One World, RivalTheories
The study of international relations is supposed to tell us how the world works. It’s a tall order, and even the best theories fall short. But they can puncture illusions and strip away the simplistic brand names—such as “neocons” or “liberal hawks”— that dominate foreign-policy debates. Even in a radically changing world, the classic theorieshave a lot to say. | By Jack Snyder
he U.S. government has endured several painful rounds of scrutiny as it tries to figure out what went wrong on Sept. 11, 2001. The intelligence community faces radical restructuring; the military has made a sharp pivot to face a new enemy; and a vast new federal agency has blossomed to coordinate homeland security. But did September 11 signal a failure of theoryon par with the failures of intelligence and policy? Familiar theories about how the world works still dominate academic debate. Instead of radical change, academia has adjusted existing theories to meet new realities. Has this approach succeeded? Does international relations theory still have something to tell policymakers? Six years ago, political scientist Stephen M. Walt published a much-citedsurvey of the field in these pages (“One World, Many Theories,” Spring 1998). He sketched out three dominant
Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Columbia University.
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approaches: realism, liberalism, and an updated form of idealism called “constructivism.” Walt argued that these theories shape both public discourse and policyanalysis. Realism focuses on the shifting distribution of power among states. Liberalism highlights the rising number of democracies and the turbulence of democratic transi-
ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTOPHE VORLET FOR FP
One World, Rival Theories
From Theory to Practice
tions. Idealism illuminates the changing norms of sovereignty, human rights, andinternational justice, as well as the increased potency of religious ideas in politics. The influence of these intellectual constructs extends far beyond university classrooms and tenure committees. Policymakers and public commentators invoke elements of all these theories when articulating solutions to global security dilemmas. President George W. Bush promises to fight terror by spreading liberaldemocracy to the Middle East and claims that skeptics “who call themselves ‘realists’…. have lost contact with a fundamental reality” that “America is always more secure when freedom is on the march.” Striking a more eclectic tone, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, a former Stanford University political science professor, explains that the new Bush doctrine is an amalgam of pragmaticrealism and Wilsonian liberal theory. During the recent presidential campaign, Sen. John Kerry sounded remarkably similar: “Our foreign policy has achieved greatness,” he said, “only when it has combined realism and idealism.”
International relations theory also shapes and informs the thinking of the public intellectuals who translate and disseminate academic ideas. During thesummer of 2004, for example, two influential framers of neoconservative thought, columnist Charles Krauthammer and political scientist Francis Fukuyama, collided over the implications of these conceptual paradigms for U.S. policy in Iraq. Backing the Bush administration’s Middle East policy, Krauthammer argued for an assertive amalgam of liberalism and realism, which he called “democratic realism.”Fukuyama claimed that Krauthammer’s faith in the use of force and the feasibility of democratic change in Iraq blinds him to the war’s lack of legitimacy, a failing that “hurts both the realist part of our agenda, by diminishing our actual power, and the idealist portion of it, by undercutting our appeal as the embodiment of certain ideas and values.” Indeed, when realism, liberalism, and...
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