View from the Top

Nine of the world's top international relations scholars weigh in on the Ivory Tower survey.


Foreign Policy asked nine giants of the international relations field — all of them named among the most influential IR scholars by their peers — to give us their take on the biggest foreign-policy challenges facing the United States. From out-of-control Pentagon spending to the rise of China, here’s what they told us to watch out for.

1. What is the top foreign-policy problem/challenge facing the United States, and why?

Francis Fukuyama: Dealing with the rise of China.  China is potentially the second most powerful state in the global state system, and integrating large rising powers has always been a huge challenge for international systems.

Joseph S. Nye: Managing the rise of China in a peaceful manner. If we mess it up, it will affect everything else. And good management requires a balanced "Goldilocks policy"  that is neither too hot nor too cold.

Kenneth Waltz: How to get the Pentagon under control.  Facing no present or foreseeable military threat, we continue to spend ridiculous sums on our military forces.

John Mearsheimer: Its proclivity for getting involved in unnecessary and foolish wars that cannot be won quickly and easily, if at all.

James Fearon: The crazy situation we have gotten ourselves into in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where we are simultaneously trying to crush the Taliban while we are aligned with and providing massive funding for a regime that sees the survival of the Taliban (or subsets of it) as a vital security interest.  It’s pretty clear that withdrawing is in our security interest, but unwinding the position without doing terrible humanitarian damage and while retaining an ability to do effective counterterrorism is a major challenge.

Alexander Wendt: Global warming, not just because the long-term threat is potentially so dire, but because in the short-term there are so few incentives for countries to work together and take the hard measures that will be needed to address the problem.  Rather than being a laggard on this front the US should take the lead in bringing the international community together to deal with the problem.

Robert Keohane: The rise of China.

Martha Finnemore: Our own inability to plan and lead internationally.  Our political system has always made this difficult, but dysfunctional politics is not simply a domestic problem.  We are the strongest state in the system. If we cannot organize politically to implement sensible budgets, financial regulation, energy policy, and security measures, we compound global threats and reduce our own ability to deal with them. 

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: I believe it is the European debt and euro crisis. A collapse of the euro or even a significant shrinkage in the eurozone would throw the global economic system into turmoil as countries struggle to introduce national currencies, creditors are potentially wiped out by writing off of bad debt or inflating it away.

2. What is the most important region of the world for U.S. security, and why?

Francis Fukuyama: East Asia, due to the China challenge above.  We have been overextended and over-involved in the Middle East for the past decade; the terrorist threat was greatly overestimated.

Joseph S. Nye: Asia. As I argue in The Future of Power, the shift from West to East is one of the great power shifts in this century.

Kenneth Waltz: China.  China is the emerging great power, and great powers always eye each other warily.

John Mearsheimer: Asia, because there is a danger China will continue its rise and try to dominate that region the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. America cannot allow China to become a peer competitor.

James Fearon: North Africa and the Middle East (extending the notion as far east as Pakistan and Iran), because this is probably where the greatest danger of WMD terrorism or nuclear weapons use comes from in the medium term.  But neither of these threats is particularly likely and it’s not clear that our current approach of intervention and heavy counterterrorism is making things better rather than worse.  It’s important to note that overall and taking a longer term view, the U.S. is in great shape in terms of national security. We are in a position where spending significantly less on defense could help us with security in the long run by improving our economic situation.

Alexander Wendt: The Mideast, because a) of our dependence on foreign oil and b) the threat of transnational terrorism emanating from the area.

Robert Keohane: East Asia, because it is a site of increasing economic and potentially military power and the locale of the only viable potential rival to the United States.

Martha Finnemore: In the short to medium term, the Middle East. Managing post-withdrawal Iraq and the Pakistan/Afghanistan situation as well as Iran and the continuing developments of the Arab Spring will be a huge challenge. Long term, the shift of power toward Asia, particularly China, will probably be more important.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita:  I do not believe the U.S. is likely to face a major national security challenge in the next year or so but I imagine if there is a national security challenge it is most likely to come from the Middle East or Latin America.

The Middle East is facing substantial leadership change. New leaders are at the greatest risk of being deposed and so tend to engage in riskier policies if they find themselves with little downside. This could manifest itself, for instance, in aggression by Egypt (unlikely as I said at the beginning of this question) against Israel which will call for a U.S. response. Almost as unlikely this could be manifested as aggression by Israel against Iran or Iran’s closing of the Gulf of Hormuz and a forceful effort to open it by the U.S. and allies.

3. Did you support President Obama’s use of force in Libya? Why/why not?

Francis Fukuyama: Obama played this just right.  He intervened to prevent Q from rolling over Benghazi, which would have been a moral nightmare, and yet let Britain and France take the lead in the intervention.  Hanging back was exactly the right thing to do:  the Libyans needed to fight and bleed for their own freedom if they were to have ownership of the post-Q country.

Joseph S. Nye: Yes. It was a good example of smart power. He waited until he had the soft power narrative derived from the Arab League and UN resolutions, and then shared the hard power burden with European allies who had a more direct interest.

Kenneth Waltz: No.  No American national interest was at stake. 

John Mearsheimer: No, because Qaddafi was not engaged in or planning mass murder, because the Security Council resolution did not authorize regime change, and because the Obama administration used a bogus argument to evade the legal requirements of the War Powers Resolution.

