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High Theory versus Grand Strategy in Guiding Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Consideration of the relationship between political theory and foreign policy must confront stark realities a quarter century after the 1991 liberal-democratic victory in the Cold War, which established the first global order in history. The foreign policies of the liberal democracies, and the liberal global order, now are beset by confusion, division, and retreat in the face of illiberal powers. A wave of nationalism and suspicion of globalized elites compounds the failure by America, the leading liberal democracy, to forge a consensus grand strategy to replace the Cold War strategy of American internationalism and containment of Communism.

While important scholarship in comparative political theory addresses foreign policy, and while there are other important foci for the theory-policy nexus, such as China or the Islamic world, this failure to develop a new strategy to undergird global order and manage globalization is the most pressing issue for political theory in relation to foreign policy. Scholars should inquire whether the policy failures of the past quarter century stem not only from policymakers but also from the divisions among schools of international relations and foreign policy—and especially from the abstract, dogmatic quality of these theories. A more productive theory-policy nexus is evident in the rediscovery of the transdisciplinary tradition of grand strategy, which offers a more balanced approach to theory and its role in guiding policy. A new grand strategy for our globalized era would manage and sustain the powerful processes and forces set in motion by liberal states that now are eluding guidance from any widely recognized and effective rules.

Four important critiques since 1991 discern a disservice to foreign policy by the high theory of the international relations schools. These schools—including realism, liberal internationalism, and constructivism—and their policy guidance are discussed elsewhere. The first two critiques arise from contemporary international relations and foreign policy approaches: scholars addressing the gap between high theory and practitioners, and Chris Brown and David A. Lake assessing the extremes of high theory that prove unhelpful for guiding sound foreign policies and practical judgement. The final two critiques transcend recent social science to rediscover fundamentals presupposed by the first two, by quarrying the philosophical tradition on international affairs from the ancient Greeks to modernity.

This line of analysis points to recent work by the leading embodiment of the theory-policy nexus in the past half-century, Henry Kissinger—because his book World Order (2014) turns from realism to a more balanced view of interests and ideals in the policies of liberal democracies. Kissinger confronts the vexing reality of the need for reasonable states, across civilizational traditions, to forge a basic global order to replace the crumbling liberal order. His approach is grand strategy, now made comparative and global, as both more profound and effective for theorists and practitioners. Further, the tradition of American grand strategy is an important resource for all the liberal democracies now committed to this policy effort. Since the Washington administration, a balanced approach of discerning America’s enlightened self-interest has been the core of its successful grand strategies. This is not pragmatism, given the philosophical roots of this liberal disposition in the moderate Enlightenment jurists Grotius and Montesquieu. An era of confusion and failure should provoke reconsideration of fundamentals. Rediscovery of enlightened self-interest and its call for statesmanlike judgement offers a fruitful theory-policy nexus for the liberal democracies and for restoration of a basic global order.

Keywords: realism, liberal internationalism, constructivism, globalization, Enlightenment, grand strategy, just war, liberal democracy

Theory, Foreign Policy, and Unguided Globalization

It is now more than a quarter century since the great foreign policy triumph of the alliance of liberal democracies in the Cold War, against the alliance of Communist states—an epochal moment in international affairs, for it established the first truly global order. This achievement did not sustain, however, any corresponding consensus among theorists or practitioners in the liberal democracies about what kinds of theory are helpful for guiding policy in the new era, or what kind of policy the liberal democracies ought to pursue to sustain the global order. This deep division over theory, and this policy confusion, certainly characterizes the leading liberal democracy, the United States. The foremost international relations theories of the past century, and especially the three main contenders today—realism (and its several competing strains), liberal internationalism or idealism (and its several strains), and the relative newcomer, constructivism—are discussed elsewhere. Among other points noted are the efforts of these high international relations theories to guide practice and instances of their direct effect on policy, especially by realism and liberalism. An examination of the relationship between political theory and foreign policy suggests that we step back from this long-dominant approach, one that confines the theory-policy nexus to the high European theories of international relations stemming ultimately from Machiavelli and Hobbes (realism), Rousseau and Kant (liberalism), and Nietzsche (constructivism).1

Diverse considerations for the relationship of political theory to foreign policy include the recent development of comparative political theory regarding international relations, arising from the need in a globalized and postcolonial era for theory to transcend Western debates. The important choice of “comparative” versus “non-Western” commits to universal inquiry about order, justice, and international relations but with attention to discontinuities or divergences across civilizational traditions as well as within Western thought (Dallmayr, 1999; Bell, 2000; Goto-Jones, 2010). Other important foci for the theory-policy nexus in the post–Cold War and postcolonial era include historical and contemporary influences within Chinese foreign policy, within the states and nonstate movements of the Islamic world, or among other rising powers (Kissinger, 2014; Yan, 2011; Kang, 2010; Black, 2011; Roy, 2004; Nasr, 2006; Nau & Ollapoly, 2012). Nonetheless, the analysis here is that such important inquiries should contribute to, rather than overlook or supersede, the most pressing policy issue of our era: the fundamental, comprehensive need to address the absence of a new strategy to undergird global order, thereby to manage globalization.

The contending high theories of international relations have not advanced our understanding of the proper relationship between theory and practice—between theories of international relations or foreign affairs and the policies or strategies of practitioners seeking guidance from theory. Nor have they helped to forge broad consensus about what the aims of foreign policy should be for a liberal democracy, for alliances of liberal democracies, and for guiding the powerful forces of globalization through a renewed global order. Serious critiques have arisen that trace these policy failures, such as the imbalanced emphasis in high theory on the demands for intellectual purity in radical modern thought, especially from the radical Enlightenment.2 More balanced and sober resources are available in the larger tradition of Western and moderate-Enlightenment philosophy about international affairs, such as Grotius and Montesquieu, and in the tradition of grand strategy. This pivot points toward theory that serves not itself, its own demands for notional clarity and elegant paradigms, but instead serves the aim of understanding human realities about international affairs, both normative and empirical, so as to more adequately guide policymakers in the liberal democracies.

Failures of Theory and Policy: Whither the Liberal Global Order?

