions) often serve to answer this question for students. First, there is in IR as a set of conceptual debates focused on power relationships in world politics (Guzzini 2001). Is the world a realm of anarchy or hierarchy? Either way, how do polities navigate the world's myriad pressures? What constitutes ‘power’ in world politics, and how do states pursue it? Second, there is IR as a lens through which to make sense of international history (Knight 2019). Why did World War I occur? World War II? Why was there no World War III? Is there any one theory that has transhistorical applicability? Third, there is IR as ongoing international practices – as ‘current events’ or ‘contemporary issues’, as one might label such a section on a syllabus (Dayal and Musgrave 2018). If the subject is constituted in part by a certain way of looking at international history, then ‘current events’ are simply the most recent or ongoing events on which we can tentatively bring established debates and approaches to bear. In tailoring course content to the context in which one is teaching, however, instructors of introductory IR classes can most readily connect to shared student interest in their host country in the second and third aspects of the course. Below I offer a detailed example of one way that instructors might do so in the United States – by bringing early US history into a discipline that has largely focused on more recent history.

Bringing the rise of the United States into Introduction to IR

To the extent that introductory IR classes based in the United States offer an overview of international history, these sessions often focus on the twentieth century. More specifically, as Sarah C. Knight's (2019) analysis suggests, these classes often draw on prominent disciplinary debates on World War I, World War II, and the end of the Cold War. I am not proposing that instructors do away with discussions of those important events and their attendant debates. Rather, I am suggesting that instructors can productively explore a broader swath of international history in Introduction to IR, and they can start by drawing on histories most likely to engage their students. Here I draw on my own teaching experience to make the case that Introduction to IR classes can, for example, use the rise of the United States – or more specifically, the period between 1783 and 1898 that is often overlooked in IR – to enrich student experiences. I elaborate here on three reasons why this particular topic is well-suited for an introductory IR class.

First, this topic can serve to dispel widespread myths about US history. US engagements in the Spanish-American War or in World War I are sometimes used to denote the time when the United States took its first steps on to the world stage, and while those are surely important points in the history of US foreign policy, students may infer that they can safely ignore the first century or so of US history when their instructors do the same. Indeed, they may fill in the blanks with reductive but widespread narratives that separate US foreign policy into ‘isolationist’ and ‘internationalist’ periods (Dunn 2005: 253). Rather, in framing early US history in IR classes, instructors might draw on Hilde E. Restad's (2012: 58) argument that the isolationist/internationalist dichotomy in framing US foreign policy does not get the history right and ought to be replaced with a narrative that foregrounds ‘steady unilateral exceptionalism’ with increasing capabilities helping to explain how that manifests differently over time.

Second, studying this period offers instructors the chance to bring historically marginalised groups and under-studied topics into IR. Such topics – especially Native dispossession and resistance (Szarejko 2021; Wadsworth 2014) and Black liberation struggles (Anievas et al. 2015; Koomen 2019) – can provide students with historical context and new ways of thinking about the current questions of race, identity and social justice that students so often want to discuss (Bunte 2019; Towler et al. 2020). In other words, a seemingly familiar history can be used to expose students to a broader range of actors than they might expect to encounter in an IR class and to challenge biases in the discipline (Cook 2019). A session on the rise of the United States, in short, can show students that IR can take marginalised peoples seriously as political actors, and it can promote reflection on the issues that political leaders and activists face in seeking to remedy that marginalisation (Marineau 2019).

Third, the rise of the United States can provide students with a helpful case with which to compare other rising powers. It is now common in Introduction to IR, for example, to spend some time on the ‘rise of China’ and its implications for world politics.3 Unfortunately, it is often the case that students will not have studied the rise of any other country in depth to that point in the course. Perhaps earlier sessions will have made mention of the rise and decline of great powers, the tensions that such transitions can inspire, and the ways that rising and declining powers respond to those tensions (Goddard 2018; MacDonald and Parent 2018; Shifrinson 2018). Even if students heard about such dynamics, however, it is unlikely that they explored the rise or decline of any given state in great depth. Examining the rise of the United States can allow for more sustained student engagement with the expansion of one particular state – one that will be relatively familiar to most students at US-based institutions – and this offers students an important comparison when they later encounter debates on Chinese government intentions and capabilities (Buzan and Cox 2013). The likely long-term importance of the US–China relationship should give IR scholars all the more reason to teach their introductory students about the rise of both states.

