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Interstate Relations versus International Relations Careers

Interstate and international relations are two disciplines of political science that, while distinct, feature a considerable amount of overlap. Mastery of either discipline sharpens a diplomat’s ability to tactfully navigate political systems across borders. While interstate relations experts in the U.S. use this skill to coordinate interstate affairs—such as commerce regulations, interstate highway commissions and interstate compact agreements—international relations experts have a much broader scope of responsibility as it pertains to making diplomatic progress with foreign nations. Regardless of a diplomat’s specialization, understanding key aspects of both disciplines, including the ways in which they differ and align, can prove beneficial to understanding the process of political and economic interaction between domestic or international entities.

International Relations

In international relations, professional diplomats frequently interact with governments, as well as non-state actors such as the United Nations or the World Bank, to enforce, support, or restructure systems of international governance. As there is no overarching global law enforcement organization, it is up to diplomats to ensure that the interests of their government or employer are accurately conveyed to fellow state actors. This is accomplished through the implementation of foreign policy, conflict negotiation, responsible military use, and well-regulated international economics. In the context of international relations, each nation state’s behavior can be observed from one of four perspectives.

  • System Level Analysis – At this level, diplomats must analyze how international systems impact governments and seek to obtain balance for countries that are being unjustly affected by international governance. For instance, if the United Nations proposes sanctions on a nation’s trade efforts as a consequence of a regulatory violation, a subcommittee of UN diplomats must determine whether the terms of that sanction are justified, and if not, what system would be more appropriate.
  • State Level Analysis – Foreign policy experts analyze how a nation’s intrinsic characteristics (namely, culture, economics and geography) influence the content of its foreign policy.
  • Organizational Level Analysis – Diplomats identify how intra-national organizations interact with one another to influence their nation’s foreign policy. For instance, if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines that a particular substance is safe for use, diplomats would then need to discuss how foreign policy and customs agencies will handle import of that substance into the U.S.
  • Individual Level Analysis – International relations experts agree that national leaders are the most important contributors to their nation’s foreign policy. Ergo, diplomats plan their course of political action based on the knowledge of what heads of state have done in the past.

International diplomats are assigned to address global political matters, such as determining whether a foreign nation is obeying international trade, pollution prevention, and human rights regulations, as well as any other pertinent international statutes. Military aggression, toxic waste dumping, colonial domination, and acts of genocide are especially grievous and will quickly attract the attention of international leaders who are likely to deploy international diplomats abroad to negotiate for their national interests. When it is discovered that a nation or its people are not in compliance with compulsory international regulations, international diplomats are centric to the process of either helping national leaders formulate strategies to attain compliance or proposing international action that will effectively restrict the offending nation’s ability to further compromise the interests of the international community.

To ensure the validity of international commerce, international relations experts also participate in the verification of trade agreements, such as contracts and proposals. This requires an evaluation of the legal, political, social, and economic condition of each stake-holding nation in order to ensure that no laws are breached. Similarly, social matters, such as the delivery of humanitarian aid, require the support of international relations experts who can use their understanding of analysis, advocacy, and communication to unearth knowledge about countries or communities for use in planning viable diplomatic solutions to pressing social issues.

Interstate Relations: What Is It?

Rather than progressing national interests abroad, an interstate diplomat’s primary objective is building alliances, coalitions, and networks with other states in order to pursue joint goals, like attracting investment to a particular region of the U.S. or preserving natural environments. This involves ensuring that trade and governing policy between states is fair and regulated, as well as routinely analyzing communities to identify problems that require multi-state cooperation and planning the implementation of interstate initiatives to solve them. For instance, interstate diplomats can pool their resources to enhance their state administrations’ chances of success when seeking compensation through legal action against a company that may have breached state or federal law while participating in interstate commerce.

In achieving multi-state cooperative objectives, an interstate diplomat’s most important career responsibility is the administration of multi-state compacts, which are contracts enacted for the purpose of initiating broad public policies that exceed the jurisdiction of a single state. However, if a proposed interstate compact has the potential to supersede the power of the federal government, Congress reserves the right to approve or deny said compact through a process called congressional consent. The role of the career interstate diplomat in this process is to ensure that the compact agreement is constructed in a way that will meet with congressional approval, while still offering the stakeholders of the compact a beneficial arrangement.

To develop an effective proposal for multi-state cooperation, teams of diplomats must perform methodological research to identify flaws in the system of interest; create a profile of any affected parties; then reach out to them and construct a multi-state solution that will rectify the problem. This is often facilitated by the creation of independent commissions that operate unilaterally across state lines as governmental authorities. The creation of these commissions results in new administrative structures, each of which must be staffed by educated diplomats who can work with a team of interdisciplinary professionals to negotiate creative solutions to difficult and possibly time-sensitive socioeconomic or political issues.

How Do These Fields Relate to One Another?

