Saturday, February 11, 2006

Academic Foreign Policy?

by Joe Miller

Over at TPMcafe, Matt Yglesias complains about the developing trend of applying the label "neo-realist" to apply to anyone who cherry-picks from realpolitic and idealism in order to offer a post hoc justification for whatever George W. Bush's flavor-of-the-month foreign policy. Matt notes that "neorealism" already has a meaning in foreign policy circles. It is the position of Kenneth Waltz, who offers some modifications of classical realism (Morganthau, Kennan, Clausewitz, etc.).

Matt then goes on to offer the following:
Frankly, I think it's generally misleading to try and import terms derived from academic debates and map them onto policy debates. It's never been obvious to me that Brent Scowcroft's view of what American foreign policy should be like has anything in particular to do with what Waltz or John Mearsheimer have to say about the structure of international politics.
I have my doubts about Matt's analysis. Maybe this is just Joe the self-interested academic who wants to pretend as if his work has some relevance in the actual world, but it seems to me that academics who write on foreign policy have one of two goals in mind. Academic work aims either at description or at normativity.

Consider, for instance, Michael Walzer's discussion of General Sherman in Just and Unjust Wars. Walzer examines Sherman's famous claim that "War is hell" in light of Sherman's subsequent behavior in the South during the closing days of the Civil War. From this analysis, Walzer constructs a substantive theoretical account of a particular brand of realism (namely, the view that the aggressor is morally responsible for all the particular evils that happen during war, or to put the point another way, that the victim of aggression can do no wrong in responding to aggression). Walzer's work is, therefore, largely descriptive in this context. He is explaining to us what Sherman's position actually is.

Other work in foreign policy is normative in character. (Indeed, most of Just and Unjust Wars is a work in normative foreign policy). In my own writings on humanitarian intervention, I argue for the position that I think policy-makers ought to adopt. In claiming, for example, that failed states no longer qualify as politically sovereign and are thus candidates for (extremely limited and short-term) colonialism--or if we're being more policially correct, trusteeship; think Afghanistan here and not the Belgian Congo--I'm arguing for a standard that I think the President ought to adopt.

Whether academic work in foreign policy is descriptive or normative, then, it strikes me that it is very much supposed to connect up to actual policy debates. Of course academic categories and actual policy will rarely match up perfectly, even when the actual actor is him/herself pretty theoretically inclined (think Wolfowitz and Strauss for example). But to say that academic debates should not be mapped on to actual policy discussions is to render academic debates pretty much pointless. If Matt were writing at powerline, then I might suspect that that conclusion was pretty much exactly what he had in mind. I suspect, though, that he doesn't really mean to imply the uselessness of academic discussions of foreign policy.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I have the distinct feeling that this is one of those issues where language gets in the way of "what we want to say."

I've been coming across a lot of rants along those lines and I just smile.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

the foregin policy, and how we see it today differs from what others have thought about in the past. lanaguage and the way other communicate help with the way we precive the so called international language and how we all can communcate

1:39 PM  

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