The Debate Is On! A Response to Dan Drezner

A colleague of mine contends that complex social factors are not a significant aspect of IR theory. Here's why he's wrong.

A colleague of mine contends that complex social factors are not a significant aspect of IR theory. Here's why he's wrong.

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Many thanks to my friend and colleague Dan Drezner for responding immediately and characteristically bluntly to my first post defining the foreign policy frontier. In a word, he simultaneously accuses me of tilting at straw men and of being wrong. This is a debate worth having, because much of his response exemplifies exactly the mindset I am trying to change. What is at stake is nothing less than what we think foreign policy is actually about. Let me address his straw man charge in this post.

Dan begins with my description of the traditional foreign policy lens:

Traditional foreign policy continues to assume the world of World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the first and second Gulf Wars -- an international system in which a limited number of states pursue their largely power-based interests in bargaining situations that are often zero-sum and in which the line between international and domestic politics is still discernible and defensible. Diplomats and statesmen compete with each other in games of global chess, which, during crises, often shift into high-stakes poker. It is the world of high strategy, the world that Henry Kissinger writes about and longs for and that so-called "realist" commentators continually invoke.

He responds:

Well, this is... this is... I'm sorry, I got lost among the ridiculously tall strawmen populating these paragraphs. I'll go out on a limb and posit that not even Henry Kissinger thinks of the world the way Slaughter describes it.

I'll take that bet. I think it's exactly how Henry Kissinger still thinks of the world. Indeed, he has just published a book on China -- of course, because from the traditional realist perspective China is by far the most important foreign policy issue in the 20th century, as it is the only possible military and economic competitor to the United States. Hence, as realists/traditionalists never tire of repeating, the U.S.-China relationship is the most important global relationship of the 21st century: what matters most is ensuring that as both nations pursue their power-based interests they do not collide catastrophically. Never mind that an avian flu virus that is both fatal and aerosol-borne arising anywhere in Asia could do far more damage to global security and the economy than China ever could -- just see the forthcoming movie Contagion.

Of course, Kissinger and his adherents know that many other important actors and forces exist in international relations -- as a descriptive matter. But the whole point of realism, as every first year IR student knows, is that structural realism (the school that holds as its bible Kenneth Waltz's Man, the State, and War) says that international relations analysts can treat the world as if it were composed only of states pursuing their power-based interests. It's a model that does not conform to observed reality but that focuses on the long-term structural forces that ultimately determine the course of events once the ephemera of what we seem to see is swept away. It is that reductionism (although rarely as stark as Waltz's particular brand) that makes realism so appealing as usable technology for foreign policy analysts and decision-makers.

Compare the following two approaches. Traditional/ realist: Think about the Middle East in terms of the state actors and their fears of Iran and each other and their corresponding incentives to act in accordance with our interests. Modern/liberal-social: Factor in all the important social actors, from tribes to democracy activists, focus on the relationship between those social actors and their governments, then assess interests relative to other governments that are themselves enmeshed in domestic and transnational social networks.
The second approach tends to make our heads hurt; it often seems like a hopelessly complex system that is impossible to influence or shape. Waltz, rather than pushing us to develop workable models and policy prescriptions based on that complexity, says it's okay just to white it all out. (For IR students and scholars reading this, I know of course that I am vastly over-simplifying the IR theoretical landscape.)

But perhaps the best refutation of the straw man charge is empirical. Let's do a small experiment. Compare Dan's tweets for a week with my tweets, as both of us think of ourselves as sending out foreign policy links that are useful/important/interesting. Since Twitter is stream-of-consciousness, what a curator chooses to pull out and send on is an excellent indicator of a reflexive way of seeing the world.

Tweets from Aug 3-Aug 10

DD: Excluding the many very funny tweets (which is one great reason to follow Dan), the news about baseball (Go Sox!!), domestic economic news (which we have all been passing along), and commentary on Republican political candidates, Dan tweeted: two links to articles about terrorism; several links and comments about Syria (including US sanctions on Syria, Kuwaiti criticism of Syria, UNSC vote on Syria); one link on defense spending; several links on Israeli domestic politics (but nothing on J14 housing/social protests); several links on Chinese criticism of the U.S. over our debt; one comment about attacks on humanitarians and medical personnel in the Arab spring; one on how China will react to a British police request to Blackberry to suspend its messaging service; and one to his own blog post on whether the U.S. "has lost its AAA superpower rating" (his answer: no).

AMS: Dan is much funnier than I am! And I'm more likely to stray into high tech or food than baseball. But on foreign policy, I tweeted: many links on Syria, not just reactions of US and UNSC but also reports about the position of the business community as well as reports of active Turkish and Saudi diplomacy vis-à-vis Damascus; links on ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain; links on Libya, Yemen, and ongoing protest in Egypt; many links on the J14 protests in Israel and their larger significance; links on the Somali famine but also to a much more positive account of growth and stability in Africa; a link on the danger of ignoring the Pakistani public; links on China and U.S. debt, but also unrest in Xinjiang; links on the helicopter tragedy in Afghanistan and what it says about trying to fight an enemy so deeply embedded in Afghan society; links on food security and do-it-yourself development; links on women left behind in Armenia (and disproportionately affected by budget cuts in the U.S.), links on the Indian economy; lots of links on the London riots, including the role of technology; and a link to my latest blog post reporting on socio-economic trends in China and how they should give the "China as next superpower" folks pause.

Going through these tweets actually offered an even more succinct contrast between how Dan and I think about foreign policy. Dan asked last week, addressed to all "IR tweeps": "Is there a better international relations song than Tears for Fears 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World?'" He got some great responses, but for me, his choice says it all about how, his protests notwithstanding, he sees the world. (Many a truth is spoken in jest.) By contrast (and again, with much less humor!), I tweeted a link on Monday to a terrific article in the Financial Times by the Israeli novelist Etgar Keret on the J14 protests and quoted the following passage: "In our current reality, the political cannot be separated from the social." The new foreign policy frontier is deeply social, as messy and unsatisfactory as that may be.

One final note. As another piece of evidence that my view of traditional foreign policy is a straw man, Dan writes, "Just a quick glance at, say, Hillary Clinton's recent speech in Hong Kong suggests that actual great power foreign policies bear no resemblance whatsoever to that description of 'traditional foreign policy.'" Uh...really? That's a rebuttal? Who do you think taught me to focus much more on social and developmental issues? A large part of Hillary Clinton's legacy will be precisely that she redefined what it means not only to think about but actually to do foreign policy.

Next up: many more concrete examples in the coming months, beginning with my next post, in which I will also answer Dan's charge (echoed by many others, including my own mother); that the rapidly increasing examples of social actors coming together, often with governments, to address foreign policy issues are bound to remain peripheral and ineffective.