The Policymaker-Professor Disconnect is Bullshit

It has become conventional wisdom that international relations theory and policy have little in common. So someone like Stephen Walt tries to argue that realism, a major IR theory, would have led to different policy choices since the end of the Cold War and he gets criticized for not realizing that policymakers don’t care about IR theory.

That contention is wrong: scholars and policymakers share much more information than is usually acknowledged. Policy choices and the policy record is the grist for scholars to do everything from cases studies to coding data sets. And policymakers do not ignore the academic world as a more nuanced understanding of the policymaking-academy nexus demonstrates.

I am not here to defend realism. I am here to defend the idea that there IS greater overlap between the policy and academic worlds than is usually acknowledged.

Part of the problem is the tendency to use IR theory as interchangeable with all academic scholarship in general when in reality it is just one element in the study of politics or, more specifically, the study of international affairs. Maybe Walt underemphasized the importance of domestic politics and bureaucratic politics in shaping U.S. foreign policy – as Adam Elkus suggested – but plenty of other scholars have been studying such factors for decades.

Elkus seems to accept this last point in his conclusion:

Walt’s own significant analytical confusion about what a “realist” approach to US national security would constitute is strong evidence of the fact that policy analysis in practice tends to be a grab bag of multiple theoretical traditions and theory’s primary role is to increase the analytical tools available to a policymaker.

Policymakers do incorporate theory, in this view, just not any single theory or school of thought in the sense of how we teach the “isms” in graduate-level IR field seminars.

I think we should consider at least four other possible links:

1. On occasion, we see the policy world explicitly adopt ideas from academia. Think Bill Clinton and his references to democratic peace theory or the Iraq Study Group’s references to groupthink. But I readily admit this tendency is not the crux of the policy-university link.

2. A number of long-time academics have served in government, e.g. Graham Allison, Ashton Carter, Thomas Christiansen, Stephen Krasner, Joseph Nye, Condoleezza Rice, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Philip Zelikow. Am I supposed to believe that they suddenly forget years or decades of scholarship? I understand the clock changes and very short-term thinking is the norm in government and that you probably don’t win arguments by referencing your 1987 article in Security Studies, but all that previous knowledge never seeps into or informs their thinking on short-term matters? Given what we know about human psychology, that seems hard to believe.

3. Many, many, many U.S. government officials who work on foreign policy have a BA, MA, and/or PhD. What political science or *gasp* IR theory courses did they take as students? Again, am I supposed to believe that they learned and retained absolutely nothing in those courses? Even if 90% of the books, journal articles, lectures, and discussions were worthless academic food fights or boring drivel, what about the other 10%?

4. When I hear U.S. officials talk, I hear them make judgments about matters that directly relate to political science and, yes, IR theory. For example, compare John Bolton to Madeline Albright on the importance and effectiveness of international institutions like the United Nations. A policy statement may be rife with links to academia even if, as is the norm, policymakers do not make explicit references or offer footnotes to a single peer-reviewed journal article. (!)

In general, it is a mistake to assume that because academic ideas and writings are not mentioned explicitly that they play no role in how policymakers think. Along with bureaucratic, domestic political, and psychological influences, our working assumption should be that officials have different underlying beliefs about how the world works.


3 thoughts on “The Policymaker-Professor Disconnect is Bullshit

  1. I certainly agree with you that there is overlap, Jeremy.

    That being said, I think Adam Elkus has it more-or-less right when he asserts (as quoted in the Mead piece) that IR theory is rarely very useful, or often used, as an explicit guide to action in operational foreign policy. Having spent some time in both a foreign ministry policy planning unit and elsewhere, I can’t remember a single time when theoretical insights were explicitly cited as a reason for seeing, doing, or predicting anything, although they certainly underpinned some of the assumptions that analysts might have been making.

    Where IR (and political science) is more useful is in a combination of 1) the empirical and historical information folks pick up along the way, 2) in the intellectual rigour that students develop in thinking about evidence, competing hypotheses, understanding causality, etc. and 3) in the use of theoretical insights not as operational models or predictors of real-world behaviours, but rather as points of departure or heuristic devices to sharpen or expand insight into a problem. IR theory is often taught in terms of competing paradigms, but when it is used it is typically found to be useful in a far fuzzier and less absolutist fashion.

    This use, I think, is also consistent with Tetlock’s finding that holding “one big idea” (for example, a parsimonious theoretical model—what he termed a “hedgehog” approach) tends to generate less political predictive accuracy in analysts than a more heterogeneous and complex view of the world (what he term a “fox”).

  2. Pingback: In Defense of Academia | Mideast Matrix

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