At his Foreign Policy blog, Stephen Walt makes a bold claim: If realists had been in charge of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy may have been more reasonable: no Iraq War, no Balkan adventures and no “nation-building”. Perhaps if American policy had been conducted by rigorous, unsentimental thinkers, America could have avoided the waste of vast amounts of blood and treasure, and would currently enjoy a stronger position on the world stage.Walt’s piece is an interesting counterfactual, but it displays a fundamental lack of understanding of how American foreign policy works. Foreign policy is not driven by ideologues steeped in international theory, but by planners operating within a system of political and institutional constraints. Many of America’s foreign policy elite are self-described realists, many are not, but both groups advocate a range of policies informed more by their assessment of conditions on the ground than any ideological viewpoint.Adam Elkus puts it best (h/t Dan Drezner):
. . . Walt misunderstands the relationship of theory to policy. IR scholarship is scholarship—it seeks to generate knowledge about the world around us. That knowledge can help aid action, but in and of itself does not constitute an operational approach for action. Carl von Clausewitz wrote in On War that theory prepares the mind for action, but cannot dictate action, and Alexander George has written extensively about the interaction between IR scholars and policymakers, and argues that general knowledge of international relations can only be an input to, not a substitute for, policy analysis within the government. General knowledge will aid the decisionmaker, but cannot tell him or her what the right answer to a given individual situation may be. IR theory is systemic in nature—it is about (within the framework of dominant big three IR) causal inferences. It was never optimized for the purpose of telling policymakers how to handle individual cases.Aside from this, policymaking is distinguished by domestic political considerations, international policy linkages, and bureaucratic foodfights. Even if Walt’s realist policymakers understood the right solution, boning up on Offense-Defense Theory tells you nothing about how to operationalize it within the American political system. The invasion of Iraq stands as a paramount example of this problem. The confused termination of the first Gulf War, US sanctions policy, a bipartisan commitment to containing Iraq without thought of how to sustain such a policy in the long term, and the way domestic politics produced bipartisan support for regime change in the 1990s all most likely led to the 2003 war. And lest Walt blame it all on neoconservatives, I would point him to Candidate Bush’s 2000 speeches eschewing nation-building and Condoleeza Rice’s pre-9/11 writings about returning to realism. As John Lennon sang, life happens when you make other plans. A theoretical commitment to realism does not ensure more policies in line with realism.
These are very good points, and they should be heeded by anyone looking to pursue a career in foreign policy. Academic courses on international politics often spend a great deal of time teaching the subtle differences between the various schools of international relations.The policy world is different. One could be present at thousands of high-level policy meetings and not once hear terms like “realism” or “constructivism” thrown about. When it comes to foreign policy, politics trumps ideology. A course of study that focuses on the political realities of policymaking would be far more useful than the arcane theory that currently dominates academic coursework on the subject, and schools are doing their students a disservice by failing to provide it.[This post has been updated from its original version.]