Several mainstream scholars in international relations and foreign policy have analyzed the theory-policy nexus in recent decades and suggested adjustments of approach to provide more adequate analysis of, and guidance for, policy challenges. Joel Rosenthal and Duncan Bell urge ethical analysis of discrete policy challenges to transcend the realist-liberal debate or other debates among the schools of high theory (Rosenthal & Barry, 2009; Bell, 2010). Richard Ned Lebow urges a blending of humanistic and social science analysis in arguing that modern realism from Hobbes onward, and its logical extension in late modern neorealism, had overlooked the ethical and tragic discernment within the classical realism of Thucydides, which finds echoes as late as Hans Morgenthau (Lebow, 2003). This loss of breadth, especially awareness of the tragic limitations of human actors, had led American foreign policy in the Cold War and post–Cold War eras to adopt skewed conceptions of national interest that impeded recognition that forms of international cooperation and ethical conduct could serve a more balanced and plausible version of interest. Chris Brown sought to develop these and other investigations of ethical dimensions of policy into a new field of international political theory to transcend the dominance of neorealism and social science positivism in foreign policy analysis while also remaining free of the abstractions or distance from real-world problems evident in liberal internationalism and the other theoretical schools (Brown, 2002).

Brown’s later work pivots even further away from the terms of late-modern and postmodern theorizing on the ground that while these developments are interesting, they remain locked in conventional theoretical frameworks or discourses. These include demarcation of realistic versus idealistic or ethical influences on policy; remoteness from real and pressing problems; and terminology or discourse alien to the judgements and debates of those pressed to make actual policy. One reason to pursue a stronger pivot from the predominant modes of theorizing is the realization that, a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, all of these interesting theoretical discourses have either facilitated or failed to prevent the stark fact that liberal democracy is no longer ascendant in principle, and is retreating globally. Liberal democracy and human rights had been expanding across the globe during the last half of the 20th century, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.3 Several recent developments instead expose the internal confusion of leading liberal democracies and their alliances, and the crumbling of the liberal global order. Foremost would be the threat of international terrorism since 2001, largely inspired by extremist Islamism; the resurgence of authoritarian states as powerful global or regional actors—to include China, Russia, and Iran—and the steady march of rogue regimes toward the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and particularly nuclear weapons. Did internal confusion or dissensus within the liberal democracies over the ends and means of foreign policy provide opportunities to illiberal regimes to surge, or, did the surging authoritarian states pose new problems for liberal-democratic foreign policy that did not easily lend themselves to new consensus policies and strategies? Scholars and theorists have a responsibility to consider that our predominant modes of theory may be responsible in the former, strongly causal sense as well as in the secondary sense of impeding the formation of consensus policies.

Political theory and international relations theory in the liberal democracies have not adequately grasped, therefore, the relatively new dimension and necessity (in the sweep of human history) of global order, given powerful and now self-propelling forces of our globalized era. A global order was established unequivocally for the first time in history with the victory in the Cold War; it was a liberal global order; but it no longer holds. As of 1991 an international order of the rule of law, toward the ends of great-power peace, universal human rights, and free commerce among goods, services, wealth, and people, was accepted either happily or grudgingly in every region of the world, and every major civilization. It was affirmed or at least accepted by all the great-power permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France) and by other significant powers (such as Japan, Germany, and India). This was an enormous achievement of the Cold War grand strategy of American internationalism, and of its particular policies of containment of international communism, building of international institutions and legal regimes, and commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance and other political and military alliances led by liberal democracies.

Yet by 2014 if not sooner a darker picture dominated, with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the redrawing by force of an internationally settled border in Europe; China’s expansion by force into the South China Sea, to include building military infrastructure and stationing weapons on contested islands and newly reclaimed islands; the equal status of the revolutionary regime in Iran to bargain with the UN and great powers about its illegal nuclear weapons program (many parts of which it was allowed to keep); and a horrible civil war in Syria turned into a triumph for authoritarian illiberalism by the dominance of Russia and Iran in that conflict, and perhaps in the Middle East broadly. By 2016, a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, it was plausible to argue that there was no longer a global order in any effective sense. Instead a liberal international order prevailed in some parts of the world, but clearly was in retreat or was practically and philosophically irrelevant elsewhere.4

This failure of policy raises the question whether this was only a failure of the design and conception of policy by particular leaders, based upon flawed theoretical understandings; or a failure of execution and implementation of policy; or a blend of the two. In the leading liberal democracy, a retrospective glance from the beginning of the Donald J. Trump administration (2017) back to the George Herbert Walker Bush administration (1989–1993) reveals some consistency in foreign policy and strategy across the administrations of G. H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack H. Obama. All were committed to a broad conception of American internationalism and to welcoming globalization—the increasing economic, technological, and political integration among states, on a global scale (Feaver, 2012). However, these four presidencies also displayed quite significant policy oscillation, and the culmination in Trump points toward an American record of fundamental inconsistency and confusion in the entire post–Cold War era. Particularly across the last two of those presidencies, American leaders adopted policies or strategies nearly at polar extremes to each other.

After the 2001 terror attacks on the United States, G. W. Bush propounded a democratic internationalism that would seek to remove authoritarianism in any significant state in the world; this would remove the causes of terrorism and of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which threatened the liberal global order and the peace of the liberal democracies. After the failures of strategy, both military and political, in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq launched by Bush to implement this bold American unilateralism and muscular internationalism, then the collapse of domestic political support as well as support from liberal democratic allies for the Bush Doctrine, the successor administration proposed something completely different. President Obama was elected with a plebiscitary mandate to implement a reversal of strategy; this had been the basis of a multi-year political campaign. The new policy was one of American military and political restraint coupled with confidence that assertive diplomacy and multilateralism could achieve better results for a liberal global order of peace, security, and human rights.5 After eight years of the Obama Doctrine the domestic reaction, albeit by the narrowest of constitutional margins, was for a change of course toward assertion of American strength in the service, first and foremost, of American interests.

