The course, ‘SSA3044 Contemporary Issues in International Relations’ is a program course designated for WA15 International Studies’ students to complete during their third year (either during its semester 1 or semester 2 under new policy). This course was designed to achieve four learning objectives (LO), so that by the end of the course, the students will be able to:
LO1: discuss the pertinent contemporary issues in international relations. C4
LO2: identify the role of actors and factors leading to the issues. P3
LO3: critically study the short and long terms solution of contemporary issues in international
LO4: analyse through research and case study the challenges of the selected global issues.
Since it is a course to be completed during student’s final year of their degree program, students will thus inevitably find the subject matters and topics covered in this course echoes with other courses throughout their degree program, and occasionally, to the extent of severe overlapping. Thus, lecturer may not need to worry higher-level lecture might be too profound for student to understand. Such courses are referring as:
Course code and name
International Politics of Asia Pacific
Arms Race and Nuclear Weapons (or Weapon of Mass Destruction, WMD)
Security and National Defence
War and Violence; Terrorism; and Nationalism
Introduction to International Laws
Human Rights; Human Rights Law
Sociology of Development
Environment and Population Growth; Gender and Politics (Women and Development WAD, Women and Development WID etc.)
Environmental issues (transboundary environmental issues, actors in the issues)
Politics of Developing Countries
Core-Periphery relations; Nationalism and Ethnic conflicts
The author of this reflection paper completing this course on his 7th and his final semester in his degree (the conventional flows was disrupted due to a semester of outgoing oversea exchange). Hence most topics being covered in the course were not entirely new to the author. Therefore, this reflection paper is centred on summary and recommendation on the lectures and assessments of this course, based on the observation and perspective of the author.
Reflection from the Lectures
Lectures of the course started on 11 September 2017 with an introduction to course overview. The lectures then lasted for the next 12 weeks. Here is the overall review of author for the course. The author views that, it is essential to increase the level of intellectual and academic components throughout the lectures as it be too low now for International Relations students, who are already close from their graduation. Go back to the fundamental basic of the course- its name, are we fall into the trap of discussing contemporary issues at international level instead of international relations level? And what could have differentiated an International Relations-specified lecture from a public lecture at tertiary education level?
Improvement can be made by providing relevant, insightful, well-elaborated, and detailed examples. Previous lectures were also predominantly emphasising on definitional and descriptive aspects as its fulcrum. While the two aspects are crucial, it might had however resulted in shrinking of ground which will be constructive for the development of analytic and applicative skills among students. One recommendation to consider is to start each lecture with a news (maybe by showing news headline or photo from the web browser for bigger impact), with or without relating to the topic of the day, and then leave an open-ended question for student to bring back home. The aim is to enhance critical thinking skill and cultivate student’s interest toward contemporary development around the globe.
Moving toward the weekly lecture, the 1st topic being covered was International Relations Perspectives. Reflecting upon the course content, modernisation and globalisation has intensified the blurriness of boundary in term of sovereign, economic and sociocultural borders; and thus, global interactions are promoted (e.g. Schengen Agreement of European Union, daily massive amount of movement across Malaysia-Singapore customs and global cyberspace). Such nature is the key element in understanding the conduct of international relations among diverse actors in the contemporary era. However, the effort on the discussion of theories (idealism, realism, liberalism and constructivism) was not concrete. As this chapter should be more than the revision of knowledge familiar to us but important foundation instead so that student might perform better in their Project (20%) assessment which train students based on all four Learning Objectives (LO). Although it is evident that student came out with creative topics for their projects, the intellectual level is less encouraging for batch of student who are graduating. It might have association with relatively weak foundation on theories. Quality of the work depend on student’ capability to utilize theories in explaining social realities, in which each theory varies from their identification of actors, conception of human nature, values, vision of ideal polity, strategy of action, political tactics.
In the next topic, we learnt about Just War Theory. The lecture and its mini assignment had provided fertile ground for us to rethink the justification of a just war and the framing of violence. Nevertheless, we might had overemphasised on ‘justice’, the one, but not the only element in Just War Theory. It will be beneficial if we manage to cover three foundational components of Just War Theory: Jus Ad Bellum (going to war), Jus in Bello (during the war), and Jus Post Bellum (after the war). Human rights issue (which has linkage with latter lecture) like the treatment of Prisoner of War (POW) and the dilemma of retribution versus rehabilitation proposition in Jus Post Bellum can be topic of discussion if time is allocated to lecture on the three components. It will be equally beneficial if we can compare the theory side by side with the cases like Gulf and Bosnian Wars to identify the gap between theory and practice. To make the tutorial more interesting, we can have a discussion on ‘the justifiable proportionality of means’ simulating a war outbreak in Korean Peninsula. Moreover, to enhance understanding of the students, it will be helpful to have readings on selected topics which including the topic on Just War Theory, as it is a specific topic.
