Commentary: Reflection and action – On scholarship and statesmanship

DURING my last visit to the Philippines, I had the pleasure of interviewing former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for a web series on statecraft that I’m going to release next year. The theme of our conversation was about scholarship (theory) and statesmanship (practice). Two worlds Arroyo is intimately familiar with having spent considerable time in both of them.

Just like Arroyo, Henry Kissinger is among those whose careers spanned both the worlds of theory and practice in international relations.

He once differentiated between observers of politics and the statesmen who wield power in terms of what they intend to accomplish. Observers, Kissinger argued, are concerned about finding the best possible interpretation of a situation. They have the luxury of changing their minds and rethinking their stances.

Statesmen do not have that latitude. They cannot choose which issue to address because events determine what must be prioritized. And whatever statesmen decide to do are immutable. Observers can change their minds anytime they want, rewrite their thoughts, revise their books after reflecting on the limitations of their understanding. Statesmen’s actions cannot be retracted.

Practitioners, Kissinger argued, “live in the world of the contingent; he or she must deal with partial answers that hopefully are on the road to truth.” On the other hand, scholars are “responsible primarily for coming up with the best answer [they]could divine”

“Scholars reflect, statesmen act” aptly describes the seemingly disparate world of theory and practice in international relations. The chasm between the two is a classic one, engrossing political philosophers and statesmen alike.

However, rather than irreconcilable facets of politics, theory and practice have a symbiotic relationship. This symbiosis is marked by the intimate relationship between the type of knowledge scholars and practitioners pursue.

Practitioners often find scholars obsessed with solutions that may sound esoteric and explanations lost in a sea of jargon. Some might be inclined to ask: Can theory save the world?

That seems to be a rather strange question. Yet for international relations thinker Kenneth W. Thompson, theory can a lead a nation to perdition if it fails to give a reliable explanation of a situation. “A nation suffers when its leaders are in the grip of a wrong theory…or a theory applied out of context,” Thompson argued in Unity and Contradiction in Theory and Practice of International Relations.

France during World War 2 is an example of a country in “the grip of a wrong theory.” To fend off the Germans, the French relied on its World War 1 Maginot Line strategy, which was about building trench fortifications. However, as Thompson noted, “Germany’s new military technology in World War 2 made trench warfare and the theory of stationary defenses outmoded.”

Meanwhile, the lessons of Munich applied to Vietnam during the Cold War is “theory applied out of context.” The lessons of Munich was about the consequence of tolerating Hitler’s annexation of Sudetenland, the areas in Czechoslovakia inhabited by ethnic Germans.

US President Dwight Eisenhower used Munich as a historical analogy in order to drum up support for American action in Vietnam. If Vietnam fell into hands of the communists, just as other countries fell into the hands of Nazi Germany after the annexation of Sudetenland, was the historical framework of the so-called “domino theory.”

It was an alluring analogy, but an ill-adopted one.

As Thompson explained: “In Europe, it was legitimate governments ravaged by the war that were defended and restored. In Asia, the struggle involved peoples in revolt seeking to achieve identity against external forces portrayed as enemies of national independence.”

A theory provides explanation about the relations between phenomena and gives an account of what makes that relationship hold. In other words, theories help us understand why events happen in a particular way. A decisionmaker misconceiving a causal relationship could spell disaster.

Political scientist Henry Nau once said that scholarship and statesmanship may be different but they are “joined at the hip.”

The history of the discipline of international relations reflects this intimate bond. The canonical text in international relations theory, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, was written by Hans J. Morgenthau, a scholar and practitioner in international politics. Morgenthau wrote that book as a reflection on international politics and as some sort of guide to statesmanship.

Scholars, Morgenthau asserts, “…trace the different tendencies which, as potentialities, are inherent in a certain international situations. [They]…point out the different conditions which make it more likely for one tendency to prevail than for another, and, finally assess the probabilities for the different conditions and tendencies to prevail in actuality.” In other words, the scholar contributes an understanding of the situation that can be the basis of action of a statesman.

Thus, scholarship and statesmanship — reflection and action — are mutually dependent. As Nau further explained: “Scholars seek to know why events occur and pursue general explanations that abstract from the policy process. Policymakers seek to know how events occur and pursue knowledge specific to the policy process.”

The kind of knowledge possessed by policymakers provide scholars with a framework on how to make their theories relevant and useful. In turn, the theories academics churn out provide a guide for navigating a particular situation.

(Published in The Manila Times on 27 December 2017)

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