Center for Strategic Communication

Over at his New York Times blog, Ross Douthat ponders whether a devotion to foreign policy theories is trapping the Obama administration into holding fast to its Egyptian client as horror after horror piles up. Douthat writes rather elegantly about the problems of being locked into stale paradigms, a theme that Dan and I have turned to again and again at Abu M and our personal blogs:

[W]hat I really meant to do was make the case against becoming trapped
by a system or an ideology or a grand strategy in a world that doesn’t
always conform itself to academic theory. That is to say, theories are
important and necessary, in foreign policy as in any area of endeavor.
But because the kind of challenges that statesmen face are so varied and
complex, they need to be flexible, adaptable, and constantly ready to
recognize when their preferred ideological approach isn’t delivering on
its promises.

A slavish and naive devotion to realism, Douthat is saying, is preventing the Obama administration and others (such as conservative writers he cites like the National Review) from seeing that continued support of the Egyptian military has become a fool’s errand. Douthat overstates the impact of realpolitik (or on the flipside, cosmopolitan-liberal) academic theories on how policy is made. He isn’t alone. As ThinkProgress blogger Zack Beauchamp and I once observed in the course of a Twitter convo, FP realists think that the halls of power are dominated by FP liberals and vice versa. Both statements cannot be true. And policymakers are relentlesssly practical (or at least like to think of themselves as such) individuals driven by tight timetables and both external and internal rivalries and pressuries.

Certainly it’s feasible that decisionmakers are influenced by the long-diluted outputs of theoretical inputs. I often make an analogy to the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly schools a subordinate on how her bland off-the-shelf outfit is the endproduct of a chain of events beginning with high fashion shows in Paris and Milan. Many government and industry executives are very, very big fans of dumbed-down versions of more complex ideas purveyed to them in bite-sized pieces by the likes of Thomas Friedman, TED talkers, and Malcolm Gladwell. But it’s also worth noting that Vietnam was justified on realist grounds but
opposed by the founder of American realism, Hans Morgenthau. Likewise,
the debate over the feasibility of a Syria intervention divided many
proponents of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Dan’s debating partner Anne
Marie Slaughter argued for, while Beauchamp argued against.

Another strike against the idea of politicians trapped by adherence to academic abstractness that there is very little “academic” buy-in for the foreign policy theories Douthat is talking about anymore. The international relations academy moved on from endless realism vs. liberalism haggling a very long time ago. Take my blogfriend Anton Strezhnev, for example. Anton is a Harvard PhD student studying under the wise tutelege of Gary King, a man who generations of political science and IR students are compelled to read for research methods. Game theory, stats, and probability are what inspire him. But why did IR lose interest in grand theoretical debates?

Eventually grand debates about realism and liberalism (and constructivism) hit a dead end. Many realized that grand theory (to paraphrase some convos I’ve had with some recently minted PhDs at this spring’s International Studies Association), lacked social scientific content. It was not predictive or internally consistent, but rather constituted reflections of the grand theorist’s own political philosophy. Without predictive value, such theories are little different than religion or mythology. It was not for nothing that Phil Schrodt compared theories of power balancing to old Norse ideas that the rage of the gods led to lightning strikes. IR ended up going for a more eclectic set of theoretical backdrops and a more intense focus on methods and micro-foundations. Old theorists of the kind Douthat critiques, in fact, feel threatened by this focus because it erodes their influence.

But while overly ideological academic “theory” might not do it for the academy, it works perfectly fine for the policy arena. This is part of why grand theorists of IR whose ideas elicit little interest in their own fields find a receptive audience among policymakers. But even here it’s hard to see how the causal arrow points. Has grand theory or the diluted folk intellectualism often derived from it brainwashed policymakers?1 Or, as W.K. Winecoff once argued, are ideas just products of the policy process itself?2 Politicians have always used intellectuals as a source of justification for their decisions since the days of court philosophers. Many DC policy analysts earn a living by getting on TV and using their expertise to push one faction or party’s ideas. 

As I’ve said in my last blog post, political decisions are messy and often are the product of prolonged debate and struggle between multiple factions, multiple ideologies, and inputs. People like me and Douthat that sincerely care about the world of ideas would like to believe that ideas really do matter. But just as we would be making a category mistake to think that the men and women at the top carry around well-thumbed copies of Pacification in Algeria, we shouldn’t also believe that Theory of International Politics matters too much during the Air Force One huddles chronicled in Woodward books.

At the end of the day, the sausage is not made by the men and women of ideas. It is made by the bare-knuckle brawlers, the masters of memos, and the finest of fixers. Politicians care about maximizing their space of options. Those who give options perceived to be useful are rewarded, those who cannot are shunted to the side. Obama spent his formative years at the Harvard University law library—he didn’t exactly spend a great deal of time hanging around Tampa debating with JSOU instructors about whether Aaron Bank or Orde Wingate was the most badass foundational special operator. But POTUS obviously sees special operations as a useful solution for security problems his administration faces. National security is a market, and he or she who provides the Prez with what he wants is rewarded with symbolic, political, and material rewards. 3

Douthat is on solid ground in warning us about ideological stasis. But ideological stasis is not really the result of a deficit in the world of ideas. It is the end product of a correlation of forces that maximizes the power of those who hold certain ideas or find them congenial to their own purposes. Ideas matter to a point. But they lack the centrality Douthat ascribes.


1. Twitter and blogfriend Ryan Evans commented that this sentence was too vague, so I changed it to make it more clear that I was not lumping grand theory with “folk intellectualism.”

2. Forgot which blog he did this in, and googling can’t help me 🙁

3. Note to academics chasing policy relevance: dumbing down your research, making it more journalistic, or stripping it of math won’t help. Find a problem that a policymaker has and offer a solution. Bonus points if your solution congrues with a bias they have or helps them in a factional battle they’re engaged in.