International relations: the ‘how not to’ guide

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Amrita Narlikar, President of German Institute for Global and Area Studies


In the century of International Affairs’ existence, there have been a lot of catastrophic critical junctures when a different policy decision, underpinned by an alternative epistemic framing, might have led to a more peaceful and prosperous world. In this special issue, we consider the well-intentioned efforts of humanity over the past century that turned out badly. Much of foreign policy analysis seeks to replicate successes; we humbly ask whether it might make more sense to examine how to avoid disastrous failure. In this introductory article we develop a concrete definition of policy failure and provide a motivation for why the study of failures is relevant for the coming century. We suggest a Hippocratic Oath for policy-minded scholars, and advance guidelines to help go beyond Barack Obama’s ‘Don’t do stupid shit’ injunction and also guard against potential policy paralysis. Finally, we offer conclusions derived from the other articles in this special issue that are relevant for both the study and practice of international relations. Armed with these insights, practitioners—and the researchers who advise them—may stand a better chance of avoiding some of the worst pitfalls of international relations; occasionally, together, we may even get some things right.


The scientific study of international relations was in its infancy when International Affairs was launched, and it stayed in an immature state for quite some time. Racism and sexism were endemic in society, and those isms—along with many others—warped the field of International Relations (IR) for a good long while. Nonetheless, a century later, one could argue that the discipline has made significant strides. Scholarly research on areas ranging from nuclear deterrence to economic statecraft to the democratic peace to the politics of basing rights has contributed to our knowledge of the world. That knowledge has also affected how policy-makers have approached foreign relations. There is a growing literature studying the ways in which academic ideas permeate and influence the policy discourse.

And yet, for all the self-congratulation that researchers have heaped on themselves for policy relevance, it is impossible for us to ignore the growing mound of missed opportunities and counterfactual histories. Staring us in the face is the COVID-19 pandemic, of which the continuous death toll (well over six million recorded deaths at the time of writing) is at least partly a result of lack of access to vaccines. Vaccine inequality, in turn, is a product of multiple factors that include failures of international cooperation. Failures to contain the spread of the pandemic in early 2020, and subsequent exploitation of dependencies in production—even of life-saving medical drugs and equipment—have raised serious questions not only for public health experts, but also for IR scholars with sub-specialities ranging from global governance, international organization and international political economy to international ethics and IR theory.

The human and economic damage that the pandemic has unleashed on the world is present in our minds because of its immediacy. But we know that there have been many other landmark moments in the past 100 years—New York in 1929, Munich in 1938, the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, Afghanistan in 1979 (and indeed, today), Rwanda in 1994, Iraq in 2003, Lehman Brothers in 2008, Ukraine in 2022—when a different policy decision, underpinned by an alternative epistemic framing, might have led to a more peaceful and prosperous world. Given the many failures of foreign policy and governance, and the cognate theories from which they drew succour, perhaps it should come as little surprise that the liberal international order faces challenge today from a range of actors located in the global South and the global North.

The motivation for this special issue

There is a rich repertoire of theories on learning and adaptation to explain the difficult situation in which we find ourselves today. In this special issue, we approach the problem from a different angle. Rather than focusing on the interactive processes of learning that link the present with the past, we consider the well-intentioned efforts of humanity over the past century that turned out badly. Much of foreign policy analysis seeks to replicate successes; we humbly ask whether it might make more sense to examine how to avoid catastrophic failure. To put it another way: IR scholars usually echo the economist’s emphasis on optimization. Perhaps it is time to borrow from principles such as ‘minimax’ or ‘satisficing’ instead, with a goal to producing ‘good enough’ foreign policies that minimize the risk of ruin.

