• December 20, 2014

How Scholars Can Improve International Relations

How Scholars Can Improve International Relations 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

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Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

Something is seriously wrong in the relationship between universities and the policy community in the field of international relations. The worlds of policy making and academic research should be in constant, productive conversation, and scholars and researchers should be an invaluable resource for policy makers, but they are not.

One hears perennial laments from those in academe that their valuable work is being ignored by policy makers. And, on the other hand, policy makers complain they can get nothing useful from the academy. They may all be right.

Now would be a good time for policy makers and scholars to be deeply engaged on some of the highest-priority issues for the United States and international security. Consider, for example:

  • The causes and implications—immediate and long term—of the Arab Spring for that region and for its relevance to future social and political change elsewhere.
  • The real consequences of an Iranian nuclear-weapons program for the political dynamics of the Middle East, as well as for the durability of the global norm against nuclear-weapons proliferation.
  • The complicated internal politics of Pakistan, how they relate to that country's political and economic development, and their importance to America's policies in South Asia.

Why are scholars and policy makers not engaging in the kind of interaction we all need—and we all say we want?

There has been a theoretical turn across the social sciences and humanities that has cut off academic discourse from the way ordinary people and working professionals speak and think. The validity and elegance of the models have become the focus, rather than whether those models can be used to understand real-world situations. Conferences and symposia are devoted to differences in theoretical constructs; topics are chosen for research based not on their importance but on their accessibility to a particular methodology. Articles and books are published to be read, if at all, only by colleagues who have the same high regard for methodology and theory and the same disregard for practice.

That has created a profession that is inward-looking and concerned with arcane debate—a result that provokes and deserves all the insults thrown at the ivory tower from the world of policy and practice.

Further, the incentive structure in universities and in disciplines has endorsed this emphasis on theory and methodology. When it comes to promotions and awarding tenure, departments are largely allowed to set their own standards. And, of course, departments are made up of people who have succeeded in the profession and will perpetuate its values. Thus, the university department can turn into a guild, favoring credentialing over relevance and orthodoxy over impact.

My concern is for the larger effects. Tenured professors construct courses and train the next generation of scholars. The best young minds and young researchers are encouraged to replicate what their mentors think is important, but what if those who work in the world of policy and practice do not agree with that choice? Students are then being prepared for careers that do not exist outside of academe and given tools that are not useful except to their academic discipline.

I would care much less if we were talking about literary theory or art history, important and rewarding though they may be. I care very much when we are talking about international relations, a discipline that is involved with policies that could get people killed, in the real world, here and now.

Policy makers, most of whom are trying to save lives and keep the peace, need all the help they can get in order to make better decisions. They are faced with irreducible complexity and radical uncertainty—and they must often rely on inadequate information. Unsurprisingly, they think practically, are prepared to do anything that looks as if it might succeed, and are reluctant to take big bets if not forced to do so. If they fail, dire consequences are likely, both for themselves and others.

So how can academic experts be more helpful?

Twenty years ago, Alexander George, in Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy, made some good suggestions. First, he proposed interdisciplinary approaches—a common refrain in academe. But they are, in fact, hardly ever done. We talk the talk but don't walk the walk. Being really interdisciplinary is hard and requires deep engagement. The rub is that most academic experts are more interested in their theories than they are in interdisciplinary conversations or working together on problems.

Policy makers, by contrast, have to deal with actual problems. They would benefit from having multiple views of the same issue—and more so from seeing these views integrated—in order to see all the consequences and the likely interdependencies of a line of action.

Second, George suggests that researchers embrace what he calls second-best theory. Rather than concentrating on a grand theory that explains everything, scholars could help policy makers by providing ways to assess whether their policies are working in real time. Policy makers in the throes of a crisis do not much care whether a theory is being proved true or false, but they badly need evidence of progress on emerging problems. In simpler terms, they need management tools, and they need help connecting cause and effect. Scholars, who struggle with precisely that, could be of real help.

Lastly, George calls for mutual accountability. If academics are invited into the policy environment, decision makers need to be invited back into the academy, and their views on curriculum and research should be taken seriously.

To these recommendations, I would add two more: first, a robust embrace of regional studies. Nothing can replace the value of insights that emerge from the integration of knowledge and research on the history, economics, politics, culture, religion, and geography of a region. Second, consideration of rigorous, policy-relevant theory and analysis should be among the requirements for hiring, tenure, and promotion.

My organization, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, supports efforts in this regard, but it is incumbent upon all who teach and study international relations to think about the problems we face as a nation, and those humankind faces across the planet. Think about the needs of governments, and of the vast range of organizations at work in the world. Find practical ways to prepare people to be useful and effective. Our universities have the country's intellectual firepower, trained expertise, and the careers of the most promising young people in their hands. I am asking that they please do something useful with them.

Robert L. Gallucci is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He is a former dean of Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

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