Monthly Archives: August 2012

Pedagogy: Using Film to Teach International Relations

Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove

For today’s millennial students, film can provide a powerful way to illustrate key themes in global politics. By getting students to apply the theories and ideas discussed in the classroom to fictional cases, students are encouraged to engage with the material in new ways. We move up Bloom’s taxonomy, away from simple remembering and understanding to higher order applying, analyzing, and evaluating. And importantly, using film can often bring a topic to life in a way that a traditional lecture might never achieve.

Alexander Spencer outlines four ways in which faculty can use film in the classroom: (1) to portray historical events; (2) to debate controversial issues in global politics, like terrorism and genocide; (3) to examine cultural narratives; and (4) to explain and critique IR theories. Each use has value.

The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers

Selecting the right film is obviously important. There are countless documentaries, but here I’m really interesting in thinking about fictional works. Blogging at Foreign Policy, both Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner each offer their top ten films on foreign policy. Interestingly, the two scholars share just two films on their top ten lists: Cassablanca, which provides outstanding insights into resistance and colonialism, and Dr. Strangelove, the classic parody of cold war nuclear strategy. Fred Kaplan at Slate Magazine provides a longer list that covers some surprising oversights from Walt and Drezner—films like The Godfather, Burn!, Goodbye Lenin!, and High Noon. And Although somewhat dated now, Robert Gregg’s text International Relations on Film (Lynne Rienner Press, 1998), provides and extensive bibliography of films with IR themes. Collectively, the three lists provide a veritable who’s who of films on IR.

However, knowing which film to show is different from knowing how to show a film. Simply walking into the classroom and starting the movie is rarely an effective way to ensure student engagement. Students may enjoy the movie, but are they learning what you want them to learn? Are they engaging? Are they merely watching, or are they thinking?

Before selecting the film, think about what you are hoping to achieve. Which concepts or ideas are you hoping to illustrate? What learning outcomes are you hoping to achieve? You should also start thinking now about how you will measure those outcomes. How will you know if your students have learned what you hoped they would learn? What activity will you use to measure their understanding and engagement? And how will you integrate the film into the rest of your course content? You should also think about whether or not you need to show the film in its entirety. Can you achieve your goal by selectively utilizing shorter clips from the film(s)?

Before you show the film to your students, you should prepare them. Simply turning the movie on will ensure your students merely watch the movie without engaging with it. Ask your students what they already know about the film, if anything. Explain why you are showing the film. Tell them about the ideas or concepts that will be illustrated in the film. For some films, you may also need to provide some historical background to the events portrayed in the film. The Battle of Algiers is much more engaging (not to mention understandable) if students have some context for French colonialism and the anticolonial movement in Algeria.
You may consider providing a handout to your students, giving them a specific task to complete while watching the film. Perhaps you ask them to follow a specific character, look for examples of a specific theme or theory, or identify a specific event. Providing a handout to your students also signals that this will not merely be a time away from teaching, but that they are expected to follow and engage with the film.

After the film, be sure to have some kind of debriefing. You may want to provide the students with an opportunity to come to terms with their own ideas and understandings before moving to a more general class discussion (think-pair-share is useful for this). Alternatively, if you lack the time to have a debriefing immediately after the film, you could ask them to provide a written reaction to the film by the start of the next class, and then hold a short discussion to start your next class period. If you ask students for a reflection paper, it is important that you provide a response prompt that focuses the paper on the course material you hope to explore. Failing to do so, you will likely receive many papers in which students discuss whether or not they liked the movie.

How do you use films in the IR classroom? What films have you found effective? Please share your experience.

The Politics of States and Nations

Members of the Somali Parliament Meet at the Mogadishu Airport.

Members of the Somali Parliament Meet at the Mogadishu Airport.

Monday marked the first official meeting of the Somali Parliament in more than two decades. The new parliament replaces the internationally-backed transition government, which had been forced to meet in neighboring Kenya due to political unrest in Somalia. The new parliament is not necessary a democratic institution. Its members were selected by clan chiefs and tribal leaders under rules laid out by international observers. It is hoped that the new institution will be more stable and less vulnerable to corruption than previous governments.

