The business of analyzing international politics is a convoluted one in which it is often difficult to separate misinformation from facts and reality. Even seasoned observers of world events, much less ordinary citizens, are often easily taken in by self-serving narratives spun by media pundits or agenda-driven “experts” from this or that think-tank or institution.
A good analyst in my opinion, must be willing to consistently challenge his or her baseline assumptions and maintain a sober analytical approach free from ideological constraints. In order to free oneself from these limitations and avoid confirmation bias, I find it useful to look at things fundamentally, to strive to gain a deeper comprehension of why certain phenomena in international affairs are the way they are.
In order to do this, it helps to take a step back and gain a firm understanding of what it is the IR field is trying to accomplish. Those studying international relations are in effect trying to explain world politics, which in large part centers on the functions of states; how and why they form, how they act and interact, their interests, the source of their conflicts, the source of their alliances, and so on and so forth.
This can be juxtaposed with how those studying the physical sciences are attempting to explain the physical world; how it works, how it came to be, etc. The obvious difference, and this goes for all of the social sciences, is that we can’t get the same kind of empiricism explaining the social world as we can with the physical world. Whereas the physical world is static, the social world is dynamic, and influenced by seemingly infinite factors derived from oftentimes unpredictable human behavior.
However, this is of course not to say that all analysis aimed at explaining international affairs is a moot effort. The world does indeed “work” a certain way. It is complex and there may be many variables explaining a certain phenomenon, but there is naturally, a “truth” behind geopolitical phenomena that explains them. Cause and effect exists, policies are made and executed, consistent strategies are followed, certain regions and resources are fought over, countries vie for influence, power and leverage, etc.
This is all to say, that the world is knowable (positivist epistemology). A good analyst, thus, will be able to look past their own personal biases as well as all of the misinformation, fabrications, and propaganda that are employed to disguise the true motives of a state or other entities, and get at the fundamental, causal factors behind a certain phenomena in international affairs and deduce what the implication of such phenomena portends for the future.
Furthermore, when it comes to explaining world politics, theorists stretching back millennia have made significant strides and their work has guided countless statesmen and decision-makers. In the past century, the most influential international affairs theorists have arguably been the founding fathers of realism: Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and John Mearsheimer.
It is thus critical to have a firm grasp on theory, coupled with a good method of analysis that is centered on innate structural factors, such as geography, resources, demographics, and a deep understanding of the history and decision-making apparatus of the state(s) you are examining. There is a massive amount of information necessary in this regard, everything from being up to date on the latest events in this given state, knowing what the various important stakeholders believe and how they behave, knowing what the interests at stake are, the geopolitical landscape and the balance of power (and how that has been shaped and changed), structural factors (like demographic trends, natural resources, highly strategic locations), relationships with other powers/great powers, and of course economic data and factors.
Thankfully for our decision-makers, in every major country there are countless dedicated think-tanks, research institutions, NGOs, and other organizations that have experts working every hour trying to deduce international politics and provide explanations and recommendations that ultimately shape policies and affect all of our lives.
Unfortunately, there exists too many armchair analysts, who, rather than striving to aim for a fact-and-reasoned based approach, resort to simplistic narratives and black-and-white worldviews in order to advance specific agendas.
Reza Aslan summarized this issue brilliantly in his reply to a question about how young people are the “most susceptible to indoctrination,” which in my opinion applies to how many people reflexively view the world: “Yes, they are naturally drawn to fundamentalism, because it provides ready-made, very simple black-and-white answers to questions they are just beginning to ask.”