Tom Brister

Teaching Professor

Office: Kirby 315
Phone: 758-3996

Areas of Expertise: Terrorism, Irregular Warfare, Intelligence, Globalization


Thomas Brister is a Teaching Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University. He received his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University and his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. His courses focus on international politics, with special interests in irregular warfare, intelligence, globalization, and nationalism. He also serves as faculty advisor for the Wake Forest Model United Nations Club and Chi Psi Fraternity, along with coordinating the Great Decisions Speaker Series each spring. In addition, he has been faculty director for the Wake Forest Summer Program in Fez, Morocco, the Worrell House Semester Program in London, and Resident Professor with the Wake Washington Program in Washington, D.C.


B.S.    Foreign Affairs, Georgetown University, 1984
M.A.  Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia,1986
Ph.D. Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia,  2000

Academic Appointments

Teaching Professor, Wake Forest University, 2005-present
Visiting Assistant Professor, Sweet Briar College, 2000-2005
Adjunct, University of Virginia, 1997-2000
Member, Omicron Delta Kappa, Wake Forest University;

Faculty Advisor, Wake Forest Model United Nations, Chi Psi Fraternity, Great Decisions Speaker Series

Recent Research Interests

Irregular Warfare and National Strategic Cultures: Russia and China in the Multipolar Era
Globalization and the Return of Populist Nationalism




POL 116   International Politics
This is an introductory survey course in international relations and world politics,  covering a number of features of international politics: great power rivalries past and present, non-state actors in world politics, international political economy, issues like the global environment, terrorism and weapons proliferation, as well as attempts to control armed conflict among states through power politics and international organizations.

POL 252  Terrorism and Political Violence
This is a course about terrorism and political violence, covering the longer term history of the phenomenon, with a focus on a variety of cases ranging from early 20th century anti-colonial movements, ethno-nationalist and separatist movements, left wing terrorism in the 1970s and right wing terrorism in the United States, along with a special focus on America’s present ‘war on terrorism’. The course examines several important general questions: How do the weak fight the strong, and why do individuals or groups choose violent over nonviolent means to achieve their political goals? Is terrorism a political crime, or is it actually a new (or old) kind of warfare? What exactly do we mean by a “war on terrorism”?  What is the nature of the threat facing the United States and other countries today? It also addresses the changing global context of terrorism, given the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, tactics like suicide bombing, and new communications media that have changed the nature of the threat today.

POL 252 Globalization
Twenty years after the end of the Cold War we appear to have settled upon a new term to define and describe the new world order — “globalization”. This course explores the continuing debate about “globalization” from a variety of perspectives. Is this something new, or simply the repetition of old historical patterns in new disguises? Is it to our ultimate benefit or detriment? If the world is becoming “one”, why is there more ethnic conflict than ever? And what about the future of democracy in a world without borders? In addition to a general overview of the globalization debate, this course will focus more specifically on a variety of trans-border issues (controversies, problems, and dilemmas that no one state in isolation can address or hope to solve) – and the roles of non-state actors (in addition to states) in addressing them.  Issues addressed include the global food system, energy politics, environmental issues, immigration, the “illicit” global economy, and global media and culture.

POL 252 Intelligence and International Politics
This course examines the many important roles that the world of intelligence and espionage plays – and has played – in international politics.  Topics explored include: an overview of the basic elements of intelligence collection and analysis; the structure and oversight of the American intelligence community; a history of the CIA and American covert action since WWII; accounts by influential actors detailing the KGB-CIA contest in the Cold War, counterintelligence and scandals surrounding ‘double agents’ like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, and the opening battles with radical Islamic terrorism in the 1980s. We will also look at more recent intelligence failures involving the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq, as well as the role of the CIA in the ongoing ‘war on terrorism”. We will also do a brief survey of several prominent foreign intelligence agencies. The course ends with a discussion of moral and ethical dilemmas in this secret world that often seem at odds with the ideals of an open liberal democracy.

POL 252 Insurgency and Counter-insurgency
Against all conventional expectations and the great surprise of many, a little over a decade after the end of the Cold War “small wars” – variously referred to as low-level conflict, guerrilla war, and insurgencies – seemed to be returning as the threat of Great Power War has dramatically receded. Few imagined that “counterinsurgency” (COIN) would come to dominate much military thinking in the United States and other major powers in the 21st century. Today we see more and more small wars in progress across a wide swath of the world, posing a unique set of challenges to political and military leaders. This course has several aims: to provide a comprehensive historical survey of insurgency and guerrilla war, to analyze any more general principles and lessons that we can learn in order to formulate effective counter-insurgency strategies today, and to apply these principles in a class simulation activity across the second half of the semester.

This first year seminar examines the evolution of post-war international politics through the lens of the ‘spy film’ genre as a way of increasing our awareness and understanding of the global context in which world politics evolves. We see this reflected in the changing scenarios, villains, international alliances, and threats that have developed within the “Bond franchise” – and other films in the genre – since the first novels and films from the late 1950s appeared. As such, the course will address such issues as Cold War rivalry, the era of detente, emerging non-traditional security threats like terrorism, the drug trade, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the role of intelligence agencies, and ‘ new enemies’ in the post-Cold War era. More serious readings will provide the background for assessing and understanding reality versus fantasy in the popular cultural representation of global politics.

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