The status of the Somali government does raise some interesting questions, illustrating the challenges of understanding states, nations, governments, and sovereignty in global politics. Recall that in international relations, a state is normally defined as a territorial entity with both a population and a government. Ideally, that government should possess sovereign control (supreme decision making authority) and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within that physical territory. Canada, the United States, and China are all examples. Each has a government capable of making legitimate and binding decisions for a population in a given territory.

However, in many cases, the ability of the state to make such decisions becomes less clear. In the case of Somalia, for example, the internationally-recognized government was not even able to operate within the boundaries of the country. Its authority was contested by warlords and pirates, who claimed supremacy over specific regions of the country. Even today, the reach of the Somali government is largely confined to the capital, Mogadishu, and the ability of the government to enforce its decisions is contingent on the African Union peacekeeping forces in the country.

This illustrates the contested nature of sovereignty in global politics. While the formal defining of sovereignty is easy to state in theory, its application in practice becomes much less clear.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Somali government is able to meet in Somalia at all is a clear indication of progress. For too long, the country has effectively been lawless, leading to domestic conflict between warlords and international tensions as pirates attack international shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live. Good luck!

The Strange Case of Julian Assange

Julian Assange addresses supporters from the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

Julian Assange addresses supporters from the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

A little over a week ago, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was granted asylum in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Assange had been slated for deportation to Sweden on charges of sexual assault. Assange is, of course, most well-known for his role as the head of Wikileaks, an organization that rose to prominence after it leaked more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables covering a wide range of topics in 2010.

The decision of the government of Ecuador to grant Assange asylum raises some interesting questions in international law. Traditionally, diplomatic missions are considered extraterritorial; that is, they are exempt from the jurisdiction of local law enforcement. While not necessarily considered the sovereign territory of the represented state (as is often incorrectly depicted in films and television), diplomatic missions nevertheless enjoy a special status which preclude local law enforcement officials from entering without the consent of the controlling state.

This status, afforded by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, means that embassies are sometimes used by individual seeking to escape from the host country. In April 2012, for example, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng was granted asylum in the US Embassy in Beijing, sparking a diplomatic row between the Chinese and US governments. In 2010, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri sought refuge in the Pakistani embassy in Washington DC, claiming he had been kidnapped from Iran by covert US forces. Eventually he was returned to Iran.

Assange’s case follows in this tradition. While he faces criminal charges in Sweden, Assange maintains that those charges are politically motivated, resulting from his decision to leak classified US documents. Assange believes that if he is deported to Sweden, he will ultimately be departed to the United States, where he could ultimately face the death penalty on charges arising from the Wikileaks case. British officials have refused to permit Assange transit under Ecuadoran diplomatic cover, effectively confining him to the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

Even without violating the Vienna Convention, Britain has several options. Under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1987, the government of the United Kingdom could revoke the Ecuadoran Embassy’s diplomatic status, potentially permitting police to enter the premises and arrest Assange. The British government, however, would likely not want to undertake this dramatic course of action. The Act was originally passed in response to the 1984 Libyan Embassy crisis, when a British police officer was shot and killed by a bullet fired from inside the Libyan Embassy in London.

A far more likely course of action, however, is that the British government will continue to maintain officers outside the Ecuadoran Embassy, patiently waiting for Assange to come out. Diplomatic immunity does not extent to Assange outside of the Ecuadoran Embassy, so ironically he remains free only so long as he stays inside the Embassy itself. And in case you’re wondering, that can be a long time. Cardinal József Mindszenty sought political asylum in the US Embassy in Budapest following the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. The Soviet-backed Hungarian government refused to permit him to leave the country. As a result, he lived in the US Embassy in Budapest from 1956 until 1971, when he was permitted to leave the country for exile in Austria. Whether or not the Assange case will stretch out that long remains to be seen.

What do you think? Should the government of Ecuador have granted Assange asylum? Should the United Kingdom maintain a wait-and-see approach to the case? Or is more dramatic action called for? And if the United Kingdom entered the embassy without Ecuador’s permission, how would that decision affect other embassies and diplomatic staff around the world?

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live. Good luck!