That is, the Trump presidency and its nationalism marked the repudiation of the varied post–Cold War policies of all four prior American presidents, from G. H. W. Bush to Obama. This phenomenon must be considered with the British plebiscite in 2016 to withdraw from the European Union and the historically high electoral performances for nationalist parties in various European states—significant even given the nationalist failure to win in several contests. Europe is facing a major challenge to the Kantian project of a post-historical, integrated, and idealistic European order. The larger picture across the liberal democracies, then, is of foreign policy dissensus and confusion during the quarter century after the end of the Cold War that is only deepening. Thus while there have been many foreign policies pursued by American presidents and by liberal democratic alliances, there hardly seems to be a coherent grand strategy—an enduring, dominant consensus on the ends, ways, and means of the liberal-democratic view of international affairs and global order. Of course there were many disputes about policy during the Cold War, but the larger strategy endured, provided a framework for policy debate and formulation, and ultimately succeeded (Gaddis, 2005). That has not been the story of the past quarter century.

What’s Theory Got to Do with It?

Of course there are many causes for the failure to achieve a consensus grand strategy after the honorable retirement, in victory, of the grand strategy of American internationalism and containment. American political and intellectual culture never fully healed after the rifts of the Vietnam War era; American electoral politics has become increasingly plebiscitary, polarized, chaotic, and demagogic; fragmentation and sorting in America’s media environment and political culture, and in the other liberal democracies; the dislocations caused by globalization —all of these pose further obstacles to forging national consensus on either domestic or foreign policies. Moreover, one continuity between America’s Cold War grand strategy and the early post–Cold War strategy was a commitment to building the economic capacity of other states—to promote “the rise of the rest” through economic globalization—which has produced not only domestic dislocations but also the relative rise in political capacity of other states. While the rise of other liberal democracies may be both reassuring and disruptive, the rise of illiberal states, especially China, simply poses fundamental challenges. So, undoubtedly, there are many obstacles to forging a new consensus grand strategy for our complicated and globalized era. Nonetheless, would the high theorists of international relations themselves be satisfied with the answer that they have no responsibility for the larger record of policy confusion and incoherence, with its dangerous consequences for liberal global order and security?

If the dominant schools of international relations theory, realism and liberal internationalism (again, each with its competing strains)—and the attempts by other schools of theory, including constructivism and feminism, to supplant these—have had nothing to do with the confusions about and ultimate failure of post–Cold War foreign policy, the question arises of the relevance or purpose of these theories. The rise of constructivism, on the basis of theoretical discontent with the two dominant schools, has not itself ameliorated the unhappy contribution of theory to practice in recent decades. Moreover, it is not adequate for any of these schools to reply that the fault lies with the other schools, with their failure to accept the theoretical and practical supremacy of one’s own school. There are reasonable grounds, after all, for the dissatisfaction with the starkly bifurcated contest between a (generally) amoral realism and a (generally) idealistic liberalism, thus for the rise of the constructivist alternative; but there also are reasonable grounds for the persistence across many decades of this three-way clash of schools and doctrines. The larger picture suggests, that is, that neither any of these schools alone nor the continual debates between them provides adequate guidance to liberal-democratic policymakers. This further suggests a conception of theory that is not theoretically adequate—if theory is understood as accountable for helping practice. As will be noted, the dynamic among theories derived from radical-Enlightenment philosophizing is to reinforce walls or silos among schools, thus to decrease the space for both theorists and practitioners to realize that there are reasonable insights from each school, and that a judicious blending may prove effective.

If we take seriously the bad situation of the liberal global order and of the foreign policy of the leading liberal democracy, America—thus of the liberal democratic alliances—then continuing with theorizing as usual is not reasonable. We should seek alternatives to the dominant approach to the theory-policy nexus of the past quarter century (and longer), in which the major academic schools are reinforced by journals and policy centers (think tanks) purveying their distinct view toward policymakers. Moreover, the analysts at these creed-oriented policy centers become reservoirs for new (or returning) policymakers with the change of executive administrations. Here it should be noted that if the main competing schools and dogmas of high international relations theory all stem from the radical Enlightenment, then the more plausible alternatives for consideration should not take further journeys in that direction—toward seeking another pure, parsimonious, and intellectually captivating doctrine. Rather, reconsideration should be given to ideas and practices that radical modernity, especially the radical Enlightenment schools and their progeny, deliberately eschewed. For the liberal democracies and the leading liberal-democratic state, this would mean the moderate Enlightenment theorists Grotius and Montesquieu, both of whom represent a blend of theorist, jurist, and counselor to statesmen regarding international affairs. It also would mean a reconsideration of the tradition of grand strategy, something already occurring at a few prominent universities.

Before turning to some widely recognized critiques of high theory already made in the past quarter century, a further word could be said about the policymaker’s view of the theory-policy nexus. The strongly divergent view presented here about high theory would make sense to a liberal-democratic statesman or stateswoman, whether elected or appointed to a policymaking office. The radical Enlightenment and now social-scientific penchant for either scientistic theories (realism) or idealist ones (liberal internationalism) envisions worlds that are alien to a policymaker in any actual liberal democracy. That is, high international relations theory forms around rival poles that fail to see politics as a liberal-democratic statesman or stateswoman naturally would: as the practice of stewardship for both a distinct state and for fundamental, universal ideals. Realism cares not that America (for example) is a liberal constitutional democracy, since international affairs concerns only the interests and power of states, and the balances and calculations thereof. Realism presumes the policymaker is from anywhere.6 Liberal internationalism, at the other extreme, deems our liberal character as entailing construction of global institutions and binding international law, and grants only minimum scope for a state—including the world’s leading state—even if a liberal democracy. Liberalism, that is, presumes that the policymaker is from everywhere, or, nowhere in particular.7 For its part, constructivism has not much emphasized advice to policymakers, but its message might be that every policymaker is equally making it up as they go along—since all meanings are constructed from whatever cultural-historical materials may be at hand. This view also is alien to the liberal-democratic commitment to universal, fundamental ideals.

