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Reader ripostes: Presidentialism and realism

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COMMENTS

12 January 2012 15:17

Alex Burns and NAJ Taylor on realism below the fold, but first, Peter Layton on 'presidential' foreign policy:

Excellent summary by Michael of a chapter from his forthcoming book. I am concerned though of the seeming conflation towards the end of the blog piece of foreign policy with national security policy. The two are not necessarily the one and the same. The two do not cover the same space and indeed some would argue that national security policy is largely a subset of the more expansive foreign policy. Noting an earlier post about International Relations theory, this implicit 'securitization' of foreign affairs, as the constructivists would call it, was also a feature of the last decade.

Some of the difficulty arises because foreign policy is defined by its geographic location — outside the country — whereas national security policy is more a functional description. Albeit that 'national' and 'security' are big terms and there is considerable debate over what they mean and what they embrace! Do we mean the nation or the state, security against what and for whom, and so on. A provocative thought: perhaps in the age of globalization and interdependence, the old geographic term 'foreign affairs policy' should be gracefully retired and replaced with more functional policy descriptors?

This could help avoid conflation and securitization concerns, sharpen contemporary thinking and help better understanding.

Alex Burns:

There are several possible reasons for the high response rate of self-identified constructivists in the survey of US international relations scholars. A younger generation of IR scholars have been influenced by Alexander Wendt, Peter Katzenstein, John Ruggie, Martha Finnemore, Friedrich Kratochwil, and other constructivists. Professional associations have changed: the Perestroika Movement created a debate in the American Political Science Association about epistemic assumptions and research methodology, whilst the International Studies Association now hosts conference sessions on critical security studies and similar topics. However, realism still remains influential, through the enduring influence of Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt. The survey response to 'I do not use paradigmatic analysis' might include diplomatic historians and scholars who use inter-paradigmatic and multi-perspectival approaches.

Gyngell and Wesley's observation about DFAT staff who are self-identified realists follows an historical trend in Australian policymaking. Several contributors to Graeme Cheeseman and Bruce Roberts' critical anthology Discourses of Danger and Dread Frontiers (Allen & Unwin, 1996) complained that Australian defence and security policymaking was realist-dominated and that scholars from other traditions had few opportunities to influence or shape policymaking. The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University was usually singled out as the institutional villain. This past debate suggests a disconnect between Australian scholars and policymakers.

This scholar-policymaker disconnect plays out in the media, academia and in formulating specific strategies. Consider counter-terrorism. The 2006-08 campaign by James Cook University's Mervyn F Bendle in Quadrant and The Australian about 'terrorism studies' was essentially a disagreement between a realist and critical theory-influenced academics. There was little discussion of what was actually being taught in 'terrorism studies' courses. Australia's Counter-Terrorism White Paper (2010) conceptualised terrorism in a similar fashion to debates within the Bush Administration in 2003-05, but didn't appear to include 'lessons learned' from researchers in Monash University's Global Terrorism Centre, the Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, and similar academic groups. Over the past decade, Australian Research Council grants awarded in defence, counter-terrorism and security have reflected the visibility and perceived urgency of topics — there are more opportunities for collaborative research teams.

What insights can constructivists share with DFAT and the Defence Department? Ideas matter. Institutions and non-state actors are important. Diplomacy and intelligence are crucial for dealing with ideational factors like culture, history, identity, and threat perception. These insights are echoed in recent non-constructivist work on perceiving enemies and strategic culture (Patrick Porter's Military Orientalism); how the US Army and Marines developed new counter-insurgency doctrines (David Ucko's The New Counterinsurgency Era); effective psychological operations (Ron Schleifer's Psychological Warfare in the Intifada); decisions about nuclear weapons development (Jacques EC Hymans' The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation), and diffusion of military innovations (Michael Horowitz's The Diffusion of Military Power). Constructivist insights can be seen in how the US State Department dealt with the Arab Spring and in the Obama administration's Sustaining US Global Leadership (2012) which echoes John F Kennedy's 'flexible response' period. Theory can inform more robust and resilient policy formulation. But academics need to heed US Secretary of State George Marshall's advice to grand strategist George Kennan: 'Avoid trivia.'

NAJ Taylor:

You're certainly right — these results are astonishing. 

You highlight the unexpectedly low results for Realism and highlight some valid reasons why Constructivism is becoming so prominent (though I am assuming this figure contains a high percentage of Realists if one was to limit Constructivism to interpretive approaches — put more crudely, there's bound to be a significant number of 'Realists in drag' contained in that figure).

However, for me what more astonishing is that more US-based IR scholars identify themselves as being capable of conducting research 'paradigmatically'. Some would rightly question whether this is even possible, unless of course we view politics not justs as a 'science', where empirical tests can be conducted, but where personal and established beliefs, ideas, reflections and values have no influence over our work as IR scholars.

If I've read the study correctly, it is no wonder IR scholars have little direct policy influence — it seems to me 'we' try to hard to be relevant to policy, without even acknowledging privately how difficult the replication of scientific methods is for those interested in the study of human society. 

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