How consequential was 9/11? How much of our response was theatrics, how much a lost opportunity, and to what extent is our brain trust doing its job? My column last week about America’s failure to adapt to a world no longer dominated by traditional states has prompted some interesting responses. Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy opens a conversation about my contention that international affairs thinking still hasn’t caught up with a fluid post-Cold War order whose arrival was emphasized by 9/11. One question he raises:
Is it that international relations theory has gone stale… or is it simply that the wrong set of existing theories are in vogue today?
Isn’t is possible that both are the case? Folks like Nye, Walt, and Doyle have been wrong about some big things in the 1990s (like the Democratic Peace; it turns out that democracies, or democratizing nations, do sometimes go to war with each other). And in the 2000s, there was a big idea, Bush’s Freedom Agenda, but it was the wrong idea, and didn’t work.
Roland Paris adds another salient question to the discussion. Is there really a need for a bumper sticker, a grand unifying theory? Or doesn’t a complicated world require complicated thinking? To that I say, of course – but if you don’t have a grand strategy that’s easy to articulate, akin to containment after World War II, then you probably are adrift. Complex ideas that are clear and compelling can be summarized clearly without being reduced to a silly bullet point. Paris also points out some recent thinking I didn’t mention in my column:
… more thinking has taken place on the changing nature of international affairs than Cambanis acknowledges. He mentions the works of Nye, Doyle and Walt, all of whom are great scholars. However, as my former University of Colorado colleague, Dan Drezner, points out, the ideas that Cambanis mentions are not new. Nye’s insights into ‘soft power’ were first published in 1990, for example, while Doyle’s pioneering work on the ‘democratic peace’ appeared in the late 1970s. Drezner could have added that in the ensuing years there has been a flurry of scholarly writing addressing the issues that Cambanis raises– including works about the role of non-state actors and about ‘fuzzier’ problems such as transnational networks and failed states. Admittedly, much of this literature is full of academic jargon, but an interested reader with a bit of perseverance will discover rich veins of gold to mine. (If you are interested in taking up pick and shovel, this course syllabus, which lists some recent writings, is a good place to start. If, however, you prefer to have a shiny nugget handed to you, take a look at this thoughtful article by Princeton’s John Ikenberry.)
It’s possible that the great ideas that will carry us into the future are circulating quietly and will soon hold sway in the salons of power. It’s also possible that America is strategically adrift.