Thus from a common-sense point of view on the policy side of the theory-policy nexus, the major poles in academic theory about international affairs and foreign policy have not helped leaders, or the citizenry, with sober consideration of global affairs. That is, the major schools don’t really advise on a foreign policy for America or its liberal-democratic allies—for a liberal constitutional republic, holding both ideals and interests, and with a history of balancing or reconciling the two. Even Henry Kissinger, putatively a realist, has argued (or, admitted) that American foreign policy or strategy must balance power and principle, to blend pragmatic concerns and ideals in a coherent strategy.8

Prominent Critiques of High Theory

Two prominent arguments by scholars of international relations have already pursued this strongly divergent questioning of high theory for its role in policy failure. The first is the community of theorists and practitioners who during the post–Cold War era have diagnosed a “gap” between theory and practice in foreign policy. They argue that this gap has produced poor policy results given a failure of theory to guide practice. This gap and failure results partly from poor communication by theory about its relevance for policy and policymakers; although, secondarily, theory could be improved by redefining or reconceiving conceptual understandings in light of more direct contact with practice and practitioners (George, 1993). While this concern first was posed shortly after the end of the Cold War, many subsequent publications and now a research consortium focused on this gap suggest that its academic or intellectual causes persist in the 21st century.9 This broad, nonpartisan approach to policy failure and the theoretical causes thereof has the great advantage of avoiding the doctrinarism of the debates between the high-theory schools. That said, the effort also could be characterized as merely changing the subject, as not adequately confronting the problems with radical modern and radical Enlightenment conceptions of theory. Scholars attracted to this seemingly common-sense concern about a divergence of theory and practice may not have regained enough common sense to inquire whether the root problem is errors in the predominant conception of theory itself.

These considerations point to a second response, by two prominent scholars of international relations and foreign policy, about theory’s responsibility for our failures of practice. Chris Brown’s most recent work pivots sharply from the prevailing academic and theoretical discourse to emphasize practical judgement by policymakers and citizens (Brown, 2010). That said, this approach transcends the emphatically practical focus of the “gap” approach to argue that there is a basic theoretical problem with international relations theory as conceived in the past century. Theory must be accountable for informing and assisting policymakers and citizens in the practical tasks of facing difficult dilemmas and making reasonable moral choices about them. Brown’s efforts to revive Aristotelian ideas of prudence or practical judgement (as distinct from Machiavellian calculations) include his explanation of the practical reasonableness of preemption as invoked by G. W. Bush regarding Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Prudent in this sense does not mean flawless, nor does it preclude tragic and not easily anticipated consequences. It does involve a disposition to reconcile interests and moral ideals, and to avoid dogmatic and categorical stances. David A. Lake complements Brown’s turn with a distinctive version of the argument that a fundamental misconception of theory is the root cause of theory’s failure to adequately guide policy and practice (Lake, 2011, 2013). He criticizes the “academic sects” in international relations that perpetuate Great Debates on grand theory while they ignore whether their dogmas understand reality, whether they can persuade those who don’t adopt the first tenets of their various “theologies,” and whether they offer useful guidance to those making policy about international affairs. A confirmation bias is at work among the schools of high theory, which in turn rewards “extremism” and further deepens the inadequacies of such theories as well as the uselessness for policy. Indeed, the “pathologies” perpetuated by the dominant schools of high theory make for “continuing and lively debate” which, however, “adds little to our understanding of world politics and nothing at all to practical policymakers” (Lake, 2011, p. 471). Lake’s remedy is a turn to “mid-level” theory that adopts intellectual humility about grand normative questions and the ultimate epistemological grounds for adopting a particular method or school. A stance of eclecticism, of embracing methodological and epistemological diversity, would be more productive both for understanding reality and guiding policy options (Lake, 2013).

The critiques by Brown and Lake perform the important service of implicitly tapping an older tradition of scholarly inquiry—one repudiated by the radical confidence of many strains of modern thought—in which the philosophic mind must always exercise self-awareness about the tendency toward dogmas, schools, and close-mindedness. That said, Lake’s approach could be usefully adopted more for its Socratic spirit of healthy (thus not limitless) intellectual pluralism and dialectic than for the letter of its proposed solution. To note just one fundamental problem, Lake forthrightly employs terms such as “evil,” “humane,” “normatively desirable,” and “progress” but admits that his ultimate judgements on epistemological grounds for these judgements are “subjective” (Lake, 2011, pp. 465, 474–476). This in turn suggests that his confidence in a modest, problem-oriented method may also rest on shaky—or no—foundations. There is a methodological rationalism to his proposed mid-level theory and inquiry about international relations, suggesting that it may be a grand theory of its own but in humble garb.

Brown’s turn to practical judgement and a ground in Aristotelian ethical theory raises questions, of course, but it more forthrightly addresses its basis for the definition of progress, of “what works,” and of normative principles it invokes. Brown more adequately states, that is, the grounds upon which we would judge the policy guidance produced by Lake’s mid-level theory as being better, or sound. This realization suggests, in turn, a need for study of the deeper foundations of judgements about international affairs and foreign policy.

Recovering Foundations for Theory and Policy: The Role of Political Philosophy

Taken together, these various critical responses to failures of post–Cold War theory and practice indicate substantial self-awareness within academia, which scholars of international relations and foreign policy should develop. This insight points toward a third kind of dissent from recent high theory, albeit less prominent than these first two—the counsel to turn toward comprehensive study of classic works in the Western tradition on war, peace, and international affairs. It is interesting that the most celebrated political theorist of the latter 20th century, John Rawls, eventually published The Law of Peoples (Rawls, 1999), a work of international relations theory seemingly different from the high theory of the dominant rival schools. However, given his framework of “ideal theory” for considering international affairs, Rawls’s approach is a further development of radical Enlightenment theory in the vein of Kant, blended with a Nietzschean eschewal of any universal truth about his chosen ideals. It is not a recovery and reexamination of a broader philosophical tradition. While Lebow stayed within mainstream social science discourse about international relations while seeking to humanize and deepen modern thinking with classical insights, the first truly critical response in the post–Cold War era calling for comprehensive reconsideration of the Western tradition came most prominently from Michael Doyle. His Ways of War and Peace was praised for seeking to steer both theory and practice out of the confusion evident in the first decade after 1991. Doyle argued that classic texts and philosophers of international affairs from the ancient Greeks to 20th-century figures such as Lenin and Schumpeter could be studied to glean policy guidance on early post–Cold War dilemmas and on issues likely to dominate in the 21st century (Doyle, 1997).

