A List of Songs that Explain International Relations

For several years now, I’ve been slowly putting together a (semi-serious) list of songs that I think can help explain various IR concepts and theories.  Although it’s still a work in progress, I am now sharing it with the world.

A few opening disclaimers:

  • Any such list is obviously going to be highly idiosyncratic, so YMMV.  My main criteria for inclusion were: did I like the song, and did the song and/or music video make me think differently about the world.  My list skews heavily towards the United States; pop, rock, and rap; music made since 2000; and contains mostly (but not entirely) English language songs.  If my suggestions don’t do it for you, feel free to check out these two other “IR Playlists” by Michael Tierney and Stephen Walt, or feel free to come up with your own and send it to me!  As you’ll see, there’s a couple spots where I’m still looking for particularly good fits.
  • I’m linking to my preferred version of the songs on Youtube, but given the fleeting nature of music on Youtube, a lot of the links will go dead within a few weeks or months.  If a link is dead, try searching for the artist and song title using Youtube’s search engine.
  • For some of the songs (especially more recent ones) watching the official music video helps understand the message much better, whereas for others I think it’s mostly just the lyrics that matter.  I encourage you to watch both the music video and a lyrics video if you enjoy a given song.
  • Several of the songs have a great deal of profanity (I’m looking at you, Korn!), deal with painful topics in quite brutal ways, depict extreme violence in their music video, or might otherwise trigger strong emotions.  That is part of their point, so caveat auditor.  My listing a song here is not necessarily an endorsement of it.


[Still looking for a good example]


War” by Edwin Starr (1969)

Masters of War” by Bob Dylan (1963)


Happy Nation” by Ace of Base (1992)


[Still looking for a good example]


Running the World” by Jarvis Cocker (2006)


Guerrilla Radio” by Rage Against the Machine (2001)

Critical Theory:

They” by Jem (2004)

Imagine” by John Lennon (1971)

Where Is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas (2003)


If I Were a Boy” by Beyoncé (2008)


Earth Song” by Michael Jackson (1995)


Cambodia” by Kim Wilde (1981)

Travelin’ Soldier” by the Dixie Chicks (2002)

Zombie” by the Cranberries (1994)

Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

A Chance for Peace” by Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes (1974)

Interesting Examples of Contemporary Militarism:

The Choir of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” (2014)

The choral anthem of the Cyberspace Administration of China (2015)

Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” by Toby Keith (2009)


“Hilltop” commercial (1971), for Coca-Cola, which proved so popular that its jingle was re-recorded as a full-length song

Korean commercial (c. 2006), featuring a remix of Pachelbel’s Canon in D (c. 1700) w/ Korean traditional instruments, beat-boxing, and break dancing, in order to sell television sets

Violence Within Nations:

Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People (2010)

Youth of the Nation” by P.O.D. (2001)

Violence Across Nations:

[Still looking for a good example]

Economic Inequality Within Nations:

I Will Buy You a New Life” by Everclear (1997)

Common People” by Pulp (1995)

Economic Inequality Across Nations:

Prayer of the Refugee” by Rise Against (2006)

Borders” by M.I.A. (2015)


Handlebars” by Flobots (2008)


Make It Bun Dem” by Skrillex & Damian Marley (2012)

Uprising” by Muse (2009)

Political Representation:

Give the People What They Want” by the O’Jays (1975)

Get Up Stand Up” by Bob Marley (1973)

International Negotiations:

Nobody Speak” by DJ Shadow (2016)

Soft Power:

“U.S. Boy” by Jena Lee (2010) [French lyrics here, or the music video gets the point across even if you don’t speak French]


Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd (1979)


Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants (1990)

North-South Solidarity:

We Are The World” by USA For Africa (1985)

South-South Solidarity:

Hello India” by Sasi The Don (2014)

Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” by Shakira (2010)


Changes” by Tupac Shakur (1998)


Y’all Want a Single” by Korn (2003)

Please Use This Song” by Jon LaJoie (2014)

The Financialization of the Global Economy:

“R.M.I.” by MC Solaar (2001) [French lyrics here, music video with a good English translation here]


Born Free” by M.I.A. (2010)

The United Nations:

Jan Egeland” by Ylvis (2012) [with Egeland‘s reaction here (use the auto-translate closed captioning option)]

American Foreign Policy:

Political Science” by Randy Newman (1972)

National (In)Security:

Kenji” by Fort Minor (2005)

Nuclear Weapons:

“Neunundneunzig Luftballons” / “99 Luftballons” by Nena (1983)


A Pandemic in the IR Classroom?

In February I attended the International Studies Association’s annual conference, held in Baltimore, MD.  At the conference, I had the great fortune to participate in two pedagogy panels which showcased the wide range of techniques that are being used in classrooms all over the world to get students excited about learning International Relations (IR), meet a wider range of students’ learning styles, and improve learning outcomes across the board.