IR scholarship has to date focused only intermittently on failure. To be fair, it is a staple of security studies. The biggest question in that subfield—the causes of war—is rooted in working out how to avoid the most destructive outcome in world politics. Most other subfields in IR, however, tend to focus more on persistent patterns of success. International political economy scholarship, particularly the open economy politics approach, has attempted to explain patterns of cooperation. Global governance scholarship is concerned with the international institutions that were successfully created, less so with the structures that failed to get off the ground. Studies of mediation stress the instances in which such processes worked. Policy-relevant scholarship and advocacy are particularly vulnerable to focusing primarily on successes. This is one reason why every proposed aid package is sold as a ‘Marshall Plan for X’ and every new security architecture is conceived of as a ‘new NATO for Y’. This special issue offers a counterbalance to this tendency in the discipline.

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, our approach is a variation of the Sherlock Holmes method: ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’ Perhaps once we have eliminated the extremely wrong ways of doing things in international affairs, we might arrive at a right way. Certainly our motivations in pursuing this project are not flippant. The Hindu philosophy of neti neti (na + iti) uses negation to grasp the core of reality. And while we do not expect to cover the universe of the ‘how not to’ in international relations, we hope that, by drawing on negative insights from a wide range of issue areas, we should be able to extract some interesting generalizations on the positives. By understanding what to avoid at the levels of both theory and practice, we might be able to devise better policies and practices.

We are aware that focusing only on failure runs the same risk of selection bias that observers would encounter by focusing only on policy successes. We are, quite consciously, sampling on the dependent variable. Surely one might observe causal mechanisms that are present in failures which would also be present in successes? This would be a valid concern if our goal were to generate general theories of sanctions, war, mediation, negotiation or Great Power transition. Our aim is slightly different, however: to avoid catastrophic losses, the kind of disastrous policy decisions that live in infamy for decades, even centuries, after they transpire.

For this purpose, there are valid reasons to use John Stuart Mill’s method of comparison and focus on the ‘big cases’ within our bailiwick of expertise. Nothing in the articles that follow should be interpreted to mean, for example, that all instances of war-fighting or mediation or negotiation or sanctions or domestic interference will lead to calamity. Rather, we are suggesting that if large-scale failure is an outcome that policy-makers wish to avoid, divining cautionary lessons from these cases makes sense as a guide of what not to do in international politics.

Defining failure

Concepts such as ‘failure’ and ‘success’ are vigorously contested in IR scholarship. What seems like a success in the short term can age into failure, and vice versa. As Richard Toye notes in his article, the 1938 Munich agreement was viewed by the press at the time as a successful agreement; only later was it deemed a failure. In contrast, Daniel Drezner notes in his article that the UN sanctions on Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War were contemporaneously viewed as a humanitarian disaster and policy failure. Only in retrospect do both assessments seem distorted. Harold James observes that well-intentioned policy decisions during financial crises can have short-term effects that trigger disastrous political backlashes.

For the purposes of this special issue, ‘failure’ is defined as outcomes that are widely recognized as at variance from the instigating actor’s ex ante expectations in a lose–lose way. Three dimensions are important. First, we recognize actor intention as a key part of the definition. ‘Real’ intentions can be notoriously difficult to gauge. Nonetheless, we suggest that if the outcome deviates significantly and negatively from the actor’s stated intention, then observers are likely witnessing a failure.

Second, timing is an important part of how we conceptualize failure. Policies that worked for an extended period, only to eventually end in failure—like, say, either Bretton Woods or the Washington Consensus—do not qualify as failures. Policies or institutions that function for at least a generation cannot be considered to be failures. In contrast, Munich was considered to be a failure less than six months after the deal was inked. Furthermore, the failure is recognized to be significant enough that one cannot conceive of a future trajectory in which that historical judgement is revised. Indeed, within foreign policy circles, ‘Munich’ is now shorthand for failed appeasement.

Third, what are the distributive implications of the outcome? We see failures in international politics as lose–lose outcomes that leave a lasting negative legacy. As Stephanie Carvin demonstrates in her chapter, misguided war-fighting strategies led eventually to US withdrawal from Afghanistan following a 20-year conflict. In theory one could describe this as a victory for the Taliban. Being out of power for a generation, however, has left that group in worse shape as well, as domestic protests and an international struggle for recognition suggest.

