The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Picking nits

December 18, 2006

With your indulgence I would like to spend a few minutes engaging in a favorite academic pastime. [No, not “blogging when I have grading to do,” although I am also doing that.] The pastime in question is “nit-picking,” in which one academic takes an argument by another academic — an argument the broad outlines of which one basically agrees with — and focuses on some relatively minor point of differentiation. Hopefully, the point is not altogether banal; in my case it’s usually because I like some author’s conclusion but not all of the stages of the case that they’ve built to support it, and usually the stage I don’t like is something theoretical, which allows me to make a broader conceptual point by picking at that particular nit.

[“Nit-picking” is also to be distinguished from “bullshit detecting,” or “blasting the living crap out of an argument that, despite its utter logical absurdity, has unaccountably gotten into the public sphere, at least as measured by its presence in the Outlook section of the Washington Post.” That’s something I plan to do tomorrow with this piece of trash that almost made me spit out my orange juice this morning while reading it over breakfast. Haiti is poor because its citizens practice voodoo? Please. But that’s a rant for another post.]

I want to pick a nit with Dan Drezner, who had an op-ed piece in this Sunday’s Outlook section entitled “The Grandest Strategy of Them All.” While I largely agree with Drezner on the basic points he’s making — US foreign policy is currently without an overall grand strategic direction, the front-runner is probably Lieven and Hulsman’s “ethical realism” (an evaluation which, in my case at least, is undoubtedly affected by the fact that I would prefer to see their Niebuhr-inspired sense of the tragic in politics come back into vogue — it would be a nice corrective to the shiny happy muscular liberal idealism that we presently have on display in USFP), and in any event a putative grand strategy often only looks like a grand strategy when viewed retrospectively with the benefit of hindsight — I want to critique one point in particular that he makes in the course of the argument.

Early in his piece, Drezner approvingly cites Jeffrey Legro’s claim about great power strategies: “Mere dissatisfaction with today’s foreign policy doesn’t guarantee that a new vision will take its place . . . A new strategy must be more than visionary; it must provide attractive and practical solutions to current challenges.” The example referenced is George Kennan’s “containment” policy, which Drezner (and Legro) claims was “a big idea that was both influential and correct.”

Here’s the nit: to say that Kennan’s containment policy was “correct,” and especially to say that Kennan’s containment policy was adopted because it was “correct,” makes little sense to me. I don’t know what it even means to say that containment was a “correct” policy; it seems to me that any such evaluation would be a political rather than an analytical statement, since it would build in all sorts of assumptions about what a policy was supposed to do, whether the results generated were desirable ones, and — most importantly — an assumption that the speaker can somehow produce an analysis of the situation into which the policy was articulated that is somehow not affected by that policy itself. The speaker claims to know what the “real issues” were, and can then use that knowledge to adjudicate questions about the policy — questions that were political questions at the time and, I’d posit, remain political questions up until the time that the speaker is speaking.

Let me try to say this more plainly: it is not possible to determine whether or not Kennan was “correct” in developing and recommending the containment policy, because we (and all speakers with whom we might be having a conversation) inhabit a world that was made, in part, by the containment policy. To evaluate “correctness,” we’d have to first reconstruct the world as it was in 1946-1947, and then consider all of the alternatives and their likely consequences — and this would only work if we could somehow reconstruct 1946-1947 without knowing how the story turned out, lest we rig the game from the outset. This is a lot easier said than done, and as far as I know precisely no historian has ever accomplished this feat; lots of them claim to do so, but if they’re honest, they admit that history is always written from a particular vantage-point, and stop making silly claims about having gotten down to the One True Way That Things Actually Were — which is a place you’d actually have to get in order to make a claim like “the containment policy was right” and have it mean anything scientifically.

Of course, one can make that claim politically without such epistemological strictures, and most historians of the early Cold War can’t resist trying to intervene in such political debates, at least in the conclusion sections of their monographs. This impulse always seemed kind of bizarre to me, since when I went to look at debates in the early Cold War I wasn’t interested in participating in them fifty years after they came to a contingent resolution; I was interested in explaining how they came to the contingent resolutions that they came to. But I digress.

The reason this is important to Drezner’s argument is that it allows him to claim, albeit implicitly, both that we need a “correct” grand strategy and that the “correctness” of a potential grand strategy has something to do with its eventual victory. (Legro calls this, somewhat more ambiguously, the “fit” between a policy and the world.) But his own analysis in the remainder of the piece works against this claim, since he (correctly, in my view) cites domestic-political reasons why particular grand-strategic ideas might or might not catch on: Mandelbaum’s The Case for Goliath won’t catch on because “This approach too closely resembles the Bush administration’s current strategy, and people are looking for change.” Also: “The grand strategy that wins out in the end may be the one that — regardless of specific positions on Iraq or terrorism — convinces Americans that it is possible to have free and fair trade at the same time.” So the emphasis here, once we get past generalizations about “correctness,” seems to be on how well a potential grand strategy and its advocates can knit together a socially sustainable coalition of ideas, principles, rhetorical tropes, and other cultural resources. Not a word about “correctness.”

Indeed, in a widely unread article that Dan Nexon and I wrote in response to Legro’s initial posing of the “fit” mechanism for how policy ideas win out, we argued that

Theories of structural change are specifications of the conditions under which potential shocks will be absorbed by socio-cultural networks, or will aggregate to produce lasting alterations in modes of relating. Legro’s theory covers the most straightforward of such conditions: when the challenge to role expectations is so severe and widespread that a critical mass of actors in the network experience dissonance. When this happens, actors innovate by drawing upon preexisting heterodoxies or combining available roles to produce novel configurations of beliefs and identities. Since the shock is widespread, there exists a good probability that some new orthodoxy will emerge.

Which means: whether some policy “fits” or not is a function of how actors deploy extant cultural resources in their local political and social contexts so as to produce “fit,” and not a function of whether the policy in question really corresponds to some externally existing set of conditions. This is even more obviously the case in 1946-1947, in which the “situation” was ambiguous enough to support a number of more or less valid readings and predictions of likely futures; the adoption of the “containment” policy didn’t so much reflect reality as it shaped reality.

If your institution has an online subscription to Cambridge Journals Online, you can download our article (and Legro’s response) here.

Why am I picking this nit? Because I’d posit that a) what was true of 1946-1947 is equally true of 2006, and that therefore b) which grand strategy (if any) will win out in the present debate about the US role in the world will be determined by its “correctness,” but by how socially plausible it becomes. Although his framing seems to disagree with me, Drezner’s actual analysis of strategic options seems to reinforce my point. The “one strategy to rule them all” (love the LotR reference; kind of surprised that the Post’s editors let him leave it in) will not emerge because of its intrinsic powers of dominion, but because of its cultural location in a web of resources that provides potentials for action, but not inevitable outcomes.

If I had more time, the fact that Drezner mis-characterizes Kofi Annan’s Truman library speech as “idealist” when it’s pretty clearly liberal-institutionalist — a direction in which Truman himself often leaned — would be another nit to pick. If I were to do that I’d also expand on the subtle differences between liberal universalism of the sort that Annan is promoting, and Cold War liberalism of the Truman-Acheson variety (which is more about securing certain centers of power and influence to shore up a liberal order that is only supposed to exist in certain regions of the planet — the “Western” region, actually), and then include yet another gratuitous plug for my book — which, in fairness, actually is about this issue.

But alas, there’s still grading to be done. I’ll have to whip those hobbits harder.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.