The emperor has no clothes moment for realism

20 November 2017, 1403 EST

Earlier this month the Washington Post ran a piece detailing increased efforts by Charles Koch’s eponymous foundation (hereafter CKF) to fund foreign policy programs in the United States (h/t to Josh for posting to Twitter). Notwithstanding one’s perspective on the Koch brothers’ politics, increased money for academia is a good thing, right? And all the CKF wants is to “ask questions about America’s proper role in the world and how we move forward”…to ‘broaden the debate’ about US foreign policy. All noble aims, and so I am sure the CKF is distributing money to institutions large and small to give faculty opportunities to take students on study abroad programs, bring in policymakers and thinkers to foster discussion, and other mechanisms to provoke reflection and debate.

Except, by all appearances, the CKF is not doing these things. Instead, CKF is funneling their money to elite universities—Harvard and MIT are the most recent recipients of CKF largess—with the goal of encouraging ‘research that advances the realist school of foreign policy.’ Further, the money is intended to support grad student training and postdocs. While Stephen Walt and Barry Posen, the faculty responsible at Harvard and MIT for overseeing the Koch program say they will not limit fellowships to foreign policy realists, this looks a lot like an ideological agenda: Wealthy patrons foster the training and propagation (by enhancing resources of institutions that already dominate graduate training) of scholars with a particular ideological theoretical perspective.

Walt and Posen claim that debates of US foreign policy are quiescent, and what debate there is focuses on tactics rather than bigger strategic questions. I suppose they are characterizing political debates, since there is no evidence of such quiescence in the academic literature. So, despite Posen’s claim that “this is not about politics”, it is really about politics. The logic appears to be something like this. Train and place realist scholars so they can either take positions in the national security apparatus or faculty positions. The underlying assumption seems to be that these scholars would then integrate realism into their work environments.

There is power in this effort. In an article published a couple years ago Pat James and I made the argument that theories are really logics for making sense of the world, and that policymakers use them as such. Thus, IR theories are not objective analytical tools but rather socially enacted logics. The CKF seems to understand this far better than IR scholars. What is particularly ironic is that Realism is their logic of choice. Of all the IR theories, realism is the most adamant in claiming the objectivist, value neutral scientific high ground. The CKF program appears to expose realism as profoundly ideational and normative.

Realism aside, the CKF program exposes a bigger concern for American IR scholars. While academia is not apart from its political and social milieu, much of its authority and social value comes from trying to maintain at least the perception of a gap, particularly from politics. This is true not just for the social sciences, see for example climate change. In this context, the CKF with its explicitly ideological agenda damages the relationship between academia, society, and the state. Thus, while the CKF might want to enhance the standing of realism in policymaking, the program—by undermining the credibility of IR and realism as scholarly endeavors—is more likely to do the opposite.