IR & Theory

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This is the first in a series of articles in the International Relations 101 section about “understanding international relations and foreign policy decision making.” These articles seek to make this complex, multi-dimensional arena accessible to people outside the halls of power. The series also pulls duty as a necessary backdrop for understanding the wisdom-based alternative approaches to the field that are being developed by The Wisdom Project.

International Relations and the Significance of Theory

by Charles Strohmer

Although we use theories all the time to help us cope with everyday life, people can be terrified by the word. But there’s no need to be. And in the world of international relations, no one can be. For the many others who “just can’t be bothered,” the word probably just doesn’t seem practical. It has come to have populist connotations of a life lived by ivory tower intellectuals who never had to deal with dirty diapers, flat tires, or flu shots for the kids. But even diapers, radials, and injections have theories behind them.

We seem to have lost sight of something, which would not have been so had we lived in the theatrical culture of ancient Greece, where their words for theater and theory meant very nearly the same thing. Theatron (our theater) meant “the seeing place,” or the “place for seeing” or “viewing” the performing arts. (Similar meanings are found in the Latin and French for theater.) Theoria (our theory) meant “looking at,” “seeing,” “viewing,” which for us today has come to indicate speculation or contemplation as opposed to action. So theoreticians are uninvolved. They live in their heads. They are life’s disinterested spectators. Or so we think.

That’s not how audiences streaming out of an Athens theatron, having witnesses the drama of a tragedy or a comedy, would have understood theoria. Certainly the word for them underlined the activity of the mind, in contrast to their word praxis (practice), but theoria included the idea of having some practical aim in mind, looking at a thing or an event with some practical purpose. We can begin to get a feel for this when we think of the physical effort alone that went into preparing for and then performing a Greek comedy or tragedy.

That there is more to “theory” than just intellectual exercise hasn’t completely slipped our minds today. “The theory behind the Apollo spacecraft helped put the first man on moon.” “A new medical theory may help doctors cure…” “The police have a theory that…” And this one, which political actors today still use, “the theater of war.”

The influence of theories

There is a sense in which theories bring together ideas and action, and for international relations and foreign policy decision making they include both conceptual and practical aspects. Theories help political leaders make sense of the world and shape to their foreign policies. International reality, then, is to some large degree created, shaped, sustained, guided, and reshaped by whatever conceptual model happens to be ascendent in the White House, or Downing Street, or the tents of al Qaeda when foreign policy decisions are being made. At least some adequate awareness of the most relied on background theories is therefore necessary for understanding international relations and foreign policy decision making.

Theories help political leaders make sense of the world and shape to their foreign policies.

Each theoretical model catches and emphasizes important elements of international relations and, as Robert Jervis, professor of international affairs at Columbia University, notes, the arguments among scholars is usually not to pit one model against another but to discuss the “relative importance of and interrelationships among various” different models. (Robert Jervis, “Realism in the Study of World Politics,” in Katzenstein, Keohane, and Krasner, eds., Exploration and Contestation in the Study of World Politics, 1999, p. 332.)

That is the general approach I have taken in the series of articles on understanding international relations and foreign policy that will appear on this site. These articles will outline the most influential theoretical models of the past several decades in the West. I have begun this process with articles on political realism and idealism, and on neoconservatism. These articles, however, do not just talk about these three -isms in the abstract. They includes contemporary examples that show why a particular leader and his advisors chose one policy over others that were on offer. It is as a preface to the following articles, which try to make accessible a complicated field, that I thought it might be useful, here, to start with some basics about the world of theory itself and its significance to international relations.

The game of bowls

The first thing is this. Theory influences how we interpret what comes to our senses, and we interpret any new information or situation in terms of what we already assume, believe, or know. Theory helps us make sense of what we are seeing or experiencing, and of course people have different ways of making sense of the same event. All of this, of course, is obvious. What I wat to underline, here, it that this is true even when we aren’t conscious of what model is helping us to make sense of things. Which for most of us is most of the time.

This was humorously illustrated by a British friend who was explaining to me what occurred when his young son first saw the leisurely game of bowls being played. The game, as you may know, is usually played outdoors on a long, flat, well-cut lawn on which the bowlers compete with each other by taking turns rolling large, heavy black balls down the “green” to see who can get closest to the “jack,” a small solid white ball at the other end of the long green. So one day, during a drive through the park with his family, the youngest son was looking out the back window and suddenly shouted, “Look, dad, cannonball races!” Surprised, the family looked and saw a game of bowls being played.

I sometimes illustrate this in seminars by having a dozen volunteers put on different colored sunglasses I’ve collected – red, blue, yellow, pink, black, green, whatever – and then I ask each participant to describe how he or she sees the world around them. The room itself is has not changed, nor have the people in it, but both the room and the people in it sure look different through different lenses. Once the participants have got the knack of explaining how each sees the world, I then have them trade lenses, which, if nothing else, affords them some sympathy for others’ views!

Different theories, different emphases

Another point is this. When encountering a new phenomenon, and this is particularly striking in dealing with a crisis, the questions that a political leader deems most urgently in need of answers will be largely determined by the conceptual model the leader relies on. Across the aisle, a politician who holds to a different model may be asking quite different questions, and that could lead not just to different but to conflicting interpretations of the same event.

Imagine with me for a minute a conversation between the English dad and his young son if they had pulled the car over to watch the game of bowls, and if the son begins asking questions about this new (to him) phenomenon based on his knowledge of cannonballs. But dad is providing answers based on the game of bowls.

the questions that a political leader deems most urgently in need of answers will be largely determined by the conceptual model

So father remarks to son about the skill of a player who rolled his ball just short of his opponent’s ball and so got nearer the jack. Puzzled, son replies, “What sort of a race is it where they only try to get even and not ahead?” Father then explains the game’s principle “of getting close” rather than ahead. Son rather dubiously accepts the idea, but suggests, “Well, then, the players ought to start aiming better, because the cannonballs are going all over the place. One almost went round in a semi-circle.” Father then explains that these balls won’t go in a straight line when they are bowled.

Completely frustrated by now, son explodes, “Well, no self-respecting gunner would use ammunition that wouldn’t go straight!” Father (fully assured and ever the expert!) then replies that the bias is deliberately built into the balls during their manufacture. Hearing this, son gives up and mutters, “I can understand them using unbalanced ammunition if they have no choice, but actually making cannonballs like that, they must be mad!”

Two conflicting theories about the same phenomenon produced different interpretations, different questions, different answers, not to mention a failure of communication. But notice that the theories were at work non-consciously. (John Peck and Charles Strohmer, Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, 2001, pp. 71-72.)

Different theories, different policies

A third point is this. With different emphases come different policies for dealing with the same event or crisis. And may the best man win!

We may imagine what could be some rather grim ramifications of this if we extended the conversation between the dad and his son to include the parks and recreation authority. I will let you play around with this on your own. I’m thinking of the foolish outcome if the son convinced the local authority to call in the army to deal with that very threatening situation. After all, a few of those cannonballs might explode when they crashed into each other. But you may imagine your own silly policy.

Theory as a simplifying device for the complex

Moving from some basics about theory itself to international relations, theories provide conceptual backgrounds for how leaders and their advisors understand the world and make foreign policy decisions: a field where there is so much material to look at and so much phenomena to interpret that it is difficult to know which things matter and which don’t. For international relations, then, “theory” becomes a “kind of simplifying device that allows you to decide which facts matter and which do not.” (Baylis, Smith, and Owens, “Introduction,” in Baylis, Smith, and Owens, eds., The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 2008, pp. 3-4.)


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