The Skeptics

Iran, Realism and the “Theory-Practice Paradox”

The author’s views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

There is a vigorous discussion underway in the blogosphere about a forthcoming article by Georgetown University’s Matt Kroenig, “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike is the Least Bad Option,” which will appear in the next issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. The title leaves little to the imagination, fairly representing the main thrust of the argument, which has attracted more than its share of critical commentary. Steve Walt, for one, has described the article as “a textbook example of war-mongering disguised as ‘analysis’” while Paul Pillar concludes his scathing review by noting that an attack on Iran’s nuclear program—a constraint on U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East—would be no more justified than Pearl Harbor: Japan attacked a fleet it viewed as a constraint on its freedom of action in the Pacific .

For the record, I side with the critics when it comes to the advisability of attacking Iran: too often, hawks like Kroenig traffic in worst-casing when discussing the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran while switching to best-casing when discussing the consequences of military action by the United States or its allies. For the purposes of this post, however, I am less interested in the logical inconsistencies at play than in the more general issue of the relationship between academic scholarship and policy advocacy.

This issue is raised over at Duck of Minerva by Dan Nexon, Kroenig’s Georgetown colleague. As Nexon points out, there is a tension between Kroenig’s argument in the Foreign Affairs article that a nuclear-armed Iran poses an unacceptable danger to the United States and the argument he makes in a coauthored working paper that nuclear superiority improves a state’s ability to deter potential adversaries. In other words, the policy advice that Kroenig offers in one place (attack Iran) does not seem to mesh with the scholarship that he is conducting elsewhere (which suggests U.S. nuclear superiority should reinforce deterrence against Iran).

How big of a problem is this? How consistent should policy advice be with the scholarship that supposedly underpins it? This is an issue that Sebastian Rosato and I grappled with as we wrote up “A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States,” an article that appears in the latest issue of Perspectives on Politics. The crux of the matter is that a prescriptive realist theory of foreign policy, the kind of theory that we set out to create and defend in the piece, is most relevant when realist expectations have been violated, that is when decision makers have subordinated considerations of power and interest to domestic political imperatives or ideological predilections. So, when Sebastian and I argue that a prescriptive realist theory of foreign policy is needed we are tacitly admitting that there is a disconnect between our theoretical expectations and the way that policy makers think and act. This is what Ido Oren calls the “theory-practice paradox” (see also Samuel Barkin’s take on the issue).

There are a few ways out of the theory-practice paradox. The first is to drop the explanatory enterprise completely. This is the route recommended by Oren, who points out that classical realists like E.H. Carr did not have any pretensions that their theoretical notions explained state behavior but instead saw them as guidelines for prudent foreign-policy making. It is not clear, however, on what basis realist injunctions should be taken seriously if they are not rooted in any body of social-scientific knowledge. Shouldn’t we take policy advice more seriously when it is underpinned by sound logic and supporting evidence? The approach that Sebastian and I take is to argue that the theory-practice paradox is more apparent than real. The truth is that realist theories, like all theories of international relations, are probabilistic, which means that policy makers will sometimes act in ways that contradict realist expectations. In those cases, realists are entitled to advocate for their preferred course of action, as they did, for example, in the run-up to the Iraq War.