The Theory-Policy Divide

Dan Drezner links to this op-ed by Joseph Nye in Monday’s Washington Post, which bemoans the growing gap between national security policy and IR scholarship, saying:

While important American scholars such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski took high-level foreign policy positions in the past, that path has tended to be a one-way street. Not many top-ranked scholars of international relations are going into government, and even fewer return to contribute to academic theory. The 2008 Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) poll, by the Institute for Theory and Practice in International Relations, showed that of the 25 scholars rated as producing the most interesting scholarship during the past five years, only three had ever held policy positions (two in the U.S. government and one in the United Nations). The fault for this growing gap lies not with the government but with the academics.

Scholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world, and in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one’s career. Advancement comes faster for those who develop mathematical models, new methodologies or theories expressed in jargon that is unintelligible to policymakers. A survey of articles published over the lifetime of the American Political Science Review found that about one in five dealt with policy prescription or criticism in the first half of the century, while only a handful did so after 1967. Editor Lee Sigelman observed in the journal’s centennial issue that “if ‘speaking truth to power’ and contributing directly to public dialogue about the merits and demerits of various courses of action were still numbered among the functions of the profession, one would not have known it from leafing through its leading journal.”

Frankly, I wonder to what extent all of this is inevitable. Academic training is essentially that – academic. The questions academia asks concern trends, the relationships among states, the impact of ideas and identities on state behavior, and so on. For empirical support, it relies on the history of previous policies, but by and large is not overly concerned with improving existing policy. [Steve Walt and Henry Farrell both argue that departmental incentives actually work against this sort of focus anyway, something I cannot (yet) speak to.]

IR scholars are more like sociologists (in that they examine how states behave and how this changes as circumstances shift) than they are, say, cancer research specialists (in that they aren’t fundamentally out to alter humanity’s current conditions). Furthermore, the world of government service and policy is much more focused on the day-to-day and here-and-now, whereas scholars are trained to take the long view. So what makes one a good scholar does not necessarily make one a good bureaucrat or manager, and vice versa.

Some of this may be a self-inflicted wound on the part of academics. The growing prominence and value assigned to quantitative analysis in today’s political science departments makes it difficult for policymakers to take much notice in new theoretical developments. And, when top-rank scholars like Alexander Wendt, whose work I generally admire and think has led to useful real-world applications, publish articles searching for theoretical explanations for “why modern states systematically resist the notion that extraterrestrial life forms might both exist and travel to earth,” policymakers have no real incentive or reason to pay attention.

There are, however, some notable exceptions to the policy-theory divide. Scott Sagan, Richard Betts, Bruce Jentleson, Peter Feaver, and Colin Kahl are a few whose work comes to mind. (All of those have some limited amount of actual time inside government.) Not only is their work relevant, but it is even accessible to people without a formal political science background. There are some areas of the national security bureaucracy that may make academics feel more at home. Nye and Stephen Krasner, two scholars who have contributed to significant theoretical advancement in political science, have both had government service. Krasner’s tenure as the head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff is ideal for someone with a more academic mindset. And other posts, such as the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (where Nye himself once sat), would be ideal in my opinion for scholars such as Robert Jervis or, back in the day, Thomas Schelling.

But the problem may not just be limited to professional background and training. If scholars counsel restraint and see limits to American power while policymakers, on the other hand, feel tempted to solve every problem and see the necessity for US involvement all across the globe, the two can make a career out of talking past each other.

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