A Theory on Theory

CMSS is a truly remarkable and wonderful place. However, I have noticed from the very start that the student body here suffers from one catastrophic malady. Theoryphobia. Clearly, I am painting in wide brush strokes here and there are a few brave souls who actually enjoy theory at the centre. But these poor people have to nod and smile as they hear others refer to theory as “bullshit”, “irrelevant drivel”, and my personal favorite “an academic circlejerk.”

While the vast majority of students have had to deal with theory in their research, this is usually imposed by the advisor. Often it seems as if the beleaguered student is forced to swallow his theory remorsefully, as if he were reliving the horror of partaking particularly noxious medicine as a child.

The major claim against theory, as a concept, seems to be that it is disconnected from reality. The main thrust of most graduate work at CMSS seems to be to dissect policy. In this manner of thinking, theory as seen as irrelevant to the actual policy on the ground and a needless distraction. While the vast majority of students have had to deal with theory in their research

Needless to say, I seriously disagree.

First of all, policy analysis is not an academic pursuit. It is a completely professional pursuit. The academic enterprise is based on the concept of advancing and building


knowledge. It is designed to seek answers which can be examined and debated, falsified and argued and hopefully: improved and assimilated. Policy analysis is disposable. Once the circumstances change, it becomes irrelevant. It is sort of like the difference between Led Zeppelin and Justin Bieber.

Furthermore, the field we are in is strategic studies. Strategic studies is simply a subfield of international relations. The field is intimately tied to those nasty “ism’s” we have all come to hate. Strategic studies champions the application of theories in a manner which is intimately related to the issues of the day. Ultimately, the idea is to tie the burning security issues of our time with the tremendous body of knowledge which the relevant academic disciplines have amassed over the years.

When we approach a political question without theory, we stumble around blind, looking at facts without context. What often tends to happen is that the analysis and policy


prescribed unknowingly use the same approach as an existing theory but apply it badly due to a lack of understanding of the nuances and elements that were put into it, and without any comprehension of its pitfalls. The weakness of every important theory is ruthlessly exposed by peer review and the counterarguments of the proponents of other theories. This causes an almost Darwinian process whereby the weak-points are abandoned and new and more tested structures are built on the strong points. But none of the benefits of this process are bestowed on the knowingly ignorant.

Clausewitz, the undisputed high priest of CMSS (who I am contractually obligated to mention in this blog) told us: “theory exists so that one need not start afresh each time sorting out the material…” He also tells us that it serves a higher purpose, not as a simple call to specific action, but in order to “provide a thinking man with a frame of reference for the movement he has been trained to carry out, rather than to serve as a guide which at the moment of action lays down precisely the path he must take.”

Just as importantly, theory gives us an important measure of humility. Other people, just as smart as we are, have thought about these same problems before we have. Chances are, whatever our intuitive approach is, someone has spent years elucidating and refining similar ideas. We must acknowledge the previous work and find the holes, gaps and weaknesses in existing bodies of work, rather than pretending that it is all worthless and irrelevant.

Finally, theory and academic speculation have shaped the world around us. For good or for ill. We live in a liberal nation built on the work of Locke and Hume. We have a capitalist system built on the work of Smith and Ricardo. The United States came out of a cold war opposing the results of the socio-economic analysis of Marx, which it managed to control using ideas of deterrence based on Brodie and Schelling. Its policy in the world for twenty years was based on the Democratic Peace Theory, developed by Doyle and Rummel.

There is no escaping the importance of theory in shaping our lives and its importance in our discipline. Belittle it at your peril.


10 thoughts on “A Theory on Theory

  1. Shaiel says:

    What a Crypto-fascist!

  2. Marko says:

    If I remember reading Clausewitz, he also said that theory also has no place on the battlefield and should be left behind at the war colleges.

    I wish I could embed this:

  3. Shelley Wind says:

    We ought to have a debate/social event on this theme. Might be great fun

  4. Gavrilyuk says:

    Thank you for the reminder of the value of theory. Personally, I’m still in the process of learning to stop worrying and start loving the theory.

    However, the musical comparison is problematic. Surely, someone came before Led Zeppelin. Indeed, Led Zeppelin was firmly rooted in the blues, often using the twelve-bar blues (not surprising, since a large portion of rock is based on the twelve-bar blues). Though the origins of the blues and the boundaries between the blues and jazz are debated, they seem to owe themselves to a blending of African and European musical traditions. One aspect of Led Zeppelin’s live experience, improvisation, can be traced to blues, jazz and classical styles. On the European side, records leave us with the names of those who developed musical styles and new approaches (a quick review of classical music from the baroque to the modern period shows geniuses such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Stravinsky and so on). Long before these dead white males, we had the Greeks who developed scales and modal systems of music which continue today in the very blues upon which Led Zeppelin riffed (and that’s ignoring the role of musical development outside of the European sphere).

