Applying realism in foreign policy
Impact Stories
July 14, 2021 – Foreign Policy

Applying realism in foreign policy

Professor Joshua Shifrinson challenges the status quo to avoid the mistakes of the past.

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Applying realism in foreign policy

The Charles Koch Foundation partners with social entrepreneurs to drive societal progress through academic research. In foreign policy, this includes supporting partners like Joshua Shifrinson, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Committed to historically informed research and analysis in International Relations, Shifrinson strengthens debate about the biggest national security questions facing the United States.

We spoke with Shifrinson to learn more about his research focus, commitment to improving U.S. foreign policy, and how he found his passion.

CKF: What do you study? And how did you become interested in these issues?

Shifrinson: My work focuses on great power politics, international security, and American foreign policy. In particular, I try to use insights from International Relations theory to make sense of contemporary policy debates. I focus on unanswered or understudied questions and examine history to generate insight.

I also have a strong commitment to challenging established “truths” about American foreign policy and the ways great power politics and international security affairs are conducted. My work ends up being somewhat contrarian because there’s a lot of mythmaking and a great deal of unchecked received wisdom floating around.

As for how I became interested in this: I began as a history major. I had a professor who was probably trying to insult me, though I was too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to realized it. He said that while I had good ideas about history, I wrote like a political scientist! He encouraged me to take an International Relations class, and I discovered that this was a fun arena where I could pursue my interests in policy and history. I then went to grad school and discovered that there’s a real hunger for new theories and insights that blend history and theory to generate policy conversations and inspire research.

CKF: You mentioned that you challenge common ideas about foreign policy. Why is this important? And what ideas are you currently most interested in correcting?

Shifrinson: It’s important to challenge received wisdom because there is a policy establishment that tends to limit the range of ideas that are brought to the fore. This doesn’t happen for Machiavellian or malicious reasons. This is just how organizations sustain themselves: They repeat certain ideas again and again and over time they become established. As the United States confronts a post-post-Cold War world — whatever you want to call that — some of these ideas need to be reevaluated and challenged. Our conversation needs to be broadened to make sense of a complex and fast-moving world.

The first idea I’m trying to challenge is that alliances are automatically net benefits to U.S. national security. Alliances can be beneficial, but not always. Furthermore, many of the alliances the U.S. has today are a legacy of the Cold War and post-Cold War era, and don’t necessarily reflect current U.S. national security and vital interests.

Another assumption is that the United States needs to bear most of the cost in confronting regional threats in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Ironically, these are areas where American postwar grand strategy has been successful! We built up these areas after the ravages of World War II, and there are now centers of power in these regions that should be able to create security and handle threats. But only if the United States takes the opportunity to step back. Not become isolationist, just step back.

A third piece of unchecked wisdom is the idea that the United States can afford to have both guns and butter at home. There are hard domestic and international trade offs that we need to confront. The United States cannot borrow indefinitely to finance international security.

CKF: What are you working on now?

Shifrinson: The big project I’m working on now is a reconsideration of post-Cold War American grand strategy. In my view, despite pursuing primacy as a grand strategy, the United States did not always use its strength effectively, and often unwittingly undercut national security. Some of the gains that the United States failed to pursue are the cause of current international security problems. By considering the downsides of America’s post-Cold War grand strategy I’m not only trying to explain it, I’m also trying to show how we can avoid repeating these mistakes.

CKF: Do you think the “unipolar” era is over? Are China and Russia rising great powers? 

Shifrinson: I think the unipolar era is either over or very close to being so. There isn’t any good way to measure this, and we can debate the metrics until we’re blue in the face. But ten or fifteen years ago it was unclear whether China was a rising great power. No one questions that anymore. The only question now is how far China will rise. That alone says to me that the unipolar era is coming to a close, if it’s not already over.

I’m less convinced that Russia is a great power. If we define a great power as a state that has a combination of economic capability, military capability, political skill, and diplomatic reach, I’m not sure that Russia qualifies. Russia is a regional power.

We’re entering what appears to be an era of bipolarity, but that could easily change in the years ahead if countries like India or Japan begin stepping up more. One of the perversities of American post-Cold War grand strategy is that the U.S. discouraged Japan, Germany, and Europe from taking on a more assertive role in international affairs. This was designed in part to sustain American primacy, but the outcome has been fewer strong regional actors capable of checking rising states like China.

CKF: You write a lot for the public and for policymakers in a variety of non-academic outlets. Not all academics do this. Why do you think that’s important? 

Shifrinson: I think public engagement is just the right thing to do for a variety of normative, educational, and policy reasons. Academics are experts, and as experts we have a normative and civic obligation to contribute to public conversations on our area of expertise — in my case, international affairs and security. I’ve never viewed public engagement as antithetical to my scholarship. The opposite, in fact: I see it as the natural next step in the process. Sharing my conclusions publicly is the whole point.

The United States has a number of very, very hard decisions to confront in the years ahead. I see myself as helping to push the policy conversation forward. The conversation shouldn’t be on autopilot, it should be a vibrant debate. Even when people don’t agree with me, having the conversation creates a public debate, which in turn creates makes a better policy process and a healthier discussion.

I also think academia is changing. Once upon a time some areas of academia didn’t value or reward public engagement. But I’ve had the privilege of being in policy schools that do value public engagement, and I think that’s more and more the case.

CKF: Any words of advice for graduate students, particularly Ph.D. students in International Relations?

Shifrinson: Go to grad school to study something you’re interested in, something you care about. You should avoid chasing intellectual fads in the hopes that it will get you a job. Study something you’re interested in, regardless of what supply and demand issues exist.

That way, even if you don’t get a tenure-track job at a research university you’ll still have knowledge and expertise and passion to do something that you find rewarding. Working on something you feel matters is more important than whereyou work — inside or outside the academy.

The Charles Koch Foundation partners with social entrepreneurs to drive societal progress through academic research and innovations that help all learners realize their potential. Read more about the Foundation’s support for foreign policy research and view active requests for proposal.