The Duck of Minerva

Broken IR? It is worse than Walt lets on

22 February 2018

As Josh has already noted,  grandee of IR Stephen Walt published a condemnation of US professional schools of IR, calling them broken and claiming that while there is superficial innovation the ‘rot runs deep’. After noting that we should expect US foreign policy (fopo) to be better than it is in the hands of foreign policy professionals—many of whom receive graduate education in institutions like Walt’s Kennedy School of Government at Harvard—Walt concludes that the schools of IR must share some of the blame . After this fairly breezy assessment, Walt goes on to outline five ways the ‘experience’ of graduate education in IR can be improved:

  1. Connect theory and policy
  2. Teach more useful economics
  3. History (as in, teach more of it)
  4. Improve teaching of strategy
  5. Break the conformity of a commitment to U.S. leadership liberal hegemony

So far, so far from groundbreaking. It is hard to see how these propositions begin to address the rot that Walt claims runs deep. More significantly, Walt ignores the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the broken nature of the discipline of IR. When Walt writes:

[the] appealing image of a disciplined professional caste doesn’t fully describe the reality of the contemporary foreign-policy community, where consensus and conformity reign despite perennial infighting over tactics, position, and status

he could just as easily have been writing about IR as a discipline in the United States. As Ayşe Zarakol and Jelena Subotic demonstrate, American IR is largely a materialist and rationalist oriented discipline that pushes alternative—even the relatively accommodating via media Constructivism—and critical approaches to the margins or out of the American field altogether. This intellectual stultification runs right through the discipline, starting with the small number top departments that are able to dominate hiring and standard setting. The problem is not just at professional IR programs, which are the focus of Walt’s concerns. Students start their ‘professional’ training in IR and political science departments around the country as undergrads.


Why does this matter? Ironically, Walt provides part of the answer in his assessment of the importance of history:

Although these societies all lived through the same events, the histories they tell themselves about them are radically different.

Walt’s unspoken point here is that the stories societies tell about their pasts is a reflection of and has direct bearing on their behaviors in the present. Likewise, contemporary events are given significance through a variety of socially constructed lenses (e.g. identity). If we are not equipping future fopo makers and strategists with robust intellectuals tools/theories to analyze the social and ideational contingency of international behavior, we are leaving them with gaping analytical holes that are contributing to bad policy and strategy. This particularly important in the United States, where a materialist focus on technology (e.g. the U.S. Department of Defense’s ‘third offset strategy’) substantially contributes to fopo and strategic failures (see: 2003 Iraq war and aftermath). IR as it is promulgated in the United States reinforces these tendencies to deleterious effect.


All this means that Walt’s prescriptions amount to little more that rearranging deck chairs rather than desperately needed intellectual reflection and disciplinary course change. Until that occurs, the conditions that give rise Walt’s despair will go on.