Doyle’s careful and fair interpretations of philosophers from Thucydides and Machiavelli to Smith and Kant recovers a distinctive view that theory always should consider relevance for practitioners and the responsibility to guide policy choices. Among his work’s major strengths is its effort to rescue Thucydides from attempts to reduce him to the school of realism as understood in modernity. Doyle’s classification of the Greek strategist and historian as a “complex realist” takes important steps toward recognizing the blend of moral concerns and attention to realities in Thucydides’s attempt to offer a mode of understanding that would be “a possession for all time” (Doyle, 1997, e.g., pp. 82–83, 495; see also Lebow, 2003). That said, Doyle’s more fundamental approach accepts the predominant high-theory view of a strong bifurcation between realism and liberalism—the stark choice that confronts theory and practice to follow either the ineluctable realities of conflict, fear, power, and interests or the ideals that would transform human nature to transcend endemic war. For all his sound attention to guiding policymakers in the liberal democracies, this stark bifurcation is on the one hand a tenet of modern high theory and on the other alien to the core American tradition of foreign policy thinking, which blends realistic concerns with ideals to shape sober policies. That liberal-democratic tradition, evident from the American founding to the “NSC 68” policy memo of the National Security Council in the Truman administration (1950), was first developed in George Washington’s administration and is captured in the most fundamental maxim that Washington offered in his Farewell Address (1796)—that America should “choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel” (Washington, 1997, p. 975).

A less prominent but equally worthy effort in the post–Cold War era to address theoretical and practical confusion by returning to classic sources is the study by Pangle and Ahrensdorf of classical, medieval, and modern philosophers, with an eye to transcending problems inherent in the modern varieties of realism and liberalism (Pangle & Ahrensdorf, 1999). Their book Justice among Nations brings consideration of the theory-policy nexus to the deeper and broader ground of political theory or political philosophy per se, a ground from which to judge the modern high theory of international relations. Their study compares the radical modern theories of Machiavelli and Hobbes (realism) and of Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel (liberal idealism) as arguably inferior to the classical versions of realism and idealism available in Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Moreover, while partial to Greek and Roman philosophy on the great and troubling issues of war, peace, and international affairs, they seriously consider the Christian just war tradition as a worthy competitor to the classics and to any of the modern theories. They do not offer applications of political philosophy to test cases of particular policy issues, as Doyle does, but their deeper engagement with the recurring quandaries and issues of war, peace, and international order provides rich resources for grappling with our post–Cold War confusions.

That said, while Pangle and Ahrensdorf insist that they transcend the modern bifurcation of realism versus liberal idealism, their own classification of philosophers and theorists as either realist (to include a more complex, classical sense of human realities) or idealist suggests a skewed understanding similar to Doyle’s framework. This approach thus overlooks the reconciling of interests and justice, the effort to be both grounded in realities and committed to noble ideals, that has been fundamentally characteristic of American foreign policy thinking and practice since Washington’s founding of American grand strategy. Indeed, a crucial misreading that arises from rigid classification is the treatment in Justice among Nations of Montesquieu, arguably the most important philosopher for the American founders regarding not only separation of powers, federalism, and other principles of constitutionalism but also about their basic approach to international affairs—as Montesquieu termed it, the right of nations.

Pangle and Ahrensdorf offer one of the few extensive analyses of Montesquieu’s theory of international relations—even Doyle’s effort barely addresses it—although, they devote less attention to The Spirit of Laws (1748) than to the more radical theories of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Kant. While they extrapolate important insights about Montesquieu, they ultimately categorize him under the modern realism of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. They notice his counsels to limit power and interest in international affairs but consider these merely prudential—as minor adjustments to a modern-realist view (Pangle & Ahrensdorf, 1999, pp. 157–161). This reading overlooks Montesquieu’s statement that the right of nations is “the political law of nations considered in their relation with each other,” and that offensive force must be “regulated” by it (Montesquieu, 1989, book 10, chapter 1, p. 138). It also neglects his declaration that conquest and force must follow the “law of natural enlightenment,” defined as “want[ing] us to do to others what we would want to have done to us” (Montesquieu, 1989, book 10, chapter 3, p. 139). His summation of this philosophy is even more striking, when assessing modern European principles on war and peace as an improvement over the ancient Romans. The right of nations now is marked more by a spirit of preservation and justice than of destruction and subjugation, and for this progress “homage” is owed to “our modern times, to contemporary reasoning, to the religion of the present day, to our philosophy, and to our mores” (10.3, p. 139).

This brief review of four kinds of scholarly divergences from the predominant high-theory approach of the post–Cold War era reveals important efforts to recover a more effective theory-policy relationship. Even if each might be incomplete as a balanced guide to the theory-policy nexus for liberal democratic policymakers, they point us toward more productive conceptions of theory that can guide sound policy. Among the veins unearthed that deserve more exploration are Brown’s emphasis on practical judgement and Lake’s related concept of eclecticism or blending of theories and approaches, and also the serious attention to Thucydides by Doyle, Pangle and Ahrensdorf, and Lebow. These scholarly moves point toward the recovery by political theorists and international relations scholars of the tradition of grand strategy. Thucydides, after all, embodied the theory-policy nexus: an accomplished strategos (general) who, because of his political exile, undertook a systematic study of the nature and causes of war and peace, and the enduring characteristics of human nature and culture. The eclectic element of Thucydides and the tradition of grand strategy he launches is to be, so to speak, pre-disciplinary: considering history, philosophy, theology, ethics, military strategy, literature, and other modes of inquiry as needed to make sense of the complex phenomena of war, justice, and peace among nations. The broad anthology of political theory on international relations recently produced by Brown, Nardin, and Rengger—rare for including excerpts on Montesquieu—provides resources for developing this less dogmatic but still theoretical approach to practice and policy.

The tradition of grand-strategic inquiry was kept alive in the latter 20th century more by historians and military scholars than by the discipline of political scientists. That said, some prominent political scientists appreciated that approach or eventually turned to it. Before turning to a brief discussion of scholars and institutions who have explicitly adopted grand strategy, and of how that approach contributes a more adequate conception of how theorycan guide policy, a case study of a modern Thucydides-like figure may be helpful.