The 3rd topic covered in this course was ‘Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict’. Contrary to the belief of certain people, author do not agree that nationalism is an ideology. Nationalism does not comprehensive worldview in contrast to liberalism and conservatism. Since nationalism, normatively speaking, can be fit into many rivalry contexts of both progressive or reactionary; democratic or authoritarian; rational or irrational; left-wing or right-wing, it is obvious that it does not have well-articulated principles. Nationalism, by its nature, is more prone to be a strategy to be mobilize by different ideologies in respective interest instead. Therefore, author argue it is more adequately to recognise nationalism as a ‘thin-centered ideology’, a category where populism was found comfortably fit into. Anyhow, the extreme ethno-nationalism which often accompanied with binary distinction of superior-inferior groups almost always poses threat to human right. The painful historical case of ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia covered in the lecture, remind us with Rwanda genocide on 1994 too. In fact, it will be essential to also include the legal aspects from “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” in the lecture as it is a contemporary form of interstate consensus in collective opposition to genocidal action.
Next, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant group which sought to establish an independent Tamil state, Eelam, in northern and eastern Sri Lanka had shown us one of the example that discrimination, ethnic conflict, violence, secession and a degree of terrorism can be interconnected. Since the topic is about ‘Violence and Terrorism’, the author believes we can explore beyond than the current coverage and to draw connections with previous and latter topics for efficient accomplishment of LOs. We can analyse the rise or the evolvement of terrorism (from Al-Qaeda to ISIS; from ‘prudentially planned’ to ‘lone-wolf’ attack). Secondly, to ponder whether Samuel Huntington is right about his seminal idea of ‘Clash of Civilizations’. People resort to violence and terrorism when they feel insecure. On the other hand, states often opt for deterrence in the form of offensive capabilities to ensure its national security. Similarly, it will be great to compare the view of different ideologies in regard of military capabilities. It is not the case liberal internationalists will renounce to any usage of coercive forces, and it is neither the case that realists are warlike. Since both camps share overlapping consensus on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) will be the key for country to be free from external aggression, the two camps will employ approaches to affirm their existing or potential enemy has no rationale to initial a strike or wage a war.
‘Human Rights and Refugees’ was the topic that followed next. Here, we started with definitional discussion on the similar but distinctive terms, i.e. refugee, internally displaced person, asylum seeker and migrant. While the tutorial discussion on opportunities and challenges for being a refugee is innovative, it is a pity that we did not refer to UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Otherwise students could have the opportunity to examine the implementation of three key elements in refugee law: ‘non-refoulment’, ‘non-penalisation’ and ‘non-discrimination’ by comparing across the signatory to that international convention like Australia; and non-signatory state such as Malaysia, probably on the practical case study of Syrian or Rohingya refugee. While refugee status is not a matter of choice, migration is often a voluntary option with little exception on forced constraints. On the half of human rights, we started with introduction of five basic category of human rights, they are political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. The conventional conceptual framework of those rights is outlined in International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which were develop then to complement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Likewise, perhaps the intellectual component of the view on human (or natural) rights from notable scholars such as Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham and Karl Marx can be added to the lecture. Correlate with LO2, the question of whether states serve more as protector or violator of human rights in contemporary era can be adopted as a topic of debate assessment for future classes. Additionally, whether torture, which act antagonistically with morality of Just War Theory and the concept of human rights should be permitted in a dirty-bomb scenario where thousands life is at stake? It must be evident that human rights frequently caught in dilemma. Another instance will be core-periphery conflict on environmental issues where rights of people in less developed nations to safe, clean and healthy environment threatens by economic activities of state and non-state actors from the developed nations.
‘Developed and Developing’ and ‘North and South’ are both referring to ‘Core-Periphery’ relation. It is widely known that the ‘Core’ countries have higher wages, better healthcare, higher level of technologies and scientific innovations, contrasting to those other ‘Periphery’ countries. In the 1960s, Andre Gunder Frank analysed the development of periphery countries and argues that poverty is a not a result of misfortune, but rather a result of exploitation from capitalist system dominated by the core industrialised state for cheap raw materials and labours. The politics of foreign aid, which was adopted as one of the debate topic in the course, should also be discussed in the class on opportunity and dangers for lending and receiving states after the submission of the debate assessment.
