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The ‘Gandalf of International Relations’

The first dean’s professor under the leadership of USC Dornsife's Steve Kay gives the inaugural Dean’s Special Lecture — part of the role in the three-year post.

Patrick James, the first dean’s professor under Steve Kay’s leadership, delivers the inaugural Dean’s Special Lecture to a packed audience at the University Club. Photo by Erica Christianson.
Patrick James, the first dean’s professor under Steve Kay’s leadership, delivers the inaugural Dean’s Special Lecture to a packed audience at the University Club. Photo by Erica Christianson.

Patrick James, the first Dean’s Professor of International Relations, delivered the inaugural Dean’s Special Lecture on democracy, territorial issues and international conflict to a packed audience of faculty and students recently at the University Club.

Upon his or her three-year appointment, a dean’s professor gives a lecture in which faculty and students across campus are invited to learn about the appointee’s field of scholarship.

Introducing James as the “Gandalf of international relations,” USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay expounded on the professor’s innovative intro-level course which uses J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to teach students the various core principles and theories of international relations by relating them to the various characters and contending groups in the saga.

“Professor James has said that explaining the nuances of abstract IR theory for students can be like giving them a sleeping pill,” Kay said. “But by creatively tying those subjects into a dramatic storyline — one that many students are already familiar with — he has discovered a way to pique and sustain their interest.”

“This pedagogic originality may not be wizardry per se, but in academia it’s pretty close to it.”

A specialist in comparative and international politics, James’ interests include the causes, processes and consequences of conflict, crisis and war. In his lecture, he presented the results of his collaborative research project which is the first study to look at the possibly contingent effects of democracy and territory on conflict.

“Territory is either the first or second issue in war since the era of Westphalia in 1648 and the founding of the modern state system. Thirty percent of disputes between countries and 55 percent of wars involve territorial issues,” said James, director of USC Dornsife’s Center for International Studies.

Places that become invested with emotional or spiritual significance, such as Jerusalem, have a greater risk of becoming the focus of territorial conflict.

Examining how likely pairs of countries are to engage in conflict — given variables such as whether or not each government in place is a democracy and whether a territorial dispute exists — James showed that conflict is least likely to occur between two democracies with stable borders and no territorial issues.

“The two basic discoveries we made is firstly that the peace-inducing effect of two countries both being democratic gets stronger in a territorial context and secondly, that the conflict-generating effect of territorial issues holds even for democratic pairs of states, but at a reduced level,” James said, giving the example of the ongoing spat over Hans Island.

A tiny, uninhabited barren knoll with no worthwhile mineral or chemical compounds lying between Danish-owned Greenland and Canadian Ellesmere Island, Hans Island is claimed both by Denmark and Canada. Since 1984, each country has taken turns removing each other’s flag and planting its own. Each time a new flag is planted, the country responsible leaves a gift — Schnapps by the Danes and whisky by the Canadians — to be found by its rival. However, this territorial issue is unlikely to escalate into a conflict because both Canada and Denmark are democracies and allies.

“Democracies are less likely to fight over territory than are mixed pairs such as a democracy and autocracy or a couple of dictatorships,” said James, explaining that the research to date supports the argument that the presence of dictatorships and territorial issues play an important role in accounting for the escalation of disputes into conflicts.

As such his research offers a compelling response to the question of how territorial issues and type of government impact together on international cooperation and conflict and will have significant implications for the playing out of any number of contemporary events.

“A high priority emerges,” James said. “In the realm of international policy, we should be trying to focus more of our energy and effort on territorial and border related settlement than we do right now.”


To loud applause from faculty and students, Dean Steve Kay presents Patrick James with a plaque naming him Dean’s Professor of International Relations. Photo by Susan Bell.

A prolific author, James has published eight books, 12 edited volumes, and 88 peer-reviewed journal articles. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Western Ontario and later, after completing his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, returned to teach at McGill University and Manitoba University.

He is a recent recipient of USC Dornsife’s highest honor, the Albert S. Raubenheimer Award, given for outstanding contributions in research, teaching and service.

Paying tribute to James as “a thoughtful scholar and colleague,” Kay said the USC Dornsife program of dean’s professorships emerged from a desire to recognize faculty members who have the most distinguished record of scholarly contributions in their fields and have been exemplary in both teaching and service.

“As the newly appointed Dean’s Professor of International Relations, I believe Professor James fits this description perfectly.”

Two dean’s professorships are already held in USC Dornsife — Eric Friedlander, Dean’s Professor of Mathematics, and Bruce Smith, Dean’s Professor of English.

After a lively question-and-answer session following James’ lecture, Kay and James mingled with more than 70 faculty, staff and students at a reception.

“I was pleased and quite honored by how many colleagues and students came to the gathering, but even more so by the quality of the questions and the commentaries that emerged from audience questions,” James said. “That really reflects well on our entire community in USC Dornsife.”

Kay noted that scholars, teachers and students have the responsibility to effect change in three important ways — through the creation of knowledge, the transmission of knowledge and the translation of that knowledge for public benefit.

“By engaging in this exciting conversation today,” Kay said, “we help magnify the significance of professor James’ work and its implications for understanding the dynamic world around us.”