While we offer the above definition as a starting point, we are fully cognizant that failure, like beauty, can lie in the eye of the beholder. Positionality matters, and actors may have very different perceptions of what constitutes success or failure, in contrast to those being acted upon. This is borne out most visibly in the articles by Valérie Rosoux and Amrita Narlikar. Rosoux illustrates how mediators’ understandings of a successful outcome can be at great variance from the perceptions of local groups. Narlikar similarly shows that apparent successes in multilateral trade negotiations were nonetheless regarded as failures by developing countries, either because they did not result in the redistributive justice that they had hoped for or because they questioned the legitimacy of the processes that had produced the outcome.

The intended audience

Between the idea and the reality, between the theory and the outcome, our intervention grapples with two shadows. The first shadow falls at the interface of scholarship and practice, and deals with communication and miscommunication across academia and policy. Researchers, when asked about the limits of their policy impact, are wont to complain that practitioners either do not heed their advice or use self-serving/oversimplified versions of their academic analyses. This academia–policy interface is one key point of focus in this special issue. By learning about policy failures that derived from the ways in which researchers conveyed, and practitioners received, scientific advice, we expect to find some useful insights into more effective knowledge exchange. The disciplinary backgrounds of practitioners may make them more (or less) amenable to receiving academic advice, and may potentially also privilege certain academic disciplines over others. But we are also convinced that it is high time that we, as researchers, also pay attention to a second shadow, which has received scarce attention thus far: the inadequacies, biases and hubris of academic analyses in the first place, which would have contributed to poor policy decisions irrespective of the filtration process between research and practice. While recognizing the importance of open-minded engagement with scientific advice by practitioners, we push ourselves and our scholarly peers to reflect on our own limitations and misjudgements. We see this candid engagement with the academic process—acknowledging its many virtues, but also its imperfections and vices—as an important value-added that this International Affairs centenary issue brings to the scholarly debate.

Given our interest in failures on the part of both policy-makers and researchers, this special issue reaches out to multiple audiences. Our most direct interlocutors will likely be foreign policy ‘elites’—including fellow academics—who have traditionally advised politicians about their foreign policy options. The articles in this issue reveal the myriad ways that off-the-shelf policies can go wrong. This lesson is instructive for academics and intellectuals interested in policy relevance. Academic IR needs to acknowledge that even the strongest empirical laws in our extant literature are not as generalizable to the policy world as one might believe in graduate school. Some of the most well-known findings in IR research, like the democratic peace, are freighted with auxiliary assumptions that can limit their applicability to responsible policy-makers.

A related problem is when disciplinary debates are papered over in discussions with policy-makers and the public. Within any epistemic community of experts, full debate and discussion about different policy possibilities are the norm. Multiple scholars, however, have cautioned that what might seem like a good idea in a political vacuum may well turn out differently in the actual hurly-burly of politics. This is why economists have fervent debates within the discipline about the general welfare implications of trade liberalization, and yet are consistent cheerleaders for free trade when communicating with the outside world. These expressions of certainty directly affect not only policy-makers, but—almost as important—the networks of activists, journalists, think-tank denizens and other members of the elite public who can influence foreign policy leaders. What might remain contested within a discipline—say, that two democracies never go to war with each other—becomes a commonly accepted ‘stylized fact’ in the wider world. As Naazneen Barma and James Goldgeier warn in their article, such stylized facts, when let loose in the policy-making world, can lead to catastrophe. This special issue is designed to remind policy advisers that off-the-shelf ideas can go horribly wrong under certain circumstances (as illustrated in the articles that follow).

