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Carnes Lord discusses the debate over American grand strategy

Carnes Lord 444x718On Monday, November 16, The Institute of World Politics presented the final lecture in its Charles Koch Foundation Series on U.S. Foreign Policy and Grand Strategy, inviting Dr. Carnes Lord, professor of strategic leadership at the U.S. Naval War College and former staff member of the National Security Council. Dr. Lord also served as the assistant to the vice president for national security affairs during the first Bush administration.

Dr. Lord, whose personal interests include the philosophical (his widely used English translation of Aristotle’s Politics from the 1980s was updated with a second edition in 2013), provided an admittedly provocative look at “What’s wrong with the debate over American grand strategy?” His lecture primarily dealt with the theories and lenses through which many academics now study international relations.

The international relations (IR) theorists of contemporary American political science tend to dominate discussions of grand strategy both in the academy and the policy community, with a lesser role played by a small group of military-oriented historians, according to Dr. Lord.  This has given the debate a very artificial and abstract character, and prevented a full appreciation of the factors at work in our quickly changing international environment. 

In particular, he argued, they tend to discount the importance of geography and economics, to downplay the importance of domestic politics and regimes, and to adopt a fundamentally materialist and individualist view of human nature that is at odds with the reality of interstate behavior. He suggested that this is particularly true of so-called “Realism,” which remains the dominant school of IR theory.  Other schools, particularly so-called “Constructivism,” have done much better in taking account of the role of ideas or ideology in shaping international conflict.

In concluding, Lord provided a rapid overview of the grand strategic challenges the United States and its allies face from China, Russia, the Middle East, and not least Europe.  He suggested that these challenges should cause us to move beyond the grand strategy debate of recent decades, and face more squarely what he sees as an alarming erosion of the liberal international order as we have known it since the end of World War II.