Principles to practice

Even if one is convinced of the merits of bringing the rise of the United States into Introduction to IR in US-based institutions, this would be a new topic to teach for many IR scholars, which would present immediate practical questions. How should IR scholars teach this subject, especially given the lack of significant disciplinary debate on any particular event in this period? When I first taught this subject, I used a traditional lecture format that allowed for intermittent questions and discussion – I used more intensive active learning elements such as games, simulations, and small-group discussions during other sessions. But to offer a more detailed explanation of how one might approach this subject, I will describe the four main topics I covered in a session on the rise of the United States during a summer 2019 Introduction to IR course.4 I offer the following description not as a model to be replicated but as one example that I hope will inspire further experimentation among IR instructors.

I wanted to start this session by reminding students that the United States – like any polity – was not created ex nihilo. In focusing in particular on the British influence on early US institutions, I relied in large part on two readings. First, I used Sean Gailmard's (2017) article, ‘Building a new imperial state: The strategic foundations of separation of powers in America’, which uses a formal model to demonstrate that the separation of powers in the US system was borne of a British dilemma. Given that the Crown needed governors to administer their overseas colonies, how was it to prevent excessive rent extraction by these governors? The Crown's solution, Gailmard argues, was to create colonial legislative assemblies that would control budgets and taxation independent of the governor. The second reading on this topic, an excerpt (Chapter 1) from Julian Go's (2011) Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present, similarly makes the case that US institutions and behaviours look much like their British predecessors and that the United States replicated its imperial patterns as it expanded even while adjusting for somewhat different opportunity structures. Go, however, approaches the subject from a background in sociology, which helps illustrate to students that different methodological approaches can be similarly fruitful. Moreover, Go's explicit comparison of British and US practices helps to set up the question of whether the United States is indeed an empire – a question to which I will return.

The second topic I introduced was the question of why the United States deepened its union by abandoning the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution. Similar to the way that one might organise a discussion of the origins of World War I, I structured this segment around three perspectives in the literature, each associated with a different reading that I briefly described in class. First, Woody Holton (2007) argues that the reasons were primarily economic in nature. Political elites saw trade as the key to future US prosperity and therefore saw the individual states’ lax use of their tax and debt collection powers as a threat to the creditworthiness of the federal government. Second, Joseph M. Parent (2011) makes an explicitly realist argument. Voluntary unification for him is an extreme alliance, and only an ‘optimally intense, indefinite, symmetrically afflicting threat’ would suffice to induce such a sacrifice of autonomy; political elites, however, still need to persuade relevant domestic audiences of unification's necessity (2011: 4). Third, Paul Musgrave (n.d.) argues that it was neither economic nor security concerns that yielded unification. Rather, it was an institutional quirk of the Articles of Confederation. Because the Articles required unanimity and because the political elites who had qualms with the Articles could not arrive at consensus on limited reforms, elites instead crafted an entirely new system. Addressing this topic is helpful in encouraging students to rethink the boundary between ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ – a distinction, one might remind their students, that is integral to many understandings of IR while often being rather blurry in practice (McConaughey et al. 2018).

The third topic I introduced is one I have already noted – the question of whether the United States is an empire. If feasible given the class size, this may be a useful place to pause for discussion either by breaking the students into small groups or by asking the class as a whole to contribute to a conversation about what ‘empire’ means. Such a discussion can helpfully get students asking the same questions that IR scholars ask when talking about empire. Is ‘empire’ an analytically useful concept, and if so, how can empire be distinguished from other forms of governance? As previously noted, these are questions that a reading of Go (2011) should prompt for students, but when lecturing on this topic, I also relied on Daniel Nexon and Thomas Wright (2007) to describe different political orders and the ways that a polity might more or less closely approximate an empire. Indeed, such courses ought to directly address the American empire debate precisely because there is so much use of ‘empire’ language in popular discourse (Jackson and Nexon 2015) and in public-facing historical work (Immerwahr 2019; Nugent 2008). Discussions on this topic might ultimately distinguish between approaches that take a binary view (in assuming that polities are either imperial or not – typical of much popular conversation) and approaches that instead treat empire as a relational concept or ideal typical model that polities can approach to varying degrees (Doyle 1986; Harris 2017; Nexon and Wright 2007). I found it worthwhile to have this discussion before we arrived at later great-power politics – before we arrived at the Cold War and the rise of China. Having first discussed in abstract terms what constitutes ‘imperial’ political action, we were later able to have fruitful discussions about whether and to what extent modern state practices have been imperial.