The proliferation of substandard policy advice—the second shadow—offers another urgent motivation for this special issue. As multiple observers have noted, the global wave of populism that has crested in recent years has led to a surge of distrust towards experts and expertise. A key trope of populism is to promote distrust of experts, viewing technocrats as political obstacles. During the Brexit debate, the UK Conservative politician Michael Gove famously declared: ‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts.’ As Jon Pevehouse recently observed, ‘anti-elite views (which also beget anti-expertise views) should lead to a complete populist discounting of all information from elite institutions (domestic and international) regardless of an institution’s perceived alignment with populist goals’. Some populist leaders have gone further and sown distrust of expertise to maintain their political standing.

To diminish the influence of independent experts, an easy populist stratagem is to impugn their reputation by highlighting past failings. Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 by decrying the foreign policy establishment’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, blasting ‘those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war’. In an effort to curry favour with Trump, no less an éminence grise than Henry Kissinger asserted that ‘the Trump phenomenon is in large part a reaction of Middle America to attacks on its values by intellectual and academic communities’. Expert communities, including foreign affairs specialists, need to husband their credibility in the face of populist attacks if they wish to temper the know-nothing impulses of political leaders.

Key to preserving the credibility of one’s advice is recognizing its limitations and admitting one’s mistakes. It appears that experts are not only often poor at making predictions (and, to be fair, usually loath to do so), but also not very good at judging trends after the event. For instance, when asked retroactively to estimate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in five key social domains, experts and laypeople were not far apart in their misjudgements (and both groups were off the mark from what actually transpired). And for all presumptions of objectivity in research, the substance of scientific advice can differ considerably; depending on the content they choose, scholars and practitioners can co-produce valuable successes, but can also be complicit in triggering devastating policy failures.

Consider, for instance, Sweden’s response to the novel coronavirus. On the advice of its chief epidemiologist, Sweden disregarded other voices in its scientific and medical community that advocated much greater caution and the adoption of restrictive measures. The Nordic country’s handling of the pandemic in 2020 was at striking variance with that of most other European states. There were no lockdowns, masks were discouraged and a laissez-faire approach was adopted. But opting for the minimal disruption to normal social functioning came at a huge cost to human life, especially among vulnerable groups (e.g. the elderly in nursing homes). Sometimes, policy disasters happen not only as a result of miscommunication between researchers and policy-makers, but because the science itself (or at least the version that acquires voice and influence with practitioners at the time) is ambiguous and the scholarly community divided. When faced with such situations, it is a responsibility of the researchers concerned—especially those working in proximity to the echelons of power—to recognize the limitations of their own advice and rise above what Philip Tetlock has described so eloquently as ‘our own self-promotional puffery’.

The need for expertise will only increase in the future, because the margin for policy error is getting thinner across the globe. States in the twenty-first century will be confronting an array of Machiavellian and Malthusian threats: great power competition, political polarization, pandemics, climate change and so forth. Responding to many of these challenges will require considerable reservoirs of scientific and social scientific expertise. At the same time, the resurgence of patrimonial regimes does not inspire confidence in the ability of some governments to cope with these threats. As Stephen Hanson and Jeffrey Kopstein recently concluded, ‘patrimonial regimes … are simply awful at managing any complex problem of modern governance’. The responses to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic illustrate this all too well. But established democracies too have shown a mixed record in their handling of the pandemic. Attributing success in the management of the continuing pandemic to one’s preferred political system will clearly not suffice.

States in the twenty-first century will need to rely on international affairs experts to avoid multiple catastrophes. But those experts—and the generalists who consume their expertise—also need to be wary of proffering advice that make situations worse, devaluing the power of expertise more generally. In both communication and content, more care will be needed. And just as important will be the intellectual honesty and humility to recognize that sometimes, not only may the implementation of our recommendations by policy-makers have gone awry, but our advice itself may have been premature or just plain wrong.

