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I’ve stared to roll out bonus episodes exclusive to patrons of the podcast.  I’m calling these episodes “background briefings.” They examine current issues in the news, but through a deeper historic lens.

In conversations with experts, we provide you the context you need to understand key debates, institutions, ideas and dilemmas shaping world affairs and foreign policy today.

These episodes are specially created for listeners who make a recurring monthly contribution to the show through the Patreon platform. It’s one of many rewards that premium subscribers receive. (Check out our Patreon page to view the other rewards.) If the podcast is part of your weekly routine, please support the show!

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Background Briefing 1: International Relations Theory, explained. 

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Georgetown Professor Elizabeth Arsenault packs a semester worth of IR theory into one thirty minute conversation. After listening to this episode you’ll learn the difference between “realism,” “liberalism,” and “constructivism.” You’ll learn the key assumptions, debates and individuals who have shaped IR theory; and you’ll learn why this matters to policy makers. And if you are like Elizabeth and I, you’ll even start to see IR theory everywhere–from reading about Trump’s National Security Council to rearing toddlers.

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Background Briefing 2: Nuclear Nonproliferation, explained

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Daryl Kimball, president of the Arms Control Association discusses how the international community stops the spread of nuclear weapons. After listening to this 30-ish minute conversation you will have a good grounding in the major issues involved in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and will have the context you need to interpret moves by the Trump administration as it seeks to change nuclear policy.  You’ll learn the history of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and its strengths and weaknesses.  We also discuss including the Iran nuclear deal, the threat from North Korea and  a rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist who sold know-how on the black market.

Coming up next week: A brief history of NATO, with Julie Smith. 

Coming up soon: US-China relations, explained. With Orville Schell. 

The content will be guided by your suggestions and recommendations, so please let me know what you would like to learn.  New episodes will be published on an ongoing basis. Send me an email if you have any questions, comments, concerns + compliments. 

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Episode 141: Joshua Landis

As the Syria civil war enters its seventh year, the outcome of the conflict no longer seems in doubt. With some 400,000 people killed and over 11 million Syrian displaced, its appears likely that the Syrian government will likely prevail over its armed opposition.

On the line to discuss how the Syrian government gained the upper hand, and what this means for the future of Syria is Joshua Landis, a longtime scholar and expert on the region.

Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis is someone I have turned to for many years to help me make sense of events in Syria and the broader middle east. He started his blog Syria Comment over ten years ago and has since become an oft-cited expert on Syria and the civil war. He’s a professor at the University of Oklahoma where he directs the Center for Middle East Studies.

Joshua Landis seemed destined to become one of America’s foremost Syria specialists. He spent much of his childhood and adolescence in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Landis describes how spending some formative years in Beirut both as a child during the height of Beirut’s cosmopolitan boom and later in his twenties during the Lebanese civil war, shaped how he understood his Syria civil war as it was unfolding.

We kick off with a discussion of the current state of the conflict in Syria before pivoting to a longer conversation about Landis’ life and career, with plenty of digressions about historic foreign policy events in the Levant.

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For the first time in six years, a famine has been declared

The United Nations did some extremely rare in February: agencies declared that a famine was ongoing in parts of South Sudan. More than 100,000 people are affected by this famine and childhood mortality rates are already surging there.

On the line with me to discuss why this famine declaration was made, what is means on the ground for the people affected by it and the humanitarian agencies trying to contain the damage is Steve Taravella, senior spokesperson for the World Food Program in Washington. And as Steve describes “famine” is actually a technical term — it does not mean just having no food. Rather it is a threshold that is taken from a number of indicators that taken together mean that people are dying from starvation in extreme numbers.

This famine declaration comes as the UN is also fighting intense food security crises in Yemen, Somalia and parts of Northern Nigeria. And Steve describes how this is really an unprecedented moment for relief organizations like his.

Episode 140: Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer who combines those two crafts to produce cutting edge journalism on some key global topics. She’s reported and drawn from Guantanamo, worked with Syrian activists to depict scenes from inside ISIS strongholds, and most recently returned from refugee encampments in Greece.

Molly is a contributing editor to VICE and her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, the New York Times, Newsweek and elsewhere. Her art is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

She describes how she uses art in the service of journalism—something frankly that is unique and totally innovative. I’ve posted an art work of hers so you can get a sense of her style. Her memoir Drawing Blood was published to critical in 2015.


Scenes from the Syrian War is a collection illustrated articles serialized in Vanity Fair, made in collaboration with an anonymous source within Syria. Using photos sent via cell phone, Molly recreates rare glimpses of daily life in ISIS-occupied Syria.  You can see more of her art at 

Episode 139: Bathsheba Crocker

Assistant Secretary Bathsheba Crocker Credit: United Nations Foundation

Diplomacy runs in Bathsheba Crocker’s family.

Sheba and her father Chester Crocker are the first parent-child combination to have both served as Assistant Secretaries of State. Crocker-the-elder was a noted Africa specialist who served in the Regan administration, and Sheba describes his how influence and the influence of her mother’s family, who were Jews who fled eastern Europe to Zimbabwe, had a profound impact on her worldview.

Bathsheba Crocker recently left her post as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs. She had served in various positions in the State Department for the entirety of the Obama administration and before that she worked in the office of the United Nations’ special envoy for Tsunami Recovery and Relief. (That “Special Envoy” was none other than Bill Clinton.)

Since leaving her post, Sheba admits she has more time on her hands these days and you find her on Twitter and also writing for Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government vertical. We kick off with a discussion about how the transition to the Trump administration is shaking up the State Department.

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