Daniel W. Drezner

Welcome back, international relations students

Welcome back, international relations students

With the passing of APSA and the dawning of Labor Day, it’s time for people to go back to school and Think Deep Thoughts.  In the realm of international relations theory, Thanassis Cambanis’ essay in the Sunday Boston Globe Ideas section is a great starter course for thinking about the way the world works.  His basic thesis:

Instead of a flurry of new thinking at the highest echelons of the foreign policy establishment, the major decisions of the past two administrations have been generated from the same tool kit of foreign policy ideas that have dominated the world for decades. Washington’s strategic debates – between neoconservatives and liberals, between interventionists and realists – are essentially struggles among ideas and strategies held over from the era when nation-states were the only significant actors on the world stage. As ideas, none of them were designed to deal effectively with a world in which states are grappling with powerful entities that operate beyond their control….

As yet, no major new theory has taken root in the most influential policy circles to explain how America should act in this kind of world, in which Wikileaks has made a mockery of the diplomatic pouch and Silicon Valley rivals Washington for cultural influence. But there are at least some signs that people in power are starting to try in earnest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has openly integrated the search for a new paradigm into her policy making. In universities, think tanks, and the government, thinkers trying to grapple with this fluid world structure are finally getting attention in the circles where their ideas could shape policy.

Read the whole, provocative thing — if you agree with Cambanis’ arguments, then it certainly represents a data point in favor of Anne-Marie Slauighter’s vision of how world politics operates

My onlytweak of Cambanis’ essay is that he repeatedly stresses the need for a new generation of strategic concepts and international relations theories to guide U.S. grand strategy, and then lists as examples the following: 

Joseph Nye, a Harvard political scientist who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations and has advised Secretary of State Clinton, was one of the pioneers. In the 1990s, he coined the term “soft power,” arguing that sometimes the most effective way for America to promote its interests would be through influencing global health and the environment, or culture and education. His latest book, “The Future of Power,” counsels that America can preserve its influence if it reconceives its institutions and priorities to deal with a world where the energy is shifting from the West to the East, as well as from states to non-state actors. Michael Doyle at Columbia University, a seminal theorist whose idea of a “democratic peace” in the 1990s crucially inflected policy with the belief that democracies don’t fight each other, now talks about the notion of an age of the “empowered individual,” where lone actors can alter the trajectory of states and of history as never before. Stephen Walt, also at Harvard, argues that in the new era America simply needs to start by acknowledging its limits: that with less muscle and less extra money, the first step will be to streamline its goals in a way that so far politicians have been loath to do.

No offense to Joseph Nye, Michael Doyle, and Steve Walt — these are Great Men of interntional relaions thought.  The notions that Cambanis lists here, however, are not "new" in any sense.  Which leads me to wonder whether Cambanis has defined the problem correctly.  Is it that international relations theory has gone stale… or is it simply that the wrong set of existing theories are in vogue today? 

What do you think?