A Hippocratic Oath for the conduct of international relations

The Hippocratic Oath in medicine instructs doctors: ‘First, do no harm.’ As we work through the notion of failure in international relations, we explore extending that operating principle to the conduct of international affairs. The Hippocratic Oath principle in IR serves as a cautionary warning against action merely for action’s sake. There is a bias in politics towards ‘doing something’ in response to an event. Doing something, however, is not the same as doing the right thing. Importantly, this principle is not an excuse for inaction or for adopting reactionary excuses for inaction. We are not advocating a bias towards doing nothing and merely accepting the status quo. As several articles in this special issue make clear, pressing global problems exist that require policy initiatives. Multiple social movements and parallel initiatives in international organizations towards global poverty alleviation were necessary steps towards improving the lives of millions of people; the attention to development under the rubric of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was essential to address the concerns of developing countries; new strategic thinking on the Indo-Pacific across and among different countries may come to be seen as an indispensable move towards realigning the balance of power in the region. But in the context of international relations, a Hippocratic Oath asks policy-makers to weigh the costs and risks of viable policy options before proceeding.

In that spirit, most of the contributors to this special issue focus on what we might call ‘boilerplate’ international relations. By this, we mean off-the-shelf policies, such as economic sanctions, trade negotiations, war-fighting, interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, regional integration, conflict mediation and formulating grand strategies. These activities form the bread and butter of how world politics is conducted. None of these policies are inherently bad; indeed, many emerged from the best of intentions. But, as the articles in this issue demonstrate, they can trigger catastrophic outcomes if executed poorly or applied to the wrong circumstances. Our principal motivation is to avoid disastrous outcomes, so as to ensure that none of these policies are needlessly stigmatized. To paraphrase Montesquieu, disastrous policy interventions weaken the will for necessary interventions.

Weighing up the pros and cons of policy options so that interventions do not worsen an existing situation should be—and usually is—standard fare for most foreign policy elites. The fact that failures nonetheless abound suggests that guidelines may need to go beyond former US President Barack Obama’s injunction ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’ We offered five guidelines to our contributors, which we hope will be useful also for our readers.

First, rather than approach the question of how-not-to from a perspective of paradigm shifts in IR theory, all the articles in this special issue provide empirical stories of disappointments and failures. We aim to contribute to middle-range theorizing with practical implications, rather than make claims to developing grand theory.

Second, we encouraged all contributors to use the definition of failure offered in the previous section, taking into account the three considerations of actor intentions, timing and distributive implications. Additionally, though, we also recognized the importance of positionality in how particular actors would apply this definition. A deadlock may be seen as a failure by some players, but not by others—for example, developing countries greeted some of the deadlocks of the Doha negotiations in past years with elation, reiterating ‘No deal is better than this deal.’ This has made the project somewhat messier, but also richer.

Third, a point related to the one above about positionality, many of the articles in this special issue factor in the perspectives of seemingly weaker players. We have encouraged our contributors to do this because we suspect that many classic instances of ‘how not to’ are a product of ignoring the views—and agency—of the global South. And while including the global South is not a silver bullet for all real-world problems, factoring in both the positive and the negative roles that developing countries have played (and sometimes not played/not been allowed to play) can be key to understanding the policy failures with which we are living today.

Fourth, as suggested earlier in this introduction, we wanted to grapple with both ‘shadows’. To this end, our contributors have investigated the extent to which a failure can be explained by focusing on the research–policy interface, or whether the outcome was a product of ill-conceived/poorly substantiated/outdated science. In dealing with the latter question, the articles consider the approaches that key actors took (e.g. technocratic versus political), or lessons of history that were misapplied. An often-cited insight of Keynes is especially relevant here:

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

In this special issue, we take a cold, hard look at both the practical men and the defunct theories that many in our own métier may have fed them in good faith.

Finally, we deliberately chose this group of contributors as they are all established experts in their respective areas: many have had their work fruitfully used by policy-makers, but also sometimes misinterpreted and misused. The ‘seniors’ in this group were specifically asked to reflect on (a) how, had practitioners followed their advice, better outcomes might have resulted; and (b) how, with hindsight, they might reconsider some of the theoretical assumptions that underpinned their own work, as well as the resulting policy implications.

