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date: 05 March 2021

High Theory versus Grand Strategy in Guiding Foreign Policylocked

  • Paul CarresePaul CarreseSchool of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, Arizona State University


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.

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