Daniel W. Drezner

Stop blaming Egypt on political scientists!!

Stop blaming Egypt on political scientists!!

Pundits are clearly scrambling to figure out what the hell is happening in Egypt, and what Egypt means for the rest of the world.  And I’m beginning to notice that some of them are blaming international relations theory for being asleep at the wheel. 

First, over at AEI’s Enterprise blog, Apoorva Shah argues that these events suggest the poverty of modern political science:

Did anything in academia foresee the unrest in Egypt, and more importantly, can something explain how Western foreign policy can appropriately react to the events? Of all the “schools” of IR thought—liberal internationalism, realism, isolationism, etc.—did any theory make sense of this and guide us on what to do next?

My amateur opinion is no. Because of an academic world obsessed with increasingly complex empirical analysis where every revolution is a mere data point and every country a pawn in the great game, our political science departments and the scholars they have trained (many of whom serve in and advise our current administration) were caught flat-footed, searching for some logical, rational approach to a particularly unique and country-specific event. While digging for the right IR theory, they instead produced a mishmash of mixed messages and equivocation.

If I’m wrong, please correct me.

OK… you’re wrong.  Let me correct you. 

First of all, let’s clarify the division of labor in political science a bit.  Crudely put, international relations focuses on the interactions between governments and other transnational and subnational actors.  Comparative politics focuses on the domestic politics within countries. 

To put this in the context of Egypt, it’s the job of comparative politics scholars to explain/predict when we should see mass protests and when those protests might cause authoritarian regimes to buckle.  It’s the job of international relations scholars to predict what effects the regime change/authoritarian crackdown would have on both Egypt’s foreign policy and the situation in the Middle East. 

Calling out IR scholars for not predicting the uprising in Egypt is like calling out a cardiologist for not detecting a cancerous growth.    

But here’s the thing — as Laura Rozen has observed, political scientists and those they’ve trained did call this one!! From her September 2010 story:   

A bipartisan group of senators and foreign policy analysts is pushing the Obama administration to prepare for the looming end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt by putting a new emphasis on Egyptian political reform and human rights….

“The bottom line is that we are moving into a period of guaranteed instability in Egypt,” said Robert Kagan, a foreign policy scholar with the Brookings Institution who co-founded the Egypt Working Group with Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So the idea [that] we can keep puttering on as if nothing is going to change is a mistake. … What we need now is to move to deliverables.”

The pressure from the academic and political community comes amid widespread expectation that the 82-year-old Mubarak — who reportedly is seriously ill — may soon cede power to his son, Gamal. 

If that’s not enough, consider that Joshua Tucker blogged about the spread of revolutions last week, before Egypt blew up.  Even before that, my fellow political scientist and FP blogger Marc Lynch’s January 5th blog post

 For years, both Arab and Western analysts and many political activists have warned of the urgent need for reform as such problems built and spread. Most of the Arab governments have learned to talk a good game about the need for such reform, while ruthlessly stripping democratic forms of any actual ability to challenge their grip on power….

Meanwhile, the energy and desperation across disenfranchised but wired youth populations will likely become increasingly potent. It’s likely to manifest not in organized politics and elections, but in the kind of outburst of social protest we’re seeing now in Tunisia…. and, alarmingly, in the kinds of outburst of social violence which we can see in Jordan and Egypt. Whether that energy is channeled into productive political engagement or into anomic violence would seem to be one of the crucial variables shaping the coming period in Arab politics. Right now, the trends aren’t in the right direction.

 Not surprisingly, the Obama administration met with many of these people this week. 

Finally, a small point I made earlier this week regarding Mubarak’s options: 

Everyone assumes that the Egyptian leader is a dead man walking, and given his speech on Friday, I can understand that sentiment.  There are, however, remaining options for Mubarak to pursue, ranging from a full-blown 1989 Tiananmen square crackdown to a slow-motion 2009 Tehran-style crackdown. 

Obviously, these aren’t remotely good options for anyone involved.  The first rule in political science, however, is that leaders want to stay in power, and Mubarak has given no indication that he wants to leave.  (emphasis added)

Alas, based on this morning’s events, it appears that Mubarak has selected the Tehran 2009 option. 

So I think Shah is pretty much wrong.  That said, I agree that there are profound limits on what IR theory can do in a situation like Egypt.  Ross Douthat sorta made this point earlier this week:

[Americans] take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.

But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.

Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic.

Douthat is sorta correct — but it’s precisely because the world is so complex that we rely on theories.  While they’re often wrong, they’re vastly superior to the alternatives.    

Consider that, instead of explicit theories, a lot of commentators are simply asking whether 2011 Egypt parallels 1978/79 Iran.  This is a great question to ask, but the only way to answer it is to rely on explicit or implict theories of how revolutions play out and how the international system reacts to them. 

Of course the theories will fail from time to time.  Unfortunately, this is not rocket science, because rocket science is way easier than the social sciences.   There are too many variables, too many idiosyncratic elements to each case, too much endogeneity, and so forth.  But simply saying "the world is tragic" is a pretty lousy substitute to organizing foreign policy.