More than ever, domestic and international governments are in need of professionals who can perform a wide array of diplomatic and economic functions to progress state and national interests. Experts in international and interstate relations must understand how to structure and implement trade policies, accords, and regulations. Politically, international relations experts must elicit international support in addressing global issues such as pandemics, terrorism, and environmental concerns, while interstate relations experts often appeal to the federal government to initiate similar reforms on a regional scale. In either discipline, diplomats must perform a thorough examination of the proposed partner nation or state, allowing experts to gather data from all facets of that state or nation’s societal infrastructure (including economic, political and cultural considerations) in order to design a mutually beneficial relationship.

Careers in the Public Sector

Research Specialists – As a career research specialist or survey researcher, a diplomat is tasked with conducting surveys to collect accurate data about the residents of a particular region or demographic. In interstate relations, the research is directed at demographics within an individual state or group of states, while international relations professionals collect data regarding the larger population of a foreign nation.

Policy Writers – This job requires collaboration with other entities to coordinate legislation that will further any social, economic, or political interests while accounting for the needs of the constituents that may be affected by the legislation.

Political Analysts – Recognizing the political climate between states, nations, and non-state entities are essential to the introduction of effective policies. Political analysts assess the culture and society of other states or nations, the overarching political landscape therein, their resources and capabilities, and how those factors may be of interest to other states or nations. Using this information, policymakers, law experts, researchers, and even private firms can develop strategies for future operations.

International/Interstate Lawyers – These diplomats are tasked with litigating judiciary matters for the sake of settling interstate disputes and encouraging cooperative actions between states, such as refining compact agreements for federal approval. The work of international lawyers is often highly specialized and includes helping global corporations, non-state actors, NGOs, and national entities to negotiate transactions, solve disputes and navigate foreign laws.

International/Interstate Business Consultants – Diplomats are also vital in gathering business intelligence and drafting corporate policies; this includes identifying likely competitors, defining strategies for ethical business practices relative to region, and establishing management policies that are likely to be effective in international or interstate settings.

Education & Training

Professional opportunities in international or interstate relations only occur at the highest levels of business and government. Therefore, these positions require candidates to have a master’s degree in international relations, international business or diplomacy—as well as several years’ worth of professional experience in the public or private sector. If an international relations expert has proven his or herself through success in entry-level roles (such as basic foreign service officer jobs) he or she is more likely to reach high-level positions in the public or private sector.

Key Skills

To be an effective international or interstate relations professional, it is important to develop the following skills:

  • Critical Research – Diplomatic decisions have the potential to impact millions of people. Therefore, knowing how to gather and sort through large volumes of reliable data for the purpose of formulating a realistic plan of action is a critical skill for aspiring diplomats.
  • Communication – Diplomacy requires the ability to speak and write clearly in order to effectively convey ideas to any colleagues or stakeholders who may be responsible for approving diplomatic proposals.
  • Teamwork – Working with a large organization to accomplish significant goals across state lines or national borders will require attentive collaboration and a strong grasp of teamwork skills.
  • Adaptability – To ensure that entire political or economic agreements are not derailed by unexpected changes to the international or interstate environment, diplomats must remain prepared to acclimate themselves to unexpected or adverse circumstances.

Success in international and interstate relations requires diplomats to forge close ties between communities that often have different cultures, political structures, and social expectations among diverse populations. Though they hold some similarities, overall, these contrasting specializations of diplomacy are each leveraged differently; interstate diplomats use relationships to create partnerships that can be used to supplement state and federal legislation, while international diplomats work to strengthen the lines of communication and interaction between entire nations. A Master of Arts in International Relations degree can heighten an individual’s ability to comprehend the societal differences that exist on a local, state, national or global scale and channel them into useful policies and programs that can strengthen diplomatic relationships.

Learn More

As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.

Our online Master of Arts in International Relations program offers a curriculum that evolves with current events to help you face the future of international affairs. Norwich University’s master’s degree in international relations covers many subjects to give you a look at the internal workings of international players, examine the role of state and non-state actors on the global stage, and explore different schools of thought. You can further strengthen your knowledge by choosing one of five concentrations in International Security, National Security, International Development, Cyber Diplomacy, or Regions of the World.

Recommended Readings:
Key Theories of International Relations
Essential Skills for a Career in International Relations


Congressional Consent and the Permission for States to Enter Into Interstate Compacts, The Council of State Government

Office on International Affairs, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

Separation of Powers – State – Tribal Relations and Interstate Compacts, National Conference of State Legislatures

States “Climate Alliance” Raises Questions About the Constitutions Interstate Compacts Clause, The Washington Post

More States Sign on to U.S. Climate Alliance to Honour Paris Agreement, USA Today

Frequently Asked Questions Regarding The National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact Act of 1998, Compact Council

Understanding Interstate Compacts, Council of Governments – National Center for Interstate Compacts

International Relations Careers, International Relations EDU

What are the Tools of Diplomacy, Discover Diplomacy

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