One of the most annoying and empty phrases in the IR biz, especially when it comes to intervention, is "political will." X didn't happen because there was no political will. What does that mean? Well, I guess it means that x didn't happen because people/countries/whovians didn't want something to happen or did not want it enough to make it happen, right? Why no intervention in Syria yet? No political will.
But the problem with this is that it really does not answer any question at all. If the problem is that countries didn't want to do it, this raises two questions: why not? and if you want something, does it always happen?
Ok, first: if countries are not sufficiently motivated to overcome the various obstacles to cooperate to do something of significance (which is probably costly and/or risky), then saying so really sheds no light. To shed some light, one ought to focus on the motivations and their absence/competing interests AND the obstacles, as motivations, competing interests, AND the possible costs all may vary systematically (or not). Those are the things we need to understand: why intervention? Because of oil, because of ethnic affinity (see my first book), because of fears of immigration (see my second book), because of security concerns, because of the interconnections between commitment in place A and commitment in more important place B (that last one not only covers Vietnam/West Europe but also Bosnia/Europe. If intervention does not occur, the answer is not the lack of political will, but perhaps the economic costs, the likely response of public opinion, the fear of using up scarce resources, the difficult of the task, because of the consequences of uneven burden-sharing (see my next book when it exists)and so on.
Second, I invoke the Rolling Stones rule of International Cooperation: You Can't Always Get What You Want. There have been many efforts made in human history to cooperate, but these efforts sometimes fail because the tasks are really hard or because the solution was not the right one. Piracy still exists, right? Somalia is still a failed state. Afghanistan is still a mess. The idea that if you work really hard, you get what you want reminds me of the students who insist that they worked really hard, but didn't get an A. Well, sometimes trying really hard is simply not enough. Sometimes you need the right idea with perfect oversight over well-designed execution. How is that Egyptian democracy working out? Containment of the Soviet Union required more than just political will--it required creativity, it required insight, it required patience, it required tolerance of failure and of overreaction, and so on.
Not only you can't always get what you want, you don't always get what you need. But sometimes, if you try real hard (and get lucky), you get what you need. To conclude, political will is not the end of an answer or explanation--it is, at best, a start, but mostly it is the step two in the underwear gnomes' plan--a shoulder shrug.
I don't know about the history of the term, but I suspect that "political will" is a relic of the Vietnam debacle. One American political tribe's explanation of why the US failed in Vietnam was, "we didn't try hard enough". If only we had put in more troops/dropped more bombs/nuked the buggers, we would have won. A LOT of people desperately wanted to believe this in the 1970s (some still believe it today), and the only reason they could come up with for why we hadn't won was "political will". It wasn't that we COULDN'T win - we (our cowardly leaders) just didn't want to enough.
That this explanation sounds suspiciously like Hitler's explanation for the German loss of WWI is an irony totally lost on these folks. It's always been a crappy explanation, dredged up by people to filled with nationalist fervor to face the truth. Unfortunately, the rest of us are stuck with this "idea" floating around in the soup as a consequence.
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