X will not happen because there is no political will. Y happened because there was political will. How do you know political will exists? Because that policy you wanted happened. Circularity can be fun, but not particularly enlightening.
The concept (if we can dare call it a concept) is so utterly vague that we can mean anything by it, so let's see if we can make a list of some possibilities. The absence of Political Will means:
- politicians lack incentives
- politicians lack resolve
- politicians lack effective/efficient/efficacious policy options
- countries cannot agree to a course of action
- countries cannot agree who will take care of the course of action
If countries need to cooperate, and in most cases, cooperation is a necessary ingredient for success, then we have heaps of theories that attempt to explain under what condition cooperation happens. Drezner's Zombie book shows how many different theories produce different expectations when cooperation is needed.
And it is one thing to agree that something should be done. It is another to get folks to kick in. As we cite in our book, "force generation is begging." Even NATO has to go around with a cup in its virtual hand asking for units to be sent (and paid for) by each member.
The point is that when someone says something didn't happen because of an absence of political will, they are doing one of two things--expecting politicians to be magicians or avoiding taking a serious stance on the issue. Indeed, there may be a third thing we need to keep in mind--Newton. Inertia must be overcome, and wishing is not good enough. So, what are the incentives, the interests, the dynamics that compel politicians to make hard decisions, to risk their electoral futures, to spend scarce resources and what are the factors that cause other actors to concur?
The case du jour is Syria.* Yes, the humanitarian catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war is appalling. Countries are not acting, making it seem like Rwanda all over again. But we cannot simply complain about a lack of political will. Because that explains nothing. It is less a starting point for analysis and more of a distraction.
* I wrote this before seeing that Stephen Hawking has written an op-ed on Syria. I do not want to suggest that he is committing the sin that I have identified here (although I am not saying he does not commit that sin).
Alas, I am sure this call to drop the use of this phrase will fail ... because there is not enough political will to do so.