There was some great stuff on offer: Felix Rösch of Coventry University uses a form of dancing called Contact Improvisation in his classes to get students to not just think about IR but also feel about it–the necessity for empathy and trust on the dance floor serves as a way for students to begin reimagining the status quo of world politics).  Andreas Aagaard Nøhr and Gustav Meibauer discussed a simple-but-elegant way in which Powerpoint presentations can be turned into Choose Your Own (IR) Adventure stories for students.  The diplomacy-focused simulation they presented had our group weighing the pros and cons of serving Icelandic fish head stew at the diplomatic gathering that we had been tasked with virtually organizing!

There were also several presentations about ways to use games and simulations in the IR classroom, something I’m always super excited about in principle but get scared of when it comes time to put it into practice. During the talk, I started thinking about various well-known board games, and how they might be related to IR theories.  Specifically, it occurred to me that IR educators might be able to take advantage of a major new trend in the board game world: the rise of cooperative board games.

For a bit of context, consider board games as existing on a spectrum from purely zero-sum games to highly cooperative games where individual victory can only be achieved via group success.  Let’s illustrate with a few IR-related board games.  At one end of the spectrum might be Risk, which is the board game incarnation of a quintessential winner-take-all, hyper-offensive realism (replete with “the stopping power of water“!).  A bit further along the spectrum would be Diplomacy,  which I would argue resembles classical realism, with real politik somewhat attenuated by alliances, private and public communication systems, and rudimentary international norms.  [Diplomacy has gotten a fair amount of attention from IR educators already – here’s the take of my former colleagues Dave Bridge and Simon Radford.]  The next step up might then perhaps be the well-regarded Settlers of Catan, which somewhat approximates neoliberal IR theory: we’ve moved out of the realm of outright warfare into economic competition, but relative gains still tend to outweigh absolute gains.  In a great post, Mintaro Oba highlights how players often choose to modify the game’s official rules in order to make certain tactics more or less usable, and also notes how norm violators can be sanctioned by other players.  So informally “modding” the game can certainly incorporate some of the key insights of constructivist IR theory.

While Settlers is a great game (I should know, I’m the reigning champ in my family!), it is not the be-all and end-all in terms of board games.  One can still climb up a few rungs on our continuum and get to wholly cooperative board games like Pandemic.  In Pandemic, a team of 2-4 players must work together to prevent several ferociously spreading infectious diseases from destroying humanity.  While each player controls their own avatar and can take whichever actions they wish to combat the plagues, players swiftly learn that the only way in which they will prevail is if they closely coordinate, often down to the level of what means of transportation characters will use to move from one region to another.  Typically, 15 minutes or more of intense group discussion may precede a single turn being taken.

In terms of mapping it onto an IR theory, Pandemic arguably showcases several of the features of “epistemic communities.”  Epistemic communities are groups of technical experts in a single issue area whose power stems from their collective application of reason and expertise to a given problem.  Still, though, I find that Pandemic offers a less useful vision of global politics than do some of the other games mentioned above.  This is because the game completely removes power differentials and national self-interest from the gameplay.  In the world of Pandemic, all parties are guided by altruism and a desire for the group as a whole to do well… or else the world ends.  But recent history has shown us that even when potentially devastating global threats like Ebola/Avian Flu/H1N1 or global warming are taking place, international cooperation still occurs in an overall context of national self-interest. (Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Change Accords is a clear case in point.)

So, are cooperative games not useful in the IR classroom?  What if we modified the rules of Pandemic a bit to make it resemble real world politics a bit better?  For instance, the instructor could assign each player responsibility for a specific region (just like in current structure of the World Health Organization, which is organized along regional lines) and, unlike in the official version of the game, players would receive individual scores, not a single collective outcome.  These individual scores would depend on whether or not the group succeeded in stopping the virus, but with points subtracted for the magnitude of the deaths in the player’s assigned region.  We are now in the realm of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s stag hunt, where overall group success exists in uneasy balance with individual incentives.  Done properly, our students would have a chance to gain first-hand experience with and reflect upon the wide range of social techniques societies have devised to prevent free-riding in collective action situations.

Who knows, maybe next time I get asked to teach IR 101 my students and I will see what we can get out of playing board games along the IR spectrum!

The Distracted Driving of American Diplomacy

In January 2010, a message went out from the State Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. to every U.S. embassy around the world.  In this message, the State Department instructed each of its embassies to conduct a formal diplomatic démarche with their host governments on a pressing topic the State Department had recently grown quite concerned with: texting while driving.  In practice, this meant that somebody from the U.S. Embassy would have to go in person to find a counterpart in the host country’s government, explain to them how concerned the United States was becoming with the problem of “distracted driving,” ask them what policies/laws their country had concerning texting while driving, and then report that information back to Washington.

