Theory is not flawless policy

February 10, 2011

We often hear the phrase “Georgetown bubble” used to describe the experience of students who seldom venture beyond M Street and Wisconsin Avenue except to watch the Hoyas play basketball at Verizon Center. To some, it suggests a heavy workload, to others, elitism. The term conjures an image of undergraduates safely ensconced behind the walls of Georgetown, reading the likes of Hobbes and Jefferson. In our ivory tower, both students and professors enjoy the privilege of watching and commenting on events without being directly involved in them. Philosophy and political theory, two pillars of a School of Foreign Service or College education, are the products of the scholarship that takes place within our bubble.

Sometimes, however, the world reminds us that while the theories we take copious notes about in International Relations or Introduction to Philosophy can help us understand the past, they frequently fail to make sense of the present. The world usually does not conform to how the academy understands it. The recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa serve as yet another reminder of how political theories can roughly explain events 10 years ago, but struggle mightily to explain what happened days ago.

Scholars have built up layer upon layer of theories, from realism to constructivism, from an individual level of analysis to a global one, in an attempt to explain why certain historical events have happened. Thousands of pages have been written about the French Revolution, and thousands more about the Russian and Chinese revolutions, but in 1978 and 1979, revolutionary theory failed to predict or explain the Iranian revolution. The academics that wondered if Iran could collapse thought it would be the late 1980s before such an event might occur. They missed what hindsight rendered obvious: a hated regime that lacked legitimacy, a viable alternative in Ayatollah Khomeini, and an economy that couldn’t handle the weight of massive government building programs. Over the last 30 years, scholars have scrambled to adapt their theories to the unforeseen Iranian revolution. Now it appears, they will have to adapt again.

When Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent Egyptian opposition figure, returned to Egypt during the first days of anti-government protests in January, Western media swarmed the airport. Perhaps they envisioned a scene similar to the Tehran airport where two million Iranians flocked to witness Khomeini’s messianic arrival in January 1979. The Independent, a prominent British newspaper, branded ElBaradei “Egypt’s saviour-in-waiting.” When ElBaradei addressed the massive crowd of protestors in Cairo’s Liberation Square on Jan. 30, however, the overwhelming reaction was not support, but indifference. Most of the protestors could not even hear him.

Many have criticized the White House for a confused strategy toward the Egyptian protests. It is clear that the national security team does not know what to expect from a new democracy in Egypt. No one else knows either. Some scholars have argued that the Middle East has posed unique difficulties for political scientists, and that the field’s ability to explain events outside the region have largely been successful. However, one of the most powerful examples of the failures of theory happened not in the Middle East, but in Europe. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the fearsome Soviet military peacefully retreated from Eastern Europe, Western governments and academics alike were stunned, unable to understand the events in terms of the Cold War balance of power that had defined their careers.

Shortly before the Wall fell, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher begged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to prevent it. “Such a development,” Thatcher argued, “would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security.” A few months later, French President Francois Mitterrand told Thatcher that if Germany reunified, Europe would revert to the international climate that immediately preceded World War I. The positions of both leaders likely reflected the advice they received from scholars who only knew Cold War politics. A return to the complex pre-1914 world of war scares is indeed a frightening notion. However, the reunification of Germany has instead contributed to the unification of much of Europe within the European Union. Less than 100 years after the Great War, the total integration of Western Europe seems more likely than another catastrophic conflict between rival European states.

There is no question that when the dust settles in the Middle East the intellectual bastions of political theory across the country, including those at Georgetown, will again attempt to understand the flaws in their theories, just as they did after 1989. The same cringe-inducing academic jargon will remain: systemic level of analysis, bureaucratic culture model and two-level games. The same theoretical arguments will continue unimpeded, until the next moment of crisis reminds us that the emperor is still wearing no clothes.


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