Reflecting upon the basics as stated in the beginning of this paper, in which globalisation intensify the global interaction and deepening interdependence. Issues and challenges nowadays are like to be transboundary and beyond the capability of any single state to solve them unilaterally. The circumstances have trigger the emergence of intergovernmental organisations. UN which replaced the former League of Nations, is arguably the most important intergovernmental organisation in the absence of a world government which supersede individual nation states’ policies. One way to assess the success and failure of UN, is to examine the Security Council, which is arguably, the most influential organs in UN structure. Chapter VII of the UN Charter grants power to Security council to decide what measures shall be taken to maintain or restore international peace and security (Article 39). In accordance to Article 40 and Article 41 of the Charter, such measures can be economic, military and others (travel bans, arms embargoes, financial, diplomatic tensions). In the case of ethnic conflict which escalate into humanitarian crisis, while the Security Council can pass resolution to deploy peacekeeping forces into the area of conflict, a resolution might not exist at all if the five permanent members, who has the veto power, does not vote unanimously.
On the lecture on ‘Environment’, we learnt the positive correlation between the level of human development and the extent of environmental degradation. Historical overview on 4 stages evolvement of human-environment relation was described: from Hunter-gatherers, to the Agricultural Revolution, then the Industrial-Medical Revolution, and finally, the Information and globalization era. It was a pity that competing ecological worldview (e.g. ‘Anthropocentric versus Ecocentric’ and ‘Communism versus Capitalism’) and several other worldviews comprises of Native American, Buddhist and modern Western’s perspectives on environment was included in the slide but not elaborated much during the lecture itself. Maybe we can also have graphical comparison on ecological footprint per capita in high-, middle- and low-income countries and a discussion on how have the ‘north-south’ conflicts (from previous lecture) shaped international environmental issue in the last two to three decades. In addition to the high profile early responses like the Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1960s as mentioned in the lecture, it might be constructive if we manage to compare the contesting arguments, developed later during 1980s’ episode on environmental concern, between the limits to growth stance (e.g. ‘Limits to Growth’ by Meadows et al) and sustainable development stance (e.g. ‘Our Common Future’ by UN World Commission on Environment and Development). The purpose is to better connect those context, for example by allow student to gain insight into the causal relations for a perspective to favours a specific level of ‘shades of green’ approaches (LO1, LO2 and LO4).
On the final lecture of the course, population-environment relation was discussed. Important lesson includes that human population has grown most sharply in the past 200 years. Population pressure intensifying in post-industrial societies where longevity is promoted with more liveable conditions and better healthcare, which in turn resulted the high net population growth rate. We had also touched on Malthusian pessimistic projection of a forthcoming population catastrophe in which population would grow until it reached the limit of food supply, but it was limited to a brief explanation. Therefore, it will be good if we manage to explore further Malthusian and the competing theory on their view in relation to population growth and carrying capacity of the environment. For instance, Paul R. Ehrlich published his famous book- ‘The Population Bomb’ on 1968, which echoes prediction of Thomas Malthus and warns against widespread of poverty and famine if growth of population size exceeds the carrying capacity. In the opposite camp, Ester Boserup, the author of ‘The Conditions of Agricultural Growth’ (1965), upholds that population growth trigger innovation. She believes that people are resourceful and capable to employ technologies to overcome environmental limits including the food supply. Development of advance tools and techniques such as irrigation and harvesting methods, and seeds hybridisation for stronger resistance toward diseases has increase the crops yield. Through examination of the competing views, it can be more effective in achieving LO3 and LO4 of this course.
(Note: The topic, ‘Global Management Non-State Actors NGOs & MNCs is not covered among the lectures)
While this reflection paper recommends a significant amount of aspects to be covered during the lectures, the author is in the opinion that it is technically feasible if we fully utilize the lecture hours over a span of 13 weeks. Put aside lectures, perhaps we should also have more higher order thinking questions in the mid-term. Currently several debate topics also show discontinuity from the course content and learning units. Review on these two aspects can also be consider prior to the conduct of the course in future. This paper was written prior to the date of the final exam, therefore reflection upon this section is not available yet.