The Statesman-Scholar as Model of the Theory-Practice Nexus

Among the Cold War and post–Cold War figures who embody the theory-policy nexus, Henry Kissinger is perhaps unique given his accomplishments as a scholar both before and after his policymaker roles as well as his very high level of policy responsibility—as presidential adviser and cabinet secretary across several Cold War administrations, then as prominent elder statesman for decades thereafter. He is a controversial figure, indeed excoriated by some. His reputation as a practitioner of realism is anathema to some and praiseworthy for others. That said, the case study here is not of his entire career of thought and practice, but rather of his most recent book, World Order, as marking an ultimate evolution toward a more balanced view of the theory-policy relationship. At the end of a career that continually traversed theory and policy, Kissinger’s decision to transcend realism per se, toward reconciling enduring human realities and liberal-democratic ideals, suggests a fruitful alternative amid the current dissensus and confusion about both theory and foreign policy.

Given the dominance in foreign policy and international relations discourse of the contending schools of high theory, Kissinger’s recent book has not been widely appreciated for this evolution beyond realism to turn toward the broader tradition of grand strategy. While the work does not announce itself in this way, World Order marks a shift from Kissinger’s earlier works that addressed particular policy issues, or more abstractly theoretical approaches to international relations theory and diplomatic history. Here, Kissinger undertakes a more complex and wide-ranging intellectual study, and while it concerns a policy issue, it is the grandest policy of all: the need for and possibility of not just international order but global order. Given greater appreciation for judgement and governing than most scholars, he approaches this as a problem requiring a workable response: the need for a global order given the developments of human history and technology, yet the erosion of the liberal global order achieved with victory in the Cold War. Many realist and also liberal-internationalist reviewers of World Order struggled to understand its new intellectual project and instead offered, perhaps unintentionally, caricatures of it through their chosen doctrinal lens. In fact what Kissinger now advocates, at the close of an era of oscillation between doctrines of forceful democracy promotion and American retrenchment, is a characteristically American blend of elements and principles to guide American strategy—a high middle ground. He finds the traditional American foreign policy alloy, a blending of principle and power, just as relevant for the age of nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, and cyber-attacks as it was for George Washington’s era.

World Order argues that America has been and still is “indispensable” for international and indeed global order. It cannot now withdraw, either as a matter of national identity and purpose or national interest, from forging a world order for the globalized 21st century that can achieve both legitimacy and stability. Any such order “must be accepted as just” by all major civilizations, in that it must reflect and balance not only order but also “the human quest for freedom.” On the basis of comparative analysis of European, Asian, Muslim, and American cultural and philosophical views, he argues that a global order now must accommodate both the realities of power and the fundamentally human, civilized demand of legitimacy and thus limits to power. The challenge of “wise statesmanship” is to find the balance between these elements (Kissinger, 2014, pp. 370, 8–10, 232, 373). American grand strategy, and the liberal world order it built since the end of World War II and now should renovate, must balance ideals of freedom and legitimacy with realities of power and thus must seek some accommodation with other major civilizations and great powers. Kissinger’s endorsement of an exceptional role for American leadership in forging such a world order signals that the necessary regard for diverse civilizations and regional power claims is balanced by, moderated by, commitment to minimum requirements of peace, commerce, and individual human dignity.

The foundation of Kissinger’s strategic analysis and effort to shape policy discourse is, therefore, a very traditional view of America’s exceptional commitment to universal truths about humanity and politics, one endorsed by George Washington at the founding as well as by Tocqueville in Democracy in America, four decades later (Tocqueville, 2000, volume 1, part 2, chapter 5). This is not only because, as Kissinger argues, “American idealism and exceptionalism were the driving forces behind the building of a new international order” after World War II through to the American victory in the Cold War. It is also because America still today should proudly embrace the fact that “no other major power has brought to its strategic effort such deeply felt aspirations for human betterment.” This “idealism,” to be sure, must now be more adequately reconciled or blended with “an unsentimental analysis” of civilizational differences and power realities in our globalized, post–Cold War era. Nonetheless, America can do this while retaining its character as “the modern world’s decisive articulation of the quest for human freedom and an indispensable geopolitical force for the vindication of humane values” (Kissinger, 2014, pp. 234–236, 268–269, 277, 328, 373).10

Kissinger’s argument reconciles realistic elements of international affairs with basic moral principles and the distinctive policy tradition of liberal democracy. The theoretical approach and the policy recommendation are neither realism per se nor—even while committed to restoring a global order—liberal internationalism per se. In the capstone work of a career at the apex of the theory-policy nexus, Kissinger affirms the need for realistic assessment of the roles of human nature, conflict, fear, power, interests, and pride or honor in foreign policy but also affirms sober assessment of the differing ideas about the aims of politics, thus the general superiority of a moderate liberal conception of human nature and international affairs. The “gap” scholars should note that, by promoting global order as a top priority, and recognizing the need for judgements by statesmen and stateswomen to bring it about incrementally, he undertakes a theory that has no gap with a policymaker’s perspective and demands. Indeed, it is a theory that sees limits to theory and seeks prudent statesmanship. This sounds, too, like other warnings about the tendency to extremes in modern theory and a call instead for eclecticism, the latter evident in Kissinger’s transcending of the realm of “isms” and dogmatism. The late Kissinger turns forward to the need for global order on the basis of the distinctive liberal-democratic blend: interests and sober awareness of realities along with commitment to ideals and a demand for prudent judgement in particular circumstances about the appropriate ways and means toward fundamental ends. Moreover, the blending of historical analysis, philosophical or theoretical analysis, and moral concern is an echo of Thucydides—as more adequately interpreted by some recent revisionist scholars. This marks Kissinger’s turn toward an older spirit of grand strategy, the possession for all time that Thucydides offered to his readers.

The Return of Grand Strategy—for Liberal Democracy and Basic World Order

An acknowledgement in World Order (Kissinger, 2014, p. 375) reveals that the entire project constituted a long conversation with a co-founder of the Program on Grand Strategy at Yale University, Charles Hill. Putting aside the lineage of the concept “grand strategy” in distinction to security studies—or strategic studies, or foreign policy studies more generally—the origin of grand strategy in recent American higher education arguably is the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., which since the early 1970s has included in its curriculum Thucydides and other classic works of military, political, and philosophical consideration of war, peace, and international affairs. The date is not accidental; this educational reform was Admiral Stansfield Turner’s response to the failed American effort in the Vietnam War (Kinross, 2007, pp. 75–76).

