Stephen M. Walt

Two (unrelated) thoughts from Paris

My wife and I spent part of our honeymoon in Paris (where I am at the moment), and we had gorgeous weather the entire time. I’ve been back here without her three times since then, and the weather has been grey and gloomy (if not downright awful) each time. There’s an obvious lesson to draw ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

My wife and I spent part of our honeymoon in Paris (where I am at the moment), and we had gorgeous weather the entire time. I've been back here without her three times since then, and the weather has been grey and gloomy (if not downright awful) each time. There's an obvious lesson to draw from this pattern of evidence (though the causality is murky), and I conclude that I need to stop coming here without her. Make a note....

But I digress. The hotel where I'm staying has rather primitive internet access, so posting will be light this week. I did manage to get online for a few minutes this morning, and caught up on some of the news. Two quick comments on things I read:

Via Sullivan and Yglesias, I picked up on Chris Beam's amusing essay in Slate asking "What if Political Scientists Covered the News?" Instead of breathlessly reporting every up-and-down in the news cycle, and trumpeting events that research has shown to be largely meaningless, as journalists tend to do, political scientists covering the news would undoubtedly provide better analysis of the underlying forces that shape political outcomes and help everyone see the forest for the trees. Political scientists would also be more inclined to discuss foreign policy in terms of long-term economic and demographic trends, underlying social forces within and across states, shifting balances of power, the role of interest groups, the impact of shifting normative discourses, etc. With perhaps a few exceptions, they'd be less inclined to highlight personalities and inside-the-Beltway gossip.  

My wife and I spent part of our honeymoon in Paris (where I am at the moment), and we had gorgeous weather the entire time. I’ve been back here without her three times since then, and the weather has been grey and gloomy (if not downright awful) each time. There’s an obvious lesson to draw from this pattern of evidence (though the causality is murky), and I conclude that I need to stop coming here without her. Make a note….

But I digress. The hotel where I’m staying has rather primitive internet access, so posting will be light this week. I did manage to get online for a few minutes this morning, and caught up on some of the news. Two quick comments on things I read:

Via Sullivan and Yglesias, I picked up on Chris Beam’s amusing essay in Slate asking "What if Political Scientists Covered the News?" Instead of breathlessly reporting every up-and-down in the news cycle, and trumpeting events that research has shown to be largely meaningless, as journalists tend to do, political scientists covering the news would undoubtedly provide better analysis of the underlying forces that shape political outcomes and help everyone see the forest for the trees. Political scientists would also be more inclined to discuss foreign policy in terms of long-term economic and demographic trends, underlying social forces within and across states, shifting balances of power, the role of interest groups, the impact of shifting normative discourses, etc. With perhaps a few exceptions, they’d be less inclined to highlight personalities and inside-the-Beltway gossip.  

Movement in these directions would be an improvement. But speaking as a card-carrying political scientist who is (mostly) proud of my chosen profession, there’d be a pretty clear downside too. If political scientists wrote the news, we might see a lot of articles about trivial topics of little interest to anyone but a handful of other scholars. (Check out the next APSA annual program if you don’t believe me). Moreover, most political scientists would be reluctant to tackle anything that might be controversial for fear that someone might say something mean about them in response. Journalists can be thin-skinned, but most academics are notoriously sensitive to even fair-minded criticism.

Even worse, a lot of stories would get written in a mind-numbing prose that would drive readers to the blogosphere or talk radio even faster than they are going there already. If you really wanted to deliver a mercy-killing to the mainstream media, in short, hiring  political scientists as reporters might be a good first step.

The second item that caught my eye was a very interesting New York Times’s article on U.S. relations with Turkey. The article quotes Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, who reveals the mind-set that undermines U.S. efforts to deal with ambitious regional powers. Here’s the relevant passage:

Turkey is seen increasingly in Washington as ‘running around the region doing things that are at cross-purposes to what the big powers in the region want,’ said Steven A. Cook, a scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations. The question being asked, he said, is ‘How do we keep the Turks in their lane?’"

Good realist that I am, I have a healthy respect for the exercise of power.  But the idea that the primary U.S. goal should be to "keep the Turks in their lane" is way too paternalistic for my taste, especially when we are dealing with a government that prides itself on its independence. Since when did we become the traffic cop, and why is it OUR job to define what is Turkey’s "proper lane?"  I think that’s up to Turkey’s government and people. The job of the U.S. government is to figure out its own interests and preferences, try to convince Ankara to support (most of) them, and to stand ready to deal with the consequences in those cases where our interests and preferences disagree. And we ought to open to the possibility that on some issues the Turks might be right (which may also be true in the case of some other governments who see things differently than the U.S. does).

This question may be largely semantic, but phrasing the issue in the way Cook did implies that we see Turkey’s role (or "lane") as doing things that are in the U.S. interest, even when they might not be in Turkey’s interest. This was precisely the attitude that the Bush administration took back in 2003, when it blithely assumed the supposedly docile Turks would allow their territory to be used in the invasion of Iraq. It turned out that a majority of the Turkish Parliament thought invading Iraq was a terrible idea and it rejected the request even though the U.S. offered a big aid package to grease the deal. Well, who looks wiser now? In retrospect, maybe it was the United States that needed to "stay in its lane," instead of jumping the median strip and heading straight into oncoming traffic.

To be fair to Cook, it’s not clear if the question he posed reflects his own views or was just his description of prevailing attitudes in Washington. If it’s the latter, however, then the United States will probably do a bad job of managing relations with Turkey over the next few years, further undermining our position in the region. But don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll find a way to blame it all on them.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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