Foreign Policy: 10 Things Future Wonks Should Know As students are heading back to school, Stephen M. Walt of Foreign Policy has some advice about what to study if you're aiming for a career in international affairs.
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Foreign Policy: 10 Things Future Wonks Should Know

In this photo from 1938 undergraduates of Oxford University walk to lectures, well equipped with books. Fox Photos/Getty Images hide caption

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Fox Photos/Getty Images

In this photo from 1938 undergraduates of Oxford University walk to lectures, well equipped with books.

Fox Photos/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

It's August, which means that students in America (and plenty of other places) are heading off to college for the first time. Some of them are undoubtedly thinking about preparing for careers in international affairs. As a public service to those eager future Secretaries of State (and the parents worrying about their college choices) here's my Top Ten Things that Future International Policy Wonks Should Learn.

1. History. Trying to understand international affairs without knowing history is like trying to cook without knowing the difference between flour and flounder. Not only does history provide the laboratory in which our basic theories must be tested, it shapes the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances and how they regard their relationship to others. How could one hope to understand the Middle East without knowing about the Ottoman Empire, the impact of colonialism, the role of Islam, the influence of European anti-Semitism and Zionism, or the part played by the Cold War? Similarly, how could one grasp the current complexities in Asia without understanding the prior relations between these nations and the different ways that Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Pashtuns, Hindus, Muslims, and others understand and explain past events?

But don't just memorize a lot of names and dates: seek out teachers who can help you think about the past in sophisticated ways. Among other things, it's useful to know how other societies see the past even if you don't agree with their interpretation, so make sure you read histories written by citizens of other countries. And if you're studying in the United States, don't just study "Western Civilization." The world is a lot bigger than that.

2. Statistics. Most high schoolers have to learn a certain amount of math, but unless you're going into a technical field, a lot of it won't be directly relevant to a career in international affairs. But statistics is part of the language of policy discourse, and if you don't understand the basics, you won't be a discerning consumer of quantitative information and others will be able to dazzle you with data that may not be right. You can avoid this fate with a little study.

3. Foreign Language. If you grew up outside the United States and are headed for college, you probably already speak more than one language. If you're an American, alas, you probably don't. You should. I know that everyone is learning English these days, but learning at least one foreign language provides a window into another culture that you can't get any other way, and also provides a sense of mastery and insight that is hard to achieve otherwise. I'm not particularly good at languages, but I'd gladly trade my mediocre abilities in French and German for real fluency in one of them (or many others). Don't make my mistake: get to the language lab and acquire some real skills.

4. Economics. Economists aren't the wizards they think they are (see under: 1929, 2007-08), but you can't understand world affairs these days if you don't have a basic grasp of the key principles of international trade and finance and some idea how the world economy actually works. I might add that some forms of economics (e.g., game theory) can provide some useful ways of thinking about strategic interaction, provided you don't push it too far. So take enough economics to be able to read the WSJ op-ed page and know when they are BS-ing you.

5. International Law. You might think that a realist like me would dismiss international law completely, but I took a course in the subject as an undergraduate and have always been grateful that I did. Among other things, it reaffirmed my suspicion that international law is a pretty weak instrument, especially when dealing with great powers. Nonetheless, states and other international actors use international law all of the time, and they certainly invoke it to try advance their own particular interests. So it's good to have some idea what international law is, how it works, and what it can and cannot do.

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