Faculty voice:

Matt Zierler: Take a Leap

Sept. 30, 2015

Matt Zierler is an associate professor of international relations in MSU’s James Madison College. He is an expert in U.S. foreign policy, international security, international relations theory, international law and international cooperation.

While I was always interested in history and current events, the first sense that I would make a career in international affairs came during my freshman year of high school. I was in my first year studying the German language in 1989 – the same year the Berlin Wall came down.

My modern world history class would coincide with the Persian Gulf War. These seminal events in contemporary history showed me that change is possible in the world and that there were new and great opportunities for peace, cooperation and exchange. Yet the 1990s would also show, with the situations in Rwanda, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, that the post-Cold War world would not be as easy as some had hoped.

My interest in working in foreign affairs led me to pursue my undergraduate degree in Washington, DC. Being in the city and exposed to new ideas and peoples was terrific. But after a couple of relevant internships, I realized that I would prefer a career studying and teaching about international relations than actually being a part of the policy process.

I have never regretted that decision as graduate school in Wisconsin and my career at MSU have allowed me to explore a wide variety of issues in foreign policy and especially the instruments of global governance and the possibility of interstate cooperation.

Being in a place like James Madison College has enabled me to pursue my intellectual interests while also interacting with and sharing ideas and experiences with amazing undergraduate students. On five occasions, I have led our study abroad program to Brussels, Belgium where students learn about issues related to NATO and the European Union.

Being able to visit the institutions and talk with representatives makes the process come alive for the students. As a teacher, it is a great feeling to be a part of what is often a highlight of a student’s academic career, and then see how they make use of that experience in the future. Leading this program has also given me more confidence as a scholar and a teacher. I have had to think carefully about how to make the program enriching and engaging, and it also pushed me outside of my personal comfort zone (taking 25 students to Europe for a month will do that to you!).

I took my own leap during the spring semester of 2014 when I spent three months doing research and teaching in Baku, Azerbaijan. I had research interests in the foreign policy of Eurasia, but had not spent a lot of time in the region. Taking this leap is exactly what I tell my students to do, and it has led to an additional trip to Baku and continued intellectual engagement for me and educational opportunities for students. I’m appreciative that James Madison College has opened up these opportunities for me.

As a teacher, my primary goal is to share my excitement about the world we live in. That means opening up my eyes to new ideas and places, and sharing that with my students. It means encouraging them to figure out their place in the world so that they can pursue their goals. While all scholars think that their issue might be the most important one that everyone should care about, it is clear that this is never usually the case.

Issues related to international relations touches on everyone – whether it is the threat of war, the value of a currency, the provision of human rights or the state of the environment. Yet in my classes on foreign policy making and in my interactions with local media, it is clear that the general public is often ill informed or not engaged.

This is seen in the current presidential race where issues relating to foreign affairs are sometimes mentioned (the Iranian nuclear deal, immigration), but it is clear that the public has not been able to hear a thorough discussion of these complex issues. Additionally, it is likely that those issues won’t be decisive anyway when one enters the voting booth. But as a teacher, it is still my job and my joy to encourage students and others to engage in the broader world around them so that they see its importance in everything they do.