    To put it back in terms of strategic theory, this comparison is akin to claiming that strategic studies began with Brodie and ignoring those on whose shoulders he stood. I think I can hear Clausewitz crying over the relentless refrain of Baby.

  5. Marko says:

    A good article regarding this topic came out in the Feb edition of the USNI Proceedings Magazine.

    “If there is anything certain about the future, it is that we will be surprised. To avoid the rocks and shoals that lie ahead, we will need officers proficient in both the theory and practice of strategy and operations. Perhaps the best guide to navigating the fog of peace is to be found in strategic theory and history. Theory can help us make sense of complex situations.”


  6. Seahorne says:

    First of all, your entire argument about theory is predicated upon Strategic Studies being a sub-field of IR, a highly theoretical field. This is problematic for several reasons.

    Schelling was an economist, Janowitz a sociologist, Brodie worked for RAND (a policy think-tank, for shame!). Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Jomini, Mahan, Douhet, Fuller, and Thucydides were all military men. Machiavelli was a statesman, Handel, Keegan, Howard, and van Creveld are historians. Marx was clearly confused being a historian, sociologist, economist, and philosopher.

    Bernard Brodie said “good strategy presumes good anthropology and good sociology.”

    Most of our core theories of strategy are created from knowledge that comes outside IR. Knowledge about war and conflict comes from every realm of human study and to say that Strat Studies belongs as a subfield of IR is troublesome. But this is the very debate that academia has over where Strategic Studies should “belong” and I think the Blog of War should explore this topic further.

    Second, by labelling Strat Studies as a field of IR, you have positioned yourself to dismiss all policy studies. Theory and policy are symbiotic, this cannot be denied. Those that study policy outline the empirical evidence for theory, and in turn those theories guide the creation of further policies. Is not your own academic interest related to applying theories to Israeli settler policies, or using these policies to evaluate existing theories?

    Finally, the purpose of academia is the creation new knowledge, period. If it is only to be relegated to the creation of pure theory, then we are all in deep trouble. Those of us that deal with theory, only typically use it as a methodology for understanding a particular case study, not for developing a completely new theory. Who among us has created a completely new and independent theory of war? New knowledge must come from somewhere, evidence must come from some place.

    Finally, I’m happy you’ve stirred the hornet’s nest. Theory is often undervalued at CMSS, but much like there is no escaping the importance of theory in our lives, likewise there is no escaping the importance of policy.

    • Jimmy Page says:

      First of all, you claim that my entire argument rests on the idea that strategic studies is a subfield of IR. First of all: it is. Second of all, this is incorrect. I based my argument on the following tenets:
      1) Policy analysis is a professional and not academic pursuit, while theory is both. I should know, I have done both. Policy analysis is not easy, but it is inherently non-academic in its goals and scope.
      2) I made the claim you refer to.
      3) Theory creates accumulated knowledge which if we discard we have to reinvent the wheel. Usually poorly.
      4) Theory gives us humility and shows respect to the work of others.
      5) The influence of theory on society and history has been and continues to be immense.
      So that was just one of five tenets of my argument: hardly the entire argument.
      Second your examples only prove my point that strategic studies are a subfield of IR. All the examples you give are of first generation strategic studies scholars who were trained before IR was a formal discipline in the United States. Therefore they all had to receive their training elsewhere. Not surprisingly you do not mention the second generation of strategic studies experts – post IR as a discipline – such as Gray, Freedman, Jervis, etc.
      But even if we accepted your argument. So what? None of these people are policy analysts. They are either theorists or historians. I did not attack the discipline of history, which when done well is as timeless as good theory. Of course the best contributions historians have given to the field occurred when they were theorizing. See Kennedy and Trachtenberg for good examples.
      I do not dismiss policy analysis any more than I dismiss plumbing. Without plumbing I would not be able to flush the toilet. In that sense it is far more important than theory. But that does not make plumbing an academic pursuit.
      You point out that knowledge comes from some place and we build theory accordingly. Absolutely, that is what history is for. History is our laboratory in IR. Policy analysis is a rather shoddy source for theorizing. I have only seen it used when the events are too new for a reliable history to have been written and the results are shoddy at best.
      You say that academia is the creation of new knowledge. But what new knowledge do we gain from policy analysis? It takes facts we already know and puts them together in a manner which avoids illuminating the subject in any meaningful and timeless manner.
      I can name hundreds of works of theory which have value which transcends a specific time and place. Can you name one work of policy analysis which can compare the importance of Smith, Marx, Waltz or Rawls?

  7. asr says:

    bring on the theory.

  8. […] after my wife goes back to work), I enjoy the discussions even if those who know their theory <https://cmssblog.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/a-theory-on-theory/>and technical details […]

  9. […] love of international relations theory does not appear to be universal. I doubt I will ever join in a debate about the merits of Realism vs. Liberalism but I have found […]

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