11th January 2012: Constructivism and the Scholar-Policymaker Disconnect

Andrew Carr blogged at The Interpreter on a new survey of international relations scholars:

While a colleague has noted that you’ll never hear the word ‘constructivism‘ inside the walls of DFAT*, it is the most popular IR discipline. In some ways this isn’t too surprising, as constructivism is a new field with high research energy. But given the traditional dominance of realism, and the return to great power studies that has accompanied China’s rise this century, I would have expected many more realists.

From my email reply to Carr:

There are several possible reasons for the high response rate of self-identified constructivists in the survey of US international relations scholars. A younger generation of IR scholars have been influenced by Alexander Wendt, Peter Katzenstein, John Ruggie, Martha Finnemore, Friedrich Kratochwil, and other constructivists. Professional associations have changed: the Perestroika Movement created a debate in the American Political Science Association about epistemic assumptions and research methodology, whilst the International Studies Association now hosts conference sessions on critical security studies and similar topics. However, realism still remains influential, through the enduring influence of Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt. The survey response to ‘I do not use paradigmatic analysis’ might include diplomatic historians and scholars who use inter-paradigmatic and multi-perspectival approaches.

Gyngell and Wesley’s observation about DFAT staff who are self-identified realists follows an historical trend in Australian policymaking. Several contributors to Graeme Cheeseman and Bruce Roberts’ critical anthology Discourses of Danger and Dread Frontiers (Allen & Unwin, 1996) complained that Australian defence and security policymaking was realist-dominated and that scholars from other traditions had few opportunities to influence or shape policymaking. The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University was usually singled out as the institutional villain. This past debate suggests a disconnect between Australian scholars and policymakers.

This scholar-policymaker disconnect plays out in the media, academia and in formulating specific strategies. Consider counter-terrorism. The 2006-08 campaign by James Cook University’s Mervyn F. Bendle in Quadrant and The Australian about ‘terrorism studies’ was essentially a disagreement between a realist and critical theory-influenced academics. There was little discussion of what was actually being taught in ‘terrorism studies’ courses. Australia’s Counter-Terrorism White Paper (2010) conceptualised terrorism in a similar fashion to debats within the Bush Administration in 2003-05 — but didn’t appear to include ‘lessons learned’ from researchers in Monash University’s Global Terrorism Centre, the Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, and similar academic groups. Over the past decade, Australian Research Council grants awarded in defence, counter-terrorism and security have reflected the visibility and perceived urgency of topics — there are more opportunities for collaborative research teams.

What insights can constructivists share with DFAT and the Defence Department? Ideas matter. Institutions and non-state actors are important. Diplomacy and intelligence are crucial for dealing with ideational factors like culture, history, identity, and threat perception. These insights are echoed in recent non-constructivist work on perceiving enemies and strategic culture (Patrick Porter’s Military Orientalism); how the US Army and Marines developed new counter-insurgency doctrines (David Ucko’s The New Counterinsurgency Era); effective psychological operations (Ron Schleifer’s Psychological Warfare in the Intifada); decisions about nuclear weapons development (Jacques E.C. Hymans’ The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation), and diffusion of military innovations (Michael Horowitz’s The Diffusion of Military Power). Constructivist insights can be seen in how the US State Department dealt with the Arab Spring and in the Obama administration’s Sustaining US Global Leadership (2012) which echoes John F. Kennedy’s ‘flexible response’ period. Theory can inform more robust and resilient policy formulation. But academics need to heed US Secretary of State George Marshall’s advice to grand strategist George Kennan: “Avoid trivia.”

10th January 2012: Grand Strategy YouTube Clips

I missed University of Chicago professor Dan Drezner’s call for YouTube clips on American grand strategy, blogged here. My suggested clip is the confrontation with the android Ash from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979):




I wrote Drezner:

The full, original scene reveals that ‘layered’ grand strategy has strategic priorities, compartmentalised intelligence and operational plans — and expendable people. This excerpt on the Wayland-Yutani company’s plans to ‘weaponise’ the alien xenomorph has dialogue worthy of Machiavelli or Kissinger-style realpolitik.


The scene illustrates the uncertainty of new weapons development and the tension between advisers and policymakers documented in Bruce Kuklick’s book Blind Oracles: From Kennan to Kissinger (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2007).


The trailer for Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus (2012) suggests a failure to heed Sun Tzu’s advice on understanding enemies and using strategic intelligence rather than force:



For more clip suggestions, see my Spiral Dynamics Field Manual for Film Scanning (2003) and Spiral Dynamics of Cinema Studies (1998).


The Lowy Institute also responded to Drezner’s list of grand strategy clips.

10th January 2012: John Lewis Gaddis on Nuclear Weapons & Grand Strategy


This lecture at Columbia University on 12th August 2010 features a couple of interesting moments. Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis compares Clausewitz’s absolute war, George Kennan’s containment strategy, and Ronald Reagan’s nuclear disarmament talks with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. This lecture illustrates how Gaddis constructs a logic chain, uses analogical reasoning, and selects historical sources in order to make arguments (including revisionist debates about particular historical figures, such as James Mann’s The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan). Gaddis also makes a couple of side-comments about a Columbia student simulation on nuclear weapons that was run the afternoon of the talk. The question and answer session touches on several potential research programs that others might explore, such as the role of weapons proliferation in asymmetric wars.

6th January 2012: On PMs and the National Security Apparatus

Andrew Carr blogged at The Interpreter on Australian national security policy:

While sometimes there are inevitable delays, Gillard has run a more efficient ship-of-state than her predecessor, leading me to believe that it is a disinclination for a centralised security office in PM&C that better explains the delays. This not only fits with Gillard’s lower level of passion for foreign policy than Rudd, but hopefully also a recognition that the system Rudd established didn’t work.


From my email reply to Carr:

The Rudd Government’s related foreign policy achievement was its 2008 National Security Statement which promised a regular NSS and budget. The Gillard Government has not acted on this promise. The missed reform opportunity was to develop a comparable mechanism to the US Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act (1986) which has mandated the White House’s regular NSS to US Congress.

Rudd’s National Security Adviser had a coordination role but never the power of its US equivalent or the National Security Council staff. It is still unclear (to me) how the NSA role also interfaces with Office of National Assessment responsibilities for whole-of-government estimative assessments.

Whilst Rudd had operational problems, as an ex-diplomat he understood the need for NSS reform; the need for a whole-of-nation grand strategy; and (possibly) the budget and resource allocation issues. He acted on a decade of national security debate, to move beyond the Howard Government’s emphasis on counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and effects based strategy. PM&C may not be the appropriate vehicle for (centralised) grand strategy formulation. But devolving these responsibilities back to the Deparment of Foreign Affairs & Trade and Defence Department won’t necessarily help, either. DFAT remains underfunded for the diplomatic and economic challenges ahead. The Defence Department’s Force 2030 whitepaper (2009) continues to be debated and until Rudd’s NSS in 2008, the defence whitepapers were de facto national security policy. With the exception of the 1986 Dibb Review and the 1987 statement, the defence whitepapers have not fully addressed grand strategy conceptualisation. Both departments pursue their respective interests and instruments of power at the expense of a coordinated grand strategy, and at the risk of institutional capture.

In contrast to the Goldwater-Nichols Act reforms, Gillard’s current (in)actions on the NSS, NSA role and annual national security budget suggests a different conclusion: strategy drift.


Alternatively, it could just be Gillard’s rollback of Rudd’s national security initiative.