What Ails Foreign Policy as a Study Discipline?

Amb Shivshankar Menon’s keynote speech on what’s wrong with IR studies in India has sparked a healthy discussion online. His main arguments: Indian students are well versed with abstract IR theory but they find it difficult to apply these concepts to the real world. Two, the world which created IR theory as we know it now is changing. As the East occupies ta more important position in international affairs, there’s an opportunity to rethink the discipline grounds up.

In my view, this assessment symbolises a larger issue with the IR discipline which is that there are few axioms and even fewer deep insights that remain true across time and space. A few poorly written arguments will even mistake Kissinger said “xyz” or Kautilya said “abc” as sufficient proofs in support of their view. Without a strong foundation the discipline is reduced to an assessment of the past to explain the present and predict the future. And that approach tends to be woefully inadequate.

Many IR studies resort to the historical approach alone and in my view it is this compulsive historical bias that blinkers us from accessing the toolkits of other disciplines.

Which brings me to the second ailment – an appreciation of the foreign policy practice would require inputs from several other disciplines – psychology, economic reasoning, public policy, and behavioural economics being some of them. A historical approach can only form the base layer on top of which we need insights from these other disciplines.

So my contention is not that rethinking the IR discipline should be focused a lot more on building this new toolkit from a wide range of other knowledge streams. Whether these streams come from the West or the East are secondary.