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Can IR theory help with the Ukraine crisis?

The international relations scholar Stephen Walt writes an excellent column at He has a great ability to talk about extant problems in International politics from a scholar’s viewpoint. However, in his current piece, which you should read, he falls right into the trap that he, in the end, laments. That is, in his championing of IR theory he gets wrong why policymakers pay scant attention to IR scholars. 

Walt writes, “[I]t is obvious to me that these troubling events [in Ukraine] have reaffirmed the enduring relevance of the realist perspective on international politics.” Later, he writes, “The bottom line is that the scholarly literature on international relations has a lot to say about the situation we are facing. Unfortunately, no one in a position of power is likely to pay much attention to it, even when knowledgeable academics offer their thoughts in the public sphere.”

But Walt moves the goalposts here and just misses a crucial point. Policymakers are generally answering the question, “What do I do about x?” Not “Why is x happening?” Scholars can somewhat reasonably argue that if policymakers did pay attention to IR theory more rigorously well before the fact, they would have to face situations with limited options. But that’s not what Walt is saying. He is extolling the power of many IR theory to explain events. That’s not particularly helpful in a policy sense. And many “knowledgeable academics” are giving sage advice on Russia, the psychology of its leader, and much more every day. Walt goes on to say time is of the essence in a crisis. Exactly. But the esteemed political scientist writes 3,200 words and offers little in the way of policy prescription. 

Walt has written about this before and come to the same conclusion. In 2005 he wrote, “The need for powerful theories that could help policy makers design effective solutions would seem to be apparent as well.“ This is true. Policymakers could use powerful theories, but not the grand theories that Walt is referring to. Those grand theories are unlikely to help get a renewed Iran nuclear deal completed or denuclearize North Korea. Nor are they likely to help policymakers get out of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. It’s all too easy (and unhelpful) to champion grand theory while never providing any prescriptive advice. Unfortunately for those IR scholars who do pay attention to the policy-theory divide, this sentiment is all to common. Walt would probably say that I'm missing his point. But again, he offers little in the way of forward looking policy to give practitioners a moment to appreciate the supposed power of grand theory in helping craft policy.

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