James Holmes

Academia Embraces Reality?

Younger academics seem to be more comfortable with pragmatism than their forbearers.

Academia Embraces Reality?
Credit: flickr/ velkr0

So last Thursday the Naval Diplomat and the Naval Diplomat’s Wife vaulted into the Diplomatmobile, ignited the rocket assist, and sped from somewhere along the shores of Narragansett Bay up to Toronto, Ontario. We went across the international frontier into the Great White North … and soon after crossed into a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man … a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity … the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This alternative dimension of space and time is … the International Studies Association annual conference.

ISA is the movable feast where international-relations scholars converge to exchange ideas about abstruse theoretical matters. One perennial topic is whether individuals matter in affairs of state. That was no less true this year. Self-described international-relations realists see the nation-state as the unit of analysis, and indeed as the decisive actor in international interactions. They evince discomfort with unpredictable actors such as individuals, who have a habit of acting not just on cost/benefit calculations, but on such imponderables as fear and honor, and even raw passions such as rage and spite. They make things messy. Ewwww….

For their part, foreign-policy analysts, practical-minded lot that they are, accept that people — in particular those occupying positions of authority — have the freedom to shape affairs within the constraints imposed by geography, economics, prevailing mores, and so forth.

You can imagine the responses such debates elicit from Naval War College students. Giggles, for the most part. Warriors, diplomats, border-security types — few of our students would reject the idea that the state is important. After all, the Americans in the crowd swear an oath to protect the constitution of a republic, ours. But neither would they accept that individuals are simply interchangeable cogs in a machinery of state whose gears turn more or less uniformly, no matter who operates the levers of power. As a rule, these are practitioners who have made multiple combat deployments. They know that changing out this commander or official for that one can make a world of difference — especially in superheated environments such as war.

That seems like the sensible verdict to me, 1994 Naval War College graduate that I am. (Twenty years have elapsed? Gulp.) Given the choice between an elegantly argued theory and my lyin’ eyes, I’ll go with the latter every time. Hearteningly, my sense from the two ISA panels in which I took part is that the rising generation of Ph.D.s — not just North American but European and Asian — likewise takes a commonsense view of such matters. Granted, this is a sample size of two out of the many, many events held at Toronto. Nevertheless, it was good to see that spirit of give-and-take among those who will one day succeed us in the halls of academe. (Don’t get any ideas, you young whippersnappers.) People have their philosophical leanings, naturally, but they seem inclined to concede a point rather than admit nothing, deny everything, and make counteraccusations during scholarly interchange. Pragmatism is good.

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And Canada? Well, the Naval Diplomat lodgings were in that quarter of Toronto, then known as York, that was sacked by American forces 201 years ago this month, in April 1813, during the late unpleasantness known as the War of 1812. Great Britain cited the destruction of York to justify burning the White House (then known as the Executive Mansion) in 1814. This is my second encounter with the war north of the border, and both times it’s been surreal to be “the enemy” from bygone times. Fortunately, Canadians don’t seem to bear a grudge, and we ‘Mercans have put it behind us as well. Guess that’s an advantage of being from two neighboring societies, with a more or less common past, that don’t take their history all that seriously. After all, as Henry Ford advised, history is more or less bunk.

Still, it could be that Canadians are still stewing over their centuries of humiliation. They’ve been lulling us into a false sense of security!!! Let’s look to the White House’s defenses against amphibious assault … just in case Royal Canadian forces decide to land in the Chesapeake Bay again for old time’s sake.