Yale seems to be the first university to feature a program dedicated to grand strategy per se. Launched in 2000, its interdisciplinary team of founders—two historians (John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy) and a senior diplomat with a bent toward great works in the humanities (Hill)—sought to produce an effectively pre-disciplinary approach to large questions of politics and international affairs and to offer an educational experience that blended the perspectives of theory and practice (Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, n.d.). Programs featuring scholars who hold a similar approach in their teaching and scholarship now are at Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, among other institutions. The larger intellectual approach combines or rises above discrete disciplines to recover the actual complexity of foreign policy and international strategy, and of the debates among those who make and shape it. This comprehensive conception of the nexus of theory and practice seeks to equip officials and others who shape policy with an array of sources to guide judgements about the ends, ways, and means of foreign policy and international affairs (see Murray & Grimsley, 1994; Mead, 2001; Gaddis, 2004; Hill, 2010; Nau, 2013; Brands, 2014; Martel, 2015).

For a liberal democracy, and especially the leading such state, these varied programs and the scholarship they produce point toward a basic definition of the theory and practice of American grand strategy. It is our state’s formulation of the ends of its security policy and foreign policy, as informed by its larger moral-political views of war, justice, and peace in international affairs, into a coherent plan for marshaling the plausible ways and means to achieve those ends. Kissinger’s argument further includes a conception of the role America should play in sustaining or building a basic global order for our globalized world that can serve a practical conception of our ends, ways, and means while reasonably accommodating other great powers and civilizations. More succinctly, then, American grand strategy is the theory-policy process for constructing a framework that harmonizes our interests, ideals, and the rudiments of basic global order for our globalized age, to guide a conception of the ends, ways, and means of our more particular policy efforts.

To the modern doctrines, theories, and disciplines of international relations and foreign policy analysis, this conception of grand strategy would seem to be a mishmash of incoherent thinking. In response, and especially for those who think theory must test itself against reality, it should be noted that this very disposition to blend principles in fact carried America from Washington’s strategy of enlightened engagement and peace-through-strength, to Lincoln’s successful strategy to strengthen the Union and the international prospects of liberal democracy by purging America of slavery and then restoring Constitution and Union, to the Cold War and its concepts of internationalism and containment to defend both America’s interests and ideals. Further, this same disposition for reconciling realities and ideals played a substantial role in bringing America from a weak republic to the dominant global superpower. Therefore, we should ask the predominant academic and policy culture today: What good are such radically modern theories and doctrines of realism, liberalism, constructivism, and other contestants if each doctrine on its own terms cannot fully understand these phenomena, nor fully explain how America could be the dominant idea and reality during a considerable era in human affairs?

Here, so as not to indulge abstraction, it would be helpful to introduce a recent effort at a comprehensive history of America’s grand strategy, because a basic familiarity with the complexity of, and perpetual debates within, the American grand-strategic tradition is indispensable for both theorists and practitioners seeking a more productive theory-policy nexus. Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence discerns enduring, competing strains in American grand-strategic discourse and policies, which he identifies with four American statesmen (while stipulating that each school transcends the particular views and deeds of its namesake): the Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian schools (Mead, 2001). Mead explains why he anchors his analysis in statesmen, rather than abstract analytical labels or doctrines—such as realism (close to the Hamiltonian school), liberal internationalism (Wilsonian), libertarian insularism (Jeffersonian), and populist nationalism (Jacksonian). These doctrines, and the academic theories associated with them, overlook two deep traditions of American thought and practice: our sense of exceptionalism—that we should hold our conduct to higher standards than other states have done; and, our blending of rival strains or principles in American political thought.

Mead’s subtitle, American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, emphasizes these two traditions: America’s record seems an intellectual mess compared to the pure doctrines and schools of European philosophers and order-builders, but, across centuries, its unique and balanced approach to international affairs clearly has out-performed all rivals. Mead also argues that his two internationalist-leaning schools (Hamiltonian and Wilsonian) are not inherently superior to the two nationalist or defensive-leaning ones (Jeffersonian and Jacksonian), nor vice versa. Rather, the distinctive strength of the American strategic tradition is to deliberately force debate, intellectual and political, through our complex, distributed array of institutions and powers, which naturally yields multiple rival schools. Moreover, our continual task is to discern which two (perhaps three) of these approaches can forge the right strategy for a given era, or a given threat or opportunity, thus earning a temporary dominance.

Mead’s insightful study is so focused on recovering the complexity of our competing strains of thought that he does not discern the principle arguably at the core of the American grand-strategic tradition: enlightened self-interest (Osgood, 1953; Huntington, 1982; Gaddis, 2004; Monten, 2005; Nau, 2013; Green, 2017). From Washington at the founding to Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan in the Cold War, American strategists have considered how America could do well for itself by doing good in the world. The closing suggestion here is to rediscover this Washingtonian strategy of balance and statesmanship and how it has shaped three centuries of debates and experience, as well as to rediscover its basis in the moderate Enlightenment jurists Grotius and Montesquieu. These philosophers, and ideas of statesmanship, are not so popular among scholars today because instead of offering bright-line, radical theories they grapple with the complexity of affairs and view theory as accountable for guiding the judgement of statesmen on how to reconcile ideals and realities in particular circumstances.

Enlightened Self-Interest, American Strategy, and Statesmanship

Mead’s four-fold typology would tell us that the recent repudiation by both elite and popular opinion of the strategies of both the G. W. Bush and Obama presidencies has produced a Jacksonian, nationalist reaction in the narrow electoral victory of Donald Trump. This failure of “establishment” institutions and policies ought to push those skeptical of Trump to turn toward reconsideration of deeper sources of our strategic tradition, which in turn could provide foundations for a new strategic consensus and more successful policy. Less optimistically, the Trump years may reveal that a populist and nationalist spirit is no more adequate for a complex 21st-century world than are the abstract doctrines of the competing establishment schools. Indeed, the Trump administration may reach this same judgement, and turn from nationalism and populism to a more balanced and characteristic blending of ideals and interests. It is a question whether its leading figures can forge a strategy to capture that approach or whether the spirit from the Trump campaign and early months of the administration will prevail—that of ad hoc focus and crisis management.