Making Progress on Conflict Resources

Open Pit Mine Workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Open Pit Mine Workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

A 2012 column by New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof drew national attention to the problem of conflict resources. We had long been familiar with blood diamonds—diamonds mined from conflict zones and sold to finance civil wars and militias—in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia. Indeed, in response to popular outcry, the diamond industry in 2003 agreed to establish the Kimberley Process, which was intended to prevent conflict diamonds from entering global diamond markets, thereby depriving them of their value.

Although certainly far from perfect, the Kimberley Process illustrates the possibility of pressure by nongovernmental organizations in affecting the development of international regimes. In the case of the Kimberley Process, consumer groups and various human rights NGOs were able to convince diamond retailers that the value of their product would be negatively affected by its association with violence and civil war (hence term “blood diamond”). This led to the creation of a voluntary certification scheme instituted by diamond traders.

More recently, other conflict resources have garnered increased attention. Last year, Oxfam used the term “blood chocolate” to draw attention to human rights violations by cocoa producers in the Ivory Coast. And several groups have called used the term “blood phones” and “conflict minerals” to highlight the human rights violations and the sale of resources mined by militia groups to finance conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 5.4 million people have died as a result of war-related causes, including disease and malnutrition, since 1998.

Much like the agreement with the Kimberley Process, though, some progress is being made. The Enough Project on Thursday released a report congratulating several electronics manufacturers, including Intel, HP, Dell, Microsoft, and Apple, on progress made in their efforts to trace the source of metals used in their products, but noting that much work remained to be done.

This process would allow them to certify resources sourced from countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo as “conflict free.” The DR Congo is the world’s primary producer of tantalum, a key component in the production of microprocessors, and is also a major world supplier for tungsten, tin and other important mineral resources. And rules included in financial reform legislation passed by the US Congress in 2010 would require companies to disclose whether they source minerals from conflict zones. Interestingly, students have been at the heart of the movement to require certification of minerals sourced from conflict zones.

What do you think? Should companies be required to certify their goods are not produced from resources sourced from conflict zones? Would you be willing to pay more for cell phones and other consumer electronics that were certified conflict free? Should the market decide? Or should government regulation mandate conflict-free production?

Pedagogy: The First Day of Class

As the summer days draw shorter, our thought inevitably turn to the start of a new term. We spend time perfecting our syllabi, selecting readings and assignments, and developing or revising lectures. But often we neglect to think about our first day of class—until the first day of class! It’s important to remember that the first day of class will set the tone for the entire term. Too often, we waste the first day of the new term (and set the wrong tone for the rest of the course) by simply handing out and reviewing the syllabus, and then sending students on their way.

Consider instead including a discussion or activity that gets your students involved from the very beginning of the course. Research suggests that students who participate in class discussion early in the semester are more likely to continue participation throughout the semester. Conversely, students who do not participate in the course within the first two weeks of the semester are unlikely to ever participate in class discussion. Possible activities could include:

Important Events: Dividing students into small groups and asking them to identity the ten most important historical events related to your course. For example, in an introduction to international relations course, you might ask for the ten most important events in global politics, while in a course on the European Union you might ask for the ten most important events in modern European political history. Once each group has identified and ranked their ten events, you could also have class discussion where the class comes to agreement on the rankings.

Survey: Conduct an opinion survey related to the course content. I regularly use a survey I developed based on the global futures survey to get a sense of preconceptions held by the class. This way, I know if the course is comprised primarily of realists or liberals, optimists or pessimists. I also get a sense of their general interests, whether they are more interested in the economic or security side of global politics, what they think are the most pressing issues in global politics, and so on. I share the general results in the next class period, and I am able to refer back to the survey regularly throughout the course.

Break It Down: Select a recent news story and ask students in small groups to explain the driving forces behind the event. For example, you might provide students with a copy of a recent BBC story on Syria, and ask them to try and figure out why the British government is providing aid to Syrian opposition forces. Give them time to piece it together, then ask each group to offer their explanation. As they present their ideas, you can explain how the various themes they are raising (though likely without the specific knowledge and vocabulary) will be explored later in the course.

No matter what you decide to do with your first day, be sure to provide an opportunity for students to ask questions of you. And remember that the most important thing is to generate the excitement and high level of expectations that will carry throughout the semester. As elsewhere in life, you only get one opportunity to make a first impression. Make your first day count!