Fourth and finally, I discussed the use of military force and occupations with a specific emphasis on America's ‘Indian Wars’ and Reconstruction. Within IR, there is much work on the questions of when the use of military force is most effective, what makes occupations more or less likely to succeed, and when states should use force in such ways (e.g., Edelstein 2008 and Morkevicˇius 2018). There remains relatively little work in IR, however, that uses early US history to address such topics, but this offers an opportunity. To the extent that there is work of this sort in IR, much of it is quite recent (e.g., Chacón and Jensen 2020; Pampinella 2021), and exposing students to the latest research can provide them with a vivid sense of where the field is going and what work they might be able to do if they want to conduct research. In my sessions on the rise of the United States, for example, I have used work by Megan Stewart and Karin Kitchens (2021) to discuss the political effects of military occupations and as well as work by Paul Frymer (2017), Eric Grynaviski (2018), and Richard Maass (2020) to detail the process of US territorial expansion.5 Discussing topics such as these allowed me to again draw attention to the blurry line between ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ affairs, and these topics can lead to a provocative question for discussion – why is it that so much IR scholarship has ignored early US history (or early modern history writ large) in the construction and testing of theory?6

Caveats and conclusions

I conclude by offering responses to two potential concerns. First, one might be concerned that IR already focuses on the United States to a great extent; perhaps we ought not to skew introductory courses even further in that direction (Maliniak et al. 2018). I would respond in two ways. First, as others have argued with reference to research in the field, the focus on the United States in IR scholarship is ‘not especially outsized when its large population, economy, and its extensive history of participation in interstate wars are taken into account’ (Hendrix and Vreede 2019: 319). I would make a similar assertion with respect to pedagogy in IR – frequent attention to the United States may not be ‘especially outsized,’ and bringing US history more fully into US-based classes may enhance student engagement while also informing an introductory class in the ways I have previously suggested. There may even be civic value in bringing national histories into Introduction to IR given the limited exposure most students receive to substantive histories of their home country prior to college (Szarejko and Carnes 2018; Westheimer and Kahne 2004). Second, I would reiterate that bringing national histories into the IR classroom can serve to diversify the sources and topics students encounter. When engaging with international history, many IR classes focus on events or issues around which there are well-established lines of debate, but this can obscure the extent to which the composition and focus of IR as a field is diversifying and bringing a wider historical lens to bear on long-standing questions.

A second concern one might raise is that the topics I have advocated for teaching in Introduction to IR are better left for higher-level classes on US foreign policy. I would agree that advanced undergraduate courses on US foreign policy should indeed cover some of the topics I have discussed if they do not already do so. But my argument for bringing the rise of the United States – or similar national histories (Darwich et al. 2020) – into introductory classes rests on the fact that not every student will continue to study IR or Political Science thereafter. Students with majors outside of Political Science may only take an introductory course to fulfil general education requirements, and students within the major might decide to switch majors or opt to take higher-level classes in a different subfield. Their varying experiences in the discipline will depend in part on ‘sparking curiosity’ at the introductory stage, and encounters with resonant histories may help in doing so (Ettinger 2020: 348). Moreover, not all departments have the resources to routinely offer advanced courses on US foreign policy. Given these realities, I believe it is worth covering the rise of the United States in US-based Introduction to IR classes or similarly extending one's engagement with international history depending on the context in which you are teaching.

In summary, I argue that there are good reasons to broaden the histories we bring into Introduction to IR classes and to focus on those histories that will be most salient and engaging to our students. In US-based classes, instructors may thus incorporate the rise of the United States into Introduction to IR, and I have described some resources, materials and methods on how to teach this topic. When students enter a classroom for Introduction to IR, many of them will be encountering the academic field of IR for the first time. For some, it will also be the last time they engage with the field. Regardless of any given student's subsequent experiences, I believe that our students will be better off if we expose them to the histories that will best help them to understand the field itself as well as their own place in the history of world politics.

Acknowledgements

I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Andrew O. Bennett, David M. Edelstein, Charles King, Daniel H. Nexon, and the staff of the Georgetown University Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, all of whom significantly shaped the teaching experience I describe in this essay. I would also like to acknowledge the students in my summer Introduction to International Relations classes who helped create a stimulating environment in which to teach this subject both in-person and online.

