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STANFORD - The eyes of many government foreign-policy makers glaze over when scholars talk about "theory," says a Stanford University professor, yet practically presented and applied theory might save the United States from some foreign-policy blunders.

Government officials use their own private theories of how foreign policy works, whether they are conscious of it or not, Alexander George, Graham H. Stuart Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Stanford, writes in an analysis of the gap between theory and practice in U.S. foreign policy. His new book, Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy, is published by the United States Institute for Peace, where he was a distinguished fellow the past two years.

The book gives examples of recent foreign policy research that is practical input for diplomats. One is the "theory of ripeness" advanced by I. William Zartman of Johns Hopkins University.

A crisis is ripe for mediation, Zartman finds, if the adversaries perceive a deadlock, fear things will get worse and believe that a satisfactory outcome through unilateral action is no longer possible whereas a joint solution may be feasible. Also, they must believe that the side that previously had the upper hand has slipped somewhat while the underdog has gained strength.

The book also details alleged policy "blunders" made by the United States in handling its relations with Iraq from 1988 to 1991. The blunders, George contends, were partly the result of a "weak knowledge base undergirding most of the strategies employed by the Bush administration in dealing with Saddam Hussein since the end of the Iran- Iraq War in 1988."

Commenting on unsatisfactory aspects of the outcome of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, George writes, "It is misleading and conceptually incorrect to pose the problem, as is often done, as one of matching military and political objectives. . . . Often there are political aims that cannot be realized solely via victory on the battlefield.

"The critical question is how, and to what extent, will a particular kind of military strategy empower the victor to achieve all of his postwar political objectives."

Presidential advisers, negotiators and other diplomats might make more use of scholars' disciplined theories on international relations, George argues, if the scholars presented them as "sophisticated checklists" for evaluating the potential success of various policy options.

Studies are useful "when the policymaker must weigh various options while at the same time taking into account other factors such as the need to muster public support," writes Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis in the foreword to George's book. Lewis was recently appointed head of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, and is former president of the United States Institute for Peace.

Lewis told a recent gathering of social scientists that they "must concentrate more on reaching the decision makers in ways that can get their attention. Look for ways to market your research product better, explore ways of conveying its practical implications to senior policymakers, not just to middle-grade analysts."

He added that "op-ed articles penetrate the White House much more often than scholarly journals."

Academic studies and theories aren't capable of "prescribing" foreign policy treatments for a particular international crisis, George said, but they should serve, along with journalistic and intelligence information, as input to the "diagnosis" of the problem.

George has three recommendations for foreign-policy scholars:

  • Write theories so they can be used as "sophisticated checklists" by leaders developing policy options.
  • Write up research so it identifies causal patterns. Too often, George said, scholars state their conclusions as probabilities; for example, a particular type of policy is said to have a certain probability of success. Instead, policymakers need to know which "variables" or circumstances were associated with success and which with failures in the historical cases analyzed.

Academic publishing standards generally encourage scholars to present as few variables as possible in their research, he said, but the practitioner needs to know about as many variables as possible in order to apply the knowledge to complex real-world situations.

  • Use models of state behavior that take into account the "mind-set" of particular actors, such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Mu'ammar Gaddafi or Russia's Boris Yeltsin.

Too often, studies make "the general assumption that the opponent is rational and able to calculate his benefits, costs and risks correctly," which is not always the case, George said.

"As cognitive psychology has repeatedly and persuasively emphasized, a person tends to give greater, often uncritical weight to new information that supports an existing policy or preference and tends to discount evidence that challenges his existing mind-set," he said. "As a result, the adversary may make critical miscalculations that feed on his distaste for drawing the conclusion that it is really in his best interest to meet the demands made on him."

Area specialists can be particularly helpful in identifying how cultural beliefs and other psychological factors shape behavior of specific leaders, he said.

-kpo/foreign policy-


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