James Fearon: Yes.  For less than one sixth of one percent of our total defense budget, we provided critical assistance to a rebel movement that unseated a vicious dictator. In addition to a plausible argument that the intervention saved a lot of lives, the action helped keep up the momentum of the Arab Spring, which we should be behind.

Alexander Wendt: Yes, because a) it was the right thing to do, b) we had support not only from our European allies but also more importantly the Arab League, and c) the terrain in Libya ensured that it could be done effectively at relatively low cost.

Robert Keohane: Yes.  I think that this was a good opportunity to implement the U.N.’s "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine and to support allies who were willing to carry the principal burden. 

Martha Finnemore: Yes, with reservations. Failure to support the Arab Spring would have been politically foolish and morally wrong, but R2P [the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine] is not carte blanche for regime change (not that I miss Qaddafi). Letting Europeans lead on this via NATO with U.N. and Arab League support was smart.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Lukewarmly. I believe he did a good job of shifting much of the cost to our NATO allies, avoiding their free-riding, but I believe Syria was a better target for intervention since it has a better prospect of liberalizing its politics and human rights than Libya under its emerging new leadership.

4. Is America safer today than it was before Sept. 11, 2001? Why/why not?

Francis Fukuyama: Yes it is safer, because we have beefed up intelligence and operations against terrorist organizations.  But it was never in as much danger as we thought in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.

Joseph S. Nye: Safer. We learned some lessons the hard way, but we have taken them to heart and improved our counterterrorism procedures.

Kenneth Waltz: We were safe then, and we are safe now.  No country or combination of countries can threaten us.  Terrorists are an annoyance, not a threat.

John Mearsheimer: The United States is the most secure great power ever, and 9/11 notwithstanding, it has been extremely safe since the Cold War ended.

James Fearon: I would hope at least marginally safer due to all the money spent on vigilance and identifying terrorist plots.  However, there may be more such plots than previously both due to the effects of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack and the Bush administration’s mistakes in responding to it.

Alexander Wendt: I don’t know.

Robert Keohane: Yes.  Anti-terrorism measures are costly but have been remarkably effective. This does not mean that the U.S. is perfectly safe – that is impossible in any case.  But the chances of an attack on the "homeland" being successful seem to have fallen.

Martha Finnemore: We may be safer from 9/11-style terrorist attacks, but there are other threats to worry about. Narrow focus on terrorism may prevent us from thinking about security in a more comprehensive way.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: No, Iran is a substantially more important and hostile power in the Middle East; Iraq is becoming a vassal state of Iran; Afghanistan may as well. U.S.-Pakistan relations are dangerously weakened; Latin American policies are less friendly. Relations with Africa are improved and we have been pretty much steady state with Asia and most of Europe.

5. What value do international-relations scholars provide that foreign-policy practitioners do not?

Francis Fukuyama: I think that IR specialists are less helpful than comparativists with good local knowledge of specific countries, like Thomas Barfield on Afghanistan.  That is the big hole that could be filled by academic specialists.  The IR people add value only marginally, unless they are also very knowledgeable about particular regions.

Joseph S. Nye: Scholars have the luxury of time to think. I found that when I was in policy positions, I had little time to think, and I drew upon intellectual capital that had been formed before I became a practitioner. But scholars have to do a better job of making their ideas accessible to busy practitioners.

Kenneth Waltz: We have a broader and longer perspective and by and large a better sense of history.

John Mearsheimer: Unlike practitioners, scholars have time to think long and hard about the big issues of the day and they have tenure, which allows them to make controversial arguments and not risk losing their jobs.

James Fearon: The major decisions in U.S. foreign policy are made by an incredibly small number of people, who are influenced — a lot or a little depending on the case — by information and arguments produced by an incredibly large number of people.  The latter set includes myriad foreign policy practitioners, journalists, Congressional staffers, think tank analysts, and some international relations scholars.

International relations scholars can provide either data — facts — that are unknown to the policy community and that can change thinking, or in some cases theoretical arguments or frameworks that can have indirect effects on shaping policy debates.  In addition, many of the players in this ecosystem, including the small number at the top who make the big decisions, have been influenced at one time or another by courses or reading work by international relations scholars.

Alexander Wendt: Well, educating future generations about world politics for one, but beyond that scholars a) have the luxury of being able to step back from events to see the longer run, b) provide an independent standpoint outside the government for criticizing foreign policy, and c) sometimes they can come up with new ideas or ways of thinking that in principle could change world politics.

Robert Keohane: A long-term historical and systemic perspective, questioning the conventional wisdom that may be difficult or costly for practitioners to question, an outsider’s reflective and critical analysis, attention to the systematic use of evidence. We do not have the ability to make point-level predictions in a meaningful way, in my view.

Martha Finnemore: Scholars can more easily take a long-term and big-picture perspective on world events. They can be helpful in identifying trends and patterns that may be hard to see in the often-frenetic world of policymaking. The challenge is to turn big-picture thoughts into useful recommendations. 

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Analytic rigor and methods for testing alternative tactical and strategic responses to issues as distinct from seat-of-the-pants guess work by practitioners. Fortunately practitioners are increasingly taking advantage of academically-developed analytic methods to improve the quality of pre-decision making assessments.

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