Lessons for the study and practice of international relations

Surveying the articles that follow, there are several shared themes that emerge from our collective analyses of catastrophic failures. We outline four central ones below. Taking them into account will help in the implementation of the Hippocratic Oath for IR, as well as guard against potential policy paralysis (something to which a misapplied ‘Do no harm’ principle could otherwise contribute).

First, one clear insight is the degree to which large-scale failures emerged from very short-term successes. As Narlikar lays out in detail in her article, the collapse of the Doha Development Agenda occurred in no small part because the global South, for the first time in the history of multilateral trade negotiations, managed to present a unified front vis-à-vis the United States and EU. While that unity could have helped them secure a better bargain, it wound up leading to negotiating rigidities that sabotaged the Doha round. Igor Istomin’s article shows how the Soviet Union’s intervention in China’s civil conflict assisted in the Communist Party’s takeover of the country—but also sowed the seeds of the eventual rupture between the USSR and Mao Zedong’s China, greatly complicating the Soviet security situation for decades. Amitabh Mattoo points to a similar phenomenon in India’s record of negotiating with China. Jawaharlal Nehru’s slogan ‘Hindi–Chini Bhai Bhai’ (Indians and Chinese are brothers) epitomized this pattern of high expectations and apparent trust-building—only to be shattered with the outbreak of war in 1962. Rosoux illustrates in her article that short-term mediation fixes foisted on survivors and families of victims in post-conflict societies have resulted in a deepening of prior fault-lines and a prolongation of conflict.

In many ways this echoes former US Secretary of State James Baker’s observation in his memoirs that policy solutions often create problems that will need to be ameliorated in the future. This appears to be an endemic problem created by the mismatch between the grand arc of international relations and the powerful short-term incentives that political leaders face. Regardless of regime type, foreign policy leaders are often forced to take a narrow vision of the future. What looks like a success within that narrow political aperture nonetheless lays the groundwork for what in retrospect looks like failure. Giving politicians incentives to think about how their actions will look in the future would potentially help them to avoid actions that incur catastrophic risks. And irrespective of whether or not we see a change in the strategic calculations of politicians, scholars should become highly attentive to the potential discrepancy between short-term gains that their advice might generate and the longer-term sustainability of those gains. In keeping with the Hippocratic Oath for IR that we propose, researchers should be as explicit as possible not only in making clear the benefits that their recommended policy might generate, but also in identifying the likely (and indeed less likely) costs that the action might entail within different time-frames and under different conditions. This requires pushing oneself out of one’s own comfort zones, and also sometimes offering advice that practitioners might be reluctant to hear.

A second overarching theme is the power of narrative to shape both short-term policy actions and long-term interpretation of such actions. As Narlikar demonstrates in her article in this issue, the dominant narrative within the global South in this century has been that the previous rounds of multilateral trade negotiations had disadvantaged their interests. Despite the pattern of economic growth in the twenty-first century, this narrative was built on lived experiences of exclusion from trade negotiation processes and the marginalization of their concerns from the system of rules. While the narrative managed to generate several important wins for developing countries in the short term, its overuse by middle-income countries and misuse by rich countries contributed to the Doha deadlocks and to paralysis in other areas of the multilateral trading system. This produced losses all round, not only for the global South but also for the global North. Drezner similarly argues that, framed in the name of the weak, a narrative was constructed that presented the Iraq sanctions as a far greater humanitarian disaster than they actually were. Cecilia Emma Sottilotta’s article discusses the power of the morality narrative in exacerbating the eurozone crisis with misguided austerity policies. This morality tale of belt-tightening also emerges in James’s paper in explaining how policy responses worsened the Great Depression.

Besides playing an important explanatory role in articles focused on the economic arena, narratives also appear in other articles in this collection that address security questions. Janice Stein notes in her article the omnipresent narrative that China is supplanting the United States as the global hegemon, a development that she argues is far less likely to happen than is commonly believed. Mattoo offers a counterpoint from the perspective of the region, highlighting that the pushback against the ‘China threat’ narrative in the US and the EU has in fact excused and emboldened Chinese adventurism in the region.

