Slave to the Blog: Ivory Tower and Pundits Edition

July 22, 2015 7:00 AM

With predictable regularity, scholars of international relations bemoan the irrelevance of their profession to the policy world. In the most recent incarnation of this useful navel-gazing, Michael Desch (University of Notre Dame) has sparked some interesting reactions at Perspectives on Politics from the likes of Ido Oren, Laura Sjoberg, Helen Lousie Turton, Eric Voeten and Steve Walt.

He frames the debate in terms of the irreducible conflict between basic and applied research and makes the interesting argument that this gulf is more likely to be bridged in periods of acute conflict, such as during WWII and its immediate aftermath when policy relevant pieces were much more on offer in leading disciplinary journals such as the American Political Science Review.

I tend to side with the views of Eric Voeten in the symposium, who notes that this tradeoff is not as acute as is often thought; note how economics has gotten more and more technical while still maintaining strong normative preoccupations.

Not all academics are wringing their hands; some are trying to do something about it. Blogs such as Political Violence @ a Glance and The Monkey Cage have had influence, and there is an initiative at American University called Bridging the Gap. Supported by the Carnegie Corporation, the project seeks to train and advocate for academics involved in the policy debate. The site is useful in keeping track of initiatives in this vein, even if the very existence of the project is indicative of the problem Desch highlights.

But I would propose a different theory to those offered by any of the protagonists: that American IR marginalizes itself in part because of the lack of expertise about the world it purports to study. The charge may sound sweeping, but it is rooted in an ongoing debate about methods in the social sciences and the way sub-disciplinary knowledge has evolved. While a number of American IR scholars still study regions, many take on one of two other routes: they in fact study the United States; or they have moved toward econometric work, and particularly cross-national panel designs, that offer average-treatment effect findings. How long do civil wars last on average? What are the average effects of signing a free trade agreement on foreign direct investment?

But policy makers want to know about cases: not how long civil wars last on average but how long the Syrian civil war will last. Probing this question requires a lot of conditional information and engagement with the region, which has tended to accumulate in the subfield of comparative politics rather than IR. A modest proposal: if IR scholars want to have more impact, they might choose—as many in fact do—to study a place. With respect to Northeast Asia, we have plenty of exemplars who have made both policy and disciplinary contributions, including Victor Cha, Dave Kang and Nick Eberstadt.

While scholars are crying over their beers, Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro and particularly Rosa Brooks do a similar hatchet job on pundits (including the likes of us) and politicians. The point of these great pieces: that if academics are chasing obscure nuance in that regression coefficient, those who have to pump out analysis and policy statements every day of the week fall back to a surprising degree on clichés. Here are a few of my favorites from Brooks’ piece that are particularly relevant for North Korea, with her translation:

“Our vital interests are threatened.” Translation: “I am unable to articulate just what is being threatened but I need a reason to do something.”

“We’re on the right side of history.” Translation: “It’s the thought that counts.”

“We will not tolerate this.” Translation: “We’re going to make a lot of unhappy noises, but don’t worry; we won’t do anything.”

“We will demonstrate our leadership and resolve.” Translation: “We will talk about our leadership and resolve.”

“Allies and partners.” Translation: “You guys are the ones who should do this, not us.”

And my favorite, which in fact pertains to most of these clichés:

“This is an inflection point.” Translation: None; no one knows what this means.


Aidan Foster-Carter

Great food for thought, as always. May I recommend another fine recent article in similar vein: "The Decline of International Studies: Why Flying Blind Is Dangerous" by Charles King.


I'd propose an amendment to Rosa Brooks' Human Terrain: "People we've never heard of". One of my own: "We need a roadmap" = "We are currently clueless but folksy".(I detest the phrase roadmap unless applied to a map of roads).

Liars N. Fools

My favorites on North Korea policy -- not necessarily from Rosa Brooks whose particular piece I have not read is: "a serious and credible dialogue" translation: "you know our bottom line and unless you agree what is the point of talking?" Another is: "strengthening our policy coordination with our partners" translation: "we are all agreed that we do not have an idea of how to get this thing started." Another is "the ball is in their court" translation: "are we even playing the same game?"

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff