Nowadays, more and more young people are beginning to play an active role in international affairs. In 2014 Emma Watson was appointed UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, in recognition of her advocacy for women’s rights. Young people have brought new voices and youthful energy to the international arena, and a new generation is subtly influencing existing patterns of international relations. Today we are talking to Sophie Si Chen, a MSc Contemporary Chinese Studies graduate of St. Antony’s College and our International Relations Panel Director. She will be sharing her IR story and unique insights into young people’s roles on the international stage.
Interview with the Panel Director
Sophie: I probably started getting into international affairs in high school. I got involved with Model United Nations, where I gained some introductory understanding of international affairs and international organizations’ operational models, as well as developing curiosity about current events. From then on I developed a habit of watching the news: I’d read newspapers and online news in both Chinese and English almost every day. I read quite selectively so it probably wasn’t very comprehensive, but I really enjoyed reading about things happening around the world and discussing these with my family at the dinner table.
(cont.) In my first year of university I took a few mandatory introductory courses for the IR major, which deepened my interest in this field. Actually, at first I definitely took ‘International Relations’ too literally, thinking ‘how could I, an average young person, research relationships between countries?’ Are my intellectual capacities and knowledge sufficient for exploring such a rigorous and unfathomable subject? However, after actually studying IR, my previous impression of the subject immediately disappeared: IR is actually a really approachable subject, because politics affect every aspect of life and human experience. It’s only because I had never observed life from such an angle that I thought the IR perspective would be alienating.
(cont.) I was lucky enough to have gone to an undergraduate institution with a very inclusive and open curriculum, where IR wasn’t just pages of dull political theory; instead, they included lots of content incorporating sociology, anthrology, and cross-cultural studies. I mainly specialized in international political economics: in addition to taking core theory courses in economics, I also studied political economics (such as European economic integration and international trade policies), political theory, area politics (the Middle East, Southeast Asia, East Asia, the US, Europe, etc.), international development, history, geopolitics, and social science approaches. This curriculum illustrated major global trends and developmental shifts in human political societies as well as histories and contemporary realities in each region, allowing me to learn about conflicts and challenges facing different peoples and polities in addition to influential global problems. Not only was I able to understand national narratives from systematic evolutions and political gains and losses, but I was also able to gain insight into the stories of communities from history, culture, and national characters, turning a seemingly serious and boring subject into a warm and humanistic discipline.
(cont.) Studying International Relations taught me how to observe and understand the world in profound ways. It forces me to think about problems in different ways and from different angles, because our classes involve many debates, seminars, and speeches; these all demand lots of thinking in order for us to reach cohesive individual theories and understand foundational logic. I think the experience of studying IR is also a self-cultivating practice. We study politics in order to understand the nature and tendencies of humanity as a community. I enjoy ‘observing humans’ in order to better study, examine, and understand myself, which in my opinion is a lifelong project unrestricted to any one academic discipline; on the other hand, I think that to understand the public it is essential to understand the background of the public through politics, history, economics, law, and culture. That’s not to say that history and economics are not important, but politics does mangage to encompass all those.
Q1: In many people’s eyes IR is a very intimidating major; what do you think about this impression? How has this subject shaped your understanding of youth?
Sophie: Politics and IR have long been misunderstood. People think that politics are about power struggles, whereas IR is just tricks and treachery. In fact, IR is not a free-for-all discussion on international trends. Rather, it is the dissection of motivations and causes behind the actions of international actors through one or multiple theories in the IR field, with the aim of providing reasonably scientific explanations and speculating about policies the actor in question might undertake — what we call ‘state action’.
(cont.) I learned a lot from studying IR. First of all, this subject allows people to perceive issues with depth and farsightedness. You’re able to understand the political sensitivity at hand every time you watch news broadcasts or political events. Secondly, studying state actions is very similar to studying human nature. Knowledge of international relations can help people view international events in a neutral and systematic way, and to a certain extent it can counter emotional and nationalist impulses, avoiding chaotic, unconscious contradictions and even double standards in interpretation. Third, I’ve learned critical thinking through IR. Take the case of Somali pirates: if you only listen to the media, you will think that Somali pirates are cruel and ruthless. But if you’ve studied international relations, you will analyze and criticize it from a more comprehensive perspective. Somalia was colonized by Britain, France and Italy for 120 years, and its resources were looted. Originally, Somalis could make a living as fishermen, but since the development of fisheries in Europe and the Middle East led to overfishing, Somalia’s fishery resources were rapidly depleted and they had nowhere to go. So you see that this is not only a security issue, but also a historical issue, a development issue, and even an environmental issue.
(cont.) However, social sciences are not like the natural sciences, where the actions and thoughts of observers will not change the facts. In social sciences, observers’ thinking can complicate facts (Soros). Therefore, in order to maintain simplicity and joy, and to distinguish between pedantry and academic value, one must learn to cultivate acceptance of imperfection. In a more positive sense, it means looking at problems from a developmental perspective.
Q2: Why did you want to set up a panel about youth people and international affairs? What kinds of discussions and voices are you hoping to hear?
Sophie: More than 40% of the world’s population is under 25, but in international affairs the voices of youth are far from fairly represented. When faced with grand issues like international affairs, young people will more or less feel a sense of alienation and powerlessness. I want to use this panel to strengthen young people’s awareness of international affairs and help everyone realize that many problems in the world require young people’s contribution. Today’s youths are more closely connected with the world than ever. The world they grew up in has experienced two economic recessions, the largest climate crisis in history, pandemics, an increase in natural disasters, food safety issues, political conflicts, and civil rights movements. The world is changing, and we must change with it. Today’s world needs more young people to put forward their views in international decision-making processes, work with world leaders to solve global problems, and shape the future of their generation. This is by no means an easy task. However, with the increasing influence of many young social activists in society, there are already more ways to include young people in international affairs.
Q3: From your experiences and observations, what kinds of impacts do you think young people can create in international affairs? Are there any examples in economics, politics, etc. which illustrate the importance of youth participation in international affairs?
Sophie: In recent years, youth-led NGOs have begun actively participating in diplomatic discussions and international affairs. New problems often arise in international relations and require modern technological solutions. Based on their personal experiences, young people are able to provide innovative solutions to thorny global problems and help bring about real policy changes. We see more and more examples of young leaders, marking the beginning of a new era. One of them is the 35-year-old Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin. She is the youngest prime minister in the world. Marin’s vision is to “build a society where every child can be whatever they want to be, and everyone can live and grow with dignity.” Marin was born in a low-income family and grew up with same-sex parents, which gave her a deep understanding of the difficulties faced by these groups. After becoming prime minister, she brought more attention and care to these groups. Younger examples include Malala, a social activist from Pakistan, and Greta Thunberg, a climate activist from Sweden. They have shown young people’s incredible potential in international affairs, and as world leaders listened to their voices, they’ve set off a global wave of renewed attention to climate change and women’s education.
(cont.) Chinese youths have many ways to create international influence, regardless of platform sizes. For example, after the outbreak of Covid-19 last year, many young people witnessed China’s fight against the pandemic and recorded it in writing, videos, etc., as well as sharing these through the media and social platforms. These voices refuted many false reports and enhanced understanding among various countries’ populations, helping actively promote mutual trust.
Q4: What kinds of obstacles might young people in Chain encounter wheen trying to create international impacts?
Sophie: China is still lacking talented individuals who can tell Chinese stories clearly and effectively represent Chinese voices in an international context. For example, the current proportion of Chinese employees in international organizations is seriously mismatched with China’s global influence and the number of Chinese students studying abroad. Many Chinese students start studying abroad at an early age, but their own cultural outlooks had not yet been established and it is often difficult to balance their own culture with integration into local societies. Moreover, Chinese students usually choose majors such as finance and computer science rather than humanities or social sciences when studying abroad, which may also make it difficult for them to gain advantages in cross-cultural communication. Learning a foreign language well is just one aspect, because it is a only tool for communication and exchange. What is ultimately needed is for young people to have a full understanding of national culture, maintain openness and respect for multiculturalism, and be able to deeply understand world history, culture and global issues. We must first understand and tolerate our own culture if we are to better pursue an inclusive kind of global development.
In the past 20 years, social movements led by youth have brought about several revolutions. Historically speaking, young people have often challenged traditional authority, fought to liberate themselves and their countries, and profoundly influenced international relations. With climate change, increasing natural disasters, food safety issues, and political conflicts, the world’s future is at stake. Young people need to strive for more opportunities to put forward their own views in international decision-making processes, participate in international institutions, and work with world leaders to solve global problems and shape the future of their generation. As the influences of many young social activists have increased, there are already more ways to include young people in decision-making within international affairs, such as promoting holistic education, increasing young people’s understanding of international organizations, and helping more young people join international organizations.
At OCF’s IR panel, we will be hearing from youth activists and international relations scholars as they discuss the role of youth in international affairs. We will learn about how activists have strived to create positive impacts in the world as well as the challenges they face, and discuss how to better incorporate the voice of youth into international affairs and diplomacy. Our goal is to further promote the social responsibilities of international organizations among young people, and encourage more young people to join international organizations while exploring more ways to participate in international governance.