Notes

1

One such difference is the title of the course. By referring to ‘Introduction to IR’ here, I do not mean to dismiss similar courses that are instead labelled as introductions to, e.g., ‘World Politics’ or ‘International Studies,’ labels that sometimes indicate broader or more critical approaches to the field.

2

The Cold War is the most common empirical topic, whereas World War One takes third place, and World War Two ties with ‘US Hegemony’ for eighth place.

3

The rise of China ranks fourth in Knight's (2019: 219) list of the most frequently taught ‘empirical topics’ in introductory IR courses.

4

I also taught this topic in two asynchronous online summer courses in 2020 and one partly asynchronous, partly synchronous online summer course in 2021. While the mode of delivery was different – I condensed my lectures, for example – the content was similar.

5

While the article by Stewart and Kitchens was not published until 2021, I drew on their insights starting in my 2019 class with reference to a publicly available version at the following address: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3223825. With respect to Maass (2020), I discussed that book in my summer 2020 and 2021 classes but not in 2019.

6

There are, of course, exceptions to this pattern, many of which can be found in the writings of scholars who describe their work as constituting ‘Historical International Relations’ (de Carvalho et al. 2021).

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  • Szarejko, A. A. (2021), ‘Do accidental wars happen? Evidence from America's Indian Wars,’ Journal of Global Security Studies 6, no. 4. https://doi.org/10.1093/jogss/ogaa030.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Szarejko, A. A., (ed.) (forthcoming), Pandemic Pedagogy: Teaching International Relations amid COVID-19 (London: Palgrave Macmillan).

  • Szarejko, A. A. and Matthew E. Carnes (2018) ‘Assessing an undergraduate curriculum: The evolving roles of subfields, methods, ethics, and writing for government majors’, PS: Political Science & Politics 51, no. 1: 178182. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096517001901.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Towler, C. C., N. N. Crawford and R. A. Bennett (2020), ‘Shut up and play: Black athletes, protest politics, and Black political action,’ Perspectives on Politics 18, no. 1: 111127. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592719002597.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wadsworth, N. D. (2014), ‘Unsettling lessons: Teaching indigenous politics and settler colonialism in Political Science’, PS: Political Science & Politics 47, no. 3: 692697. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096514000857.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Westheimer, J. and J. Kahne (2004), ‘Educating the ‘good’ citizen: Political choices and pedagogical goals’, PS: Political Science and Politics 37, no. 2: 241247. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096504004160.

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Contributor Notes

Andrew A. Szarejko is a Donald R. Beall Defense Fellow in the Defense Analysis Department at the US Naval Postgraduate School and a non-residential fellow at the US Military Academy's Modern War Institute. He received his PhD from Georgetown University, and his research focuses on political violence in US relations with Native nations. He has served as the teaching editor for H-Diplo since 2019, and among other scholarly and public-facing works, he is the editor of a forthcoming volume with Palgrave Macmillan, Pandemic Pedagogy: Teaching International Relations amid COVID-19. Email: andrewszarejko@gmail.com

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Learning and Teaching

The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences

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    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Szarejko, A. A. (2021), ‘Do accidental wars happen? Evidence from America's Indian Wars,’ Journal of Global Security Studies 6, no. 4. https://doi.org/10.1093/jogss/ogaa030.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Szarejko, A. A., (ed.) (forthcoming), Pandemic Pedagogy: Teaching International Relations amid COVID-19 (London: Palgrave Macmillan).

  • Szarejko, A. A. and Matthew E. Carnes (2018) ‘Assessing an undergraduate curriculum: The evolving roles of subfields, methods, ethics, and writing for government majors’, PS: Political Science & Politics 51, no. 1: 178182. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096517001901.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Towler, C. C., N. N. Crawford and R. A. Bennett (2020), ‘Shut up and play: Black athletes, protest politics, and Black political action,’ Perspectives on Politics 18, no. 1: 111127. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592719002597.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wadsworth, N. D. (2014), ‘Unsettling lessons: Teaching indigenous politics and settler colonialism in Political Science’, PS: Political Science & Politics 47, no. 3: 692697. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096514000857.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Westheimer, J. and J. Kahne (2004), ‘Educating the ‘good’ citizen: Political choices and pedagogical goals’, PS: Political Science and Politics 37, no. 2: 241247. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096504004160.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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