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Theory vs Actual International Relations Policy
Krew Williams

Jun 14, 2023

The lack of cooperation between policymakers and the scholarly community on foreign policy is appalling. Perhaps the two working together could provide quick solutions to global problems. Giving policymakers easily understood theories could pave the way for a better foundation when they need to act in the foreign policy sphere.

The relationship between theory and actual policy is almost non-existent. There are many different causes to this unfortunate gap. Policymakers have little interest in paying attention to theories, and most scholars are not interested in working in policymaking. The work being done in foreign policy is often very distant from any of the international theories discussed in the scholarly community. These two worlds could, however, be vastly beneficial to one another.

Policymakers rely heavily on the facts and stats of any given situation. They also draw on their lived experiences. Therefore, policymakers with the same views on international relations (IR) theory can often disagree with one another, drawing more from their experience and the latest stats than from any abstract theory. Two realists, for instance, could have a completely different approach to policy even though they believe the same theory in general. This was prevalent during the Cold War. Many of the policymakers in the United States were realists: they wanted to do everything in their power to keep America on top and the Soviet Union down. The distribution of power was their main concern. But they disagreed about how to achieve this. While many Americans wanted to keep resources at home, others wanted to help rebuild Europe and other war-torn states. The desire for greater international involvement was also manifest in policymakers' decisions as the world became increasingly split into pro-America and pro-Soviet camps, leading many realists to see cooperation with other states as a security necessity. Scholars have had much to say on this topic but, as usual, were often an arms length from policymakers.

Bad theories can create foreign policy disasters, but good theories could provide policymakers with a foundation of knowledge to act prudently in the tumultuous realm of foreign policy. The challenge is making theories easily understandable and available to policymakers. The academic community likes to make theories overly complicated and sometimes very abstract. There needs to be an easily accessible path where academics can prescribe policymakers a theory or idea that can offer stable solutions and practical advice. This would also help academics. Normally, IR scholars focus on explaining past events, not actively testing theories in policy. If IR theory were used more often in policy decisions, we could have a better understanding of what theories tend to work best. We can then rely on such theories to help in foreign policy decisions that have been left entirely to the knowledge and experiences of policymakers.

Theories are never a one-to-one fix for specific situations in the policy-making sphere. But, with the help of the academic community, policymaking can be better informed. Though different policymakers have different views, shaping them with concrete knowledge of theories would help them act in a rational and educated way. The opportunities for including theories in policymaking could mean the difference between success in knowledge and failure in arrogance. 

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