At first, one might wonder why American diplomats all around the world had to scramble to set up governmental meetings about distracted driving–does the State Department really have nothing better to do?  In the State Department’s defense, however, traffic accidents are a big deal everywhere, and are one of the leading causes of human death.  It’s estimated that there are about “1.24 million traffic deaths a year – nearly triple the UN’s estimate of annual murders, and twenty times the estimated annual total of deaths in wars.”  The World Health Organization is quite concerned, noting that traffic accidents are the single most important cause of death among those aged 15-29 worldwide, and further estimating that traffic accidents cost the planet about 3% of global GDP annually.  So it’s very likely that the impulse behind the U.S.’s worldwide démarche was humanitarian in nature.  Still, while the WHO’s most recent report does note that “distracted driving is a serious and growing threat to road safety,” it nevertheless appears as seventh out of seven reforms countries should undertake to improve road users’ behavior (behind things like increasing motorcycle helmet use, increasing seat-belt usage, and reducing drunk driving), suggesting that road safety experts do not accord it topmost priority at the moment.

More broadly, the démarche illustrates a disturbing one-size-fits-all diplomatic mentality, as well as some of the perils of America’s hegemonic influence.  The WikiLeaks-hosted Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy records the responses that 62* U.S. embassies sent back to Washington after having completed their missions: everywhere from Bangui to Budapest, Sana’a to Seoul.  And reading between the lines, it’s pretty easy to get a sense of how many American embassies, particularly in the developing world, thought their instructions from Washington were rather ridiculous and very poorly tailored to the actual conditions in their host countries.  Some expressed their dissatisfaction via arch terseness, whereas others were more than happy to explain in great detail how their host governments might have more pressing matters to deal with than texting while driving laws:

Many roads in Chad are so deeply pot-holed, or function so much like sand-traps, that they are suitable only for travel via camel, horse or donkey. There are few police on public thoroughfares except in large towns, few hospitals to which to take accident victims, no real ability outside the capital to enforce existing driver’s license or vehicle maintenance laws, and little formal driver’s training. Driver’s licenses can be obtained in many locations through bribery. Regulations on how vehicles may be used are spotty: it is not against the law to pilot a motorcycle with four riders, or to carry a 50-gallon drum filled with gasoline on the back of a motorcycle and a live goat on the handlebars. Transport vehicles are often overloaded to the point where they collapse under their cargo, and passenger vehicles designed for eight routinely carry 20 inside and one or more hanging out the open doors. Recent laws ban carrying more than 20 passengers in the open back of pick-up or transport trucks unless seats and an overhead cover are installed. The 1980-era Peugeots that serve as taxis in N’Djamena are know euphemistically as “neuf morts,” as they are assumed to kill an average of nine people when they crash. Chad recently followed Cameroon in passing motorcycle helmet laws, but many of those who possess helmets carry rather than wear them when they ride.

Taking a step back, very few other countries around the world besides the U.S. would attempt to unilaterally conduct a worldwide governmental information campaign on this scale, particularly unprompted and for an issue that is unquestionably within the remit of countries’ domestic politics.  For better and worse, this is the unique role the United States continues to play in global politics, and the U.S.’s influence is such that countries have to pay attention when it speaks.  In Tanzania, the démarche seems to have been conducted at the very high level of a direct meeting between the U.S. Ambassador and the Tanzanian Foreign Minister–one can only wonder at what was going through the Minister’s mind during the meeting…

* Because of the semi-random nature in which the Cablegate cables were collected, only some of the cable traffic in a given year was recorded and leaked.  Presumably all or almost all U.S. diplomatic missions in the world undertook the démarche as requested.

Nyerere and Diversionary War

There’s a concept in International Relations called “diversionary war“: a war governments deliberately start in order to distract their populations of troubles at home by giving them an external foe.  The canonical example is probably the decision in 1982 by the Argentine military junta to start a war with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), which they subsequently lost pretty handily.  Indeed, recent scholarship suggests that most governments which start diversionary wars go on to lose them, which points to the tragic irony of diversionary wars: the same domestic unrest that prompts governments to start them also usually makes those governments ineffective at waging them.

This U.S. diplomatic cable from 1976 relating a private meeting between Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and the U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania offers further evidence that policymakers do indeed pursue diversionary foreign policies at times.  Commenting on growing military tensions between Jomo Kenyatta’s Kenya and Idi Amin’s Uganda, Nyerere says:


Despite calling for peaceful restraint in this cable, it would ultimately be Nyerere’s Tanzania, not Kenya, which would go to war with Uganda two years later, ultimately leading to the ouster of the increasingly brutal and erratic dictator.

(See also the cameo by Donald Rumsfeld in this 1976 cable.)