Professional IR schools aren’t the only ones that scant history and strategy


A quick follow-up to my last post: yesterday I was up to Tufts to talk maritime strategy with some undergraduates, and camped out in the hallowed Hall of Flags at the Fletcher School for an hour beforehand. While sojourning on memory lane it occurred to me that Professor Steve Walt’s item at Foreign Policy implies that professional international-relations schools are the only IR institutes out of touch with history and strategy. Far from it. At least the professional schools are interested in real-world diplomacy and strategy. Educating current and would-be practitioners is why they were founded and what they do.

That practical bent is their North Star. They can recover their historical sensibility because it has practical uses for statesmen and commanders. I see hope.

Traditional university IR departments are different creatures. I came to Newport from such a department eleven years ago. If the professional schools are indifferent to IR theory and its uses as an analytical tool, by and large university departments obsess over theory to the exclusion of all else–including reality as chronicled by historians. None other than Steve Walt diagnosed IR departments’ failings back in 1999, in a cheeky International Security article titled “Rigor or Rigor Mortis?” (click here). Walt explores the mania for “rational choice” in academic international relations, which–to oversimplify–holds that decision-makers are rational actors who apply cost-benefit analysis dispassionately to the practice of international affairs. Tote up the costs of some course of action, estimate the benefits, and proceed if the benefits justify the costs.

To the claims that rational-choice theory is rigorous, and that rigor is everything in IR research, Walt ultimately says meh.

And rightly so. Rationality is an ideal to strive toward, not an established fact. Historians and philosophers from Thucydides onward note how passions deflect human beings from purely rational choice. To compound the problem, international-affairs practitioners operate in a competitive environment that tends to inflame passions–driving interactions among competitors even further from the rational ideal. Far truer to life than rational choice is strategist Edward Luttwak’s idea that ordinary cost-benefit logic may prevail–more or less–in peacetime interactions, but that a “paradoxical logic” takes over in power politics and, still more, in armed conflict.

“Ironic reversals” of fortune are commonplace as each competitor tries to outdo the other. It takes farsightedness and heroic willpower to impose rationality on such a hothouse environment, yet that’s what Luttwak, Clausewitz, and other masters of strategy demand we attempt to do. The basic assumption that strategic competition doesn’t lend itself to rational choice constitutes a firmer basis for strategic thought than does rational-choice theory. In short, rational choice is an assumption that shouldn’t be. It can be put to the test of historical evidence–and that test makes short work of it.

But history–in particular diplomatic and military history–is in disfavor on most campuses nowadays. It’s easy for IR students and faculty to lose their moorings without that reality check. Compounding the problem is IR departments’ obsession with reducing complex human interactions to numbers that can be graphed in hopes of revealing laws governing these interactions. Harvard IR professor Stanley Hoffmann was one of the greats in the field and a qualitative, not quantitative scholar. Late in life Hoffman quipped that neither he nor the likes of Samuel Huntington, the author of The Clash of Civilizations and another of the greats, “would get tenure under the current conditions”–under the tyranny of mathematics, in other words.

Professional IR schools stand some chance of escaping that tyranny. They not only cater to students who want to be or already are practitioners, they commonly hire former government officials, ambassadors, or military officers to the faculty. Admiral Jim Stavridis is dean of the Fletcher School, for example. Bringing folk into the mix whose inclination is to ask so what? when faced with abstract theory or statistics lends ballast to research and teaching at professional IR schools. Faculty want to help the next generation perform better than they did. Students of practical leanings undertake academic study to upgrade their professional competence. Both constituencies regard formulating theories, describing events with statistics, or fitting data points to graphs as a subsidiary function.

Bottom line, whatever the professional IR schools’ travails, they will find it easier to self-correct than will university departments. Healthy debate is what importing a mix of backgrounds and outlooks into the faculty and student body provides.

Give me professional education any day.