Policymakers and Professors

by John Sides on May 4, 2012 · 1 comment

in Academia

It has become conventional wisdom that international relations theory and policy have little in common. So someone like Stephen Walt tries to argue that realism, a major IR theory, would have led to different policy choices since the end of the Cold War and he gets criticized for not realizing that policymakers don’t care about IR theory.
That contention is wrong: scholars and policymakers share much more information than is usually acknowledged…I am not here to defend realism. I am here to defend the idea that there IS greater overlap between the policy and academic worlds than is usually acknowledged.

That’s political scientist Jeremy Pressman.  More here.

{ 1 comment }

LFC May 5, 2012 at 12:03 am

Walt is of course a very good scholar, and I happen to agree with quite a bit of what he says about policy. Unfortunately, he insists, at least on his blog, in closely tying his policy views to “realism,” which he contrasts (as a glance at the linked post indicates) to other perspectives such as “liberal internationalism” or “neoconservatism.” Walt thus implicitly presents “realism” as a coherent, unified body of propositions from which certain policy views follow. But it’s not that; “realism” is a set of writings by people of often rather divergent views that have been shoehorned under one label. It would be better, I think, if Walt simply presented his policy views as sensible policy views, rather than trying to argue that they vindicate his preferred theoretical perspective.

In other words, I think it’s a mistake to suppose that these things called (to use Pressman’s words) “major IR theories” have determinate policy implications. So-called “major IR theories” are loose intellectual traditions without determinate policy implications, for the most part. And “neoconservatism” I don’t think is an IR theory at all; it’s just a label for some (bad) policy views. When you put “realism” up against “neoconservatism,” as Walt does, you mix apples and oranges or, in fancier language, commit a category error.

The history of American ‘realism’ in particular shows that writers in the realist ‘school’ or tradition sometimes (and perhaps even quite often) disagreed with each other on specific policy questions. As Michael J. Smith wrote in his Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger (LSU Press, 1986), p.234: “…the truth realism spoke to power varied by spokesman…. it cannot be said that realism itself leads necessarily to wise and moderate foreign policy, or even that those calling themselves realists will agree on the content and means of such policy.” By ignoring this and implicitly claiming that there is a complete, seamless match-up between “realism” and his policy views, Walt is contributing to the distortion of the history of international thought, perpetuating misconceptions about IR theory, and not doing one of the things a prominent scholar should do, namely, increase understanding.

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