© 2018 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.

International Relations


Handling global problems like a boss since the dawn of nations.


Quick. What country is Medellín in, and do you think that the U.S. State Department's travel restrictions to it are appropriate?

Answer A: Columbia, and yes, because only twenty years ago it was the most violent city in the world for its size.

Answer B: Columbia, and no, because that was twenty years ago and it has put a lot of effort into transforming itself into a safe, clean city.

Answer C: Don't know, don't care. Can I have some of your fries?

If you chose answer C, run. Run now while you still can. International relations majors have to know where stuff is and care about it. A lot.

International relations is, as you may have guessed (you're so smart), the study of relationships between countries—who's flirting, who's fighting, who's BFFs. It's like Facebook-stalking the world, and it can get messy. England and America are ''in a relationship, '' but England and Scotland have been stuck in ''it's complicated'' for centuries.

IR majors keep track of these relationships and use that knowledge to tackle big-scale global problems involving economics, trade, diplomacy, war, poverty, disease, and disaster relief.

That's a pretty wide range, right? IR majors have to be crazy multidisciplinary. Are you ready to take classes in politics, history, sociology, ethics, geography, economics, psychology, and foreign language?

IR majors need to take a keen interest in foreign countries and politics, since their field is all about…well, foreign countries and politics. Hey, you want poetry, go check out the English major. IR majors prefer to collect facts…which they then use to make educated guesses about the potential consequences of their actions.

Along with being interested in a lot of subjects, IR majors need to be really good at being open-minded and empathetic. The choices that they make affect millions. No pressure or anything.

Most IR majors go into fields like diplomacy, international business, or the Peace Corps—fields where you have to solve problems that basically have no right answers. For example, let's say you're a diplomat assigned to the Gaza Strip beat. Do you support Israel at the expense of Palestine or vice-versa? Or do you try to carve a middle ground despite knowing that there is no way you can make this into a win-win situation? Don't forget, lives are at stake.

It's hard stuff. And it's only made more difficult by the fact that thanks to globalization, the cultures of the world are so interconnected that changes in one affect us all. It's like the butterfly effect, but with the possibility of pandemics and nuclear attacks hanging over your head. Damocles has got nothin' on you.

On the other hand, when an IR person does something right, the world becomes a cleaner, safer, better place for all of us. It's like being part of the Justice League…without the underwear-on-the-outside requirement.

Famous People who majored in International Relations

  • Condoleezza Rice, the 66th secretary of state
  • Bill Clinton, that ol' president
  • Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard
  • Madeline Albright, first female secretary of state
  • Aragorn, son of Arathorn

Percentage of US students who major in International Relations:


Stats obtained from this source.