Yuen Foong Khong’s article on the dangers of historical analogies illustrates the power of narratives to inform policy-makers. Whether they come from historical analogies, more abstract metaphors or even fictional fables, they act as simple heuristics for decision-makers. This is important for two reasons. First, IR scholarship has increasingly emphasized the role of individual leaders over the past decade or two. We also know from psychology that this reliance on heuristics is a cognitive short cut. The examples discussed in this special issue reveal the massive pitfalls of such heuristics in making important policy decisions. Understanding how individual leaders rely on narratives—and which narratives they find appealing—would be a fruitful area of enquiry for avoiding worst-case scenarios.

The role of leaders and their decision-making heuristics connects with the third overarching theme that emerges from these articles: the powerful role that hubris plays in foreign policy failures. Toye’s essay reveals that both Neville Chamberlain and Tony Blair viewed themselves as indispensable men navigating a fraught international environment. Their diplomatic choices, however, abetted costly conflicts. Similarly, the articles by Carvin, Drezner and Rosoux respectively demonstrate the misplaced faith that key actors possessed in their preferred instruments of statecraft. Military strategists were overconfident about technology’s effect on war-fighting. Economic diplomats exaggerated the effect that economic sanctions would have on targeted actors. And mediators failed to understand that what they might consider a success would fuel bitterness and grievance to formerly warring parties. Barma and Goldgeier warn about the various ways in which outside experts, in a desire to bridge the gap, fail to impart dispassionate advice.

Fourth, technocratic bubbles feature in the articles as a contributing factor to foreign policy failures. This may come across as somewhat paradoxical at first glance: after all, a major purpose of reliance on technical expertise is to supplant the polarization of politics with reason and know-how. But sometimes, as Barma and Goldgeier explain, academic experts are too cloistered to know where to best target their advice in the policy-making world. The creation of safe havens of sorts in Brussels and Geneva, as outlined in the articles by Sottilotta and Narlikar respectively, has increasingly fostered an academia–policy nexus that is out of touch with the needs of people on the ground (or is seen to be as such, thereby providing easy fodder for populist narratives against ‘global elites’ from the political Right and Left alike). This phenomenon is borne out most strongly in the article by Rosoux. Amid the inexorable pathologies of mediation efforts based on reconciliation templates, survivors and families of victims find their grief and anger silenced. ‘Solutions’ thus reached can go on to entrench conflicts further.

From both the empirical analyses and as part of the self-reflection exercise carried out by the contributors, valuable insights emerge into what did not work. Collectively, the articles show that expertise generated in an ivory tower and nurtured in a technocratic bubble will usually not produce successful policy interventions. Engagement with those affected by the foreign policy actions is essential. Updated narratives are a key instrument to enable this. Both researchers and practitioners need to pay close attention to these, how they evolve, how they are appropriated, and how they are received by affected constituencies. Context matters. The articles addressing questions of US foreign policy are especially clear that many lapses occurred as a result of the lack of local knowledge. Positionality matters. Foreign policy interventions, even if they fit all our academic theorizing to perfection and meet the political requirements of leaders implementing them, will not be sustainable unless they also work for the people they affect. Practitioners need to be made aware of the differences of views within and across scholarly disciplines.57 To discourage a possible temptation for policy-makers to pick and choose specific academic recommendations to suit political convenience, scholars should be encouraged to explicitly tackle the real-world implications of their findings. Cross-disciplinary review articles—for which the academic games we all have to play offer few incentives—would be an important instrument for restoring some balance in the academic views and voices on which practitioners draw.

None of these lessons offer quick fixes for policy interventions in IR. But armed with this repertoire of insights on ‘how not to’, both practitioners and their academic interlocutors will have a better chance of avoiding some of the worst pitfalls. And sometimes, together, we might even get some things right.

This piece is republished from International Affairs.

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