Two Cheers for Theory

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"Two Cheers for Theory"

Ross had an interesting post several days ago that I’ve been meaning to respond to, centered around the limited utility of theory in guiding action on foreign policy:

That being said, I do think that the ease with which many liberal hawks who would have been cool to the idea of invading Iraq circa 1999 went over to the interventionist position after 2001 suggests a deeper problem with Matt’s attempt – or any attempt – to build systematic theories for international engagement: Namely, that unless you’re a very stringent non-interventionist (or a pacifist), no matter what theory of foreign policy you choose, you’ll always be able to find justification within the confines of that theory whenever a particular intervention seems like a good idea. In this vein, I sometimes think too much of the debate over the Iraq War has been bogged down by arguments over theory – by Christians arguing over whether just war tradition accommodates the invasion; by liberals arguing (sometimes with themselves) over whether it fits within the Truman paradigm, by everybody arguing about neoconservatism’s place in American political history – when to my mind the chief lessons of the war have to do with issues of prudence and practicality, and more specifically with the question of when the costs of war, in lives and treasure, are worth the risk involved and the gains that might be won.

There’s definitely something to that. No theory worth having is going to have totally unambiguous applications to specific cases, and besides which there’s no substitute for factual information and good judgment. That said, just saying we’re going to take a prudent, empirical approach to questions turns out to not have any real content. In part, this is for formal reasons like “the interdependence of fact and theory” where people’s empirical assessments of situations are influenced by their theoretical precommitments. In part the issue is that foreign crises play out in real time, and decisions need to be made with imperfect information and typically by people who aren’t specialists in the region of the world at hand. On top of all that, the questions of costs and benefits is going to implicate ideas about goals and “grand strategy.” These are topics that can’t help but be debated with some reference to theory. Your approach to a lot of issues can be strongly affected by whether or not you think US-Chinese conflict is inevitable, and if not whether you think an “appeasement invites aggression” frame or a “if we’re reasonable, they’ll be reasonable too” frame is the most important way of thinking about the risks of conflict.

In short, we can’t get by without theory, so we have good reason to debate theory. And eve if particular cases can’t “prove” a given theory wrong or right, it’s natural to cite cases in making arguments about theory.

Ultimately, I think Ross’s insight is most persuasive in batting down certain kinds of objections to certain theoretical positions. I’ve sometimes heard the objection raised that since my preferred theoretical position can’t provide an unambiguous answer to all real and possible cases, it must be a flawed theory. Or that since past presidents have sometimes deviated from internationalist course (Mossadegh, Vietnam, the Cuba Embargo), it can’t be the case that liberal internationalism has generally been the guiding principle of our policy. That kind of thing is just the wrong way to think about what theoretical considerations are supposed to do — they’re supposed to provide some guidance as to relevant considerations and plausible courses of action, not completely determine policy.

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