Sunday, July 31, 2022

Why IR Theory? The Gif is the Answer

 I saw this thread about International Relations Theory at the war and staff colleges, and I had to

Practitioners don't use it?  Hmmm.  I wonder.  A year hanging out with practitioners--desk officers in the Pentagon, and, no, they didn't include citations of Waltz, Keohane, and Wendt in their one page action memos.  So, let's just skip this stuff, eh?  

Before going on, a caveat: I am not really an IR theorist despite what I claimed on my job applications way back when.  Sure, I theorize about international relations, but when folks say IR theory, they tend to mean the big approaches to understanding the international system--realism, liberalism, constructivism, critical theory, etc.  My only piece that directly engaged that literature only tests hypotheses about trends in IR theory.  I have always considered myself a middle-range theorist, focusing on how the domestic politics of countries influence what they do abroad.  It is IR theory, but it isn't IR THEORY.  

Anyhow, getting back to this discussion, I always taught the big approaches in my Intro to IR classes for a few reasons:

  1. The concepts actually do have much to say about how the world operates.  None of them are always right, but each has something to contribute to our understanding of why countries do what they do. They are very helpful for understanding the limits of agency of any one country, why patterns recur over time and place, and, yes, that deeper structures produce tendencies.  Once I learned about the security dilemma--that in a world of suspicion, any unilateral effort to improve one's security will make others less secure, leading them to do stuff that will make the initial actor less secure, hence the dilemma, I got less interested in studying arms races.
  2. Most folks in and near the IR biz will have elements of these theories deep inside their heads, one way or another.  So, examining these theories helps people examine their own biases and perceptions.  If confirmation bias dominates (as I think it does), the best way to see that which we don't always notice is to examine one's own biases.  Taking the implicit IR theory out of one's head, considering the assumptions and logics of the approach and maybe how well it has done in explaining and predicting stuff, is key to reducing bias.
  3. Critical thinking.  Taking a concept and making it travel is important for sharpening one's thinking.  Does theory x that explains this place and time over here explain something over at this other place and time?  This leads to the next reason, specific to the schools mentioned in the tweet.
  4. Thinking theoretically is important if one wants to strategize.  Do they teach strategy at the war and staff colleges?  What assumptions are used to build war games?  How does one think of the adversary and their likely decisions?  Anytime one is thinking about what is likely to happen, they are relying on theory and IR theory can be useful for setting the stage for decision-making.  If folks say, we study history and go from there, well, which histories speak to you, which lessons from history speak to you?  Chances are you are simplifying from history, which means, yeah, you are thinking theoretically.

Folks may say that they get tons of information about the adversary and about the allies (folks often lose wars they start because they got wrong what the likely allies of the adversary would do--see Iraq 1990-1 and, yes, Ukraine 2022).  But that is the precise problem that Robert Jervis identified long ago--having a lot of information just means that folks need to simplify to focus on that which is truly important.  How do we sift that information?  With the theories we already have in our heads.  Again, the best way to address the biases these cognitive maps are likely to cause is to be aware of them.  


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