International Relations in an era of dynamic global change

Dr Patrick Holden, Associate Professor in the School of Law, Criminology and Government, is a renowned expert in the field of International Relations. He is the Programme Leader of the Masters in International Relations and leader of the Global Instability and Justice Research Group at the University. For the past 15 years, Dr Holden has taught and conducted research at the University on topics including international political economy, the European Union in the world, international development policy, global governance and regional integration. 

In the following interview, he talks about some of the factors that drew him to the subject and how it helps to reveal the world in a new light.

How did you get into International Relations?

Well, International Relations/IR is a combination of practical concerns – war and peace/trade relations – and deeper intellectual questions. I’d read deeply in politics, history and philosophy and I wanted to apply these insights and ideas to international problems. I went to University College Dublin in the early 1990s when countries I’d studied at school like the Soviet Union had recently disappeared from the map to my great surprise. I wanted to understand how these changes came about and what other changes might come in the future. 

After university I worked and travelled in Europe; I taught English to business people in Spain and later worked in the insurance business in Dublin. Based on this, I became interested in the deep patterns of power based on technology and economics – what we call globalisation – in the world. I got a scholarship to do a PhD on the European Union’s relations with the Middle East at the University of Limerick and was also fortunate enough to get a scholarship to study for a year at Cambridge University. The PhD was tough but I had some great experiences working as an intern with a human rights NGO in Brussels and doing fieldwork in Morocco. After Cambridge, Plymouth offered me a job and I joined in 2005.

What are your main areas of work here, both in terms of teaching and research?

I teach a range of modules here at Plymouth, including two undergraduate modules on the European Union (for the Politics and International Relations degrees) and a postgraduate module on International Trade Politics, which became very topical due to the rise of trade wars and Brexit in recent years. I also run an ‘experience’ module that involves students doing work or fieldwork relevant to international relations, and I lead the Masters in International Relations at the University. This is geared towards helping students and those with professional backgrounds go to the next level in understanding and practising IR. I head-up the research group on Global Justice and Instability, which involves researchers from across our school. There’s a great research culture in the school which includes lawyers, criminologists and sociologists as well as politics/international relations specialists. We are often looking at similar issues but through a different lens.

As for my own research, my work explores the link between power, ideas and public policy. I’ve done a lot of work on the European Union but also other aspects of global cooperation, such as trade politics and development policy. Recent publications have been on Brexit, the Global Sustainable Development Goals and changes to development policy due to the changing world system.

Brexit, COVID-19; we’ve seen so many seismic developments recently. How difficult does it make your task in trying to understand what is happening across Europe and interconnected geopolitical areas?

It’s not easy to analyse something like COVID-19 when you’re in the heart of it (and as stressed out as everyone else) but we also need to keep our eye on the big picture. COVID-19 is confusing. On the one hand, it seems to encourage cooperation: the virus demonstrates how we are globally interdependent and countries need to cooperate on health measures and vaccine research. On the other hand, the pressures placed on countries can lead to increased rivalry and mistrust (note the rows over access to PPE, for example). I’ve been analysing the impact on different regional organisations across the world, in Europe, Africa, South East Asia and South America (with the help of Michele Fox, a former MA student, as a research assistant). We’ve found that some regional organisations, such as in South America, are coming under real pressure but in the EU it seems to have led to deeper unity (after initial chaos). 

Generally, I think you can understand the impact of COVID-19 as continuing a process whereby the West (America in particular) no longer dominates and liberal values (political and economic freedom) are less prevalent. For students, it is also difficult as some of the things they may have learned – about the world trading system, for example – are no longer correct. But it is also a very exciting time to be studying International Relations as the global system is being reformed.

International relations at Plymouth

Immerse yourself in the ideologies, political interests, and debates that influence past and present relationships between people, places, and environments, and explore the decisions made by governments and global institutions.

Understand how the geopolitical world works, examining the consequences of actions at both the local and global scales.

You talk about the challenges facing students – what makes a good student in International Relations, and what are some of the careers or sectors they typically move on to?

An International Relations student needs to be open (to different perspectives) and tenacious in researching their chosen subject. As to what they go onto, our MA student cohort is very diverse. Some go on to work in the military and the security sector while others go into the NGO world/third sector or radical politics. The traditional route is also to work in government (including local government) or international organisations. Last but not least, many will work in business. Skills such as intercultural communication, critical thinking, and analytical/research capabilities are greatly prized in business and the subject knowledge is also relevant (we can all think of businesses that have gotten into trouble due to political miscalculations and cultural gaffes). I always encourage students to think about their dissertation as defining the identity of their degree, so if they want to work in security do a security-related topic, or environmental cooperation if they want to work in the ‘green’ sector and so forth. I imagine there will be much greater interest in international health cooperation in the future.

Whether we agree or not with Brexit, the clock is ticking on achieving a ‘deal’. Do you see a clear international strategy for the UK – and does COVID-19 complicate or clarify that to any extent?

I don’t see a very realistic strategy. As a political decision, Brexit is neither right nor wrong but the trade part of it seems to be misconceived. You’re not helping the idea of ‘global Britain’ by withdrawing from the major economic bloc on the planet at a time when the international trading system is under threat. COVID-19 has made things worse as it has undermined global trade. It’s the worst time possible to be looking for new international trade deals. Relations with China have soured, Trump is a nightmare to negotiate with and a future Biden administration would be more interested in relations with the EU as a whole. Of course, the UK is still a powerful country with plenty of options but it’s going to end up making compromises one way or the other.

Do you foresee any other emerging trends that could become significant topics of research for you – and for the teaching of tomorrow?

In a word, many! I think they include climate politics and migration management, which will only grow in relevance; the struggle to control the internet and other forms of key technology (5G/AI); deep fakes and the post-truth trend, which I feel will profoundly challenge society at all levels, including the international; and artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, which promise to change the face of security and warfare. However, the classic themes will remain the same; these are related to human nature and the balance between cooperation and aggression in how we interact with one another.

Meet the tutor – Dr Patrick Holden

Patrick's teaching focuses on the European Union, international political economy and development policy. He has published books on the European Union’s development policy and international trade agreements.

His research interests include international political economy, the European Union in the world, global governance and regional integration.

Find out more about Patrick’s teaching and research interests