Two initial paths for recovering the balanced core of the American strategic tradition are to rediscover the actual foundations of our grand strategy in Washington, who did not propound the isolationism or insularism regularly attributed to him; and to rediscover the balanced philosophy from the moderate Enlightenment that shaped American thought toward reconciling realities and ideals.

As encapsulated in Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796, our first grand strategy argues that America should stand for a reasonable balance of interest and justice in its relations with other states, and provide a confident new example in international affairs. An independent, secure nation should surrender to neither interest alone nor abstract justice, neither passions nor doctrines, but must find a prudent balance among these elements. The warnings about avoiding permanent alliances, and also political connections if possible, are secondary and fell under his final statement that “a predominant motive [for such policies] has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption, to that degree of strength and consistency, which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, command of its own fortunes” (Washington, 1997, pp. 973, 977). His fundamental strategic principle, then, was that a nation should be independent enough to act prudently and justly in international affairs. The core spirit was balance or moderation: to be able to “choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel” (p. 975). His Farewell thus calls America to “observe good faith and justice towards all Nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it?” He invokes the maxim of enlightened self-interest, that “honesty is always the best policy”—but also invokes high principle: “It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence” (pp. 972, 975). Such enlightened self-interest would “prevent our Nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the Destiny of Nations”—either ruin through internal error (militarism, or partisan faction) or weakness against external foes (p. 976). Doing well for ourselves by doing good abroad would respect “the obligation[s] which justice and humanity impose on every Nation” (p. 977). International affairs always require military capability, and “temporary alliances,” thus engagement with foreign nations, but we also must “cultivate peace and harmony” with all (pp. 975, 972).

Washington possessed at Mount Vernon an edition of Grotius’s On the Rights of War and Peace (1625) (Grotius, 2005, “Introduction,” p. xi), a work that informed Montesquieu’s account a century later of a spirit of moderation and enlightened self-interest as required for guiding international affairs. By the 1780s in America Grotius still was well known by statesmen, and Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws was the single-most influential European work of political science and constitutionalism. Montesquieu’s conception of international right developed Grotius’s conception of laws governing war and peace, particularly the Dutch jurist’s invocation of moderation to exhort statesmen to transcend minimum standards of the rights of war and peace toward more Christian and liberal conduct. Montesquieu declares that his central principle is moderation—of always seeking the political good, like the moral good, between extremes or limits—and that this ought to guide founders and statesmen as well as philosophers (Montesquieu, 1989, book 29, chapter 1). As noted, his view of moderation in international affairs requires a humane policy toward war, conquest, and commerce that blends realistic concerns for power, interest, and security with liberal and Christian principles about natural right and peace as higher aims (see Deudney, 2007). Thus the “right of nations is by nature founded on this principle: that the various nations should do to one another, in peace, the most good possible, and, in war, the least ill that is possible, without harming their true interests” (Montesquieu, 1989, book 1, chapter 3). This sounds like a Golden Rule for international affairs, and indeed his discernment that the “law of natural enlightenment” limits conquest and force echoes Christian ethics (book 10, chapter 3).

Montesquieu devotes less effort than Grotius and other early-modern scholars of international law to specific rules, cases, and legal precedents because he is more interested in fostering the constitutional principles and philosophical-moral spirit that can broadly educate statesmen on developing their judgement to handle specific cases in the ever-changing circumstances of international affairs. His theory is alert to the limits of theory, thus to the imperative for statesmen (and now stateswomen) to develop and exercise their judgement. This lack of specificity makes Montesquieu more relevant in the 21st century because he provokes us to consider fundamental principles for informing judgement. He is indispensable for understanding our first grand strategy and, arguably, the enduring core of American strategy. Indeed, not long ago, at the dawn of the era of nuclear conflict and the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower told his staff to consult Washington’s Farewell Address basically for these reasons (Griffin, 1994). This consonance with the demands of liberal-democratic policymakers further suggests why we should rediscover figures like Montesquieu and Washington if we seek a more productive theory-policy nexus in our troubled and challenging era.


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                                                                                                                (1.) Prominent scholars arguing for this divergent view, from different philosophical stances, include Deudney (2007) and Nau (2013).

                                                                                                                (2.) As discussed, two prominent scholars arguing this general point are Brown (2002, 2010) and Lake (2011, 2013).

                                                                                                                (3.) Four arguments for this conclusion, albeit from quite different philosophical stances, are Mead (2013), Cordesman (2015), Rothkopf (2015), and Mandelbaum (2016).

                                                                                                                (4.) Beyond the sources cited in note 3, this conclusion had already been reached from a theorist-practitioner view by Kissinger (2014); see more recently, from the policymaker’s view, Haas (2017).

                                                                                                                (5.) An insider’s defense of the Obama strategy is Chollett (2016); a defense of a similar strategy of restraint is Posen (2015); a severe critique is Dueck (2015).

                                                                                                                (6.) As noted, see the entry Realism in Foreign Policy Analysis in this encyclopedia. Amid the voluminous literature, an exposition of realism as a neo-isolationist strategy of “offshore balancing” is Layne (2006); a milder version of realism that surveys several grand strategies for 21st-century America is Art (2003).

                                                                                                                (7.) On liberalism in foreign policy analysis, see the entries on Is Democracy a Cause of Peace? and International Law and Foreign Policy in this encyclopedia. Amid the voluminous literature, a proponent of liberal internationalism who discusses the interests or incentives that should pull America toward an idealistic multilateralism is Ikenberry (2011). For Kant’s categorical moralism in international affairs see “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” (Kant, 1991).

                                                                                                                (8.) See Kissinger (2014); his shift from realism to balance among principles, and balance between theory and practice, is further discussed.

                                                                                                                (9.) See the Bridging the Gap Project based at American University, directed (in part) by James Goldgeier (American University) and Bruce Jentleson (Duke University).

                                                                                                                (10.) For broader foundations of Kissinger’s argument, see World Order at pp. 274–279, 306–314, 327–329, 362–363, 367, 370, 373–374.