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Theory and real foreign policy (1): the problem

Por Jean Daudelin*

Relações Internacionais

[This is the first of two posts. Here, I introduce what I consider to be a central problem of contemporary IR, namely its relevance for policy. In a second one, I will outline the basic conditions for that relevance to be enhanced, and give an example with the current crisis in the Middle East as an illustration]

There are more trained specialists in international relations today than ever before. Every university of some standing in the whole world has at least one program on global, international or world affairs or relations. The number of journals, scholarly books and academic articles available is overwhelming and new ones are popping up all the time. Conferences, workshops and e-talks can easily fill anybody’s agenda. And yet, when I look at the policy discussion on Syria and the crisis that has developed around it, it feels like I am being transported back to Puerto Suarez, Bolivia, in the Summer of 1984, when a paperbag full of pesos could barely buy me a chicken breast and a beer. Indeed (except for Venezuela) hyper-inflation seems to have moved from the economic scene to foreign policy, where bagful of books and papers can’t even get one a coke and a chicken wing-worth of solid advice.

As one follows policy discussions about the Saudi Arabia-Iran confrontation, China’s assertion of power in the Western Pacific, or Putin’s aggressive forays in Ukraine, the whole quantitative, constructivist and post-you-name-it turns seem never to have happened. Almost every analyst, diplomat or politicians falls back into some form of classical realism, barely tainted with neo-liberal institutionalism by references to the UN or NATO. Hans Morgenthau lives as Foreign Policy magazine, the Economist and Stratfor’s George Friedman are making a fortune and feeding much of global commentariat applying XIXth and XXth century geo-political and historical realist thinking to everything from China’s economic downturn to Russia’s adventures in Eastern Europe and the Middle-East.

This sad state of affair has several “root causes.” One is that much of the theory that fills IR books and articles, along with the minds of IR specialists and students, is just useless, i.e. it is not meant to practically tackle real problems (even assuming, very generously, that it could). Much of the IR discussion, in other words, is trapped into a solipsistic game where IR specialists speak, read and write for other IR specialists, period.

The trendy obsession with “evidence-based” research, to the extent that much of it is geared to identifying correlations based on large samples, limits the quest for inferences to relations between variables that are amenable to large-scale data collection and treatment. Among key deleterious implications of that tendency are the constraints it imposes the range of mechanisms that can be contemplated or to ex-post facto analysis, the need to look mostly backward because the past is where most data lie or, conversely, to rely on real-time “big data” generated by social media, whose dynamics—and thus the bias that it introduces—are still largely unknown.

These supply problems are compounded by a demand-driven root cause: politicians and diplomats want answers that point to short or at best mid-term solutions and in such a time-frame (Braudel’s “évènementiel“) the kind of causal effects that “healthy” theory (Borges’ “sana teoría“) could assert just cannot play themselves out.

Lastly, out of incapacity—as a result of bad theory or methodological fetishism—greed—for exposure or money—or even just laziness—often cloaked as “pragmatism”—much scholarship simply refuses to frame the problems in the longer time horizons that would make them amenable to theory-based action.

Now, things do not have to be that way. There are theories “out there” on which one can build testable causal inferences and, on that basis, identify points of entry—”buttons” to push—for policy-makers. Most of those theories, unfortunately, are not very popular or well known, and the timeframe of the effects they assert, while not excessive, still exceeds the extremely short time horizon in which politicians and diplomats have currently—and without being challenged—trapped our thinking about solutions to the problems that confront the world.

The challenge for analysts keen on effectively impacting policy with evidence- but also theory-based advice, is to stretch that time horizon by developing compelling options based on highly plausible causal inferences, providing policy-makers with clear and “sellable” rationales for longer-term strategies. In the next post, I examine two such theories and briefly deploy the credible policy options that can be derived from them in the case of the Middle-East.


* Doutor em Ciência Politica (Université Laval). Desde 2002 é Professor Associado na Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. Tem experiência em Relações Internacionais das Américas, Política Externa Brasileira, Políticas de Drogas, Mercados Ilegais e Violência. É pesquisador do Núcleo de Estudos em Política Comparada e Relações Internacionais (NEPI/UFPE) e do Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas em Criminalidade, Violência e Políticas Públicas de Segurança.


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