An Introduction to Debating About International Relations

By Andrew Bowles, George Washington University ‘17

I. Introduction

In the real world, debates about international relations are often prohibitively difficult to engage in. They require extensive specific knowledge, much of which is in reality highly classified, and expect participants to understand a variety of complex frameworks and issues just to engage. This frequently translates into incoming debaters seeing IR debate as more complicated or difficult to engage in than it is, and makes IR rounds seem far more intimidating than they actually have to be.

In reality, because APDA shuns specific knowledge and evidence, debating about international relations on APDA is far more straightforward than it is in the real world. Instead of turning to hard facts, numbers and percentages as justification for arguments, IR debate on APDA is typically a question of incentives more than anything else. This article intends to walk through how to opp IR cases, though I hope it will be helpful to those working on writing and running these kinds of cases as well.

II. IR Debate as Incentives Debate

The important take away from APDA’s lack of research in IR rounds is that they’re not about facts- they’re about incentives. Because bringing in policy proclamations or extensive historical research would be specific knowledge, the way that APDA debates about IR functions the same way we debate about any other kind of policies or almost anything else- based on the incentives of the actors involved.

This means that, once you know who all the major actors involved in a case are, you can get answers to POC’s that will give you all of the information you need to debate about what might be good for an actor (will fulfill their incentives) and debate about how others might react (again, in line with their incentives). This isn’t necessarily a simple process, and I’ll walk through it in slightly more depth below, but it is the most basic tenet of APDA’s IR debate and it is something that anyone can do, no matter their broader knowledge of world affairs.

III. Before the Round Begins

The first part of figuring out what you need to know (and thus what POC’s to ask) is figuring out exactly what case statement is saying. In IR rounds this can sometimes be confusing, especially when case includes background that names a large number of different involved actors (this happens a lot in military IR rounds, in particular) and it seems a little overwhelming.

When it boils down to it, though, case statement is going to be saying that one group (it might be a person, it might be a government, it might be a supranational organization) ought either do or not do something (usually the former, but sometimes the latter). At the bottom of this article will be a link to GWII finals from this year (in which two teams debate whether to arm Ukraine) and I’m going to use this as an example throughout the rest of this article.

In this case, the case is asking whether or not the US ought supply substantial quantities of arms to the Ukrainian government. Once you know this, and have narrowed down exactly what case statement is talking about (figuring out if the case is normative or based on an actor’s interests, figuring out who the actors are) you can start to get into POC’s. In a round like this, I think there are probably 3-4 major things you want to know, and thus want to ask POC’s about.

The first is the actors involved. If you don’t already know, ask a little bit about the countries that are relevant to the case. Here, it would presumably be the US, Ukraine, Russia, and some of the NATO members in eastern Europe (Poland, the Czech Republic). You want to find out what each of their interests in the region are- do they get resources from Ukraine? Have they historically been involved in the country? Are they projecting their power? Which states are democracies, and which are more autocratic (generally, autocracies can do a lot more military action without accountability to the public than democracies can). On what is the legitimacy of their government premised (economic growth? democracy?). Basically, you want to find out what countries are involved, and why they are involved. Once you know those two things, you can start to make arguments about how they will react to the policy case proposes, and understand why you might want to pick one side of the case.

Once you have this information, you’re ready to start writing an LOC. The specific structure of this will vary wildly based on the case, but I want to talk briefly about two major sets of clashing ideologies that form the backbone of most of the IR rounds I’ve seen or been a part of.

IV. Ideological Clash

The first of these ideological conflicts is a broad clash between realist and idealist or liberal internationalist ideologies. The second of the big ideological conflicts that forms the clash of many rounds is that of interventionism/non-interventionism. There are a lot of different terms for this, but it’s the backbone of almost every round that involves military engagement or strong sanctions regimes.

In Realist/Idealist rounds, you’re basically looking at a clash between major IR ideologies- and worldviews. To the realist camp, the nations of the world are self contained units, constantly struggling against each other to maximize their relative power and security. This means that what is good for a nation is being strong (economically, culturally, or militarily) and that nations will generally act in such a manner as to maximize their power. Through this lens, activist foreign policy is generally justified as expanding a state’s power or stopping a threat to it. The Idealist or Liberal Internationalist camp (greatly simplifying for the purposes of debate) basically argues that states ought come together through international institutions (like the UN) to promote a generally liberal world order. This view is much less friendly to individual states trying to maximize their power, and rather leans towards trying to build up international organizations and norms as the powerful forces in the international sphere.

In intervention/non-intervention rounds, the interventionist side generally relies on one of two major themes as justification for an actor to impose its will onto another actor. One of these is a “realist” power perspective, that suggests that strong military or economic action will make the actor taking the action more powerful, or more secure, or generally that the acting party will be better off (usually at the expense of the party being acted upon). The other justification often presented, the more liberal-internationalist justification for intervention, is some sense of protecting international norms. This might be attempting to end violence in a country (e.g. intervening in Darfur) or it might be attempting to uphold norms against proliferation of WMD or use of chemical weapons.

Generally, on the interventionist side, you want to argue some combination of both of these trains of thought. That the actor taking the action will be stronger or safer or better because of the action (e.g. the US will have less to fear from Russia if Ukraine can stand up for itself) and that the actor will be doing some greater normative good for world security or stability or norms by implementing the policy (e.g. that less human rights violations will occur if Ukraine is sovereign, or Russia will be less likely to invade other countries if the US stands up to them here). By using both a realist and an idealist framework, you can appeal to judges coming from a variety of different standpoints.

The non-interventionist side frequently approaches the problem from the same two directions as the interventionist. From a realist perspective, a non-interventionist will frequently argue against the efficacy of intervention. You can question whether military or economic action will actually change conditions on the ground (e.g. suggesting that arming Ukraine will only make the conflict bigger, not resolve it) and call into doubt whether it’s going to do more harm than good (e.g. arguing that sending arms to Ukraine will likely lead to more civil conflict, killing civilians, or that bombing or similar would kill more innocents than it saves). From the idealist perspective, the non-interventionist will likely defend norms of sovereignty (e.g. that interfering in another state’s conflict is a bad idea) or institutionalism (e.g. that the UN taking action would be preferable to the US taking action). This support for multilateralism (having many countries involved rather than one) can be couched in an anti-imperialist worldview that tends to be very effective.

The important thing to note about this central ideological clash is that most of these arguments are incredibly broadly applicable. Once you know who an actor is and what their interests are, you can choose if you want to support more heavily an institutionalist/liberal view or a realist one. You really just need basic information about the actors in play, and you can talk about just about any kind of IR policy out there, no matter your experience or knowledge level.

V. Additional Resources

GWII Finals, Opp Choice: Should the US arm Ukraine?

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